Underground Reading: City of Brass by Edward D. Hoch
Monday, March 21, 2011
City of Brass (1971) is a collection of three stories by Edward D. Hoch, the MWA Grand Master of the short story format. Mr. Hoch wrote over 900 shorts, most characterized by his adherence to clue-based, problem-solving mysteries. He kept a broad stable of characters to hand, each specializing in a certain form of mystery - from locked-room to historical to police procedural.
Simon Ark, the star of City of Brass was Mr. Hoch's very first creation, first appearing in 1955, and this particular detective has a unique domain: the supernatural mystery. City of Brass collects three tales: City of Brass (1959), The Vicar of Hell (1956) and Hoofs of Satan (1956). Each is told as a first-person narrative from Ark's "Watson", a book publisher in New York. (Mr. Hoch is noteworthy for maintaining a sort of continuity between his stories, in this instance, for the example, the narrator began as a journalist and "worked his way up").
The three stories are all united by their balance of the mundane and the supernatural. In each case, the mystery or crime seems to have a bizarre or occult element - this is what summons the wandering Ark to the scene. Invariably, the crime turns out to be ordinary. Just as the regular investigators are most baffled by its magic, Ark will demonstrate how it was committed through ordinary means (and generally, for ordinary reasons).
The recurring supernatural element is Ark himself.His origin is mysterious, has activities more so. He claims to be over 2,000 years old - a man cursed to wander the earth in search of evil (more specifically, Satan). When explained to a third party, say, when the narrator is trying to impress an attractive English woman, it comes across as laughable - but no one ever doubts Ark. Mr. Hoch, to his credit, never pushes this further. Ark is good at what he does, so everyone takes him at face value - if not more.
City of Brass is based in one of my personal favorite settings for a detective novel: the corrupt small town. Baine Brass owns Baine City, and the Baine family act as feudal lords to the place. When one of the narrator's old friends, Henry, calls for him, he's initially ignored. But when Henry's wife's sister dies, our Watson and Simon Ark came speeding up from NYC to check the place out. They find a city riddled with corruption (always a good sign for an enjoyable read!). There's a feisty local gang, a cop sleeping with the dead girl (when she was alive), a mad scientist doing Forbidden Experiments and, seemingly tangentially, the matron of the Baine family now evidences all the signs of the stigmata. Ark pokes around for a while and puts all the pieces together. (Given, the Forbidden Experiments are left as a bit of a disconcerting cliff-hanger, but Ark assures the reader that they weren't working anyway...)
The Hoofs of Satan flies overseas and takes place in the English countryside. The only story in the collection told in the third person, it connects Ark with Chief Inspector Ashly of Scotland Yard. Ashly has been called out for seemingly mundane reasons - a set of one-legged hoofprints has been spotted in the snow. The town's mayor is overjoyed - it is exactly the sort of supernatural hoo-hah that'll bring visitors in to the town's festival. Ashly is more concerned about the safety of the sekrit govmint facility on the other side of the woods. Ark? He's hoping they're real, and he'll finally get his showdown with Satan. Alas, the prints too have an ordinary explanation - connecting not with the town's dark past but with its sordid present. The motive was a bit obvious in this one, but the modus operandi was brilliant. Mr. Hoch plays fair with his readers and although I'm disappointed I didn't guess this one, I'm impressed by how he set up the solution.
The middle story in the collection, and my favorite, is The Vicar of Hell. Our nameless narrator comes swooping over the Atlantic in search of a lost book - diary of Sir Francis Bryan, a treacherous 16th century churchman. Of all the three stories, this has the best balance of character and mystery. Our narrator and his attractive local companion, Rain Richards (even she's a little embarrassed by the name), prowl for the book but soon find themselves attacked - and stumble on a corpse. Inspector Ashly conveniently joins the scene and Ark himself shortly appears. The location of the book is tracked to a ramshackle old pub, but an investigation of the scene only turns up a dodgy landlord and no book. The heroes battle a cult, save the girl and find the book in, again, a brilliantly-unexpected but thoroughly-hinted-at place. Perhaps the most intriguing moment in the story is a conversation between the narrator and Ark. While waiting for the cult to do its dastardly cultishness, the narrator comments on their evil. Ark immediately lashes back, pointing out that the narrator is currently engaged in adulterous shenanigans, and "the sin of adultery is no less than that of devil worship". Although an awkward moment for our protagonists, this is probably the cleanest insight the reader ever gets into Ark's character. He hates - and is disappointed by - all evil, with the latter emotion possibly being the dominant one. Ark engages in these investigations not out of a crusading spirit (although he does believe in doing "good"), but because he's seeking out the One Big Evil. All of this crime-solving, be it a murder or his friend's sexual shenanigans, is just a way of marking time. He hopes each case is the last one...
Of course that's making a character mountain of a conversational molehill, but this is one of the very few moments where the reader learns anything about Ark's beliefs. He's slightly more free with tantalizing hints of his past, but that's background - not personality.
Given the perpetual popularity of the occult detective, Simon Ark makes for a significant step in this archetype's evolution. The blase treatment of Ark's supernatural origin, and the repeated willingness of bystanders to believe in the occult origin of each crime, indicates a societal acceptance of the supernatural that foreshadows the more explicitly magical realism of the archetype's current state. However, Mr. Hoch was, above all, a mystery-writer, not a writer of fantasy or horror. There's a certain craftsmanship and dedication to writing a challenging crime that has been watered down in the current genre. Having a mundane solution means the reader gets a "fair" chance to solve the crime before the detective does. Having a magical solution means the reader is merely a witness to the detective's brilliance. Oddly, the increased reliance on the latter means that the current crop of magical detectives are better, more fully-developed characters. But the mysteries themselves have suffered - they're no longer novels of detection, merely another form of fantasy. We can appreciate the book, but we can't participate in it. Reading the Simon Ark stories makes me realize how much I miss the former.