#75: The Border Line (1937) by Walter S. Masterman

The Border LineI am from a televisual generation and so struggle to comprehend the power radio held in its pomp – people actually believing that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds was genuinely detailing an alien invasion of Earth, for instance.  So, to me, the idea of presenting the haunting of a Spooky Old House as a radio show seems a bit…pointless.  Nevertheless, Jack Hartley and his BBC radio chums descend upon Cold Stairs, the ancestral home of Sir John Harman (5 bed, 2 bath., stunning aspect in own woodland), to record ghostly goings on and bumps in the night with the intention of making a broadcast of it.  Or that should really be ‘bumping offs in the night’ as some poor soul is murdered by the evil spirit that resides in the vicinity – the same spirit that shocked his housekeeper’s son so badly he fell down the stairs and crippled himself – and then it turns out that Harman’s introverted, reserved niece has been communing with something calling itself the King of the Forest, and that’s really the beginning of everyone’s problems.

Given that John Pelan’s superb introduction makes much of Masterman’s standing in the Science Fiction/Supernatural Horror genre, I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d be getting here: Ramble House are known for their commitment to the, er, more uncommon corners of genre fiction, after all, and so the deaths, photographs of skeletons, and blindfolded meetings with sinister wood-dwelling monsters all stirs a stew that could turn out to be a dream as easily as it could leave you with no explanation whatsoever.

And, in a way, that’s part of the fun and something I don’t intend to spoil here.  Ring-in sleuth Dick Selden has the reader’s back – “One expects this sort of thing in remote countries, but hardly in England” – but this doesn’t mean that Masterman is willing to commit himself either way:

“We shall get a true perspective when we get away from this depressing atmosphere.  These people see a rock with a lichen growing on it like the hair of a dead man, and take it for an earth-born creature of the old legends.  Every tree becomes a being with stretching arms about to clutch, as in the Erl King.”

The first half is redolent in the kind of atmosphere that could tip either way, and Selden is hardly jocund in nature as he tries to figure everything into a pattern he insists it must have.  For this alone it commends itself to students of detective fiction, as it’s interesting watching an honest to goodness sitting-on-the-fence plot unfold where ratiocination sits on the page comfortably alongside the type of description which is obviously Masterman’s more natural metier.

He seemed to see the green tunnel stretching out before the doomed man, and to hear the dry wind of the Thing of Hell that gained on him with every stride.

If it becomes rather talky by the halfway stage, it suddenly springs to life with all manner of Golden Age detective tropes that only serve to enrich the lives of the people involved.  I hadn’t realised it until it happened, but it was a strangle airless brew to that point, with events being discussed but no real sense of the people involved, and the juxtaposition of these more earthly concerns brought it all home to me in a very real way.  Plenty of sub rosa goings-on come to light, and then we start to see the pattern that Selden insisted was there all along…but just because there’s reason behind it, does that mean it has to be an earthly reason…?

Writing this now, I realise how much I will enjoy rereading this book.  The lack of certainty over its eventual direction was a delightful experience, but it’s always nice knowing where you’re going to end up.  Masterman doesn’t quite live up to his name, but he is very adept at the creeping dread, and this kept me guessing and speculating and, frankly, worrying about what I had signed up for.  And the explanations when they come, well, they might make for happier reading when I know the direction from the beginning, but I’ll be honest that on this first go there was a soupçon of “Oh, for pity’s sake” in my reaction, and it’s fair to say that it won’t be to everyone’s taste.

Because Masterman does rather fall down on things like character and plot. Selden and Hartley are interchangeable in just about every regard – it became really quite difficult in my mind to keep clear which one had done what, but since they meet up so frequently to tell the other what they know it doesn’t really matter – and the romance angle shoehorned in can make uncomfortable reading with its insistence on implying some sense of attractiveness, thankfully stopping shy of outright pulchritude, with regard to Harman’s young niece.  Indeed, he fares far better with the less salubrious characters, and I can’t help but wonder if this is grounding in supernatural concerns where the characters tend to be more, erm, unhinged.  Further reading, which I intend to do, will make this clearer.

So, a mixed bag.  I should probably tell you at least the direction of the narrative to help inform your choice, but I want to know if anyone coming to this as blank as I did has the same reaction to it.  One for the curious, for the adventurous, let’s say, and leave it a that for now.

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

I submit this review for the Golden Age Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt at My Reader’s Block under the category Dead Body.

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16 thoughts on “#75: The Border Line (1937) by Walter S. Masterman

    • It does sound like a great premise, and deserves kudos for not simply going about its revelations in a standard or predictable way, but where the explanations come I feel a little more meat is needed for my tastes. Though, as I say, a re-read may reveal hidden qualities.

      Masterman warrants a return, though. I might ask Fender Tucker what else he’d recommend rather than diving in, because I think if he wrote a really strong mystery then I’d be fully on board.

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  1. Another author I haven’t heard, though based on your review I don’t think I will be rushing out to buy it. When you say ‘becomes rather talky by the half way stage’ – do you mean that the characters are just theorising a lot, without much action? Crime fiction radio plays are not something I have ever really tried out, being from the TV era, though that radio play at the British Library conference was hilarious. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on Murder of a Lady next week, especially what you make of the locked room aspect. I thought it was clever, but I think those with a greater appreciation of locked-room-ness didn’t think it was as good.

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    • I love Carr’s radio mysteries, I just find the credence it requires to remove slightly how much trust one can put it what you hear. But, then, it’s not the context I grew up in – I was brought up to believe what I see and that would seem odd to anyone au fait with the effects of CGI and airbrushing.

      Yeah, the talkiness is a result of a lack of actions: a lot of “oh but if I go here this might happen” rather than actually going there and having it happen. Lots of tell, not much show. But that definitely improves in the second half – plenty of chaos to keep me happy.

      Quite excited about MoaL, can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to it. Haven’t read a good locked room for a little while (read a couple of shite ones, though…), so here’s hoping it lives up to its billing!

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    • I’m afraid I have no idea if they’re related but, having just looked him up, my word didn’t J. C. Masterman live an interesting life! Makes me feel like quite the underachiever…

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      • All I can tell you gentlemen is that there literally was panic in the streets after War of the Workds aired, and Orson Welles had to face a Senate hearing to defend himself against charges of inciting that panic.

        I love listening to old radio shows in the car. I don’t know that they “transport” me in the way that a great play or film dies, but we were raised with more options. I can’t imagine living in Downton Abbey! If you were upstairs, you played whist or sang around the piano. If you were downstairs, you played Patience or danced a jig. I figure those folks would have KILLED for a radio.

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        • Orson Welles had to face a Senate hearing to defend himself against charges of inciting that panic.

          That. Is. Awesome.

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  4. Missed this one somehow back in February. I’m not convinced that Masterman is the genius that John Pelan would like us to believe he is. I’ve read seven of his books and I have truly enjoyed only one. I found THE BORDER LINE to be perhaps his most effective thriller for all the reasons you fault him. I would try my hand with THE YELLOW MISTLETOE if you are willing to go in for completely lunatic plots. It’s like a more intellectual take on some of the very early Dennis Wheatley books. But I would avoid THE GREEN TOAD (utterly ridiculous it reads like a kid’s book), 2 L.O. (unless you are interested in the history of radio broadcasting), and THE PERJURED ALIBI (so dull I couldn’t finish it) . THE CURSE OF THE RECKAVILLES is fair to middling, but very much formulaic if you know anything about 18th century Gothic horror novels. He wrote a somewhat engaging Hitchcockian thriller called THE HUNTED MAN which is my second favorite of his books. Overall, he’s very hit and miss for me, not at all consistent.

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    • Overall, he’s very hit and miss for me, not at all consistent.

      I’m pleased to hear this, John, as I got that impression based on nothing more than his plot synopses and so was taking a blind leap with where to begin with him when I bought this. I bought The Baddington Horror recently, too, and expect toget to it before too long, since rereading this review has made me hanker after a bit more of Masterman’s brand of weirdness.

      The Green Toad did sound like one to avoid, and you’ve sold me on something that can be described as a “more intellectual take on some of the very early Dennis Wheatley books”, so if TBH doesn’t kill my interest it may well be to TYM that I head next…much appreciated 🙂

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