Posts Tagged ‘Twelve Girls in the Garden’

Twelve Girls in the Garden by Shane Martin ~ 1957. This edition: Morrow, 1957. Hardcover. 216 pages.

This satisfactorily beguiling romp of a mystery novel – final body count four-ish, if I’ve added up correctly – stars an elderly American archaeologist, one Professor Challis – who has a nose for curious situations and an unerring talent for chasing down solutions to said problems in a gently circular way.

The Professor, fresh back from some years in Greece (ancient Minoan civilization his speciality) is engaged in writing up his latest findings at the British Museum. Slightly bored with his incarceration (as it were) in the bustling city versus his beloved sun-baked Greek countryside, Professor Challis wanders into a neighbourhood where he once had close friends.

While peering in the window of a house he once knew well, the Professor is accosted by the current owner – the taciturn Mr. Flett – and is immediately embroiled in a rather bizarre scenario involving a mysteriously missing sculptor who disappeared on the eve of a crucial solo exhibition, said sculptor’s twelve masterful statues of beautiful women (all – or at least the heads of all – modelled from life) displayed about a London garden, a beautiful young woman who bears a strong resemblance to one of those statues, and a number of intriguing male characters, some of whom carry firearms as a matter of course.

Suffice it to say that this is a mystery in which art, love, greed and malice play equal parts, and that Professor Chalice faces some danger to life and limb before all is sorted out, with his crucial assistance.

Not bad at all, for a charcter – and a writer – I hadn’t ever heard of before.

Turns out that Shane Martin is the pseudonym of Australian journalist-writer George H. Johnston, whose fictionalized autobiography My Brother Jack is something of a classic of Australian literature.

Moving to the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s with his wife, the equally talented writer Charmaine Clift, and their four young children, Johnston took to writing “pot boilers” in between his more serious literary attempts, five such light novels under the name Shane Martin, of which Twelve Girls in the Garden is apparently the easiest to find – the rest having dropped out of sight, being virtually invisible on all of the usual used book sites.

I know this because I looked.

Darn.

Okay, now check this out, fellow readers – especially (perhaps) fellow Canadian readers. Here’s an intriguing connection for you to revel in. George and Charmaine were connected in a most intimate way with the late great Leonard Cohen. Read all about it here!

That was unexpected. Everything is connected, isn’t it? How many degrees of separation between everybody on earth? Ha!

Back to the book – head spinning a bit because of Leonard – I was satisfied in that the mystery at the heart of Twelve Girls is hardish to guess – it took me almost to the denouement to figure out the key twists – and the character of Professor Challis is charmingly delightful. I’d happily follow him through the other four companion books –The Saracen Shadow (1957), The Man Made of Tin (1958), The Myth is Murder (1959), and A Wake for Mourning (1962) – if only I could get my greedy hands on them.

Loved the writing in this one – it danced and rollicked and teased and just generally pleased.

Here’s a vignette from a visit to a junk dealer’s shop:

In no way was it particularly different from any other secondhand dealer’s shop that lies outside the orbit of fashionable patronage. It had that dubious air of muddle and secrecy, with a flavor of ignorant stockpiling, that might lead one quite mistakenly to believe in the possibility of discovering a rare Memlinc or a genuine van Eyck or, at worst, a quite good Byzantine icon underneath its coating of discolored varnish and grime. It followed the usual custom of displaying in its windows and on the pavement outside only the tawdriest of trash – cumbersome pieces of furniture which were either blatantly spavined or suspiciously wormy; chamber pots of impressive size and florid decor but quite lacking in handles; chipped saucers filled with wedding rings, synthetic gems, old coins, and unmatched earrings; cases of medals concerned with forgotten gallantries in campaigns against Kaffir, Boer, and Afridi; mid-Victorian specimen cabinets choked either with geological fragments or brittle moths and insects; a tray of surgical instruments that looked as if they must have been used by Crippen; miscellaneous articles of chinoiserie brought from Foochow in that free-enterprising period when taste had declined in inverse ratio to the prosperity of the English tea trade; a varied but rather damaged selection of Spode, Staffordshire, and Rockingham; the usual china dog and Negro boy; a stuffed owl, solemnly dusty; and a group of hideously colored plaster statuettes of girls in the cloche hats, shingles, and alluring postures of the twenties.

The whole goat’s-nest, Professor Challis suspected, was to mislead the gullible into supposing that since no human being who had not been certified could possibly wish to buy anything from a display so ghastly, it followed that the real treasures must be inside, secreted in some glittering Ali Baba’s cavern to which only the cognoscenti had the key…

Yes, wordy and rambling and slightly, deliberately sarcastic, but with the malice tempered with good humour. It takes some time to get to the point, but the journey is worth the trip.

Here’s a nice enthusiastic¬† 8/10, partly because I hadn’t expected the tale to be so erudite.

What would please me even more is a whole stack of Johnston/Martin’s books to pick through for evening amusement when the everyday needs to be escaped from for a bit.

I don’t think I’m done with this writer – this feels like a first step on a book quest journey, in fact.

Anyone else know of him, and his other works? Is he worth pursuing, do you think?

 

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