Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Book Review: Cowman’s Jack-Pot

Book Review: Cowman’s Jack-Pot by Frank C. Robertson (Also published as Greener Grows the Grass)

Chet Calder has spent eight years in the East.  Now the death of his father Dave Calder, and the crash of the stock market mean that there’s nothing left but the DC ranch.   On the stage into Calder City, Chet is seated by Mr. Doljack, the local banker.  Mr. Doljack reports that even the ranch itself is in dire financial straits, but it can be saved by ending the feud with the Murtaugh family and their Block M ranch by leasing some prime grazing land to them.

Cowman's Jackpot

Chet distrusts Mr. Doljack, who only owns the bank by virtue of having married the previous owner’s daughter.   But then who should just happen to be taking the Calder City stagecoach but Sylvia and Esta, the Murtaugh twins, who have filled out very nicely since Chet’s been away.  They are quite charming, and Chet begins to think it might not be so bad to end the feud after all.

Frank Chester Robertson (1890-1969) was a noted writer of Western novels (150 novels! plus many short stories and articles.)  This 1942 book is a good example of his craft.

Unlike many Westerns in which the protagonist is an upstanding fellow from the beginning, Chet Calder is initially a heel.  He has been away so long because he quarreled with his father over a gold-digging woman, only to have her throw him over when Dave wrote her a check.   Since then he’s been a “sportsman”, living off his father’s money while doing nothing to earn his own way or improve himself.  The Nineteenth Century equivalent of sitting around in your underwear all day playing video games, but with better chances of scoring women.

His financial circumstances having forced him to come back to the Idaho Territory irks Chet, and he treats his father’s old hands like servants, and his pride makes him snide to girl next door Marcia Whitman, who Mr. Doljack has informed him has become greedy.  None of the DC Ranch people are happy that Chet plans to make nice with the Murtaugh clan and hold a lavish party for the enemy ranchers.

Only after Chet has managed to alienate most of the people who should be his allies, while winning over none of his enemies, does he realize that he was set up from the start.  Now he has to start digging himself out of the hole he made.

Other than Chet, the lines of good and evil are pretty clearly drawn.  The Murtaughs have been poisoned by their upbringing and the long feud.  (And in an unpleasantly racist moment, the narration blames some of their evil on being of part-Cree heritage.)  One of them kills a cat just to drive home that he’s a bad’un.  Mr. Doljack is greedy and amoral (and lives in fear of his supposedly grotesquely ugly wife, who we never meet), and the other co-conspirators aren’t much better.

While the Murtaughs just want to make their Block M ranch prosperous and stick it to Chet, the other baddies are more interested in huge phosphate deposits Marcia’s father found on the DC land.  A decade before, those deposits had been unimportant, but with technological and infrastructure advancements, they’re worth millions.  Mr. Doljack is determined to get control of the mineral rights before Chet can find out their true value.

The primary weakness of the forces arrayed against Chet Calder is that their differing motivations and willingness to maneuver against each other to gain advantage or advance their own endgame results in some backstabbing that Chet can take advantage of.

Mr. Robertson has a tendency to repeat information he’s already established, and cheats a bit at the end to make sure that our heroes triumph without actually having to kill anyone.   But still, this is a nice old-fashioned Western tale for those who prefer their stories in black and white.  The last reprint appears to have been in the 1970s so good luck finding a copy.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...