For 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…