Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Red-Headed League

この手を放すもんか 真っ赤な誓い 

Right now I'm surrounded by things I don't understand
But I'll keep on following this path I believe in
No matter the enemies or friends I'll come across
I'll never let my hands go off this crimson oath
"My Crimson Oath" (Fukuyama Yoshiki)

I wonder if the color red, and variations of it (crimson, scarlet, etc.) is the one that appears the most often in mystery fiction titles? The connection to blood makes it a strong contender of course, but I suppose white and black would put up a good fight...

Mark Brendon, celebrated rising star of Scotland Yard, had hoped to enjoy a nice trout-fishing holiday in Dartmoor, but gladly gives up on his leisure time to help the beautiful Jenny Pendean. Her husband Michael and her uncle Robert Redmayne have disappeared, and there are definite signs that her uncle killed her husband. Her three uncles, Albert, Bendigo and Robert had been opposed to their niece's marriage to Michael at first, as they accused him of shirking his duties as a subject of the British Empire in the Great War by failing the militairy medical exam, but the Pendans had proven their worth in the war nonetheless, and during a chance meeting with Jenny and Michael in Dartmoor, uncle Robert learned of their endeavors, and was finally willing to accept his niece's husband. But it appears that a war-induced post traumatic stress disorder led to Robert killing Jenny's husband, and now he's on the run. Despite the best efforts by Brendon, red-haired Robert manages to elude capture, until he appears at the house of his brother Bendigo, and gets rid of him too! As the one responsible for the disappearances of two of his family members, Brandon feels even more pressure to capture Robert, but his mind is also distracted by the beautiful Jenny, whom he fears might be falling for the wrong man so soon after her husband's death. Can Brendon solve the case and woo Jenny over in Eden Phillpotts The Red Redmaynes (1922)?

Eden Phillpotts (1862-1960) was an extremely prolific novelist/poet/playwright, mainly known for his country-side novels set around Dartmoor. Agatha Christie used to live near Phillpotts in her late teens actually, and he helped her with her writing early on in her career. At age 60, Phillpots decided he'd try his hand at the mystery genre too, and it appears it suited him well, as he wrote a fair number of mystery stories too. The Red Redmaynes (1922) was his second mystery novel, and while not forgotten in the West, it appears it never did attract the same amount of fame it did in Japan. The praise Edogawa Rampo had heaped upon The Red Redmaynes had cemented its position as one of the classic Golden Age novels in the eyes of the Japanese mystery reader, which is also reflected in the curiously large number of different translations and releases the book has seen in Japan since its initial release. Rampo also wrote a translation/adaptation of The Red Redmaynes, titled Ryokui no Oni ("The Demon in Green", 1936), green being a complementary color to red (see also my review of Yuureitou, which is an adaptation of a translation/adaptation of Williamson's A Woman in Grey).

And after reading The Red Redmaynes myself I can say that while I wouldn't consider this anything near the best the 1920s had to offer in terms of mystery novels, I did enjoy reading it. What some readers might notice early on is that Phillpotts prose betrays his long writing career before making the jump to mystery novels. The descriptions of the background settings (first Dartmoor, later around a lake in Italy) are admittedly somewhat longwinded at times, and might have an old-fashioned feel to them, but they are also vivid and do a great job at envisioning the stage upon which the mysterious case unfolds. There's also a somewhat melodramatic romance plot for Brendon (who falls head over heel for widow Jenny), which again seems to be a throwback to Phillpotts' contributions to other genres, but at least it's well integrated within the mystery plot.

The mystery plot is reasonably entertaining, even if somewhat simple. I think that readers in this time and age won't be that surprised when it's revealed who is behind the Redmayne Tragedy, as the core idea is a very familiar one, but Phillpotts manages to dress the plot in a way to keep the reader engaged. The story has a distinct Gothic thriller novel feel to it in the first half of the novel, with Red Robert Redmayne roaming lonely Dartmoor and the relatively small cast of characters in fear of what he might do next to the other Redmaynes. And by the time the reader has enough of this, the story moves to sunny Italy, where the plot decides to move a lot quicker too, with more exciting scenes to pull the reader in. That said, I doubt the misdirection employed in this book will be able to divert attention away from the truth for a long time, especially as Phillpotts makes it a point to be more than fair to the reader, with a second detective character pretty much spelling out what is going on a few chapters before the climax for the benefit of a different character, as well as the reader. It is a well-plotted mystery story, with everything occuring in the tale for a reason that eventually ties back to the conclusion.

So I thought The Red Redmaynes was a decent novel. It might not be really surprising perhaps, but Phillpotts used the plot he had to write a more than competent mystery novel, with a good plot structure that is supported by Phillpotts' experience with other genres and writing in general. As his works are available in the public domain, I'll probably take a look at his other mystery stories too in the future.

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