Weird Menace — UK Style
1937 saw the US market for weird menace at its very height with authors such as Wyatt Blassingame, Hugh B. Cave, John H. Knox and others producing some of their best work. Across the Atlantic the hardcover thrillers marketed to the lending libraries by publishers such as Philip Allan, Herbert Jenkins, Skeffington and others were keeping up their end by publishing volumes such as Charles Birkin’s justly lauded “Creeps Series”, and individual collections and novels by authors such as Walter S. Masterman, Edmund Snell, James Corbett and R.R. Ryan’s second novel, Death of a Sadist.
While flawed, Death of a Sadist is a far better book than was The Right to Kill, something I attribute to a second hand in the mix. While scholars such as James Doig have demonstrated that at least one of the people behind the “R.R. Ryan” books was playwright and theatre manager Evelyn Bradley, I remain of the opinion that starting with the present book the Ryan novels were collaborative efforts, with Bradley’s daughter Denice contributing a lion’s share of the work. Some internal evidence would be the strong characterization, which we see for the first time in Death of a Sadist, and even more importantly, the sharply delineated female characters which led scholars (beginning with Ramsey Campbell) to form the conviction that “R.R. Ryan” was a woman.
Here’s what D.H. Olson had to say about this novel:
Death of a Sadist (1937), is a far more successful, although still fatally flawed, effort. Like The Right to Kill, Sadist is, at its heart, both an Edwardian morality play and an escapist romance. The moral issues are similar to those in the earlier book: Is it permissible to kill to defend one’s honor? Or to avenge the loss of one’s virtue? Its romance, likewise, is idealistic, based not only on the idea of love at first sight, but on the almost-religious mutuality of the same.
Trevor Garron is a poor bank clerk whose primary interest in life is the acquisition of beauty mostly in the form of objets d’art. His only other interest is in a young girl named Edna Ferrar, to whom he has never spoken and whom he has only seen, in passing, on his way to and from work. Edna, for her part, is a hopelessly inept salesclerk, always on the verge of losing her job and deeply in arrears on the flat in which she lives with her invalid mother. She also loves Trevor, to whom she has never spoken. Beyond this almost mystical bond they have only one thing in common: Selwyn Maine.
Maine is Trevor’s boss and Edna’s landlord. He is a pillar of the community and well respected by all. He is also an insidious and vicious sadist. Discovering that Trevor has occasionally “borrowed” from the bank’s books, Maine elects to inflict an ongoing punishment of his own rather than call in the police. Exactly what this punishment consists of is never made explicitly clear, though the strong implication is that it involves some form of brutal, possibly homo-erotic, sadomasochism. Maine’s interest in Edna is more traditional, and her debasement is thus dealt with in more detail. In order to avoid eviction, she surrenders her virtue to Maine and becomes his sex slave, a relationship that continues only until a pregnancy renders her unsuitable for Maine’s purpose. He then casts her and her mother, penniless, into the street.
Trevor, meanwhile, completely ignorant of Edna’s connection to Maine, decides that his own situation is intolerable and resolves to end it by committing the perfect murder. Using his considerable skill as an artisan, and a booby-trapped door, he succeeds. Unbeknownst to Trevor, Edna, her mother now dead, has also set out to kill Maine, and is seen tracking him with a pistol on the very night of his death.
From here the novel slides from twisted dementia into pedestrian melodrama, as Trevor attempts to save the woman he loves from execution by the Crown. The problem is that he’s done his job too well. Even admitting his crime, he is soon acquitted by a jury convinced that his confession is no more than a noble but misguided effort to save Edna. Worse, the one witness who could corroborate his story is lying in a coma and in no position to speak to anyone. Not surprisingly, the tale ends happily. Edna receives an eleventh hour reprieve while Trevor, protected from future prosecution by the legal construct of “double jeopardy” remains a free man. The two leave England for a life of missionary service and good works in a leper colony.
As one can tell by the above, Death of a Sadist is not without its weaknesses, and Ryan’s main authorial flaws are still painfully in evidence. It does, however, contain some items of interest to the Ryan scholar. In the demented, perverse sadism of Selwyn Maine, the author has found her true métier. Unlike Prentice Lawler, who was little more than a seedy opportunist, Maine is inherently evil. In him, one sees the foundation upon which future Ryan villains will be based, not just in terms of his sadism, but also in terms of his ability to project an outward image of respectable morality that belies the true darkness of his soul.
Equally important is Ryan’s handling of her villain’s cruelties. Whether in veiled allusions to Trevor’s predicament, or in the more detailed explorations of Edna’s ruinous defilement, her prose comes alive whenever Maine’s depravities are described. The author’s obvious enthusiasm for her subject matter is disturbingly contagious, leaving the reader feeling both aroused and appalled at the same time. What Ryan’s contemporaries thought of this voyeuristic aspect of her work is unclear. There must have been some market for it though, for it would play an increasingly central role in all of her later books.
John here again. I’m going to disagree with my colleague just a bit and say that the compelling portrayals of Selwyn Maine, Edna, and Trevor go a long way to making up for any of the deficiencies that the novel has in pacing and plotting. It is a flawed book, but certainly not fatally so. Selwyn Maine is more than just the template from which other Ryan villains are formed, he is in and of himself a truly memorable character that will give the reader shudders long after the book is closed. Perhaps the hardest trick to pull off in fiction is to create a convincing villain. Most writers forget the central point that the villain doesn’t consider him/herself to be in the wrong. In the case of Maine, he is a true sociopath, he engages in his degenerate acts for no other reason than that he believes it his right to do so. This is a character for whom no redemption or psychic change is possible. The only possible solution is that he must be done away with, leaving the question of how monstrous must one become to deal with a monster? I’ll leave it to you to read the novel and discover the answer to this and other mysteries . . .