Nicholas Olde, who presumably published this under a pseudonym because his real name was Amian Lister Champneys and that’s simply too awesome, left us only this one work of crime fiction to remember him by. It’s presented in 17 chapters of about ten pages each with most being a distinct story, except ‘The Two Telescopes’ which has three chapters to itself. To avoid hideous verbosity, I shall split this review over two posts and rate each story separately to see how I like doing things that way. No spoilers, of course. Both covers I’ve seen for this book – my Ramble House edition (shown here) and the Heineman first edition I’ll attach to the next post – have a semi-supernatrual flavour that isn’t really accurate. Hern is a genius detective in the classic mould, fond of obscure pronouncements and startling logical connections and always privy to more information than he lets on to his unnamed chronicler, and therefore the reader, until the closing explanation. It would be very easy to compose him of shades of other fictional detectives, but these stories are interesting enough that they really should be allowed to stand on their own. That said, I may need to make some such comparisons below just to give you an appropriate flavour without spoiling anything…
1: The Windmill
Suddenly leaping from the church to the circus, and foretelling the murder of a complete stranger, this is a fairly decent introduction to both the character and the type of stories you’re getting. There’s a rather key incongruity and then a huge coincidence which are both vital for the workings, but the ‘colour-changing stripes’ thing is clever enough and it’s light, fast and both tragic and fun at the same time.
2: The Collector of Curiosities
Macguffin ahoy! The counterintuitively deductive moment that starts this aside, this is the kind of story I can never quite buy. A man is finding unusual items in his house…what could they possibly mean? The raft of possible explanations never explored to instead go straight to the correct answer is part of my issue with this kind of solution, but at least there’s a bit of mental juggling where that’s involved. The event that stirs the gentleman to visit Hern is a very good one, too, and would make a wonderful opening scene if anyone ever decided to film these…
3: The Lost City of Lak
An indecipherable message from an ancient lost cvilisation, or a code hiding something more sinister? Well, the first would make a dull crime story, but draw your own conclusions. Fairly basic in execution, but works superbly on its own terms. Would have fit perfectly among those Holmes stories that John Dickson Carr wrote with Adrian Conan Doyle. Also note: this is the point where Olde starts to cut loose with the wonderful character names.
Utterly bonkers, but clearly written with tongue wedged firmly in cheek – see the newspaper headline if nothing else – and its ridiculousness-es make it work all the better. Don’t want to give anything away here, but I think this is a beautifully-tooled little tale that demonstrates Olde’s talent very well indeed.
5: Black and White
The first Inevitable Duff, in which the charm of the style is unable to compensate for the shortfall of the content. A series of jewel thefts in a small coastal town apparently stacked with jewels, a possible solution that seems too obvious to be even worth writing… I shall leave it to you to make up your own mind about this.
6: The Red Weed
Shades of H.G. Wells? No, alas. The second Inevitable Duff, in which the charm of the style is unable to compensate for the idiocy of the solution. Concerns the sudden (but not impossible) disappearance of a famous man, and I’m not saying any more. I feel like I want to like this more, it’s fun and harmless enough, but then the police are quite phenomenally dunderheaded in a way that’s designed to make Hern look even more brilliant and I just don’t buy any of it. Margery Allingham’s Flowers for the Judge was still 8 years away, and it shows.
7: Old Mr. Polperro
A minor character from an earlier tale here rises to prominence, as our narrator engages in the kind of foolish behaviour that made about 70% of all detective fiction possible by keeping something unutterably valuable in his house. A step back in the right direction, certainly, but missing that extra flourish to make it truly memorable.
8: The Two Telescopes
A three-part story that, given its extra length, is more atmospheric than usual but – ufortunately for my tastes – sees Olde at his most Chestertonian. A series of house-breakings…well, that’s all I can tell you really. Once again the guilty party won’t be a surprise, and it’s hard to justify the additional pages beyond possibly an experiment with a slightly longer form of narrative. And the two-month hiatus in the narrative is a decidedly unusual and completely needless inclusion. Seriously, this narrator has the patience of a college of saints.
So, a very mixed first-half-and-a-bit. At this stage it’s worth noting that a) not a single word has been written about Rowland Hern’s physical appearance, and b) as yet there have been no impossible crimes. Come back tomorrow to see if that changes in the remaining…