Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Sign Above the Door by William W Canfield

Oh, yes, it's another of those desperately obscure, drippily melodramatic vintage novels, this time set during the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt! This vintage novel, however, has been rediscovered: I read it in a reprint by Salem Ridge Press, a purveyor of reading for the home educated.

Our hero, Martiesen, is an Egyptian prince of the nome in which the Hebrew slaves live. After eight plagues have crippled Egypt, the nobles are beginning to think that something must be done to remove their Pharaoh before Egypt is completely destroyed. To his dismay, Martiesen is their choice to replace the Pharaoh, but complicating factors such as his love for the Hebrew Elisheba, the dastardly schemes of his vengeful Libyan scribe, and the last two plagues will ensure that none of Martiesen's plans for the future work out as he had planned. Terrifying darkness closes down on Egypt, a daring kidnapping is carried out, and nothing will be the same...

This was a quick read, a fun adventure story lightly spiced with romance, set during the last two plagues of Egypt and the Exodus, no doubt with the aim of being mildly edifying. And indeed, it was not without merit, containing generally unobjectionable morals, as much historical detail as the author could weave into the eddying plot, and a rather good imagining of the ninth plague, the darkness.

There are one or two things about this book that could be improved. It seems as though the romance is more important to the plot than God is, and He is often referred to as a “Being” or “Deity” so that I wondered if Canfield really thought of Him in a personal way. I also felt the author didn't fully avail himself of the possibilities in the plot—Martiesen hopes, for example, that if the Pharaoh could be brought to be nicer to the Hebrews, everyone would stay in Egypt and get on with each other just fine, happy ending; when in fact no matter whether slave or free, the Hebrews have been called to the Promised Land and must obey. I thought there were possibilities in that set-up which could have been better exploited than they were.

One other thing that could perhaps be improved was the writing style. You will die of adjective poisoning—unless, like me, you find the style charming in an antiquated sort of way. I resisted for a hundred pages before finally giving in and taking down some particularly good specimens of the author's grandiosity:
Here he could find those who, for pay, would do his bidding and ask no questions. Indeed, he had previously made several visits to this desolate region with that end in view, and had formed acquaintances there upon whom he could depend for assistance in any nefarious scheme he might propose.
Both labored under the stress of consuming passion, followed by the outlay of most unusual exertion and exhausting strife.
“Aye, the Pharaoh!” replied Martiesen, with whitened lips. “Untaught by the lessons which have been sent him, the mighty lord of Egypt has summoned his hosts of warriors, and now leads them in the wake of those fleeing from his oppression, it may be to his complete overthrow, or it may be to the utter destruction of those whom he pursues.”
It's exactly the kind of thing Stephen Leacock made a living out of ridiculing. Indeed it took an effort to stop mentally adding Leacockisms to the text as I read...

Apart from this, however, The Sign Above the Door is refreshingly free from the usual defects of vintage novels. The heroine, for example, although described as beautiful and slender, with hair the colour of midnight and an air of luminous, feminine piety, is also clever enough to put two and two together and figure out that the scribe is up to no good. (Sadly, like with many vintage novels, someone still has to be dense enough to give the villain a chance to get the plot going, so Martiesen doesn't believe her when she warns him). When her suspicions turn out to be well-grounded, she has not a moment's hesitation in clawing the villain's face off. However, she still succumbs to one of the besetting sins of the heroine of the vintage adventure novel, as explained by PG Wodehouse in his essay on Thrillers:
She may have escaped death a dozen times. She may know perfectly well that the notorious Blackbird Gang is after her to secure the papers. The police may have warned her on no account to stir outside her house. But when a messenger calls at half-past two in the morning with an unsigned note saying “Come at once”, she just snatches at her hat and goes. The messenger is a one-eyed Chinaman with a pock-marked face and an evil grin, so she trusts him immediately and, having accompanied him to the closed car with steel shutters over the windows, bowls off in it to the ruined cottage in the swamp. And when the hero, at great risk and inconvenience to himself, comes to rescue her, she will have nothing to do with him because she has been told by a mulatto with half a nose that it was he who murdered her brother Jim.
Although for the defence I might point out that no such misunderstanding arises in this book, which is another exception to the rule of second-rate vintage novels: that some terrible misunderstanding must crop up between the two lovers and threaten their happy ending. Since this usually requires one or both of them to act tiresomely dense, I can only commend William W Canfield for omitting it, despite how tempting it might have seemed to throw it in.

There are many books I can recommend more highly than The Sign Above the Door. But not all books need to be a solid meal or a dazzling, mouthwatering concoction. Some readers will go through anything in sight and enjoy it all hugely. By them, this book will be justly enjoyed--an exciting story for all ages.


Christina Baehr said...

Fun! But what is a nome?

Did your package arrive yet?

Suzannah said...

A nome? It was an administrative region of ancient Egypt. I remember it particularly because of its amusing homonym....

Oh, my package--not that I am aware! We haven't checked the mailbox (five kilometers away) yet this week! I shall have to do so tomorrow ;)


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