#256: Catastrophic Protagonist Failure in Too Many Ghosts (1959) and The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) by Paul Gallico

Gallico

A little while ago, while secondhand bookshop haunting as is my wont, I stumbled upon a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) — a book I have recommended here before for the brilliant way it shows up the tricks of the séance through a combination of perspicuous writing and trusting its readers’ intelligence.  My copy was a rat-eared, much-abused paperback and this was a lovely hardcover for a very reasonable price…and yet I vacillated for some time (like, a few weeks) before buying it.

It is the sophomore and valedictory appearance of supernatural investigator (and winner of the inaugural Hairy Aaron Get That Thing Off My Face Character Name Award) Alexander Hero, top operative of the So You Think You’ve Seen a Ghost Society of Great Britain, who first appeared in Too Many Ghosts (1959), a book recommended by no less an authority than TomCat as among the finest impossible crime novels money can buy.  Both are a lot of fun, but Mary Constable is the superior work to my mind, for reasons that I’ll doubtless get into another time.

It concerns a scientist who is working on a secret project for the US government when his young daughter — the eponymous Mary — dies.  Devastated, he seeks her spirit in the afterlife through a pair of spiritualists who produce at a séance, in the blink of an eye, a wax cast of her hand complete with fingerprints on the inside that proves she must have materialised in front of them.  No living being could have removed its hand from the wax without breaking it and, lest body-snatching be on your mind, poor Mary was cremated several months before this occurred.  And when she appears to be sending messages from the beyond that exert influence on her father’s secret project…well, some powerful people begin to get concerned.

And so Alexander Hero — ghost-layer, expert debunker, top man in Europe if not the world in this field — is volplaned in with some haste to restore sanity.  It is a great little book, full of creepy atmosphere and some very canny ideas (it springs a great surprise by not playing fair in a very small way that is not only extremely clever but also much better for its unfairness) which, if a little unlikely in its answers, nevertheless deserves credit for the inventiveness and insight Gallico brings to this milieu.  There is a restrained anger in his writing concerning the exploitation of grief, and yet an open-mindedness about taking each case as it comes, that plays out in exemplary fashion, and lends an air of potential to what would otherwise be a very cynical puzzle novel.  So, why the hesitation over upgrading my copy?

My problem is Alexander Hero.

Alexander Hero is an arsehole.

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You only have to look at this; I had to search for it…

For most of Too Many Ghosts he is little more than a bilious erection with legs, bouncing from woman to woman and categorising them in terms of their attractiveness in a manner that would send Ian Fleming’s James Bond to the front of a women’s lib march clutching his stomach in disgust.  Every single female character is attractive, and in the freakish cases where they’re not — one is a twelve year-old girl, for instance — he’s able to see how they will be attractive when they grow up, or — in the case of a woman in her sixties — wold be if only they were a few years younger.  And, to make things worse, they all want to jump his bones with a ferocity that would leave seismologists thoroughly confounded by all the continental drift Norfolk was experiencing.

The Hand of Mary Constable thankfully dials this down somewhat (for the most part…there’s a chapter 1 air stewardess who’s so hot for him I’m astounded she doesn’t melt through the floor of the plane), but abandons all pretence of him being an intelligent man and instead leaves him reeling in response to a staggeringly simple set of circumstances that make him out to be a dolt, an idiot, a credulous moron, and so poor an authority on ghost-laying that you could almost believe he got into it because the name got him thinking there’d be lots of supernatural horizontal tango action.  Inevitably some details of what transpires in this thread must follow, but they in no way impose upon the core plot of that otherwise-fine novel.

Fundamentally, in order to witness this couple doing what they do at a séance, Hero is given a false identity (which seems to consist of simply telling people a different name) and makes up a story of a dead fiancée — some years younger than him, of course, he’s not a complete loser — he wishes to contact.  A hefty fee is paid, a séance arranged, and to the surprise of precisely no-one there is a manifestation of this fictional fiancée when Hero is summoned into a pitch black room and briefly kissed and held by a young woman who then vanishes.  So far, so standard.

Except, because he does such brilliant acting (Gallico is keen to commend Hero on his acting, and has several characters in the know remark upon it — it’s like something out of Team America: World Police), Alexander Hero has for the duration of the séance come to believe that he really could be the man he’s been claiming, really could have encountered his dead fiancée, and is left staggered — like, fully four or five chapters are spent with him trying to get over it — by this encounter.  This from a man who is the.  World.  Expert.  Called.  In.  By.  The.  US.  Government.  A randy teenager delighted at copping a feel would get over this quicker (brilliantly, his main difficulty seems to be that she smelled nice), and how a man can be kissed by a woman in a pitch-dark room for a moment before she vanishes is obviously a puzzle that only the most brilliant minds of a generation could ever hope to solve.

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“Gah!  Where have their bodies gone?!!”

And then, well, then it gets kind of laughable.

With the freedom of the Western world potentially in the balance — y’know what, Gallico actually does a creditable job of making the stakes both believable and urgent — and the ticking clock of the sanity and patriotism of a man torn asunder by the duende of the patent hoax he refuses to acknowledge as such, Alexander Hero meets an attractive woman, is apparently unable to cope with doing so without parading his erection around town, and so has the night off while he takes her to dinner.  To give you a flavour of the way Gallico writes about Hero in these moments (ah, if only they were reduced to mere moments!) I shall now share with you some excerpts of the chapter in which this occurs — first:

They were almost lost in that first instant of appraisal of each other.  So powerful was the feeling of rediscovery that seized them both , that they were nearly swept into each other’s arms then and there.  They were saved by the knowledge that whatever, this was how the evening would end.  All this in the matter of a few seconds, without exchange of a word.

And:

Sometimes they would break apart from the embrace in which they had been locked, to regard each other, astonished at the depth and power of the attraction that had them in its grip.  They would pause to see whether it was true, what they were experiencing in this first embrace, only to be swept even closer together again.  The instruments of their bodies were keyed to still higher pitch by this violent physical union, furious, tender, demanding, aggressive, and yielding, leaving them breathless and speechless.

Once again, it goes on like this for an entire chapter. Also, for all the incendiary revelations of lust and wonderment, I’m fairly sure she’s putting on a fake French accent for the entire time they’re together…and he genuinely appears to think that’s how she speaks.  It is boggling, truly and deeply boggling.

If you remove The Sexual Conquests and General Brilliance of Alexander Hero these books leap in quality, and become so much easier to recommend — they contain very good puzzles and explore some of their ideas in very interesting ways.  But, urf, with his mixture of gigantic smugness, petulantly predatory sexuality, ham-faced idiocy (for an expert he seems to have no idea about the creation of anything beyond some fairly unchallenging false phenomena…and singularly lacks the talent for ratiocination such a man would require in real life), and consequent unjustifiable self-belief reading these books is rather more akin to bumping into a dear old friend who happens to be in the company of a boorish pillock you’d happily spend 20 years trying to avoid.

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You either get this or you don’t.

Well, thank-you, the internet, I feel much better for getting this out of my system.  I suppose there’s a sort of impromptu Verdict of Us All in this: is there a character who ruins an otherwise-excellent book or series for you?  Or, have you read these and think I’ve missed the point?  That often happens — people thinking it, I mean 🙂 —  so feel free to educate me below…

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13 thoughts on “#256: Catastrophic Protagonist Failure in Too Many Ghosts (1959) and The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) by Paul Gallico

  1. Hilarious. Now I don’t know whether to rush for these books or avoid them forever.
    I am one of Dorothy L Sayers’ biggest fans, but I feel rather the same way about Lord Peter Wimsey, which is quite a difficult act to juggle, when I love the books so much. I hate the way Harriet Vane starts feeling inferior to him – I expected better of Sayers. And Wimsey is a ludicrous superhero, given every possible talent, but then she tries to make him more real, a person with feelings, and it doesn’t work in my view…
    Still love the books though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I struggle too much with Sayers in general, I gotta be honest. Loved Whose Body?, but then her writing really started to grate on me (well, he writing was already grating on me as it wasn’t the first I read). The apparent ingenuity of Have His Carcase remains a tempter, but I..just…don’t…know if I’ll be able to get past her stridency of tone.

      Ahh, dilemmas dilemmas!

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  2. I don’t remember the Alexander Hero you described at all, but then again, I read Too Many Ghosts back in 2011 and primarily remember the plot. Such as the excellent trickery behind the harp playing ghost in an empty and locked music room. For that alone, you should be able to put up with Hero.

    Anyhow, characters rarely make me dislike a book or series, because, like real human beings, I expect them to be far from perfect. Hell, I even expect some of them to be thoroughly unlikable. Why should they all to be twinkly and benevolent like Miss Marple? No reason to get all worked up about a fictional character being an ass to other fictional characters.

    There are, of course, rare exceptions. One of them is the insufferable Patrick Butler from John Dickson Carr’s Below Suspicion and Patrick Butler for the Defense, which are the only two of Carr’s books I’ll never re-read. Never! Yes, I probably overreact to the character, but something about Butler just rubs me the wrong way.

    Adam Quirke from John Russell Fearn’s The Lonely Astronomer is another exception.

    You think Vance, Queen, Wimsey and Sheringham are annoying detectives? Compared to Quirke, they’re a bunch of amateurs! He has long, prolonged fits of laughter following one of his own “jokes” and constantly refers to his secretary as “light of my life,” which was usually also followed by choked laughter. Obviously, these personality traits served as padding, but there were moments I wanted to crack his skull on the steel wall of the observatory. Quirke’s personality is also the reason why I haven’t read the second title in the series (despite it being a locked room book).

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    • Skewing off at a slight tangent, I don’t really believe Sheringham belongs in that company — he, after all, is supposed to be a prig and an arse, whereas all the others were intended as “straight” detectives who we’re supposedto root for and cheer along with. Sheringham is annoying, I don’t deny that, but he’s intended to be annoying — in a way, he’s supposed to be more annoying than he actually is, becaue Berkeley has the common sense to pull back from making him a complete lampoon who wouldn’t operate in the broadly-realistic universe in which the novels are set — but that’s actually a case of a charcter doing his job perfectly.

      Where Hero (and others) get me is that they’re the readers’ door into these stories, and having someone tell you a story while being a boor or a snob is exceptionally tiresome; especially as we’re meant to empathise with the person doing the telling. Sheringham is shown to be wrong on more than a few occasions — we’re granted the chance to laugh at him — and that defuses the antipathy we’ve possibly built up towards him.

      If there was a scene where Alexander Hero made lustrous eyes at some raven-haired beauty across a shop, and she returnd his stare with an obvious, deep-rooted longing that clawed at the heart of he soul…and then when he left the shop with a coy backwards lance to ever print upon his mind the sensual promise of a conquest admitted but never attained she turns to her friend and says “Well, he clearly loves himself a bit too much!” I’d like him a lot more!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The plot of Mary Constable sounded familiar to me and sure enough, I saw the movie. One of the early (and best) ‘Movie of the Week’ presentations on ABC, titled ‘Daughter of the Mind’. Turns out the whole thing can be viewed on youtube; the quality is decent VHS-level but a well-mastered DVD would make a better case:

    Liked by 2 people

    • Omigosh! I knew the plot sounded familiar, right down to the wax hand imprint! That was a great movie, with Pamelyn Ferdin as the little girl!

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    • Well, for 84 minutes that’s a very enjoyable take on this story — the various personnel and nationality changes work pretty well given the inevitable simplification of the plot, and John Carradine is wonderful with about four lines — but, yeesh, the explanations are garbage. Neither of them really explain anything, in fact, and we can be thankful that the mystery is pretty much entirely different to the book save the presence of the wax hand.

      But I’m still glad to have been made aware of this, so thanks for bringing it up — diff’rent strokes and all that…!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I just noticed that the youtube version is 90m long. I’m pretty sure this ran in a 90-minute time slot on ABC when it premiered, which would make it no longer than 75m. I think I read somewhere that it was released theatrically in Europe in a longer version and that may be the one that’s on youtube. I don’t think I’ve seen it since it aired on ABC (though it still sticks in the mind) so I wouldn’t know what was added for the overseas cut.

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    • I’m watching it now, David, and there are no pauses for commercial breaks. Clearly, this is a version that was designed for motion picture audiences. I’m not sure that this makes it better. The script certainly suffers from TV-itis (making it simple for audiences), and the score is way over the top. But it’s still a creepy little thriller.

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