It is June, 1929. Cyrus Skeen, renowned private detective, in San
Francisco, has been hired to help exonerate Hosanna Harker, a novelist
accused of murdering his publisher. After interviewing Harker in the
County jail, Skeen visits a bookstore on Market Street, and searches for
some of the writer’s titles. He is in for a surprise.
__________________________________________________________________________________
Chapter 5: Plagiarism à la carte  



Skeen did not have
to search far for Harker’s titles. A block and a half from his office, he found
three of them in the Bell Buoy Bookstore. He had found many of the reference
books in his office and home study bookshelves in this store.
He did not bother
browsing for Harker’s titles, but asked the lone clerk if he carried any. The
store was empty of customers and browsers, and the clerk looked like he wanted
to talk to someone.
The clerk, a bald,
roly-poly little man wearing thick glasses, responded immediately. “Hosanna
Harker? Yes, sir, I have several of his books here! I’ve stacked them all
together. This way, sir.” He knew Skeen as a customer, but did not know his
name.
The man led Skeen
down some aisles of books and pointed to a line of gray spines on a middle
shelf. “There we are! Which ones would you be interested in, sir?”
“One in
particular, The Crystal Magician,”
said Skeen.
“Ah! His Erskine
Childers title!” The clerk reached up, drew out the book, and handed it to
Skeen.
It was a superb
looking book. It had a thick gray leather cover with embossed gilt lettering
and a colored, embossed map of an island in the middle in a black frame. The
pages were gilt-edged, as well. Skeen opened the book. The title page read,
“The Crystal Magician, by Hosanna Paul Harker. A story of suspense.” At the
bottom of the title page was the Manxman colophon, a silhouette of a leaping
Manx cat within an arched Latin inscription,
Ego Sapientia Emin Miucullum.
Skeen said, “My Latin is rusty. What does the colophon
say?”
The clerk scoffed. “Roughly translated, sir, it means, ‘I
heed my meows.’ Kind of daft and silly, if you ask me. I think ‘meows’ was
supposed to be ‘mews’ for ‘muse,’ but that didn’t translate well.”
“No comment,”
replied Skeen. He flipped through the pages, some three hundred of them. “What
did you call it?” he asked.
“That’s his
Childers book. You know, after The Riddle
of the Sands
? If you’re not familiar with it, that was a pre-war novel
about a planned invasion of Britain by Germany from the Frisian Islands. Lots
of sailing and intrigue. A very popular espionage novel. Still a strong seller.
This one here is much like it, but is set during the war, although it was
published in 1921. It isn’t badly done. It’s set on the Isle of Man. That’s a map
of it on the cover. As you can see, it’s also illustrated. Very nice etchings.
All the Harker novels are illustrated. The copy in your hand was probably read
once. Not much foxing on the pages, and there are thumbprints on a few of the
pages, in the margins, and one very slight tear. Every one of these Harkers
came from an estate sale.”
“That’s odd,” said
Skeen, thinking out loud.
“What’s odd?”
asked the clerk.
Skeen shook his
head. “Nothing,” he answered. “It’s odd that one of Manxman Press’s first titles
should also feature the Isle of Man as the setting.”
 “Harker got all his details right,” said the
clerk, “about the Isle of Man and longitude and latitude and where on Man an
army could be landed, although Childers was a bit more realistic in his invasion
angle, with the Germans coming over in dozens of barges towed by tugboats to
land on England’s east coast. Harker’s invasion involves the Germans landing an
army on Man from a fleet of submarines, taking over the place, and then
plotting to sail over to Liverpool in preparation for a general invasion. Not
bad for a suspense novel, although I thought the writing was pedestrian.”
“I see The Spoiled Granary up there. Let me
look at it, too.”
The clerk reached
up and took down the title. “This is his Upton Sinclair-Frank Norris novel!”
Again, Skeen
looked perplexed.
The clerk handed
him the book. “You see, most of Harker’s books are ‘after’ the works of established
or well-known novelists. That one there is a so-called exposé of the grain
storage business in the Midwest before the war. A kind of melding of Sinclair’s
The Jungle and Norris’s The Octopus, complete with an insipid
romance between the daughter of the owner of a Minnesota grain elevator and an
agent of the Grange movement who wants to buy it for the cooperative.”
“Good God!” Skeen
muttered under his breath. He simply glanced at the equally rich-looking cover.
“Thank you for the review. Now, for the last one, A Numidian Slave.”
The clerk
shrugged, reached up while exclaiming, “Ah! His Joseph Conrad novel!” and took
down that title. He handed it to Skeen.
Skeen asked,
“Which one of Conrad’s?”
Heart of Darkness. What else?” explained
the clerk. “It’s about an Ethiopian black fellow who’s enslaved by some Arabs
but who converts to Islam and becomes a slave-driver himself after all kinds of
suffering and horrible experiences, all graphically described.”
The clerk paused
to read off some of the other Harker titles, touching a finger to each of their
spines. “There’s his Victor Hugo novel, A
Son of a Harem
, after The Man Who
Laughs
. That’s about a fellow who’s the son of an English aristocrat lady
who’s captured at sea by Turks and sold into a sultan’s harem, where he’s born,
then as a young man who’s escaped being turned into a eunuch by the sultan he
gets back to England to claim a peerage and meets a lot of grief because he
can’t prove he’s the son of a late peer and not the bastard son of a sultan.
“There’s his
Sherwood Anderson novel, Day Coach from
Passiac
, after Winesburg, Ohio,
both are a series of short stories, about a fellow who leaves a small town for
the big world. Either of them made me
feel glad to be born in San Francisco.
“Doesn’t sound
like Harker is much of an original writer,” Skeen remarked.
“Well, no, I guess
he isn’t,” conceded the clerk with a sigh.
Skeen hefted the
three tomes. “I’ll take these. I might come back for those others later. No
promises, however.”
“They’re five
dollars each, sir,” the clerk warned.
“No matter.”
The clerk led him
back to the front of the store. At the cash register behind the counter, he
asked, “May I ask why you’re so interested in Harker’s novels? He’s in jail,
you know. Seems he murdered the publisher.”
Skeen smiled and
handed the clerk some bills. “No, you may not ask. And, yes, I know Mr. Harker
is in jail.”
“I know you from
somewhere,” said the clerk.
“Keep it that
way,” said Skeen, not wanting to identify himself. He did not know if the clerk
could keep a secret and he didn’t want to start speculation that might be
picked up by the newspapers, and he wasn’t ready to deal with those people, not
yet.
The clerk rang up
the sale, wrapped the books in brown paper, sealed the bundle with adhesive
tape, and asked no more questions.
Skeen thanked him.
He paused to ask, “What’s your name?”
The clerk blinked once.
“Harry Hampton, sir. Why do you ask?”
“You’ll see,”
Skeen answered. He left the shop, and walked back to the Hall of Justice near
where he had parked his roadster and drove home to Carmel Towers.
֎
“These
are very good etchings,” said Dilys. She sat with Skeen at the dinner table,
having a coffee. She held open The
Crystal Magician
and was leisurely leafing through it. “Overall, these are
very handsomely made books. I wonder if the stories are handsomely written, as
well.”
Skeen
shook his head. He held open A Soiled
Granary.
“I don’t think they are. The bookstore clerk I bought these from
gave me impromptu assessments of these and the others by Harker he had in the
store. I’ve only read the first few pages of this one, and I recognized
Sinclair’s kind of story almost immediately, and also pieces of Norris’s.” He
paused. “The clerk said that the writing in The
Crystal Magician
was ‘pedestrian.’ I think he wanted to say it was
‘pedestrian’ in a blanket appraisal of all the novels, but didn’t say it because
he couldn’t know whether or not I liked Harker’s stuff.”
Dilys
scowled at her husband. “You’ve read that trash? Sinclair’s and Norris’s, I
mean.”
“Long
ago, before I met you, darling. It was semi-required reading at Yale.”
“I’ve
sampled it, just out of curiosity,” said Dilys. “I wanted to know what all the
fuss was about them.” She paused. “I’d like to get to know this Cyril Enfante,
the illustrator, if only to congratulate him on his skill. I wonder where he
lives.”
Skeen
replied, “I wonder if he’s read all
the Harker novels.”
“Who?”
“Cyril
EnFante.”
“Why
would you doubt it?”
“He
couldn’t be so illiterate or so ignorant that he’d not be able to recognize a
plagiarized story. I don’t know how many more novels Harker wrote and which
Manxman published here and in altered form in Britain. He would need to have
read each of these novels to know what in them was worth illustrating, just as
you read my stories.”
“This
is true,” said Dilys.
“Oh,
here’s something interesting.” Skeen had turned to the last pages of The Soiled Granary and came upon a page
with print in a different font and size, which was followed by the cat colophon.
“This should be helpful.” He read it out loud.
“Manxman
Press was born in January 1919 on the lovely, secluded Isle of Man. The founder
of this Press was recuperating from a concussion received in the blood and mud
of the Meuse-Argonne trenches. Being so incapacitated during a German artillery
barrage, and unable to continue his duties as a journalist for some American
newspapers, he hit upon the perfect restorative therapy. He conceived of a new
publishing house that would seek out and introduce to the world the lights and
spirits of those in the trenches who survived the blood and mud and injuries
far more severe than a concussion. He spent a year there in the convivial
company of Manxmen. From them he received much encouragement. And so that is
the name of this venture. Manxman Press will publish the distinguished and
outstanding literary efforts of our best and brightest writers in quality
editions.”
Dilys
turned to the end of The Crystal Magician.
“It’s here, too,” she said. She frowned again. “How could a man who could write
something like that choose to become predatory thief?”
Skeen
shrugged. “I don’t know, darling. Many decent men get worn down by the world
and turn on it.” Skeen shoved his book aside. “Anyway, that little piece of
information confirms what Susan Harker told me.”
“What
is she like?”
Skeen
described the woman and gave Dilys a précis of his conversation with her.
Dilys
put her book aside and rested her chin on her folded hands. “There’s another
mystery, darling. Women who remain loyal to rakes and bounders and completely
contemptible beasts. The kind that beat their wives or are just all-round
louts.” She paused. “Speaking of which – what was Harker like? I gathered you
weren’t much impressed with him.”
Skeen
chuckled. “Nor he with me. He’s just another all-round lout who happens to be a
writer with literary pretensions.”
Dilys
smiled ironically at her husband. “But you still want to try to prove he didn’t
murder another lout.”
“I’m
glad you said ‘try.’ It’s going to be difficult, and, at this point, for all I
know, he did murder Pearson. But even
louts deserve some justice. We’ll see what The Mouse Trap shows.”
“The
Mouse Trap?”
Skeen
scowled mockingly at Dilys. “’The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the
conscience of the king.’ Hamlet, Act Two, Scene Two. The Mouse Trap was the
name of the play Hamlet had the acting troupe put on to recreate how his uncle Claudius
murdered his brother.”
“It
isn’t your habit to quote Shakespeare, darling,” Dilys answered with a mock
disapproving shake of her head. “Why now?”
“It’s
a literary case, sweetheart. It seems Mr. Pearson and Mr. Harker got caught in
a mouse trap of their own making.”
Dilys
made a face. “And you’ve assigned yourself the task of picking them up by their
filthy tails and tossing them down the garbage chute? I would rather see you go
after just ordinary, run-of-the-mill stranglers and bank robbers.”
Skeen
rose, came around the table, and pecked Dilys on the forehead. “It’s an
occupational hazard, darling. I promise to wear surgeon’s gloves, and to scrub
my hands thoroughly after it’s all over.”

                        

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© 2015 by Edward Cline