Prichard's detective possesses the Sherlockian ability to see what others do not: "...Where a town-bred man would see nothing but a series of blurred footsteps in the morning dew, an ordinary dweller in the woods could learn something from them, but November Joe can often reconstruct the man who made them, sometimes in a manner and with an exactitude that has struck me as little short of marvelous."
The character of November Joe is incredible, but no more incredible than the man who created him. Hesketh Prichard was the son of a British officer who died weeks before his son's birth. Raised in England by his mother, he trained for the Law but became a writer instead. Through his acquaintance with JM Barrie, Prichard and his mother went to work for Cyril Arthur Pearson, the owner of Pearson's Magazine in 1897. Under the pseudonym E and H Heron, the mother-son team wrote a dozen tales of ghostbreaker Flaxman Low. But Hesketh was not limited to horror stories. He wrote books about hunting, sports, and his travels. These caught the attention of President Teddy Roosevelt who called Prichard's Through Trackless Labrador (1911) the best book of the season.
November Joe begins with our Watson, Mr. James Quaritch, leaving work for three months to go shoot moose. His friend, Sir Andrew McLerrick, recommends November Joe as his guide. Upon arriving in the woods of Quebec where Joe lives, Quaritch is asked to deliver a message to Joe. The Provincial Police offer him fifty dollars if he can find the killer of a dead trapper. The hunting trip off, Quaritch convinces Joe to let him tag along.
THE CASES OF NOVEMBER JOE
"The Crime at Big Tree Portage" gives Quaritch plenty of opportunities to see November Joe in action. The two men go to the lumber camp at Big Tree Portage where the dead man, Henry Lyon, lies. Joe quickly accesses the few clues, seeing that the killer pulled up in a canoe, called to the man, and then shot him, leaving virtually no evidence. But Joe isn't stymied. He backtracks Lyon to his camp before the murder. Here he finds two beds of spruce boughs and evidence of the identity of a second man. Going to the small town of Amiel, November Joe finds out the background of Lyon's life, the names of all the men away trapping, and quickly narrows his suspect list to one man. He and Quaritch visit the man and quickly get a confession. When they learn of his reasons for the killing, Joe helps him destroy evidence, making it impossible for the police to follow the trail. The fifty dollars is not as important to Joe as his sense of backwoods justice.
"The Black Fox Skin" has a widow, Sally Rone, seeking out Joe because someone is robbing her traps: a ploy to force her to marry or starve. One of the pelts that is taken is a black fox pelt worth eight hundred dollars. Suspicion falls on Val Black, one of Sally's suitors, when he is found with stolen furs and a condemning bullet is found in Sally's cabin. November Joe suspects a frame-up. He sets a trap for the culprit and Sally and Val are free to marry.
"The Murder at the Duck Club" is almost an English cosy with its select club members and enclosed space. Young Ted Galt is accused of murdering Judge Harrison while out shooting geese. The tracks do nothing to clear the fiance of Harrison's daughter, Eileen. Instead of tracks, Joe examines the guns that have been so damning for Galt, as only he uses size 6 shot in his shotgun. Joe gleans a different motive and quickly rounds up the killer, someone else with a grudge against the judge.
"The Case of Miss Virginia Plank" has November and Quaritch looking for a murdered girl. November's careful tracking proves the girl is not dead, but kidnapped. Later, after meeting the kidnappers (a big man who talked and a small one who didn't), November is onto the truth. The tracks of the small man reveal his moccasins are too large. November knows that Virginia Plank was the small man and the kidnapping is a set-up. With a knowledge of civilized girls and a little poking around, he identifies the girl's accomplice, Hank Harper, and finds her at his cabin. Virginia explains why she pulled the stunt, and like in "The Crime at Big Tree Portage," November's sense of justice outweighs his sense of law.
"The Looted Island" has a fox farmer named Stafford robbed of $15,000 in fur. His employee, Aleut Sam, is also missing. Joe agrees to track down the culprits for ten percent of the furs' value. The island is frozen and icy, so there aren't any tracks to follow. Instead, November examines the fox pens and the cabin where the robbers camped out for a few days. This produces some information, like the fact that all the carcasses are from red foxes, not black. Someone has taken the foxes and tried to make it look like they were killed. Before they can act, the three men notice smoke coming from the neighboring island. Here they find Sam who tells a story of being stranded for eleven days. November examines his campfire and knows he is lying. The ashes indicate only a two-day stay, as Sam has no axe with him. Stafford forces the truth out of Sam and the men are off to Jurgenson's fur farm. The Swede can’t deny the evidence November provides and agrees to return the black foxes and two extra for their trouble.
"The Mystery of Fletcher Buckman" is a traditional train murder mystery. Buckman is an oil expert traveling with his wife. He is to make a report that will either increase or decrease certain stocks. The man is found dead, hanging like a suicide. November quickly puts this idea to rest for he finds fingermarks on the man's throat where he was strangled. The report has also been stolen. A man who had been arguing with Buckman, a down-and-out oil worker named Knowles, looks like the killer, but November proves this untrue based on the clues in the murdered man's car. Taking all the evidence and geography in mind, November leads the provincial police to the post office where the killer is about to mail the stolen report. This story breaks one of the classic Ronald Knox's fair-play rules: "The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story...". The culprit is never even named, let alone known to November Joe. The story is more about proving Knowles innocent and tracking the killer.
Upon their arrival, Petersham is informed that one of his game wardens, Bill Worke, was shot through the knee while at Senlis Lake. November's tracking about the lake finds a 45.75 caliber cartridge. November has Petersham dump two loads of sand from the lake around the house to improve tracking. This keeps the blackmailers away for a while, but eventually they make their demands that the $5000 dollars be left at Butler's Cairn. The demand comes from a masked man who holds up the other game warden, Ben Puttick, at rifle point. Petersham doesn't want to pay and Joe agrees. He slips out the window and covers Butler's Cairn, but no one shows. This makes him suspicious so he sets up a plan for the following day.
November leaves for Senlis Lake, making sure everyone knows where he is going. Shots are heard and Quaritch runs to the lake to find Joe shot. Together they look at the body of the shooter, a man in a black hat with a beard. Joe has killed him with a shot to the throat. Quaritch carries Joe back to the cabin where he reveals that the mole in their group is Puttick. The dead shooter is identified as Dandy Tomlinson, who with his brother, Muppy (both names worthy of Jack London), devised the plan with Puttick.
What struck me as interesting about this ending is how, in essence, it is the same as the final pages of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs would write his most famous novel around the same time, so I'm not suggesting either author had any influence on the other. What I am suggesting is that the theme of both is that the Natural Man refuses to be corrupted or tamed by civilization. Tarzan returns to his jungle, more ape than man. The difference is that Tarzan of the Apes was a huge success followed by twenty-three sequels. The first of those was The Return of Tarzan, in which Tarzan and Jane are united at last. Jane and Tarzan build a ranch and remain in Africa. This is a choice that November Joe refuses to think of for Linda Petersham. He knows she is a creature of civilization and will never be happy living the mean existence of a trapper's wife.
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.