Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Four Corners of the World by A. E. W. Mason

Poor man’s Conan Doyle
English author A. E. W. Mason (1865-1948) is best known as the author of The Four Feathers, a military adventure novel that has been adapted for film and television at least six times. Mason published over thirty novels, many of which were adapted for the screen (about half of them silent films). He also published three collections of short stories, among them The Four Corners of the World, published in 1917. This volume contains 13 pieces of short fiction including one novella-length work.

Chronologically, Mason falls between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, and the same could be said of his work stylistically. Of the two, Conan Doyle is probably more analogous since Mason did not confine himself to mysteries but also wrote works in the horror, adventure, historical fiction, and espionage genres, all of which are represented in The Four Corners of the World. Besides The Four Feathers, Mason’s other claim to fame is his recurring detective character Inspector Hanaud, a Frenchman transplanted to London. Hanaud is the star of the novella The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel, included in this volume. The format of the story is very similar to a Sherlock Holmes case. Hanaud even has his own Dr. Watson in the hapless Mr. Ricardo, whose destiny is to always be one step behind the genius detective’s deductive abilities. If this work is any indication, however, Mason is not nearly as skillful a crafter of mysteries as Conan Doyle. In this case involving theft and murder, Mason goes off on pointless digressions and makes the silly mistake of treating a dream sequence as if it were evidence.

Unfortunately, most of the works in The Four Corners of the World range from the boring to the dismal, and each of the 13 protracted entries feels lengthier than it needs to be. As one progresses through the book, Mason’s style becomes more and more repetitive. I don’t know how many of these stories feature a Londoner secluding himself in an English country house, but I bet it’s more than half. The tales of mystery and suspense are often quite predictable, and endings are frequently anticlimactic. When Mason reveals a clue to the reader he does so in a fashion that feels like he’s announcing “Pay attention! Here’s a clue!” The only relief from the monotony is the diversity of settings and genres. “One of Them” is a World War I naval espionage tale. “The House of Terror” is Gothic horror on a Scottish isle. “Peiffer” is a semicomical spy tale set in and around Gibraltar. “Under Bignor Hill” is a one-act play set in Britain during ancient Roman times. “North of the Tropic of Capricorn” has an unfortunate tinge of “yellow peril” paranoia.

One tall stalk of wheat that rises above the chaff is “The Crystal Trench,” an exceptionally good story about a climbing accident in the Alps. This is not an adventure tale but rather a poignant character-driven drama, very skillfully told. It is by far the best story in the book, though a couple of others, the Latin American adventure “Green Paint” and the Franco-Prussian war story “The Ebony Box,” at least rise to the level of the mediocre.

Other than “The Crystal Trench,” there’s nothing about The Four Corners of the World to recommend. If this collection is indicative of Mason’s writing, one would be better off sticking to the more suspenseful and entertaining work of Conan Doyle, Christie, or E. Phillips Oppenheim.

Stories in this collection

The Clock
Green Paint
North of the Tropic of Capricorn
One of Them
Raymond Byatt
The Crystal Trench
The House of Terror
The Brown Box
The Refuge
The Ebony Box
The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel
Under Bignor Hill

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