Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Hallowe'en

The Tuesday Night Bloggers have been getting ready for Halloween. So for October we have chosen "Crime in Costume" as our month-long topic. All mysteries that feature costume/disguise/appearance misdirection EXCEPT theatrical mysteries (we're saving that for another time) are fair game. If you'd like to join us for discussion of the use of costumes, masks, masquerades, costume parties and the like in the mystery genre--particularly Golden Age dangerous dress-up, but all are welcome--then please stop in every Tuesday as we gather at Kate's place over at crossexamingcrime. Pull up a chair and have a scone or two...

One certainly can't leave our October TNB sessions without examining at least one novel set at Halloween. Two years ago, I read Leo Bruce's Death on Allhallowe'en--which finds Carolus Deene, that intrepid amateur detective who uses the same techniques to unravel mysteries as he uses to unravel history for the schoolboys at Queen's School, Newminster, asked to investigate the odd "goings on" at a small Kentish village. His friend, John Stainer, the rector of Clibburn is disturbed by the atmosphere in the village. The air of superstition and the locals' belief in witchcraft. And the inexplicable feeling of evil that hangs over the area ever since the death of a young boy a year ago at Halloween.

If it weren't for his long-standing friendship with Stainer, Deene would never credit the tales of eerie atmosphere, local witchcraft, and undefinable evil. He wouldn't believe that grown men would dress up with animal masks to practice strange rites in the woods. But when Stainer says, "I'll tell you candidly--I'm frightened" he believes him. And he understands when Stainer goes on to say
Listen Carolus, I'm not a fool, and I'm not superstitious. Obviously I don't believe in black magic or witchcraft or anything of the sort. That's to say I don't believe in what they represent. But I do believe that there are people who practise the rites, and I think such people are dangerous.
Carolus also takes seriously that death of the small boy who may have seen or actually been forced to participate in one of these rites. So, he agrees to come and put his amateur detective talents to work on discovering the true source of evil in Clibburn.

He could believe that people led stealthy lives, obeying strange impulses and beliefs. Though mystery could belong as much to brightly lighted streets and conventional citizens, there was something in an atmosphere like this, the chilly river mist and the desolate landscape. 

His task isn't an easy one. Stainer has lived in Clibburn for three years and still hasn't truly been accepted as the new rector. The residents, as often seems to be the case--especially in fiction, don't take well to "foreigners" and Carolus finds it difficult to get the villagers to give him much in the way of information. Fortunately, he's adept at reading between the lines and often what they aren't telling him is just as instructive as what they do. 

He know he's getting close when the local "witch" tries to scare him off and then someone arranges for a telegram regarding the hospitalization of Mrs. Stick, his long-time housekeeper, to be delivered in a further effort to get him out of the way. Despite the trick, he manages to be present when a local figure is shot to death in a room full of people on the stroke of midnight. Once Carolus discovers how and by whom, he has the answers to both the boy's death and that of another, yet unsuspected, murder.

While I always enjoy Leo Bruce's detective fiction, Death on Allhawe'en (1970) is to be noted for its difference from the majority of the Carolus Deene books. It removes Carolus from the influence of both his domestic couple and the headmaster of Queen's School--each of whom constantly cast a disapproving eye on his detective antics while secretly loving every minute of the delicious tale when Carolus holds forth in the wrap-up scenes. We are also spared the frequently annoying presence of his schoolboy tag-along. What we get is straight Carolus on the track of village nastiness hidden by masks--both the actual animal masks of the ritual participants and the masks which the villagers present to any foreigners who come to their town.

Bruce effectively describes the claustrophobic atmosphere of a village that keeps itself too much to itself while appearing to take local traditions and witchcraft much too seriously. Full marks for the mise-en-scène. Two things keep this mystery from being a full-fledged four-star read for me: 1. Lack of fair play. Carolus gives a fair impression of Holmes in the final scenes. He discovers vital evidence in a bank strong box, but keeps the clues close to his chest. There isn't any real way for the reader to guess what he's found and be able to fully understand the mystery. 2. The death of the young boy. While what really happened to the boy is not fully described (thankfully), I still get very squeamish when young children are involved. But that's a personal qualm--not necessarily a fault in the story-telling.

3 comments:

theinvisibleevent said...

I really want to find a Carolus Deene book that I can outright enjoy as much as Bruce's best Sergeant Beef works, but I'm yet to find one and on this evidence it sounds like the hunt may continue for a while yet, Bev! Can't abide a lack of fair play, particularly when he's done it so well elsewhere. Ah, well, the search continues...

Bev Hankins said...

JJ: I do think there are better Deene books (fair-play-wise). Now I'm going to have to go back through the ones I've read and see if I can dig one up for you to try...

theinvisibleevent said...

Many thanks, Bev -- all suggestions considered; am quite keen for proof that Bruve didn't burn himself out post-Beef...!