I wasn’t going to let more than a few months go by without catching back up with Herbert Brean. My first encounter with him was with Wilders Walk Away; seemingly the only book that people connect with his name. There’s good reason for it. The blend of small town New England with a clever tale stacked high with mysteries does more than give the best of Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville novels a run for their money – it flat out beats them.
The only other Brean novel that seems to get any press is Traces of Brillhart, which was a logical next step. However, a few comments pointed me towards Hardly a Man is Now Alive, suggesting it was a hidden gem. Having finally laid my hands on both, I had to give in to the one with the vintage cover style that I so love.
I initially had the sense that Hardly a Man is Now Alive starts off immediately following the conclusion of Wilders Walk Away; the story seemed to blend perfectly. However, it turns out that there’s one novel I skipped, The Darker the Night (mislabeled in my Dell edition as The Darker the Knight). Brean appears to have published a bit of a series with photographer/detective Reynold Frame, although there doesn’t seem to be any danger of you dipping your feet in with any of these books, despite some minor continuity.
Reynold Frame arrives in Concord, Massachusetts with his fiancé, planning to get married the next day. Yeah, this is going to be one of those stories where the nuptials are in constant danger of being disrupted by the consequence of murder. The ceremony is to be presided over by a 104 year old man, John Annandale – a man so old that he actually knew a soldier that fought in the Revolutionary War. As unbelievable as that seems, the math actually works. Annandale would have been born in the 1840s, and met a ninety year old veteran as a young boy.
Age in classic novels is something that’s always interested me a bit. Take any Agatha Christie novel from the 1920s as an example. A fifty year old character would have been born in the 1870s. As familiar as the golden age of mystery may seem thanks to classic media that we’ve all grown up with, the older characters would have spent much of their lives inhabiting a more foreign era.
Anyway, that’s a bit of an aside, but I raise it because the plot of Hardly a Man is Now Alive is tied to events that unfolded during the Revolutionary War. The setting of the story in Concord, Massachusetts is of course relevant since that’s where the first battle of the war took place (along with the nearby Battle of Lexington), and Brean works a casual history lesson into the story. Similar to Wilders Walk Away, we’re dealing with a series of minor mysteries that span centuries.
On the historical side we have a mystery involving a mortally wounded British soldier who fled from the bridge where the first volley was exchanged. The soldier died in a nearby house, and a lantern that was beside him vanished in seemingly impossible circumstances. Over the following decades, visitors to the house have reported hearing ghostly sounds of troops marching and claim that the lost lamp appeared in the room where the soldier died.
This ties back to the present day story, as Reynold Frame finds himself staying in the haunted room and experiences first hand the manifestation of the lamp and the sounds of soldiers marching. That’s not the only perplexity though. The room’s previous tenant seemingly vanished into thin air, having gone upstairs to pack his luggage but never emerging. Perhaps that’s related to the body that Frame finds tucked in the well out back…
There are enough mysteries to keep the book moving, and Brean dishes out solutions along the way. Plus there’s a seance, a vanishing centenarian, and a plot line involving a lost manuscript by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It makes for an engaging read, and similar to Wilders Walk Away, Brean dabbles the story with footnotes and sidebars. You’ll learn all of the considerations that go into making the perfect martini, dust off your grade school history, and even walk away with a full recipe for pudding. It’s fun stuff and there are interesting tidbits tucked throughout the pages.
As a mystery, you get plenty to puzzle over, and the solutions work out a bit better than in Wilders Walk Away. You’re not going to get some Agatha Christie-esque mindblower of an ending, but the who and how of it all are surprising enough and there’s a respectable amount of misdirection.
I’m a bit enamored with Herbert Brean after these two reads and I’m going to have to stock up my library this Christmas. I wish more writers had the ability to keep a story moving and create a true sense of time and place. Unfortunately there are only five more novels to read.
I was partly drawn to the story by the gorgeous vintage cover on the 1953 Dell edition that I managed to track down. It’s unfortunate that this wasn’t a map back, as the setting provides great fodder. This edition seems to be easy (and cheap) enough to find, so keep an eye out for it. Its the only vintage book that I can think of that lists the cover artist (Tommy Shoemaker) among the credits.
Hardly a Man is Now Alive was released in the UK in 1952 as Murder Now and Then. The internet seems to have latched onto that 1952 date, and you’ll notice that it’s widely reported as the publication date for the original title.