Sunday, November 6, 2016

"Such Fiction Never Grows Stale"

By Frederick Irving Anderson (1877-1947).
Edited by Benjamin F. Fisher.
Crippen & Landru Publishers, 2016. Lost Classics Series No. 38 (HERE).
248 pages. Short story collection (15 stories).
During his writing career, Frederick Irving Anderson produced dozens of stories, the majority being mysteries, that proved very popular with readers, especially those of The Saturday Evening Post, where most of them appeared over a period of nearly twenty years.

In accordance with the era, some of Anderson's characters fit comfortably into the Rogue School of likeable criminals who more often than not work on the side of right, if only sometimes to avoid worse situations; with their help the cause of justice, and not just the legal system, is served. Two such rogues created by Anderson were the "Infallible" Godahl and Sophie Lang, with only the latter actually making it to the silver screen.
Equally memorable are his creations Oliver Armiston ("the extinct author"), who fits the Armchair Detective model very nicely, and his constant partner in crime solving, Deputy Inspector Parr ("the famous man hunter"). Their modus operandi ordinarily goes along these lines:

   ". . . Deputy Parr was wont to fetch [to Armiston] those few occasional crime puzzles that resisted his classic nutcracker methods. Mr. Parr was a man of infinite resource; Armiston was a phase of his amazing versatility—one of the most highly prized. Parr's usual device was to lay before his talented friend the mise en scène of what he was pleased to call a frozen plot, an insoluble crime, and leave it to the hectic imagination of the retired writer to bring to a finish, in the guise of fiction, what the man hunter himself had been unable to complete as fact. The results had been, to say the least, startling. Parr had come to hold his curiously endowed friend in some awe; but Oliver explained the phenomenon naively by pointing that though fact may outrage all the probabilities, fiction—to be salable—must be sound.
   "It was this faculty of logical connotation that had made Oliver Armiston so unexpectedly valuable to the police deputy. Parenthetically, it was this same virtuosity that had been Oliver's undoing in his career; when a clever thief dramatized one of his lurid tales, in real life, with murder as the sequel, the police stepped in and politely but firmly requested Oliver to cease, in the interests of society. Now the only outlet Armiston had for his fantastic powers of divination came through these occasional frozen plots, served up by his friend and admirer, Parr." — From "The Follansbee Imbroglio" (1922)

Which brings us to the present book; in it Doug Greene at Crippen & Landru has collected fifteen highly entertaining adventures in crime busting, eleven of them featuring the Armiston-Parr duo, with the first one ("The Purple Flame"), using different characters, presumably being the prototype for the series; one with Parr only; and two showcasing the short-lived character Judge Alan Ebbs.

With Anderson, readers get what you might call a "three-fer": a capable mystery author, a local colorist, and a sly social critic. The preface by Poe scholar Benjamin F. Fisher is a fine introduction to both Anderson and his series characters. In Fisher's estimation Anderson possessed that rarest of auctorial attributes, originality, and that without following the trend in American crime fiction towards the new hardboiled school which was gaining ascendancy at the beginning of the 20th century, the same period in which Anderson's popularity soared.

His ability to add dimension to his characters and their environments and his carefully modulated diction ("Anderson leavens his fiction with abundant colloquial language") all combined to make Frederick Irving Anderson not only a good detective fiction writer but also an important local color author and a chronicler of the American scene as it existed in the first third of the 20th century.


INTRODUCTION (6 pages): "Frederick Irving Anderson" by Benjamin F. Fisher (HERE):
   "Such fiction never grows stale, and Anderson's offers repeated glimpses into American life during the first third of the twentieth century."

(1) "The Purple Flame" (1912):
   A murderer almost gets away with it—until a nosy newspaperman smells a rat. The problem is how death was apparently by natural causes while a witness, claiming his innocence, was with the victim when he died.
(2) "The Phantom Alibi" (1920):
   Parr entices a reluctant Armiston into investigating a murder case involving one of the latter's old college profs. The case features an anomalous gold tooth, eyeglasses dropped into a mailbox—on purpose, a deliberately provoked car wreck, and a dramatic courtroom finale.
(3) "Wild Honey" (1921):
   Backwoods skulduggery involving a stolen fortune and a simmering score to be settled have Parr and Armiston far from their usual home turf. A major element is a man whose sense of direction would be the envy of the Navy.
(4) "The Footstep" (1925):
   When priceless jewels go missing, the man the whole world believes to have stolen them asks Armiston for help. The situation involves an aging ingénue and her decades younger husband, a whispering gallery, and a vanishing one-ton safe.
(5) "The House of Many Mansions" (1928):
   That metaphorical den of thieves becomes to Parr's amazed delight a literal reality; the problem, though, of catching them all is immensely complicated by a sudden conflagration. In the mix are an ingenious diversion, a tenacious undercover cop, and a peripatetic fire engine manned by the wrong people.
(6) "Hangman's Truce" (1928):
   Parr believes there's no going back for hardened criminals, but Armiston has his doubts. A test case arises when a three-time loser who has apparently reformed dares to return to his old stamping grounds, which, unfortunately for him, are also Parr's own jealously guarded bailiwick.
(7) "Vivace-Ma Non Troppo" (1929):
   When a young music student who hobnobs with the haut monde disappears under very mysterious circumstances, Parr et al. suspect murder, but Armiston elects to treat it as a case of repossession.
(8) "Thumbs Down" (1930):
   To catch a murderer Parr sets a trap and lets Armiston spring it when he fingers the culprit.
(9) "The Two Martimos" (1930):
   Parr and Armiston head for the backwoods again after being alerted to a scheme that, if it succeeds, will net somebody a million dollars.
(10) "The Pandora Complex" (1932):
   As a blizzard envelops the city, in a phone booth a man's bullet-riddled body is found, stitched with forty perforations obviously woven by a Chicago piano. Parr enlists Armiston as Grand Inquisitor to sort out a case that, as far as the extinct author is concerned, is itself riddled with far too many unsatisfactory coincidences.
(11) "Unfinished Business" (1933):
   As they say in Western movies, it's quiet out there—too quiet. When Parr senses, more than consciously realizes, that a certain establishment is still in operation after all these years with no visible means of support, he doesn't suspect that his hunch will lead him to an attempt at extortion and, what's worse, a murder that he's never heard about.
(12) "At Early Candlelight" (1937):
   Confronted with compelling—and seemingly irrefutable—evidence of a murder, Judge Alan Ebbs nevertheless has his doubts about a young bridegroom killing his future father-in-law and proves how an entirely different scenario played out on that tragic evening.
(13) "What Is the Goat's Name?" (1937):
   With ten million dollars at stake in an inheritance trial, Judge Ebbs notices a discrepancy that everyone else has managed to overlook, bringing the case to a surprising ending that, except for His Honor, gets everybody's goat.
(14) "Murder in Triplicate" (1946):
   It's all too obvious what three floaters in the Harlem River have in common: They've all been shot with bullets of three different calibers, but they all died from drowning. What's not at all obvious to Parr is why; he knows that if he and Armiston can arrive at the why, it should be a much shorter trip to the who.
(15) "The Man from the Death House" (1951):
   The death of a shyster lawyer at an exclusive concert event, while not exactly a cause for mourning for the District Attorney, does have an unusual wrinkle to it: Less than an hour after the murder and despite a police information blackout, a detailed account of the crime appears in the newspaper, clearly impossible in those days. It will be Deputy Parr's duty to catch the killer and bring down the person who hired him, a man who has enjoyed the public's trust for years but has now betrayed it.


- Both the GAD Wiki (HERE) and Mike Grost's page about Frederick Irving Anderson (HERE) discuss in a gratifyingly spoiler-free way many of his stories, including the ones in THE PURPLE FLAME.
- Anderson's 1914 collection of six stories about the Infallible Godahl in which Oliver Armiston appears is on (HERE); another blind detective you might never have heard of is John Dyce (HERE).
- Anderson didn't exactly specialize in impossible crime stories; go to The Locked Room Mystery site (HERE).
- See also Ben Fisher's The Mystery Fancier article (all of it miraculously online HERE, pages 12—32), "Science and Technology in the Writings of Frederick Irving Anderson" (1992), the title of which pretty much explains itself.

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