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.
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.
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.
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.
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…