(Intended as part of a series on the works of Basil Copper, this essay on his Solar Pons tales must necessarily take into account the literary labors of August Derleth, the originator of Pons. This is fitting: Derleth and Copper were friendly correspondents; Derleth first published Copper's works in America; after Derleth's much too early death it was his firm, Arkham House, that called on Copper to continue the tales, and hired him to edit the long overdo omnibus collection of Derleth's Pons corpus. With their efforts so intertwined, I need not apologize for the seeming detours in this study.
For this essay I utilize The Solar Pons Omnibus of August Derleth (not counting the collaborations with Mack Reynolds), and what Basil Copper calls his approved volumes, as listed in his introduction to Solar Pons: The Final Cases.)
Solar Pons is Sherlock Holmes, or he is the clone of Holmes, or his long lost son. However one rationalizes the characters, Pons is definitely the literary heir apparent to Holmes, the only one possible. Pons, accompanied by faithful Doctor Parker, strides across the 1920s and 30s peering into the dark corners of life, brilliantly ferreting out the truths concealed behind seemingly impenetrable mysteries. He always gets his man-- an elementary point-- what matters is how he does it, by fierce logic and the analysis of the almost invisible clues that the staid authorities miss. Like his predecessor, Pons operates against a backdrop of grand old estates and picturesque British countryside, confronting a delightful variety of clients and culprits.
The great August Derleth conceived Solar Pons as an extension of the Sherlock Holmes canon of Conan Doyle; he wrote the several dozen original stories over a period of decades; he fashioned the avowedly derivative but lively format, gave to us the familiar characters under fresh names and slightly different guises. Pons, London's cool, unbeatable master detective; Dr. Lyndon Parker, the stodgy, slow-witted companion boasting surprising literary talent; Mrs. Johnson, the affable landlady of 7B Praed Street; dim but dogged Inspector Jamison and his ilk; August Derleth laid them out, set them up, made them live. How good a job did he do?
The question demands a simple answer, for on his own turf Derleth is a titan of his trade. The stories in the omnibus are of generally high quality, almost uniformly entertaining, with few clunkers. The interplay of the characters is usually fun, especially Pons' good-natured needling of Parker.
So many are the tales that I will pick out only a few by way of example:
"The Adventure of the Sotheby Salesman" gets this mammoth collection off to a rousing start. A clean, fast moving mystery: impoverished traveling salesman Peter Woodall is found dead, shot through the head, in an unoccupied house owned by William Hendricks, who lives on the adjacent property. Woodall has no known connection to the house, the neighborhood, or the neighbors. Who killed him, and why? Those standard queries of the detective tale lead to surprising and ugly revelations.
"The Adventure of the Haunted Library" provides that old standby of the apparent haunting that isn't. Margaret Ashcroft, having purchased a fine old home in a declining area, finds her household terrorized by strange visitations of sight and sound. Pons commences to unravel the skein of a remarkably vicious scheme.
On vacation, Pons and Parker experience "The Adventure of the Innkeeper's Clerk", in which quiet, polite Saul Krayle is done to death and his room ransacked. Why would anyone strangle a mere clerk, and what did the murderer seek to find? Pons establishes that people are not always what they seem, and that evils of the past intrude tragically into the present.
"The Adventure of the Benin Bronze", one of the very best, commences when Miriam Morley begs Pons to intervene on behalf of her uncle Randall Creighton, a wealthy man tormented by apparent upwellings from his grim past. Years before the old soldier took part in a nightmarish African campaign; now he receives threats indicating native vengeance. So fast do developments ensue that by the time Pons arrives on the scene the feared murder has occurred... only the victim is the wrong man, Miriam's husband Aaron. What does it all mean?
Grisly tragedy strikes in "The Adventure of the 'Triple Kent'", about the horrific triple shotgun slaying of three harmless women, Mrs. Norwood, her daughter, and their housekeeper Miss Sothern. Pons, of course, uncovers the pathetically sad truth behind this atrocity. Much more than most, the cruelties of this story read like something ripped from the headlines.
A classic of its kind, "The Adventure of the Mosaic Cylinders" takes off with the murder of well to do Cecil Browne on his Birdlip estate. His heir, Angus Birrell, present at the scene, is immediately suspected. Mysterious dying words, a peculiar sovereign box, and the discovery of a murky coded message lead to astounding revelations, and the killer.
I could go on and on with these favorable mentions. Out of so many stories, there are very few that I really dislike. One that rubs me the wrong way is "The Adventure of the Blind Clairaudient", in which Pons takes with illogical seriousness the trappings of supernaturalism; a bit too much of Derleth coming through, I suspect, at the expense of Pons' characteristic acumen. More distressing is the weakness of "The Adventure of the Dorrington Inheritance", which should have been a grand story documenting how Parker met his future wife. I like the mystery, deplore the lack of rationale for the personal complications set forth. Constance Dorrington, alas, isn't sufficiently drawn to justify the good doctor's desire, nor his relentless indignation at Pons. Yet these are two stories out of 1300 pages of material, most of the rest good to superb.
We start off with a bang in "The Adventure of the Perplexed Photographer", in which Pons and Parker take on as client Bruce Beresford, commercial photographer, who suffers from a curious problem: he is being anonymously persecuted, leading to the destruction or theft of negatives, even a physical assault. Beresford, of course, a harmless fellow in a harmless trade, can't imagine why anyone would do this to him. Can Pons figure it out? Unfortunately he is distracted by another case brought to his attention by Inspector Jamison, the brutal murder of the wealthy Professor Mair. Matters take an unexpected turn when Pons detects a subtle link between these events.
"The Sealed Spire Mystery" may be my favorite of Copper's Pons tales. Doctor Glyn Campbell, Rector of Shap, like Beresford, is tormented by a merciless campaign of persecution. In his case it takes the form of what seems an endless series of malicious practical jokes. The Rector is at his wit's end; what's the point of it all, and what, if anything does it have to do with the legendary locked chamber in the church bell tower, the focus of so much crazy popular theorizing? Pons sees through the insidious game.
In "The Adventure of the Six Golden Doubloons" Pons, called in by Superintendent Heathfield of Scotland Yard, investigates the calculated murder of Elihu Cook Stanmore, professional blackmailer. Arrayed against this unsympathetic victim are a host of potential suspects, all of them cruelly used by the evil departed. Pons must sift through the intriguing clues to unravel the mystery, all the while pondering where justice lies in this complex case.
"The Adventure of the Ipi Idol" concerns Colonel J.H. D'Arcy, wealthy retiree from the Colonial Service in West Africa, who inherits a fine estate after the previous heir mysteriously dies. Now the Colonel, having announced his forthcoming marriage, faces death. Somebody is out to get him, but who could benefit from his demise? Besides the unusual titular object, a green mamba and a tarantula play thrilling supporting roles.
In "The Adventure of Buffington Old Grange", the new owners of the house-- unoccupied for years-- begin to suspect it's haunted. Weird sights and sounds, a mysterious fire plague them. Pons swings into action on behalf of Horace Oldfield, convinced that someone, for nefarious reasons, is trying to drive him out.
"The Adventure of the Hammer of Hate" is the least of this assortment, if only because the ultimate revelation proves less satisfactory that what has gone before. The case intrigues: two men, Eustace Fernchurch and Sebastian Bulstrode, vie for the same girl. Bulstrode dies, his head bashed in; Fernchurch, the obvious killer, flees and seeks the aid of Solar Pons. While not one of my favorites, the culprit does come as a complete surprise, and the story presents entertaining insights on the worthiness of the goal animating both victim and suspect.
"The Adventure of the Shaft of Death" is a real thrill. Pons and Parker, on one of their infrequent vacations, receive the alarming telegram, "MUST CONSULT YOU MATTER LIFE AND DEATH", from scholarly, reclusive Septimus Grimpton, owner of Penderel Lodge, a great estate descending from his eccentric grandfather. That ancestor built a peculiar mausoleum for his wife and himself; now a complete stranger, having broken into the weird edifice, has been found horribly murdered. What did he want; how and why was he killed; what is really going on here?
"The Adventure of the Frightened Governess" involves Helen Jane Helstone, a nice lady hired, under unusual circumstances, to look after two young children. Immediately she suspects sinister doings: her charges are odd and foreign, their supposed father apparently doesn't speak their native tongue, there is much covert activity and forbidden corners in their isolated house, and the governess and children are waylaid by menacing strangers. Pons must get to the bottom of what turns out to be a dangerously complex case.
"The Adventure of the Defeated Doctor" derives its title from the behind the scenes machinations of the oriental Doctor (code term for Fu Manchu), but that is a trivial aspect; actually this tale deals with the superb mystery surrounding the seemingly impossible murder of the sculptor Romaine Schneider, savagely bludgeoned to death in his locked studio. Schneider had the only key-- no one could get in or out-- how did it happen, and why? The surprising solution, coming right out of left field, nevertheless relies on obscure elements of the dead man's private life. This is a strong story.
In "Murder at the Zoo", Pons and Parker head to Regent's Park, there to investigate the dramatic and menacing pranks perpetrated by the "Phantom of the Zoo". Pons is making great strides weighing evidence, sizing up suspects, when the tale takes a stunning turn with the death of Gordon Jefferies... at the hands of a gorilla? It's a fair story, leading to an atypically downbeat ending.
"The Adventure of the Verger's Thumb" involves mysterious doings at Norwich Cathedral. Pons and Parker, while vacationing, get drawn into a web of lost coded messages, strange men camping out in the church, a spookily tenanted coffin, and the comically sad story of the verger, who claims to have been bitten on his thumb by a gargoyle! In this excellent tale Pons connects a plethora of disparate clues, resulting in a grand conclusion to an excellent case.
"The Adventure of the Phantom Face" is as good or better. Young Michael Balfour comes to Pons with an uneasy mind, despite his recent inheritance of Bredewell House. He gained this grand boon only because his uncle has just been frightened to death by the hideous Phantom that has been terrorizing the locale. Now Balfour has seen the Face, which he is wise enough to realize bodes ill for him. This case is sufficiently demanding that another nasty murder intervenes between Pons and the solution.
Of the same high quality, and beautifully clever, is "Death at the Metropole", set in a genteel hotel, a rarity among Pons stories, for rather than following in the footsteps of Holmes, this one smacks more of Hercule Poirot. The locked room mystery is fascinating; equally so is the head to head clash between Pons and Inspector Jamison, the latter making himself amusingly difficult in this instance. Be sure that Pons straightens him out, showing no mercy in the process.
"The Adventure of the Callous Colonel" presents a rare case in this literary corpus of an "arch criminal" story that really works from start to finish. The evil mastermind is Colonel Alistair McDonald, dealer in murder and large scale fraud, a man who pulls the strings in safety while brutes like the vile Mungo Ferguson do the dirty work. McDonald goes after feisty Jennifer Hayling, striving to snatch Glen Affric from her for suitably nefarious reasons. Pons breaks up the scheme and-- a unique twist-- puts paid to the villain once and for all.
"The Adventure of the Mad Millionaire" centers on Hugo Foy, global financier, who has suddenly gone completely round the bend. Called in by concerned Colonel Mortimer, Pons dives into an increasingly tangled case, including among its elements the millionaire's missing son. What has become of the boy, and what brought on Foy's oddly selective madness?
Poor Horatio Biggs of London's Egyptian Museum, targeted in "The Adventure of the Cursed Curator" following a trip to Egypt, is tormented by vandalism, death, and suspicious accidents until he begs help from Solar Pons. The cunning detective sees behind these events the form of a coolly plotted crime, counter-plots with his usual skill.
"The Adventure of the Hound of Hell" starts off masquerading as yet another take on The Hound of the Baskervilles, but it isn't, being instead merely a first class, wholly gripping murder yarn. Greedy old Emily Schneider has been done to death-- in seemingly impossible circumstances, naturally-- and her heir Rollo Watling is the logical suspect... or is he? Pons doesn't think so, which ought to be bad news for somebody. Pure logic, plus his typically astute handling of minute clues, leads Pons to a somewhat bittersweet triumph. Oh yes, there is a Hound of Hell, but Solar Pons doesn't waste a second on that.
We take a curious detour from the norm in "The Adventure of the Singular Sandwich". Aramis Tregorran, successful portrait painter, has been accused of strangling his estranged wife Sylvia; he admits he was there, apparently alone with her, yet claims that he can't remember what happened. Did he commit the crime or not... or are both answers possible? It's a truly strange case, and it all comes down to that trivial clue of the singular sandwich.
Appearing in the anthology Dark Detectives, "The Adventure of the Crawling Horror" is a near great story, slightly weakened by a dubious climax akin to that found in "the Horrified Heiress" listed below; also by the fact that, while there is plenty of horror, nothing actually crawls in this tale. Those hoping for, perhaps, a Lovecraftian Pons must search elsewhere. This is a wonderful mystery involving the rather unpleasant Silas Grimstone, "notorious miser and recluse", who is haunted by a ghastly apparition that appears to him by night. The setting of Grimstone Manor and its swampy milieu is especially noteworthy.
In "The Adventure of the Haunted Rectory" Pons tackles still another case which he knows has nothing to do with haunting. The Rector of Haselmere dies of shock; two years later his daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, comes to Pons with tales of spooky events disturbing her and her mother. Pons deduces that somebody wants something, delves even farther into the past to reach the roots of the matter, and sets up an elaborate charade to catch the culprit.
"The Adventure of the Ignored Idols" is very much lesser Pons, rather similar to "the Cursed Curator", but nowhere as good. This story of skullduggery at the Mentmore Museum suffers from two unsavory features: unnecessary use of the "arch criminal" motif, this time in the uninteresting person of Charles LaFontaine, who escapes to write Pons, "WE SHALL MEET AGAIN" (mercifully they don't), and a truly out of character sneer of Pons at Dr. Parker, not only annoying but entirely unjustified in the circumstances.
"The Adventure of the Horrified Heiress", an obvious derivative of "the Speckled Band", ought to be one of the very best Pons stories, and perhaps it is, being weakened only by an incredibly clumsy climax. Evelyn Brentwood, about to come into her inheritance, lives in fear of her gloomy, vicious-tempered uncle. She appeals to Pons to investigate the mysteries that have terrified her of late; Pons uncovers murder and deep-laid schemes spanning years. A great puzzle, but how that ending bugs me.
Those reading the volumes in order would be baffled by "The Adventure of the Baffled Baron", for it is simply "The Adventure of the Defeated Doctor" with a few words pointlessly changed to implicate the Baron Kroll instead. I don't know what that is about.
Again I derive a sense of Poirot from "The Adventure of the Anguished Actor", a clever story involving lurid threats of death against stage and cinema star Cedric Carstairs. A man with many enemies, he asks Pons to prevent one of them from murdering him. Pons achieves his goal in stellar fashion, forestalling the intended crime on stage.
Incidentally, this volume contains a Sherlock Holmes story, "The Adventure of the Persecuted Painter", which might as well be a Pons tale (as the reverse might often be said). In this one, Aristide Smedhurst is the target of the latest creepy campaign to drive an occupant from his new home. Holmes seeks and finds the purpose behind it all. It's a perfectly good story, illustrating for me how readily the Pontian oeuvre, despite modest changes, fits into the Sherlockian.
While their tastes, to a large extent, agree, these are quite different writers, and it shows. Even a casual dipping into the Pons canon reveals these elementary insights:
1) Derleth's tales are short and sweet. They get to the point fast, race mercilessly toward the revelatory conclusion. Derleth, commonly fair to his readers, tends to hammer out the clues, allowing the more clever of his audience to theoretically deduce the identity of the villain and the cause of crime along with the detective. I am familiar with at least one reader who fairs poorly in this regard, but that may constitute his lack. Derleth doesn't hold back anything of importance for long.
2) Copper proceeds ever in leisurely mode, many of his tales so long as to be reckoned short novels. His languid style allows for more character development, sometimes intensely so; we learn much more of the quirks and foibles of his creations. Occasionally his stories are slow to get moving, and he is seldom quick to marshal the clues for the reader. The denouement of a Copper tale can make up a considerable set piece in its own right, often quite an exciting one.
3) Considering the span of decades over which they were written, Derleth's stories, all well written, exhibit remarkable consistency in tone and style. The consistency extends to the main characters and their behavior to one another. Pons and Parker are always "true to themselves", as if Derleth kept before him a characterizational blueprint. Given the chronology, and the sheer number of stories, that impresses me. Would that Conan Doyle could claim the same; it is a truism, surely, that his early tales are the best.
4) Copper's fewer stories, written over a fairly short period, reveal a tendency toward unevenness; some of them are a whole lot better than others. The plot synopses above present instances of structural or characterizational weakness. This Pons can be occasionally nasty to Parker, to the point of relishing public jibes at his friend, which always unsettles me. Fortunately these occasions are rare.
On the other hand, the best of Copper's may be the high points of the canon. In his finest form, Copper combines his talents for detective and Gothic literature into a blend approaching perfection. Their greater length allows much entertaining detail, fine build-up and extended, lively climaxes. The revelatory moment often encompasses exciting action and danger.
August Derleth and Basil Copper each present a full blown novel dealing with major adventures of Solar Pons; from the former, Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey; from the latter, Solar Pons Versus the Devil's Claw. Very different stories, they tend to show the authors at their best.
This, one of Derleth's last works, is a gripping adventure stuffed with magnificent examples of Pons' ratiocination. Called in by Sir Hugh Parrington, wonderfully bluff Chief Constable of Somerset, Pons embarks on an incredibly in-depth investigation into the murder of Jonas Fairlie, estate manager for the immensely wealthy Farways. Fairlie is killed on the train while coming to meet with Pons; there is no obvious motive for his murder, nor for the intended meeting. Pons soon focuses his attention on the unfortunate Farway family: Peter, the only son, killed in a hunting accident seven years earlier, Sir Charles Farway dead these two years, two more fatal accidents, the household of the vast estate consisting now of Lady Farway and a collection of dependent cousins. Since the death of Sir Charles, Mr. Fairlie had undertaken a series of mysterious travels throughout Britain. Pons deduces that Fairlie was investigating a dark matter he long wished to remain secret, being struck down when on the verge of revealing his suspicions.
Thus the essence; the charm lies in the telling. We get many suspects, many lines of investigation, a staggering number of red herrings, the latter usually worthy angles of investigation which must be sifted through before the actual focus of evil can be identified. Mystery reigns throughout much of the book, with the reason for Fairlie's murder not coming clear until surprisingly late in the day. As that becomes known, almost every character other than Pons, Parker, and Sir Hugh receive harsh scrutiny. Then there is the strange business of Fairlie's daughter, once betrothed to the dead son, now cutting herself off from her father and the Farways. What does she know; what secret does she keep?
Derleth tells the story in brisk style, keeping ever to the point of Pons' analysis. Perhaps it is a little dry at times, perhaps the characters of the suspects less developed than they could be, perhaps the critical moment of the main climax comes too fast, leaving some minor unanswered questions about which Pons can only speculate. These slight faults barely mitigate against the high quality of the whole. Also, the tale offers a rarely employed double climax, with the second one being most moving, finally explaining a great deal which seemed hopelessly opaque before.
The lurid title is a dead give-away that Copper is launching still another variant of the "Baskerville" theme, and yet that element is strangely muted, playing a much lesser role than might be expected. Indeed, the oft mentioned "legend" of the Devil's Claw is never clearly presented in the story. I wonder about that, and a couple of other items, including what appears to be a serious printing error on page 156 of this sole small press publication, which leads me to ask whether the book as printed reflects a fully proofread manuscript.
Those troublesome cavils aside, this is a dynamite book, standing out less from Copper's Pons tales only because so many of his approach novel length anyway. Hugh Mulvane spends most of the first quarter of the story regaling Pons with a freakish tale of his vile uncle Simon Hardcastle (love that name!), who dies during a nightmarish ordeal in the creepy old cemetery of his grand Chalcroft Manor. Weird marks on the ground near the body-- found also around a dead poacher some months earlier-- revive a spooky legend, instilling fear among the superstitious citizenry. Mr. Mulvane is supposed to inherit, which places him in a difficult position, yet he's ostensibly keen to get to the bottom of the mystery. Pons agrees, he and Parker accompanying the young man to the estate and the scene of the crime.
Only then, well into the book, with the aid of Inspector Stone of the Buckinghamshire C.I.D., does Pons plunge into the fray, sift the minutest physical clues, interrogate the suspects, none of whom seem at all likely. Peters the estate manager; his beautiful wife Sarita; the lovely Miss Masterson; Tidmarsh, music master at the local college; Angela the maid; what could any of them hope to gain from dirty deeds? So obscure is the situation that for a period it isn't clear that any major crime has been committed. Pons, however, starts shuffling the pieces of the puzzle, begins to fashion in his mind the shadowy image of an evil conspiracy.
I love the characters, the melodramatic tone, the constant Gothic touches. Copper knows how to pile it on, utilizing visually descriptive motifs to enhance the strangeness of the story. Critical events occur in the horrid graveyard, among foggy ponds, atop a ruined tower, mostly in the dead of night. Locales are historic and stately, or decayed and sinister. Copper generates a perfect background for a terrifying detective tale.
This is scarcely necessary, nor do I attempt to choose the "winner", for I love them both. They are different kinds of novels, Derleth's concentrating on high-powered detective work, Copper's on brooding atmosphere. In the former book, location is simply described, providing a mere geographical framework for Pons' frantic mental activities, which are surely the star of the story. Atmosphere becomes a serious factor solely during the climactic events at Mr. Fairlie's Welsh retreat, scene of a former mysterious death. Copper's Pons seems almost lackadaisical by comparison, casually marshaling his evidence within eerie settings that threaten to overwhelm the protagonists. Derleth's mystery proves monumental in its murderous scope, spanning years of cunning plotting; Copper's, when ultimately revealed, rather sordid and mean, more the result of impromptu greed and callousness.
The Solar Pons detective tales are superlative examples of their genre. Those who enjoy mysteries (and, in numerous cases, those who appreciate weird stories) ought to read them. Fans of Sherlock Holmes, hungering for more, should not be disappointed. Although August Derleth, and Basil Copper after him, change all the names, alter even the time period of the stories, giving us cars and telephones, planes and BBC radio, these works capture the essence of the Holmes originals as have few or any others. There is something about the feel of the Sherlockian tale that works or it doesn't, regardless of changes. For instance, I enjoy the 1940s Universal films, despite the updating, because they usually capture the mood just right. I have seldom felt that way about Holmes pastiches composed by other hands; they come across as somehow fraudulent, or worse as parodies. A recent television series attempting to modernize Holmes fails utterly because, apparently, the creators deliberately set out to annihilate the vital essence in favor of being "hip" or trendy. The Pons tales, written or published across the 20th Century and into the 21st, never let down the reader in that sense.
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