John Newton Chance Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Unlike most writers of thrillers and detective fiction, John Newton Chance does not demonstrate strength in the plotting of his works. Yet he largely offsets this weakness by creating a memorable atmosphere and by drawing vivid characters. Chance consistently makes use of a gothic setting—usually a mansion, castle, or palace that is deteriorating. Typically, these structures have many rooms and are filled with strange chambers, secret passages, and underground labyrinths. Trapdoors, sliding panels, shadowy hallways, and heavy gothic furnishings are the rule.

The Screaming Fog offers an excellent example of Chance’s gothic setting. From a distance, the village where the action takes place looks like some dream castle. It sits on a hill and is enveloped in mist, the roofs of the houses shining with a golden transparency. A closer look reveals the small English town to be shrouded in the “devilish breath of the smuggler’s marsh.” It was once a haven for smugglers, and all inns and barns are connected by passages and wells to a system of catacombs beneath the town. Also, the town is spiritually isolated, and the citizenry has consciously tried to maintain this isolation. Bordering the old walled town is the mud of the marshes that sucks victims down into its heaving bosom. The local inn, called the Leather Pot, a focal point in the story, is filled with menacing shadows and is backed up against the city wall; beyond that wall is a sheer drop to the marshes below. In The Screaming Fog, Chance rejects the sleepy country village and manor house settings so common to British mystery novels. Instead, he uses strange settings pregnant with evil, hostility, and fear.

Using such settings to encourage his reader to suspend disbelief, Chance proceeds to offer fittingly bizarre and grotesque scenes: a skeleton wears a wristwatch, a lifelike dummy’s head falls off and rolls across the floor, and a skeleton wearing a suit, shirt, and tie is found in a cupboard.

Chance’s skill in characterization is on the same advanced level as his handling of setting. With the exception of Sexton Blake, he avoids centering his novels on one series character; instead, he repeatedly brings several performers back on his literary stage, gaining continuity but not limiting himself to one personality. As one would expect, those recurring characters are the protagonists of the works: Superintendent “Smutty” Black, the chief of police who looks like a deformed dwarf, and Mr. DeHavilland, a Rabelaisian character who upstages all others. Both first appear in Chance’s second novel, Wheels in the Forest (1935), and they reappear each time the author returns to the setting of the little forest village of Wey. David Chance, who is not given a first name until his third role, in The Eye in Darkness, is a former actor and a former thief now turned champion of justice and law. Chance, along with his fiancée, Sally Wilding, a beautiful journalist, first appears in The Screaming Fog. Also prominent in the novels is Jonathan Blake, who enters in The Affair at Dead End (1966). The blind menace named Rolf and his Circe-like wife, Evelyn, who also first appear in The Screaming Fog, are so delightfully villainous that they are brought back for repeat performances.

Chance’s many outstanding creations bear resemblance to those of Charles Dickens; they would not seem out of place on a Chaucerian pilgrimage and could grace the pages of François Rabelais. Chance draws his characters with a few broad strokes. His villains are especially grotesque; they include freaks, recluses, madmen, tyrants, and Satan figures. Although these supervillains consistently lose the battle between good and evil, they usually steal the attention and often the hearts of the readers.

Chance’s handling of his characters often reflects the influence of drama and the stage. His characters are overdrawn, often deformed, and their actions are bold and exaggerated. Chance likes a filled stage and constantly rushes his characters on and off the boards; he shifts scenes skillfully, engrossing the reader. (Illustrating these dramatic touches is the delightful series of comic encounters at the inn in The Red Knight, 1945.) Chance typically populates his fiction with a supporting cast of stock characters: scheming maids, suspicious family retainers, absentminded divines, shrewish wives, aspiring lovers beset by obstacles, and bumbling, good-natured gentry. One of the continuing characters in the novels, the former actor David Chance, is periodically forced into the role of private investigator. Also, the narratives often include dramatic performances; for example, in both The Screaming Fog and The Red Knight the action moves to its climax in a public performance scene.

Chance often falters in the plotting of his novels—although the basic conception behind the plot frequently displays a fine imagination. The problem usually arises in his efforts to sustain the action and development and to resolve the problems and conflicts in the narratives. Although his earlier works are considered far superior to his later ones, even Chance’s novels of the 1930’s and 1940’s suffered from weak plots. For example, the plot in The Screaming Fog is exaggerated to the point of self-parody. Two young journalists have stumbled on an odd village where the leading townspeople, including the mayor and the chief of police, are...

(The entire section is 2250 words.)