Saturday, August 29, 2020

HORROR SHOW: Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins

"But Harriet's condition...had blinded Mrs. Ogilvy to the fact that the world contains many people who are far from decent."

If you had never read anything about Harriet (1934) by Elizabeth Jenkins -- not a review, not a blurb, not anything on the back covers of its many editions -- you would never expect it to turn out the way it does. From page one Harriet prepares the reader for a mesmerizing trip into England's Victorian past from the author's attention to domestic details, to the class hierarchy, to the painstakingly rendered 19th century syntax and language. It appears on the surface to be a homage to the age old story of a ne'er-do-well fortune hunter flirting with an ugly duckling heiress, successfully manipulating her easily swayed emotions and eventually marrying her for her money.  Henry James told a similar story in Washington Square, countless romance novelists have capitalized on this plot in hundreds of cheap entertainments.  What makes Elizabeth Jenkins' novel striking, no less appealing as an entertaining suspense novel, is that the ugly duckling heiress is also developmentally handicapped. Harriet Woodhouse is called a "natural" (a Victorian euphemism for someone who is mentally retarded) by her mother and those who have an affection for her.  She is called much worse by those who treat her with indifference, jealousy or outright cruelty. Above all what makes this novel most shocking is that Jenkins based her story on a notorious criminal case in which four people were charged with criminal neglect, wanton cruelty and eventual murder of a young woman and possibly her child. The story of Harriet is not the product of a novelist's imagination. It actually happened in 1875.

From the outset we know that Lewis Oman is no good. He has no real job, he enjoys using woman, and thinks nothing about turning Harriet into an object of ridicule. He tells his lover Alice Hoppner that he will become the charmer for Harriet. "She's going to fall a victim to my fascinations. You keep a straight face, and we'll have some fun." Alice watches with a combination of revulsion and jealousy as Lewis' aimless flirting transforms into something far more dangerous and cunning. His attentions cease to become fun and games when Alice notices Harriet has fallen in love with him. Then Lewis learns Harriet has a small fortune held in trust that will become hers as soon as she marries and, of course, he homes in on Harriet with relentless charm and smarm. Harriet is no longer a plaything but the means to instant wealth for this schemer.

Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet's mother, is onto Lewis from the start and attempts to prevent the marriage. She tries reasoning with him but is too shrewd. She tries to block the marriage legally by exploiting Harriet's mental disability and making her a ward of the state.  But Lewis knows Mrs. Ogilvy who loves her daughter and treats  could never take the next step which would require her to put her daughter in a state run institution.  He also threatens the woman by promising to tell Harriet of her plans. If he does so he promises Mrs Ogivly that would be the end the mother/daughter relationship she has so carefully cultivated.


But there are others who become involved in the destruction of Harriet's carefully sheltered world. Once she has married Lewis her exploitation begins and with it the inexorable ruin of her health, her personality, and her soul. Harriet has a child almost without Jenkins having told us and she is quickly shuttled off to Lewis' brother Patrick where she is set up as a long term house guest and then months later as a prisoner.  The horror of Harriet's story, the ingenuity of the novel as a whole, is the skill with which Jenkins manages to capture a flavor of Victorian comfort and domesticity and how the introduction of an unwanted guest slowly erodes the veneer of civility among the household's would be aristocrats.

Elizabeth Hoppner Oman, Alice's sister and Patrick's wife, seems like the one person who might become an ally for Harriet. But when Harriet moves into her home Elizabeth, once ever proper and courteous, soon grows weary of having to deal with Harriet's childish demands, putting up with her imperfect grammar and most of all Harriet's lack of comprehension in learning how to care for her own son. Elizabeth is more concerned with propriety and her relationship to Lewis and Alice who is now being passed off as Lewis' real wife, though he is legally married to Harriet. Astonishingly, for someone who presents herself as upright Elizabeth turns a blind eye to the immorality and deceit of this pretense. When Lewis tells Patrick that Harriet should remain isolated in an upstairs bedroom and not be allowed outside Elizabeth is relieved to be spared the humiliation of telling everyone that Harriet is the real Mrs. Oman. The ultimate revelation of Elizabeth's remarkably repellent transformation comes when she utters a statement she thinks excuses not only her own indifference but the cruelty of her barbaric husband who beats Harriet: "After all, it isn't as if she feels anything..."

Taking the idea of the yet-to-be-named subgenre of "domestic suspense" to its extreme Jenkins includes several excellent set pieces that highlight a Victorian household turned topsy-turvy when a family member with erratic, unpredictable behavior upsets their comfortable routines. With incredible detail we are shown how meal times are structured, the apparently agonizing selection of clothes, the mundane tasks of getting dressed and having hair meticulously styled. While all the other characters are caught up in the inundation of domestic life the horror of what is happening to Harriet who is being neglected and ignored by everyone but the compassionate maid Clara becomes all the more heartwrenching. Harriet's clothes and her jewelry are appropriated by Alice; her child is taken away from her; she is denied doctor's care when she becomes violently ill; meals are regularly delayed, reduced to nothing more than milk and bread or entirely withheld -- all of this done for the slightest affronts to the household members. All of this leads to a radical transformation in Harriet's already fragile mental state. With each new instance of Harriet's deteriorating mind each family member reacts not with kindness, concern or even alarm but with unnerving cruelty, sometimes giving into savage brutality. When Penguin reprinted Harriet in 1980 they called the novel an "absolutely spine-chilling exploration of the depths of human depravity."

Harriet won a literary prize for its author in 1934, one of the last of the short-lived Prix Femina Vie Heureuse, given out by two French magazines to an English language novel that best presents life in England to a French language audience. The award should actually be for Jenkins' masterful invention of a new genre, the true crime novel. For here is a fictionalized account of a long past actual criminal case characterized by aberrant behavior accurately imagined with vivid insight and keen observations, teeming with paradoxes and riddles of human inconsistency, that it rightfully belongs in the same category as the "non-fiction novel" -- something Truman Capote claimed to have invented three decades later with In Cold Blood.

Her achievements are all the more powerful when you realize that using a non-fictional account (The Trial of the Stauntons), a copy of the court transcript from 1877, and her own imagination she envisioned a world two centuries ago in which something so evil could be carried out with such commonplace ease. As a side note students of true crime might like to know that the Staunton trial is now considered a landmark in appeals cases. In real life though all four individuals charged with Harriet Staunton's murder were found guilty and sentenced to hang no one was executed. A published letter written by a group of physicians protested that the true medical evidence was overlooked during the trial and the judge Henry Hawkins was prejudiced against all four defendants. The court's verdict was overturned:  Alice was pardoned, Louis and Elizabeth were sentenced to hard labor and eventually set free. Patrick who died in prison never reaped the benefits of this unusual decision.  Jenkins did not agree with the overturned verdict and her characters get the harsh punishments and justice she felt was mocked by real life's own cruel ironies.

Harriet is available in a new edition from Valancourt Books published five years ago. This latest edition includes an afterword by literary critic and Victorian scholar Catherine Pope. Readers can also choose from a wide variety of used editions dating back to the US paperback of 1946 (Bantam 64, shown in two illustrations on this post) to the handsome reprint from Persephone Press. There are also French and Spanish language translations in contemporary reprints

Saturday, August 22, 2020

NEW STUFF: The Eighth Detective - Alex Pavesi

The Eighth Detective
(UK title: Eight Detectives)
by Alex Pavesi
Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 978-1-250-75593-3
289 pp. $26.99
Publication date: August 4, 2020

"I think that when you're reading about death as entertainment it should leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable, even slightly sick." -- Julia Hart, The Eighth Detective

Devotees of Golden Age detective fiction are well aware of the may lists of rules that cognizant and often protective writers of the genre have devised as suggestions for those who wish to adhere to the fair play tenets of mystery storytelling that make detective fiction a kind of intellectual competition between reader and writer.  Ronald A. Knox's Decalogue and the 20 Rules of Willard Huntington Wright as "S. S. Van Dine" date back to the early 20th century and for the most part are now tacit instructions followed by novice and veteran mystery writers alike.  There have been countless deconstructions of these rules as mystery fiction faced challenges from post-modern writers like Gilbert Adair and Paul Auster who wrote intellectual send-ups of the detective novel. In the case of Josef Škvorecký's short story collection Sins for Father Knox (1973) a detective story writer defiantly wrote ten stories which break each of the hallowed ten rules set forth by Knox. Now we have yet another deconstruction of the conventions of detective fiction in a new short story collection that is also a clever novel in which the "ingredients" of a generic detective story plot are mixed up and presented in a medley of rearrangements of those ingredients. In essence The Eight Detective gives us variations on the theme of victim, suspects, and detective.

The idea is very simple.  It is 1970 and Grant McAllister, a retired mathematician living a solitary life on an undisclosed Mediterranean island, is visited by an editor eager to reprint his privately published mystery short story collection of thirty years ago, The White Murders, a book that has achieved cult status among crime fiction collectors.  The book contains seven stories that comment on McAllister's  mathematical/literary essay "The Permutations of Detective Fiction" published in 1937 in a small journal called Mathematical Recreations. Over the course of the novel Julia Hart, the editor, reads the stories in the presence of McAllister and then discusses them afterward.  We, as readers, are treated to all seven stories and each of the seven ensuing "Conversations." But it is not just a story collection. The stories themselves fuel a mystery that create the story of the novel.

Julia begins to notice oddities in the structure of each story, elements she calls "discrepancies." By the fourth instance of these discrepancies Julia believes they are meant as clues to a larger mystery McAllister has laid out in secret within all seven tales. She is certain the mystery involves a notorious murder that occurred around the time McAllister was writing these stories. Julie believes that the title of the collection The White Murders is not referring to the many settings of white buildings as McAllister claims but instead to an actress and playwright named Elizabeth White who was found strangled back in 1940. Her killer was never found. As the reader progresses from story to story he may find himself matching wits with Julia trying to find the "discrepancy" in each story before she reveals it in the "Conversation" chapter immediately following. McAllister is elusive and cryptic in answering Julia's penetrating and provocative questions. Is he feigning ignorance or is he genuinely telling the truth?  Is Julia imagining wholly coincidental parallels to Elizabeth White's murder?

Those readers who take up the tacit challenge will find themselves turning literary detective and amateur linguist as the solving of a mystery turns away from the standard whodunnit and whydunnit questions and becomes the mystery of syntax and word choice and off putting plotholes. Some examples:  Pavesi has fun with the use of colors throughout the stories (in one story all of the characters are named after colors), unusual choices of adjectives, and allusions to well known detective stories and novels. But is this all there is to the mystery of The Eighth Detective?

Of course not. The Eighth Detective could not be a real detective novel unless it also had some sort of inherent murder mystery. Julia's perspicacious reading uncovers a genuine mystery that relates to Elizabeth White's murder.  No more can I say about this cleverly worked out mix of word puzzles, stylistic mysteries in seven different narratives, and the overarching mystery Julia uncovers. You can only truly enjoy the challenges and imaginative riffs by discovering them on your own.

Alex Pavesi, himself a mathematician, is clearly is a fan of mystery fiction.  He has written seven fine examples of mystery short stories that will recall a variety of writers. Notably, "Trouble on Blue Pearl Island" is most obviously his homage to And Then There Were None (who hasn't written one of these lately?) that answers one of McAllister's variations of the "ingredients" in giving us a story in which all the suspects are murdered. The murder methods are diabolical, far from the kind of thing one finds in Golden Age mystery fiction unless you have indulged in the American shudder pulps of the 1930s and 1940s. Though the plot is clearly a mirror of Agatha Christie's landmark murder mystery it often reminded me more of the Saw horror movie franchise. Be prepared!

Alex Pavesi
Of the other six stories I enjoyed most of all "Death at the Seaside" featuring a Carr-like egomaniacal amateur detective named Winstone Brown and is the most fairly clued of the stories; "A Detective and His Evidence" atypically nasty and amoral in tone which is explained rather brilliantly in the finale; and "The Cursed Village," the most ambitious of the stories in its variation on the theme of both multiple criminals and multiple solutions. In fact, by the time the reader has reached the final page of The Eighth Detective he may discover that the book was also a homage to Christianna Brand, the queen of multiple solutions. 

I enjoyed some of the philosophical ideas contained in McAlllister's essay "The Permutations of Detective Fiction " and he of course outlines those ideas in one of the many "Conversation" chapters. But the essay is reductive rather than all-encompassing in its discussion of detective fiction in terms only of victims, suspects and detectives.  Julia at one point says his theory is inherently flawed because these four "ingredient" sets and subsets cannot account for a murder mystery with multiple crimes committed by more than one suspect as often occurs in the work of my favorite Golden Age neglected writer Vernon Loder. McAllister dismisses that observation with a lame excuse: "It's cheating really."  Yet as I see it in the 21st century there really can be no cheating when it comes to writing detective fiction.  In this type of imaginative writing there never were any real rules -- only expectations of a defined set of narrative conventions. In the end the entire novel is one huge piece of ironic fiction writing. For what Pavesi does in The Eighth Detective so ingeniously is to point out that even McAllister's "permutations" can be flouted and defied.

Finally -- a warning to those who like to flip and scan ahead.  Do not read the chapter headings before you get to them.  There is a reason there is no Table of Contents in this book.  If you read the chapter headings looking for the story titles you may reveal one last minute surprise that may just spoil the overall brilliance of the book as a novel.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Woman in the Wardrobe - Peter Shaffer

There are some books which have achieved legendary status in the Detective Fiction Hall of Fame simply because they have been largely unobtainable for decades. These are books which for one reason or another disappear from the used book marketplace and libraries yet still retain an aura of mystique, books that whisper to us throughout the ether: "Come and find me! Read me! Yes, I'm that good."  I've been lucky enough to stumble across such books several times over my lifetime and can tell you that often this prestige is dubious at best.  In many cases it would have been better to ignore those whispered temptations and saved that rather large chunk of cash which I usually doled out for one of these "legendary" murder mysteries.  The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) is one of these elusive and legendary books, long out of print, spoken with hushed reverence and nearly impossible to get hold of a copy.  I'm happy to report -- since it is now widely available in yet another attractively packaged volume from the British Library Crime Classics imprint -- this book does still merit its prestigious label, if only for two daring stunts its authors pull off.

As with the other two books in the trilogy of mystery novels featuring the blustering and egocentric Mr. Verity we have a puzzling locked room murder and a variety of eccentric oddballs among the list of suspects. A loathsome blackmailer has been done in in his hotel room at a seaside resort located in the fictional town of Amnestie in Sussex. We learn that Mr. Verity is situated not far from Amnestie in his ostentatious "villa" Persopolis where he lives a rather solitary life surrounded by his vast collection of antiques and esoteric statuary. How else would a brilliant amateur criminologist live?

Alice Bruton, the maid
Not at all the usual minor character

Richard Tudor, the eccentric
Steals the show on every page he appears


It's not long before Verity has inveigled his way into the murder investigation -- well, more like barged in and commandeered the proceedings -- leading Inspector Jackson by the hand as they interrogate the residents of the Charter. Together they (and later Inspector Rambler from Scotland Yard) and uncover myriad secrets in the hotel guests' pasts that link them to the much hated Maxwell, found shot and beaten in his locked and bolted room. The telling of the story is, for about the first half, very routine with some discovery of clues and physical evidence but lots of Q&A. I was beginning to lose interest in the story despite the occasional touch of ironic humor and acerbic asides that Verity likes to toss out. Only with the entrance of the bizarrely funny Richard Tudor, a man who envisions himself as the rightful monarch of England, did the novel pick up pace in both outrageous humor, tangential history lessons and unexpected plot machinations.

Mr. Verity

Overall, this is a fine pastiche of the traditional detective novel. So well done in style and genre technique I got faint whiffs of classic authors in the plotting of Shaffer's book. Whether or not any or all of them were inspirations for The Woman in the Wardrobe I leave to your imagination.  Christianna Brand, a pioneer in multiple solutions, comes immediately to mind as Shaffer manages to fit the evidence to nearly every suspect and make it seem possible there are variations on the murderer's identity. As the plot begins to resolve itself we see a further dimension which I cannot reveal but calls to mind the work of Vernon Loder, the master of a particular gimmick that appeared repeatedly in his work. And I noted that the solution of how the victim's hotel room came to be locked was used several times in multiple variations by another neglected impossible crime writer who shares one of the Shaffers' names -- Anthony Wynne.

Peter Shaffer, we are told in the preface by his sister-in-law Elinor, wrote the book on his own but with some help on the complex plot from his brother Anthony. Only in the other two novels of the trilogy would they collaborate more officially in the writing and plotting with each getting credit in the shared pseuodonym of "Peter Antony."  In the US rather than using the pen name for the two sequels to The Woman in the Wardrobe both authors' real names are listed on the cover and title page if only by their first initial and last name. Of the three books I still consider Withered Murder, the final book of the trilogy, to be the best plotted and even more devilishly funny.  It is also long overdue for a reissue. We can only hope that The Woman in the Wardrobe will sell enough copies to make it worthwhile reprinting that far superior mystery.

Shaffer's denouement is something of an eyebrow raiser if it didn't succeed entirely in eliciting that all important gasp of surprise. Interestingly, the finale coincides with the theme explored in a very recent book I've read -- The Eighth Detective, a clever detective novel pastiche of short stories and detective novel conventions.  Tune in later this week when I dissect The Eighth Detective and its mathematical permutations of "detective novel ingredients."  Shaffer amazingly explored the very same ideas in The Woman in the Wardrobe and did so decades earlier without actually outright stating he was doing so.  Which only serves as proof that a true homage to detective fiction tends to rely first and foremost on a love of the genre combined with a shrewd attention to its conventions and plotting tricks.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Poison Unknown - Max Dalman

The Juliot Research Institute in Poison Unknown (1939) is a small facility entirely funded by a philanthropic grant.  The grant allows for paying the salaries of one professor, one teaching assistant (called a demonstrator in the context of the story) and to help finance the housing for four students who can live on the premises while furthering their unique studies.  Many of the students are involved in poison research and because this is a detective novel you can be sure that one of those students has an interest in the obscure often undetectable poisons of South America. Take a wild guess if a poison dart will be among the clues. Of course! and not one but two.

Professor Roseland is found murdered in the laboratory and at first it seems it an accident occurred, that an experiment that went wrong. Inspector Macleod and Supt. Carbis are suspicious and suspect a possible murder staged to look like an accident. There are indications that various hands have altered the scene where the body was discovered.

Sylvia Roseland, the professor's daughter, and Paul Danton, one of the students, turn amateur detectives competing with the police professionals in an underhanded investigation of their own. As their prime suspect the police have targeted Francis Seymour, Sylvia's boyfriend, and the "demonstrator" for the students. Sylvia is determined to clear Seymour's name.

Classics professor Dr. Boynley, interestingly, is a detective fiction fan. He happens to be in the study in an armchair unseen by Sylvia and Paul and thus has overheard their plan to clear Seymour's name. He then says to them:

"I'd be interested to know what models you propose to follow--Lecoq, Sherlock Holmes, the more recent, but infalliable, Dr. Thorndyke... That perhaps would suit you best, Mr. Danton?  the scientific method..."

Together the three devise an elaborate plan in order to prove that Seymour caught a 6:30 train, traveled to London, and attended a conference.  If their plan succeeds, then as Boynley concludes "his innocence is proven."

Meanwhile the police uncover another murder of a woman they believe to be a prostitute who has dallied with several of the men at the Juliot Institute.  When her true identity is discovered and the reason for her secret meeting that led to her death is finally disclosed the murder of the professor takes on a wholly new shape. Further evidence is gathered (in one case, literally extricated) proving that the professor's death was a cleverly executed murder. 

Poison darts, talk of rare and undetectable poisons and the involved study of toxic chemistry may take up much of the investigation, but the ultimate murder means and motive come as a surprise in the end. The plotting was reminiscent of the kind of favorite trick of our mutual friend Dame Agatha often employed in his devilish murder mysteries. And I fell for it. Bravo Mr. Dalman!

Max Dalman (1905-1951) is not much read these days and I found almost nothing about him online.  He was born Max Dalman Binns in Scarborough and is the son of the equally forgotten British mystery writer Ottwell Binns. Both men are sadly lost to the vaults of myriad obscure crime fiction writers.  Based on this single novel which was engaging from page one, filled with unusual ideas, some clever plotting and exciting set pieces of detection I'd say Max Dalman is worth further investigation. Thanks to some luck with Illinois lottery tickets I netted $145 and used those winnings to splurge on buying some more Dalman books. Expect more reviews on his other novels later this year.

Max Dalman Detective Novels
Three Strangers (1937)
The Hidden Light (1937)
Vampire Abroad (1938)
Death on May Morning (1938)
Poison Unknown (1939)
The Missing Grave (1939)
The Burnt Bones Mystery (1940)
Mask for Murder (1940)
Doctor Disappears (1941)
Third Alibi (1942)
Death Before Day (1942)
Herald of Death (1943)
Death Disposes (1945)
Buried Once (1946)
The Elusive Nephew (1947)

Monday, August 3, 2020

Magpie Murders TV Series Coming Soon!

This just in...

Magpie Murders, the meta-mystery novel by Anthony Horowitz about a mystery novel manuscript within a novel, is coming to Masterpiece on PBS here in the US. This most likely means it's already scheduled for UK television and will probably air before we get it over here. 

Unlike the recent spate of mangled Christie programs this is one TV adaptation I'm looking forward to seeing. It will be scripted by Horowitz himself so we can surely expect a faithful adaptation with no ludicrous monkeying around with characters and plot. I'm fascinated to see how a book so much about writing and manuscripts will be translated to the television screen. Can the very excellent Daniel Hawthorne mystery novels also written by Horowitz be next on the slate?

For more on this six part (!) series in co-production with Eleventh Hour Films see this publicity piece on the PBS Masterpiece website.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Murder at Deer Lick - A.B. Cunningham

THE STORY:  Powerfully built, intimidating but respected physician John Bruce is found stabbed. His pistol still in its holster, his fierce and equally intimidating horse is roaming nearby a bit confused. How could the man have been knocked from his horse and killed? The horse was known to be "as savage as a boar hog." No one could have approached the doctor while on the animal without major difficulties. Yet Dr. Bruce was discovered off the horse, contusions on his arms, his throat cut and multiple stab wounds to his body. Even more remarkable, the pistol still in its holster proves the doctor never had a chance to defend himself. It was some sort of surprise attack but from where? The body was found on an open roadway beneath an old tree. Nowhere for anyone to hide. Sheriff Jess Roden is faced with this puzzling murder and some surprising additional mysteries in the aftermath Dr. Bruce's brutal killing.

THE CHARACTERS:  Murder at Deer Lick (1939) is the first detective novel in a long series featuring Sheriff Jess Roden, the sole law official in the fictional county of Deer Lick in Kentucky. Roden, as I've discussed previously here and here, follows in a long line of rural fictional detective who use their knowledge of animals and plants to help gather evidence and solve the crimes. Tracking of footprints in these books is very often not so much about human feet as it is about animal tracks. In the case of Dr Bruce's murder someone has cleverly obliterated all traces of tracks and yet in the end this obliteration turns out to be a dead giveaway as to the identity of the murderer when Roden witnesses exactly the same pattern being made somewhere else while investigating the crime.

In one of the opening chapters we get an elaborately detailed biographical sketch on just how Roden has used his knowledge of the woods, streams and fields of Kentucky. It's a brilliant example of what sets a country detective apart from his urban colleagues and is as eye opening as the first glance of a meteor shower. His talents include identifying fish with only a single clue ("a pike by a single tooth, a bass by the anal fin, a perch by one scale...); secrets of mammal life ("..the difference between the smell of muskrat and mink, the shape of a gray squirrel's teeth,...the deep-heeled track of a polecat..."), reptiles ("the size of turtle eggs..., the smell of a copperhead..."), and birds ("how a [heron] made its nest"). He knows the tastes and scent and texture of dozens of trees by touching, smelling or tasting their leaves, nuts and roots. All these observational skills of the natural world only serve to fuel his observation of humans: "He was aware that Ed Lefferton held his cud of tobacco in his right jaw, ...that Mun Lee was left-handed, that little Bo Strange talked to himself, that Potbelly Losee always wore an asafetida bag suspended from a dirty twine string around his great fat neck."

That last fact is crucial in solving the murder of Dr. Bruce. When Losee is singled out by the townspeople as a possible suspect Roden learns that the treasured asafetida bag went missing and Potbelly was beside himself with worry. Later, that bag is found clenched in Doc's hand and things look bleak for the poor mentally retarded young man. Mute since birth and feeble minded Potbelly can barely understand simple sentences, but his mother has a special way she can communicate with him and calm him where all others fail. She asks Roden to do his best to prove that her son is innocent. Mrs. Losee knows in her heart that her dear son could never have killed anyone though he certainly has the strength to harm grown men.

Other suspects include Mun Lee, a young man with a secret who wants desperately to leave town with his girl and is adamant that Roden has no business knowing why he wants to flee. Roden prevents Mun's flight on several occasions, once resulting in a fist fight. Perhaps the most suspicious of the lot is Ezekiel Stout, a crazed preacher, who had a disagreement with Doc Bruce over the way to treat Middy Wily's smallpox. Stout took Middy out of the physician's care, very much against Doc's direct orders, to a prayer meeting trying to save the isck woman. She died in the makeshift church surrounded by Stout's zealous followers; prayer no aid against the ravages of disease. It doesn't help matters that Roden is prejudiced against the preacher who he views as a hypocrite who he knows is a wife beater and sadist.

No comment on the section of Deer Lick
located on the left side of this map
This last bit is an excellent touch in direct contrast to contemporary novels set in the South in which most law officials back up the local preacher and are devout Christians. Roden has an intolerance for fake religion and disdains blood and thunder style fearmongering in the guise of teaching the Lord's ways. Cunningham seems to be voicing his own opinions about zealotry and religious hypocrisy in addition to adding another dimension to Roden's character as this lengthy section vehemently denounces Stout's methods and his foolish, unquestioning followers.

Roden is assisted by his deputy Cary Davis, a coffinmaker named Ed Lefferton, and the local coroner, who is yet another of those forerunners to the cynical medical examiner with a deep black humor, a now common character type. Cunningham foreshadows another convention of crime fiction series novels in that many of the supporting characters have mini-dramas of their own to deal with. Apart from Mrs. Losee's fear of Potbelly being arrested, tried and hanged for the physician's murder there is the drama of Ed Lefferton's ailing wife Molly, the rivalry between local midwife Aunt Minervy and Rev. Stout, and Mayme, a housekeeper formerly employed by Doc Bruce, who makes several attempts to seduce Roden even managing to inveigle her way into his home with the promise of skilled cleaning and delicious cooking.

INNOVATIONS: Cunningham has invented a rather bizarre method of murder in the death of Doc Bruce. This will prove to be an ongoing feature in the Sheriff Roden series like an accidental death that is actually an cleverly engineered poisoning or in another book a death trap of mechanical ingenuity that rivals the imaginative murder means in the John Rhode detective novels. The manner in which Roden stumbles across the actual method of Doc Bruce's murder is both gruesome and efficient. Witnessing this unexpected episode forces Roden to re-evaluate nearly all the evidence he has at hand.

THE AUTHOR:  Albert Benjamin Cunningham (1888-1962) was born in Linden, West Virginia. He was a educated at Muskingum College in Ohio, did graduate work at New York University where he also received a PhD in sociology and psychology. After serving in World War I Cunningham taught English at Texas Tech University from 1930 to 1945. In addition to the 21 detective novels featuring Jess Roden he wrote one crime novel under the pseudonym "Estil Dale" and several mainstream novels as "Garth Hale." During the late 1920s Cunningham also wrote some mainstream novels under his own name prior to turning exclusively detective fiction in 1939.