It is June, 1929. Cyrus Skeen, renowned private detective, in San Francisco, has been hired to help exonerate Hosanna Harker, a novelist accused of murdering his publisher. After interviewing Harker in the County jail, Skeen visits a bookstore on Market Street, and searches for some of the writer's titles. He is in for a surprise.
Skeen did not have to search far for Harker’s titles. A block and a half from his office, he found three of them in the Bell Buoy Bookstore. He had found many of the reference books in his office and home study bookshelves in this store.
He did not bother browsing for Harker’s titles, but asked the lone clerk if he carried any. The store was empty of customers and browsers, and the clerk looked like he wanted to talk to someone.
The clerk, a bald, roly-poly little man wearing thick glasses, responded immediately. “Hosanna Harker? Yes, sir, I have several of his books here! I’ve stacked them all together. This way, sir.” He knew Skeen as a customer, but did not know his name.
The man led Skeen down some aisles of books and pointed to a line of gray spines on a middle shelf. “There we are! Which ones would you be interested in, sir?”
“One in particular, The Crystal Magician,” said Skeen.
“Ah! His Erskine Childers title!” The clerk reached up, drew out the book, and handed it to Skeen.
It was a superb looking book. It had a thick gray leather cover with embossed gilt lettering and a colored, embossed map of an island in the middle in a black frame. The pages were gilt-edged, as well. Skeen opened the book. The title page read, “The Crystal Magician, by Hosanna Paul Harker. A story of suspense.” At the bottom of the title page was the Manxman colophon, a silhouette of a leaping Manx cat within an arched Latin inscription, Ego Sapientia Emin Miucullum.
Skeen said, “My Latin is rusty. What does the colophon say?”
The clerk scoffed. “Roughly translated, sir, it means, ‘I heed my meows.’ Kind of daft and silly, if you ask me. I think ‘meows’ was supposed to be ‘mews’ for ‘muse,’ but that didn’t translate well.”
“No comment,” replied Skeen. He flipped through the pages, some three hundred of them. “What did you call it?” he asked.
“That’s his Childers book. You know, after The Riddle of the Sands? If you’re not familiar with it, that was a pre-war novel about a planned invasion of Britain by Germany from the Frisian Islands. Lots of sailing and intrigue. A very popular espionage novel. Still a strong seller. This one here is much like it, but is set during the war, although it was published in 1921. It isn’t badly done. It’s set on the Isle of Man. That’s a map of it on the cover. As you can see, it’s also illustrated. Very nice etchings. All the Harker novels are illustrated. The copy in your hand was probably read once. Not much foxing on the pages, and there are thumbprints on a few of the pages, in the margins, and one very slight tear. Every one of these Harkers came from an estate sale.”
“That’s odd,” said Skeen, thinking out loud.
“What’s odd?” asked the clerk.
Skeen shook his head. “Nothing,” he answered. “It’s odd that one of Manxman Press’s first titles should also feature the Isle of Man as the setting.”
“Harker got all his details right,” said the clerk, “about the Isle of Man and longitude and latitude and where on Man an army could be landed, although Childers was a bit more realistic in his invasion angle, with the Germans coming over in dozens of barges towed by tugboats to land on England’s east coast. Harker’s invasion involves the Germans landing an army on Man from a fleet of submarines, taking over the place, and then plotting to sail over to Liverpool in preparation for a general invasion. Not bad for a suspense novel, although I thought the writing was pedestrian.”
“I see The Spoiled Granary up there. Let me look at it, too.”
The clerk reached up and took down the title. “This is his Upton Sinclair-Frank Norris novel!”
Again, Skeen looked perplexed.
The clerk handed him the book. “You see, most of Harker’s books are ‘after’ the works of established or well-known novelists. That one there is a so-called exposé of the grain storage business in the Midwest before the war. A kind of melding of Sinclair’s The Jungle and Norris’s The Octopus, complete with an insipid romance between the daughter of the owner of a Minnesota grain elevator and an agent of the Grange movement who wants to buy it for the cooperative.”
“Good God!” Skeen muttered under his breath. He simply glanced at the equally rich-looking cover. “Thank you for the review. Now, for the last one, A Numidian Slave.”
The clerk shrugged, reached up while exclaiming, “Ah! His Joseph Conrad novel!” and took down that title. He handed it to Skeen.
Skeen asked, “Which one of Conrad’s?”
“Heart of Darkness. What else?” explained the clerk. “It’s about an Ethiopian black fellow who’s enslaved by some Arabs but who converts to Islam and becomes a slave-driver himself after all kinds of suffering and horrible experiences, all graphically described.”
The clerk paused to read off some of the other Harker titles, touching a finger to each of their spines. “There’s his Victor Hugo novel, A Son of a Harem, after The Man Who Laughs. That’s about a fellow who’s the son of an English aristocrat lady who’s captured at sea by Turks and sold into a sultan’s harem, where he’s born, then as a young man who’s escaped being turned into a eunuch by the sultan he gets back to England to claim a peerage and meets a lot of grief because he can't prove he’s the son of a late peer and not the bastard son of a sultan.
“There’s his Sherwood Anderson novel, Day Coach from Passiac, after Winesburg, Ohio, both are a series of short stories, about a fellow who leaves a small town for the big world. Either of them made me feel glad to be born in San Francisco.”
“Doesn’t sound like Harker is much of an original writer,” Skeen remarked.
“Well, no, I guess he isn't,” conceded the clerk with a sigh.
Skeen hefted the three tomes. “I’ll take these. I might come back for those others later. No promises, however.”
“They’re five dollars each, sir,” the clerk warned.
The clerk led him back to the front of the store. At the cash register behind the counter, he asked, “May I ask why you’re so interested in Harker’s novels? He’s in jail, you know. Seems he murdered the publisher.”
Skeen smiled and handed the clerk some bills. “No, you may not ask. And, yes, I know Mr. Harker is in jail.”
“I know you from somewhere,” said the clerk.
“Keep it that way,” said Skeen, not wanting to identify himself. He did not know if the clerk could keep a secret and he didn’t want to start speculation that might be picked up by the newspapers, and he wasn’t ready to deal with those people, not yet.
The clerk rang up the sale, wrapped the books in brown paper, sealed the bundle with adhesive tape, and asked no more questions.
Skeen thanked him. He paused to ask, “What’s your name?”
The clerk blinked once. “Harry Hampton, sir. Why do you ask?”
“You’ll see,” Skeen answered. He left the shop, and walked back to the Hall of Justice near where he had parked his roadster and drove home to Carmel Towers.
“These are very good etchings,” said Dilys. She sat with Skeen at the dinner table, having a coffee. She held open The Crystal Magician and was leisurely leafing through it. “Overall, these are very handsomely made books. I wonder if the stories are handsomely written, as well.”
Skeen shook his head. He held open A Soiled Granary. “I don’t think they are. The bookstore clerk I bought these from gave me impromptu assessments of these and the others by Harker he had in the store. I’ve only read the first few pages of this one, and I recognized Sinclair’s kind of story almost immediately, and also pieces of Norris’s.” He paused. “The clerk said that the writing in The Crystal Magician was ‘pedestrian.’ I think he wanted to say it was ‘pedestrian’ in a blanket appraisal of all the novels, but didn’t say it because he couldn’t know whether or not I liked Harker’s stuff.”
Dilys scowled at her husband. “You’ve read that trash? Sinclair’s and Norris’s, I mean.”
“Long ago, before I met you, darling. It was semi-required reading at Yale.”
“I’ve sampled it, just out of curiosity,” said Dilys. “I wanted to know what all the fuss was about them.” She paused. “I’d like to get to know this Cyril Enfante, the illustrator, if only to congratulate him on his skill. I wonder where he lives.”
Skeen replied, “I wonder if he’s read all the Harker novels.”
“Why would you doubt it?”
“He couldn’t be so illiterate or so ignorant that he’d not be able to recognize a plagiarized story. I don’t know how many more novels Harker wrote and which Manxman published here and in altered form in Britain. He would need to have read each of these novels to know what in them was worth illustrating, just as you read my stories.”
“This is true,” said Dilys.
“Oh, here’s something interesting.” Skeen had turned to the last pages of The Soiled Granary and came upon a page with print in a different font and size, which was followed by the cat colophon. “This should be helpful.” He read it out loud.
“Manxman Press was born in January 1919 on the lovely, secluded Isle of Man. The founder of this Press was recuperating from a concussion received in the blood and mud of the Meuse-Argonne trenches. Being so incapacitated during a German artillery barrage, and unable to continue his duties as a journalist for some American newspapers, he hit upon the perfect restorative therapy. He conceived of a new publishing house that would seek out and introduce to the world the lights and spirits of those in the trenches who survived the blood and mud and injuries far more severe than a concussion. He spent a year there in the convivial company of Manxmen. From them he received much encouragement. And so that is the name of this venture. Manxman Press will publish the distinguished and outstanding literary efforts of our best and brightest writers in quality editions.”
Dilys turned to the end of The Crystal Magician. “It’s here, too,” she said. She frowned again. “How could a man who could write something like that choose to become predatory thief?”
Skeen shrugged. “I don’t know, darling. Many decent men get worn down by the world and turn on it.” Skeen shoved his book aside. “Anyway, that little piece of information confirms what Susan Harker told me.”
“What is she like?”
Skeen described the woman and gave Dilys a précis of his conversation with her.
Dilys put her book aside and rested her chin on her folded hands. “There’s another mystery, darling. Women who remain loyal to rakes and bounders and completely contemptible beasts. The kind that beat their wives or are just all-round louts.” She paused. “Speaking of which – what was Harker like? I gathered you weren’t much impressed with him.”
Skeen chuckled. “Nor he with me. He’s just another all-round lout who happens to be a writer with literary pretensions.”
Dilys smiled ironically at her husband. “But you still want to try to prove he didn’t murder another lout.”
“I’m glad you said ‘try.’ It’s going to be difficult, and, at this point, for all I know, he did murder Pearson. But even louts deserve some justice. We’ll see what The Mouse Trap shows.”
“The Mouse Trap?”
Skeen scowled mockingly at Dilys. “’The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.’ Hamlet, Act Two, Scene Two. The Mouse Trap was the name of the play Hamlet had the acting troupe put on to recreate how his uncle Claudius murdered his brother.”
“It isn’t your habit to quote Shakespeare, darling,” Dilys answered with a mock disapproving shake of her head. “Why now?”
“It’s a literary case, sweetheart. It seems Mr. Pearson and Mr. Harker got caught in a mouse trap of their own making.”
Dilys made a face. “And you’ve assigned yourself the task of picking them up by their filthy tails and tossing them down the garbage chute? I would rather see you go after just ordinary, run-of-the-mill stranglers and bank robbers.”
Skeen rose, came around the table, and pecked Dilys on the forehead. “It’s an occupational hazard, darling. I promise to wear surgeon’s gloves, and to scrub my hands thoroughly after it’s all over.”
© 2015 by Edward Cline