A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review by Bill Pronzini:


CAROLYN WELLS – The Wooden Indian.

J. B. Lippincott, hardcover, US/UK, 1935. Hardcover reprint: A. L. Burt/Blue Ribbon Books.

CAROLYN WELLS Fleming Stone

   During the first four decades of this century, Carolyn Wells wrote more than eighty mystery novels — most of them to a strict (and decidedly outmoded) formula she herself devised.

   She has been called, with some justification, an expert at the construction of the formal mystery, and she has also been credited with popularizing the locked-room/impossible-crime type of story, of which she wrote more than a score.

   Her other claim to fame is that she was the author of the genre’s first nonfiction work, a combination of how-to and historical overview called The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913). Unfortunately, that book is far more readable today than her novels, which are riddled with stilted prose, weak characterization, and flaws in logic and common sense.

   The Wooden Indian, one of her later titles, is a good example. It features her most popular series sleuth, Fleming Stone, a type she describes in The Technique of the Mystery Story as a “transcendent detective” — that is, a detective larger than life, omniscient, a creature of fiction rather than fact.

CAROLYN WELLS Fleming Stone

   And indeed, Fleming Stone is as fictitious as they come: colorless and one-dimensional, a virtual cipher whose activities are somewhat less interesting to watch than an ant making its way across a sheet of blank paper. The same is true of most of her other characters. None of them come alive; and if you can’t care about a novel’s characters, how can you care about its plot?

   The plot in this instance is a dilly. An obnoxious collector of Indian artifacts, David Corbin, keeps a huge wooden Indian, a Pequot chief named Opodyldoc, in a room full of relics at his home in “a tiny village in Connecticut which rejoiced in the name of Greentree.”

   One of the accouterments of this wooden Indian is a bow and arrow, fitted and ready to fire. And fire it does, of course, killing Corbin in what would seem to be an accident (or the fulfillment of an old Pequot curse against the Corbin family), since he was alone in the room at the time and there was no way anyone could have gotten in or out.

CAROLYN WELLS Fleming Stone

   Several guests are on hand at the time, one of them Fleming Stone. Stone sorts out the various motives and clues, determines that Corbin was murdered, identifies the culprit, and explains the mystery — an explanation that is not only silly (as were many of Wells’s solutions) but implausible, perhaps even as impossible as the crime itself was purported to be.

   Fleming Stone is featured in such other titles as The Clue (1909), The Mystery of the Sycamore (1921), and The Tapestry Room Murder (1929).

   Wells also created several other series detectives — Pennington (“Penny”) Wise, Kenneth Carlisle, Alan Ford, Lorimer Lane — all of whom are as “transcendent” as Fleming Stone.

   Her novels are important from a historical point of view, certainly; but the casual reader looking for entertaining, well-written, believable mysteries would do well to look elsewhere.

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   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.