I had thought the full list of fin-de-siecle fictional detectives who specialised in the strange and uncanny was known to me. Then Wordsworth trailed this in their catalogue last year; all twenty-three tales of one Simon Iff, penned by Crowley – according to another excellent Introduction by William Breeze – between 1916 and 1919 in a journalistic focused rush.
Originally published in ‘The International’ literary monthly, they ostensibly represent a further vehicle for Crowley’s notorious, publicity-hungry ego. Yet, they are also a revelation. In my very first ‘Pan Review’ proper (see ‘The Drug & Other Stories,’ 26th Feb. 2011) I criticised the man’s callous treatment of women in most of those standalone tales. Here, however, Breeze reveals many of ‘Iff’s continuing characters Crowley drew from friends and enemies he knew at the time, including a woman journalist, (Jeanne Robert Foster), his ex-wife (Rose Edith Crowley) and ex-lovers (Jeanne Robert Foster, again, and Ratan Devi). While his rather brusque depictions may not exactly atone for those in his standalone tales, they at least achieve a surface acquaintance with credibility and, as characters, stay mostly alive and appreciated.
The Stories here are divided under the four headings in which they first saw print: ‘The Scrutinies of Simon Iff,’ ‘Simon Iff in America,’ ‘Simon Iff Abroad’ and ‘Simon Iff, Psychoanalyst.’ Iff himself is an old man who lives by his (and, of course, Crowley’s) religious philosophy of Thelema (doing-what-thou-wilt-(being)-the-whole-of-the-Law) with his own brand of anticipatory logic. Denying himself the usual material acquisitions, he sustains himself on a meagre, health-centred diet and yoga. Compensation is afforded in the rich feeding of his other senses, surrounding himself with beautiful objets d’are while imbibing a rare old wine and expensive cigar.
Initially, Iff appears relatively sane although his subsequent eccentric outbursts and callous sense of humour feel forced, cartoonish, and, occasionally, in poor taste. Since the character is virtually Crowley projecting himself in his dotage, this is perhaps unsurprising. This is particularly noticeable in the later ‘Scrutinies’ and the American stories, where his transatlantic audience might have been deemed less shock-able. Madcap might sum them up.
‘Simon Iff, Psychoanalyst’ is of additional historical interest with its then new Freudian perspective, but the two short tales it comprises are also more credibly sober as a consequence and little gems of the mystery genre.
As if this wasn’t enough, this release is rounded off with the ironically-titled ‘Golden Twigs.’ Eight non-Iff tales based upon J. G. Frazer’s highly influential tome on comparative religions, ‘The Golden Bough.’ These reveal just what a fine short-story writer Crowley could be when he wasn’t quite so hung-up on the need to lampoon and shock. Fables of a mythic Europe reside, although, unlike Coachwhip’s recent M.P. Shiel reissue, you won’t require a Latin dictionary.
Wordsworth helpfully include unobtrusive footnotes throughout and a Notes and Sources sections at the back to enable even the greenest Crowley novice. Retailing, along with the rest of the Mystery & Supernatural series, at £2.99, this particular imprint only increases in interest and value.