Hanging Johnny/Crusade

by Myrtle Johnston. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1928. 12mo. viii+283 pp. $2.00.
by Donn Byrne. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1928. 12mo. vi+247 pp. $2.00.
Hanging Johnny, the work of an eighteen-year-old Irish girl, is a remarkable novel, not ‘under the circumstances,’ but absolutely. The reviewer pays it more honor, and does it truer justice, by considering it rather on its own merits than with perpetual punctilious reference to the youth of its author. For, if the prentice hand is betrayed here and there by a stereotyped phrase or by a trait of theatricality, these faults are borne along, negligible atoms, on the rapid and deep current of the narrative. Rapid, for the tale is told with admirable brevity, with a most skillful economy of detail; and deep, for the characterization shows both imagination and wisdom, both sympathy and dispassionateness.
In order to judge whether a man of Johnny Croghan’s type would have adopted his macabre trade, one must doubtless have a wider acquaintance among hangmen than most of us can boast. The speculation, however, is neither here nor there; for out of this fantastic figure, with his sensitiveness and dependence, his curious elfin remoteness and insensibility, Miss Johnston has made a real creature, and, for all his futility, an appealing one. It is doubtful whether even those readers who demand a blithe tale or none at all will be able to abandon Johnny at the end of the first chapter, which introduces him, with so admirable an abruptness, against the background of all his grim paraphernalia. From his first recoil at his profession to the inevitable end, one follows him with painful sympathy. But Miss Johnston’s detachment compels the reader’s; and one must sympathize with the hangman’s wife as well.
If to Johnny, as to other men before him, the competent placidity that promised haven and salvation comes to seem self-righteous incomprehension, so to Anna, as to other women, the childlike mercurial quality beguiling in her lover becomes feckless and exasperating in her husband. In fiction, as in life, the looker-on at this particular conflict of temperaments — the practical, equable, and somewhat unperceptive nature with the nature of storms and dreams — usually finds that his own temperament smartly tips the scale of sympathy. But Miss Johnston is singularly skillful as well as just; when patience is exhausted, she knows how to awaken pity, and so to restore the equipoise of the balance.
This story of a hypersensitive creature, touched with something not quite human, and bitterly maladjusted to the conditions of his life, is told with real power. Full of horror as it is, it has beauty too, and, strangely, a kind of wholesomeness. There is much humor as well as much penetration in the passages between Anna and her neighbors. The dialogue is the best part of the narrative, and its delicious Irish locutions give to the grisly tale, against all probability, not a little charm. The author’s touch upon tragedy is not always so sure as her touch upon the lesser stresses of life. But if, for example, the mad priest is not an altogether successful creation, if the final catastrophe is not so well handled as the suspense that precedes it, not so well as the violent first chapter, or the murder of Neil Fogarty, so swiftly told, or the earliest hint of Johnny’s madness, betrayed in the savageness of his play with his little boy, yet it is none the less true that Miss Johnston has written a novel real and fantastic, beautiful and terrible, and a novel —the assertion is hazarded under correction — entirely different from any other.
In Crusade, that skilled craftsman Mr. Donn Byrne has flung off from his loom another of his harmonious fabrics. In this romance the ‘Irishness,’ as Mr. Byrne calls it, does not, as in Hanging Johnny, saturate the atmosphere: it is concentrated in the young crusader, breezy, shrewd, and high-souled, Sir Miles O’Neill. The reader who feels himself sobered by following the fortunes of Johnny Croghan may recruit his spirits with the adventures of Sir Miles — so obviously a man born to survive, to triumph, that his worst straits can cause no apprehension. The romance proceeds in a heartily reassuring way against a spacious background rich with color, humming and ringing with strange sound, sinister with cruelty and treachery of Moslem and Templar. It is not easy to think of another novel so imbued with the sense of stealth. But, clasping the hand of Mr. Byrne, one swims confidently away on the sweetly gliding words; for here is no discomfortable realist, but a trustworthy Irish romantic. Here too is an Irish wizard, who puts among one’s vivid memories those things that one has never seen.