Today on Project Gutenberg #23

Today on Project Gutenberg we have…

The Film of Fear by Frederic Arnold Kummer

About a hundred years ago, just after Sherlock Holmes and just before Hercule Poirot, there was a literary detective called Richard Duvall. You probably haven’t heard of him. I certainly hadn’t.

The author, Frederic Arnold Kummer, wrote a few different stories with this character under the pseudonym Arnold Fredericks. Duvall is actually part of a sleuthing pair, as he works with his wife Grace to solve all kinds of important cases, usually involving international intrigues of some kind. You can read a little more about the series here.

The Film of Fear, published as a novel in 1917, is the last book in the series and follows the Duvalls as they journey to New York — then the center of the American film industry — to answer a young starlet’s call for help. The starlet in question, Ruth Morton, has just received a disturbing threat in the mail: “Your beauty has made you rich and famous. Without it you could do nothing. Within thirty days it shall be destroyed, and you shall be hideous.” The messages keep coming, counting down the thirty days, and an unknown assailant begins a series of bizarre attacks designed to chip away at Ruth’s sanity. Can Richard and Grace track down the culprit before Ruth’s time runs out?

If you like pulpy serials from this period of history, you’ll enjoy this book. It gets extremely over the top, with kidnappings, sabotage and a villain whose powers seem borderline supernatural. Take this moment, for example, when Richard tries to lure out Ruth’s stalker by causing a bit of chaos at a film premiere:

And then, something happened. The lovely, smiling face of Ruth Morton faded from view, and in its place came with brutal suddenness the picture of a huge grinning death’s head, amazing in its suggestion of horror. The audience sat in utter silence, wondering what could be the reason for this sudden apparition. Beneath the death’s head appeared in huge letters the words:

“We know the woman.”

The thing had come as a complete surprise. The tension throughout the house was electric. Duvall saw his wife rise from her seat on the aisle, a few rows away, and come quickly to the rear of the house. She, at least, realized that a moment of importance had arrived.

And then, without warning, the stillness of the theater was broken by a sudden cry, and a woman, sitting some three rows from where Duvall stood, but on the opposite side of the aisle from the seats indicated by Mr. Baker, rose to her feet, turned, and fell heavily against the back of the seat ahead of her. At almost the same moment the lights were switched on, and a voice was heard calling. “Is there a doctor in the house?”

There isn’t a whole lot that separates this story from the many other pulp mysteries being written at the time, which is probably why these books have faded into obscurity. Its most notable distinguishing element is the presence of Grace as a protagonist along with Richard. As the article I linked to above notes, it was unusual for a 1910s book series like this to feature a married woman who doesn’t just stand off to the side while her husband does all the work. In fact, when Richard won’t tell Grace anything about the new case he’s working on, she starts her own investigation and comes up with some important clues — at a point when Richard thinks he’s hit a dead end, no less. She does end up needing to be rescued by the end of the story, but it doesn’t take her out of the plot for very long. And it does lead to the wonderfully stupid moment where she gets attacked by a monkey in a red dress. Why is there a monkey in a red dress? That’s for me to know and you to find out.

As far as fiction books go, this is just some fun, mostly harmless entertainment. It won’t make you think too hard. But then again, we’ve all been in need of some escapism recently. So feel free to check this one out if you think you might enjoy it.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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