When I started to read The Riddle of the Frozen Flame (1920) my primary instinct was to grab my nose and head outside for some fresh air. I thought I had encountered a real stinker from the library of Robert E. Howard, and, at first, I was right. We’re treated, at the very beginning of the novel, to a discussion between Scotland Yard Superintendant Maverick Narkom and Hamilton Cleek that is absolutely awful. “Dash it all” declares Narkom a number of times, and he insists on calling Cleek “my old chap” so much that I automatically went into gag reflex. Cleek, for his part, declares that this case is a baffling one—“As pretty a kettle of fish” as he has ever come across.
So I suffered along but gradually I found myself actually getting into what was occurring in this Sherlock Holmes-like book. There are strange lights burning by Merriton Towers on the moor, and when people set out to discover the source of these “frozen flames” they mysteriously disappear. All that is left to mark their passing is the odd fact that a new light shines forth, joining those already burning. Hamilton Cleek is called in to solve the case, and of course he does, and we discover that there was nothing supernatural about the lights at all, which is always a letdown for me.
Still, as I was reading this book, I was intrigued by the character of Cleek, who was once known as “the Vanishing Cracksman” when he was a super criminal who continually baffled Scotland Yard, making them look terribly stupid and inept. He’s an interesting, very pulpish figure.
In Cleek: The Man of the Forty Faces (1912), a book not listed as being in REH’s library, we’re told something amazing about this Scotland Yard detective—he’s a master of disguise because his face can be molded into whatever form he wants it to be. It would seem that when Cleek’s mother was pregnant she “used to play with one of those curious little rubber faces which you can pinch up into all sorts of distorted countenances…she would sit for hours screaming with laughter over the droll shapes into which she squeezed the thing. Afterward, when her little son was born, he inherited the trick of that rubber face as a birthright.” While I think this is pretty cool, it does show that his mother was just a bit spooky and must have had all sorts of problems.
The author of this series was Thomas W. Hanshew (1857-1914), and I can really find out very little about him, but I’ll admit I didn’t go into intensive investigation mode. The ‘Cleek’ books had to have been pretty popular in their time, as my e-book copy of Cleek of Scotland Yard (1914) is illustrated with photographs from the movie, “courtesy of Thomas A. Edison, Inc.” When he died in 1914 his wife Mary E. Hanshew took up the challenge and kept the series going. Up to 1914 the Cleek books are only written by Thomas, but with Mary at the helm she always gave part credit to her husband—perhaps out of respect for her deceased man or because at his death he left unfinished story outlines, I wasn’t able to discover. Evidently Hanshew and his wife are just a couple more authors that have all but disappeared to the world of readers, and it’s sad, because I do think Cleek has much to offer.
Howard owned another Hanshew book, The Riddle of the Mysterious Light (1921), which I’ll report on when I get around to reading it. So if you happen to have a lazy Sunday afternoon where you don’t want to think too hard, pick up one of these Cleek mysteries and enjoy yourself. Dash it all old chap, it’s a bloody good way to spend a day!