Friday, February 14, 2020

FFB: The Devil Must - Tom Wicker

US paperback edition
Popular Library G291 (Dec. 1958)
THE STORY: The murder of a farmer appears to be the work of a disgruntled hired hand who happens to be Black. Reporter Sandy Martin and his editor Al Harris are given the privilege to review the crime scene by Sheriff Tyree Long. They are asked to handle the news story with discretion as this is an election year and Long wants to avoid unnecessary racial disputes. When the suspect is arrested and thrown in jail he begins to exhibit unusual trance-like behaviors, becomes withdrawn and nearly catatonic. Another Black man in a nearby cell tells Sandy that old Jumbo is hexed. And the murder starts to take on a sinister aspect when Sandy hears stories of witchcraft, spell casting and the power exerted over the superstitious denizens in the Black community.

THE CHARACTERS: The Devil Must (1957) contains a huge cast encompassing nearly every single person in the small North Carolina town of Marion. We follow the actions and thoughts of protagonist Sandy Martin, a cub reporter who hasn’t left his hometown since birth. He is disgruntled with his broken family: a devil-may-care brother has left the state to make a name for himself up North, his sister who he still loves dearly has fled the town, supposedly living with a man she chased. He’s not heard from her since she left town years ago. Sandy is carrying the torch for his high school sweetheart, now working as everyone’s favorite waitress in a whites joint aptly named Purity Café. Not too surprisingly given her name is Honey she has a reputation for being flirtatious and indiscreet with her affections. This family baggage and frustrated romance help to color the way Sandy views his boss, Al, and the rest of the people he comes in contact with. His many grudges, hidden prejudices and misperceptions of characters will be put to the test when he must willingly accept that the motivations of the murderer seem to be grounded in superstition and an insidious use of mind control in the form of actual witchcraft and hexes.

Marion is riddled with Southern prejudice against Negroes. The 1950s PC term and the ugly slur are used with equal frequency by all characters. Those who use Negro we know are supposedly the good guys, those who throw around the other N word are the baddies. Or so it seems.

The Sheriff wants the case of Carl Roger’s bludgeoning murder wrapped up quickly and is eager to fit evidence to the primary suspect poor, weak minded, and barely literate Jumbo James who protests his innocence until he can literally not speak a word and curls up into an immovable ball on his jail cell cot. Sandy openly listens to Nathaniel, Jumbo’s much older brother, relate horrific stories of how Mrs. Rogers, the real town tramp, has been caught having sex in public places and then threatened Nathaniel with her weird powers. He tells a bizarre tale of how she performed a frightening ritual involving fire and convinced Nathaniel that he was in her power. It is this unnervingly effective story that gives Sandy the idea that deeply held superstitious beliefs are as profound as deeply held religious faith. That the capacity for profound faith in either belief system can subvert common sense. That one human being literally can be in the hands of another who is savvy enough and perverse enough to exploit the talent of sympathetic understanding into tyranny of the mind.

Ironically, it is John the Baptist Jones, the incarcerated minister arrested on suspicion of raping one of his own parishioners, who explains to Sandy the importance of the belief in hexing and its dire effects on his community. There are many cultural lessons Sandy learns from people like Nathaniel and John the Baptist. Once he has in his hands a piece of surprise evidence in the form of a letter written by the murder victim and sent to a respected lawyer Sandy begins to formulate a plan that will redeem Jumbo, save the town of Marion from further harm, and deal with the true killer in a satisfyingly retributive manner.

INNOVATIONS: The Devil Must explores race relations in the dawn of the civil rights movement by examining superstition and its powerful effect on the Black community of the American South. Wicker has managed to use the exploitation of superstition in order to explore the prejudice and subjugation. He does so with an incisive, angry intelligent prose. The climax of the novel becomes nearly allegorical with the villain of the story serving as a symbol of all the iniquitous treatment of not just Black people, but everyone ignorant and foolish enough to give themselves over to hollow cant and vicious threats. After a story that at times seems to drown in Sandy’s romantic entanglements, his personal prejudices against all those he sees as threats to his pure love for Honey (all of this clearly meant to mirror the superstition of Jumbo and Nathaniel) the novel pays off big time with its true message of the treacherous nature of empty belief systems that have no foundation in genuine truth. And yet that truly terrifying finale is evidence to all the characters (and the reader) that witchcraft can be a real and useful tool for those immersed so deeply in its rituals and curses as to bring about healing change. The novel ends in an authentic conflagration in which fire purifies and allows for a phoenix-like rebirth for those lucky enough to survive.

QUOTES: Mrs. Rogers was not pretty; she was too dark and too hard and too worn out. But that night hate brought her close to beauty. Hate flashed in her eyes and stiffened her figure. She stood straight, seeming taller and slimmer than she was: and I was glad it wasn’t me that she hated.

…he clapped his hat on his head and, as if it were a crown, it made him the old Tyree Long, the powerful politician who shaped Jasper County with his shrewd plump hands.

US 1st edition, Harper & Row (1957)
I thought about Carl Rogers. I couldn’t place him out of all the milling half-glimpsed Saturday gallery of farmers’ faces. But he had been a human being; and where now was all that laughter and all that sorrow and all that hope that ought to have filled his life—anybody’s life? It seemed there ought to have been at least a trumpet blowing to mark the passage of so much humanity.

A Southerner – that is, a man who lives in what used to be the Confederate States of America – has to condone segregation of the races. He has no choice. It doesn’t matter what he believes; it doesn’t even matter if he is a learned man to whom people listen or pretend to listen, what he says on the radio or writes in the newspaper. Every day of his life in the South he gives tacit approval to segregation. He does this when he eats in a restaurant. He does it when he attends a motion picture or travels by public conveyance or stops at a hotel or motel or sits in a doctor’s waiting room or joins a civic club or sends his children to school.

Al Harris, the editor of the town newspaper, to Sandy: "You and Street [a lawyer] are doing just what you claim Tyree did, building up something that could have happened into something that did happen. I have always thought that it was just as bad to be blind in one eye as in the other."

Flanking the French doors was a pair of oil paintings of some earlier Kirby men, statesmen or educators or wielders of vast private influence, such as Kirbys had always been. … That room stood for order, for permanence, for security. It spoke for men of property and pride and it sheltered their affairs. It would brook no new light under its gloomy ceiling. … And, in its own way, its spell was as profound as that of any witch. It’s grip on the minds of those who lingered here would be as unshakable.

Nathaniel blinked, secretively, wisely, suddenly he seemed old and profound and powerful. Sitting there …amid his poverty, and in his ignorance, he still knew more than either of us; a party to dark deeds we feared to credit he dwarfed our rational assurance with his secrets.

courtesy of New York Times, 1976
THE AUTHOR: Tom Wicker (1926-2011) was one of the nation’s leading sociologically observant reporters for much of the later 20th century. He first made name for himself writing up his eyewitness account of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He wrote an Edgar award-winning nonfiction book about the Attica prison riot. He was involved in a lifelong quest to speak up for the maligned and ostracized portions of American society, and was hugely involved in the civil rights and equal rights movements of the late 60s and early 70s. In addition to several non-fiction works Wicker penned a handful of pulp thrillers as equally affecting as The Devil Must. These were all published under the pseudonym Paul Connolly. I’ll be reviewing one of those books, reissued by Stark House this month, in a few days. Wicker’s fascinating and important life as journalist, novelist, analyst and activist is captured in his laudatory obituary available for all to read (without subscription!) on the New York Times website.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

FFB: Villainy at Vespers - Joan Cockin

THE STORY: The lost art of brass rubbing, crooked antiques dealers, and smuggling all figure in this tale of an unidentified man found naked and ritually murdered on the altar in a Cornish church.  Inspector Cam, on vacation with his family, is asked to help out the local police in this superbly plotted and literary mystery novel.

THE CHARACTERS: Inspector Cam who appears in only three novels by Cockin, is having a field day in this entry in the subgenre known as the policeman's holiday mystery. Nearly every mystery writer has at least one of these novels in which their detective attempts to get away for a vacation until murder interrupts and in a combination of professional routine and curiosity ends up investigating the crime or crimes. Sayers (Busman's Honeymoon) , Christie (Evil under the Sun), Stout (Death of a Dude) and Brand (Tour de Force) come to mind immediately.  But Cam is with his family and we are reminded of his distractions with the crime when his family pop in periodically to get him back to the business of relaxation.  His wife is impatient with him and in his absence and apparent disinterest in their family she befriends Betsey Rowan, an American schoolteacher. Betsey is travelling with a group of rambunctious students who have all set up tents while camping on the beach.  Cam's children pester him hoping they can get an insider's look at the gruesome crime scene simply because their father is a police officer. The harried policeman manages to take it all in stride with good humor and minor irritation, only twice scolding his unruly children for their lurid curiosity.

Joan Cockin has created a perfect microcosm of the Cornish village in Villainy at Vespers (1949) and delights in populating the town of Trevelley with all manner of eccentric locals and oddball tourists. Apart from gregarious and engaging Betsey Rowan and her entertaining gang of students there is a cast lively and eccentric characters.  These include: spinsterish Miss Cornthwaite who is nearly done in by the ruthless villains in an astonishing sequence along a cliff side; Red Cowdrey, a cantankerous old man with a reputation for smuggling and other unscrupulous business; John Briarley, a visiting historian and antiquarian, obsessed with getting the best possible rubbing from the Pollpen brass, a 13th century work of art embedded in the floor of St. Poltraun's; a travelling antique dealer who may know the identity of the naked corpse; and Mr. Copperman, the town vicar, and his wife Mrs. Cooperman who have been sly and elusive in answering routine questions about who the murder victim is and how he came to be in their church.

Leading the investigation is a nearly incompetent and irascible local policeman named Honeywether who enlists the help of Cam though it is mostly the promise of free beer that decides the vacationing copper to join the investigation. Together Cam and Honeywether (though it is mostly Cam doing the abstract thinking and true detective work) uncover the identity of the naked corpse, connect a spate of thefts of art work and artifacts from local churches to the murder, and unravel a web of deceit and cover-ups among the mistrustful citizens who succeed in mixing up the police by not fully cooperating with the murder investigation. Along the way the reader is treated to some fascinating local legends, one ghost story featuring a visit from Satan, and more than anyone would ever want to know about monumental brass rubbing.

INNOVATIONS: Mostly it is Cockin's writing that makes this a noteworthy if completely unknown detective novel.  The first paragraph alone led me to buying the book. It is almost impossible to put the book down after this startling opening:

Human sacrifice --primitive physical sacrifice-- has long been out of favour in England. A considerable stir was, therefore, created when the body of a man, naked and with his throat cut was discovered upon the altar of St. Poltraun's Church in the village of Trevelley. Murder -- and from the beginning it was assumed that not even the most theatrically-minded suicide would make his way without his clothes into church, lie upon the altar, and cut his throat with a pruning knife -- murder, then, is at least a diversion from the grim perplexities of the daily news.

With wit and panache Cockin tells an entertaining story of rogues and con men, satirizes British tourism and foreign visitors, pokes fun at the sensational nature of newspapers, and the public's prurient interest and insatiable desire for blood, guts and gore. That we have Cam along as our wise detective with a sense of humor as sharp as his creator makes the reading all the more satisfying.

Lithograph of original brass rubbing done in 1891,
from a British 14th c. monumental brass
(click to enlarge)
THINGS I LEARNED:  The phrase "Dog in a manger" is as old as the hills, but I swear I've never come across it anywhere in my reading until it popped up on page 90 of Villainy at Vespers. I wasn't at all sure of what it alluded to nor was I too clear on its meaning. After diligent Googling I uncovered its source in Aesop's Fables. The phrase alludes to a person who stubbornly refuses to give up something that he is not entitled to and, more importantly, has little real use of just like the dog in the fable refuses to give up his relaxing in the manger to allow the cows to feed.

Palimpsest also comes up over the course of the story.  My only other encounter with this unusual word is seeing it as the title of Gore Vidal's dishy memoir.  The modern definition of the word -- "something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form" -- vaguely refers to its origin from ancient monasteries when supplies for manuscripts were scarce which led to the practice of recycling and reusing old, outdated manuscripts to create new works. In the context of this mystery novel the word applies to the legend that the Pollpen brass may in fact be a palimpsest, that an earlier brass work is possibly visible on the reverse side.  Briarley is excited to get his hands on the brass and examine it to prove that the legend is fact.

QUOTES: Cam: "The work of a police officer in a case like this is to discover and explain the abnormal. It is in the deviation from the normal that a crime reveals itself."

Edmund Crispin allusion (!!):
"A humorist! Do all our village policeman try to model themselves on Gervase Fen, do you suppose?"

"This is no way to spend a holiday. Bothering your heads about death and murder when you ought to be out in the fresh air and sunshine."
"We can do both at the same time," reasoned one [son], but Cam made a threatening gesture.
"I don't want any lawyers in my family. So be off with you and don't give your poor father as much trouble as a Royal Commission."

Mr. Copperman admonishing his congregation prior a ceremony to re-sanctify the despoiled church:
"You are no body of people gathered together for the united purpose of prayer and thanksgiving. Instead, you are inspired by an infinite variety of motives -- curiosity, superstition, vanity, perhaps a little pity, perhaps a little awe. But there is no common ground amongst you. You are spectators, not participants. You have come to take all you can and give nothing."

Cam, at the beach in swimming attire, receives patronizing glares and smirks from younger men:
"Look on. Take your fill. And please heaven that you may one day be like me. Fat, over forty, and free from the need to prove I'm a man by excessive athletics."


THE AUTHOR: I've uncovered another moonlighter!  "Joan Cockin" was in reality Edith Joan Burbidge Macintosh, PhD, CBE, one of the first women to work in British diplomatic service during World War Two. According to to her obituary published in The Scotsman, June 12, 2014 her "illustrious career" was cut short within a few years when she was forced to resign her position as First Secretary to the High Commission in New Delhi after marrying a Scottish banker.  Foreign Office "bureaucratic red tape" prevented women who married non-diplomats from remaining in diplomatic service.

Prior to her diplomatic career she had attended Oxford as a history major and worked for the BBC upon graduation. The Ministry of Information sent her to Washington, DC where she was charged to create anti-Hitler propaganda and encourage Americans to join in the fight against the Third Reich.

In addition to three detective novels she wrote educational books for children as well as local and ancient Scottish history.  Long involved in charitable work dating back to her days in India Macintosh helped found several charitable organizations, and was largely involved in consumer advocacy. She appeared on a Scottish radio program inspired by her work on the Citizen's Advice Bureau which led to her becoming the first chairman of the Scottish Consumer Council. Finally, her work led her to legal advocacy and she held chairman positions on the Scottish Constitutional Commission, Scottish Child Care Centre and was a member of Victim Support Scotland's council.

Macintosh had three children with her husband Ian and died in June 2014.

EASY TO FIND? It's a rare one, my friends. Nothing new there. Only four copies out there as of this writing and all of them rather pricey.  I stumbled across a very cheap copy of the book in some eBay listings which included a photograph of the first page of text.  I read that from beginning to end and wanted to read the rest of the book. So I hit the Buy It Now button. That proved to be one of the best impulsive book buys of the past couple of years. I have already been looking for the other two books with Cam as detective. I've found the first one, Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947), and will be reviewing that one soon.

Inspector Cam Detective Novel Trilogy
Curiosity Killed the Cat (1947
Villainy at Vespers (1949)
Deadly Ernest (1952)