Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Duel of Shadows

The Duel of Shadows, published by Crippen & Landru Publishers in 2011, includes eleven of Vincent Cornier’s Barnabas Hildreth stories, written mostly in the 1930s. 

Vincent Cornier was the pseudonym of William Vincent Corner (1898-1976), an English author whose stories often blurred the boundaries between weird fiction and detective fiction. Early in his career Cornier tried his hand at both science fiction and supernatural tales. He eventually came to specialise in detective stories, but detective stories of a rather unusual type.

Cornier’s stories appeared in various British magazines in the 1920s and 1930s and thereafter very sporadically until the 1960s. Several of his 1930s stories were republished in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the late 1940s, Frederic Dannay (one half of the Ellery Queen writing team) being a great admirer of Cornier’s work.

Barnabas Hildreth himself is a somewhat unconventional detective. He is an agent of the British Secret Service but in between his official duties he amuses himself by solving crimes that appeal to him because of their bizarre nature.

The emphasis in these stories is not on detection as such. In some stories there is not even an actual crime in the technical sense. There is however always a mystery of some sort.

The mysteries are often very esoteric indeed. What connection could there possibly be between the murder of an English judge in 1932 and a Venetian glassmaker of the 16th century whose clients included the Borgias? It is unlikely that anyone but Barnabas Hildreth could find such a connection but that is exactly what he does in The Stone Ear, a strange but brilliant story that features one of strangest and most complex methods of murder to be found in crime fiction.

In The Brother of Heaven it is the background to the crime that provides the strange and exotic flavour, and a very exotic flavour it is.

The Silver Quarrel involves no actual crime but it does require Barnabas Hildreth to solve a mystery three centuries old, a mystery that involves hidden treasure and the unusual properties of 12th century Benedictine glass. It is a mystery the solution of which may well bring death. Glass with highly unusual properties seemed to be something of an obsession with Cornier.

In The Catastrophe in Clay a man is apparently turned into stone. This seems like a case that is likely to involve some supernatural agency but Barnabas Hildreth is certain there is a rational explanation. A rational explanation is however much more difficult to find in the The Throat of Green Jasper, in which the members of an archaeological expedition seem to be falling victim to an ancient Egyptian curse. Stories with ancient Egyptian themes were immensely popular in the 20s and 30s but Cornier manages to give his tale an original twist. This story is perhaps the closest approach to true weird fiction rather than detective fiction in this collection.

Some of the stories are about crimes committed by more or less conventional criminals, in others the criminal is very unconventional indeed while in at least one story we have a full-blown mad scientist with diabolical criminal mastermind tendencies. In other stories a crime appears to have been committed, but appearances can be deceptive. The Mantle that Laughed has some hints of the mad scientist to it as well.

Cornier delights in presenting rational explanations for the apparently inexplicable, but rational explanations that are themselves far more fantastic and bizarre than the supernatural. How can you rationally explain a man being shot by a pistol fired more than two centuries earlier? In the story The Duel of Shadows that is exactly what Barnabas Hildreth manages to do. Cornier displays a degree of enthusiasm for science than is matched by few other authors, in any genre.

Barnabas Hildreth himself is a bit like Philo Vance (though entirely lacking in Vance’s mannerisms that annoy so many readers) in that he proves to be an expert in just about every field of scholarship that can be imagined. For a man of unquestioned genius he is surprisingly lacking in arrogance. That’s not say he is entirely lacking in ego, but compared to a Sherlock Holmes, a Philo Vance or a Hercule Poirot he is modesty personified. He’s by no means dull and the stories do have a leavening of humour.

These stories are so ingenious, so varied, so intricately constructed and so hugely entertaining that their obscurity becomes a mystery in itself. For the tastes of the 1930s they probably crossed too many genre boundaries but for that very reason one would expect them to have built up a massive cult following in more recent years.

The Duel of Shadows is a collection that presents the reader with an intriguing blend of weird fiction and detective story, and with some of the most deliciously clever and bizarre ideas ever to be found in either genre. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds great! I'm going to try and track it down.