The Yellow Mistletoe by Walter S. Masterman
A wholly intriguing blend of murder mystery, detective thriller, lost world/lost race adventure, and horror novel, The Yellow Mistletoe, by British author Walter S. Masterman, impressively manages to triumph in all four of those literary departments. Like another book that I recently experienced, H.B. Gregory’s Dark Sanctuary (1940, and only available today via Ramble House), The Yellow Mistletoe was also tapped by editor/author Karl Edward Wagner for inclusion in his widely-referred-to list of The 13 Best Supernatural Horror Books. And while I do have a small problem with that inclusion (more on that in a moment), I must hasten to add that I still hugely enjoyed Masterman’s truly masterful work here.
The Yellow Mistletoe was originally released in 1930 in a hardcover edition by the British publisher Jarrolds. It seems to have also been released that same year by E. P. Dutton in the U.S., after which it promptly went OOPs (out of prints) for a solid 79 years, until Ramble House resurrected it in 2009. As for the book’s author, Walter S. Masterman was born in Wimbledon, U.K., in 1876, the youngest of four prominent brothers: Arthur Masterman would become a renowned zoologist, Charles Masterman a Liberal politician, and Howard Masterman the Bishop of Plymouth. And Walter? He would go on to write some 26 novels in the fields of mystery, horror and fantasy before passing away in 1946, at age 69. The Yellow Mistletoe was Masterman’s sixth novel, and the fourth to feature his most well-known and continuing character, Sir Arthur Sinclair of Scotland Yard. Masterman, as far as I can tell, eventually came out with 16 novels starring the illustrious detective, and in the third of those books, 1928’s 2.L.O., Sinclair apparently decided that he’d had enough, and retired from the Yard. But he seems to have enjoyed a very busy private practice of sorts afterwards, with 13 more adventures to keep him busy during his Golden Years! As a newcomer to Masterman, I am guessing that the events detailed in The Yellow Mistletoe might constitute one of Sinclair’s greatest and most challenging of cases. As he himself puts it, “It’s the most baffling problem I have ever had to solve, and that’s saying something”! And indeed, I almost despair of describing this book’s labyrinthine plot to you now.
In this particular adventure, the recently retired Sinclair is visiting the new Superintendent at Scotland Yard when an interesting case crops up. An elderly parson, the Rev. George Shepherd, had been killed in the rush-hour “tubes” after falling down a flight of steps … despite having no serious injuries on his person! Shepherd, it seems, had been on his way to speak with the Superintendent on a matter of great urgency, subject unknown. With nothing but time on his hands, Sinclair decides to investigate, first going up to Derbyshire to break the news to Shepherd’s son Ronald and daughter Diana. Diana, who had been born following the reverend’s marriage to his second wife, Diana Woods, is thus Ronald’s half sister, although the two are so very close that they almost come across as platonic lovers! Diana Woods, it appears, had also died of mysterious causes, seemingly frightened to death after one of her habitual walks in the nearby forest. Sinclair’s investigations ultimately lead him to a seedy London restaurant in the Athens Hotel, run by the Italian petty criminal Ganzani and secretly owned by Ronald’s old Cambridge chum Teddy Carstairs. An unusual yellow mistletoe plant, noticed in both the Shepherds’ home and in the Athens Hotel, gives detective Sinclair some additional food for thought. And then matters become more serious, after a kidnapping attempt on Diana is foiled, Ganzani offers the siblings’ Uncle Reginald 50,000 pounds to buy Diana, and that uncle later dies … again mysteriously. Eventually, disaster strikes, when Diana disappears, and a note from her reveals that she has eloped with Carstairs. But Sinclair and the others know better: The young woman has been abducted, for reasons unknown. Sinclair instructs Ronald, as well as Ronald’s friends Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) and Doris Gorringe, a brother and sister, to stay put while he takes matters in charge, but do those headstrong young folks listen? Well, of course not!
Thus, the three, accompanied by one Dr. Smart – who had been on the scene to examine the dead rector in the London tubes – travel to Lake Nemi in Italy, Carstairs’ place of birth. Lake Nemi, of course, was once, thousands of years ago, the site of worship of the goddess Diana, and while there our quartet comes across the sinister Ganzani, who confesses that the modern-day Diana has indeed been captured and brought to the current site of the goddess’ worshippers. That site is in a hidden valley in the wilderness of Bulgaria’s Rhodope Mountains, and so off our four adventurers go, into the Bulgarian wilds. While there, Ronald and Ralph become separated from the others in a snowstorm, have a hellacious experience in a very creepy monastery, and are eventually brought to the hidden valley, where the descendants of the Diana worshippers live by a lake very much like their abandoned Lake Nemi. Diana Shepherd, it is believed, is their newly reborn goddess, and it is soon revealed that the people have very unsettling reasons for having brought the Englanders into their domain…
Now, according to my dictionary, the word “supernatural” relates to “an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature,” and it is for this reason alone that I quibble with Karl Edward Wagner placing The Yellow Mistletoe in the supernatural category. Although the events in the book are assuredly unusual and abnormal, nothing is outside the realm of believability or earthly happenstance; in essence, it is “an adventure as strange as anything I’ve ever read about in romances,” as Dr. Smart puts it. Whereas Gregory’s book, with its Merlin-released monstrosity of pure evil, and its Satanic necromancers, was undoubtedly a novel in the supernatural realm, Masterman’s, bizarre and unlikely as it may be, yet stays firmly on this side of the natural world. Perhaps it would have more appropriately been placed on Wagner’s list of The 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horrors. In any event, nitpicking aside, the horrors in the book, be they supernatural or not, are very very real. As I said up top, this book succeeds marvelously in all four of the genres it subsumes. Let’s take them one by one. As a horror novel, The Yellow Mistletoe offers up at least three scenes of wonderful shudders that should linger long in the memory: In the first, Ronald and Ralph are locked for weeks in an underground crypt in that Bulgarian monastery, along with the corpses of past miscreants … and one recently deceased inmate in the early process of decomposition. In another scene, one of our lead characters is torn to shreds by the Diana worshippers during their Spring Festival sacrifice (and anyone who’s seen the wonderful 1973 film The Wicker Man knows how homicidal those pagan revelers can be!). And then there’s the tremendously exciting yet horrifying action set piece in which Ronald must do battle with the King of the Woods: a deformed, humongous Greek/Bulgarian monstrosity who guards the hidden valley’s sacred oak tree.
As for the mystery department, the book is not only a whodunnit but also a whydunnit. Strangely, I actually managed to spot the killer of Rev. Shepherd early on, and I usually stink at these kinds of guessing games. As for being a superior lost-race adventure, the hidden valley of Diana worshippers, tucked away in their Bulgarian fastness while being on a decadent inbred decline, makes for a memorable one, and Masterman takes pains to describe the city, as well as its history. And as for being a detective thriller, let me say right here that Sir Arthur Sinclair makes for one very bright, formidable and interesting character. Living alone in his Martello tower (look it up … I had to) on the Eastbourne coast, a loner, a master of disguise, and a hater of any kind of praise extended in his direction, he is yet a wonderful ally in anyone’s cause, as our young heroes learn repeatedly over the course of this book.
For the rest of it, The Yellow Mistletoe features a nicely complex plot involving many characters (many with secret agendas) and their backstories. This reader had to go over several sections more than once to get the tortuous plot straight in his mind. (“It’s all so vague and mysterious,” Ronald declares at one point.) The book is set in four interesting locales – London, the Derbyshire countryside, Lake Nemi, and the Bulgarian wilderness – and the entire segment in those Rhodope Mountains, including the snowstorm, the monastery and the hidden valley, is excellently described and highly atmospheric. Masterman obviously did his homework here as regards ancient Greece and its religious rites, as well as the Bulgarian mountain brigands. The book also culminates with two sentences that might make you mist up and laugh at the same time. And oh … how odd to see that the London rush-hour tube system of almost 100 years ago resembles so closely that of NYC’s subway system today, with “masses of human freight” pressing into what Masterman is pleased to call “the scrum.” Some things truly never change.
I must caution readers to expect a fair amount of century-old British slang when venturing into this book (“I say, this is top-hole”), and to prepare themselves for Masterman’s occasionally oddball (and, to my mind, ungrammatical) writing style here. Do these sentences strike you as being strictly kosher: “’I’ll come at once,’ he was glad to get away.” “’What is it – nothing wrong, I hope,’ he had seen Ronald’s face.” “’Cut that out, old bean,’ Ralph gave a feeble smile.” And dozens more like that. It becomes very strange. And oh, while I’m quibbling, I might add that despite all Masterman’s obvious research work done for this book, he still gets one fact wrong: It was not the Biblical figure Jethro who sacrificed his daughter, but rather Jephthah. But that’s about all for the nitpicking.
The Yellow Mistletoe is actually a splendid entertainment, and Karl Edward Wagner is to be thanked for alerting the public at large to its existence back in 1983, as should Ramble House for making the book a snap to procure today. To read this book is to want to experience all the other intriguingly titled Arthur Sinclair adventures, those being (in order of publication) The Wrong Letter (1926), The Curse of the Reckaviles (1927), the aforementioned 2.L.O. (1928), The Mystery of Fifty-Two (1931), The Nameless Crime (1932), The Baddington Horror (1934), Death Turns Traitor (1936), The Rose of Death (1936), The Avenger Strikes (1937), The Hunted Man (1938), The Secret of the Downs (1939), The Hooded Monster (1939), Back From the Grave (1940), The Silver Leopard (1941) and The Man Without a Head (1942). Happily, all these titles, and every other Masterman book as well (with the exception of 1932’s Murder Beacon, which Masterman wrote in collaboration with adventure writer L. Patrick Greene), are currently available on the Ramble House website. I hope to one day experience more of detective Sinclair adventures … especially the ones that sound like they’re on the spookier side. But I’ll be very impressed if any of them are as exciting and gripping as The Yellow Mistletoe. As Doris Gorringe is heard to exclaim to her brother halfway through the book, “This is thrilling”!