CONFOUND YOUR CLICHES
SLIDE ONE: TITLE CARD
Good morning everybody. First of all, I’d like to say thank you for having me, and I hope this talk is going to be of some interest. I also hope it encourages one or two of you who may not have done so before, to give John Russell Fearn a read. There is no shortage of his mystery novels out there, and they are well worth your time.
So- who was John Russell Fearn? The name may perhaps be familiar to some of you, he’s not so obscure as all that. But it’s safe to say he is better known these days as an author of science fiction. Indeed, for quite a few years he was perhaps Britain’s premiere science fiction author. A virtual one-man industry. Our concern, however, is with his often-neglected mystery fiction. He wrote novels which engaged with the tropes and motifs of the golden age which we know so well. I’m talking about locked-room mysteries, the eccentric amateur detectives, the false alibis. But his work also went beyond the boundaries of the subgenre. He wrote about developments in forensics, as well as the psychopathology of crime. In many ways, you could say he pre-empted the rise of the “police procedural” subgenre. In short, his body of work is immense and often difficult to categorise. As a mystery novelist, he confounds definition. Hence my choice of title for this presentation, “confound your cliches,” which is a line from one of his books, The Five Matchboxes.
SLIDE TWO: BIO
But let’s go back to the very beginning. John was born in Worsley, Manchester in 1908.
He was a very well-read child whose favourite author was Edwyn Searles Brookes, a popular writer of boy’s own adventure tales.
The “Meet the Author” section of the above journal perversely contains sections for Fearn himself and for Polton Cross. Cross writes of “working a dozen-odd attempts at jobs of various sorts, all with the same result.” He talks of the depression and gives the idea of the author as an itinerant labourer. Whether or not this is yet another example of Fearn in creative mode, the fact is that he indisputably worked a whole host of jobs.
My usage of quotes from John’s personal correspondence is thanks primarily to Philip Harbottle, who is John’s literary executor and official biographer. His archives of John’s letters are not for public usage, but Mr. Harbottle himself has quoted from them in his original biography of John, called The Multi-Man and originally published in 1968, as well as numerous articles on John’s life and works written in the subsequent decades. I’ll put up a complete list of my sources at the end.
Geoffrey Armstrong, Thornton Ayre, Hugo Blayn, Morton Boyce, Hank Carson, Dennis Clive, Hank Cole, Polton Cross, Mark Denholm, Douglas Dodd, Sheridan Drew, Max Elton, Matt Francis, Spike Gordon, Volsted Gridban, Griff, Malcolm Hartley, Conrad G Holt, Preston James, Frank Jones, Nat Karta, Marvin Kayne, Clem Larson, Herbert Lloyd, Paul Lorraine, Astron del Martia, Jed McCloud, Mick McCoy, Jed McNab, Dom Passante, Francis Rose, Laurence F Rose, Ward Ross, Frank Russell, John Russell, Arnold Ryden, Bryan Shaw, John Slate, Vargo Statten, Earl Titan, John Werheim, Ephraim Winiki
SLIDE THREE: MYSTERY NOVELIST
The letters between Fearn and his friend, William F. Temple, give a unique insight into the mad meanderings of his whirligig imagination and highlight perhaps the greatest influence on his creativity: the cinema. He would, he claims, usually attend four or five times a week, and that he had seen so many films in twenty years that he could not be expected to remember even half of them. But he had other uses for the cinema. His technique was to take the plots from the films he saw and to mix and match them- to take, for example, a gangster film and transpose it to a science fiction milieu. This, he claimed, was the secret of his prolificacy. ‘Here is the secret of fast writing and pure characterisation,’ he said, adding: ‘Keep this to yourself. I don’t want my secret methods handed around to all and sundry.’
In fact, this method was not so unique. Fearn’s approach bears the dubious honour of conforming to the “webwork” plotting technique devised by Harry Stephen Keeler, an author whose work today is largely considered an eccentric curiosity and often scarcely readable. The idea is to take elements which are so diverse and disparate as to be almost comical, and then to come up with a scenario that ties them all together. His first mystery novel, published under the name “John Slate,” was described by Fearn himself as a “webwork mystery.” It is Black Maria. A locked-room mystery with unique Fearnian touches, excellent characterisation, and a plot which is amusing and deft. The solution to the mystery is not only ingenious but entirely original- of course, I won’t spill the beans here, you must read it for yourselves. The “Fearnian touches” I mentioned include a preoccupation with cinema. Maria, for instance, creates for herself the persona of “Black Maria” the criminal mastermind, which is derived entirely from her penchant for gangster cinema.
“Haunts the movies between spasms of writing, mainly to see Claude Rains, or Ann Sothern, his two favourites.” –Amazing Stories vol.12 No.3
One Remained Seated, a Maria Black novel which takes place in a cinema and deals with the scientific capabilities of cinema projection. Similarly, Pattern for Murder, another mystery novel which was unpublished during Fearn’s lifetime, and didn’t see the light of day until 2006, also deals with a projector as a motif.
The Rattenbury Mystery is set very much in the heart of the cinematic world. It concerns the murder of a corrupt theatrical agent, Amos Rattenbury, and the beautiful young ingenue named Dorene Grey who falls under suspicion. In many ways the murder itself is incidental, for the more outlandish aspects of the plot include a cinema haunted in true grand Guignol style by the so-called “Phantom of the Films,” a masked man with a penchant for inserting footage of himself into the screeners. This novel is a highly surreal piece of work which reads at a breakneck pace and piles twist on twist. We also have another example of the “great detective” in the amateur criminologist who, frustrated at being shunned by professional law-enforcers, decides to perform his solution to the crime in a cinematic film for wide distribution, as a means of humiliating the police.
Elements of the solution to The Five Matchboxes bear a striking similarity to those of the solution to one of Carr’s novels. I won’t say which one, but suffice it to say it is a famous one. In this novel, it concerns the open window.
While perhaps his greatest passion was science fiction, I would suggest that his most accomplished writing was in his detective stories. To begin with, he wrote science fiction very quickly- virtually churned it out- and made handsome sums of money tapping into the American market and the burgeoning British market. But his fortunes in this field were not to last, and as each market became more saturated he found it more and more difficult to guarantee publication of his sci-fi novels. This prompted him to turn to writing Westerns, a genre he had never before tackled and which he took to like a duck to water.
As the competition in the field of sci-fi grew, Fearn passed a point of no return whereby it would now be difficult for him to resume his career in the pulps. However, he would not go down without one last hurrah. Under the pseudonym of Vargo Statten, arguably his most recognisable alias,
His use of multiple pen-names proved to be his downfall in the field of science fiction. As the market became saturated with sub-par works written under increasingly outlandish names, it was natural for an author known to use such names to be made the scapegoat where the real author could not be found. Thus Fearn earned an unjust reputation for hack-work.
Eccentricities, he kept up correspondences under different pseudonyms. Temple claimed he saw through it instantly, but “played along with him for the fun of it.”
For the title of this paper I have borrowed a line of dialogue from one of John Russell Fearn’s novels: “Confound your Clichés.” To me, the line gives an insight into the creative and even subversive elements he employed in his mystery fiction. It also corresponds to the nebulous and unclassifiable nature of his career, which traversed genres, continents and universes in a comparatively short span of years. I think it’s fair to say that as a mystery writer John Russell Fearn is frequently given short shrift. Perhaps that is because he is more widely associated with the field of classic science fiction. But there may be other elements in play as well, for instance, the plenitude of colourful pseudonyms he employed throughout his career; 42 in all, at least, that we know of. Of these, the names themselves give you an idea of the genre of work to which they were applied. Volsted Gridban, Vargo Statten, Astron del Martia: the science fiction and space operas. Jed McCloud, Mick McCoy, Polton Cross, Conrad G. Holt, Earl Titan: the westerns and adventures.
Locked Room Murders, the comprehensive bibliography of impossible crime fiction by Robert Adey, has entries for a number of Fearn’s pseudonyms…
Likewise, the recent Locked Room Murders Supplement edited by Brian Skupin offers us…
Fearn was a true journeyman. Because of this, it’s easy to dismiss his writing as hack-work, and it’s true that wrote quickly and with an eye on his profit margins. But there is real craftsmanship and deviousness in the way his mysteries are constructed. They almost always never pan out the way you expect them to.
‘Mass-production pot-boiling author’
Because his body of work is so vast and daunting, I’ve decided to focus on a number of key examples which characterise his contribution to the golden age of detective fiction. The first of these is Flashpoint, first published in 1950. The second is The Five Matchboxes, also published in 1950. For two such diverse novels to appear within the space of a few short months gives you an idea of the almost superhuman prolificacy Fearn displayed in his all-too-brief career.
“thinking of gradually chucking sf and turning entirely to detective mysteries, long and short. I love ’em!”
In 1949, the editor of Hutchinson’s Crime Book Magazine asked Fearn to write an article in their featured series “Detectives of Fiction,” telling “how he invented the character of his school-ma’am sleuth.” Fearn himself tells the inside story of his remarkable character…
“Miss Maria Black was conceived in my mind out of no more than a memory—a childhood memory of a distant relative with the commanding manner of a general and the logical mind of an analyst. She underwent modifications and alterations in the course of her development until she emerged as an elderly headmistress with a fund of knowledge, of psychological insight and, above all, understanding of human nature.
“That a lady supervising a successful girls’ college should also possess all the attributes of a keen student of crime seemed at first too much to expect, and if Maria had remained a ‘straight’ character she would probably not have got beyond the first hurdle. But by infusing some humour into the situation I could easily imagine Miss Maria being so human in herself as to sneak off to enjoy her favourite pastime when nobody was looking. Hence her clandestine visits to the local cinema where crime films hold sway, and her ruling that none of her pupils should go there in case they see her in the one-and-nines!
“The name of Maria Black was suggested by another of my relatives, and such I christened her once I saw that the beauty of the name lies in its reversibility, especially among schoolgirls looking for an alternative to ‘The Beak’. Then, one can hardly dissociate a ‘black maria’ from a police van, which is suggestive of criminals brought to book.
“Maria’s first appearance, in BLACK MARIA, M.A., took her to America where she encountered that contrasting character ‘Pulp’ Martin, a gentlemanly tough from the Bowery. I became so fond of him that he continued to act as Maria’s bodyguard in her later adventures, doing for her the sort of work she cannot do herself while preserving her dignity. His flamboyance, his foul cigarettes and atrocious suits, serve to offset her straight-backed frigidity and strengthen the humour, which is a dominant strain in the Maria novels.
“In MARIA MARCHES ON, second of the series, the dirty work took place within the noble pile of Roseway College for Young Ladies, and 1 sensed the danger of limiting her activities to these precincts. Then it became obvious that the nearby village had possibilities; and so a cinema and a stretch of adjacent countryside became venues for crime, while in ONE REMAINED SEATED and THY ARM ALONE, appeared another character who, by his almost incredible obtuseness, helped to underline Maria’s perspicacity. Inspector ‘Eyebrows’ Morgan is not, I hope, typical of a village police inspector: he is, rather, a caricature of one, deliberately overdrawn to extract all the humour it is possible to extract from a story of crime.
“In her latest exploit, DEATH IN SILHOUETTE, Maria contrives to break free of both college and environs to investigate the suicide of a young man engaged to one of her former pupils. With her again, inevitably, is ’Pulp’ Martin; and as in all her cases, Maria uses quite conventional means to achieve her effects. Scorning the elaborate paraphernalia of the professional detective, she is always careful to stay on her own side of the fence while assisting justice to assert itself. When she cannot prove a point by forensic methods she shames the professional into doing it and no gains her end, her strong suit being the biting sarcasm she employs when the ponderous juggernaut of the law misses the mark.”
Another notable feature is the treatment of female characters. Although there are notable exceptions, it was rare for a male author to create a female protagonist. Often women were mere set-dressing, or else subject to outright misogyny (see Anthony Berkeley for a specific example of this). This is not the case with JRF. In Fearn's novels, women are often professionals; it is their actions and decisions which drive the plot. In many ways Maria Black is a more vivid and convincing female protagonist than her contemporaries such as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple. Whereas Marple often serves as an intractable cipher for social conservatism (see for instance They Do it with Mirrors)
Garth is in the mould of detectives from the "humdrum" school of detective fiction, which has directly influenced the police procedural subgenre. In such works, the emphasis is typically on the mechanics and methods of investigation. Take, for instance, Freeman Wills Crofts's Inspector French or G.D.H. and M. Cole's Superintendent Wilson. As an archetype, Garth fits neatly with these.
Carruthers is very much in the mould of the eccentric amateur sleuths- see, for instance, Gideon Fell or H.M., Hercule Poirot, or the "scientific detectives" such as Dr. Thorndyke.
Black Maria, M.A. is very much an archetypal Golden Age Mystery. The detective, Maria Black, is the schoolmarmish amateur with a predilection for all things criminal. Like John himself, she spends her free time in movie houses watching American gangster flicks. But fundamentally, hers is an ordered world only enlivened by the occasional frisson of fictional crime. So when the story begins with the news being broken to Maria in England that her brother Ralph has been shot dead over in New York, she decides to travel out there to put her criminological interest to the test. The fish-out-of-water scenario of the matronly English headmistress transposed to the Badlands of New York City provides a light-hearted counterpart to the central mystery. In many ways it is as though she has stepped into one of her gangster flicks. No sooner has she arrived and met Ralph's dysfunctional extended family than she is infiltrating a sleazy nightclub, plying gangsters for information and generally dicing with death.
In some ways, at a meta-textual level, the union of the genteel English Maria Black with the larger than life Bowery hoodlum "Pulp" Martin might be read as a crossover between the ornate puzzle mystery of the Golden Age with the action-oriented pulps and noirs which were gaining prominence at the time. In this respect, we can see the "webwork" plotting technique in action- the conjoining of disparate elements into a single narrative. However, unlike the Keeler novels, which take this effect to deeply surreal extremes, all the elements are tied together logically in the denouement, and the solution to the locked-room murder of Ralph Black is ingenious and entirely original.
Notably, the Maria Black series makes reference to copious volumes of real-life criminology texts. These amplify Maria's interest in investigative techniques, but they also reflect John's own wide reading, encompassing psychology and forensics.
John was unafraid to combine genres, or at least to blur boundaries between them. And it's interesting to note that a significant number of his sci-fi and western works also contain varying levels of mystery or detection in them.
Tom Mead is an author and translator. He is an active member of the UK Crime Writers’ Association and has written for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Mystery Weekly, Lighthouse, and numerous others. His story “Heatwave” was recently selected by Lee Child and Otto Penzler for inclusion in their Best Mystery Stories of the Year anthology.