After its first publication, in 1885, ‘Called Back’ was a great success. It sold in huge quantities, it was adapted for the stage; and yet it vanished into obscurity quite quickly. Maybe because the author died young, and maybe because there were other authors who wrote this kind of story – a mixture of sensation and detection – very well.
Wilkie Collins is the first name that comes to mind; and I have to say that Hugh Conway wasn’t quite in his league. But he clearly knew how to spin a yarn and how to keep readers turning pages.
‘Called Back’ was reissued by the publisher Collins, under the banner of ‘The Detective Club’, in 1929; and recently Harper Collins, the twenty-first century publishing house that Collins grew into, has picked up that banner and has sent this book – and others – out into the world again.
The story is set up very well.
Gilbert Vaughan, the teller of the tale, was an independently wealthy man who had suffered a great misfortune. At the age of 25, he had been struck blind. He had hopes of an operation that would restore his sight, and in the meantime he had managed to live quite independently, even going out walking, carefully counting his steps so that he would always know where he was and how many steps he needed to take in the opposite direction to get home again.
One day something went wrong. He didn’t panic, he asked a passer-by to guide him to the end of his street, so that he could count himself back to his own house, independently.
But something went wrong again, and he found himself in a strange house. When he heard voices he prepared himself to apologise, explain, and ask for assistance. But he realised that he was hearing a murder taking place, and a young woman desperately weeping. He tried to escape but, in a strange environment, he stumbled and was caught. It was only because he was blind – because he passed the test that he was set to prove that – that he was spared and delivered to his own doorstep.
He wanted to do something, but there was nothing he could do because he had no idea where he had been.
The story moved forward a few years. That operation had been a success, Vaughan had regained his sight, and he was touring Italy, thrilling to everything he could see. One day he saw an exquisitely beautiful girl outside a church, and he fell completely and utterly in love. His advances were rejected at first, but when he saw her again in London he tried again her uncle and guardian, Dr Manuel Ceneri, agreed that he may court Pauline. In fact, he said that they should marry as swiftly as possible.
He was much too happy to wonder why.
And it was only after the wedding that he realised that his lovely wife was not simply quiet and sensitive, she was deeply traumatised by an unnamed event in her past.
I realised straight away that Pauline must have been the young woman weeping on the night of the murder, but it would take a little while for her husband to add two and two together.
When he did he decided that he had to uncover the truth of that night, in the hope that he would be able to help his wife to come to terms with what had happened, and so he set out to travel to the wilds of Siberia, where Dr Ceneri was being held as a political prisoner, to tell him that he had heard the events of that night, and to demand to know exactly what had happened and why.
By this time the coincidences, the melodrama, and the unlikeliness of the whole thing were beginning to bother me, but I didn’t let them bother me too much.
The hero was engaging, and I found it very easy to empathise with him.
He explained in the first chapter that he was setting down the facts to discourage speculation about what had happened, and he did just that. The story moved along at a very nice pace.
Crucially, the solution made sense, and it was no more elaborate than it needed to be.
Back in England, the grand finale was a little overwrought, and yet it was exactly right.
I put the book down feeling that I was been entertained very well indeed.
And now I’m very interested to see how this series of books advances.