Tuesday, 14 February 2012

C. St. John Sprigg - The Six Queer Things (1937)

"...there was nothing desperately odd about any of them taken alone, but taken together, as found in a carefully locked drawer which someone had attempted to force open, in a house where murder had been committed, they were mysterious and challenging. They were facts, cold, solid facts, which one could handle and touch, and yet for the first time the inspector had an unpleasant feeling that facts were not enough, that just because they were facts it would need some wild and extravagant theory to fit them all within the boundaries of one coherent story."

Sprigg's final mystery novel, published after his death during the Spanish Civil War, is darker in tone than the previous mysteries I've read of his although there are similarities between them. Like The Corpse with the Sunburned Face, The Six Queer Things has a hybrid quality to it but whereas TCWTSF moves from mystery to an African adventure thriller, TSQT takes the reverse route and uses an occult thriller beginning to set up the mystery elements.

The central figure in The Six Queer Things is Marjorie Easton, one of those improbably naive women found in detective fiction. Working at an ill-paying job and living with her miserly uncle, Marjorie is desperate to change her situation and a job offer from the strange Michael Crispin and his sister gives Marjorie that opportunity although not without a feeling of unease. Although the job promises to be remunerative, Marjorie has no idea what it entails other than the vague description of "research" and that it requires Marjorie to move in with the Crispins. On her first day of work, Marjorie is surprised to learn that Michaels' research is simply a euphemism for spiritualism. Crispin regularly holds seances at which he is the medium and at first Marjorie is simply required to record what happens at these seances but eventually she is encouraged to develop her own psychic gifts. Developing those gifts comes at a cost. She becomes more isolated, experiences terrible nightmares and is soon on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Marjorie's physician then enlists the help of her estranged boyfriend Ted to infiltrate the seances and to discover why Michael brought Marjorie to the Crispin house in the first place. This proves to be much more riskier than Ted foresaw, especially when a poisoning occurs at one of the seances and Ted is accused of being the culprit.

Enter Detective-Inspector Charles Morgan. Usually not an imaginative detective, he is given the task not only of discovering the poisoner and how the poison was administered but also the significance of the "six queer things" found in a locked drawer in the Crispin residence (some of which are obvious to the reader). While at this point the book has moved from the occult set-up to the mystery storyline, the novel changes direction again, adding scenes of gothic romance and a criminal conspiracy storyline. I was a bit disappointed when the mystery investigation gave way to these elements and the shift in focus rendered The Six Queer Things not entirely satisfying (although the shift wasn't as abrupt as the switch from England to Africa in TCWTSF). Although I've seen the novel described as humourless as compared to Sprigg's previous work, there still is some humour to be occasionally found in the novel (although sparingly and sometimes very black). As well there were some plot and character similarities to his earlier work (specifically Pass the Body). However, the mystery still manages a few surprises.

Overall, I would rate The Six Queer Things more highly than The Corpse with the Sunburned Face and Death of an Airman, but my favourite Sprigg still remains Pass the Body (with the delightful Charles Venables). Unfortunately, like much of Sprigg's output, The Six Queer Things is quite pricey on the used market.

3 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Darrell, about an author with whom I'm completely unfamiliar! Unfortunately, as you say, ALL of Sprigg's books appear to be (a) out of print and (b) VERY pricey. Sigh - wouldn't it be great if these were made available by one of the POD publishers...or scanned in as e-books?

    Les Blatt
    www.classicmysteries.net

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  2. Thanks for informing me about an author i knew nothing about. maybe I will find some of his works in a used book bin someday, or perhaps, as Les said, he will be republished.

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  3. Darrell, very nice review!

    I didn't like this book much at all, in part because I felt it moved away so much from the author's light tone and more into thriller territory. Granted, Face has all the Africa stuff, but I actually found that more interesting, plus there's a nice little English mystery in there too.

    Queer Things felt to me more like the author wanted to indict spiritualism than anything else. I can't help thinking the change in tone mirrors his conversion to Marxism. This book actually was published after he died, killed in action fighting for the Communist cause (or so he thought) in Spain. By this time Sprigg viewed his tec tales as "trash" he was writing just for the money. His important works, as he saw it, were the very heavy and dull tomes of Marxist theory. Unlike the Coles, who were Guild Socialists, Sprigg was a full bore Stalinist when he died.

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