Wednesday, October 18, 2023

John Sladek: By An Unknown Hand (in The Times of London Anthology of Detective Stories), 1972



In the spring of 1972, the British publishing company Jonathan Cape Ltd together with The Times of London announced a literary competition, centered on an unpublished detective story: the winner would win the publication of a novel. The jury was very respectable: Agatha Christie president, the playwright and screenwriter (Sir) Tom Stoppard, John Higgins of the Times, Tom Maschler of the Cape, Lord Butler, President of the Royal Society of Literature and Principal of Trinity College, Cambridge. Out of more than 1000 stories submitted, about ten were chosen, and among these the winner was By An Unknown Hand by John Sladek which beat The Tale of Jeremy Fischer by Don Carleton and The Scapegoat by Michael Freeman. The prize, as expected, consisted of the publication of the first of her two Locked Room novels, Black Aura, and the publication of the short story alongside the other shortlisted ones, in The Times Anthology of Detective Stories (1972).

The story is one of the absolute pinnacles among puzzles centered on a locked room mystery, especially since the solution is not conceptually difficult but on the contrary very simple, once you understand how it was implemented.

Thackeray Phin, a fairly esteemed private investigator, is contacted by gallery owner Anthony Moon regarding death threats that have reached the most esteemed artist in his contemporary art gallery, Aaron Wallis: one of the two specific threats that that very day, at 9pm, Wallis will die. When he was part of an avant-garde group called Aggressives, Wallis created a very representative work, Kitchen Shrapnel, assembling a whole series of sharp tools, such as needles, pins, knives, scissors, on an old iron sink , razors thanks to cement. The work, inserted in a glass cube, was the most prized piece in the Moon Gallery. However, the attribution had been contested by another of the Aggressives, Bob Price, who had claimed the true authorship of the work. The latter, in addition to being angry about this, had also had to suffer abandonment by his girlfriend, the actress Polly Bradbury, who had preferred Aaron to him. He is therefore one of the potential perpetrators of the threats, which Aaron's girlfriend, Polly, however, does not believe and asks Thackeray Phin not to agree to act as Aaron's bodyguard because he is already worried and could worsen his psychosis.

It goes without saying, however, that Phin accepts, and Moon takes him to a luxurious building: Aaron lives on the eleventh floor. They take the elevator and as it leaves, Moon hands him a brochure and they talk about it. When they arrive at the eleventh floor, Moon shows them the door of the apartment which is the only one on that floor: there are 12 floors in total: up to the ninth they are inhabited by multiple families, while the tenth, eleventh and twelfth have unique apartments. The only one to be inhabited that day is Aaron's, while the occupants of the other two floors are temporarily absent.

Phin will have to wait for Wallis to arrive and then stand guard. In fact, at 8.15pm Aaron arrives, with a large mop of hair and sunglasses, who opens the door and then passes him an orange chair on which Phin will stand guard.

About half an hour later Moon returns with some sandwiches and a cup of coffee for Phin: the two stay to talk about art for a while. At 10pm, Moon leaves, at the same time asking Phin to stay until midnight to be safe. At midnight, Moon reappears and asks them to wait until one o'clock for greater safety. Phin always stands guard at the door. At a certain point Moon appears and the two leave: Moon apologizes for her unjustified fears of him, but after all Phin has been paid and therefore...

Going down to the ground floor lobby, they witness the doorman having an argument with a motorcyclist: Price has arrived. He is angry because he received a phone call asking him to come to the palace, but it seems that no one knows anything about it and Wallis doesn't answer the phone. In reality it seems to have been the usual idiotic joke and Price leaves. Moon, however, begins to worry again why Wallis didn't respond, and when Polly arrives, the three go back up to the eleventh floor, where Phin's orange chair is outside the door.

Since hours have passed, they knock and ask Aaron to tell him how he is, but they get no answer. They knock, shout and finally the two men break down the door, locked from the inside, finding Aaron dead in front of him, strangled with a rubber tube.

The apartment, whose windows and French window overlooking the fire escape were walled up by order of Aaron who suffered from an illness caused by exposure to sunlight, has no other openings, except the door, and a small small window, very small, through which perhaps not even a cat would fit, for the air intake.

The impossible situation is paradoxical: a man entered that apartment before Phin's eyes, yet he was strangled, and the murderer could only have come out through the door, but this is absolutely impossible, especially since the door was closed from the inside, and the apartment has no windows or openings suitable for a man to pass through.

The police arrive and after the investigations, the Inspector hears the only eyewitness, Phin; however, Inspector Gaylord disagrees and does not believe the version of events told by the investigator: “There are only three possibilities, Mr. Phin. Either Aaron Wallis killed himself—which I cannot believe—or you killed him, or else you helped someone else kill him”.

In essence, in addition to being cheated, Phin suffers a further mockery, as he is accused of Wallis's murder. To save himself, he will have to call on all his resources and his acumen to get to the bottom of it, save himself from the accusation of murder and nail the real culprit.

The story truly represents one of the highest peaks of the puzzle of the impossible crime, because it brings together in the same story some of the assumptions followed in many previous works:

the exit monitored by an absolutely truthful witness (Phin himself)

murder in a hermetically sealed space

the door locked from the inside using a deadbolt

the murderer vanished into the air.

And the absolutely perfect solution is based on a few elements: an orange chair, a license plate and two keys, a piece of string and a wire, to which Phin manages to give specific importance by explaining how the murder was committed , whose motive is interest, money.

However, the imaginative solution probably would not have been enough to explain the crime and satisfy the four points mentioned above, to obtain the victory, I believe: even the story that placed second had in fact a very ingenious solution to explain the crime on which it was based. And therefore, Sladek's story had to satisfy the four jurors and the president Agatha Christie, for something more it had compared to the other works presented.

This additional ingredient is irony, which Sladek uses to weigh his own deductive faculties and in relating them to others. Absolutely delightful is for example when he remembers illustrious famous writers and asks them for a hand, reading their works: ”A man is killed inside a locked, watched room, he thought, adding a mental groan. The killer vanishes. The sleuth gives up and commits dishonorable suicide ... or else he is arrested for the crime. Sherlock Holmes wasn't going to be any help at all. Phin hurried home to read some locked-room mysteries. If Dr Fell could not cure this devil case, then perhaps Father Brown could exorcize it.” 

Pietro De Palma

Sunday, August 13, 2023

John Dickson Carr : "As Drink The Dead" , from The Haverfordian ( 1926, March )in "The door to doom and other detections", Harper & Row, 1980





Carr's story that leads the way to the entire collection of short stories, pastiches, radio plays and essays contained in The Door To Doom is  As Drink The Dead , The Haverfordian 1926. It is an extraordinary story, which mixes supernatural atmospheres, impossible crimes and historical research.

Two men are talking in a hall: one, with a shaggy beard, thin and bony, whom people called "the Old German Gnome", is a man of letters; the other with white robes and white hair, is a holy man. From the windows you can admire a typically Italian countryside landscape.

The man of letters wants to finish his novel which will deal with the Borgias, but to do so he needs to see the Trebbia Cup, one of the two which according to legend would have been filled with poisoned wine, causing the death of Pope Alexander VI Borgia and his son the Duke Valentine. The cup has been owned by the Monsignor for generations. He reiterates to his guest that the two died not because they had been poisoned, but by the direct will of God who would have punished them for their sins. In fact, when their death occurred, nearby was the very person who had created those cups, the alchemist Garcini Della Trebbia, mad with love for the daughter of the Pope and sister of the Duke, Lucrezia Borgia. The cardinal, at whose castle the two had arrived and who was unaware that the wine was intended for him, witnessed the atrocious deaths of father and son. And thinking that Garcini himself had poisoned them, he forced him to drink the supposedly poisoned wine from the two goblets, which he did placidly. Yet nothing happened to him. That is why Monsignor, at the end of the guest's story, attributes their death to divine intervention.

Monsignor calls a servant and orders him to bring the cup. The servant is terrified, because a minute ago he saw the old saint upstairs lying on the bed with four lighted candles (dead?) and now he finds him alive below. Stumbling out, von Arnhim will name the devil.

Shortly afterwards, in the presence of the Trebbia Cup, Monsignor, to refute the Guest's thesis that the cup is cursed, pours the wine they were drinking placed on the table, and drinks. Shortly afterwards, Von Arnhim understands how the Borgia pope and his son had been killed, but does not have time to save Monsignore, who dies before his eyes.

The story demonstrates in its entirety how Carr at the age of 21 already had that innate literary vein that would have allowed him to become one of the cornerstones of the mystery genre. In fact, the plot of the story is well conceived: first of all there is a mysterious atmosphere that surrounds two strange characters, one opposite to the other, one with a leaden aura, the other sparkling. Then there is a historical tale, which recreates a bygone era, which speaks of atrocities, loves, crimes. Then there is an inexplicable double death by poisoning: Pope Borgia and his son, who were supposed to kill a cardinal who was an obstacle to them, right at his house, happens they drink by mistake the poisoned wine that was reserved for their guest. Then there is an equally impossible explanation of the poisoning not by human but by divine hands. Finally there is an impossible death in the temporal plane of the present, while the solution of the case is rendered by the Gnome. The time lag of the past and the present, in a continuous jump from one to the other, convinces the reader that something will happen in the present connected to the past. And indeed this happens.

Carr's ability to blend fantasy and historical or presumed truth is absolutely disconcerting, if compared to the young age of the writer: this is the first absolute case of historical mystery, the one that Carr will then bring to the level of a masterpiece with The Velvet Devil and Fire!, Burn. Even there, the time lag creates the conditions for a story bordering on the incredible, but in which the impossible/possible is always around the corner.

The impossible poisoning can already be understood before how it is then explained, if one pays attention to what Garcini Della Trebbia does when he is forced by the cardinal to drink from the cup: by what he does, and by what the two victims do , one can already guess how the poison was dispensed. The impossibility is then explained, however not in time to save the last of the Borgias from death.

However, the story is not only the first text of a historical thriller that is linked to the theme that will become peculiar to Carr, that is, the impossible crime. It is also a story with supernatural implications, or supposedly so: Carr's ability however lies "not in defining what is supernatural or not", but in leaving more doors open, more solutions, including the supernatural one, but which might not even be: the fact that the terrified servant saw the master in another part of the house, lying on the bed, very white, between four candles, while later finding him alive and well elsewhere, could be explained by a simple hallucination of the servant ; or, and here is the supernatural possibility, that perhaps the devil has hinted at the end of the old man before it happens. In fact Von Arnhim will murmur as the servant leaves stumbling in the door: "The devil". Unless Von Arnhim himself is the devil himself, and has caused his guest to be tricked into seizing the goblet, and pouring wine into it, and then dying. It is no coincidence that the two cups of Garcini della Trebbia, of which the one in the Monsignor's possession remained, were called The Devil's Grail.

The Halverfordian tales formed the basis of much subsequent writing. We have also seen it for The Legend of the Cane in the Dark, but the cases are countless. And even in this case, in my opinion, there is a filiation between this and a subsequent story.

This is the case of The Adventure of the Black Baronet in EXPLOITS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, the Collection of short stories written in collaboration with Adrian Doyle (son of Conan), which earned both the Edgar Award.

Also in The Adventure of the Black Baronet, even if the story is completely different, the death, by impossible stabbing, because the stab came from the bottom up when the victim was drinking from a cup, at the head of the table, comes directly from the story many years ago. And absolutely the same is the trick. Even if the final weapon, in the past the poison, here the dagger, are different.

Again, the solution is perfectly rendered. Indeed, in Sherlock's apocrypha, there is also a double ending, because the murderer is a victim in turn, driven to kill by the wickedness of his victim. A sort of reversal of the parts, typical by Carr.

The last consideration is for the narrative part: the story of the past of As Drink the Dead is a very clever mix of truth and lies: Garcini Della Trebbia never existed, but his lover Lucrezia Borgia did; the Trebbia cup, is also an invention but the way in which Alexander VI and his son died was not, even if this story too is double: the most accredited story, but not unequivocal, attributes the death of the pope to a heart attack due to malaria-induced weakness, while his son would survive him by 4 years, later dying of syphilis; then there is another version, more fictionalized, credited to Guicciardini, and it was from this that Carr drew inspiration for the story, which wants the death of Pope Borgia by random poisoning, together with his son: having decided to kill the cardinal who lived at Villa del Cornetto, with a poisoned cup of wine, exhausted from the journey and thirsty, they drank the same poisoned wine they should have kept for their guest.

Love for drama, creation of perfectly explained impossible situations, creation of atmospheres bordering on the supernatural, tireless historical research, and a narrative made up of skilful descriptions and psychological atmospheres: this was Carr.

Pietro De Palma

Monday, July 17, 2023

John Rhode : Poison for One, 1934



John Rhode alias Miles Burton were the two pseudonyms used by Cecil John Charles Street (Gibraltar, 1884-Eastbourne, 1964), to write Mystery: the first being used for the series with Sir Lancelot Priestley, retired scientist, the second for the one with Desmond Marrion, former Naval Officer.

Before dedicating himself to writing he was first an artillery officer and then an officer in MI7, the Counterintelligence of the time. He wrote many novels, and this penalized him because he could not always maintain a certain narrative and inventive quality. However, a good number of novels brought him to general attention, so as to earn him the consideration of John Dickson Carr, with whom he wrote a brilliant novel, Fatal Descent.

The consideration of critics, as well as that of the public, was not always unanimous.

If in fact Willard Huntington Wright better known as S.S. Van Dine, in 1927, in his essay The Great Detective Stories, stated: “Better written, conceived with greater moderation, and clinging more closely to human probabilities, are John Rhode's novels dealing with Dr. Priestley's adventures-Dr. Priestley's Quest, The Paddington Mystery, and The Ellerby Case. Dr.-or, as he is generally referred to in Mr. Rhode's text, Professor-Priestley has many characteristics in common with Dr. Thorndyke. He is a schoolman, fairly well along in years, without a sense of humour, and inclined to dryness; but he is more of the intellectual scientist, or scientific thinker, than Dr. Freeman's hero. ("Priestley, Willard Huntington Wright cursed with a restless brain and an almost immoral passion for the highest branches of mathematics, occupied himself in skirmishing round the portals of the universities, occasionally flinging a bomb in the shape of a highly controversial thesis in some ultra -scientific journal.") His detective cases to date have been few, and he suffers by comparison with the superior Dr. Thorndyke”; and Julian Symmons in Bloody Murder (Penguin, 1974), designated him as belonging to the Humdrums genre, considering him a pretentious author : " as a prominent member of the "Humdrum" school of detective fiction. "Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it. They had some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more, and ironically they fulfilled much better than S. S. Van Dine his dictum that the detective story properly belonged in the category of riddles or crossword puzzles. Most of the Humdrums were British, and among the best known of them were Major John Street ..,” other critics have extolled this more recently, notably Curtis Evans in his Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920–1961 (McFarland Press, 2012) : “.. long overdue reappraisal of these purportedly "humdrum" detection writers as accomplished literary artists. Not only did they produce a goodly number of fine fair play puzzles, but their clever tales have more intrinsic interest as social documents and even sometimes as literary novels than they have been credited with having”.


The novel discussed here is a locked room, rather unusual. In fact the crime perpetrated is the murder of Sir Gerard Uppingham in his mansion by prussic acid poisoning. Why am I talking about an unusual case? Because usually when we talk about locked rooms, cases of disappearances, murders, thefts perpetrated in a strictly defined and closed space are mentioned, and because all these crimes can be worth being considered in this genre, it is it is necessary that the criminal action has been carried out personally in the closed space, and then the murderer has managed to escape, maintaining the limit situation, i.e. the effective closure of doors and windows; poisoning, on the other hand, does not necessarily presuppose a direct action by the murderer in the closed room, i.e. his presence at the time of the victim's death, because poisoning can be prepared first, and then let the victim, drinking or eating something , dies, like a rat in a trap. Normally. But here the poisoning is served up in an absolutely ingenious way, which does not exclude the presence of the murderer.

This is one of the two cornerstones on which the novel rests. The other is being a classic whodunnit, where motive and killer must be reasonably identified and proven.

Sir Gerard Uppingham is an industrialist who made his fortune mining albanite, a mineral used to generate light in lamps. Although he is rich and respected, however, he is not loved. He is not loved by his partners Somerton-Jackson and Tibbott, but not even by his fiancée to whom Muriel Featherleigh is promised, and especially by his future brother-in-law Rupert; even her sister Elvira doesn't show much attachment; and also his secretary Percy Richards has an ambiguous attitude towards him. But everyone, and especially Lord Cossington and his sons Muriel and Rupert, should be far from having a grudge against him because Cossington's family is on the verge of ruin and therefore only Muriel's marriage to Sir Henry could restore sixth the family; yet only the old Lord shows himself not averse to his future son-in-law. The fact is that in such an environment, one evening when everyone or almost everyone was invited to dinner, and there was also a moment when the wife of one of the envoys played Beethoven on the piano, he was found locked in his study , Sir Gerard Uppingham, died of prussic acid poisoning. Doors (3) and French windows, closed, except for the one forced by Somerton-Jackson, Tibbott and Percy Richards, the secretary of Uppingham.

The three immediately call the family doctor, Doctor Emery, who had also been to the evening at first, leaving immediately afterwards. He diagnoses Uppingham's death and suggests calling the police, as he believes death is not natural. It appears that the vehicle is a bottle of cough syrup, to which a generous amount of hydrogen cyanide has been added to kill in seconds. And therefore its content was poured by the murderer or by the victim himself into the glass, but there is no trace of saliva on the rim of the glass which therefore would not appear to have been used for poisoning. Then how?

Another strange thing are the glasses of port, wine and whiskey that the landlord had asked his butler to have found in the study and which lead the investigators, Sir Lancelot Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, to doubt whether Uppingham should have hosted for discuss not only Somerton-Jackson and Tibbott, but a fourth character as well. By any chance a certain John Woodville, who seems to have arrived in the village but no one knows where he went?

To identify the culprit, it is necessary to establish the Cui Prodest, i.e. the motive. Apparently no one would have one. But the strange thing is that at the time of the industrialist's death, very few, practically only Lord Cossington, are saddened by his death and indeed are relieved by it.

Hanslet soon discovers  the victim had not only impregnated a village girl while he was engaged to Muriel, but had also attempted to have sex with Somerton-Jackson's wife while he was busy at the factory. Therefore, Somerton-Jackson himself would have a motive, but also Rupert and perhaps even Muriel. Only Lord Cossington seems to be sad, because it seems that with the marriage he would have become director of a company, he who had squandered his and his wife's assets in horse bets, and would have revived the family finances, by virtue of a new will that Uppingham he would sign on the day of the wedding. He would have gained new liquidity, the other his noble title. But the sudden death made the second will invalid, so with the first, Uppingham's sister, Elvira, who inherits everything, gained everything. And then you add her to the others for motive. Moreover, hers is double: to inherit the fortune and to prevent another person from inheriting it. Uppingham is linked to Percy Richards, and this must be evaluated because he is the one who says he brought a bottle of syrup even though she was stolen from him (he says so). Furthermore, the issue of telephone calls is linked to Richards: he says that a telephone call was received at 10.15 pm of which no one knows anything, while he claims that he has not heard any telephone calls ringing, while from the telephone company it is learned that this call was arrived at 10.43pm. And in those moments, the doctor said that Sir Gerard presumably died.

The investigation goes on. Someone, the phantom John Woodville, sent a crate to the factory containing raw albanite. Hanslet learns here that Somerton-Jackson took potassium cyanide a few days before Sir Gerard's death (cyanide is produced from cyanide gas produced by processing albanite), and is about to issue a warrant for Somerton-Jackson's arrest , when Dr. Priesley intervenes and upsets everything: no syrup was found in the victim's stomach, yet it was in the syrup that a small amount of concentrated prussic acid was dissolved. Furthermore, the victim could not bear the smell of bitter almonds and therefore would never have drunk a syrup that had that smell. So it follows that the syrup was put to mislead, it's a red herring. The victim was killed by hydrogen cyanide and that's for sure, but how? Slowly one begins to think that it was inhaled in the form of anhydrous gas, but this leads to the possibility that someone made him inhale it (so how would it have come out?) and then the Locked Room problem reappears, or that it is a deadly mechanism has been set up. Somerton is still among the suspects, because hydrogen cyanide can also be obtained by the reverse process from potassium cyanide. But..

Here's a twist! Her wife, with whom Uppingham wanted to have sex with, accuses herself of the murder, without however providing evidence of her action, and therefore making her suspect that she wants to cover for someone, perhaps her husband. But the husband also adopts a similar or almost similar tactic: isn't he in turn suspicious of his wife?

However beyond these true or false confessions, the investigations go on and lead to the discovery of…a cork in Uppingham's studio. Together with the testimony of the person behind the pseudonym of John Woodville, that is Lemaitre, the president of the French national company competing with the British one of Uppingham in the exploitation of albanite, according to which he was the fourth person waiting for Uppingham that evening been killed, will provide the clues that will lead Dr. Lancelot Priestley (and Superintendent Hanslet of Scotland Yard), to detect the killer.


Beyond a certain tortuosity in the first part of the novel (to arrive at the decision that it was certainly a matter of murder, one would expect almost 100 pages), this one by Rhode is a good novel! Even if the undersigned to the murderer and the accomplice got there 50 pages earlier, even before the cork was found. Call it sixth sense? I don't know. However, the memory of another novel made me think, if I'm not mistaken later (I don't remember which one it was: ah the memory !) in which the culprit was the same, and for the same thing, he hadn't initially been considered among the suspects. And furthermore he is a character who later becomes known, he frequented Govery Manor, the residence of Lord Cossington.

The absolutely ingenious weapon, and I would never have thought that such an object could be used to kill, but if anything.. to pass the fever! And the cork goes well with the rest. After all, it is a characteristic of Rhode, that of inventing mechanisms capable of killing, which can be derived from the fact that he had been an officer in the English army. A direct consequence of Rhode's origin, it is an object the killer uses to get himself invited to Uppingham's house. Using hydrogen cyanide gas as a weapon, on the other hand, is nothing new: in fact it had already been used six years earlier, in what some consider Rhode's masterpiece (but was it really?): The Murders in Praed Street. If anything, the medium changes: there a light bulb, here…

The Locked Room is only apparent, because the door through which the assassin enters and exits is provided with a snap lock, however how we arrive at conjecturing his presence and how he managed to get himself invited and how he killed, is a nice to say. The clues are there, and the culprit doesn't just fall from the sky, because he is present throughout the story, several times; if anything, his motive does not spring directly from the facts, which is, for once, not greed, hatred, revenge, but… love. And we get there, only per absurdum.

But then it is said that by reasoning in this way, one cannot catch the culprit.

Pietro De Palma