Monday, June 13, 2022

The Mystery of the Locks by E. W. Howe

Annoying romance in a dismal town
Edgar Watson Howe (1853-1937) was a newspaper and magazine editor who also published several books of fiction and nonfiction. He lived and worked in Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado, and finally Kansas, where he settled in Atchison to publish the Atchison Daily Globe newspaper and E. W. Howe’s Monthly magazine. Similar to such figures as William Allen White, Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, and J. A. Wayland, Howe was one of a number of small-town Kansas newspaper editors of his generation that were able to rise to a level of national notoriety and influence as publishers, pundits, and literary figures. His novel The Mystery of the Locks was published in 1885.

If you are looking for a book that celebrates America’s small towns, however, this isn’t it. Howe sets his story in the fictional town of Davy’s Bend (state unknown), an example of everything wrong with small towns. This stagnant, dying community is inhabited by pathetic people with worthless lives who nevertheless often entertain lofty opinions of themselves. It is difficult for the reader to care about these characters when Howe obviously despises them. A physician named Allan Dorris, for reasons unknown, has decided to take up residence in Davy’s Bend. The arrival of a stranger in town is the source of much excitement and gossip. Dorris buys a creepy old house that is called The Locks because . . . well, because it has a lot of locks.

Dorris, who is extolled as the perfect man’s man, predictably stumbles upon the one attractive maiden in town. Annie Benton is an angelic church organist trapped in this insular and abysmal community. The couple’s meeting initiates one of the most godawful romances in popular literature. It is annoying enough that these two are portrayed as flawless paragons of male and female perfection, but their conversations are absolutely cringeworthy. Apparently in the era when holding someone’s hand meant you were engaged to them, lovers had nothing to do but exchange endless recitations of self-psychoanalysis. While Dorris proclaims his love for Annie in lofty, idyllic terms, he simultaneously pushes her away. He says he’s no good for her, but doesn’t explain why.

When Dorris and Annie aren’t wooing each other ad nauseam, they and all the other characters in the book are busy denouncing the institution of marriage. The gist of the novel is that Dorris and Annie’s perfect union is the rare exception to the rule that marriage makes for loveless, miserable lives. I don’t know the details of Howe’s personal life, but this whole story wreaks of the fantasies of a middle-aged man dissatisfied with his own marriage. Dorris is in his thirties romancing a woman of 19. She happens to be as beautiful as a goddess and as talented on the piano as a Paderewski, yet with no self-esteem. This unplucked flower lies undiscovered in a small country town, just waiting for some sophisticated older man to come along and pluck her so she can devote herself to making his life heaven. Annie actually says to Dorris, “I am your slave.”

Despite a brief subplot about a ghost story, the only real mystery in the book is why Dorris moved to Davy’s Bend. He obviously has a hidden past, but Howe offers no clues. Nothing much of import really happens in the book until chapter 20 (out of 23). When Dorris’s back story is finally revealed, it is utterly predictable and calculated to allow Howe to make yet another statement on the misery of marriage. Even readers who agree with his view of matrimony, however, will likely find this story tedious, annoying, and unpleasant.
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