An assortment of short-stories with little commonality between them beyond an almost absurd heavy-handedness in their moralizing and their use of foreshadowing being as subtle as a brick to the face. I think the worst of the bunch was “The Black Drop”, where the very title gives away how this tale — a New Englander transplanted to the Midwest who prides himself on his social progressiveness and gets engaged to an orphaned white woman (I must stress that she’s white, because the author certainly does) but comes to doubt Lily’s (yes, she’s actually named Lily) parentage and suspect that her unusually light-skinned “Mammy” might actually be her mother — will end. The two better written stories are the first and the last, “R.J.’s Mother” and “The White Feather”. Still, you certainly figure out that R.J.’s mother is unmarried and that Phillip’s new book actually is garbage long before the author intends you to.
A collection of short stories that starts out decently but just seems to get worse and worse as it goes along. The stories that are either weird tales or at least have strong supernatural elements, like “The Flat on the Fourth Floor” or “The Rievault Crucifix”, are the best in opinion. The plots themselves may be simplistic and formulaic, but they have a good atmosphere and some creepy imagery. This extends to a lesser degree to a couple of the stories that aren’t supernatural at all but do have an air of unexplained mystery, like “The Buttertubs Pass” and the titular “Behind the Monocle”.
Most of the stories in this collection aren’t like these, though. The majority are… I’m not quite sure what to call them — it’s a long build-up that ends with a vague joke. They’re not exactly shaggy dog stories. With shaggy dog stories, the humor comes from the long, rambling set-up that never actually reaches a punchline. These stories have punchlines, it’s just that by the time you get to one, you’ve totally lost interest.
Then there are stories like “The Wheatstack” and “The Coming of a Comet”, that, were they expanded into novels, I actually think could have been pretty good, but in short-story form, they just don’t manage to do much of anything with their ideas.
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.
I was a good way through the second segment before I realized this was a collection of short stories and not a novel. I was wondering how all those new characters and settings would work back into what I had guessed was the first chapter.
Ferber’s writing style took me a while to get used to. I frequently lost the subject of sentences and had to re-read them a couple times to figure out what she was talking about. I’m not sure why — the stories are told in a simple and conversational manner. With all the 1910s and 1920s media I consume, I’m generally comfortable with the slang, but Ferber still manages to throw me a curve ball now and then.
The stories are variable. The only one I truly disliked was the one about the amnesiac veteran, because it was stupid. I enjoyed most the story about the farmer that marries poor and is forced to move to the city. I also liked the story about the all-too-temporary dropping of social barriers during the war, but I have to deduct points since it’s essentially just “The Admirable Crichton” (J.M. Barrie, 1902) (adapted for the screen in 1919 as “Male and Female”) with WWI being subbed in for shipwrecked.
I must say to Ferber’s favor that, with few exceptions, she doesn’t pull any punches. The stories conclude the way they actually would in life — nothing magically comes together to fix all the conflicts and few characters have entirely happy endings.