Tue 28 Jul 2009
ELLIOT PAUL – Fracas in the Foothills: A Homer Evans Western Mystery and Open Space Adventure. Random House, hardcover, 1940.
Where to begin …
Perhaps with expatriate American scholar sleuth Homer Evans and his two gun toting girl friend Miriam Leonard (aka Mademoiselle Montana) of Billings, Montana, who has a way with a gun and a classical harpsichord.
Perhaps with the whole insane crew of surrealistic Frenchmen that accompany him in his Parisian adventures: Gonzo the painter; Chief of Detectives Fremont; Dr. Hyacinthe Toudoux, the medical examiner, and his black mistress; a pair of Russian aristocrats turned cab drivers; double-talking lawyer Maitre Francois Ronron; or Moritz the Thinking Dog.
Perhaps with the Indians on the warpath …
Homer Evans and his crew of surreal Dadaist pals first made their notable debut in The Mysterious Mickey Finn, a phantasmagoric farce of crime and the art world intended as a parody of Philo Vance and S. S. Van Dine.
About two chapters in, that went by the wayside, and the book took off in its own insane direction. In Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers John Ball points out that Van Dine died the same year Mickey Finn was published, “perhaps mercifully.”
They next appeared in Hugger-Mugger in the Louvre which was more of the same, if arguably madder, especially where it involves the obscure Egyptian pharaoh Tout-or-Nada. Between the two we met the brilliant but somewhat less than sober red-headed van dyke bearded Homer and his Montana born girlfriend who packs a pair of .38′s on their Parisian adventures.
After that they paused for a little Mayhem in B-Flat. There were nine Homer Evans adventures in all, including Waylaid in Boston, I’ll Hate Myself in the Morning, The Black Gardenia, and The Death of Lord Haw Haw.
But everyone has to go home eventually, and in Fracas in the Foothills Homer and Miriam are called back to Montana because there is trouble on the range.
Those nasty old sheepherders represented by the despicable Larkspur Gilligan are threatening Miriam’s Pa Jim and tied with gangsters out of Chicago, as they are informed by Miriam’s childhood friend Blackfoot Rain-No-More (University of California, class of ’29).
Homer decides to sail with her on the Ile de France for home, and so all of their friends pile in to come along with a little careful choreographing of coincidence on Paul’s part — he could hardly leave that crew behind in occupied Paris.
Montana will never be the same.
Neither was mystery fiction.
Paul said of the book in the forward to Mayhem in B Flat:
Nor does Fracas in the Foothills fail in its promise. If anything it is even more than you could possibly expect. The action takes place in the lower Yellowstone valley of Montana and introduces Blackfoot medicine man Trout Tail III and Blackfoot chief Shot-On-Both-Sides. This is also the book that introduces Moritz.
Gangsters, rustlers, Native Americans, the French, murder (the corpse is scalped), a land grab, arson, a murder trial, rattlesnakes raining from airplanes (twice), the Battle of the Redlands, a stampede, sheep, and more are the ingredients of Paul’s novel.
Admittedly who-dun-it gets a bit lost in the mix, but then that’s true of all of the Evans novels. If you can even remember the outline of the plot by the time you finish, you probably could outwit Homer and his whole crew. It’s a bit like trying to describe the relationship of the plot of a Marx Brothers movie to what actually happens on screen. It isn’t the most rewarding thing you can do.
Fracas in the Foothills may not be Paul’s best, but is certainly his busiest novel. All 451 plus pages of it, including maps.
And not a word is wasted. Though Homer may be feeling a little crowded getting back to the States:
Surely not. That would be a tragedy.
Elliot Paul isn’t much read today, Even his best known books Life and Death in a Small Spanish Town and The Last Time I Saw Paris are forgotten.
Only historians of the genre even mention Homer Evans in passing. His other sleuth, Brett Rutledge, is even less well known. It is not right, however. Paul and Homer Evans deserve to be remembered and treasured. The books are not only funny, they are smart, and they are unique.
And as in poor English as it may be, Fracas in the Foothills in the uniquest of them all. Even among the unique it is — unique.
But watch out for those rattlesnakes from the sky. That would even shake John Creasey’s infamous flying coyote.
Hopalong Cassidy was never like this.
Them sheepherders never had a chance.