Monday, November 22, 2021

John Russell Fearn : Black Maria, M.A. (1944)



John (Francis) Russell Fearn was born in 1908 in Worsley in Lancashire (U.K.). He published many novels, especially western and science fiction. In this area he excelled, conquering masses of readers, under the pseudonym of Vargo Statten. With other pseudonyms, he signed novels of different genres: Thornton Ayre, Polton Cross, Geoffrey Armstrong, John Cotton, Dennis Clive, Ephriam Winiki, Astron Del Martia, etc Fearn also published 26 detective novels under multiple signatures, of different genres: among these, several contained Locked Rooms and impossible crimes. Fearn died in 1960.

Black Maria is one of his novels with impossible crimes and more precisely it is a locked room which is also quite nice. At the time he achieved good success, so much so that Fearn, heartened, followed it up with six other novels: Black Maria, M.A. (1944); Maria Marches On (1945); One Remained Seated (1946); Thy Arm Alone (1947); Framed in Guilt (1948); Death in Silhouette (1950).




Black Maria is the director of a British girls' college. One fine day she receives a letter from which she learns that his brother Ralph Black has committed suicide: in fact they found him, in his study, with the radio at high volume, killed by a gunshot, however, found on the ground, next to some wine. poured, and all in a locked room from the inside. Suicide is the only viable hypothesis, according to the police. The only one who does not believe it is his son Richard (aka Dick) who expresses the suspicions to his aunt when she, after a long journey from England, arrives in America.

The family is made up of his wife Alice (sincerely in love with her husband, but also intent on saving the children from any accusation that she could harm them) and her children: Dick, Janet and Patricia. Dick runs a theater and cabaret shows, although he intends to stage a work of his, which he is writing with his fiancée Jane Conway, a sound engineer; Janet instead is an opera singer, in love with Peter Wade an actor; and Pat finally, a dancer, is also in love with Arthur Salter, an accountant. Who could possibly have killed Ralph and why?

Ralph made his fortune with canned broccoli, setting up a series of factories and founding a small empire. However, he is a ruthless man, who does not look favorably on his children marrying people who are not rich; and so both Dick's girlfriend (whose brother was ruined by Ralph) and Janet's boyfriend and Patricia's are isolated. However, since he can't get over little Pat's boyfriend right, he even plots a false accusation of embezzlement against her, conspiring with a big piece of the underworld, Onzi, and ending up the poor accountant in jail. Who nevertheless escapes, with Pat's help, on the same day Ralph dies. Ralph, however, fearing that someone around him might want to plot against him, wrote a letter to his sister, entrusting her with the task, if he died an unnatural death, to investigate his death, receiving, if he could prove guilty. of the murderer, his share of the inheritance. So Black Maria begins to investigate.

She will know Arthur and Patricia, before he was wrongly accused of fraud, had secretly married; Jane is a sound engineer and that together with her boyfriend they are writing a play based on the remote murder caused by sound; Janet often goes to visit her boyfriend, who lives in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts, very different from the rich one in which she usually lives; Arthur is hiding in the same neighborhood, after having escaped, and that Patricia visits him every day and brings him food. Not only. Black Maria will be able, with the help of Pulp Martin, a small element of the underworld, who has become her bodyguard, to recover the documentation according to which Arthur will be exonerated; and he will discover a series of crucial clues to understand how Ralph was killed, why and by whom: the spring of a typewriter, a steel wire, some wine spilled on the ground, two broken glasses and the cage with a parrot, a loud radio, a record left halfway on the plate of the gramophone, and an order to the butler to bring some wine which clashes with a first reconstruction of the crime.

So many had the chance and the motive to kill Ralph: could it have been Jane, the sound engineer? Or Dick who works and loves Jane? Or Janet throwing a sharp C from the chest in Mozart's Allelujah in F Major? Or even Peter who hated Ralph Blach because he had no intention of consenting to his love of him with Jane? Or Mary, Jane's maid, also harboring hatred of Ralph, due to the death of her parents, whose financial disaster was caused by Ralph's business?




It almost seems like a conspiracy like Murder on the Orient Express: everyone had a reason to hate Ralph and want his death. But which of them had he been? The final revelation, at the end of a reconstruction that the unusual investigator will hold in her brother's home, will surprise everyone, even the reader.

Fearn's great novel, with an impeccable solution, reminded me of those locked rooms with deadly mechanisms, already seen in novels by John Rhode, J.J.Connington, Eden Phillpotts; but above all it reminded me of another famous Locked Room, in Death Has Many Doors by Fredric Brown, in which the murder is caused by a deadly mechanism, moreover at the base of which there is a devilry connected to a physical law: while, however, the source is understood, in Brown's novel it is possible to infer if not what at least the principle on the basis of which the death took place, and therefore the culprit, in that of Fearn, also understood the underlying principle, heralded in all sauces (i.e. that a certain note, being played at a certain height, determines a sonic wave not perceived by the human ear but capable of breaking even the glass, in practice an ultrasound), it is not possible to understand how the victim, without waiting for the final solution, a true pinnacle of intelligence.

Beyond this, the novel can be read in one breath: 150 easy easy pages, carried forward by a certain rhythm (to which a story somewhere between action and gangsterism contributes) that combines classic Mystery with a certain fake. hard-boiled, almost as if here Fearn had copied the trend of the hybrid yellow of Jonathan Latimer or Craig Rice, in his own way of course, creating a speckled figure of a college director lent to detective fiction (probably also looking at the young lady and teacher Stuart Palmer's detective, Hildegarde Withers), who by going to get bodyguards among jail scraps, manages to save himself from assassination attempts and to frame a plot that lurks in his own family. The detail of the wine and the broken glasses on the floor are curious: they remind me in a certain sense of Paul Halter's La Mort vous invite, which presents a similar situation in his Locked Room. And the disc left in the middle reminds that in The Canary Murder Case by S.S.Van Dine



Pietro De Palma

1 comment:

  1. I, too, noticed the similarities between Maria Black and Hildegarde. Likely not a coincidence. According to Philip Harbottle, Fearn was an inveterate cinema goer in the 1930s (twice a week) and it's not unthinkable the movie adaptations of Stuart Palmer's novels influenced this series, which would explain the American flavor Fearn tried to imitate here.

    By the way, Fearn is my favorite second-string, pulpy mystery writer and always want to recommend Thy Arm Alone (a truly original plot), but only John Norris agrees with me on that one. So I recommend the posthumously published Pattern of Murder, which has a brilliantly executed, inverted impossible crime.