Fergus Hume's The Crowned Skull (originally published 1908) is the first volume in the Classic Australian SF (for "speculative fiction") series from Chimaera Press. To be honest, I think it's an odd choice: there are no science fiction elements in this particular book, and any elements of fantasy are just for colour. A couple of characters dabble in the occult, but it's not clear that their efforts play more than a cosmetic role in the course of events. Though the extraordinarily prolific Fergus Hume did, in fact, influence his peers, and probably helped shape the directions of Australian science fiction with such novels as The Expedition of Captain Flick (1896), I'm not sure why The Crowned Skull, in particular, has been chosen by the editors for this new series.
That said, it's a great yarn which shows only mild signs of dating since it appeared over a century ago. It's a murder mystery set on the coast of Cornwall. As the narrative unfolds, all the evidence tells against Sir Hannibal Trevick - a handsome-but-ageing widower with an aristocratic title to his name but very little money - after his one-time business associate, Bowring, is shot in the head. When they were younger, they were involved in shady dealings in the diamond trade in Africa, and these now come back to haunt poor Sir Hannibal.
One of The Crowned Skull's most engaging aspects is its presentation of two beautiful heroines who don't much like each other: Sir Hannibal's twenty-year-old daughter, Dericka, and his love interest, Anne Stretton, who isn't all that much older. Both are presented as clever, no-nonsense "modern" women who are every bit as capable as any man. Though Sir Hannibal is gradually revealed as being not quite so silly as he first appears, usually having reasons of some kind for his various actions, even if he's secretive about them, he is no match for the sharp, practical intellects of his daughter and his young girlfriend. Fortunately, Dericka has his best interests at heart, as does her impoverished yet omnicompetent lawyer boyfriend, Oswald Forde ... and as does Anne. Or does she?
As the plot twists, turns, and thickens, it can be hard to be sure, chapter by chapter, where the characters' ambitions lie, who is on whose side, and whether Sir Hannibal himself is as innocent as he first seems.
Although Hume must have written this book at great speed - since he dashed off several books each year, and 1908 was not an exception - it is well-constructed and satisfying. Each chapter ends on a note of drama and suspense, and the whole thing is wrapped up neatly (though with a lot of talking from the main villain of the piece). My suspended disbelief came crashing back to earth only a couple of times, most notably when Oswald turns out, at just the right moment and with nothing to set it up for the reader, to be well-trained in ju-jitsu. That must have been the thing to do for a hard-up barrister early last century, waiting to receive some briefs to appear in court: you could use the spare time for a few handy lessons in the martial arts! Such skills are not entirely implausible for a young man like Oswald, I suppose, but the lack of any set-up takes the reader surprise, and it gives the impression, probably correct in this instance, of an author making stuff up as he goes along, without time to revise and integrate his later thoughts earlier in the narrative.
Still, this is book is a lot of fun. If you're interested in the series as a whole, The Crowned Skull will certainly entertain you ... even if its connection to speculative fiction in Australia is actually rather tenuous.
I'll be back soon to talk about the second book in the Classic Australian SF series, The Shrieking Pit, by Arthur J. Rees.
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