Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, August 5, 2022


The Reluctant Hangman and Other Stories of Crime by Grant Allen, edited by Tom and Enid Schantz and published by Aspen Press of Boulder, Colorado, in an edition of 500 copies, 1973

Tom and Enid Schantz became involved in the mystery community in 1970, which led to their being awarded the 2001 Raven by the Mystery Writers of America.  They were founders of the Rue Morgue Bookstore and The Rue Morgue Press.  Through their Rue Morgue Press, they brought deserving but lesser known Age (and other) mystery writers back to the pubic forefront, including Kelley Roos, Glyn Carr,  Constance and Glenyth Little, Manning Coles, Catherine Aird, Gladys Mitchell, Stuart Palmer, Michael Gilbert, Clyde B. Clason, Lucy Cores, Frances Crane, Margaret Scherf,  Juanita Sheridan, and many others.  With Barbara Peters and Jim Huang, they founded the The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

Before it became the Rue Morgue Bookstore of Boulder, Colorado, it was The Aspen Bookstore, started in New York.  Its associated publishing company The Aspen Press became one of the premier publishers of Sherlockania in the world, in addition to bringing back such classics a Melville Randolph Post's The Methods of Uncle Abner, R. C. Lehmann's The Adventures of Picklock Holes, James Francis Thierry's The Adventure of the Eleven Cuff-Buttons, Robert Barr's The Adventures of Sherlaw Kombs, Richard Mallett's Watson's Revenge, Eden Philpotts My Adventure in the Flying Scotsman, Edmund Pearson's The Adventure of the Lost Manuscript, and others.

Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen (1848- 1899) was a Canadian-born science writer and novelist who helped promote the theory of evolution in the later half of the nineteenth century.  He was the author of An African Millionaire (1897), a classic collection of crime stories featuring the ultimate con man Colonel Clay (who only had one victim, an African millionaire whom he would fleece over and over).  His most controversial (and successful) novel was The Woman Who Did (1895), which told of an independent woman who has a child out of wedlock -- promulgating starling (for the time) views on womanhood and marriage.  This was followed by The British Barbarians (1895), an early time travel story.  Allen was working on Hilda Wade, an episodic detective story when he died, dictating the last chapter to his neighbor and friend Conan Doyle; I don't know whether Doyle merely transcribed that chapter or rewrote it for the book's publication in 1899.  In all, Allen wrote about thirty novels (a number of them thrillers), several well-regarded collections of short stories, and many non-fiction books, article, and essays on subjected ranging from naturalism, philosophy, travel, esthetics, and art.

The Reluctant Hangman collects just three short stories, two of which were from Allen's 1887 collection The Beckoning Hand and Other Stories.

The title story was first published in The Strand Magazine, March 1891, under the title "Jerry Stokes."  The story's title appears to have been change only for this booklet.  I don't know if it was ever published in one of Allen's collections during his lifetime.

Jerry Stokes is a public hangman ("Executions performed with punctuality and dispatch; for terms, apply to Jeremiah Stokes, Port Hope, Ontario").  He is proud of his work and truly believes he makes the area safer for all by dispatching murderers ho may have otherwise gone on with their crimes.  Jerry Stokes is not one for doubts because he cannot picture a jury ever convicting an innocent person to die.  He is also a believer in fairness.  On principle, he refuses to attend any murder trials, fearing the appearance of a hangman might unduly influence a jury.  He is happy and satisfied with his lot in life.  Until.

Richard Ogilvy was a lawyer accused of poisoning his wife for her money.  The two were known to argue.  He had recently purchased some rat poison.  And the doctor who attended the case was convinced Ogilvy had murdered his wife.    The public also appeared convinced,  A mob tried to get at him before the trial.  Jerry Stokes, who witnessed the mon violence, was upset -- the mob was not playing fair.  For the first time in his life, Jerry Stokes determined to attend a trial.  when Ogilvy pled not guilty, Jerry was stunned.  He considered himself a connoisseur and judge of murderers after having executed so many of them and Ogilvy did not act like any murderer he had ever known.  Jerry Stokes became convinced of Ogilvy's innocence.  In fact, as Jerry observed the behavior of the accusing doctor at the trial, he became convinced the doctor was guilty -- the doctor had the same look as the many murderers Jerry had known.

Then the impossible to Jerry's mind happened.  The jury, in short shrift, fund Ogilvy guilty.  How could a jury make such a mistake?  A mistake that would end Ogilvy at the end of Jerry's rope.  Canadian law allowed a six-week period before an execution, just in case any new evidence might appear.  As the six weeks passed, Jerry was in agony at the thought that an innocent man migh thang -- that he would be the one to hang an innocent man.  What would an honest executioner do, knowing that his career and reputation, as well as a human life hangs in the balance?

The remaining two stories in this small collection are 'The Great Ruby Robbery" (from The Strand Magazine, October 1892) and "The Conscientious Burglar" (from The Strand Magazine, June 1892).  The first is a "fair play puzzle story," well-told and entertaining.  The second is about an impulsive young artist which concludes with a satisfying happy ending.

All three stories are available to be read online.  If you are interested in the book itself, a copy will set you back anywhere from $12 to $30.

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