Lonely Road Murder by John Russell Fearn

Originally published 1954

Rosemary Lennox is a happy, bright young lady who’s lucky enough to have her close friends around her. However, after a wonderful night out with her boyfriend, Rosemary comes home through a thick and terrifying fog to find her best friend and neighbour, Mary Francis murdered…

John Francis, Mary’s husband, is distraught over the loss of his beloved wife. Although their relationship could be tempestuous as times, they loved each other dearly and he becomes lost without her. But he was the last to see her alive and admits that they had a row immediately prior to her death.

John seems close to breaking point and is soon found dead from apparent suicide by gas inhalation. Was he hiding a guilty conscience? The evidence doesn’t seem to add up. In fact, the evidence seems to be pointing to a few people…

Rosemary must try not to lose her way as she sets about uncovering the culprit, but she’s determined to get justice for Mary…

It seems kind of crazy to say this since we are still basically stuck at home but this promises to be quite a busy week for me. With lots on my plate I felt it would be wise to pick a shorter work for my midweek read, particularly as my concentration levels have been a little lacking of late.

I have been meaning to return to the works of John Russell Fearn ever since I read Except for One Thing, an inverted mystery. When I saw this novella pop up on my Kindle Unlimited recommendations it seemed to be exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. So, what’s it about?

Rosemary is looking forward to a date with her boss but they have to rethink their plans when a thick fog sets in. Rather than cancel they decide to have dinner and then catch a train home. Working her way through the thick fog she eventually finds the building she lives in and enters, noticing one of her neighbor’s doors is open. She enters and discovers her neighbor Mary lying dead on the floor.

Mary’s husband John becomes the chief suspect, particularly as he had a fight with Mary earlier that day. When he is found dead with his head in the oven the assumption is suicide but evidence from the autopsy makes it clear that it was murder and the killer must still be at large…

As I read the first chapter of this book I was put a little in mind of Richard Harding Davis’ novella Into the Fog. Fearn’s fog may not last nearly as long (just a few paragraphs) but he very effectively communicates how disorienting it is and it similarly prompts a somewhat heightened emotional state prior to discovering a body. As openings go, this quickly grabbed my attention and I was curious to see where the tale would go.

Lonely Road Murder is perhaps best described as a crime story or psychological thriller rather than a detective story. While there is a formal investigation into the novella’s two murders, it is conducted largely in the background and we never really get to know Inspector Nevil very well. Our protagonist’s efforts are really limited to just one interview and the focus is never really on the evidence – indeed some key pieces of evidence are not really disclosed to the reader until after the killer has been revealed.

Instead Fearn’s focus is on exploring Rosemary’s mental state, the way she responds to these unsettling experiences and the suspicions she begins to form of her friends and neighbors. This is done quite effectively and I felt that Fearn did a good job of slowly building that tension before delivering a solid, if unsurprising, payoff.

While I found reading this to be an enjoyable experience, there are a couple of issues with the book that keep me from enthusiastically recommending it. The first of these are the romantic elements of the story which feel somewhat stilted and a little dated, even for the period in which it was written. Given how central the romantic elements are to Fearn’s story both in terms of thematic and plot construction, I found the depiction of the relationships to be curiously passionless. As a result the piece didn’t connect with me as emotionally as it might have done.

The other aspect of the novel that disappointed me was the reveal of the killer. This is not because I have an issue with the character chosen (though the writing of that character after the reveal strikes me as a rather sharp turn, stretching credibility for me) but rather a reflection of how passive I felt each of the characters was leading into that moment including the killer themselves.

It struck me that the book ends not because the mystery is entering a natural final stage but because it has reached a high point psychologically. Now, that is understandably the priority for this sort of book but I do think that a resolution might have been crafted which could have managed to satisfy in both regards.

In his excellent review at Beneath the Stains of Time, TomCat emphasizes that this is an unusual work for Fearn and does not recommend it for those new to the author. I enjoyed it more, finding it a diverting read that, thanks to its brief page count, never outstayed its welcome for me. I do look forward to returning to Fearn in the not-too-distant future and trying one of his other, more recommended works to get a better sense of what he was really capable of.

The Verdict: This solid psychological crime novella lacks surprises but hooked me with an atmospheric opening.

Except for One Thing by John Russell Fearn

Originally Published 1947

Just how possible is the perfect crime? And if committed, who would know? Richard Harvey, or “Ricky” to those close to him, is engaged to Valerie Hadfield, a wealthy actress with whom he fell in love with. However, as time has gone on during their engagement, he’s realised she’s not the women he thought she was. Despite his wishes for the engagement to be brought to an end, the vicious and vindictive Valerie threatens to cause a scandal, ruining his standing as a reputable chemist. More recently, Richard finds the affections of Joyce Prescott, a smart and friendly woman, and the two wish to marry. Frustrated with his situation, Richard muses over ways in which he can be rid of Valerie, freeing the way for his marriage to Joyce…

Richard Harvey is a wealthy and prominent research chemist who for the past two years has been secretly engaged to Valerie Hadfield, a leading actress. The secrecy was necessary because of a non-marriage clause in her contract but as she is about to start a new role they should soon be able to make their relationship public.

The problem is that Richard wants out. As time has passed he has come to realize that he was more attracted to the character she was on stage than to the real woman who can be ‘cold, hard, and carved out of a glacier’. He has met and fallen in love with another woman, Joyce, and he wants to marry her instead. He meets with Valerie to ask her to drop the engagement but she insists that he will go ahead or else she will make his love letters public and expose him for breach of promise.

Richard isn’t prepared to deal with scandal and he is perceptive enough to realize that Valerie will not compromise or be bought off. He soon decides that murder is the only solution to his problem but having worked with Scotland Yard he is all too aware of how easily murderers can be discovered and does not wish to become another Dr. Crippen. He resolves that he will carry out the perfect crime and sets about not only working out a way to carry out the murder but also a plan to avoid leaving any forensic evidence that will lead back to himself.

Yes, we are in inverted territory and our killer’s motive is that he wants to free himself to pursue another woman. Fearn’s novel presents us with an interesting twist on that formula however because his killer has a relationship with the police. Richard, we learn, often works with Scotland Yard on their cases in a consulting capacity and is even a friend of the man who will investigate this case, Inspector Garth. He is able to use his knowledge of police procedure and that relationship with Garth and this adds a slightly different dimension that turns the second half of the novel into a sort of cat-and-mouse game between killer and detective as Richard uses his knowledge of the investigation to stay one step ahead.

This twist to the inverted formula works nicely and lends a touch of originality to a plot that otherwise might seem quite familiar. Indeed, when Richard declares “I’ve planned a perfect crime” (he really does say that to his victim) the reader may be forgiven for seeing what is particularly noteworthy about his efforts. Yes, there is an attention to detail and an awareness of the things that the Police might look for such as fingerprints or those incriminating letters but for much of the novel it is hard to see where the genius of this crime lies.

I do think that there are some effective ideas here, even if Fearn does keep some back until close to the end of the novel. There is one image or idea that I found to be particularly effective and unsettling, making the ending feel gritty and a little grotesque in the best possible way.

I was less impressed with the characterizations of both Richard and Garth, each of whom struck me as a little bland were it not for their relationship with each other. For instance, we are told that Richard is brilliant and yet the murder he plans feels grounded in practicalities. Similarly Garth is solid and diligent but while there is talk about his friendship with Richard complicating the case, he seems pretty solidly on the side of exposing the truth throughout the story.

So if this is not an interesting psychological exploration of a killer or an exploration of a particularly unusual or creative murder, where does the appeal lie? It is in seeing those two characters interacting with each other and in trying to predict how Garth will best Richard and expose the truth. Part of this requires us to understand exactly what Richard’s plan was but we also have to discern where the loose threads are and how he may have made matters worse in his bumbling attempts to cover his tracks.

This final phase of the novel is, in my opinion, its most effective. Our knowledge of the two characters’ actions helps to generate suspense as we understand how they are each feeling about different aspects of the case and are aware of the disconnect between what they are saying and what they are thinking.

The ending is powerful and I feel sure it will stick with me for some time to come but as much as it satisfied me I cannot overlook that I was underwhelmed by the description of the crime itself and the apparent simplicity of Richard’s plan. Fearn keeps back his richest and most distinctive material until his final few chapters which I think is a shame as without those elements the crime feels underwhelming.

Except for One Thing was originally published under the pseudonym Hugo Blayn.