Monday, January 18, 2021

FIRST BOOKS: The Hanging Sword! – Andrew Soutar

A publicity blurb on the inside of my copy of The Hanging Sword! (1933) states: “Andrew Soutar … has said that he writes mystery stories as a relaxation from the strain of writing long and serious novels. He regards this ‘mystery’ work as a tonic!” Keep in mind this is a first novel for what turned out to be a series charcter. Though I've previously only read one of Soutar's mystery novels I expected it to be along the same lines of plotting.  True, this one is also sort of obsessed with outre plot elements and quasi-supernatural incidents but the outre part takes over and dominates the plot with increasingly preposterous incidents. When Soutar said it was a tonic for his apparently exhausting mainstream work he was indulging in a rare form of understatement. That exclamation mark at the end of the title should have been a warning for the kind of book I was about to experience.

This book introduces us to Phineas Spinnet, a private investigator of immense ego and vanity modeled on so many similar characters that were popular in the early days of the Golden Age and before more eccentric amateurs and professionals overshadowed them. Spinnet seems most closely related to pulp magazine heroes and adventure seeking crime fighters. He has hired an assortment of ex-cons to help him in his investigation agency and even has a former prisoner as his manservant and butler just like Albert Campion. In this first outing his ego is kept in check for about the first two thirds of the book but explodes into the insufferably opinionated and patronizing man he is in the last portion of the book. As a detective novel it also suffers from a schizoid identity issue for it owes more to weird thrillers of Sax Rohmer and works populated with sinister master criminals of the later Victorian/early Edwardian period than it does to the nascent detective novel of the Golden Age.

The essential premise is an intriguing one: Mrs. Latymer has apparently committed suicide in a locked room with bolted windows. She has shot herself in the head, the gun is found nearby and the only other occupant of the room is her pet cat. Yet her husband Seward Latymer suspects she was murdered; suicide is not at all consistent with her strong-willed personality. When the inquest verdict is returned as suicide Latymer hires Spinnet to investigate further, prove his wife’s death was murder and bring the killer to justice. First step is an order of exhumation and an autopsy. But when they go to retrieve the body it has been removed from the Latymer family vault.

[ASIDE: Anyone up for a blog post on bodies vanishing from coffins and criminal shenanigans involving family crypts and burial vaults? The Family Burial Murders, The Sleeping Sphinx, The Horror on the Loch, Seven Clues in Search of a Crime, and -- no real surprise -- Facing East by Andrew Soutar come to mind immediately.  I had no idea how common this plot motif is in GAD crime fiction until reading this book and then finding about two dozen of them after diligent internet searching.]

All hope for an intriguing detective novel is lost with the entrance of the mysterious Louise Du Sang. Her name alone gives her away as a bloody dangerous femme fatale. She has fiery temper, is madly in love with Seward Latymer and is pathologically jealous of any woman who comes near him. She will stop at nothing to possess him utterly. As the story progresses Mme. Du Sang is revealed to be a one of those characters old-fashioned writers liked to describe as deadlier than the male. The book ludicrously transforms itself into a surreal thriller with an entirely unexpected dash of the mad scientist genre. We are expected to believe that not only is Du Sang a financial wizard with holdings in South America mines and British industries, but also an amateur chemist and zoologist who has a private menagerie. When not tending to her businesses, wheel dealing with barons of industry she conducts bizarre experiments involving neurological chemical agents that trigger the savagery of the animals she keeps. In true pulp magazine style a feral baboon takes center stage for a terrifying attack on our hero and heroine, Ina Dearborn. This sideline in a sinister zoologically perverted aromatherapy will help Spinnet to explain the weird behavior of Mrs. Latymer’s manx Michael just prior to that poor cat’s demise.

As more deaths take place the idea of suicide by suggestion is contemplated and becomes a theme throughout the book. Spinnet is thoroughly convinced that Du Sang is a madwoman and has somehow managed to manipulate all the men in her life to do her bidding. When they fail to live up to her high standards or have served their purpose she eliminates them. Somehow, Spinnet surmises, she has found a way to drive people to suicide and he needs to find proof. However, once Du Sang has been tagged as the villain the detective novel elements cease to exist and the book morphs into a full blown thriller. The only real surprise comes in discovering a hidden relationship between Dr. Woodward, Spinnet’s Watson of sorts, and Ina Dearborn, Latymer’s secretary and the object of Du Sang’s scorn.

The real fun for me had nothing to do with the outlandish plot and odd pulp magazine flavor that pervades the story. It was reading the endless stream of cutting remarks and sarcastic barbs that come out of Spinnet’s mouth. Phineas Spinnet is sort of the Don Rickles of GAD sleuths.

 

Once they have disposed of a tragedy to their own satisfaction the police hate to have it resurrected lest it should be testimony to their own incompetency.

Woodward: Spinnet, you are a greater genius than even you think.
Spinnet: Thanks, for nothing.

Woodward: You are the most extraordinary fellow I’ve ever met, Spinnet. Do you never sleep?
Spinnet: Sometimes, but I generally close only one eye.

Spinnet: Do you mean to tell me that you allowed woman to disobey your instructions? You deserve to be married.
Chauffeur: I am married, sir.
Spinnet: Good. Then the next time I have a difficult job in hand, I’ll send for your wife to help, and you can stay at home and mind the kids.

7 comments:

  1. I read this eagerly because of the locked-room element. And we know how that turned out! The detective was so odious that it was difficult to read the book, esp his childish belittling of the Scotland Yard detective on the last page. The male villain didn't seem to have any clear-cut motive or personality. Don't think would be reading this author in future.

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    1. Wow! Amazing you found a copy. Is it online somewhere for free? I never bothered looking because I don't really recommend it.

      There was a male villain? You mean they guy who jumped out the window in the middle of it all? I don't recall anyone other than Du Sang as being a thorough villain in this. But I can be forgiven because other than Spinnet's insult lines (some of which did make me crack a smile or snicker a bit) it was sort of forgettable.

      I still have two other Soutar books in my TBR mountain range I want to read. They have John Dickson Carr elements in them and I'm hoping because they DO NOT feature Spinnet among the characters that they will be better. He has a talent for outlandish pulp magazine style plots that I will reluctantly admit appeal to me. The mad scientist nonsense, however, in this book was so far out of left field I was rolling my eyes.

      BTW... the Miss Hargreaves poetry post is coming, I promise. I haven't forgotten about that. Just a matter of doing some extensive photography of the pages.

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  2. John, I borrowed it from a library. By male villain I meant the one whom Du Sang killed and buried (?) in the end. That you don't see him as a villain goes on to show that he his motives and actions were very very confusing. (Adding anything else would spoil the book - in case anybody still wants to read it:)

    Carrsian elements in a book by this author! That I'd love to see and perhaps if you rate them high than perhaps I'd reconsider reading this author.

    Am glad you haven't forgotten about the Hargreaves post. Looking forward to it. And I wish you'd also do the post on bodies vanishing from coffins etc. The only one I can think off the top of my head is THE BURNING COURT.

    Incidentally, who is Don Rickles? (Feeling to lazy to google it up.)

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    1. Don Rickles was a well known American insult comedian. He appeared in night clubs, headlined at Las Vegas, and appeared in a handful of movies. Mostly he was known for his numerous TV talk show appearances throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. I remember him from Laugh-In, Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and a series of Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. He was on TV well into his 80th decade of life. He died at age 91 in 2017.

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  3. "Anyone up for a blog post on bodies vanishing from coffins and criminal shenanigans involving family crypts and burial vaults?"

    Funnily enough, I can think of only two, relatively recent, examples with crypt and burial vault shenanigans: Nicholas Wilde's Death Knell and Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's The Body Snatchers Affair, which have opposite problems involving a locked crypt or burial vault. Death Knell places a fresh corpse inside a crypt blocked and locked from the inside, while The Body Snatchers Affair makes a body vanish from a coffin placed inside a locked burial vault. So you might want to add them to your list of excavation sites.

    As I was writing, I remembered Elizabeth Peters' short story, "The Locked Tomb Mystery." Sorry, I can't help it all of them happen to be locked room mysteries. Pure coincidence! ;)

    Anyway, Soutar sounds like a fun, pulpy writer (if you don't expect anything near to Carr or even Fearn) and he might be an interesting writer to reprint for a publisher like Altus Press. They've already reprinted the pulp mysteries by D.L. Champion and Theodore Roscoe.

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  4. Oddly enough Soutar seems to be one of those popular authors who became almost unreadable or at least unread (Dennis Wheatley being a case in point.); up until the early thirties well over 20 films were made from his works including one starring Ricardo Cortez who was in the original The Maltese Falcon (which is rather good just not as good as the Bogart version). Wayne.

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    1. Most amazing to me is that there is an entire tribute to Spinnett in a volume of famous fictional detectives. He’s one of three detective characters celebrated in that book that most people will never have heard of.

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