M is for … MAN OUT OF NOWHERE by LP Davies
Leslie Purnell Davies is an author truly deserving of the ’cult’ epithet. Not just for the two dozen novels and sixty or so short stories that have garnered him a small but dedicated following over the last 50 years or so; but also because, not long after bursting on the literary scene, he almost as quickly turned his back on it to become seemingly as elusive and mysterious as one of his protagonists. After an intense period of activity in the 1960s and early 70s, which saw him achieve a small measure of success in both the mystery and science fictions genres, Davies stepped back in the shadows and left his creative life behind – to be rediscovered by intrepid readers picking up copies of his books in second-hand bookshops. One publisher looking to reprint his work eventually had to hire a private detective to track him down, but found only a grave on foreign soil for his troubles. This is all well in keeping with Davies’ own fiction, which deals with identity, aberrant states of mind and loss of control. This is particularly true of Man Out of Nowhere, also published in the US as Who is Lewis Pinder?, his second novel and one of his most ingenious.
The novel is set in 1960 in a small village not far from Nottingham in the north of England. One night an emaciated man, wearing a brand new suit but no shoes, is found unconscious in Pinder Lane. Taken to the Lewis Ward of the local hospital, doctors quickly conclude that the man, suffering from extreme malnutrition and atrophied muscle tissue, is an amnesiac. His clothes offer no identification and even the suit, while pristine, turns out to have been made by a tailor that perished in the Blitz twenty years before. The man, named ‘Lewis Pinder’ by the staff, has only two distinguishing characteristics: a scar behind his right knee and a distinctive clover-shaped birthmark on his left shoulder blade.
The case is put in the hands of young CID sergeant Roger Fenn, who learns that for several hours there were no cars in the vicinity of the lane where the man was found and that, given his weakened condition, ‘Pinder’ couldn’t have walked very far on his own - and yet no one in the village has any idea who he is or how he got there. Fenn surmises that ‘Pinder’ must have come from the nearby home of Mr Lomford, an elderly man who just buried his wife and who was also recently hospitalised after a stroke at her funeral. Matters appear to be cleared up when Lomford sees the photo of ‘Pinder’ in the paper and claims that the man is actually Clive, his son – the only problem being that his son died twenty years earlier, in the war. Then an elderly school teacher contacts the police and insists that the man with the scar and the distinctive birthmark is actually John Tebutt, an ex-student of his – only he also died before the War. ‘Pinder’ is then positively identified again, from an unimpeachable source this time, as RAF pilot Peter Blanchard – but he also died in a plane crash near the village, again during the war. Then a man comes back from America and also claims to know the true identity of ‘Pinder’, this time saying that he is in fact his long-lost brother Clifford Wolton, also reported dead many years before! How can so many seemingly reputable people have such completely different opinions as to who Pinder is, and how can all of these men have had the same distinguishing birthmark and scar? Fenn’s case seemingly cannot get any more complicated, but then Lomford is stabbed to death in the hospital, a series of fires by an apparent pyromaniac break out around the village, and before the climax there is a kidnapping and then a second murder.
Davies litters the book with symbols and images that explore the fragmented and fractured nature of the ‘Pinder’ identity, so that even his level-headed (and frankly, rather dull) young hero Fenn starts to have his doubts about what is happening to the world he is now inhabiting as he gets mixed up in a complex web of intrigue involving murder and espionage with its roots in pre-war Nazi Germany:
Roger stared at the mirror and the crack that broke the drawn face of a stranger into two separate segments
Amnesia is of course a common and popular theme in detective fiction, as in the movies – one need only think of such examples as Margery Allingham’s Traitor’s Purse, Peter Duluth’s identity crisis in Patrick Quentin’s Puzzle for Fiends or in several noir stories by Cornell Woolrich including the classic The Black Curtain. Davies was a writer, like his near contemporary Philip K Dick, obsessed with exploring existential themes around Cartesian conceptions of mind/body dualism and frequently used delusional frameworks or science fiction trappings to explore his character’s sense of psychological, physical or temporal unease. Amnesia, brainwashing and variants on the theme of memory and personality displacement became recurring themes to an extraordinary and fascinating extent in Davies’ fiction. Even if the prose style is unexciting, the characterisation rather plain and the continual return to a small village ambience repetitive, there is no denying the force and originality of Davies’ clever plots and ideas.
Some of Davies’ books, like Man Out of Nowhere, are straight mysteries, albeit here a whodunit spliced with a story of wartime espionage, while others, such as Psychogeist (1966) and The Artificial Man (1965) – which were combined and filmed by William Castle as Project X (1967) - while beginning in naturalistic fashion and contemporary settings, eventually shift into the SF genre. One notable example of SF in his works, Twilight Journey (1967), about a mind control technique known as ‘senduction’
in which people can be inserted and then extracted from a dream state has a strong resemblance to the recent movie blockbuster Inception. Some of his books and short stories were published under the pseudonym Leslie Vardre and it is of course quite appropriate that Davies should have worked under several names and ‘personalities’. He in fact published fiction as several different people, including: Leo Barne, Robert Blake, Richard Bridgeman, Morgan Evans, Ian Jefferson, Lawrence Peter, Thomas Phillips, GK Thomas and Rowland Welch. Davies’ main achievement may well have been this fusion of different genres and in his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2nd edition, 1999) John Clute has said that,
“LPD has in a sense founded a new generic amalgam: tales whose slippage among various genres is in itself a characteristic point of narrative interest, with the reader kept constantly suspense about the generic nature of any climaxes or explanations to be presented”
Davies deliberately creates unease in his fiction through his melding of genres, often to extremely cunning effect. In The Alien (1968) for instance, the protagonist comes to believe that he is in fact a creature from another planet, but the truth proves much more complex. The central conceit, and little else, was adapted for the exciting and underrated futuristic spy thriller, The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972).
Man out of Nowhere is a straight mystery completely removed from the science fiction genre – the final explanation of how one man with such distinctive physical characteristics could be positively identified as four different people, all of whom were believed dead, is explained with rigorous logic and, in the words of critic ST Joshi from The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004),
” … it would be criminal to reveal the ingenious and thoroughly satisfying solution to this novel.”
Davies’ prose is simple and full of commonplace turns of phrase and he certainly lacks the ambition and grandeur of a more serious novelist like the more rightly celebrated Philip K. Dick. But Davies was a dedicated craftsman, even if he was only ever a part-time writer before retiring to live in Tenerife at the end of his career in the mid 1970s (a couple of lesser novels followed). His stated aim was simply to entertain – as he put it in his entry for the Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Authors encyclopedia:
“My first novel, The Paper Dolls, was rejected by four publishers because it didn’t fit into any of their categories. I try to puzzle my readers; I have no axes to grind; I think I have always played fair with my readers when offering them what I hope may seem like an unsolvable mystery. I try to offer entertainment only.”
Davies’ books are well-worth rediscovering – the most recent reprint, the 1972 What Did I Do Tomorrow? comes courtesy of Mr Daniel Caffrey from Trashface publishers who through a private eye were able to piece together some of Davies’ life (and death) – what he unearthed can be read on their website.
Man Out of Nowhere (aka Who Is Lewis Pinder?) would be an excellent place to start for anyone intrigued enough to embark on a heady adventure into the mind of LP Davies and his disjointed characters.