THE GOTHIC MYSTERY NOVELS OF BASIL COPPER

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Part I

While developing this essay came news of the loss of Basil Copper at the age of 89. "This too shall pass." Thus man and achievements become history. I can add little to the fond statements of others. The fate of one closes chapters in the lives of many, including mine. The books remain, my constant companions. I regret that there will never be more.

Introduction

I long held off composing this essay. It concerns four novels, one of which, The Curse of the Fleers, was originally published in such an editor-altered form that the author disowned it, and I had no desire to critique a work shunned by the fellow who wrote it. Where would be the fairness in that? I tarried, just in case, though counting on nothing. Well, the fans of Basil Copper have come through again, and the complete text has finally seen the light of day. Therefore, I proceed with pleasure.

A small but significant subset of the Copper corpus consists of these novels, styled Gothic mysteries, period pieces that in a sense unite the genres of the detective story and the Gothic romance. Imagine, if you will, Arthur Conan Doyle collaborating with Victoria Holt, and you get the basic idea. The books are full of the typical Copper weirdness, strange puzzles, striking occurrences, suspicious or inexplicable deaths, handsome heroes and lovely heroines. They don't constitute the best of Copper's writings (meaning, I tend to prefer his far more numerous short stories), yet they contain elements of his best, and one would miss much by ignoring them.

In the following sections I will treat each novel individually with basic descriptions, then discuss and analyze them together. I possess both editions of Curse, naturally utilize for current purposes the latest; original editions are used for the rest.

The Curse of the Fleers (2012, originally 1976), presented by PS Publishing, appears in an attractive volume (alas, somewhat hastily proofread, I discern) graced by the always excellent cover art of Stephen E. Fabian. Necropolis (1980), in a superb edition blessed by Fabian cover and interior art, comes courtesy of Arkham House, who similarly published The House of the Wolf (1983). Fedogan and Bremer make available the fourth novel, The Black Death (1991), with a lurid impressionistic cover and creepy interior drawings by Stephanie Hawks.

The Curse of the Fleers

Captain Guy Hammond, convalescing in (1880s?) London from a leg wound sustained in Afghanistan (a delightful nod to Dr. Watson), receives a cry for help from one-time subordinate Cedric Fleer. His father, Sir John, prey to hideous visions, seems in danger of losing his mind. Something is terribly wrong at Fleer Manor House, on the wild coast of Dorset; can Hammond get to the bottom of the weird events that oppress the ancient family? Be sure he will try his best. Introduced to Cedric's father, sister Prudence, a staff of servants, and certain intriguing acquaintances-- including the delightful and beautiful Claire Anstey-- Hammond commences his private investigation.

No, Sir John isn't crazy. A gory specter haunts the manor, linked to a tragic episode of family history. Centuries of bad blood seem to mar relations with glowering neighbor Sir Jeffery Darnley. Keys to subterranean vaults have disappeared, as have puzzling family documents, those relating to an old poem entitled "Enigma." Then commence the deaths. Accidents, suicides? Don't bet on it. Somebody lurks behind these odd and grim happenings, an unseen spider of a villain plucking artfully at the strands of his web, weaving his increasingly deadly plot around the Fleers.

Of course Captain Guy falls in love with Claire, but as if he doesn't face difficulties enough, she's a prime suspect, which calls for rather more reserve than he would like. The Fleer servants offer aid to the Captain's queries, except maybe those behaving mysteriously, or those who get bumped off before they reveal pertinent secrets. A popular stage actor, the Great Waldo, gets deeply involved to his ultimate regret. Eventually Hammond must join forces with redoubtable (if doubting) Inspector Cobbett before the dark veil of conspiracy can be torn asunder and the case solved.

Necropolis

This lively, loving homage to the classic tales of Sir Arthur stars Clyde Beatty (an interesting choice of name), a private detective operating in the manner of the great Sherlock who is, in fact, a real personage in this literary world. Like his hero, Beatty makes his living via clients who require his nearly unique services. Supporting him is his right hand man, Dotterell, an accomplished fellow of technical bent, quite unlike Watson.

Miss Angela Meredith requests that he investigate the recent death of her father. The police find nothing wrong in the sad fate of Tredegar Meredith, an important banker, but lovely young Angela knows that something awful weighed on his mind before the end, that he received threats, and despite his doctor's diagnosis of natural causes she suspects murder.

So begins a roller coaster ride through late Victorian times, as dashing Clyde's investigation uncovers disturbing facts concerning vile Doctor Couchman, who signed the death certificate, leading to an autopsy, conducted by Beatty's pal Doctor Rossington, of Mr. Meredith's disinterred body. This takes place by night at Brookwood Cemetery, the largest in the world; a real place, the Necropolis of the title, and the main geographic focus of the story.

Murder established, Beatty gradually uncovers evidence of a vast plot involving a series of spectacular bank robberies. On the trail of the wicked, he chases Couchman to his death, tangles with a hired assassin, ultimately confronts a murderous gang. Each avenue of inquiry, every discovery about suspicious persons or circumstances leads curiously back to Brookwood, which seems to be the epicenter of the evil disturbance shaking the foundations of high finance. The novel culminates in a mad night-time dash of trains and horse-drawn carriages, with a shattering finale when the nefarious ringleader is exposed. During this final affray Beatty is accompanied by no less than Inspector Lestrade, querulous ally of Holmes; typically slow on the uptake, but stout in a clinch.

The House of the Wolf

Professor John Coleridge finds frightening adventure in 1895 when he ventures to the isolated Hungarian village of Lugos (a locale linked, no coincidence, to Bela Lugosi) to attend, with other notable scholars, a conference on weird folklore. Hosting the gathering is Count Homolky, who dwells with his family in the ancient and spooky castle where the meeting is held. He is an amateur student of folklore himself, one strain in particular: lycanthropy.

This novel stands out because it contains definite aspects of the supernatural. All is not well in Castle Homolky and its environs; three of the Lugos folk have been lately slain by wolves, and the Homolkys have terrible stories to tell, of a fiendish ancestor akin to Vlad the Impaler, and a more recent incident a generation removed which indicates the prowling of a werewolf. These signs are multiplying again. Very much against his will Coleridge begins to suspect that a genuine monster stalks the castle, a beast that normally masquerades as a man.

Grotesque murders ensue. It falls to Professor Coleridge to investigate the killings, when he isn't romancing the luscious Nadia, the Count's daughter. As the horrors escalate, with the learned attendees being knocked off in savage fashion, Coleridge is also targeted for destruction. He survives, however, surmounting even a mass attack by wolves, to orchestrate a trap laid for his inhuman foe. The shocking butchery of the Count's invalid mother sets in motion the final act in which Coleridge, with the aid of the Count and colleague Abercrombie, destroy the menace... or have they? One more surprise lies in store.

In an entertaining aside, Professor Coleridge reads of Clyde Beatty's exploits in London, which precisely dates that story, too.

The Black Death

John Carter (a notable literary name, that), budding architect, considers it a privilege to be made junior partner in the lucrative firm of Mr. Pollard, though it operates in the lonely Dartmoor village of Thornton Bassett. The prospects excite him; Pollard is a congenial man, Carter's new landlady Mrs. Tregorran is oh so nice, and fellow lodger Jeremy Hands, an employee of the firm, proves an instant friend. Before long Carter makes a big splash, taking on choice assignments, including one for the local magistrate, Simon Hemmings, who makes a hobby out of building clockwork mannequins, and keeps a beautiful young ward, Fiona Hammond. Yes, this life appeals to John Carter.

But what of the mysterious deaths on the moors, and the stories about ghostly night riders out there, and the increasingly abominable hints Carter receives from Hands and the Rector about nightmarish doings plaguing the land? Before long, scarcely realizing how it happens, Carter plunges into the thick of a secretive evil movement which lashes out against its enemies, striking them down hideously with the Black Death-- not the historic disease, rather something even more monstrous-- and he comes to understand that virulent Satanism has reared its ugly head in Thornton Bassett.

Hands, sure that he approaches the heart of the mystery, vanishes, and Carter's subsequent discovery of his destroyed corpse draws him on to investigate and defeat the evil. Others-- the Rector, Magistrate Hemmings, Captain Henderson of the Dragoons-- profess determination to confront the menace, but that task necessarily falls to John Carter, keen architect, in addition pretty good detective and combatant. Everyone, especially Fiona, thinks most highly of him, yet can he successfully face the Black Death? Of course, and the delight lies in how he does it.

Part II

In the sections below I discuss various general aspects of the novels: types of story lines, styles, characterization, and stage setting. Here what I'm groping for are the commonalities, where they exist, that tie the stories together, make them a literary unit.

Plotting and Plots

All the novels are plotted in a fairly similar, somewhat expected fashion, for these kinds of stories. The hero intrudes into a wildly problematic situation, is called upon to right it. Captain Hammond is a valued friend of Cedric Fleer, Clyde Beatty a professional (if non-authoritative) agent of law and order brought in by his client, Professor Coleridge a learned academic possessing special knowledge supposedly relevant to the situation at hand, John Carter an astute go-getter who stumbles into mystery. The mysteries are certainly worthy of tough, competent heroes: vast evil stalks abroad, spreading terror and death, with the regular authorities for whatever reason unable to handle the crisis, perhaps incapable of understanding it. This is pretty standard stuff for tales like these, but Copper knows how to tell a whale of a story. While the execution may vary in quality, the synopses above illustrate his ability to conceive a grandiose framework for a Gothic novel.

Stylization and Style

A big part of what makes Copper's stories such enjoyable reads is his balanced, free-flowing style. He's a good writer, period, and technique can count for a lot. Barring lapses (most often strung-out spans of dialogue), he takes the show on the road and keeps it rolling. Speaking of period, he exhibits a sure hand in creating literary worlds set in that not so distant past, declaring through his written word a mastery of detail and imagery which firmly grounds a story in its temporal context. I believe in his late Nineteenth Century; it works, it feels right, the characters and their actions appear to make sense within it. Off hand I can't think of a single jarring anachronism.

It is, I can accept, a stylized view of the past, one designed to enhance a moving tale rather than treat the subjects anthropologically. Scenes, events, people assume larger than life qualities. That I prefer, rather than deplore. In so doing Copper suggests goodness and nobility, a beneficial order, opposing baleful forces of disintegration.

Heroes and Heroines, etc.

So many of Copper's characters loom large. His heroes are called upon to accomplish great deeds, and to the extent that they succeed they come across as exceptional men, exemplars of their society. His heroines tend to be pert and playful, and classically feminine to the nth degree. Supporting characters differ considerably among themselves, but patterns emerge there too. We see faithful friends, devoted servants or handymen, wise scholars in abundance.

The amateur detective motif leads, as usual, to the portrayal of police and related types as, while often competent, lacking the acumen to puzzle on their own to unusual solutions. Grant this as a predictable literary outcome, for otherwise the reason for the dashing hero vanishes.

Seeing the Scenery

Having mentioned Copper's penchant for fine historical recreation, I add to this his ability to sustain mood through glowing imagery. He has a neat knack for description, lending power to his awe-inspiring landscapes which rise up as eerie visions, threatening to overwhelm his characters in the midst of their travails. Bleak moors, gloomy catacombs, moonlit cemeteries he vivifies, dragging the reader into these places, rendering them frighteningly real. With Copper at his best, atmosphere reigns supreme. I say this is his strongest suit. It can compensate for occasional failings elsewhere.

Part III

Here I come to the nitty-gritty of the essay, critiques of the particular novels, with discussion of what works, what doesn't, and why. Be warned: spoilers aplenty ahead! If it matters, read the novels first.

Blessings and Curses in The Curse of the Fleers

We've got a rock solid story, a brooding mystery, an engaging hero, a delicious cast of suspects, some great set pieces. What not to like? There are some structural oddities to this one, though.

First, the good. Captain Guy appeals to me, and his campaign against the sinister machinations at Fleer Manor House makes for a thrilling read. Right up to the climax I eagerly turned the page, keen to find out what lay beyond. Fleer Manor, with its ancient towers and battlements, its alarming subterranean vaults, its nasty history, makes for a thoroughly serviceable setting. The reasons, when revealed, for the cause of the horrid events work fine.

Not everything does, however. Two troublesome plot points stand out, one minor, the other frankly enormous. The first concerns Claire Anstey, the clear heroine of the piece. Clear by the last page, that is, not so certain earlier. Copper portrays her as a potential suspect-- a clever move-- only it isn't handled cleverly. In practice it means that she plays a smaller role in the story than she ought. She pretty much disappears from the tale during its exciting latter portion. I think she should have been factored in more. As it stands, she and the Captain spend so little time together that I wonder how they managed to fall in love. Earlier, he briefly seems to lean towards Prudence, who frankly would have made an equally fine choice.

Now for the big one. From its conception (we know this because the second publication of his novel thoughtfully includes his original notes) Copper set out to fabricate a conspiracy so cunningly orchestrated that its master, operating from afar, need not risk his own skin until the culmination of his plot. His identity isn't revealed until he sneaks into the catacombs in search of hidden treasure, where he falls victim to a hideous booby-trap set in Cromwellian times. An amazing moment (and one Copper uses also in his Solar Pons story "The Adventure of the Shaft of Death"), only who is this villain? Why, it's a fellow who has not previously appeared in the book-- out of disguise, that is-- furthermore one scarcely mentioned before. To top it off, his manner of death, while morbidly exotic, precludes any final interaction with Hammond or any other character.

This results in a cold, clinical denouement. We're told, in the end, the crucial facts, without experiencing all that we crave. There's no getting around it, this weakens an otherwise magnificent story. It's a brave literary experiment, creating a villain so cloaked in shadow that he hardly exists! The Hollywood version would insert him among the Fleers, misdirect the audience from him in a more conventional manner.

I credit Basil Copper with daring, regretfully consider the tactic a misfire. It pulls the novel down from the absolute top rank where it naturally belongs.

Grade: B

Sherlockian Shenanigans in Necropolis

Pure and simple, this is a Holmes story without Holmes, replete with deliciously dark atmosphere. Copper hits his stride with this one. A well-knit plot and gripping pacing hurtle the novel through its exciting career to a smashing finish.

Clyde Beatty makes for a masterful detective, he and Dotterell forming the perfect duo for solving weird Victorian era mysteries. Beatty possesses all the native brilliance and perseverance of Holmes, is in addition a genuinely superior human being. I like him enormously, worry about him when he repeatedly faces death, want him to catch Angela as well as the bad guys.

If I have any major complaint, it's that the entertaining pair of Beatty and Dotterell didn't star in a series of such stories. I would gladly hear more of them. Perhaps a devoted fan-author should step up to the plate, as Basil Copper did with Solar Pons in honor of August Derleth.

All of the characters, good or bad, interest me, and every one of them belong, by which I mean the novel would suffer for their absence. That's a good sign, indicating careful consideration given to the structuring of the tale. Unlike the villain of Curse, each gets his requisite moments on stage. The appearance of Inspector Lestrade makes for much "insider" fun; one can imagine him having just come around from Baker Street and his latest mental tussle with Holmes!

I note one trivial but nagging item unique to this story. Needless obscurity long surrounds the fate of Dr. Couchman: did he die in the Thames or not? Despite some slight anticipation of surprises awaiting, the answer turns out to be "yes," and a pretty darned casual answer at that. Nothing develops from it.

Grade: A

Gloom and Doom in The House of the Wolf

This is by far my least favorite of the four, and I've received the impression that my views fail to correspond to those of many avid readers, so I must be precise in my explanations. Let me state that no one can be more astonished by my attitude than myself, for The House of the Wolf contains everything I desire in a work of this kind. Setting, subject, atmosphere: to all intents and purposes, perfect. There are some great characters, great scenes, and the whole thing is so good and spooky! Isn't that enough to keep me happy? Sadly, no, and I've got my reasons. The character of John Coleridge, and certain flaws in the plot, brutally maim this story.

Professor Coleridge is the least impressive hero, by a mile, of Copper's Gothic mystery novels. I can't get over just how embarrassingly ineffective he is. He never actually accomplishes anything of enduring value, so far as resolving the mystery is concerned. He doesn't catch the werewolf; he doesn't even identify the monster; he gets the girl, and she being Nadia that's something worth bragging about for a long lifetime, but that's it. He's constantly praised for his cleverness, without exhibiting any. Reading of his exploits, I sometimes feel like I'm missing the point, perhaps missing the author's joke. If so, shame on me, but I don't think that's the case. Most tentatively, I theorize that Copper wished to emphasize the daunting nature of the villain by minimizing the hero. Whatever the reason, I don't care for the result.

Copper construct's the novel like a mad slasher flick. I don't care for those, either. Too many characters appear in the story solely to be killed; otherwise, they contribute little. The entire sub-plot of the scholars' conference could be excised without seriously damaging the book. On the contrary, fewer characters, fewer deaths, would make for a tighter story with more personalized menace. In common mad slasher fashion, the climax turns out to be a false one (the wrong man is killed, for God's sake!), and the tepid finish doesn't atone for that. As presented, one must wonder what logically follows from the end of the novel. Too much is left pointlessly hanging.

Of course Basil Copper wrote this, which usually means it's worth reading, which remains true here. It simply isn't what it should have been.

Grade: C

Gothic Culminations in The Black Death

Now swing rapidly around to my favorite of the four. I don't claim perfection for The Black Death, merely state that this is the sort of Gothic mystery I want from the likes of Basil Copper.

Architect John Carter is an exquisite hero, one with whom I readily choose to identify. He's a smart fellow trying to get ahead in the world, quite prepared to mind his own business, but when weird evil raises its murderous head, Carter discovers his own worth, proceeds to amaze all with his boundless capacities. The truly Satanic evil he confronts is titanic and vile, a worthy foil. Magistrate Hemmings makes for a grandiose and nasty villain, one also curiously realistic given the grotesque themes of this story. As for the heroine Fiona, nothing but good can be said about her. I won't hear anything else!

The story takes an enormous amount of time to develop. Call that a flaw, if one wishes. In other cases I might, in this case not. I am really satisfied by how Copper minutely describes Carter's settling in to home and routine in Thornton Bassett, painting a vivid picture of life in this charming backwater town, then by infinitesimal degrees hints at the darkness enshrouding the region. The author well maintains the mystery, dropping eerie clues at stages in order to propel the story.

Every character proves important to the plot. Reader, ignore at your peril landladies, serving wenches, and handymen. Each exist here for a reason. Their lives, sometimes their deaths, contribute to a powerful narrative.

The staircase climax rises in sure steps thrilling, relentless, and-- in the case of Carter's battle with the clockwork mannequins-- marvelously outrageous. This last episode is an authorial indulgence that must be read to be fully appreciated. What does Hemmings' oddball hobby have to do with anything? Find out! And there's the merest touch at the end, a whiff of the supernatural, wisely suggested earlier in the tale. It's enough.

Grade: A

The Old Bugaboo

Copper's penchant for obsessive secrecy as a plot device permeates all these novels to an extent, occasionally a debilitating one. I've dwelt on this peculiar literary habit of his at length elsewhere, so will confine myself to brief comments here.

The three later novels I have discussed before in this context. Clyde Beatty manages to withhold vital information from Scotland Yard while, nevertheless, gaining their complete cooperation. Quite a feat I reckon, but in Necropolis it does serve the plot, in that it saves explanation until the end, in proper detective story fashion. That one I accept. Unnecessary secrecy makes hash of The House of the Wolf, as the hoarding of critical knowledge by characters results in constant tragedy, never with valid excuse. Carter's informant's in The Black Death behave likewise, with Jeremy Hands losing his life as a result. Fortunately, in this novel the awkward behavior isn't so egregious as to inflict mortal wounds on a great story.

The complete publication of The Curse of the Fleers establishes that with his first Gothic mystery Copper employs this artifice. Cedric Fleer, so desperate for help that he's cracking under the strain, proves foolishly cagey at first about revealing useful information. In addition, Sir John's initial reticence about what ails him beggars belief. I'm pleased to find that they get over this fairly quickly, so that forthright Captain Hammond can do his job.

By Way of Amusement

Allow me to conclude this piece with an awards ceremony, in which I hand out prizes for the best and the worst. The awards are relative, of course, with many a close runner-up, and I state once more that all four novels, composed in Basil Copper's engaging style, deserve reading.

Best Novel: The Black Death

Worst Novel: The House of the Wolf

Best Detective Work: Necropolis

Worst Detective Work: The House of the Wolf

Best Hero: Clyde Beatty of Necropolis

Worst Hero: John Coleridge of The House of the Wolf

Best Heroine: Nadia Homolky of The House of the Wolf

Worst Heroine: Claire Anstey of The Curse of the Fleers

Best Villain: Simon Hemmings of The Black Death

Worst Villain: Felix Fenton of The Curse of the Fleers


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