Thursday, September 18, 2014

Forgotten Book:The Hand in the Dark by Arthur J.Rees (1920)

It is September 1918. Wartime restrictions on food and drink continue in Britain but the mood is one of hope and optimism. Victory is close at hand. Time perhaps to throw a party...





Recently married couple, Violet and Phil Heredith, decide to host a party at their mansion in the country. The two had met while working at the war-office in London and had married after a brief courtship, much to the dismay of Phil's paternal aunt Miss Alethea Heredith , who had hoped that Phil would marry a girl belonging to a famous land-owning family from the country. The city-bred orphan, Violet is just not considered good enough by Miss Heredith. Violet on her part considers life in the country to be boring. Used to the excitement of life in the metropolis, she is stifled by the regulated regime in the Heredith household. And it is to cheer her up that Phil decides upon throwing a party. The party, in which the guest are mostly old acquaintances of Violet and Phil from London, however flounders from the start. Violet has one of her terrible headaches and as she desires nothing but to be left alone, the onus of entertaining the guests falls on Althea. The party is invited to visit the Weynes -another couple from London - who have decided to 'bury' themselves in the country. Prior to leaving for the Weynes, all the guest assemble in the dining hall to have their dinner where they are regaled by an exciting story about the discovery of a ruby narrated by Vincent Musard, an explorer and expert on gems. As the story reaches its climax, a scream is heard from Violet's room followed by the sound of a shot. On rushing up to her room, they find Violet dying from a gun wound. The sight of his wife dying unhinges Phil and he collapses. The police is called in and find themselves perplexed as the guests were all assembled in the dining hall at the time of murder. Further, there seems to be no motive behind the murder. Eventually though a breakthrough is made and a person is arrested. Meanwhile Phil recovers and is shocked to hear about the person accused of murder. He believes the police have made a mistake and calls in a private detective, Cowley. Painstakingly, Cowley arrives at a different solution to the mystery but whose was the hand that touched the face of the alleged murderer in the dark?





Apart from the mystery (which is pretty good), I enjoyed the characterisation of the police officials investigating the crime. There is first of all the village Bobby, Robert Lumbe, whose heart is all a flutter when he hears of the murder. Then there is his brother-in-law, Detective Thomas Caldew from the Scotland Yard who feels that this case can propel him towards greater things but who finds that not only his superior officer is not going to give him much credit but even the villagers continue to regard him as 'the village urchin'. There is also Inspector Weyling who keeps on thinking of his rabbits while the case is being discussed. The Chief Constable, Captain Stanhill, meanwhile  never did anything so dangerous as to think, but accepted the traditions and rules of his race and class as his safe guide through life. Like most Englishmen of his station of life, he was endowed with just sufficient intelligence to permit him to slide along his little groove of life with some measure of satisfaction to himself and pleasure to his neighbours. He was a sound judge of cattle and horses, but of human nature he knew nothing whatever. All he is bothered about is that people of the 'Big House' should not be inconvenienced. No such compunctions, however, deter Superintendent Merrington whose larger than life figure towers above them all.  A recognized hero of the British public, which on one occasion had presented him with a testimonial for his capture of a desperado who had been terrorizing the East End of London. But Merrington disdained such tokens of popular approval. He regarded the public, which he was paid to protect, as a pack of fools. For him, there were only two classes of humanity—fools and rogues. The respectable portion of the population constituted the former, and criminals the latter. He had the lowest possible opinion of humanity as a whole, and his favourite expression, in professional conversation, was: "human nature being what it is...."

It is the interaction between these various officials (and later Detective Cowley) that in many ways move the story forward. More than the hosts and the guests at the party, it is they who hold centre stage:

"But all the guests did not go upstairs," observed Captain Stanhill, who was following his companion's remarks with close attention. "Some stayed in the dining-room. Tufnell, the butler, made that quite clear when you were examining him this morning."

"Yes—a few hysterical females cowering and whimpering with fear as far away from the door as possible," retorted Merrington contemptuously. "The butler made that clear also."





I also enjoyed reading about the changing social fabric of England. The war has made the girls independent as they move out of home and hearth. When Musard (one of the old school) remarks that the adventure he is being asked to relate might be too horrible for the ladies, he is assured that that needn't deter him as the War has made them strong-minded. The gap between the generations is widening with the elders thinking that the youngsters are lacking in both etiquette and discretion.




The novel also contains three different stories which can form a novel of their own. There is Musard's narrative of finding a ruby in the wilderness of New Zealand which carries with it a whiff of the adventure novels of yore as men went exploring the uncharted territories of the earth; there is an unsolved mystery of a man's disappearance (murder?); and finally there is a hugely funny story of a woman who thinks of herself as a horse after being bitten by a police dog.

In fact, the most charming feature of the book is its humour. Certain tongue-in-cheek remarks about the English are most refreshing... and surprising. The novel was published in 1920 but not for the author the chest-thumping of a country which has won a war. When the butler, Tufnell is sent to get the village policeman, he fancies he sees a crouching shape in the dark:

Tufnell's first impulse was to take to his heels, but he was saved from this ignominious act by the timely recollection that he was an Englishman, whose glorious privilege it is to be born without fear.

Then when Miss Heredith starts singing paeans in praise of a dead ancestor:

"Her Royal Highness held my great-uncle in much esteem, Mr. Colwyn," she added, as she proceeded to fit one of the keys into the box. "He was one of the most famous of Nelson's captains. When he died the residents of his native town erected a memorial to him. It was inscribed with testimony to his worth in a civic, military, and Christian capacity, together with a text stating that he caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. Beneath the text was commemorated his feat in sinking the French frigate L'Équille, with every soul on board."

"That hardly seems like causing the widow's heart to sing for joy," commented Musard.




   
The author Arthur J. Rees has been a real find and I'll definitely be reading more of him. A review of the book can also be read @ Vintage Pop Fictions.

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First Line: Seen in the sad glamour of an English twilight, the old moat-house, emerging from the thin mists which veiled the green flats in which it stood, conveyed the impression of a habitation falling into senility, tired with centuries of existence.

Title: The Hand in the Dark
Author: Arthur J. Rees
Publication Details; E-Text
First Published: 1920
Pages: n.pag
Source: The book can be downloaded for free from many sites.I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg,Australia

Other books read of the same author: None

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Entry for Friday's Forgotten Books @ Pattinase.

12 comments:

  1. Nicely reviewed, Neer. I like the overall atmosphere of this novel, a solid murder mystery with a lighthearted touch to it. Never read the author before.

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    1. Thanks Prashant. I hadn't heard of the writer before I browsed the Gutenberg catalogue for a 'spooky title' for Bev's Vintage Mystery challenge. It turned out to be a very lucky find.

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  2. Neeru - Thank you as ever for your thoughtful review. This one sounds as though it combines a look at the social life of the times as well as tells the story of a crime. I like it when a novel pulls that off effectively.

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    1. Thanks Margot for your kind comment. Yes, it was interesting to see a society in transition.

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  3. Neer, thanks for this recommendation. This book sounds very good. I will be looking for a copy or find an ebook copy.

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    1. You are welcome, Tracy. And I hope you read this one quickly because I really really want to see how others react to it.

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  4. Arthur would be very happy to read this enthusiastic and perceptive review were he alive. Amazing that this book written shortly after WW1 can still have the power to captivate a 21st century reader. I didn't think anyone would find him interesting in this day and age. Some of his books have laborious prose. I've read three of his books out of the ten or twelve I bought over a decade ago when just like you I thought I had stumbled across a "real find" of a mystery writer. I highly recommend THE SHRIEKING PIT as perhaps the finest of his detective novels. And if you like an ample amount of weird and the bizarre events in your mystery novels then THE THRESHOLD OF FEAR will not disappoint. I happen to have an extra copy of the second one and can send it off to you if you want it.

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    1. Thanks John. I read your comment @Vintage Pop Fictions stating that you could not progress much in this. I'll say,give it another try. The pace really picks up after a few descriptive pages which tell the bloody history of the moat-house. I do plan to read THE SHRIEKING PIT. In fact, I plan to read all his books that are available online.

      THE THRESHOLD OF FEAR sounds interesting and it is very generous of you to offer it to me. I am going to send you a mail soon. Thanks a lot.

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    2. I can personally recommend Rees' The Moon Rock, which is thick with a somber atmosphere, old-fashioned, but charming, writing like R. Austin Freeman and even a (simplistic) locked room subplot. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned, 19th century-style detective story, but Rees commanded this style very well.

      Coincidently, I'm in the process of picking my next read and doubting between Rees' The Shrieking Pit and a Arthur Upfield novel. Your review hasn't made that choice any easier. Good review though!

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    3. Thank you so much for the recommendation TomCat. THE MOON ROCK seems very interesting and I am very glad to know that Arthur Rees has his supporters on the Web. I wish you'd read THE SHRIEKING PIT next as I am keen to read reviews of Rees' books. :)

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  5. This sounds great Neeru, a book and author I have not encountered before at all - look forward to getting this one.

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    1. He has been quite a find Sergio and I hope you get a chance to read him soon.

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