Originally published in 1950
All Doc Stoeger wants is a good piece of news from the citizens of Carmel City to print in his small-town paper Clarion. What he doesn’t bargain for is four deaths in one night, and none of them by accident.
After meeting a strange little man who shares his love for all things Lewis Carroll, Stoeger finds himself drawn into a night of confounding adventures that might soon turn to terrors.
First a couple of big-time mobsters blow through town. Then, the bank gets robbed, and a lunatic escapes from the local asylum.
But all that pales in comparison to the strange little man who claims he can take Stoeger through Alice’s looking glass…
This night is going to get even stranger. Beware the Jabberwock, the man says. But will Stoeger heed the warning?
When I finished Night of the Jabberwock yesterday two thoughts came to me in quick succession. The first was that it was a really, really good read that I am looking forward to recommending. That was almost immediately followed by the realization that it was going to be really tough to describe without spoiling the details of the book. That is a problem because discovering where the story is headed and how the apparently disconnected events all tie together is a large part of the fun here.
The blurb above gives a pretty decent sense of some of the elements that are incorporated into the story but perhaps less of a sense of what it feels like to actually read the book. Perhaps the best way I can describe it is the account of a single, bizarre night where things may not be exactly as they appear told with Had I But Known asides by the main character, an oft-inebriated local newspaper owner and editor who is just trying to lock down the stories on the front page of his latest issue.
As the title suggests, the book channels and uses the imagery and ideas of Lewis Carroll both directly and indirectly. Let’s start with the direct elements – Doc Stoeger, our narrator, wrote a paper on Carroll many years earlier and maintains an interest in the works. He is visited by a man who knows that paper and wants to introduce him to a secret society of Carroll scholars who know a hidden truth about the works.
In the course of the novel Doc encounters several elements that consciously recall and evoke elements of the Alice stories, particularly in the book’s most effective sequence which takes place in the attic of an abandoned house. Doc’s feelings about the man and the story he tells shift throughout the book though he generally likes the man, even when he wonders if he is either crazy or joking.
There are however ways in which this story structurally evokes the Alice stories too. Where Alice may have began her journey into madness with a riverside read and doze, Doc’s begins with a bottle and a discussion with a friend. Throughout the evening he repeatedly drinks, often pushing him to the point where he feels drunk, adding a hazy quality to some of the events and making the reader question his judgment and interpretation of information. It certainly causes others to doubt him.
Like Alice, Night of the Jabberwock is also told as a series of unlikely and seemingly disconnected episodes or encounters. There is a constant sense of forward motion with the plot and yet, like the caucus race, Doc frequently finds himself back where he started. Brown is also able to convey the idea that below this series of sometimes farcical events, there is a strong logical chain and sequence of events. Unlike Carroll however he will actually explain how everything worked and connected by the end of the novel, making sense of it all. I should add that while a knowledge of the Alice stories will enhance your reading of this, it is not required to make sense of the book’s mystery plot.
The explanations as to what is going on are full and convincing. While at points in the evening it may seem impossible to reconcile everything Doc has gone through, Brown manages to do so without leaving any loose ends. I was personally able to deduce who was responsible and what exactly they did, struggling only over the why (and that is utterly fair play – I just didn’t connect something that was fairly hinted at). In short, if you are primarily interested in fair play mysteries you will not be disappointed with this.
Brown’s characterizations are good, creating a distinctive and memorable range of characters (albeit exclusively male though that does also reflect Doc’s likely social circle as a bachelor). I think he channels the feeling of a small town where everyone knows each other and their business very effectively and uses it very effectively throughout this story both to give a sense of place and also to develop Doc’s own character and personality.
Brown has a pleasing writing style, using his narration effectively to build suspense and excitement about what will happen next. The little asides that Doc offers from time to time, emphasizing that an interaction would be the last time he would see a particular character alive, are executed very effectively to build up a true sense of suspense about what may be about to happen and where the story is headed. As for the little moments of humor, they brighten up a story that otherwise would just seem strange and dark, making for a rich and entertaining reading experience.
I have to end this post by giving credit to Tomcat for recommending this book to me. That recommendation came in response to my review of Joel Townsley Rogers’ The Red Right Hand, a book I loved but he considers overrated. He described this as a similar blend of reality and nightmares that he felt played with that idea more successfully, opining “If you liked The Red Right Hand, you’ll love Night of the Jabberwock“. While I stand by my feelings about the Rogers book being a masterpiece, I certainly will agree that Jabberwock is as well and that fans of that book should seek out this one too.
The Verdict: A fascinating blend of Alice in Wonderland and thriller elements sat atop a compelling fair play detective story.