THE CHARACTERS: The story of At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof (1937) is memorable for its offbeat sense of humor and the colorful characters who inhabit the village of Larcombe. This is a world of kooks, oddballs and eccentrics galore. Only an oddball would create anonymous letters with a child’s watercolor paint kit, right? And what kind of person would think that playing pranks by leaving a fish in someone’s bed, placing a ticking metronome outside a bedroom door or using a airgun to blast pepper shot at windows would be viewed as terrorism and result in hysteria? A nut job for sure, right? At first the novel seems to be no more than a Wodehousian satire of folksy villagers with a smattering of farcical scenes but the pranks and the oddness turn sinister and deadly as the story progresses.
Two policemen of decidedly differing approaches to crime solving head up the professional side of the investigation. We begin by meeting the officious Inspector Percy Blutton aided by local cops Jack Marsden and P.C. Jipps. Blutton questions the various habitués of the Clove and Hoof with vigorous impatience and makes up his mind fairly quickly who killed Vicar Ernest Pratt, the first victim of the mad killer, who was found shot in the head at the base of a cliff not far from his car. Footprints indicating a hobnail boot and a pegleg are found around the vehicle suggesting that Captain John Thomas Ridd, the only one legged man in the village, was near the car wreck recently. But Ridd has a solid alibi having been on his boat returning home to Larcombe the night Pratt was killed. Blutton disbelieves him and hounds Ridd for the rest of the novel. That is, until Ridd suddenly vanishes without a trace.
Our other policeman is Det. Sgt. Plumper from Scotland Yard. Considerably younger than Blutton he has a more subtle style of interrogation allowing the men of the village and the few women (nearly all of whom are servants) to chatter away and gossip while he nonchalantly inserts pertinent questions to catch them off guard and almost always getting a quick and truthful answer. Blutton finds this tactic strange and pointless but is ironically envious that it works for Plumper as often as it does. Plumper also exhibits impatience with the locals but manages to get the truth quicker than Blutton. Unfortunately, Plumper’s ego gets in the way and he allows himself to be hoodwinked by a clever ruse in the highly interesting final chapter.
Of the various suspects we have Bert Yeo, the pub owner who seems the most reticent of the lot; Sebastian Hannabus, aging antiquarian and jack-of-all-trades who counts among his various professions taxidermist, antique dealer, and barber; Lionel Gedling, ancient recluse who lives in the crumbling mansion known as Old Barton who is the victim of the various odd pranks; his mysterious manservant Costigan a man with a closed lip and a secret he’s hiding; Jeremy Scoutey, the local grocer, and his daughter Alice who is one of the several people in town who owns one of the paint sets that might be the source of the anonymous letters; Rosa, the barmaid with a fickle heart; and the star of the book Christian Peascod, dilettante of the arts and amateur detective.
By the time the police have sorted the red herrings from the facts, discarded all the surreal nonsense obfuscating the murderer’s motive, six people will have died, Plumper and Jack Marsden will be attacked and nearly killed, and Christian Peascod will have a last laugh on the police who scoffed at his ideas.
INNOVATIONS: Though there is a protracted denouement which consists mostly of a cliché of traditional detective fiction I am beginning to detest – the villain who performs a monologue of his life while outlining the reasons for his actions—ultimately the book ends with some stunning surprises. Johnson has dared to flout the tacit and written rules of detective fiction and come up with a solution that defies all those conventions. I loved it and it made me grin in admiration. This finale reminded me how rare it is to encounter an unconventional rule breaker who thumbs his or her nose at the supposed rules and how much I mentally applaud them when they do show up.
THINGS I LEARNED: Johnson loves language and words and sprinkles her novel with unusual vocabulary. The adjective corybantic cropped up to describe the men in the pub when they get rowdy and it led me to find out its origin. It comes from Corybant, the name given to a priest who worshipped Cybele in ancient times. Their ecstatic celebrations to the goddess included fervent dancing that came to be described as corybantic.
QUOTES: Starehole Gap was beauty spot. Not a commercial and official Beauty Spot with Tea Rooms run by languid, rapacious genteelwomen and with Period Car Parks for char-a-bancs. No; it was just a pretty, unnoticed place, the private property of Lionel Gedling and part of his small estate on Larcombe Head. The Gap itself was a steep little glade sloping down to the sea, whose chief attractions were a delicate waterfall and a deep green pool. People said that had Lionel Gedling not been so thick-skulled and simple and crazy, he could have made money out of it simply by changing its name to the Faery Grotto, hanging lanterns in the trees and opening it to the holiday public at a shilling or more per head.
Christian was only too pleased to go. He had already got the first two couplets of Ode to the Bloodiness of Man, and he knew he would forget them if he tarried much longer.
“Our man’s certainly a colorful humorist,” [Plumper said.] “Like Peascod, he’s read his detective novels. The Clue of the Wooden Leg. The Clue of the Headless Body. The Clue of the Painted Letter, and now the Clue of the Bloody Handkerchief. Rich – very rich. Too rich.”
But Plumper was scowling. He was angry and he was worried because he had a strong feeling now that he was up against a maniac of some sort; one who was treating crime as a game, taking fantastic risks because he was too crazy to care about personal danger, playing mysterious tricks because it amused him to do so, acting from inconsistently abnormal motives. The whole business was too theatrical, too Grand Guignol.
“Merciful heaven! The man asks has it anything to do with this business?” Peascod was almost prancing with excitement. “This [letter] has come straight from the murderer, don’t you realize that? Hot from his bloody hand. Don’t just stand there dithering, man. Don’t you realize you hold the key to everything? All unwitting, you’ve stumbled on the villain’s secret! Quick, quick what is it you’ve seen, heard, felt, smelled, dreamed?”
THE AUTHOR: Finding biographical information about Zoë Johnson was next to impossible. Other than the very few listings for this book, one of two that were for sale in the past six months, I found nothing online about her. With such a dearth of info I was convinced that Zoë Johnson is a pseudonym for some well-known mystery writer. The book itself – with its primarily male cast of characters, a hard-edged satirical sense of humor, knowledge about the life of a fisherman, and the emphasis on men gathering in a local pub for camaraderie and entertainment – seemed to be the work of a man rather than a woman. But this could be a combination of sheer bias and utter ignorance. I thought of other writers published by Gregory Bles who shared the same sense of offbeat humor and dreamed up similar bizarre plots like Reginald Davis, John Haslette Vahey under his “Henrietta Clandon” guise and John V. Turner writing as “Nicholas Brady.” I guess only copyright information on Johnson’s two books published with Bles would reveal the truth, that and the actual contracts. William Collins & Company (creator of the Collins Crime Club imprint) purchased the publishing house of Gregory Bles in 1953 and most likely still holds the copyright for Johnson’s novels. My feeble attempts at uncovering the copyright info turned up nothing. Then after a few days of compulsive searching of the multiple online updates at Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV I found this:
JOHNSON, ZOË (GREY?). 1913(?)-1992(?). (Adding somewhat more likely
middle/maiden name and dates for the author of two 1930s novels in CFIV.)
Good heavens, I thought. She’s a real person! If I had the patience to carry on with this data digging I might be able to verify her birth date and death date with records from Ancestry.com or some other similar genealogy website. But I really can’t spend any more time trying to figure out who she is or where she lived. I’m hoping someone who has some knowledge about Zoë Johnson will read this post and leave a comment below. It’s a real shame she only wrote two books and that the other one, Mourning After (1938), is so rare that no copies are offered for sale at all. This is yet another book I’d love to reprint in a heartbeat.