Monday, August 22, 2011
Master of Monfortin
Prolific adults-only author Peter Tuesday Hughes wrote everything from sexed-up spy tales (The Eyes of the Basilisk, The Executioner) to erotic sci-fi (Alien) and libidinous political satire (The Other Party). But he appears to have had a special fondness for period pastiches like The Wisteria Club and Master of Monfortin, a savvy spin on Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.
Not that that’s any great critical insight: Hughes cheekily acknowledges his inspiration by having protagonist Simon Monfortin – a classic imperiled gothic heiress in all respects save that he’s a young man -- mention the pioneering detective novel while formulating a theory to explain the goings on at his gloomy ancestral manse.
Simon was born in America, taken abroad at age three, orphaned in Africa as a teenager and then raised in London by his intrepid governess, Miss Fentriss. Before his parents, Samuel and Deborah, were murdered during a native uprising in Mali, they filled his imagination with Monfortin lore: Simon’s great-grandfather and grandfather, Jean LeDuc and Benjamin Montfortin, fled the French Revolution, barely escaping its angry mobs with their lives. They landed in Canada and then moved to Maine, where Jean made a fortune in shipbuilding and other enterprises; his son traveled the world and came home with jewels, gold and other precious things.
As Simon’s father told it, Benjamin Monfortin’s voyages were undertaken in the spirit of good, clean adventuring. Simon's mother took a less rose-colored view: “Your grandfather Benjamin was not a very nice man,” she said. “He stole things from people.” And one of those things was said to have been an enormous emerald from Peru, a gem almost the size of little Simon’s head called the Inca-Light. In any event, it's now 1882 and a ripe and randy (if relatively inexperienced) Simon is returning to the home he barely remembers: His Uncle Martin’s death has unexpectedly left him sole heir to both the Monfortin Shipping Works and the family's vast chateau just outside Portland.
As the luxury liner Lady Anne (“luxury” being a decidedly relative term) docks, Simon searches in vain for Toby McCuen, the handsome American with whom he embarked on a passionate affair during the storm-tossed voyage. But Toby is nowhere to be found, and Simon’s luggage is soon piled dockside by comely and sweet-natured porter Ritchie. Simon expects to be met by his cousin, Claude, but is instead picked up by Claude’s groundskeeper, Daniel D’Ete, who says his employer was called away on short notice but is expected back the following day. Simon takes an instant dislike to D’Ete, despite his muscular frame and bewitching golden eyes; D’Ete is incredibly rude to the hardworking little Ritchie and addresses Simon in a vaguely insinuating tone that’s not at all appropriate to his station. Worse still, Simon must spend his first night in the guest house, which is hardly a potting shed but falls far short of Monfortin manor’s baronial splendor.
Simon’s restless sleep is disrupted at 3:45AM – 15 minutes shy of the hour of the wolf -- by the sound of footsteps on the gravel driveway and, seeing a light over at the Monfortin place, assumes that cousin Claude has returned. He follows the sound of a harpsichord to the second-floor library and finds Claude slumped in a club chair, apparently dead by his own hand. There’s a pistol on the floor, an eerie automaton playing a tinkling tune and an empty, satin-lined box that once clearly held something large and round tucked into a niche in the wall, a niche that would have been undetectable to the unsuspecting eye, but has been left gaping carelessly open. Simon boldly searches the house, but finds no-one, then rouses D'Ete from what appears to be an ether-induced stupor and sends him to fetch the police.
When D’Ete returns with Inspector Alfred Trotsworth, Simon is shaken to discover that the pistol and the mysterious box are gone and the wall niche is again hidden; more disturbing still, D’Ete and head hoisekeeper Madame Lelia, seem determined to undermine his credibility, dropping broad hints that Simon is exhausted from his long voyage and perhaps given to flights of fancy. And there are more shocks in store: First Trotsworth lets it slip that D’Ete and Madame Lelia are mixed-blood siblings. Then Uncle Martin’s widow, Mrs. Ellen Blaine Monfortin, arrives for a visit with her illegitimate (and very possibly mixed race) son, who’s none other than Toby McCuen. Another cousin, Captain John Blaine, who runs the Monfortin shipping business, makes an appearance; there are ugly rumors about how he came to control the source of the family’s wealth. Dr. William Hampton, whom Trotsworth calls in to examine Claude’s body, opines that they’re not dealing with a suicide – Claude's death was cold-blooded murder -- and Ellen dies soon after, apparently the victim of poisoning.
Everyone seems to agree the Inca-Light doesn’t exist, though Simon’s near-death experience of being trapped in a hidden room crammed with loot pilfered from around the globe suggests otherwise. The later revelation that D’Ete and his sister are really Peruvian Indians leads Simon to suspect that the “non-existent” Inca-Light may have been stolen from an Incan Idol (enter the Moonstone allusion). Perhaps Simon’s increasingly active sex life is to blame for his subsequent, almost suicidally heedless behavior: He renews his white-hot relationship with Toby, only to lose him to a boating accident; sleeps with guileless and soon-to-be murdered footman Dougherty; blunders into virile Captain Blaine’s surprisingly welcoming bed and stumbles drunkenly into the arms of studly new footman Vinton – but it takes a remarkably long time for him to realize that the person behind the deadly doings at Monfortin, who seems especially hostile to Simon's lovers, is no more than an arm’s length away.
Hughes pays admirable attention to period minutia, given that Master of Monfortin was published by the Blueboy Library, an enthusiastic purveyor of smutty reading for gentlemen of a certain persuasion. Simon's casual acceptance of his homosexuality, which could be perceived as anachronistic, is the product of his upbringing in a London enchanted by the young and flamboyantly queer Oscar Wilde. His parents are murdered in "Timbouctou," the period-appropriate, French spelling of Timbuktu. Speaking tubes were all the rage in late 19th/early 20th-century luxury homes and Honore de Balzac's observation about vast fortunes and heinous but cunningly executed crimes (Le Pere Goriot, 1835) was already ingrained in the popular imagination.
Hughes also has the courage to play gothic clichés straight (as it were): Pelting rain, glowering skies, hidden passageways, deviously administered poisons, foes masquerading as friends and friends mistaken for foes, noises in the night, dark family secrets, mysterious strangers and a plucky little innocent forced to negotiate shark-filled waters blindfolded and hands bound. And how can you not applaud the fact that poor little Simon, under attack from every side -- including sides he didn't even know existed -- at least gets to have his ashes hauled at regular intervals rather than being forced to make do with longing looks and restless dreams. Master of Monfortin may not be a great book, but it's a beguiling pastiche with a heart as pure as the driven slush and a decorously delightful happy ending.