A ‘sensational novel of murder…Siberian-exile, political assassination and detection.’
Source: Review Copy
Before reading this book Hugh Conway was not an author I had heard of and yet was surprised to read in Martin Edwards’ introduction that during his writing career he was predicted by contemporaries to eclipse Wilkie Collins and even Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) was reviewed in comparison to this novel by Conway. But it seems an early death at 37 has meant he has become largely forgotten until this Collins Crime Club reprint.
From a genre point of view I would say this book was a mixture of fictional autobiographical adventure and a general mystery, with some sensation fiction elements, beginning with an unusual set of events, which the rest of the novel is focused on unravelling. Some aspects the reader will unravel before the narrator, others perhaps not so. However, I wouldn’t say its’ lack affinity with the more Golden Age detective novel is a bad thing, but it does mean I and any reader for that matter have to judge it using different criteria or standards.
Called Back (1883) commences with Gilbert Vaughan explaining that he is writing this story about events which occurred when he was 25, in order to protect the woman in his life from unkind comment (and yes a sick bucket may be needed for a couple of lines here). At this time he was temporarily blind, becoming rather despondent with it and one night he gets lost after going on a walk by himself. A drunken man ends up leading him not only to the wrong house but to a house within which a murder has just taken place. Luckily his lack of sight means the killers spare his life, though lack of evidence afterwards makes him reluctant to go to the police. The scene with the killers is an interesting one as Vaughan tries to recreate the room based on information from sound and touch. A slight niggle is Vaughan’s focus on the emotional impact of each event, asking the reader a lot of rhetorical questions, which I think slowed the pace a little.
Events then leap forward a couple of years and Vaughan has his sight back and is travelling in Italy with his friend. And it is in a Turin church that Vaughan falls in love with a beautiful woman. He despairs he will never see her again, until of course he sees her in London and does what every normal person would do and procures lodgings at the same place where she is staying. Her name is Pauline (and the sensation fiction elements of the book generally attach to her), yet Vaughan makes little progress in the romance department due to her Italian companion Teresa, who says Pauline is ‘not for love or marriage’ and the fact that Pauline is strangely uncommunicative about her pasts or even her likes and dislikes. However, money talks and Pauline’s uncle consents to Vaughan marrying Pauline, on the conditions it happens soon (apparently you can woo someone after you’re married) and that he must never ask anything about her past. Any reader at this point has alarm bells ringing but all Vaughan says is ‘give her to me,’ which I thought was a telling line, in that it shows a very possessive side to Vaughan and also suggests that he perceives Pauline as an object or something to own.
Regret soon follows for Vaughan who begins to wonder if Pauline is capable of love or quite frankly much mental cognition at all. She has an emptiness of personality and Vaughan likened it to a child’s mind, though he appreciates the obedience which comes with it unsurprisingly. Vaughan though is determined to know the truth. As well as searching for Pauline’s uncle who has conveniently disappeared, an onset of delirium on Pauline’s part seems to point the mystery back to the house where the murder Vaughan sort of witnessed, took place all those years ago. The intrigue surrounding that event is gradually dispelled in the rest of the novel. However, I think the latter part of the novel is mainly focused on Vaughan seeking confirmation over Pauline’s purity, entailing an excessive cross country trip across Siberia, although more details concerning the original murder are finalised and there is some interesting comments on relating to criminals and good and evil. The ending centralises on whether Pauline and Vaughan’s marriage, although built on unsure ground, can make it after all.
This shift in focus from mystery to adventure and romance I think is typical of what Victorian novels were like, combining a mixture of different genres and elements. For me this change also signalled the priorities of the main character and that was to assure himself about the character of his wife. His wild decision to go to Siberia is also indicative of the way Vaughan’s emotions control him and direct his actions, as it is arguable that if Vaughan was less emotional the story wouldn’t have actually happened, as his very eyesight could have been restored sooner if a) he didn’t delay getting the operation and b) he didn’t wait until one surgeon had recovered from his illness. But maybe I am nit-picking here though. I will say to enjoy this book you don’t need to like Vaughan and even Martin Edwards suggests Vaughan is not an entirely likeable character.
So why like this book? Well there is a mystery and I think it is more complex than say Frank Richardson’s The Mayfair Mystery (1907), which has also been reprinted by the Collins Crime Club. There is also a great deal of adventure and travel and considering it is packed into 192 pages the narrative is action packed and it did make a contrast to the more conventional detective novels I read. This is also a novel which I think has something to say about gender, representations of and attitudes towards women. Vaughan is obsessed with Pauline’s beauty and is very heavy handed in his approach to marrying and taking care of her and a key element of why her mental emptiness annoys him is because it means she takes very little notice of him.
On a final note the beginning of this book where Vaughan is blind and witnesses a murder reminded me of the film 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956). I did check though and this film was paced on Philip MacDonald’s novel, Warrant for X (1938), but part of me still wonders whether MacDonald had read and was influenced by Conway’s earlier novel, as it was reprinted in 1920s by the Collins Crime Club.
Warning: Last line or so of the book will make you want to throw up due to excessive hero worship. Makes Watson look indifferent to Holmes…
Rating: 3.75/ 5