Hardly A Man Is Now Alive (1952) by Herbert Brean
reviewed by Barry Ergang
On the drive to Concord, Massachusetts, photojournalist Reynold Frame and his fianceé Constance Wilder (whom Frame first met in Wilders Walk Away) want nothing more than to get married and go on their honeymoon. Frame has but one other task to complete while he's there: photograph a visiting professor of American history, Dr. Vann, at one of the sites pertinent to the Revolutionary War for a magazine article.
Frame and Connie are to be married by Concord's "patriarch," 104-year-old John Annandale, who learned first-hand during his boyhood about the battle that began the Revolution from one of the combatants who also lived to a ripe old age.
The couple are supposed to be staying at the home of Connie's aunt and uncle, Kate and Bowler Eliot, who have hired decorators to redo some of the rooms. The one intended for Frame has a newly varnished, still tacky floor, rendering it temporarily uninhabitable. The local Colonial Inn having no vacancies, Kate and Bowler have arranged with their neighbors the Satterthwaites, who often take in roomers, to put Frame up for the next two days.
Upon arriving at the Satterthwaite home, besides meeting Tom and his flirtatious (albeit engaged) daughter Retty, Frame encounters two fellow roomers, a history professor named Humphrey Hobbes and a spiritualist named Maria Carswell. The latter desperately wants to swap rooms with Frame, who has been given the room in which Percy Nightingale, a mortally-wounded British soldier, died during the battle of Concord. Frame, tired from his drive and irritated by Carswell's manner, refuses. He retains his assigned room, goes to bed, and is awakened in the middle of the night by the presence of a lamp burning in his room—a so-called "Betty lamp," the one that burned there on the night of the British officer's death and which was not there when Frame first entered the room. Frame extinguishes the lamp and goes back to sleep. When he awakens in the morning, the lamp is gone.
This is the first of two "ghostly" manifestations he must contend with. The other is the sound of soldiers marching to fife and drum, a sound which chills him until he ultimately manages to explain its source.
Frame learns from Tom Satterthwaite that his room's previous tenant was an academic named J.J. Walmsley from the University of Chicago. A month or so earlier, Walmsley apparently skipped out under seemingly impossible circumstances, sticking Satterthwaite with an unpaid bill of seventy-five dollars. Shortly thereafter, Frame and Connie discover Walmsley's body in the well in back of the Satterthwaite home.
Not too long after, John Annandale, who has gone out with Professor Vann to answer some historical questions, vanishes. Frame, reluctant despite his proclivity for mysteries to get involved in a murder and kidnapping case, is thus compelled to get to the bottom of things and find Annandale so that the latter can perform the marriage ceremony as planned.
I think John Dickson Carr would have liked this book. For all I know, he did like it, because it was published during his lifetime. It combines an historical mystery—which Frame solves—with a modern one. It contains some wonderfully eerie moments. It's fairly clued. It's well-constructed and well-paced.
Although I solved it instinctively rather than deductively, and with relative ease, I strongly recommend it—if you can find a copy, because it's long out-of-print.
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Barry Ergang © 2003, 2007