Friday, September 12, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Golden Crucible,” by Jean Stubbs

(Editor’s note: This is the 24th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Making this latest selection is Amy Myers, the British author of Tom Wasp and the Murdered Stunner [the first in a series about a Victorian chimney sweep Tom Wasp] and Murder in the Mist [the fifth entry in her Peter and Georgia Marsh series]. She’s also known for her Auguste Didier series, and for her short stories, some of which have been collected in Murder, ’Orrible Murder. Under the pseudonym “Harriet Hudson,” Myers writes historical novels, such as Applemere Summer [2006].)

In the 1970s, Jean Stubbs wrote three magnificent crime mysteries featuring the engaging Inspector John Joseph Lintott: Dear Laura (1973), The Painted Face (1974), and The Golden Crucible (1976). Although Dear Laura won an Edgar Allan Poe Mystery Award, it’s the last of those three that has remained the magnet for me. I still wistfully hope that one sunny day a fourth Lintott novel will join them, though I can’t see how it could better its predecessors. Inspector Lintott is as genial and irresistible today as when I first met him. I wouldn’t want to be a villain with Lintott after me, but if I were in trouble, I’d be glad to find him right behind me. No drink, drugs, or woman trouble for Lintott. He’s solid, reliable, wily, indefatigable, and thoroughly likable.

Each of the three Lintott novels deals with appearance and reality in a different way, culminating for me in The Golden Crucible, which conjures up the world of magic and illusion. What better background subject could there be for a crime novel, a genre that deals in puzzles and misdirection? Set mainly in San Francisco in the fateful year of 1906, the book finds the “world-renowned, original and only Salvador, Wizard of Wizards,” offering his audience a “Temple of Delight”--which is exactly what the reader enters in The Golden Crucible, being drawn into the excitements and wonders of Salvador’s Fantasmagoria, his Ambidextrous Prestidigitation, and his magnificent illusions, such as the vanishing lady.

On Friday, January 19, 1906, the lovely lady does indeed vanish, but not as Salvador had intended. His assistant and beloved sister, Alicia, a strange and delicate girl with a gift of foretelling the future, disappears in the middle of their illusion.

Enter the retired Inspector Lintott of Scotland Yard, who follows her trail to far-off San Francisco, where he encounters a cast of memorable characters. These include the softly spoken charmer and millionaire Bela Barak, who is far more sinister for these attributes than his tough henchman, Fleischer; Barak’s beautiful wife, Francesca; Scotty, the San Francisco beggar with whom Lintott strikes up a friendship; and Lintott’s own family--Bessie, his down-to-earth wife, and Lizzie, his daughter, who finds her own way to independence in this novel. It is they who provide Lintott’s motivation for his ignoring his own safety by going into the unknown and dangerous territory of San Francisco and its secrets.

The Golden Crucible, being set in 1906, is a historical novel, and yet it did not seem so to me. I became so involved in it that it seemed as if the action were taking place right here and now. One of the problems of historical novel-writing is that not only do the details have to be right, but they have to be used so that the readers feel they are sharing the experience with the characters, and not merely looking “down” on the scene from the lofty height of the 21st century. I don’t think I’ve ever read a historical writer who achieves a sense of place and time better than Jean Stubbs. As the inspector walks the streets of San Francisco and Lizzie battles for independence, I felt complete confidence that this was what it was like to live in Edwardian times or to be a woman struggling for a life of her own, whether in the upper echelons of society or in Lintott’s humbler circumstances.

One of the first crime novels I ever read was Carter Dickson’s He Wouldn’t Kill Patience, first published in 1944. This fascinated me not so much for the locked-room mystery but for the fact that Carey Quint and Madge Palliser were the modern-day scions of two grand Victorian illusionists. I was a teenager at the time, and had never heard of the Egyptian Hall in London’s Piccadilly or John Nevil Maskelyne, George Alfred Cooke, and their automaton, Psycho, who played cards with the audience. Carter Dickson’s novel was set in his contemporary mid-20th-century, and so the illusionist background was only briefly described. At the time I read it as a teenager, the only magic I had come across involved conjurers who could produce a rabbit out of a hat or do card tricks, so the idea of Quint and Palliser with their automaton Fatima captivated me.

Then Jean Stubbs gave me the whole world of magic, illusion, and fantasy in The Golden Crucible, written in a style so electric that I could share the experience. On the first page: “In the stillness a deep voice cried, ‘I invite you to the Temple of Delight!’ Cymbals crashed, gold sparks showed. From the centre of sound and colour walked the magician, huge, smiling; splendid in evening dress, his Mephistophelean mantle swirling scarlet and black.” Once I’d read that, I was thoroughly hooked, I was there, I was ready for Lintott to make his appearance.

The Golden Crucible was first published in the UK in 1976, and later appeared as a Black Dagger reprint. With its warmth and humanity, combined with the atmospheric life of San Francisco, it seems to me to be crying out for a reprint. Long live Lintott--and if you’re reading this, Jean Stubbs, thank you.

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Set to pick up the baton and choose next Friday’s “forgotten book” is UK novelist Dolores Gordon-Smith, the author of two novels so far (A Fête Worse Than Death and Mad About the Boy?) featuring ex-pilot, writer, and citizen sleuth Jack Haldean.


Xavier said...

Great review, and thanks for the link!
It's a pity Stubbs wrote only three Lintotts and gave up on crime fiction afterwards. If all historical mysteries were like hers, I would surely read more of them!

Xavier said...

Oh, by the way, Dear Laura didn't win the Edgar - it only got a nomination. Alas.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The Stubbs trilogy sounds great. Thanks!