Martin Porlock (Philip MacDonald): Mystery at Friar’s Pardon (1931)

Philip MacDonald, as well as his real name, used various pseudonyms to publish his novels: Anthony Lawless, Oliver Fleming and Martin Porlock. With the latter sewed only three novels: Mystery at Friar’s Pardon (1931), Mystery at Kensington Gore (1932) and X Vs. Rex (1933). The first and third are justly considered masterpieces and were both translated in Italy, while the second isn’t.

Of those published in Italy, today we talk about the first.
Mystery at Friar’s Pardon, published in 1931, is one of the cornerstones of production Philip MacDonald, one of the greatest innovators of Crime Fiction.
It introduces the character of Charles Fox-Brown, and to do that MacDonald takes even a chapter to outline the smallest details: the son of a wealthy couple, remains orphan at the age of thirteen and he is entrusted to an uncle who does not want to deal with it. Soon he enlisted to participate at the First World War as a simple soldier and scale all grades becoming the first sergeant, then entering the official rank and ending the war as a major, highly decorated.
The next civilian life is a series of successes and failures: a series of successful entrepreneur and insights make him potentially wealthy, until a distant relative does not seek help (in cash) and so ten thousand pounds are given to her. However the woman, who does not use the money just to live, but to live well, dies in a hunting accident and ten thousand pounds (that was the heritage that Fox Brown had gained with his work) fade forever, so he has to start working again, becoming director of property. In this capacity he is employed by “Lioness,” Lester-Enid Greene, a successful writer, become very wealthy woman by virtue of her romance novels, to administer her property.

Together with her, he meets Norman Sandys, her secretary, and soon he is informed about what will be his duties. Charles, however, will have to live at the mansion that Enid has bought long before, spending a lot of money, to restructure it completely, and reopening the east wing, whom the previous owners had made inaccessible, muring the entry. In fact, Friar’s Pardon, this is the name of the mansion, was built in the late seventeenth century, and despite being a building of fine harmonies, soon had gained a sinister reputation that had maintained in the remaining two centuries: the owners were dead in the same room, drowned, though it had not been found even a drop of water in it, or they had worn wet clothes. It was so widespread belief that there were evil entities in the villa, and it was haunted. But Lester-Enid Greene does not believe in spirits and decides to go in disregard of beliefs to live there; indeed, she decides to restructure the damn room preceded by a sort of vestibule, combining two rooms into a huge studio, where she sleeps and writes her masterpieces.

Soon at the house, there are rumors of paranormal phenomena: voices, footsteps, hands that appear out of the windows, doors that suddenly close by themselves, vessels that break without which no one has touched them, as if they were the subject of Poltergeist. Many in that house have something to say: in addition to Norman, also Lady Maud Vassar student of occultism and noble, Claude Lester brother of Enid, Baron Trevor Ignatius Pursell, the niece Lesley Destrier, and much of the easement, reports to have seen some of these phenomena: only Enid and Charles Fox-Brown are skeptical about it.

Yet one evening, after a sumptuous dinner, after the same owner has retired at her study to work, by a phone call come from the studio she cries out for help, but after trying unsuccessfully to enter inside because the door is locked from the inside, Fox-Brown demonstrating contempt of danger, walking on the ledge outside, is unable to break the glass of the closed window and to enter the environment, finding Enid dead, with no signs of any kind indicating a struggle.
The policemen are called to the scene, and soon even the coroner, which recognizes unusually Fox-Brown: Dr. Riley, inform the Inspector Willis and the Chief of Police, Amblethorpe, how Fox-Brown, when he was Chief of a section of Counterintelligence during the war, had solved a case rather mangy. So, they rely on his detective skills.

Fox-Brown will be able to understand how the murderer has been able to get out of the room leaving it closed behind him, and how he did it to kill Enid and escape in a few minutes, without being seen. And in addition to this to show that it was not a supernatural event (as did think the deaths have occurred during the past centuries and all that taken place with the same causality), showing how it was possible that Enid died drowned in a room where there was not the minimum drop of water. And how was it possible that a person used the internal phone line, without others knowing it.
He will reveal the name of the killer, during a fake seance that he will organize, making use of the special participation of the coroner (former actor) in the role of a famous spiritualist.

Extraordinary novel, a true masterpiece, Mystery at Friar’s Pardon, has a unique atmosphere. Moreover MacDonald structures the plot in distinct sections, creating the basis for a genre that Carr will develop in large part: the first he sets the scene for the amateur detective can go live at a particular villa, then reserves an entire chapter to the figure of the same, then describes the mansion and the mysteries related to it, and finally goes on to describe the characters who move, giving long space phenomena that happen, thereby increasing the thrill until the catharsis comes with the impossible crime, a crime more impossible than it is not :a woman dies drowned, with all the signs of drowning, without her or her clothes are wet, and without even a drop of water is found in the room where she died, although there it should be a sea at the room. I say crime more than impossible, because in addition to this there is also a locked room, and even more a voice that is recognized as that by Enid, but that should not be her, asking for help when, as will establish Charles, she was already dead.

Both the locked room that the trick of the call fall into that series of tricks of Locked Room Mystery, already introduced from Carr in his famous Locked Room-Lecture and then called in the Locked Room-Lecture in Nine Times Nine by Anthony Boucher, when the locked rooms are restricted to a scheme according to whether they occurred before, during or after: in this case the death occurred before, and then it was a trick. Which? The same occurred at Carr’s Hag’s Nook, that is of 1933, while this novel is of 1931.
Charles still provides a clue to the careful reader, long before solve the mystery, when he looks at the watch and compares time.

The Locked Room even here – I repeat once again – is spectacular, perhaps one of the best and most fascinating ever invented, because it involves two people: one is in charge of impersonating Enid, the other to kill her and simulate with a spectacular staging, the intervention of supernatural powers. In some ways, the very impossibility of a similar crime, reminds me another novel to the memory, the first by Talbot, The Hangman’s Handyman: even there an evident impossibility occurs (a curse for which a corpse at few hours looks like it’s been dead for several days and presented a very strong putrefaction).

But in addition to the created impossibility, the novel is remarkable because, by virtue of a tension expertly administered, creates conditions so that the reader could almost believe to the poltergeist phenomena and at the same time asking how ever has managed to simulate a drowning without water. And also adds, to a story of mystery also a love story, more classical than ever, which somehow reminds us a previous, Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers (1930). Even there, the protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey, in love with the detective writer Harriet Vane, must prevent she be accused about murder by poisoning and trying to save her finding the true killer, as is the case here, since Charles Fox-Brown, in love with Lesley Destrier, must avoid she is accused of murdering her aunt, after that inside the mantel of her fireplace were found a number of incriminating evidence, apparently put there from the killer to divert suspicion from himself; the rest here, as in the novel by Sayers appears a poison, only that in our case it is not used to kill but to stun.

If with the novel by Dorothy Sayers I note a community, and so the previous novel could have provided MacDonald idea for his novel, I must also observe that in my opinion, Mystery at Friar’s Pardon may have influenced Carr not only for the solution behind the impossible murder into The Hag’s Nook, but also for the series of novels by Henry Merrivale: there as here we have a detective who has been dealing with the Military Counterintelligence as an official (Merrivale is Head of Military Counterintelligence, Fox-Brown was Head of a section), and we are here as there phenomena evoking the paranormal, that would justify one or more crimes impossible, if the detective, skeptical and rational, does not oppose the truth of the facts, where paranormal gives way to a carefully premeditated murder, committed by men, not by spirits; in addition the same system to lock the door from outside, simulating a supernatural event because the suicide is impossible to have occurred, is located in the compiling by Fell, during his conference in The Hollow Man.

Pietro De Palma

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