JAMES CORBETT — A SECOND LOOK
“The man in the grey suit looked uneasy, but his features soon regained control . . .” There aren’t too many authors that could (or would) write a line like that with a straight face. The late suspense author James Corbett was one who could (and did) come up with lines like that on a frighteningly regular basis. The author of scores of mysteries from the 1930s through the 1950s, Corbett comes in for a (mostly well-deserved) drubbing by my colleague Bill Pronzini in Son of Gun in Cheek, where he describes one of the author’s best-known books (The Merrivale Mystery) as being “as exciting as watching grass grow.” If this is truly the case, then what on earth am I doing including at least two books by the late author in the Dancing Tuatara Press line-up, which has my name (and reputation for whatever that’s worth) on it? Was Corbett really that bad? If so, why preserve his work?
The answer is what I call the Lionel Fanthorpe syndrome, (something that may also be extended to the two Arthurs of weird menace fame, Burks and Zagat). There’s a tremendous amount of dross, so much so that only a dedicated reader could be expected to wade through it all to find the gems. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Fanthorpe, he was a British author of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who churned out a remarkable volume of (mostly) forgettable work in the 1950s and 1960s. However, buried among hideously bad stories are a substantial volume’s worth of weird tales that can stand alongside the best those two decades had to offer. Granted, this is less than 5% of his overall output and so bad is the reputation that it would be exceedingly difficult getting any publisher enthused about producing the book, but the fact remains, there’s a good 350 pages or so of Lionel Fanthorpe weird tales that I’d be happy to put up on my shelf with books by acknowledged masters of the form.
This same phenomenon is present in the works of Arthur J. Burks and Arthur Leo Zagat. Both wrote a tremendous amount of material in several genres and when they were off, they were pretty dismal. However, when they were in their element (which for both proved to be the weird menace genre), they were excellent. Reading Burks’ science fiction and then turning to a masterpiece such as “The Bells of Oceana” it’s hard to imagine that they were written by the same man. Arthur Leo Zagat has been pretty much ignored until recent years, primarily due to his one volume of science fiction Seven out of Time that served to sully his reputation for decades. This same phenomenon can be found in the work of James Corbett.
If you consult your Bleiler index, you’ll see a handful of novels designated as supernatural in nature, with two others, (The Hound of Death and the present volume), both examples of the rationalized supernatural tale popularized by authors such as Walter S. Masterman. Of those, I’ve found The Monster of Dagenham Hall and the present volume to be quite good, with The Man Who Saw the Devil and The Ghost Plane also well worth reading. The present volume, Vampire of the Skies, despite its non-supernatural resolution is filled with plenty of thrills for the fan of the weird menace genre.
One of the things that the author does very well is to sharply delineate his characters, such as the team that assembles to solve the mystery of the young woman drained of blood and thrown from an airplane. We have the stolid local constable, the initial discoverer of the crime, P.C. Gutteridge and the two expert criminologists brought in by Scotland Yard, Malcolm Dacre, and from the French Sûreté, M. Paul Cambon. In fact, it is the dialogue between Dacre and his French colleague that drives the narrative and provides the occasional touch of humor in what is otherwise a fairly grim tale.
So, in the final analysis we have the case of an author who was often mired in mediocrity and who has been often set up as a figure of fun for some of his more outrageous metaphors and similes but who also managed to author over three dozen mysteries, with fully one third of them still quite entertaining today. Is Corbett going to be to the taste of every modern reader? Likely not, throughout his entire career his books are characterized by bizarre plot-twists and what may seem to many readers as an overabundance of dialogue, as characters hammer out the details of the mystery and generally plant several red herrings.
Corbett really seemed to be at his best during the early 1930s and it was during this time period that most of his supernatural or borderline supernatural work was produced. It would appear that market conditions led him to be less adventurous as time went on, a shame really, as when he was on his game, James Corbett could spin a very entertaining (if highly improbable) yarn. We’ll be publishing at least a half dozen of his best novels, pretty much evenly divided between straightforward mysteries (from the Ramble House imprint) and weird menace (from Dancing Tuatara Press). I think most readers will agree with me that despite the occasional clunky turn of phrase, there’s a lot to enjoy in Corbett’s better books and Vampire of the Skies makes for an excellent starting point.
Ides of March 2014