|Dr Mary Finney
(creator: Matthew Head)
|Dr Mary Finney, when we first meet her, is a "medical missionary" in the Belgian Congo in 1943, but she confines herself to her work as a doctor, leaving the evangelising to her colleague Miss Emily Collins. "Miss Finney would doctor and Miss Collins would take care of the spiritual needs of the natives by teaching them to sing hymns like Will There Be Any Stars in my Crown, in my Crown, translated into Lingala and accompanied by six drums." Or as Mary Finney puts it, "Emily's the soul-snatcher in this outfit. and I'm the doctor. We represent the body and the spirit between us. God knows why we haven't killed each other during the last twenty-five years, but we haven't." To Emily, Mary Finney is just "a wonderful woman".
In the first book, Dr Finney describes herself as fifty years old, and a little overweight, and says "I've always been homely". It is "not that she was a great big woman or a fat one, but she was definitely solid and hillocky". She is "naturally a brightish red in the face, with a pleasant sprinkling of fairly large freckles of a darker shade" and has "big red freckled arms" and red hair. She had been born in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1892.
She's a tough lady, quick to notice what is going on and makes a shrewd detective. She is certainly outspoken: "Somehow all the words she used sounded abrupt and rude, but she spoke with such an air of honest good humor that the effect was warm and friendly." Her attitude, and that of the author, towards the native tribes is far from Politically Correct: '"They eat each other because the eater will absorb the desirable qualities of the eaten. They used to make sterile M'Buku women eat parts of pygmy women because pygmy women are as fertile as rabbits." Yet she herself maintains a good rapport with the local people, and they certainly respect her, although some are better than others and she says, "I wouldn't touch another of your goddam M'bukus with a ten-foot hyperdermic".
She has no illusions about living in the Congo: "I got my fill of the Congo and the prospects of spinsterhood after I'd been put here a few years." This was after she had she had thrown herself at "the only man I ever tried to get .... I lost my virginity, for whatever that was worth." But "he didn't come across for me", and she never married.
She has learnt to be self-dependent. "I'm pretty good at fooling people when I want to" is no idle boast. "I don't trust anybody," she admits, which is why "she always looked twice at people, once on the surface and then a good long time underneath, trying to find out what they're really like." She needs time to herself to think things out: "She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as if she were settling down to go to sleep .... except that the hard, blunt nail of one finger kept tapping." She does not regard herself as "really smart .... Instead she is apt to think that other people are just sort of stupid and confused".
Matthew Head (real name: John Edwin Canaday, 1907-1985) was an art critic, author and gourmet. He was awarded a BA in French and English Literature at the University of Texas, and subsequently studied painting and art history at Yale. He had travelled to the Belgian Congo in 1943 and acted as a French interpreter for the Bureau of Economic Welfare, subsequently joining the United States Marine Corps. He served as a lieutenant in the South Pacific until the end of World War II, then went on to head the art school at Newcomb College in New Orleans before becoming chief of the educational division at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from 1953-1959. While there, he wrote the text for Metropolitan Seminars in Art. He then became a critic for the New York Times for 17 years. He wrote books on art and other subjects, including seven crime novels, four of them including Dr Mary Finney.
The Devil in the Bush (1945)
The picture of the Congo is a far from happy one with all the desolation, primitiveness and suffocating heat, and Hooper finds himself at a tiny, decaying outpost, where he comes across a hanging, a staged kidnapping, an adulterous wife, restless natives, and the friction that develops between people who live too closely in isolation. "There were always the native women, but that's low stuff and unsatisfying, without the eating and drinking and dancing and companionship that make the rest if it worth while. Anyway the Belgians don't go in much for that kind of thing. The British colonials accept it as a substitute and the French think it's rather fun and the Portuguese are crazy about it, but the Belgians avoid it both as a matter of preference and colonial policy." What the native women think about it does not, of course, get a mention. It's very much a book of its time.
Hooper soon feels out of his depth: "There was hardly a person at the Congo-Ruzu who wasn't trying to fool me one way or another, and most of them got away with it." It's only Dr Finney who seems to understand what's really going on. She has, she tells him, been trying to arrange for him to marry the lonely young woman Gabrielle who has fallen for him.
When it comes to solving the murders that follow, it is Mary Finney who takes the lead ("Everybody took it for granted that she was in charge"). She tells Hooper, "I think I've got this whole thing figured out but I'm not ready to tell you yet." And she does not lack courage, but has no qualms about being left in a native village "in the middle of a ring of savages". As she says, "If they were going to hurt us we'd have been cut into slivers by now".
When she eventually identifies the murderer, Hooper objects, "You're calling him a good man and a murderer in the same breath."
Everything is finally explained (in more detail, perhaps, than we need to know) in a long letter written to "Miss Finney" from the murderer, after she had written to him telling him all she had worked out. Not perhaps the most exciting way to end a story, but Mary Finney herself remains a character to be reckoned with, and this is perhaps the most interesting book in the series.
The Cabinda Affair (1949)
The story gets off to a strong start at a French Consulate party in Leopoldville where Hooper meets up again with medical missionary, Dr Mary Finney, who tells him that she is taking her fellow missionary Emily Collins back to Emily's home in Connecticut because "Emily's not well. And you know Emily. She thinks she has to go home and die. She's not going to die, but she thinks she is, so I'm taking her." But first they are to be given medals "for service to the natives, if you can imagine that".
Hooper mentions that he has just returned from an adventure in the Portuguese outpost of Cabinda, and Mary Finney wants to hear all about it. This leads to a long but interesting flashback in which Hooper tells Mary about his task there that had been to check that a delivery of mahogany was of proper Khaya Ivorensis. The four million dollars that the Americans were paying for it sounded outrageous to Hooper, but it is explained to him that "it was one of those goodwill contracts. You know - good neighbours, buddy-buddy stuff, Uncle Sam, everybody's friend - dough, money, mazuma, coin of the realm, Love for sale."
In Cabinda, Hopper and his companion, the young American lawyer Cotter (who looks like "a beach-club glamour boy"), get involved wirth some very shady characters, including the impecunious Englishman Peters Caulsworth-Biggs ("Pete Biggs will do") and an unscrupulous Portuguese estate manager with a charming wife (whom Hooper thinks he sees Cotter embracing) and a beautiful daughter, Maria: Her "hand was very pretty, but the arm and the hand too had the over-white and over-thin quality of invalidism. She could have been fifteen, or twenty, and I felt myself blushing like a fool, and cursed myself for it, when I saw that her back was slightly, but very definitely, humped." End of paragraph. This is not quite what an author would write nowadays - even if it is what he really felt. Similarly he would think twice before coming up with such generalisations as: "The natives are jealous, cruel and suspicioius among themselves".
Hooper recounts all this in great (too much?) detail to Mary Finney but she keeps asking for more: "I think you've got one of the most confused thinkers I ever saw, " she tells him. "Things happen right under your nose and you don't know anything's happened at all .... Go on talking." And so he does, leading up to his discovery of a man's body on a bed. "I think I know what happened," she says, and, to his astonishment, identifies whose body it must have been. "Do you want me to go on with it?" Hooper asked.
Hooper recounts how another violent death followed, and how the latest victim was blamed for the previous murder. But Mary thinks a mistake has been made, and decides that she and Emily must return with Hooper to Cabinda. Things certainly get more interesting when she is around. Without her, the narrator, Hooper, gets to be a bit of a bore.
Meanwhile Cotter had fallen in love with Maria. Mary Finney explains to Hooper: "A man Cotter's age falls in love because the woman fills in a part of him that he needs, not just because she's physically attractive and the other half of the sexual dovetailing arrtangement, which is all she has to be when you're seventeen. And the big thing that Cotter needs, always, is to project for himself and for everybody else the great, good, kindly, generous, intelligent, understanding Cotter .... I tell you, she's perfect. Who else would be spectacular enough to satisfy his appetite for the dramatic and yet with the particular quality, that little lame back, that makes you think Cotter's the kind who picks up stray pups .... Cotter fell in love with her because every time he looks at her he sees himself completed and perfected, his shortcomings denied, his virtues established, and, believe you me, dear Hoopie, that's why anybody loves anybody else, if they really love them."
It may all sound very cynical but the author shows copmpassion too as when she ends the chapter with Emily Collins leaving them and saying, "in her whispy little voice as she went towards the door, "I wish you'd figure out some time why it never happened to me. I don't feel very complete."
It all leads up to a dramatic climax when, amazingly, it is Emily who has to shoot a man who is threatening Mary Finney's life. Then, as in the previous book, all is finally explained in a letter sent to Mary Finney. Mary and Emily then return to Connecticut where, Mary writes Hooper, "Emily frets a great deal. Not about her health; she's fine. She complains about the lack of excitement. I should never have let her fire that forty-five."
The Congo Venus (1950)
It is set in Leopardville in the Congo, "a little equatorial city" that "has 6,000 whites and 60,000 or 600,000 thousand blacks, I've read both figures, but it doesn't make much difference". Mary Finney and her fellow missionary Emily Collins have returned there "after several months away". So much for their retirement to America, described at the end of the previous book.
They soon get involved with sundry eccentric suspects including Dr Gollmer whose "wife was a pair of young women named Mademoiselle Lala and Madamoiselle Baba", who had painted a scandalous Venus picture apparently showing a naked Liliane. Then there is the crazy Madame de St Nicaise "who had a passion for at least one creature - herself".
Mary Finney seems to be getting more aggressive all the time, and even her fellow-missionary Emily Collins (neither of whom now seem to be doing any missionary work at all) has come out of her shell: "You're just taking me back to the hotel to drop me," she complains to Mary. "so you can go around meddling some more. You must think I'm awful dumb, Mary," she said plaintively, "just because I used to be."
Mary Finney herself does not always sound a good friend to Emily, as when she says, "You know, I've worked with Emily for nearly thirty years, and I've never before thought or breathed a suspicion that she was more dangerous than skimmed milk and distilled water."
Although there are some amusing parts as Madame de St Nicaise, arch enemy of Dr Gollmer, becomes convinced that he has repaired her cello with the gut of her beloved cat (!). There is also an amusing comic French newspaper translation: "The concert of the Leopold String quartet, big event of the season, grand charitable gesture towards the unfortunates of war, seemingly predestined to oblivion by a series of malchances - is rescued, thanks to the talents so generous and knowledge astonishing of the well-known local amateur anthroplogist and writer extraordinary upon subjects native, Dr Marcus Gollmer, and the most gracious agreeableness of our local lady musician most charming, Mme. Helene de St Nicaise. For after many trials and errors painful, Dr Gollmer has produced, with no more labatorial equipment than the simple implements of his own kitchen, an E-string for the cello of Mme. de St Nicaise, upon the formula for the strings of the lute Batshiok, which, while not the equivalent entire of a string proper, will serve two nights from now as the organ of transmission for the music so lively of Haydn, the melodies so charming of Schumann, the Scarf Dance so bright and so French of Madame Chaminade, and, grand climax, the beautiful dream so poetic of Debussy, composer impressionist.
But, although this is fun, the feud between Madame de St Nicaise and Dr Gollmer soon gets to sound plain silly, the characters do not seem very real, and the plot is not all that interesting. Worst of all, the Congo itself no longer seems to not come alive. Perhaps it was time for the author to try another setting,
Murder at the Flea Club (1957)
It makes a change to get away from the Congo, and at first the description of the Flea Club and its customers holds the interest. As Hopper says, "My only real talent is as a spectator. I am one of the best people to be found anywhere, when it comes to just watching. It is really my life work."
He goes to meet a Mrs Bullen because, as he tells her, "I'm a cousin of a friend of somebody who has a sister that knows you". He finds her attractive, if rather too old for him, but it turns out that what she really wants is for him to take her daughter out to a meal and a show. This is 18-year-old Marie Louise about whom her mother explains, "I - I don't know whether I should mention it. But - you might find Marie Louise a little - a little bit, how shall I say it - a little bit odd in manner." They go out as organised, but the girl stays strangely passive throughout: ""I was proud to be with such a pretty girl, but if anybody tried to figure us out they must have thought either that we had had a lovers' quarrel. or been married a little too long. Or maybe they just thought we were English."
All this is recounted by Hooper to Mary Finney who much enjoys hearing it, busy as she is in trying to sort out what was going on below the surface. What does pass belief, though, is the way that Hooper apparently remembers every word spoken, such as the way the apparently effeminate gossip Freddy holds forth: "Have you been downstairs, Hoopy? .... Well do go! I mean the place is simply fantastic, these utterly tremendous holes, right in the middle of the clubroom, and the most tremendous piles of dirt. Really quite picturesque and too too archaeological! So Intelellectual, is the way I feel about it, so un-Flea Club. But good, you know, really good. The Institute's been taking pictures, if you can imagine. I mean it - the Institute! Ninth century if it's a day, Professor Johnson says. Can you imagine?" And so it goes on (and on). "What makes you so sure Freddy's not a fool?" Mary Finney asks him.
The final denoument, when it eventually comes, is frankly boring, largely because so many of the characters lack any depth.
|Two contrasting covers for the first book in the series.|
|In the story, the ceremonial circumcision knife seen on this cover had a man's figure on which "the phallus was grotesquely enlarged". The American publishers obviously decided otherwise, and added some black briefs instead!|