The Mistress of Shenstone (Florence L. Barclay, 1910)

Lady Myra Ingleby’s husband has recently been killed in the war. He wasn’t a casualty of battle — his death was an accident. Lord Ingleby had been placing a bomb and the man at the plunger set it off before Ingleby got away. For the sake of his promising military career, the name of this other man is hushed up.

Myra takes the news rather well at first, but the stress eventually leads her to a nervous breakdown. Her doctor prescribes a vacation to someplace where she knows nobody and nobody knows her. She checks-in to a simple hotel in a small Cornish town under her maid’s name. There, she meets a “cosmopolitan cowboy” named Jim Airth. After a couple weeks, the two are engaged, but Myra puts off revealing who she really is until her stay is over and she returns to Shenstone.

It turns out that Jim Airth’s identity was somewhat assumed as well. He’s actually James, the Earl of Airth and Monteith. Jim was also at the hotel escaping from his past — he was the one who accidentally killed Lord Ingleby.

Something of a sequel to The Rosary, I understand, although I’ve never read that and can’t offer any comment on it.

If Winter Comes (A.S.M. Hutchinson, 1921)

Mark Sabre is a man forever at odds with everyone else, as while they are quite comfortable in the inherit correctness of their opinions, he can’t help but play the devil’s advocate and consider where all his opponents are coming from. It’s a trait particularly irritating to his wife, Mabel. He’s full of ideas and ideals, but she had no interest in them, and she’s frustrated by his lack of class consciousness and propriety, being especially insulted by his “sticking up” for their social inferiors.

Then there’s Lady Nona Tybar. She was once in love with Sabre, and now that she’s married to Lord Tybar, she realizes that she loves him still. Tybar is an unrepentant rake who revels in his adultery and makes no secret of it to Nona. Nona gets Sabre and she appreciates him — she’s possibly the only one who does.

And there’s Twyning, who works with Sabre. Twyning is a conniving, vindictive man who rather hates Sabre, because he assumes that everyone else is as conniving and vindictive as himself. Twyning is ever-eager to force Sabre out of the office to consolidate his power and to promote the career of his beloved son, Harold.

And finally, there’s the war — WWI. The story begins a few years a before, builds as tensions mount, reaches an uncomfortable plateau while the fighting lasts, and unravels as the war draws to a close. Sabre, never mind his poor health, enlists. A companion is employed for his wife while he’s away — Effie, the daughter of one of Sabre’s coworkers. Effie starts out as a vivacious girl, but Mabel’s bullying grinds her down. She remains on good terms with Sabre when he returns on leave. He treats her as a sister. Mabel isn’t jealous, per se, but the relation offends her sense of propriety. She fires Effie without warning just as Sabre returns to the front.

Nine months later, Sabre is wounded and discharged home. His wife receives a letter from Effie that positively thrills her with vindication: Effie gave birth to a baby, she refuses to give it up or say who the father is, and she’s consequently been turned out. She begs that the Sabres take her back. To Mabel’s astonishment, Sabre insists that they do.

Effie moves in and Mabel moves out. Sabre takes the full brunt of society’s disapproval. His friends refuse to receive him, he’s all but fired from his job, and his wife files for divorce. And all along, it never occurs to him that it’s because they think he’s the child’s father. It’s so far from his mind, it’s inconceivable. Effie realizes what pain she’s brought on him, and so while he’s away for a few days, she’s kills herself and the baby. Sabre is accused of their murder.

At the trial, Twyning is on the prosecution’s side. It’s the great opportunity he’s been waiting for — to get rid of Sabre, permanently. And he very nearly does, until Nona appears. The Tybars are very influential in local affairs, and however unconventional her assistance — busting into court during Twyning’s testimony and loudly proclaiming him to be an “experienced and calculating liar” — it’s enough to sway the jury.

Directly after, alone at home, Sabre finds a suicide note that Effie had hidden where she knew only he’d find it. It begs his forgiveness and names the child’s father as Twyning’s son, Harold. Sabre, in a delirious state, takes his service pistol and rushes to the office — intent on killing¬† Twyning. He finds him at his desk, very altered and at the point of tears, having just received word that Harold was killed in the war. Sabre consoles him and decides to destroy the note.

In declining health, Sabre suffers a brain hemorrhage that leaves him paralyzed and near death. When he recovers, several months later, he finds Nona with him. Tybar, too, had been killed in the war — unrepentant till the end. Although he tries to force her away so that she might not share in his disgrace, she refuses to leave. The story ends some time later with them newly married.

The Dream Detective (Sax Rohmer, 1920)

A collection of short stories all involving Moris Klaw, the dream detective, who has the unusual crime-solving technique of sleeping on his “odicly sterilized cushion” at the crime scene and allowing lingering thoughts to form an “etheric negative” in his mind.

Most of the stories are locked-room theft and/or murder mysteries, but some are quite straight forward and don’t involve detective work at all, dream or otherwise. In “The Potsherd of Anubis”, for example, Moris Klaw poses as a French archeologist to steal a valuable Egyptian artifact from an antiquities collector. That’s it. It’s not even a mystery — the collector was quite sure his new neighbor was there to steal the sherd all along. All except the final story feature a crime of some sort. In the last, a man rather obsessed with Egyptology attempts to re-create a ritual from the cult of Isis and invoke the goddess to appear.

The Conflict (Clarence Budington Kelland, 1922)

After the death of her father, Dorcas Remalie, a New York heiress, becomes the ward of her uncle. Her uncle lives in a small community deep in the countryside, where he owns thousands of acres of forest and several saw mills. There’s quite a culture shock at first, but she comes to enjoy the woods and makes friends with several of the townsfolk. She never accepts her uncle, however. Outwardly, he professes righteousness and claims the role of the put-upon martyr, but in private, he is the most ruthless and cold-hearted man alive. Uncle lives in abject terror of death, because he believes in a literal hell and is quite sure than he’s damned to it for having been complicit in the murder of his illegitimate son 25 years ago.

Much of the neighboring land has been clear-cut, but the mountain is still virgin forest. Uncle plans on acquiring and logging it, but a stranger, Jevons, arrives in town who intends on having the mountain declared a national park. Dorcas falls in love with Jevons, but overhears that he is actually the son her uncle thought was dead and has come to blackmail him. She’s torn, but ultimately decides to support Jevons.

Uncle, afraid of exposure, plots to kill both of them. Dorcas escapes and joins some friends deeper in the woods, where she becomes engaged to Jevons and he shares with her his secret plans for raising enough money to buy the mountain. Jevons disappears one night, apparently murdered by Uncle’s men. Dorcas takes the reigns herself and sees Jevons’s operations through. The mountain is saved.

Uncle, accused of Jevons’s murder, sends the foreman of his saw mill to the gallows in his place. Then he learns that it was actually the foreman who was his son. Driven into a religious madness, he dons sackcloth, covers himself in ash, and jumps to his death while muttering apocalyptic phrases. But Jevons wasn’t actually dead after all. He stumbles into town, weak from hunger and having been tied up for days, where he reunites with Dorcas.

The Adventures of Roderick Random (Tobias Smollett, 1748)

A satirical story very much in the vein of Gil Blas. The youngest son of a moderately wealthy Scottish gentleman falls in love with and secretly marries the housekeeper. Their first and only child, Roderick Random, is soon born and the secret can no longer be kept from the family patriarch, who is so incensed that he at once disowns his son and expels him from the house. Random’s mother soon dies, and his father, driven mad with grief, disappears and is presumed to have killed himself.

Grandfather, while never owning him, does provide for his education at boarding school. Random excels in his studies — or, at least, so he says, the novel being told, in picaresque style, via his own unreliable first-person narration. When Grandfather dies, Random expects to receive the lion’s share of the estate to atone for all the wrongs committed against him, but is quite disappointed to discover that he’s entirely left out of the will. His uncle, a seaman long absent abroad and no great friend of the family, has just returned and takes up Random’s cause — to no avail. His rough approach only alienated the two further. For as long as he’s in country, he pays Random’s way to university, but as soon as he departs on his next voyage, the friends he left him entrusted to turn him out on the street.

Random sets out for London, intent on becoming a surgeon in the navy, and on the road meets his old schoolmate Hugh Strap, who, though rather well funded compared to himself, he takes on as something of a valet. They meet with various misadventures along the way to the city, where Random discovers, much to his consternation, that one can’t simply just start practicing surgery. Turns out there’s this whole training and licensing thing that he’d been entirely unaware of. After spending much of Strap’s money, falling prey to several scammers who did not fail to spot an easy mark in the naive Scotsman (Random himself is only vaguely aware of having been so used), and being briefly arrested, he procures a license to be a surgeon’s second mate third-rate (one of his examiners, rather amused at his ignorance, ask him what he would prescribe for a man with an amputated head — he fails to recognize the joke).

Many more misadventures follow and Random burns many more bridges through his own hubris.¬† Eventually, he gets taken on a ship, but he finds his life is not any easier. He becomes an enemy of the captain and, long story short, finds himself as penniless when he lands as he was when he started out. He condescends to becoming a servant and at once falls in love with his mistress, a young woman named Narcissa. Jealousy for her suitor causes him to behave rather rashly and he soon is forced to flee the country. He joins the French army, which he finds altogether intolerable. Things look bleak until Strap — who Random last saw before setting sail as a surgeon’s mate — returns in the character of Monsieur d’Estrapes. His career has been rather more successful than Random’s and he’s assumed the rank of a gentleman, but immediately upon their reunion, he turns over all his wealth and devotes himself to Random’s service.

In Random’s hands, his friend’s money does not last long. Nearly destitute, Random sets his sights on marrying a wealthy woman, which he very nearly does until Narcissa returns and rekindles his former passion. Her father is dead, but his fortune is held by her brother in trust, and is contingent on his approval of whoever she should choose for a husband. Random assassinates whatever character he had left in courting her, and after some underhanded dealings in search of fresh funds, finds himself in prison. Fortunately, after not many weeks of incarceration, his seaman uncle discovers him once again. Uncle has done well for himself. He secures Random’s freedom and recruits him as surgeon on the ship he’s about to set sail on.

In Paraguay, their ultimate destination, Random meets a British expatriot who, after sixteen years abroad, now goes by the name of Don Rodrigo. Surprisingly, this turns out to be Random’s long-lost father. Random’s fortunes immediately reverse, thanks to Don Rodrigo having built quite a large fortune since his departure from Scotland. They return to England, where Random proposes to Narcissa. They marry without her brother’s approval, although on closer inspection of her father’s will, it turns out that her brother was only in charge of her inheritance until she turned 18, and as she’s now 19, her money is hers to do with as she pleases.

 

A remarkably smooth read, if that makes any sense. Not that the content is polished — it’s always irreverent and often verges on being bawdy — but each sentence flows seamlessly into the next and the whole has a lyrical quality to it, like a poem in prose. Smollett is similar to Bulwer-Lytton in that regard, but unlike in, say, Bulwer-Lytton’s own picaresque Pelham: or The Adventures of a Gentleman, the humor here is never obscured under too many words. And Roderick Random is a funny book, and entirely relatable, too, never mind its age.