Black Maria M.A. – John Russell Fearn (1944)

BlackMariaFor my second John Russell Fearn read, I decided to go with the first novel in the Black Maria series.  From what I’ve read, this run of books contains some of Fearn’s better work, so it seemed like a good way to get a firmer sense of the author.  Plus, these novels are kind of hard to lay your hands on, so I didn’t exactly have much to choose from.

Black Maria M.A introduces us to Maria Black, the headmistress of Roseway College for Young Ladies.  Black has a reputation with the girls as a strict disciplinarian, although we don’t get to experience this first hand, as Black immediately leaves on a summer vacation trip to New York City.  Well, it isn’t exactly a vacation – Black has been summoned by the lawyer for her deceased brother, Ralph Black.  Ralph established a massive fortune as the first person to can broccoli (you read that right), and then branched out his business into a sprawling enterprise.

“I have moulded girls and he moulded broccoli.”

Ralph’s death was declared a suicide, but documents left to his sister assure her that he had no intention of taking his life.  The issue is that Ralph was found dead in a locked room with a revolver on the floor nearby.  This is apparently justification for a ruling of clear suicide of a millionaire, although no mention is ever made of the fact that there would be no evidence on the victim’s hands that he had fired a gun.

John Russell Fearn doesn’t ever really bother to set up the strength of the locked room scenario, aside from assuring us that the police have gone over it.  He simply throws Maria Black on the scene, who immediately finds a clue of such staggeringly obvious significance that I’m certain ninety percent of readers will solve it on the spot.  Ok, ok, to be fair, those readers won’t be able to explain all of the fabulous details that will eventually accompany the trick, but they’ll be satisfied that they understand the gist of it.

I’ll avoid spoiling things (although I honestly don’t think there is anything to spoil) by offering an analogous setup.  Imagine for a minute that a scientist is found gassed to death inside a locked laboratory.  The police declare it to be suicide because the room is thoroughly locked and there are canisters of gasses like nitrogen and carbon dioxide present that may have contributed to the death.  Two weeks later, a private investigator inspects the scene and notices a hole drilled through the wall with a rubber hose jutting through from the neighboring room.  Now, I don’t know exactly what happened, but I get the gist enough to where I’m not exactly considering the locked room a puzzle anymore.  I don’t care what sort of complexities the killer went through to get some gas vials or whatever into the room next door – the spell has been broken.

We’re kind of on that level, and if you call me out for being hyperbolic, well, that’s because it is hyperbole.  It gets worse though – the story that accompanies the mystery is equally bad.  In fact, in some sense, it may be considered “awesome bad”.

Now, I don’t know if “awesome bad” is a phrase that translates to other cultures and generations, so let me explain a bit.  In my neck of the woods, we use the term “awesome bad” to refer to something (typically a movie) that is so awful that it is actually kind of fun to experience.  The most notable examples may be cult films that have achieved their status based on how painfully dreadful they are – think Teen Witch, Tokyo Drift, Troll 2, or any movie staring Nicolas Cage released after 2000.  The closest thing to an awesome bad GAD novel that I’ve experienced so far is The Tragedy of X, although that would require 100 pages to be lopped off to be considered tolerable.

Now, I’m probably being overly generous to Black Maria M.A by calling it awesome bad. – it’s much more on the side of bad than awesome – but there’s just a bit of majesty to it all.  Part of it is the dreadful character of Maria Black.  She shows up at her dead brother’s house and immediately endears herself to the rest of the family.

“You were a slender girl then, with golden hair.  I remember it so well.  Now look at you!”

Alice looked down at herself in regret.

Maria Black figures that the best way to hunt down the killer is to make headways into the NYC criminal underworld, so she hops on a bus to the east side in search of some thugs.

“I am given to understand that you are a rough, reliable man conversant with the underworld and its denizens.”

Of course, the uptight British headmistress is well versed in the language of the NYC street and tactfully establishes trust by calling every character she encounters “my man”.

“Would it be possible to have a cup of tea here, my man?”

Then she casually busts up the number one crime ring in the city, not even taking any care to hide her identity.  In fact, she brags about it, even though the crime boss knows exactly where she is staying.  That Maria Black isn’t found floating face down in the Hudson is beyond belief.

Nothing about the novel is convincing.  The killer is fairly obvious, the murder method is obvious from the start and the specifics of the ‘how’ become increasingly obvious with every chapter.  Fearn throws out a bit of a swerve in the very finale, but by the time Maria Black gathers all of the characters together for the denouement, you will undoubtably know pretty much every detail that’s going to be said.  This isn’t even because it’s all so easy to figure out, but because Fearn has somewhat rubbed your face in the details for the previous six chapters.

This is going to come across a bit strange, but I’ve just got to say it.  If it was suddenly revealed that the John Russell Fearn novels that I’ve read were written by somebody in, say, 1990, with only a passing knowledge of the 30s/40s based on detective fiction they’d read, I’d believe it in an instant.  They’re just not convincing.  Not only are they devoid of any intrinsic detail that make them feel of the time, but they seem completely divorced from anything else I’ve read from the period.

It’s too bad that I have four other Fearn books on my shelf because I can’t imagine that I’ll be reading them any time soon.  I’m still curious to read Thy Arm Alone based on comments that I’ve read, but I have to say that I’m skeptical at this point.

Oh well.  The one positive thing about finishing a bad book is figuring out what you’ll read next to get the taste out of your mouth…

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9 thoughts on “Black Maria M.A. – John Russell Fearn (1944)”

  1. So you didn’t see a single redeeming quality in Black Maria, M.A., huh?

    Admittedly, the book is a second-tier title by a second-string pulp writer, but I enjoyed it for what it was and found it intriguing that Stuart Palmer’s Miss Hildegarde Withers likely influenced this series.

    If you didn’t like Black Maria, M.A., you’re unlikely to enjoy Thy Arm Alone. I recommend you try one of his two inverted masterpieces, Except for One Thing and Pattern of Murder, which have better writing, characterization and solidly plotted.

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    1. I suppose that if the locked room trick had been surrounded by a better story then I might have felt it was a lot better. Typically with a locked room murder, the reader is forced to evaluate a number of possible angles – how the killer gained entry, how the killer escaped, whether the killer was ever even in the room, whether there was even a killer at all, whether the crime took place elsewhere, etc. The problem in Black Maria is that very early in the story the reader is probably certain of the general technique, and it’s really just a matter of filling in the details. If Fearn had taken a different path and the cluing throughout the book wasn’t so apparent, then I think the reveal of the solution could have be incorporated into a great finale.

      Thanks for the recommendations, I’ll keep an eye out for those titles.

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  2. I understand your feelings about the crime scene, because I’ve just read a book where a man is shot in the head while he’s asleep at his desk and the gun is placed in his hand to make it appear a suicide….but no-one ever addresses that the blood splatter would clearly show his head resting on the desk when the gun was fired, which should surely at least raise the question of possible homicide. Nope, instead it gets put down as suicide and no more is said about it. Most frustrating, when the Golden Age did such great work in getting brilliant mileage out of such observations.

    As for Fearn, I’ll say that Ty Arm Alone is certainly unique in the annals of murder methods. It’s not a good book — it’s faaaaar to padded, with nothing like actual plot to drive it along so much as simply characters occainsionally commenting on the baffling murder that’s occurred. Were he a batter writer, I’d’ve read more of him by now — I’ve actually had one of his on my Kindle for over a year, and every time I start it I find his prose a little too dull to want to get very far. It’s not fair of me to judge him on just one book, of course, but I do so wish his readability had matched his creativity in TAA…then I might see in him what TomCat does.

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    1. For some reason I wasn’t able to find John Russell Fearn in your tag cloud and had to look up your review of Thy Arm Alone. Am I the only one who thinks the book cover looks like it was swiped from a soft-core adult film? This statement from your review would fit Black Maria M.A. perfectly:

      “For a large number of the plot points in this mystery our amateur sleuth sees something, thinks about it, discusses it with the inspector attached to the case, thinks about it some more, then goes away and talks to someone else about it, then writes a journal entry about it, then goes and questions the person involved, and then recaps all the other facts to that point in the story to see how the fit in.”

      The journal entries are so strange because they pretty much recap exactly what you just read. In fact, it dawned on me that I could just skim through the book looking for the journal entries and save myself a lot of time.

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      1. I do not understand how my tag cloud works, to be honest. I can well believe that Fearn wasn’t there because I’ve tagged just the sole post about him, but equally I’m sure other single-use tags have cropped up in there. The whole thing is a but of a washout when it comes to giving people a sense of what’s on my site, but I don’t know what a better alternative is.

        Er, anyway.

        Perhaps you and I should collaborate on a Fearn post at some point, given that we’re both a little sceptical. The one on my Kindle is Death in Silhouette, but I don’t know why — presumably TC recommended it at some point. And I appreciate you’re not desperate to get back on this horse just yet, too, so let the idea marinate for a while and see how you feel about reading further.

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  3. Sorry for the late response, but my attention was away from the blog over these last two days.

    Anyway, you two have to understand that Fearn was a second-stringer from the pulps, who primarily wrote science-fiction, which means the greatest strength of his mystery novels and short stories is creativity and originality. Something I have come to appreciate more, and more, over the years. You can clearly see his pulp roots coming to the surface in many of his mystery novels, like Account Settled, Vision Sinister, The Rattenbury Mystery and The Man Who Was Not, but if you didn’t like Black Maria, M.A. or Thy Arm Alone, you’re unlikely to enjoy those titles – because that’s how he wrote and plotted most of his detective. However, the keyword here is most.

    Fearn penned some straitlaced mystery novels that you two will probably find more readable. I already mentioned Except for One Thing and Pattern of Murder, which are (IMO) masterpieces of the inverted detective story, but Flashpoint is arguably the closest he ever came to writing a pure, readable Golden Age mystery novel. John Norris thought it was one of his most mature stories. Highly recommended!

    I also think highly of Death in Silhouette with its double-pronged solution to the who-and how of a locked room murder, but, knowing JJ, he’s probably disagree with me. However, I think he would like The Five Matchboxes, because it reads like a proto-Paul Halter. Not one of his best or most original impossible crimes, but a pleasant and nicely done homage to Carr. Fearn was big fan of Carr.

    I would very much like to see you two do a Fearn collaboration and recommand tag teaming Pattern of Murder. John agreed with me on that one as well.

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    1. I do have a copy of Flashpoint – there are several reviews that made it sound tempting (seems to be his most widely reviewed book for some reason). I have to say though – from the basic description of the crime, I think I know how it was accomplished. Here’s to hoping I’m wrong.

      Thanks for the pointers on which books to approach. Also thanks for all of the great Fearn posts on your blog. Even if I haven’t enjoyed Fearn as much as I’d hoped so far, you’ve captured my imagination when you’ve written about him. That’s actually kind of comparable to my experience with Ellery Queen so far – I love reading about the Queen novels more than I like actually reading them.

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