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Rowland Hern Resurrected from Oblivion!


by J. F. Norris


Who was Nicholas Olde? No one seems to know. In addition to this collection of clever and often quite funny mystery short stories, Olde apparently was also the author of two slim volumes of poetry published in pamphlet form in the early 1930s. It is generally thought that Olde was a pseudonym and attempts to uncover any biographical data on him have yielded nothing. Whoever he was he certainly read a lot of G. K. Chesterton. The plots and dialogue are rife with the kind of paradox that Chesterton imbued in his mystery stories—not only with Father Brown but also in the Gilbert Pond stories and the tales found in The Man Who Knew Too Much. Another Chestertonian aspect of some of the stories is an element of the supernatural and the impossible crime (or impossible problem). Chesterton employed these often in the Father Brown stories. Readers will surely find analogies between many stories. “The Windmill” by Olde and “The Invisible Man” by Chesterton share similar solutions to the crime, for instance. “The Monstrous Laugh” tells of a town haunted by phantom laughter and a local superstition that is similar to the seeming supernatural aspects of “The Ghost of Gideon Wise,” “The Dagger with Wings” and several other Father Brown tales.

Robert Adey in his excellent bibliography of impossible crime stories and novels Locked Room Murders makes a side comment about Olde’s book having been undeservedly passed up for Queen’s Quorum status. Had it been listed in that Hall of Fame listing of seminal short story collections in the detective fiction genre, Olde would perhaps not have been condemned to obscurity and the book might not have descended into the limbo of forgotten and neglected works. In the countless anthologies devoted to crime and detective fiction published since the 1930s, only two publications (both published fairly recently) have ever included a Rowland Hern story: “The Windmill” in Twelve Murder Tales, one of Jack Adrian’s anthologies for Oxford University Press (1988); “The Accidental Disembowelment of John Kensington" and “The Invisible Weapon” both in Japanese translation, the first in Hayakawa's Mystery Magazine (#468, 1995) and the other in a locked room story anthology (date unknown). And it’s a shame this has happened because The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern contains some of the most ingenious and funny detective stories of the 1920s.

Until very recently I had never heard of Nicholas Olde or Rowland Hern. No surprise given the fact that Olde and the quirky Rowland Hern have both been overlooked (or shunned) by nearly all of the crime fiction historians and critics. Through sheer serendipity—that miracle that usually leads me to a treasure of a book—I was lucky enough to obtain a copy through the internet in the spring of 2005. Lucky, because as I later discovered, it is among one of the rarer books in mysterydom and sought after by collectors of impossible crime stories—a sub-genre of detective fiction that fascinates me. Later research revealed that the copy I stumbled upon was the only copy being offered via the internet and has been the only one for several years. An attempt to locate other copies—even in academic libraries or public libraries —showed only a handful (less than ten) in the US and UK. There may be other copies in private collections, but I’m not very connected to that inner circle and can’t verify even one other copy. All of this made me think that someone ought to reissue this book. And the sooner the better.

I had lately been involved in helping Fender Tucker acquire copies of Norman Berrow’s books (another undeservedly lost in limbo writer of impossible crime mysteries) for his ever growing library of Ramble House reprints. I thought before I offered up Olde’s obscure book as a possible Ramble House reissue I should make sure it would be at home in the “Sanctuary of Loons” as RH as come to market itself. So I dug into the book and rapidly devoured the contents. Was I ever surprised! The book is filled with the bizarre, the surreal and the outrageous. It was perfect for Ramble House. Throughout the fifteen stories in the volume the reader is treated to several wicked clergymen, a devious physicist, a vengeful botanist, and many murderous lords, earls and other titled gentry. The plots involve a secret code in a lost language, a murder committed with an invisible weapon, a tell-tale beard, a near disembowelment, a village where no one laughs, and a killer whose motive is linked to a literal battle of wits.

The more I read the more I thought Olde cannot really intend these to be taken seriously. They must be detective fiction parodies. And as such they are perhaps some of the earliest examples. I can think of only Philo Gubb, the correspondence school sleuth created by the American humorist Ellis Parker Butler, as the earliest of intentional detective fiction parodies in short story form. The first clue that Olde’s mood is far from somber in Rowland Hern are the characters’ names. They seem to have sprung from the imagination of Ramble House’s own patron saint of nuttiness—Harry Stephen Keeler. However, Olde christens his people with decidedly British and alliterative monikers. Here’s a brief line-up of these unusual suspects: Pounceby Brisket, K.C., Sir Chudleigh Chalfont, Mrs. Tregaskin Simpson, Hercules Herklot, Sir Pendragon Higginbotham and Porteous Pemberton- Drysdale. And the characters give only a hint of the oddities that the reader will encounter.

In “Potter”, one of my favorites in the collection, Hern and his nameless sidekick head off to a boutique that specializes in the sale of exotic animals. Why? Because Hern is in need of an armadillo and the emporium has several sizes to choose from. Their advertisement is certainly enticing to anyone in search of exotic animals: “Potter & Hara, Wild Beast Merchants. Tigers from £85, certified Man-eaters 5s extra. Snakes and crocodiles a specialty. Free burglary insurance policy presented to each customer.” How can one go wrong with those promises? Exactly why Hern needs that desert beast is never explained. And must we really know? The mere fact that he needs an armadillo is surreal enough. How many fictional detectives have ever required an unusual animal to solve a case? Or for anything!

Olde’s sense of humor is evident throughout most of the stories and it reaches its heights in “The Mysterious Wig-Box.” For a story written in 1920s it displays a truly contemporary black humor presenting us with legal professionals who make light of murder and death during a sensational murder trial and receive hearty laughter and applause from the irreverent courtroom attendees. The trial ends in a surprising acquittal of the serial killer thought to be obviously guilty. Later the defense attorney (one of the punning wits of the courtroom) is found decapitated in his home and his head decorated with his barrister’s wig is found in a wig-box in a railway station. Hern sees in this bizarre crime a particularly nasty sense of humor. The victim lost his head, after all, along with his ears and nose. What appears to be a wanton and insane act is in fact a purposeful and vengeful crime. When Hern reveals the killer’s identity his cohort is astonished. He says, “Apparently [they] were on the best of terms. […] They were even joking with one another during the trial.” Hern replies, in his characteristic Chestertonian paradoxical manner, “Yes, and that was the trouble.” It was their sense of humor which led to the crime. The first time I know of in crime fiction that the telling of jokes served as a motive for murder.

One final word about the rare copy that served as the source for this new edition. I don’t own it anymore. I decided (a bit reluctantly) to include it among my prize books for sale at the most recent Bouchercon, the well known international mystery book convention. As luck would have it, the book caught the eye of a collector of impossible crime mysteries who kept picking it up each time he passed my booth. On the final day of the convention (after some discussion with his wife and no doubt some internal struggle), he presented the book to me and said he would like to buy it. I was stunned and at first didn’t even believe him. Why? Because I had priced the book at $1500. But he did indeed want it and paid every last penny. Now that rare copy (with a dust jacket!) of The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern has a place on honor on a bookshelf in Yokohama, Japan where the collector lives. Which of course only goes to show that collectors do give in to temptation when discovering a book they may perhaps never again see in their lifetime. Thankfully, mystery fans now have this affordable edition to enjoy. Nicholas Olde’s original sleuth need no longer be imprisoned in that limbo of forgotten and neglected fictional creations. Free at last! Now get cracking at those stories, my friend.


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