Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Gauntlet of Alceste

The two 1920s Addison Kent mystery novels of Hopkins Moorhouse have been published in one volume by Coachwhip Press as The Addison Kent Mysteries. The Gauntlet of Alceste was originally published in 1921. The Golden Scarab followed in 1926. I have no idea if these were Moorhouse’s only attempts at detective fiction. The Coachwhip Press edition lacks an introduction, possibly because the author is so obscure that there was insufficient information to provide such an introduction. All that I can tell you is that Hopkins Moorhouse was a pseudonym used by Herbert Joseph Moorhouse (1882-1960).

It is The Gauntlet of Alceste with which we’re concerned at the moment.

This book seems at first to be a typical English country house murder mystery except that the setting in this case, the author being American, is in the United States. Henry C. Radcliffe lives with his daughter Rose in Hillcrest, a large and comfortable mansion in Westchester county in New York State. As is usual in this type of mystery several guests are staying at the house. Mrs St Anton, a handsome lady of mature years, and her nephew Roger Levering seem to be rather unwelcome guests and their presence at Hillcrest is a matter of some perplexity to Rose Radcliffe. The other guest is far more welcome - Tommy Traynor is a personable young man who works for a new York City gem merchant. Traynor is in love with Rose, a matter of which her father is unaware. Traynor has not yet achieved sufficient wealth or social standing to ask for Rose’s hand but he is a young man on the way up and he is confident that this unfortunate circumstance will soon be remedied.

Naturally there is a murder and it occurs quite early in the book. Everyone in the house is a potential suspect. Tommy Traynor feels that it might be advisable at this stage to call in his friend Addison Kent, a popular writer of murder mysteries who has had some success as an amateur detective. Kent is well-known to Detective-Lieutenant Bob Fargey, the investigating officer. Fargey has a reputation as an ambitious publicity-seeker who is nonetheless an honest and efficient police officer. He and Kent get on well and he is quite happy to have Kent’s assistance.

So far it all seems like a by-the-numbers fair-play country house murder mystery but two-thirds of the way through the book that changes dramatically. One of the characters introduces an outlandish and incredibly complex backstory that has no connection with anything that has happened so far and that introduces important new motives and new suspects the existence of which was entirely unknown to the reader up to that point. This in itself is just about enough to disqualify this novel as a fair-play mystery.

Worse is to come. The book proceeds to break most of the rules that would come to govern the golden age detective story. Those rules had not yet been codified of course, and most of the detective story writers of the golden age would at some time bend or break some of those rules. Nevertheless The Gauntlet of Alceste demonstrates the necessity for some sort of rules, and it tellingly demonstrates that while you might get away with breaking one of those rules if you break a whole swag of the rules then the reader is entitled to feel that the author is most definitely not playing fair.

The Gauntlet of Alceste also relies to a perilous extent on coincidence. Not just one coincidence either, but a whole series of very unlikely coincidences.

Despite its 1921 publication date The Gauntlet of Alceste has little in common with the classic puzle-plot mystery of the 1920s and 1930s. It has much more in common with Edwardian crime fiction, and in some ways it has even more in common with the Victorian sensation novel. I am personally quite fond of the sensation novel but it is as well for the reader approaching this book to be prepared for the fact that it does not conform to the pattern of the crime novel of the 20s and 30s.

If you are prepared to make such allowances you might enjoy the sheer outrageousness of the plot, involving as it does secret passage-ways, ghostly apparitions, masked balls, disguises, duels and characters who are not the characters we were led to believe they were.

The key role played by the master jewel-thief Alceste also suggests the influence of the gentleman-thief crime thrillers of the preceding age such as Hornung’s Raffles stories and Leblanc’s adventures of Arsène Lupin.

The characterisation, such as it is, is what you would expect from a Victorian penny dreadful or from melodrama.

Judged by the standards of the contemporary crime novels of Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, Van Dine and company The Gauntlet of Alceste just won’t do at all and if that’s the sort of thing you’re expecting you may be tempted to throw this one across the room. If you accept it as an outlandish anachronism, a throwback to an earlier age, then you might find some enjoyment here.

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