Professor Edgar Murchison has vanished, but his family is not too concerned. His wife has not reported him missing and seems none too worried. But she becomes unusually alarmed when her tenant Tuck Forrester currently renting the Murchison home while school is out of session for the summer returns a smoking pipe she found in the house. Apparently Murchison was never without his pipe. Why was it left behind if he went off on an unannounced trip? Suspicions are further raised when a body turns up in the professor's clothes and a mysterious shadowy creeping figure is seen lurking in the forest near the Murchison home.
THE CHARACTERS: The Mystery of the Creeping Man
(1931) is the second appearance of husband and wife sleuthing team Michael and "Tuck" Forrester. Commissioner Davies who worked with them in The Maestro Murders
(1930, Wees' debut mystery novel) has them take up residence in the Murchison home for the summer break. He expects them to dig into the local gossip and see if they can ferret out any info on what happened to Prof. Murchison. They do more than the policeman ever could have imagined when they uncover missing diamonds, a mystery man roaming the woods, bizarre experiments in a university research lab, an unhinged scientist, and a killer with a taste for both human and animal victims.
I did enjoy this book ...up to a point. The characters are a lively bunch. Tuck and Michael are easy to like, they have some nifty banter and a couple of very well handled scenes theatrically presented. Tuck acts like Jane Marple at a garden party she engineers purely to draw information out of the easily baited gossips in town. Some of the supporting characters were spot on, especially Alix Lissey, a snobbish and elitist spinster, whose outsider status allows for some ironically perspicacious observations that will be her undoing.
But it was the outrageously complex and surreal plot that kept my interest...that is until it derailed in the final chapters.
Part of the detective work involves solving an unusual code in jigsaw puzzle format. The code made up of several pieces of paper with strange symbols eventually point to a stonework pattern on a sundial in the backyard of the Murchison property. And the amateur sleuths find a valuable prize embedded in the edging of that lawn ornament. The code is rather elaborate and something that only characters in a detective novel would dream up in order to hide a valuable item. It requires a miraculous imagination in order to piece together, literally in this case, the code. Proves that Wees' characters are a bit too smart for their own good. The whole thing was lost on my tired brain even taking into consideration that an academic with lofty intellect invented the arcane code.
I could only smile ruefully when I reached the section that dealt with the intricacies of a bridge game. I immediately thought of our dear, late friend Noah, his affinity for the card game and his love/hate relationship with cameo appearances of the game in detective novels. Even while remembering Noah with a smile on my face I confess that I mostly skipped over everything in those seven pages overloaded with bidding, passing, and trick-taking because all the rules of bridge remain an utter mystery to me no matter how much a writer tries to make them appear understandable. Wees didn't try here, she assumed her readers were expert players.
As the book progresses the complex plot gets ever more bizarre. Murderous attacks increase -- some successful, some failed -- until the story transforms into a ludicrous horror movie complete with a mad scientist, secret underground passages and a lab of gruesome surprises hidden in the forest. Wees had no idea how to end her story. What with a bigamous subplot and machinations of two of the primary characters, a boy sleuth investigating the poisoning of his pet dog, and Mrs. Devoe's guilt-ridden conscience, the mystery gets ever more convoluted and teeters on the brink of absurdity.
Sadly, the denouement is littered with threads left hanging and mysteries hazily explained, if explained at all. When Michael keeps saying things like "I don't know how he did that...but he did" you want to reach through the pages and throttle him. One of the murder weapons is an unnamed poison that can kill a dog and cat instantly yet shows no real signs of toxic compounds under scrutiny and laboratory analysis. A touch of pulpy science fiction? More like pure laziness, my friends.
Wees got better in time, but this sophomore effort surely shows that she tried to do it all in one book but just wasn't up to the task as a novice.
THINGS I LEARNED:
Before I completely gave up on the bridge section I came across this sentence, "Tell 'em we follow the Rockefeller convention..." and I had to find out what that meant. It's a joke used to describe a phony "convention", an oft used bidding pattern pre-arranged between partners. According to the American Contract Bridge League website: "With only 15 words allowed during an auction and just 13 cards in each suit, bridge players have invented dozens of special bids, called conventions, to describe their strength and hand patterns." Apparently back in the 1930s many of those "conventions" were named after millionaires, hence the joke about the wealthy American family.
Though born in the United States Frances Shelley Wees (1902-1982) grew up in Saskatoon, lived and worked in Ontario province, and finally settled in British Columbia on Denman Island. Many of her books are set in Canada. According to a talk she gave in 1948 at Regina Women's Canadian Club at the Kitchener Hotel she became a professional writer by accident. Her husband found a manuscript of a novel she wrote, read it, and thought it worth publishing so he typed it up and sent it to New York. The book was indeed published and sold over 50,000 copies. Her life as a novelist was off to a great beginning.
Prior to writing full time she had been a primary school teacher, the Canadian director of the speaking engagement syndicate known as Chautauqua, and lastly worked in public relations for a Toronto firm. She was married for over fifty years to Wilfred Rusk Wees, who taught psychology at the Camrose Normal School and was executive vice-president of Gage Publishing Ltd.
Wees wrote 22 books, a mixture of romance, detective, and suspense novels for adults and a handful of juvenile mystery books. Ten of those novels can definitely be classed as crime or detective novels for adults. Most of her crime novels remain out of print and are only available through libraries or the used book market. However, her 1956 suspense novel The Keys of My Prison
was recently reprinted by Canadian publisher Véhicule Press. Brian Busby, the series editor for their Ricochet Noir crime fiction imprint, wrote a rave review about the novel on his blog The Dusty Bookcase
and helped bring the book (and Wees) out of the shadows of obscurity. That later book is worth your time, her early mysteries like The Mystery of the Creeping Man
perhaps not so.