Fri 20 Feb 2015
EDEN PHILLPOTTS – Lycanthrope: The Mystery of Sir William Wolf. Butterworth, UK, hardcover, 1937. Macmillan, US, hardcover, 1938. Also available online here.
Sir William Wolf has just inherited Stormbury on his father’s, Sir Porteous, death. A slight scholarly man, he has a quality of strength about him as well as frailty. He has just returned from Greece where he was studying antiquities with his man and close friend Bob Meadows. He returns home to another close friend, the hearty John Malfroy offering support in these difficult times.
Sir William Wolf had deeper problems than running Stormbury, though. Recent mysterious events and a creature only half perceived in the darkness have left Sir William with a strange idee fixe he explains to his friend Malfroy:
And it gets worse:
“You can’t get on equal terms with a lycanthrope, supposing any such abortion existed.”
If Sir William was merely obsessed, it would be difficult enough, but there are mysteries afoot, and it is hard to dismiss Sir William’s fears so easily. Eventually the tension will force a separation between Sir William and his long time friend and servant Bob Meadows, and a new man will be hired, one James Callender, and whether he, or anyone, can be trusted is a real question.
I should pause here to explain something. Lycanthrope is a thriller, but it is not a horror novel, Lycanthrope is a detective story.
Enter our sleuth, whose explanation of the complicated events takes up the latter part of the novel.
Okay, it’s not Hammett. This is old fashioned, even for 1937. It would have been old fashioned in 1927, maybe even 1917. Eden Phillpotts was born in 1862 and had his first great success with the chapbook My Adventure on the Flying Scotsman, by most accounts the first mystery set on a train well before the 20th Century. He was still writing in 1950. He lived until 1960, two years short of 100.
If you know Phillpotts at all it is for his detective novel The Red Redmaynes, and if you don’t know that you might know him because of a young woman he encouraged to write detective stories — Agatha Christie.
Phillpotts wrote detective novels and well-received regional novels under his own name, and thrillers a bit less formal about the detective work as Harrington Hext.
That said, Pettigrew does an admirable job with the Sherlock Holmes bit. He may not have been a great actor, he admits he was no tragedian, but as a detective he is gifted, and he needs to be, because more is going on at Stormbury than Sir William’s obsession. Mystery and conspiracy swirl around the place, and more than one of both. Why did Bob Meadows desert his friend, and who is James Callender …?
For me, the old fashioned element of this book worked in its favor with the atmosphere and the hint of the supernatural. Phillpotts isn’t content merely to tell you the mysterious events. He wants you to feel them.
Lycanthrope manages some thrills and chills, and the mystery is satisfyingly solved. If Sir William reminds you a bit of Sir Henry Baskerville its no accident, but this in no other way resembles Doyle’s novel. Pettigrew is no Holmes, but you might keep in mind Holmes is an actor as well.
Can Pettigrew save Sir William’s fragile grasp on reality much less his life? Can he unravel the conspiracies at foot and lay the wolf haunting Stormbury?
I enjoyed this one. It moved much faster than I expected, and it turned into a much better detective story, if hardly fair play, than I had expected. Pettigrew proves an engaging narrator and a believable one, and Sir William, who could easily become a silly fool we could not identify with, becomes a figure you want to save.
I can’t tell you why you can’t actually call this one a murder mystery, but it comes very close to being one.
All in all, despite its dated prose, this was one worth reading, a good example of why Phillpotts remained in print from the end of one century into the middle of another.
Editorial Comment: Unless Al Hubin is in error about this, Lycanthrope is the only case of mystery that Samuel Pettigrew was ever consulted on.