The Chronicles of Lucius Leffing, by Joseph Payne Brennan, 1977, Donald M. Grant, Publisher
Joseph Payne Brennan has always had the reputation of a greatly under appreciated master of fantasy, a poetic stylist that just never managed to break into the front ranks. Stephen King, Les Daniels and Charles Grant are just a few of those front ranks to cite him as a major influence. Arkham published three collections of his stories and poetry, while Donald M. Grant published nine.
Lucius Leffing, Brennan’s private investigator and psychic sleuth, features in four of the Grant books, three short story collections (of which this is the second) and a novel length adventure, Act of Providence. They are highly regarded in fandom.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself struggling through a series of weak tea Holmesian pastiches, just an ever-so-slight notch above basic fan boy fiction. Given that this is some of Brennan’s later work, I would expect this to be among his most professional if not most interesting book.
More disappointing, only two of the eight stories in this volume are occult “investigations.” I don’t know if the other books are similarly weighted to the mundane mysteries, but I am not planning on finding out.
The formula of the narrator “visiting my old friend, Lucius Leffing” at his quaint and eclectic Victorian digs (even though the series is set in the contemporary world) is given a supposed ‘twist’ by Brennan identifying himself as the narrator. Intended or not, the gimmick adds a thick layer of artificiality on stories already burdened with too many obstructions to engagement. Same thing with the Victorian style of the prose and the Victorian manner of the main characters. Why Brennan went to all this trouble, then decided to set the stories in the 1970s is one of those weird choices writers some times inexplicably make.
“The Case of the Hertzell Inheritance” leads off the collection. A Miss Camlee is certain her cousin, Hamilton Hertzell, has been murdered, though the attending physician of the small town of Brandelmere Falls puts Cousin Hamilton’s death down to a heart attack.She relates the details, the various townspeople involved and her suspcions in tedious detail, prodded by equally tedious questions from Leffing. Of course, given the title of the story, there is a will involved.
It’s a red herring, of course, and we find out that Hamilton was not only nearly bankrupt, but quite the scoundrel as well. Leffing and Brennan walk about town, asking questions, gathering information, little of which turns out to be pertinent. The one clue that does lead to the solution of the crime is, as Leffing admits, a leap of faith, a “long shot” which just happens to hit the mark. Unfortunately for the reader, Leffing then has to explain all the details.
A sample of the dialogue between Leffing and Brennan:
“We must not be too hard on Jenkins, in spite of his limitations,” Leffing answered. “Batarachotoxin is a highly effective cardiotoxin. It interferes with conduction in the heart, brings about extrasystoles and ventricular fibrillation. It sees scarcely surprising that an elderly village doctor certified a heart attack.”
“Good heavens, Leffing! We must be dealing with an erudite murderer of extreme resourcefulness.”
Brennan also has the extremely tiresome habit of having the speaker identify who is being spoken to by constantly tagging their name onto the end of the sentence….even when there are only two people present. Perhaps Leffing and Brennan have trouble telling each other apart.
“The Case of the Mystified Vendor” chronicles the tale of a sandwich wagon owner who has been paid to park his wagon on a particular street on a particular day, supposedly as part of an area survey. He takes the money, then feels something is wrong and seeks out Leffing. Leffing and Brennan watch from a distance on the appointed day, solves the mystery, then trots us back to his ‘digs’ to explain that the sandwich wagon was parked over a manhole cover, through which a bank robber planned to escape.
This is a far cry from “The Red-Headed League,” closer instead to serials of the 1950s like Capt. Video or Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion. The story’s main strength is that it is among the shortest in the book.
“The Apple Orchard Murder Case” is more or less a reversal of the “Hertzell Inheritance”: a brother who has blown through his inheritance has been murdered in the small town where he lived. Leffing’s reasoning, however clumsy, determines that the man had used a metal detector and found an extremely rare Liberty nickel.
By this time I am starting to notice the lack of occult, psychic or even mild fantasy elements in the stories. Did I get my facts confused? A quick check of the Encyclopedia of Fantasy reconfirmed my original notion: Leffing is listed among the psychic sleuths.
“Mem’ries” is a slight tale about a little old lady who is slowly poisoning Brennan via correspondence because he wouldn’t use her poetry in a magazine he edited.
“The Murder of Mr. Matthews” and “The Possible Suspects” are more of the same.
“The Dead of Winter Apparition” is the first of the occult tales. I can’t be sure if it’s actually better written or whether I am just responding to the fact that the subject is more to my expectations. It’s a pretty stock plot about a haunted house; Leffing’s investigation comes down to merely finding the person who can relate the terrible deed she done to cause the haunting. It’ an interesting back story, but leads only to the unearthing and Christian reburying of the revenant’s bones.
Finally, ” The Nightmare Face” presents a mysterious, horrific face at the window of a timid scholar. The source of the haunting is in the scholars bell collection (!) one of which was used by lepers in the Middle Ages to warn the town folk of their approach. (The scholar also collects hitching posts, and most of the emphasis is put on that hobby, as a red herring.) Thank goodness the scholar revealed he had the habit of occasionally ringing some of his bells before bedtime, or Leffing would never have had a clue.
Sigh. The quest continues….