Thursday, December 14, 2006

4-10 Torment (Apr 1953)

The publication of Torment confirmed a sense that, with the later novels of the Fourth Series, Frances had moved his writing onto a new plane. The texts themselves had lengthened to 140 pages plus, but along with this there was a far easier, more fluid, indeed more confident style about the narratives. Amongst the very earliest texts Frances' creative strengths stood out precisely because they seemed so at odds with the surrounding narrative. With the later novels of the Fourth Series, exemplifying individual instances of such strengths becomes however increasingly difficult as their deployment becomes both routinised and integrated. Torment concerns a labyrinth tale of telepathy, murder, grave robbing and infidelity, in which assessments of Janson's character are reflexively based on the novels he writes and where - with a charmingly ingenuous conflation of fictional Chicago and real-world England - a footnote invites readers to see the telepathy act cited in the novel at an Ideal Homes Exhibition in Portsmouth.

The book concerns four apparently unrelated themes. One has Janson attending a telepathy act - Los Guitanos - that ends with a sealed prediction being made of the following Saturday's headline in the Chronicle. The second finds Janson witnessing the arrest of one Joe Bates for attempted grave-robbing, although the eventual charge relates to the possession of pornographic photographs, which Bates claims to have found in the cemetery while climbing in simply to pick flowers. The third strand concerns the wife of the cemetery Superintendent, Preston Williams, who has been missing for three weeks. Muriel Williams had an inheritance of $200,000 that she withheld from Preston as a result of his gambling. Inspector Blunt believes this points to Preston's culpability, although Janson cautions the motive is too obvious to invite serious consideration. The final strand involves Betty Scott, who asks for Janson's help in tracing her younger sister, who fell in love with and became pregnant by a John Maitland, eventually committing suicide. Janson warns that, even should she find Maitland, he has committed no offence.

The various strands are brought together in a scheme that does in fact see Preston Williams plotting to kill his wife and inherit her money. Jackson was an accomplice who moved to Chicago under an assumed identity of John Maitland. The plan was to present Maitland as a womaniser who eventually came to know Muriel Williams. A fake suicide pact would then be devised in which Preston Williams would substitute a recently-deceased body for that of John Maitland, the Mills bomb being necessary to disguise the different facial features. Jackson would be on hand to provide a false identification, posing as Maitland's former flatmate, while Williams would be left free to inherit Muriel's money. There were however two weak links in the plot. Firstly, Betty Scott's sister described in a letter a birthmark borne by Maitland. Betty subsequently discovered the same birthmark on Jackson, suggesting Maitland and he were one and the same. Maitland was also known to possess pornographic photographs of Betty's sister; the same as Joe Betts claimed to have found in the cemetery. Inspired by Los Guitanos's theme of substitution, Janson consults mortuary records and discovers a body approximating to that of Maitland's. On visting the cemetery he discovers the coffin is empty. They are disturbed by Jackson and Williams, but the boyfriend of Joe Bett's sister arrives to help save the day. The book ends with Janson in his role as New-Man wondering how long it will take to forgive Betty for sleeping with Jackson.

2 comments:

Nathan Cain said...

Mr. Holland. I hope you'll forgive me for posting this as a comment, but I've not had any luck trying to locate an email address for you.
I run the blog Independent Crime, http://indiecrime.blogspot.com, and for some time I have been trying to find out who Fifties paperback author Spike Morelli is. He published with Archer Press and Reginald Heade did many of his covers. My question to you is, is Morelli another name for Stephen Frances, and if not, do you know who he is?

If you can help me out email me at IndieCrime at gmail.com. Please.
Thanks.

Nathan Cain

Rob Matthews said...

Recently purchased all the Telos re-releases,and this one is the first one I've read, so far. Must admit to being concerned upon reading of Frances' method of 'writing', namely dictating onto tape - the Rev. Fanthorpe used the same method after all, and the deficiencies in his writing are legendary with deus ex machina endings due to running out of a preordained wordcount - and currently Kevin Anderson dictates his 'Dune' sequels while hiking, to less than universal acclaim. However I wouldn't have guessed that Frances hadn't pounded this out on a typwriter, scrutinising every word as it appeared, if I hadn't read your biography of the man - the story seemed to be fully under control at all times, not easy with four plot strands. I really enjoyed this and look forward to reading more.