Friday, 7 November 2014

Forgotten Book - Light from a Lantern

Light from a Lantern is the first novel by Jonathan Stagge that I've featured as a Forgotten Book, or indeed read, but I've previously discussed books written by Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, the co-authors, who also wrote as Q. Patrick and Patrick Quentin. I've enjoyed the Patrick/Quentin books, but the Stagge titles aren't easy to come by in the UK. Luckily for me, I found a handful via a dealer's catalogue, and took the plunge. On the evidence of Light from a Lantern, I have treats in store when I get round to the other Stagges.

The Stagge books feature Dr Hugh Westlake, a widower and amateur sleuth, who is accompanied by his young daughter Dawn. It's rare for young children to play a significant part in a series of traditional whodunits, but Dawn is given a major role here in pinning the guilt on the culprit,and I gather that she also has much more than a walk-on part in other Stagge stories.

The setting of this novel is highly atmospheric, and a huge strength. Westlake and Dawn take a holiday in the decaying resort of Cape Talisman. I don't know the US well enough to know whether Stagge based.the location on a real life seaside village, but he certainly evokes the sinister mood of a place threatened with destruction by coastal erosion, and exposed to wild storms. One of those storms is pivotal in the final pages, with one scene in a church very distantly reminscent of that in J. Meade Falkner's The Nebuly Coat..

A young woman is found murdered near the hotel where Westlake is staying. Creepily, a mole on her body is found to have a scarlet circle drawn around it by the killer. Meanwhile, local graves are being disturbed in the spooky village cemetery. Then another murder takes place - and again the victim has a mole, circled in scarlet lipstick...

The story is pacy and ingenious. I thought I'd worked out a neat "least likely person" solution, but Stagge confounded me. I'm sure many whodunit fans will agree that this feeling, of being cleverly foxed, is one of the greatest pleasures of the genre. I'd go so far as to say that this book strikes me as a minor classic, and it's a shame it isn't better known, either under this title or under its original American title, The Scarlet Circle..

I'm not alone in enthusing over this author (or rather, authors). Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley) rated Patrick Quentin as the best American mystery writer, but I imagine the scarcity of the books means that relatively few British fans have read Stagge in the past half-century. More recently, an array of good judges, mostly but not all from the US, have lauded his work. They include Mauro Boncampagni, who has a fine collection of books by Wheeler and Webb,Doug Greene, John Norris, Curt Evans, and Sergio Angelini. As so often, I find myself nodding my head in agreement with their views, and with their admiration for the undeservedly forgotten Jonathan Stagge.

9 comments:

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Really glad you enjoyed this one - I came to the series as a Carr fan and really enjoyed the mixture of outré elements and detection - Bill Pronzini however absolutely loathes them

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, there are definite Carrian elements in this one. Is that true of the others?

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Most definitely!

P. C. Hosmer said...

I am intrigued! Your enthusiasm persuades me that I must find a copy of the book.

Moreover, I very much like your blog. I shall be returning often, even as I attempt to find time to create content for my own new blog adventure. As a long time reader and reviewer of crime fiction (including yours) for blogs and magazines (e.g. BookLoons, Mystery Scene, BookPage, etc.), I am finally branching out (under a pseudonym) into blogging, an experiment that I will be pursuing one day at a time.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, P.C., and I wish you every success with your blog. Do let me know when you've got it going.

P. C. Hosmer said...

Well, it is up but not "running." An initial posting announces my intentions, and more postings of substance will soon follow.

Philip Amos said...

The region in which I lived in the late 70s had a treasure trove of books we now think of as forgotten, and it likely still does. Among them was a goodly number of books by Quentin/Q Patrick. I thought them of the first water -- yes, quite possibly the finest in the field of American crime fiction. Would that I could get hold of them again now. Where I now live, one of the ghastly aspects of the library system, and there are many, is that they do not have what I might call a 'back catalogue'. Almost all books considered 'dated', regardless of condition, are discarded. They do not have a book depository in which other systems store older books to make room for the new,

I have noticed, however, that there is an unlikely source of forgotten books: the collections in the Large Print section. A number of publishers of such books republish crime fiction of old, perhaps because they are out of copyright and thus reduce costs. There I found a number of goodies, most happily one by V. C. Clinton-Baddeley. Do you have recollections of his works, Martin?

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, Philip, I've read most if not all of the VC C-B books, though I don't think I've ever featured them here. Not yet anyway! However, not too long ago, I had a stroke of good fortune, being able to acquire the complete set of first editions, most signed. Luckily he only wrote five books, otherwise finances would have denied me the chance! An enjoyable writer.

Clothes In Books said...

I have read a few books under the various Quentin names, but Stagge is a new one to me - and it sounds very intriguing, I must try to read him.