Saturday, May 23, 2015

Satirical Mysteries from James Powell

By James Powell (b. 1932).
Crippen & Landru Publishers.
2009. 221 pages: 12 stories.
For sale HERE.
James Powell has hit upon a wonderful conceit: following the changing fortunes of a family of detectives from one generation to the next. In so doing, he can exploit the various modalities into which crime fiction has developed over the past century. Thus we have Ambrose Ganelon the First, the founder of the Ganelon Detective Agency in the tiny Mediterranean principality of San Sebastiano, thwarting criminals using armchair detection methods in the mid-19th century á la Poe's Dupin; Ambrose the Second employing the scientific methods of Sherlock Holmes at the turn of the century; Ambrose the Third using the two-fisted approach of Chandler and Hammett in the early-20th century — but as for Ambrose the Fourth, he has been forced by straitening circumstance into operating in a manner that is uniquely his own.

Powell's Ambrose Ganelon stories now number nearly three dozen, 12 of which have been collected here. And a fine assortment they are as they take us from one well-imagined historical environment to another — with emphasis on "well-imagined." In his introduction Powell explains how and why he wished to free himself from "the tyranny of facts," the results of which are delightfully fractured depictions of history and technology. While actual historical events do serve as backdrops to — and engines for jump starting — the plots, technical purists might demur from characterizing Powell's stories as historical mysteries; nevertheless, enough verisimilitude is here to ground us tentatively in actual history. True, the milieu of San Sebastiano operates according to its own system of internal logic much as Baum's Wonderful Land of Oz does; but while events and people sometimes move towards the edge of credibility, they never crash the barrier.

Powell's tone is almost always lightly satirical, even when bodies begin to pile up. (The singular exception in this collection, "Harps of Gold," is one of the grimmest stories we've read in quite some time.) Yet while the mood is normally bright, the stories are entertaining mysteries, with detectives of every generation doing some actual detecting — so, if you are unfamiliar with the exploits of the Ganelon clan, this book is your chance to enter into their world of would-be global dominators, clever confidence men, professional killers, stolen diplomatic documents, murder in war time, deadly jokes, noses by the handful, water fountain raiders, and free refrigerators.



Introduction: The Fiction Behind the Fiction

Ambrose Ganelon I:

   "The Flower Diet" — Ambrose the First must deal with a slippery con man who has the whole of San Sebastiano convinced he can live without eating. The situation escalates to crisis proportions, nearly resulting in war.

   "Unquiet Graves" — For Ambrose Ganelon, a dead man walking seems a most unlikely situation, but when a client insists on having seen one, Ambrose, braving weather most foul, determines that murder most foul has been perpetrated — and confirms that the dead may walk only through the agency of the Resurrection men.

   "The Haunted Bookcase" — What do a caseful of books, juvenile atheism, an unfinished portrait, intimate confessions committed to paper, and an account of a dream involving dark waters and a goat all have in common? Ambrose connects these disparate elements together and finds they all converge inside a man's guilty conscience.

   "The Priest Without a Shadow" — While visiting St. Petersburg, Ambrose is diverted by an amazing tale of a murder, including a beheading, and of a priest who, while casting no shadow, claims the ability to exorcize the murdered man's spirit from a recently rented house. It takes patience but Ambrose is soon able to establish a link between the dead man and the priest that has very little to do with the spirit world and everything to do with the mundane world of European political rivalries.

Ambrose Ganelon II:

   "The Gooseberry Fool" — Ambrose the Second is investigating the validity of claims made about the then-popular "science" of phrenology. While he is staying by invitation at a baronial estate, the theft of a valuable sapphire occurs, casting suspicion equally upon an odd assortment of house guests, one of whom Ambrose will come to recognize as not merely a thief but also an assassin famously know throughout Europe as the Gooseberry Fool.

   "The Verbatim Reply" — After having spent some time criss-crossing Europe in the guise of a photographer in order to escape the murderous attention of his archenemy, Ambrose makes a stopover at the British embassy in Sofia. While he is there, an important diplomatic document goes missing, an event which could terminate the promising career of a young Englishman. The plot is foiled, however, when Ambrose ascertains who took what, why and when, and at whom the plan was actually directed.

   "A Pocketful of Noses" — One fine October evening in San Sebastiano, a man is found dead, a knife in his back with, mirabile dictu, a pocketful of artificial noses. Exactly how this individual came to his untimely end, why he would mail his noses to himself as he travelled about Europe, and what his relationship to a nefarious smuggler of military secrets might be, are all conundrums Ambrose almost effortlessly unravels with the unwitting assistance of the official police — that, and a well-placed banana peel.

Ambrose Ganelon III:

   "Harps of Gold" — Amid the insanity of the First World War, Ambrose the Third is serving as liaison to the Canadian elements of the Allied army when he witnesses a murder — or, rather, he is present when the deed is done, yet neither he nor any of the others see it happen. In a way, this crime seems to Ambrose less of an atrocity than the organized carnage he is a willing party to.

   "The Zoroaster Grin" — Rumor on the street has it that someone wants to kill Ambrose, but the deaths of several others — all of whom are associated with a deadly ancient Persian manuscript — distract him just enough to make Ambrose overlook the perils present in ambrosia, a grand piano, and possible exposure to the always-lethal Ho-Ho fever.

   "At Willow-Walk-Behind" — Ambrose, wishing to sharpen his non-violent self-defense skills, is at a monastery when some of the other guests start dying under mysterious circumstances. Could any of these deaths be related to behind-the-scenes machinations involving a proposed railway from Egypt to China or the establishment of a Persian air force? And what about the trees that are believed by many to walk and talk?

Ambrose Ganelon IV:

   "Coins in the Frascati Fountain" — A multimillionaire playboy contracts Ambrose the Fourth to find out who has been stealing coins from one of San Sebastiano's most popular tourist attractions. So wealthy and influential (and involved with the Mob) is his client that Ambrose, with poverty nudging his elbow, accepts the case, in spite of its lackluster appeal, because at stake is nothing less than his little country's future. The solution, as it turns out, will hinge upon what or who is living in the clock . . . .

   "The Bird-of-Paradise Man" — In the drowsy streets of San Sebastiano, housewives hear an offer that's almost too good to be true: an even trade, a brand-new refrigerator for their old one, no questions asked. Of course, there is more behind this than it seems — the refrigerator swap is a ploy to exact revenge, as the man with wings but no legs explains to Ambrose . . . .

A Checklist of the Mystery Writings of James Powell

- James Powell's homepage is HERE, while the FictionMags index has an Ambrose Ganelon checklist HERE.

Category: Detective fiction (satirical division)

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