“I told you that the solution to a mystery is always prosaic and never as enjoyable as the mystery itself” states author David Duncan through his bizarre amateur detective Bleeker Twist in the final pages of The Madrone Tree. And while those words may hold some truth in the genre of Golden Age detective fiction, they’re oddly out of place in this book. Quite the opposite in fact. Despite the story revolving around the question of who committed a murder – in this case a man bludgeoned to death in a haunted forest – the book never feels like a true mystery. And that’s a pity, because when the solution comes it’s somewhat of a whopper, but a whopper that would have hit a lot harder if you realized what the puzzle was supposed to be in the first place.
You should (but probably don’t) recognize David Duncan as the author of The Shade of Time; a criminally hard to come by impossible crime novel. The Shade of Time suffers from the exact opposite problem of The Madrone Tree, offering up what is one of the best mysteries that I’ve read, only to crumble when it comes to the conclusion. I read the book a mere six months ago, and while I remember nearly every moment of the story, I really have to stop and think in order to recall how it ended.
But still, if an author can make me believe that an arrow could fly through a wall without leaving a mark – much in the same way that John Dickson Carr could have me convinced that an inanimate room could kill – I’m going to be game for more. Reading up on Duncan, I got the impression that he had published two or three additional mystery novels before shifting over to a career in science fiction. The scant details that I could find suggested that The Madrone Tree might be one of them. Luckily I was able to track down an affordable copy.
The story unfolds in Jonesville, a logging town in the redwood forests on the California coast north of San Francisco. Life in Jonesville is under the firm grasp of logging baron Ivor Jones, a semi-tyrant who’s happy for the citizens to go about their business as long as there’s no threat of unionization. His enforcer is the Reverend Manley Foxx, the town preacher whose fiery sermons lay waste to the reputation of anyone who steps out of line.
A story set in such an environment inevitably features a nonconformist willing to take on the man. We find that in Edward Spence, a school teacher who’s been stalled out in Jonesville for a decade. Spence makes the mistake of skipping Sunday service to help out an odd stranger by the name of Bleeker Twist, in part because it gives him an excuse to see a young woman he’s been lusting after, but has hardly ever spoken to. Skipping church doesn’t go over well with Reverend Fox, and Spence soon finds himself a pariah in town. He’s forced to shack up with Bleeker Twist in a cabin out in the Bull Woods; a forest on the outskirts of town that everyone thinks is haunted.
A century earlier a missionary was supposedly gored to death by a bull, and it’s said that the ghost of the bull still stalks the woods (as bull ghosts are known to do). Deep in that forest lies a madrone tree; a species featuring white skin-like bark that appears to bleed when it peels. After hearing a ruckus one night, Twist and Spence search the woods and find the body of a man at the foot of the madrone tree. That’s where the mystery comes in.
The mystery, as I’ve alluded to, is underplayed. The victim is a somewhat insignificant character, and there isn’t much of an impact on the reader or the townsfolk by his loss. There’s a police investigation, and some danger that Twist and Spence might get tagged with the murder that they stumbled upon, but it doesn’t feel central to the story. Instead, The Madrone Tree reads much more like a tale of the conflict played out between the social outsiders and the patriarchy of a factory town. And it’s a good read on the back of that alone: not the type of plot I’d ever seek out, but I found myself really interested to find out how things would shake out.
It turns out that David Duncan actually had a lot of mystery to work with, he just understated it. First, you have somewhat of an impossible crime, if you dissect the following passage:
“The deep layer of humus showed no sign of footprints except where Venderstone’s boots had plowed into it during his death struggles. Except for that, the clearing was empty. He looked at the madrone tree and exclaimed sharply, stepping forward to examine it. There were fresh marks on the tree. The pink bark had been cut and bruised.”
Perhaps you’ll disagree that this is subtlety stated, but the victim’s body is found in an expanse of ground covered with soft dirt, and yet only his footprints are present. There’s wiggle room as to whether the man stumbled into the clearing after he had been mortally wounded, but you still have the question of how the bark of the madrone tree was freshly scarred without anyone going near it.
I point this out because none of that ever gets mentioned again in the slightest. Nobody ever questions how it seemed unexplainable or proposes how it could have been achieved. Instead all conversation focuses on who may have committed the murder. And the reason why I’m fixated on this is because when you finally learn what happened, it becomes apparent that this could have been championed as an impossible crime. Granted, I don’t claim it’s a belter of an impossibility – I’m sure you can think up some solutions – but at least have the characters mull it over a bit!
Now, the solution to the puzzle that I’ve just banged on about isn’t actually that stellar, but it’s funny because when you learn how the crime was committed there’s this “oh, that was supposed to be a no footprints crime” realization. And honestly, if the use of the word “humus” in that passage I quoted hadn’t stuck in my mind, I don’t know if I would have ever put that detail together, because even the solution doesn’t mention the lack of footprints.
You may recall that I opened this whole piece by somewhat raving about the solution to the mystery, and to clarify, I wasn’t talking about how the murder was accomplished. Rather, there’s a trick that Duncan plays on the reader, but I can’t quite mention what it is. This is the bit that I alluded to earlier where come the denouement, the amateur deceive starts explaining something and you’re like “wait, what? How’s that relevant?” followed by that spin of realization that I think a lot of us read these old mysteries for. It’s a nice misdirection, although a bit awkward: Duncan basically proves that something is possible that the reader probably never even considered was impossible, but in explaining the solution you realize the cleverness of it.
It’s funny that this happens twice within the same book, and I’m tempted to think that Duncan didn’t do it intentionally. I suspect that he thought the reader was a bit more in tune with what was going on in his head and didn’t realize that it wasn’t adequately captured on the page. If two diagrams had been included in the book, I think there could have been a much bigger sense of mystery before the solutions came crashing through the wall like the Kool Aid Man.
The weak points… well, there are some. There’s small circle of potential suspects if you rule out a random killer, and none of them seemed like a particularly satisfying choice. Two of the suspects are stark villains, which would be a bit obvious, and the rest of the suspects just don’t feel right. The identity of the killer was going to be a bit of a let down no matter what, but woof, that motive sure didn’t age well… There’s also bit of a romance subplot featuring some world class awkward scenes that will curl your toes into a foot cramp while you simultaneously grimace your teeth into crumbles.
At the time of writing The Madrone Tree is somewhat easily obtainable for a good price, although I suspect there aren’t that many copies out there. Don’t be oversold on this as an impossible crime, but this has some nice misdirection. When the solutions come, they’re of the type where your mind seizes the implications far faster than they’re laid out on the page. It’s those moments of revelation that tend to stick out for me.
David Duncan has three other books that I’m curious about, all published before his transition to science fiction: Remember the Shadows, The Bramble Bush, and None but My Foe. I’m not sure that they’re mysteries, but honestly, the synopsis of The Madrone Tree that I read made it sound like a supernatural horror story, and you could just as easily write one that sounds like a union struggle in a logging town.