The Horrible Man In Heron’s Wood (1970) by Belton Cobb

Inspector Smithson of the Brickpost County Police didn’t believe 13 year-old Amanda Frayne when she claimed to have escaped from an attack on her way home from school as she passed through Heron Wood. He was convinced that, after two serious attacks on younger girls in the same place, she had made up her attack to enhance her reputation at school.

Her uncle, John Prescott, believes the attack was real and appeals to Scotland Yard. Detective Sergeant Kitty Armitage arrives to find out the truth, but as she befriends Amanda, she comes to believe that the threat from the “Horrible Man From Heron’s Wood” is far from over…

If you’ve been paying attention, I’ve been starting to form an appreciation for the author Belton Cobb – he wrote over fifty mystery novels from 1936 to 1971. I’ve really enjoyed the two that I’ve read so far – Double Detection and Fatal Dose – but Curtis Evans, who knows a thing or two about these things, has warned me more than once that he has a rather drastic decline in quality after about 1960. Now I always believe Curtis, because he’s usually right, but I wanted to see for myself.

First of all, the good bits about this book. Well, the good bit. I do admire the Cobb Universe. Well before Marvel thought of it, Cobb populates his police force with a team of detectives. Cheviot Burmann, the hero of my two previous reads, gets mentioned as Kitty’s boss a few times, her husband, another policeman is the lead in at least one other novel… Sergeant Ross from Double Detection had appeared in a previous title – seeing it all mesh together is rather nice.

Which is good, because that means that I can say something nice about this otherwise terrible book. Where to begin…

Well first of all, I couldn’t stand the casual way in which child rape is dismissed here. The first two attacks on pre-teen girls are initially described as them being molested. With a Golden Age author, I did wonder what version of that word was being used. I know this was written much later, but I genuinely didn’t suspect what was actually being implied here. And then it wasn’t implied, but stated. But the local police, which seems to consist of a sole Inspector, seem to be far more interested in proving Amanda is lying that catching an actual sex offender.

And there’s the character who is known to frequent the woods, on the off chance he sees an attack, as he wants to see what it looks like. He’s a right charmer, as you might guess, and yet again, Inspector Smithson almost accepts that some people do that sort of thing…

And then, once you get over all the general unpleasantness of the whole affair, you get the plot, or lack thereof. The motive for the attack on Amanda doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense – the risk involved for what the perpertrator is trying it achieve is ridiculous – and that’s not even when you factor in that Amanda entered the wood on a whim that day, rather than anyone knowing she was going to do it, so how they even managed to pull it off beggars belief. And the fact that they got away with it despite the local perv watching it happen from behind a tree…

The morale of the story – always trust Curtis, he’s always right. This is a terrible book, both in tone and in plot. Avoid.

Oh, and the title’s crap too…

3 comments

  1. I think the problem is Cobb decided to go with the flow and throw the puzzle overboard in favor of some mild titillation. I read another late one called Death of a Peeping Tom, as I recollect….

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    • That’s from 1963 – looks like the gadetection list isn’t complete, as they don’t mention that one. The odd thing about this one isn’t titillation, it’s almost the opposite. The first two crimes are barely described and never in any emotional way – no one seems particularly worked up about two young children getting raped! And the almost acceptance of the local perv who was just hiding in the wood in case he stumbled upon the villain so that he could watch a child getting attacked. It’s just so tone-deaf… I’ve got some others to try, mostly pre 1960 based on your advice. Based on Fatal Dose, I’ll stick with him.

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