Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Mystery of the Four Fingers

The Mystery of the Four Fingers by Fred M. White is... Okay, I'll say it: it's about a bad guy getting the finger four times. His own fingers. Mummified. Mysteriously delivered. Oh, and he'll die after the fourth one.

If that doesn't say "quality literature," I don't know what does.

Set in the early 20th century, the story features a number of characters in extraordinary circumstances who act according to a strict personal code of honor (except the villains, who for some reason don't care so much about honor).

A man gets married--it could happen to nearly anyone--and thirty minutes in, his wife leaves him a note saying to forget about her, because she's off for an extended period, but she hopes there are no hard feelings. Of course not. She probably left the oven on, and now she feels honor-bound to rebuild the house brick by brick herself. Or maybe she was drafted by the French Foreign Legion. It could happen to anybody. And since her husband is such a noble sort, when he runs across her three years(!) later--under mysterious circumstances, of course--he plays along when she says she still loves him but has Mysterious Business which involves posing as the daughter of a Bounder and a Cad who is, coincidentally, old enough to be her father.

Did I mention he has no fingers on his left hand? But not to worry: he's getting them back, one at a time. It has to do with the Four Finger Mine, the secret possession of Indians in Mexico. Whenever someone messes with their mine, he loses four fingers, gets them back piecemeal, and dies, usually insane. It could happen to anybody.

But wait! There's more! Counterfeiters who hit on the perfect crime of producing perfect copies of gold sovereigns in real gold--a point where the shoddier counterfeiters tend to skimp. A handsome cripple who threatens to kill people who--it could happen to anyone--fall through a grating into his cellar. A beautiful girl who thinks she's Ophelia or some such because her fiancé is supposedly dead except she knows he isn't.

Practically everyone is related one way or another, but inbreeding is not the proffered explanation. It does lead to some odd bits near the end, where the highly principled characters decide that blood is even thicker than their heads, causing the story to run an extra couple of chapters.

Strangely enough, I actually liked the story. It has good pacing, a lot of twists and turns, and reasonable suspense. It is not a Christian story, but the code of honor is generally good: villains aside, these are fairly decent, honorable people who eventually confront the problem of vengeance and reach a reasonable if not quite problem-free solution.

The Mystery of the Four Fingers is available as a free e-book at Gutenberg and as a free audiobook at LibriVox.

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