Friday, February 3, 2017

"Nothing Is So Innocent As a Piece of White Paper"

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO the light-hearted writings of Hoosier scribe Meredith Nicholson that were appearing in the high-paying slicks made him fairly popular with the magazine-reading public, as did his best-selling novels (see "Resources," below). Nicholson couldn't be class-ified with so weighty a label as "mystery writer" (with all of its serious overtones), but to a very limited degree he did dabble in crime fiction.

Nicholson's series character was Webster G. Burgess, described this way:
"Webster Burgess was a banker who had inherited his bank, and he had always found life rather pleasant going. His wife diverted him a good deal, and the fact that she played at being a highbrow amused him almost more that anything else. He had kept his figure, and at forty-two was still able to dance without fear of apoplexy. He chose his haberdashery with taste, and sometimes he sent flowers to ladies without inclosing his wife's card; but his wife said this was temperamental, which was a very good name for it." — From "The Susiness of Susan" (1912)
We've been able to pin down three Web Burgess adventures available online that have marginally criminous aspects, and we hope to cover them in the near future. The first 
one, "The Third Man," has nothing to do with Orson Welles . . .

"The Third Man."
By Meredith Nicholson (1866-1947).
First appearance: Collier's, May 13, 1916.
Collected in Best Laid Schemes (1922, pages 167-196).
Reprinted in EQMM, August 1949.
Novelette (30 pages).
Online at Hathi Trust (HERE).
"For all anybody ever knew, it was a plain case . . ."
Webster Burgess and his close circle of friends usually have a once monthly dinner bash where one of their number, often Burgess himself, regales the group with some personal adventure he has recently experienced. Tonight's banquet, though, is going to be different: No less a personage than the Governor of the state will be in attendance; and he has in his jacket a piece of paper that, with his signature on it, will pardon a man from spending the rest of his life in prison for murder. But before he signs that paper, the Governor wants to be absolutely certain that (a) the inmate, who has already served seven years, didn't do it and 
(b) that someone he has long suspected of being the murderer did:
"The law does the best it can, but as you say, mistakes do occur. The old saying that murder will out is no good; we can all remember cases where the truth was never known. Mistakes occur constantly, and it's the fear of not rectifying them that's making a nervous wreck of me."
So with Burgess's connivance, tonight the Governor intends to catch the person who he believes, but isn't quite sure, "had beaten [the victim] on the head, with a club in the most barbarous fashion," then lied about it, leaving an innocent man to take the rap. The Gover-nor also has with him another piece of paper, the only scrap of physical evidence that could possibly help exonerate the prisoner, but in order to use it he will have to get the killer to implicate himself, not consciously but without being aware of it—and that's where a pencil and a blank scratch pad come in . . .
Typo: "the law lays it hand"
- About Meredith Nicholson, FictionMags tells us: "Born in Crawfordsville, Indiana; had degrees from Wabash College, Butler College, and Indiana University; newspaperman; author and essayist." Wikipedia (HERE) adds that he was appointed as an envoy to three Latin American countries, after achieving in the early part of the century best sellerdom three times, one of which, The House of a Thousand Candles (1905; online HERE and HERE), was lensed as a silent film and later a talkie (see the IMDb HERE). Leah H. Zeldes, at Manybooks, writes:
"A fast-moving adventure. The plot may seem a bit predictable, but Nicholson packs in so much action that even when you expect what happens, the novel moves you right along. The world-traveling scapegrace grandson of an eccentric architecture buff inherits his grandfather's partly finished Indiana house on condition he live there for a year and not marry the alternate heir who'll get the property if he fails to meet the conditions. On his first night in the house, some-body shoots at him. The house, it seems, is full of mysteries, and what happens next isn't quite what you expect."
- In the story reference is made to a "Bohemian oats swindle"; see (HERE) and (HERE) for full details.
- Even though "The Third Man" is available in its original Collier's incarnation, the photo-copying is especially inferior, so we've gone with the version in Best Laid Schemes, the contents of which are:
  "The Susiness of Susan" (1912) (Webster Burgess)
  "The Girl with the Red Feather" (1913) (Webster Burgess)
  "The Campbells Are Coming" (1921)
  "Arabella's House Party" (1914)
  "The Third Man" (1916) (Webster Burgess) (above)
  "Wrong Number" (1919) (Webster Burgess)
- . . . and why shouldn't we toss in a bonus one-pager by Nicholson (HERE)?

The bottom line: "And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear."
The Bible

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