Friday, February 26, 2016

"Curse You, Curse You, You've Caught Me!"

"Murder by Proxy."
By M. McDonnell Bodkin (1850-1933).
First appearance: Pearson's Weekly, February 6, 1897.
Novelette (20 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF) and Prof. David Stewart's collection HERE (PDF).
"He fell on the ground in a fit."
If there's more than one way to skin a cat, there's also more than one way to kill a squire. On a sultry day in August young Eric Neville is standing under Squire Neville's window with the estate's gardener when there's a loud BANG; rushing in just moments later they find Eric's older cousin John bending over the body, apparently as amazed as they are. After the shock wears off, the situation becomes all too clear to everyone: Since nobody could have left the study in that short interval without being seen, only one conclusion is possible, and it's bad news for John . . .
"a handsome, old-fashioned muzzle-loader"
Principal characters:
~ Paul Beck: The detective from London, "a stout, thick-set man" who affects an air of good nature, good humour, and placidity but is actually smarter than he lets on.
~ Squire Neville of Berkly Manor: After having a row with his nephew John, he is found shot through the back of the head by "a handsome, old-fashioned muzzle-loader."
~ John Neville: Older cousin of Eric and lineal heir to Squire Neville's estate; engaged to lovely Lucy Peyton, daughter of Colonel Peyton, the squire's nextdoor neighbour: "By slow degrees dark suspicion settled down and closed like a cloud round John Neville."
~ Eric Neville: The "young, handsome, d├ębonnaire" nephew of the squire, second in line to inherit.
~ On the estate: Simpson, the gardener; Lennox, the gamekeeper; Unnamed, the butler.
~ Wardle: The local constable, "a shrewd, silent man" who is "strong and active too, though well over fifty years of age."
~ At the inquest: The Coroner, "a large, red-faced man, with a very affable manner," and Mr. Waggles, preposterous counsel for the defence.

Beckisms:
"No hurry and no fuss. Stir nothing. The things about the corpse have always a story of their own if they are let tell it, and I always like to have the first quiet little chat with them myself."
"Your wire said 'Expense no object.' Well, time is an object, and comfort is an object too, more or less, in all these cases; so I took a special train, and here I am."
"The first thing the British law does by way of discovering the truth is to close the mouth of the only witness that knows it. Well, that's not my way. I like to give an innocent man a chance to tell his own story, and I've no scruple in trapping a guilty man if I can."
"Hearsay evidence is often first-class evidence, though the law doesn't think so."
"I find that I can look closer and think clearer when I'm by myself. I'm not exactly shy you know, but it's a habit I've got."
So who was this Paul Beck?
A "rule of thumb" detective, he was intentionally put forward as a toned down, regular kinda guy sort of detective, a working class dick who favored legwork and common sense. A bit of a plodder, and a little on the plump side, Beck was meant to offer a vivid contrast to the lightning bolt flashes of genius and aristocratic eccentricity of Holmes and the other Great Detectives of the time.
As Leroy Lad [Panek] points out, however, in After Sherlock Holmes (2014), "all of this is amusingly disingenuous" as Beck is actually something of a genius himself, a master of disguise, a crack puzzle-solver, and the possessor of an encyclopediac knowledge of all sorts of arcane minutiae and scientific know-how, even employing x-rays to solve one of his cases. He was also pretty well off, with "comfortable lodgings" in Chester.
Nor was Beck all science and logic—Bodkin often used magic and illusions in his stories—Beck was a master of legerdemain, while many of the stories were presented as pure conundrums deliberately presented as challenges to the reader. There was even a recurring villain in many of the stories: the nefari-ous Monsieur Grabeau, whose skills as a magician were secondary only—of course—to Beck. — Kevin Burton Smith, "Paul Beck & Dora Myrl," The Thrilling Detective
Comments: You should be able to figure out whodunnit early on, but how-they-dunnit is not so easy to determine. Hint: The way the victim is murdered in this story is very similar to how someone is accidentally killed in another story—the title and author of which we're not going to divulge, except that it was published seventeen years later by an American.

Resources:
- Prof. Stewart's cornucopia collection of 398 mystery short stories and 12 essays dating from the 19th- and early 20th-centuries is well worth exploring HERE.
- Articles about Matthias McDonnell Bodkin are HERE, HERE, and HERE, while FictionMags has listings for the author HERE and his creation HERE.
- Two books featuring Paul Beck are online: The Quests of Paul Beck (1908) is HERE, and The Capture of Paul Beck (1909), which introduces brilliant detective and wife-to-be Dora Myrl to Beck, is HERE and HERE.

The bottom line: "It's sometimes better to pretend I don't hear the sound of somebody in the nearby woods with a shotgun."
Dashiell Hammett

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