Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cross Post - Good Summer Reading (circa 1875)

He's dead, Jim!

I just finished reading the first half of that classic novel, "The Somnambulist and the Detective" by Allan Pinkerton. Yes, the Allan Pinkerton for whom the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was named. Allan moved here from Scotland with his bride, began as a private detective in Chicago in 1849 or 1850, eventually met up with some muck-a-mucks (click the link if you want details; I'm not going to repeat a Wikipedia article), popularized such detective tricks and shadowing (tailing, following) and what we would now consider undercover work, and eventually put his name on a series of fictionalized accounts of his career (rumor has it they were ghostwritten).

The story begins with a young bank clerk being killed and a bank robbed. This all takes place somewhere down south; most of the evidence is overlooked by the locals, since it leads to the best friend of the deceased because class matters in 1850 Mississippi, and the best friend, Mr Drysdale, is of the best of families. But ol' Pinky, who is called in as a last-chance attempt to catch the killer/robber, is a cranky Scot, he is, and he dinna care fer a man's standing in the community. After examining clews, weighing evidence, and sucking down mint juleps galore, he trots back to Chicago, and formulates a plan so cunning that you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. A large, inefficient, clunky weasel.

Next we know, a widow (Mrs Potter), a man of means (Mr Andrews), and a young carpenter (Mr Green) descend upon this small town. All are operatives of ol' Pinky - oops, I should have said spoiler alert. Now y'all will know how the story ends.

Their job is to figure out how to get a confession from the murderer Drysdale. Mrs Potter (not her real name) befriends the innocent wife of the alleged murderer...

Hard-boiled female detective schmoozes up innocent housewife

...you can see the evidence for yourself. In fact, this heartless undercover agent fakes an injury to infiltrate their household - a shameful pretense of being dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Indeed!

"She's suffered severe trauma, Jim!"

Mrs P starts smearing blood all over their home in the middle of the night in order to freak out the suspect. Talk about the house guest from hell...

Meanwhile, Messers Andrew and Green (not their real names) plot to drive Drysdale insane, in case Mrs P's imitation of "The Shining" doesn't work. (Okay, okay, this book came before "The Shining".) Mr Green looks like the deceased, so they dress him up to look like, well, a zombie in order to freak out the suspect even more.

"He's undead, Jim!"

And it works - but only some of the time. Our alleged murderer gets up and wanders in the middle of the night to the locations where he has buried the stolen money, and doesn't notice the zombie during his late-night strolls.

"He's the living dead, Jim!"

At this point, I know, you're hoping for a zombie war, or perhaps a face-off between a zombie and, say, a nosferatu. No such luck, dear readers. If the title hasn't already given it away, he's sleepwalking! Yes, sleepwalking. Wow! And FYI, that's a large, flat rock that our sleepwalker is holding. He's not wrestling with an alien life form or anything. Sorry.

By now, Drysdale is in hysterics. No southern belle could out psychosomatic him at this point, and I mean it. For instance, every time he finds the blood smeared in his room, he faints and says that he is weak from loss of blood... but he hasn't really lost any blood. So why is weak and faint - hysteria? Nerves? Guilt? A secret opium habit we're never told about?

No matter. They've succeeded in making him crazy. And yet, he still won't confess.

From what I can tell, the operations of these three detectives has probably taken three to six months. Honestly, if all his cases were this labor-intensive and drawn out, there is no way Allan Pinkerton would have become the rich, worker-hating lawman that he became.

Anyway, Pinkterton returns to the south, and gets together with everyone to plan one last attempt to coerce a confession from this dude without using a waterboard or lynch laws. Mr Green gets into his zombie togs again, and hides in the bank - the scene of the original crime. They arrest Mr Drysdale and take him to the bank. (If you're like me, you feel like you're suddenly in an episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies", but you're not; hillbillies could not afford Pinkerton's fees back in 1856.) I'll let the lovely illustration show you the moment when they break the killer:

"Dammit, Jim, I'm a murderer, not a doctor!"

Ah yes, they just don't confess like this anymore. And look at Mr Sourface McMustache in the background (just to the left of Drysdale) - stern and judgmental. That's a level four glare of disapproval. If it had been a level five, Drysdale would be a heap of ashes or a puddle of goo on the floor.

Eh, I give the story a C, mostly for being brief and having some lovely illustrations. The plot was ridiculous - but not as ridiculous as "The Ghoul", a book which I will review in loving detail someday. If you're not going to be a realistic mystery, you should go all out for crazy, over-the-top thrills, which "The Ghoul" delivers. The second half of the Pinkerton book is a tale entitled, "The Murderer and the Fortune-teller". If it's any good - or if the drawings are the least bit entertaining - I'll let you know.

2 comments:

Severina said...

*snort!*

No zombies? Damn. But despite that I must find this book, if only for the illustrations. Especially the guy flapping his arms when he finds the dead guy.

Viviana said...

One of the big thrills of reading century-old fiction are the illustrations.

And no zombies in this story - a flesh-eating zombie would have really made the story more interesting. If I thought I could get it published, I'd do a re-write of this, and fill it full of zombies and werewolves, and their blood feud.