Saturday, June 11, 2022

FIRST BOOKS: Author in Distress - Cecil M. Wills

THE STORY: Novelist Gervoise Trevellyan is an Author in Distress (1934). And first time mystery writer Cecil Wills wastes no time in getting immediately to the story.  On page one Trevellyan calls the police to report that he's shot a man who he believes is a burglar.  The first problem Sgt. Geoffrey Boscobell --and the bigger problem for the novelist-- is that there are two bullets in the body. Trevelyan swears he fired only once.  Trevellyan claims the man broke in and fired at him.  The writer then shot the burglar who was apparently breaking into the safe in the library.  Doubly puzzling is that only one bullet casing is found in the library. And where is the bullet mark from the victim's gun? Things only get more complicated as Sgt. Boscobell and the other policemen further investigate this supposed act of self-defense.

THE CHARACTERS: Geoffrey Boscobell makes for a whip smart and attentive detective.  He rides a motorcycle to get around the various villages in his investigation.  Neat touch for 1935. When the novel is focussed on detection this policeman is one of the best of the Golden Age. And when the novel turns into a thriller he's as heroic and full of derring-do as any dashing matinee idol found in the cinematic cliffhangers of 1930s movie palaces.

 Among the suspects are Myra, Trevellyan's considerably younger wife.  She has a fascinating interrogation scene where she tells the story of her past life in Monaco which reads like an E. Phillips Oppenheim novel in miniature.  Gambling, con artists, the decadent life of the rich and indulgent...and an accidental shooting that ends to death and a cover-up.  It's all there.  I'm guessing Wills read his fair share of Oppenheim.  This section is a neat homage and not altogether gratuitous.  Myra's past and the characters mentioned in her story play a large part in the later unfolding of the intricate plot. Myra has a huge secret that leads to a blackmail scheme Boscobell uncovers.  Did her husband get involved and try to protect her?

Another suspect is the antique glass collector Lawton Holmes, a shady and cruel man with secrets in his past and a roving eye for the ladies. Mrs. Thomas, the requisite gossip, offers up the dirt on Holmes and his theft of a rare glass curio -- The Ravenscroft Goblet.  And here I thought was another detective novel homage. This time to the prolific J. S. Fletcher whose books of the 1920s and early 1930s were filled with jewel and antique thieves sporting titles just like the object Holmes stole.  In fact two of  Fletcher's books are titled Ravensdene Court and The Ravenswood Mystery, not to mention all his detective novels about objets d'art like The Kang-He Vase, The Borgia Cabinet, The Malachite Jar, and The Carrismore Ruby. Definitely another tribute, in my opinion.  I thought the theft of the Ravenscroft Goblet would be the crux of the mystery, but was way off the mark.

One of the best of the supporting characters is Boscobell's girlfriend Audrey, his most trusted confidante.  She becomes his Watson and is present at the scene when they visit Mrs. Thomas.  Boscobell and Audrey spend many a chapter trading theories and bouncing ideas off each other. They discuss a variety of possible situations to explain the evidence as in the case of the missing bullet and where it might be found.  Audrey goes looking for it, in fact, with out telling her policeman paramour.  Also they talk about the footprint in tar found a outside the scene of the crime which Boscobell realizes almost immediately is utterly faked.

INNOVATIONS:  For a first time detective novel Wills shows a deft hand at incredibly intricate plotting and clever clueing making use of familiar detective novel tropes like the burned bits of paper, secret messages, missing bullets, and footprints at the scene of the crime, and even an initialed handkerchief - perhaps the hoariest of all hackneyed devices, as Carolyn Wells might put it.  I also liked the more subtle homages to detective novel conventions like Oglethorpe, Trevellyan's valet and butler, a kind of Bunter character who back in WWI was Trevellyan's batman when both were sappers, soldiers who dug and fought in the trenches.  There is a surprise witness at the very long inquest section which makes for some fairly exciting reading and allows Wills to add yet one more intriguing development in an ever increasingly complex murder case that at times seems too baffling for its own good.  Can a detective novel be complex for complexity's sake?  Author in Distress may be the template for such a mystery novel. As complicated as the story becomes I didn't care.  I was marveling, not complaining, at the labyrinthine story telling, the layering of past and present, the double identities and masquerades the deeper I got into the story.

Nifty map of crime scene combined with floor plan of house.  Click to enlarge!

Unfortunately, it all falls apart in the final third when Wills abandons his finely engineered detective novel and transforms the book in a cliche-ridden adventure thriller. Audrey is kidnapped and imprisoned in a tower accessible only by two ladders, a daring rescue involving near fatal perils, the garrulous villain confesses everything on his deathbed. My notes include this brief rant: "Loads of Edgar Wallace claptrap. Ugh!"  Blackmail and an old bank robbery turn up in the eleventh hour and serve as the outrageous motive for the various crimes and murders.  It all seemed so manufactured and random in the summing up and made fro an anticlimactic finale.

But prior to the high speed action-filled, but utterly familiar, final chapters the book is fascinating and engaging for fans of the traditional puzzle-filled detective novel.

QUOTES: I only wrote down one, but it's rather resonant for these days:

"The American, like most of his countryman, carried a gun." 

THE AUTHOR: Cecil M. Wills (1891-1966) had a fairly lengthy career as a detective novel and thriller writer from 1935 to 1961. Can't find much about his life online, but his bibliography is well documented on various crime fiction sites. This is my first reading of his books having only discovered him after seeing his name mentioned in a passing remark in the excellent mystery novel At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof.  Wills' early books of the 1930s featuring Geoffrey Boscobell and Audrey are rather scarce, sorry to report.  There are a handful copies out and (not too surprisingly) several very cheap editions of a French translated edition of The Chamois Murder.  The easier to find Wills mystery novels are his titles from the 1950s.  For several reviews of these later boosk featuring a completely different series detective see the Puzzle Doctor's posts at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Despite its flawed finale chapters I enjoyed Author in Distress.  It's a book I think ought to be reprinted.  In fact, the entire Boscobell series holds promise based on this sole reading experince.  Enterprising and daring publishers take note.  Cecil M Wills deserves a second life, I'd say.

Sgt. Geoffrey Boscobell Detective Novels

Author in Distress (1934)
Death at the Pelican
(1934)
Death Treads (1935)
Then Came the Police (1935)
The Chamois Murder (1935)
Fatal Accident (1936)
Defeat of a Detective (1936)
On the Night in Question (1937)
A Body in the Dawn (1938)
The Case of the Calabar Bean (1939)
*The Case of the R.E. Pipe (1940)
*The Clue of the Lost Hour (1949)
*The Clue of the Golden Ear-Ring (1950)

*also with Roger Ellerdine who becomes the lead
detective in the remaining Wills detective novels

6 comments:

  1. Characters that are engaging, intriguing plotlines, and a map of the crime scene: this book sounds like it has much to offer as a rediscovered relic of the golden age - all things I look for. You have caught my interest, John. I wish I could go buy a copy today. Do you know if any of Mr. Wills's works have been reprinted in the past?

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  2. Only reprints I find are the French translated editions. I find no English language paperbacks and absolutely no contemporary reprints. In the last paragraphs of the post I suggested the reprint idea to any publishers who might read this blog.

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  3. Ramble House have reprinted Fatal Accident from 1936. I think that's the only contemporary reprint

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  4. Oh thanks! I only check online sales. I’ve just ordered a copy.

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  5. Excellent review. Wills is an author I rather like and I agree that he deserves to be reprinted

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    1. Thanks, Martin. Despite my disappointment with the clich├ęd ending I very much enjoyed this book. Eager to sample more of his wildly inventive plots I shelled out more money (lots of it!) to buy a few more scarce Wills books. Good news for everyone! In collaboration with Ramble House two more Cecil M. Wills books will soon be reprinted in paperback. Huzzah, huzzah! The first will be this one Author in Distress! I expect copies to be available in the fall.

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