Wednesday, October 23, 2013

THE DUEL OF SHADOWS by Vincent Cornier

Vincent Cornier was a pulp author who kept busy in the 40s and 50s writing stories for magazines like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Golden Fleece. He's largely forgotten today, but there are some lucky few who know of his detective Barnabas Hildreth, "The Black Monk." I knew of him only because of a reference to him I came across once as an occult detective, and another as a scientific detective, so I was hoping to see what Hildreth was really like.

Naturally, he's not really either. Hildreth's cases often smack of the occult, but have "rational" explanations...although often the science is utterly cockeyed.

Hildreth is supposedly a high-up figure in the British government, or maybe secret service, and is described as "half-poet, half-scientist, maybe all genius." However, he spends a lot of time investigating bizarre crimes. And the more bizarre, the better. These mysteries all have generous dollops of the weird and grotesque, so fasten your seatbelts.

"The Stone Ear" has a murder committed with a strange weapon, a glass goblet that mysteriously disintegrates, leaving a sharp poisoned shard in the bearer's hand. The source, and exact secret, of the goblet drive the story, and while it's damned unlikely, I love it. The element of the weird goblet is just the sort of gothick touch I adore.

Next was "The Brother of Heaven," a slightly racist story in which an Asian man commits several murders with a bizarre, Fu Manchu-ish indirect weapon. "The Silver Quarrel" smacks of M. R. James with its story revolving around a treasure hidden in an old English mansion, hidden by an elaborate trap.

"The Throat of Green Jasper" is as occult as this collection gets, a story revolving around Egyptian relics with hints of reincarnation. For me, it had echoes of Dion Fortune's Dr. Tavener stories. "The Duel of Shadows" is probably the best story in the book. A man is shot and wounded in his a bullet fired two hundred years earlier. How did it happen? Who was responsible? There's no time travel going on here, and the solution to the mystery, while unlikely and baroque, seems actually halfway plausible.

"The Catastrophe in Clay" is the least likely and most science-fictional story in the book, and is utterly implausible. People are being transformed into statues, by what appears to be some sort of gas. Who is responsible, and why is it happening? The solution may have seemed like legit science once upon a time, but is risible now.

"The Mantle That Laughed" and "The Tabasheeran Pearls" are both built on artifacts with seemingly strange properties, and that aren't what they seem. One is about a golden chainmail cloak, supposedly Aztec, that makes strange noises when shaken, and the other is a pearl necklace that seems to kill its wearer.

"The Gilt Lily" has a series of daring crimes committed with the aide of a strange plant, and "The Monster" is a twisted tale of family secrets and twisted souls....and believe it or not, the only story with a 100% plausible solution.

This was enjoyable reading, despite the preposterousness of the plots, and perhaps because of them. This is pulp nonsense, but fun pulp nonsense, and often with quite a bit of atmosphere. These are the kind of detective adventures I wish I could have, and I'm sure some of you are right there with me. This is a paperback from the good folks at Crippen & Landru, who are making it their business to resurrect lost and forgotten crime writers. Find it if you can, folks, this is fun stuff.

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