Monday, May 25, 2015

When Crime and Fantasy Collide

THE DUEL OF SHADOWS: THE EXTRAORDINARY CASES OF BARNABAS HILDRETH.
By Vincent Cornier (1898-1976).
Edited by Mike Ashley.
Crippen & Landru Publishers.
2011. 163 pages: 11 stories.
For sale HERE.
Vincent Cornier (real name: Vincent Corner) was a British newspaperman and mystery writer who could, on occasion, produce stories with the complexity and atmospherics usually associated with John Dickson Carr.

Doug Greene at Crippen & Landru has collected most of the known stories featuring Cornier's series sleuth Barnabas Hildreth and his "Watson", newspaper editor Geoffrey Ingram, with indefatigable researcher Mike Ashley acting as able editor.

If it weren't for Frederic Dannay, editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (EQMM), Cornier's fiction might never have come to the attention of American readers. Dannay reprinted the stories in the immediate post-World War II period, after having Cornier revise them — and/or changing them himself. (Note: It would be interesting to compare the original stories with their EQMM "revisions" to see how many changes, if any, Dannay wrought on them — he was known for making editorial alterations at will. One story in particular, "The Monster", reads a lot like an Ellery Queen production.)

Regardless of that, you can expect to be entertained by all of the stories in The Duel of Shadows. The writing is smooth, even if the ideas are baffling to the point of being outrageous.

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Contents:

Introduction by Mike Ashley.

(1) "The Stone Ear" (1933):

Newspaperman Ingram's first encounter with Barnabas Hildreth (a.k.a. "The Black Monk") occurs when Ingram is employed to help a close relative of Hildreth's record his memoirs as a magistrate. Although it seems impossible, the retired judge dies only a few moments after a rare and valuable chalice simply vanishes from the dying man's hand. Since the deceased had been taking digitalin for some time, the coroner's inquest concludes it was a heart attack, but the Black Monk is convinced it's murder, and sets out to prove it.

(2) "The Brother of Heaven" (1933):

It's a long way from the opulent courts of Mandarin China to a decrepit warehouse on the Thames, but a tong enforcer has managed to make it that far, only to be found dead, impossibly stabbed in the back, with an expression of bliss on his face. Barnabas Hildreth's sponge-like mind will serve him well as he unravels the threads of a case of theft, and flight, and murder centering on exquisite, but fatal, fleurs de  mal.

(3) "The Silver Quarrel" (1933):

A treasure, thought to be long-lost and forever inaccessible, prompts an avaricious physician to enlist the Black Monk's assistance in trying to find it. Somewhere in one of England's stately homes lurks what must be something worth all the mumbo jumbo and jiggery-pokery surrounding it, bringing to mind the ancient Musgrave ritual — and, in like fashion, a murderous deadfall awaits anyone foolish enough to try to penetrate its secret.

(4) "The Throat of Green Jasper" (1934):

Legends abound concerning the looting of Egyptian burial chambers by Anglo-American expeditions intent on fame — and sometimes, fortune. Legends also reference curses which such tamperings entail, like the ones associated with the excavations of the tombs of Prince Setephra and his faithful wife Nefer-Teratha, and of the abnormally large number of deaths among the expedition's members. For Ingram, however, most memorable of all will be his encounter with the most beautiful — and dangerous — woman he's ever laid eyes on.

(5) "The Duel of Shadows" (1934; revised 1947 as "The Shot That Waited"):

Mr. Henry Westmacott of Derbyshire has just settled down in his comfy chair when he is shot — with absolutely no one in the room with him or in any possible line of sight. A most unusual projectile is the bullet that strikes him and ricochets into his wireless set: Not only does it look remarkably like a miniature of the planet Saturn when photographed, but, as Barnabas Hildreth will discover, it was fired 222 years, 2 months, 1 week, 5 days, 12 hours, and 47 minutes before Mr. Westmacott mistakenly thought it safe to kick back and enjoy a radio concert.

(6) "The Catastrophe in Clay" (1935; revised 1946 as "The Smell That Killed"):

The discovery of a dead body wouldn't normally call for Secret Service involvement, but this particular corpse isn't merely unusual, it's unique; hence the attendance of Barnabas Hildreth, with his good friend Ingram in tow. Although he has no inkling of it at the time, Hildreth's panoptic grasp of arcane knowledge will prove essential in frustrating an insane plot to destroy the world.

(7) "The Mantle That Laughed" (1935; revised 1947 as "The Cloak That Laughed"):

An irascible sea captain has fallen on hard times and, to forestall imminent starvation, is forced to sell off a marvel of handicraft that he obtained years before in an expedition to the untamed wilds of Mexico: a cloak with the uncanny ability to laugh and sing and thunder menacingly. The old duffer doesn't realize it, but he is attempting to unload something with the power to maim, and kill, and keep on killing.

(8) "The Tabasheeran Pearls" (1937):

The suicide of a wealthy Japanese pearl merchant would ordinarily be a tragedy of limited scope, but — when coupled with certain financial "arrangements" with the daughter-in-law of a highly-placed Whitehall official — his death has implications for the government at large. It's only after a painstaking investigation conducted by Barnabas Hildreth that a secret process is discovered, a process which could wreck the world's economy and almost certainly lead to war.

(9) "The Gilt Lily" (1938):

Within the innermost sanctums of Whitehall, maximum security measures are at their most stringent and the possibility of penetrating them virtually nil. Nevertheless, someone has managed to do it, resulting in a potentially devastating security leak. Barnabas Hildreth is tasked with not only determining who did it but also how it was done, employing his encyclopedic knowledge of plant life and the assistance of a charming young lineal descendant of the infamous Medicis.

(10) "The Monster" (1951):

A hideous "Thing" — as Barnabas Hildreth calls it — has long prowled the Westmorland heath, terrorizing the inhabitants and, on occasion, committing murder. Now, decades after its birth, it will finally come under the close scrutiny of the authorities. Only there's a catch: No matter how many crimes the Thing might commit, it will always be beyond the Law's reach — because, due to the Thing's very nature, the Law cannot in good conscience punish the innocent.

(11) "Oh Time, In Your Flight" (1935; revised 1951):

A good friend of Barnabas Hildreth is cold bloodedly murdered for 27,000 pounds' worth of jewels, but Hildreth's best suspect has an airtight alibi, with many witnesses honestly attesting to his whereabouts at the time of the shooting. Thanks to Hildreth's knowledge of horology and his dead friend's cultural background, however, he's able to break the killer's alibi in, shall we say, a timely manner.

Resources:
- Mike Grost's A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection has more discussion about Vincent Cornier HERE, as does Francis M. Nevins on the Mystery*File weblog HERE.

Category: Crime and fantasy fiction

2 comments:

  1. I read that collection just recently. Odd, but great stuff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Odd, but great stuff": That pretty much summarizes it.

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