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Black Caesar's Clan. a Florida Mystery

Black Caesar's Clan. a Florida Mystery - Albert Payson Terhune Albert Payson Terhune (1872–1942) had several careers, eventually settling into journalism and writing. He and his wife also bred collies at their Sunnybank Kennels in New Jersey, and Terhune based most of his writing in the 1920s and 30s on dogs. His first published works were short stories in magazines about his collie Lad, and he collected a dozen stories into the novel "Lad: A Dog." That 1919 work has been reprinted over 80 times and was made into a feature film in 1962.

Although not known for writing mysteries, he did pen the novel "Black Caesar's Clan: A Florida Mystery Story," published in 1922. The title comes from the 18th century African pirate Black Caesar, who raided ships around the Florida Keys and served as a chief lieutenant for Captain Blackbeard. One of the only surviving crew from Lieutenant Robert Maynard's attack on Blackbeard in 1718, Caesar established a base on Elliot Key.

Terhune's novel is set in and around what is now known as Caesar's Creek, where the descendants of Caesar and his crew chase off treasure hunters looking for Caesar's lost fortune. It was part of a wave of treasure-hunting fiction around the Great Depression, when desperate times called for desperate measures. The plot starts off with a fight between Gavin Brice and a beachcomber over a homeless collie (yes, this wouldn't be a Terhune novel without a collie).

Gavin Brice at first appears to be a down-on-his-luck transplant to Florida looking for work. However, he has a hidden agenda for "accidentally" getting himself attached to the shady Rodney Hade and his employee Milo Standish (defending him from an attack with his 'jui-jutsu' skills), in their hideaway plantation. Brice is close to succeeding in his quest until the innocent but beguiling Claire, Milo's younger sister, makes him question the secrets he's been hiding.

Terhune infuses his tale with quite a bit of humor, including this statement by Brice to a young woman who pulled a gun on him in a case of mistaken identity:

"Oh, please don't feel sorry for that!" he begged. "It wasn't really as deadly as you made it seem. That is an old style revolver, you see, vintage of 1880 or thereabouts, I should say. Not a self-cocker. And, you'll notice it isn't cocked. So, even if you had stuck to your lethal threat and had pulled the trigger ever so hard, I'd still be more or less alive. You'll excuse me for mentioning it," he ended in apology, noting her crestfallen air. "Any novice in the art of slaying might have done the same thing. Shooting people is an accomplishment that improves with practice."

Terhune apparently was conflicted about the mystery genre, as indicated in his Foreword where he talks about "mystery and romance and thrills to be found lurking among the keys and back of the mangrove-swamps and along the mystic reaches of sunset shoreline," but then adds, "Understand, please, that this book is rank melodrama. It has scant literary quality. It is not planned to edify. Its only mission is to entertain you and—if you belong to the action-loving majority—to give you an occasional thrill."

Terhune is sometimes criticized by contemporary critics for his racist depictions of minorities and "half-breeds." In Black Caesar, Brice even refers to his former Japanese martial arts instructor as "monkey faced." But Terhune was a product of his time, and if you can overlook the occasional cringe-inducing reference, you'll find this a quick, light read.