Friday, October 26, 2012

The Red Ledger - Frank Packard

At 2 1/2 Dominic Court you will find one of the more eccentric detectives. Of course, finding Dominic Court itself presents a challenge. The local beat cop could probably give you directions, but even citizens and tourists that pride themselves on their knowledge of little known nooks and crannies of New York's canyoned streets walk past it without knowing. Yet, if you do find the alley passageway that leads between tall buildings, you will come out upon a small oasis from the bustle of the city. Four small old fashioned two-story houses built of wood in Dutch style, lawns neatly kept, fences and ivy wrapped fences: numbers 1, 1 1/2, 2 and 2 1/2. And, at 2 1/2 resides the older gentleman and scholar  Henri Raoul Charlebois. Charlebois, a man of unusual intelligence and vast wealth. A man who is liable to size one up by first asking their favorite color. His own is red, neither hot nor cold as he puts it. He, in his red jacket and skull-cap with a tassel,  sits at his study that is all done in red: red books, red desk, red shelves a red safe. And in that red safe is The Red Ledger, a book in which that he has kept account of the credits and debits of all who crossed his path some decades earlier when he was downtrodden, homeless, hungry and sickly. And, he has now built up a vast organization to balance the books.

This is the situation that young Ewan Stranway finds that fate has thrust him into. Ewan is a young man whose family is well off, so everyone thought. Until his parents are killed suddenly in a car crash and he finds that his father's business was in deep trouble. He uses the inheritance to pay off the debts and with just a couple hundred left, he starts searching for work. It is then he runs across an advertisement in the paper of someone looking for him and through mysterious directions finds himself in the study of Charlebois. Turns out his father is in that red ledger as one of the men who showed charity to Charlebois and gave him ten cents (a dime could buy you a meal in those days). At first Ewan just laughs as a dime will hardly help him in his current straits but it turns out Charlebois is actually offering him a job if he doesn't mind a little danger. It's a strange interview, first asking him his favorite color, then allowing him to be privy to a private argument between Charlebois and a beautiful young woman whom Charlebois "murders" before his eyes and then frantically trying to buy Stranway's silence. When Stranway refuses, it's revealed to be a ruse to test his honesty and character.

Stranway agrees and spends a month in training. From Pierre Verot he learns locks, skeleton keys and disguise make-up, Miss Priscilla Bates teaches him Morse code while Charlebois teaches him the secret codes of the organization. Amongst others of the organization are Flint the mechanic and driver and the beautiful and mysterious young woman known only as the Orchid. The four houses are all part of the organization: Mrs. Morrison, a middle-aged widow supposedly kept lodgers at #1, at 1 1/2 resided Verot and his wife and at #2 was the elderly Miss Bates. Stranway himself is given a nice apartment nearby on 6th Avenue. He is given access to Charlebois' safe and the vast sums of money and the ledger it contains. Indeed, his own position becomes that as Second in Command. After a month, he becomes an active agent.

Packard oversells the eccentricity of Charlebois at the beginning, to the point that he really comes off as a madman. It stretches credibility that a man would agree to work for him after that interview process. Ultimately, it works though. Charlebois is portrayed as charming, generous as well ruthless depending on which side of the book you fall. To those he helps, he quickly leaves as acts of gratitude seem to embarrass and discomfort him. Packard uses the limited 3rd Person Point of View to excellent effect, in a way that most nowadays are not able to pull off. The basic structure is not unusual for Victorian and Edwardian literature: the everyday man as the point of view reference, though many use 1st person narrative. Here, it allows Charlebois to stay in the background but still an active character. He's a master planner, manipulating the situation and persons as chess pieces while Stranway is often his main agent in the more dangerous cases. Stranway himself is quick-witted, capable and able to blend in most situations, even able to save the day through his own initiative. It wouldn't be a Packard novel without the one mystery-character, a woman with enigmatic name and character who is the object of the lead's infatuation. The novel never loses its point-of-view though. This allows characters like Charlebois and the Orchid to figure prominently but remain mysterious throughout. You're privy to Stranway's thoughts, hopes, opinions and surmises but not anyone else.

Charlebois is more of a driving force in the book than the super-detective of "Tiger Claws". Like a spider at the center of a web, everything centers around him and his ledger. This book focuses on Stranway, the cases he's involved in and his romance. They are the big story. But, the set-up suggests other stories. There are other active agents that have been with Charlebois for awhile. Other accounts are settled that Stranway has no part in, or laying the ground work for the big payoff.

The novel is otherwise a collection of short-stories that carry a narrative all the way through, reading almost like the climactic chapters of a half-dozen mystery novels. There are ruthless businessmen and stock manipulators, poisoners, suave con-men, a deadly smuggler and his gang. And, ultimately, the Versel-Thega, a secret society of crooks and assassins from a small principality in Europe called Karnavia and in the employ of Prince Stolbek. Through it all, are hints and reveals of Charlebois' mysterious past, how various characters came to be in his book; and the fruitless attempts of Stranway to get a few moments alone with the Orchid that aren't limited by the urgency of the missions.

One can see quite a bit of the structure to the Shadow novels, especially the first one focusing mainly on Harry Vincent's recruitment into the Shadow's service. The all red study vs Shadow's sanctum. The master planner behind the scenes, the vast organization with agents tracking down various leads around the globe. The chief difference is the structure of the novel focuses on Stranway and never deviates from that. There are no scenes of Charlebois when he's not in Stranway's presence. There's even a reference to one of a dozen unpublished cases as "Chen Yang and the Golden Joss".... doesn't that just leap off the page as a Shadow title?
A little research revealed that the opening in "Tiger Claws" is not as unusual as it seemed to me. As noted, it was the first I've read with the exotic South Seas locale, at least in the beginning. But, it seems that Packard wrote several other novels with that setting, one even filmed.
Next up, "The White Moll". In this story, Packard reverses his formula a bit as the lead character is a woman, Miss Rhoda Gray aka the White Moll. Through an act of charity, she finds herself wanted by the police, taking over a dead woman's identity (which in itself is a false identity), and fighting the plans of a ruthless gang of crooks in hopes to get the evidence and testimony to clear her name. On hand is a enigmatic mystery man this time.

No comments: