The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Clement Lorimer; or, The Book with the Iron Clasps (1848-1849)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Clement Lorimer; or, The Book with the Iron Clasps was written by Angus B. Reach. Reach (1821-1856) was a Scottish novelist and one of England’s leading journalists. Clement Lorimer is an entertaining story of vendetta that is also a significant novel.
Clement Lorimer begins in Antwerp early in the seventeenth century. An old Italian trader, Raphael Benosa, is dying, but he is still happy, as his hated rival, Stephen Vanderstein, is also mortally ill and is likely to expire before Benosa does. Vanderstein is young and Raphael is old, but Raphael poisoned Vanderstein to make sure that Vanderstein would precede him in death. On his deathbed Raphael tells his son Michael that vendetta has been declared between the Benosas and the Vandersteins. Raphael tells Michael that he must continue the vendetta until all of the Vandersteins are dead. Because they are in Flanders rather than Italy, and because the Flemish do not approve of vendetta, it must be carried out in secret, using poison rather than steel. And Raphael tells Michael that although the reasons for the vendetta are written within a giant book secured with iron clasps, neither Michael nor any other Benosa may read the book until the vendetta has been accomplished. Michael, a dutiful son, agrees to his father’s commands, and his father dies happy. A century later Louise Vanderstein leaves the Netherlands for America. The Vandersteins have been unlucky for a hundred years–only three sisters are left–and Louise hopes to start a better life in America. (The Vandersteins are still unaware that vendetta has been declared against them). Michael Benosa, the grandson of Raphael Benosa, is a respected and successful merchantman and ship owner. He owns the ship on which Louise Vanderstein is sailing, and he tells Captain Schlossejib, the ship captain and a former pirate, to drown Louise during the trip. If Schlossejib does this, the ship will be his to own. If Schlossejib refuses to do this, Benosa will denounce him as a cutthroat. Schlossejib agrees to this. The novel jumps forward to 1810. Mrs. Werwold, formerly Treuchden Vanderstein, is dying, poisoned, as she realizes, by her husband Michael Werwold, formerly Michael Benosa. He regrets killing her but feels that he must bow to his destiny as a Benosa. Before she dies Mrs. Werwold hears her husband tell her that he will kill their newborn son, but only when he has grown enough to have enjoyed life’s sweetnesses. After she dies Michael inscribes her death in the book with the iron clasps, which has many similar entries in it. Their son is the last Vanderstein, and Michael looks forward to completing the vendetta and discovering why it existed in the first place.
Twenty-three years later in London Clement Lorimer, a rich nobleman, meets with his opera-dancer mistress Favoritta Chateauroux. She is flirtatious and pouty and tells Clement that if he wants to keep her company that night, he must write a sick note to her boss. She and Clement go out to dinner, but her boss tracks them down and fusses at them both. Clement cows him through sublime indifference to his anger, and when the man demands recompense for her absence, Lorimer casually pays it: “I am not in the habit of allowing considerations of expense to come between me and my enjoyments.”1 After Lorimer has dismissed his steward Blaine for the evening Blaine goes to see the last of the Benosas, the same Michael Benosa who poisoned his wife twenty-three years earlier. Benosa is aging rapidly and beginning to go mad, but is malicious enough to want to finish the vendetta before he dies. Blaine is his spy and has kept Benosa informed about Lorimer’s situation. Lorimer is deeply in debt, and Benosa has acquired all of the claims against him and intends to demand them all at once, thus bankrupting Lorimer. Lorimer is well aware of his enormous debts, and is generally unhappy with his life, seeing himself surrounded by scroungers and gold-diggers, but he hopes to make a large enough killing at the Derby horse race to pay off all of his debts. When Blaine tells Benosa about Lorimer’s plan Benosa sees an opportunity to conclusively ruin Lorimer. The horse Lorimer is wagering everything on is named Snapdragon, and Benosa gets the son of Flick, Snapdragon’s jockey, to beat heavily on other horses, using a check which the man does not know is forged. Benosa then has his own, crooked, lawyer blackmail Flick to throw the race; if Flick does not, his son will be hanged for forgery. To ensure that his scheme is successful, Benosa poisons Snapdragon. The horse does not even place, and Lorimer is utterly ruined. Lorimer takes his yacht to sea to recover his spirits, intending to return the following day, confront his debtors, and discover the secret of his parentage. (He is an orphan who never knew his parents and he does not know the source of his own wealth). Lorimer encounters a storm at sea, barely weathering it, and then discovers a wrecked ship. He rescues a survivor, a pretty young woman named Marion Eske. While Lorimer is on the yacht Benosa takes possession of Lorimer’s house, and when Lorimer returns he is forced to seek shelter at a hotel with the woman he rescued. The next day Lorimer, who has no money, wanders around London. In a pub he discovers Flick, drunk and raving about having sold the race. Shocked by the knowledge that he is the victim of conspiracy rather than bad luck, Lorimer returns to his home, intending to confront the man who took it away from him. Instead he meets Marion Eske and her two guardians, the Pomeroys, who insist on putting him up at their hotel until he can recover his finances.
Seeing that his previous attempt to destroy Lorimer were failures, Benosa approaches Lorimer’s friend Sir Harrowby Trumps and offers to give him the markers to all of Lorimer’s debts if Trumps will use them to hound Lorimer out of Society. Trumps, who is impoverished, one of the scroungers that made Lorimer’s life difficult, and a weak scoundrel besides, agrees. He sends Lorimer a politely worded pay-up-old-chum note. Lorimer confronts him, leading to a cold exchange of unpleasantries, with Lorimer concluding, “I do not pay your brains the compliment of saying that you are one of the conspirators, but I pay your meanness the compliment of saying that you are one of the conspirator’s engines.”2 Trumps tells the newspapers about Lorimer’s inability to pay what he owes, and Lorimer is disgraced. Lorimer stays with Marion Eske, telling her his story and becoming friends with her, and they quickly fall in love. She tells Lorimer her own history. She is the descendant of Louise Vanderstein. Louise and the good-hearted First Mate of the ship taking her to the Americas fooled Captain Schlossejib into thinking that Louise fell overboard, which allowed Louise to survive the trip. Harrowby Trumps’ wife leaves him and meets with a mysterious woman who sent her a note warning her about Trumps. The woman turns out to be Trumps’ first wife, Esther Challis, who on reading in the papers about the Trumps-Lorimer feud decided to help Lorimer by hurting Trumps. Trumps’ second wife meets with Lorimer and tells him what Esther Challis told her. When next Trumps duns Lorimer, Lorimer tells Trumps that Esther Challis is still alive, and that unless Trumps gives Lorimer a receipt saying that Lorimer has paid him all he owes, Lorimer will have Trumps arrested for bigamy and transported.
With his tool Trumps neutralized Benosa now moves against Marion Eske and the Pomeroys. Through intermediaries Benosa arranges to have Marion and the Pomeroys move in to a house which has secret passageways that only Benosa knows about. Benosa then has Marion Eske’s life insured, with the policies assigned to Lorimer. Lorimer, having questioned Trumps, finds the house in which Benosa is living and confronts Benosa, who though clearly ill and miserable will not tell Lorimer anything. Benosa acts oddly toward Lorimer, simultaneously cold toward him and proud of him, and when Lorimer appeals to him to tell Lorimer about his own parentage, “if you be a father,” Benosa tells Lorimer to return tomorrow to learn about his parentage. After Lorimer leaves Benosa puts on a disguise, catches Lorimer in the street, and persuades Lorimer to buy some poison for him (Benosa pretends to have a dying dog who he wants to put to sleep). After giving the disguised Benosa poison Lorimer quickly realizes that he has done something stupid, but Benosa moves too quickly for him. Benosa uses the secret passageways in Marion Eske’s house to sneak into her room and then force her to take a drug which puts her into a death-like coma. Benosa anonymously informs the police about Eske, and Lorimer is arrested for murder. (The receipt for the poison which Benosa had Lorimer buy is used as evidence against Lorimer). Benosa coaches Trumps about what he will say during the trial and then takes Eske’s body back to his house. Marion recovers from the drug earlier than Benosa anticipated and after exploring Benosa’s house finds the book with the iron clasps. She reads it, and although she does not understand Italian, the language in which the book is written, she receives visions from the book and finds out about the Benosa-Vanderstein vendetta and why Louise Vanderstein, Marion’s grandmother, was attacked by Captain Schlossejib. Marion is rescued by the police, but the trial against Lorimer moves forward. Just when things look most dire for Lorimer, however, Eske reveals herself and proclaims Lorimer’s innocence. The defeated Benosa returns to his home. His illness has become mortal and he knows that he, the last of the Benosas, will soon die, so he decides to open up the earliest part of the book and find the true cause of the vendetta. When he does, a “subtle vapour” rises from the pages. The vapour kills a passing moth, blinds and kills Benosa, and then incinerates Benosa’s house. Lorimer gets Benosa’s fortune and marries Eske.
Clement Lorimer is surprisingly entertaining. Although it is written in the stiff style of the 1830s and 1840s, its theatrical and melodramatic moments are enjoyable rather than tedious. Clement Lorimer is amply influenced by the Gothics, from Lorimer’s unknown parentage to the idea of a family vendetta stretching across the centuries. But Reach carries these tropes and motifs lightly and uses them judiciously. The novel is generally readable, with a good pace, easily skippable extraneous subplots, and amusingly saucy hints accompanying the Society elements. The plot is not simple, and while the modern reader is unlikely to be surprised by any of its twists Reach does at least provide some. There are a number of good lines: “Young gentleman, there are some things in this world too horrible to be false.”3 And Reach tries hard and mostly succeeds in writing vivid scenes conveying the experience of slipping into a coma or going insane.
The characterization is uneven; Marion Eske is a one-dimensional stage heroine, and her guardians, the General and Mrs. Pomeroy, are stereotypes, provincial American bumpkins who are unimpressed with England and find London’s monuments shoddy and lacking. But Lorimer is often amusing, especially when he is playing the bored, wealthy gentleman role, and Benosa is a well-done updating of the Gothic Hero-Villain character type. Benosa is ruthless, willing not only to poison his wife but also to murder his son, but Benosa also has a strong code of honor which he adheres to. Benosa does well by the men he employs and always keeps his word to them. When he is finished using Richard, the son of the jockey Flick, Benosa sends Richard the evidence that Benosa was using to blackmail Richard, along with the note, “Be chary of trusting the unknown. Commit not the semblance of a crime, lest the shadow prove a herald to the substance.”4 Benosa is willing to use Harrowby Trumps against Lorimer, but refuses to shake Trumps’ hand and lets Trumps know that he thinks Trumps is beneath him. And Benosa is clearly tormented at having to ruin Lorimer. Benosa respects and esteems Lorimer, sees the quality in him, and thinks that in other circumstances Lorimer would be a son to be proud of.
Clement Lorimer is historically significant because it is—depending on how one defines such things—the first English mystery novel. There are other contenders for that title, most notably The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-1863) by “Charles Felix” (a pseudonym, likely for Charles Warren Adams), which Stephen Knight calls “the first English murder mystery with detection throughout.”5 Michael Cox weighs the claims of The Moonstone, The Notting Hill Mystery, and Clement Lorimer.6 Objective consideration of Clement Lorimer and its various elements will lead one to put the novel into the Proto-Mystery category, alongside the earlier Night and Morning by Bulwer Lytton. Clement Lorimer has a mystery at its core and the solving of the mystery by Lorimer as the main plot, but this is quite different from having the solving of a criminal mystery at a novel’s core. Clement Lorimer is mystery-adjacent, but not a mystery itself.
Clement Lorimer has some stiffness, but in general is an entertaining novel which will reward readers who make the effort to search it out.
Print: Angus Bethune Reach, Clement Lorimer; or, The Book With the Iron Clasps. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2011.
1 Angus B. Reach, Clement Lorimer (London: D. Bogue, 1849), 37.
2 Reach, Clement Lorimer, 129.
3 Reach, Clement Lorimer, 255.
4 Reach, Clement Lorimer, 154.
5 Stephen Knight, Crime Fiction, 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 210.
6 Michael Cox, “Introduction,” in Michael Cox, ed., Victorian Detective Stories: An Oxford Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University, 1992), xvi.