Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Give me that OLD-TIME DETECTION (Spring 2024)

 

The spring publication of Old-Time Detection is out. It contains a story of mine with Locked Room, A Double Locked Room

My English translation was later improved by the writer Tom Mead, with whom I am a friend. 

It is my second story with Impossibile Murder which is published in the magazine published by Arthur Vidro. The previous one was in 2022. On that occasion Mike Grost included it among the best stories with an impossible crime, written in 2022. 

I hope Mike likes this one too, and includes it in the 2024 list.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Anthony Abbot : The Creeps, 1939 (La soglia della paura. Italian Translator : Igor Longo. Mondadori, 2008) aka (Being a Full Statement About the ) Crimes at Buzzards Bay



After a long time, we return to review a novel by Anthony Abbot. In this case of the eight novels he published, this is the penultimate.

The Creeps, original title, written in 1938, was published in 1939. It is a novel with a great atmosphere, which seems to be different from the other six first novels.

WARNING: SPOILERS !!!

Thatcher Colt is no longer Chief of the NYPD. He retired to private life and got married. His wife Florence thinks that he is bored without being able to dedicate himself to solving some good case, and so she does everything to get them to agree to go to his relatives in Denmouth. Fortescue Baxter's son, Terry, is to get married the following Sunday to his father's secretary, Evelyn Drew, and so the two Colts plan to have fun and have fun: Thatcher is above all attracted by the idea of meeting the famous Swiss parapsychologist, Doctor Adolf W. De Selles, who will be present to whom Fortescue Baxter, former friend of Thatcher, intends to leave a million dollars for his studies. Thatcher and his wife will be accompanied by their friends, Abbot and his wife Betty.

And it is precisely in the train carriage that is taking them to Denmouth that Thatcher and Anthony and their wives meet De Selles. When they arrive, the landscape is covered in snow. Randall, the Baxter's driver, should be waiting for them to take them to their destination, but there is no trace of him. So, a guy with an old grinder agrees to take them to their destination and they go up towards the property which is on the cliff, under which the sea boils. Everything is covered in snow. In the garden, De Selles looks at someone who seems to be staring at him from a tree, and mutters about something he says is wrong with that house.

Guests are introduced to the host, son and relatives. We immediately notice how most of them are hostile to the old man giving up a substantial part of the inheritance to someone who according to them is an old charlatan: there is Fortecue's sister, Eunice; the future bride; Margaret Dixon, black journalist, acquaintance of Thatcher; Charlie Adams, another cousin, a famous explorer, has just returned after many years spent in Siam and his wife Ursula, who by chance (but nothing is by chance) is also joined by Terry's ex-girlfriend, Mary Stevens.

It is the eve of Thanksgiving Day, November 23rd. The evening passes peacefully or almost as Adams and Eunice and then Margaret who seemed to have gotten lost in the snowstorm and who instead appears, ask that De Selles show his peculiarities, that is, prove that he is a parapsychologist: How? With a séance. De Selles reluctantly accepts: the medium will be Drew who, with De Selles, reveals to have a certain predisposition for these practices. During the session, Drew is possessed by the spirit of Baxter's ex-wife, Gertrude, who accuses someone of having killed her and of having hidden her bones in that house without giving her a Christian burial.

Forterscue Baxter leaves destroyed by the revelation, which would seem to accuse him. Terry looks at his father in horror, and the germ of fear and suspicion creeps into the house. during the night, the girl Evelyn who fell into a trance is found dead in Charlie Adams' bed. What appears to have been an affair that ended badly ends up being seen with a different eye: the girl was chloroformed to death by someone and then the dying girl, looking for help, looked for it in Adams who was snoring on his own for the drunk in the evening, dying in his bed.

 


 

After Gertrude's bones and Randall's body are found, the driver who was supposed to take Thatcher Colt and Anthony Abbot and their wives to his estate, Colt assisted by Abbot, called to investigate by the local sheriff in the Baxter estate isolated by the snow, she will pin the diabolical murderer to his responsibilities.

THE END OF THE SPOILERS

A beautiful novel by Abbot, it stands out for its somewhat convoluted style, compared to the previous six, and for a great atmosphere. Some critics overseas (John M. Nevins, the major critic of Ellery Queen, and my acquaintance Mike Grost, author of a history of online detection that would have deserved some recognition) are inclined towards attributing the novel to a ghost writer, instead that to Abbot, due to the slightly different style from the other previous ones, and also due to the abandonment of the identical construction of the title (About + the Murder + Subject) which is characteristic of Van Dine's period since, despite some differences, they use it both Van Dine what a Queen. However, several factors are not taken into account:

first of all, that the previous ones were all anchored, plus the first ones and gradually the rest, to a detection very close to van Dine's style from which they derive; Bear in mind that Abbot's last Vandinian novel, About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women, dates back to 1937, and Van Dine was still making novels then (The Kidnap Murder Case was written in 1936) but shortly thereafter he would write his last two that show clear signs of weakness and involution (The Gracie Allen Murder Case of 1938 and The Winter Murder Case of 1939). Again in the 1937 novel, Abbot dwells on a series of scientific police and ballistics findings, which are also found in Van Dine's novels, for example The Benson Murder Case. But from The Creeps, everything changes: it is true that Thatcher Colt is no longer a member of the police and therefore in the investigation, an illustration of police procedural techniques would be out of place, and therefore the characteristic of the six previous novels no longer exists which all have a combination of Van Dine detection and Procedural, but it is also true that Abbot, precisely due to the involution of van Dine's stories and his loss of popularity and the affirmation of other novelists, tends to try new paths, rather than refer to Van Dine. Now Thatcher Colt is a well-rounded detective, and with The Creeps, the references in Abbot are to other novelists of his time, first and foremost Ellery Queen. In fact, I detect marked similarities between this novel by Abbot and one by Queen, The Twin Syamese Mystery: there is a house perched on a hill, like here; Ellery replaces the police in carrying out the investigations, and Thatcher Colt does the same thing here, despite no longer having any position in the police; there the house is isolated from the rest of the world by fire, while here it is isolated by snow; there crimes occur within a family, as here: and here as in that case, a scientist is present.

Saying that the novel can be ascribed to a ghost writer, just because you can't find the same way of writing and illustrating the facts as in other works, is a bit risky for me, if you don't take into account a series of other factors. Furthermore, Abbot's tendency to lead a crusade against the boasters and charlatans of the paranormal recurs in this novel: here he is aimed at revealing the false nature of De Selles, revealing the falsity of the construction of the séance; in About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935), the medium's trance implant is exposed, with a hidden radio implant connected to the medium's apartment being found in the next room. And moreover Fulton Oursler in 1930, under the pseudonym of Samri Frikell, had written the book Spirit Mediums Exposed, in which he declared “I am the foe of fakery, of charlatanism, of hoodwinkers, of wonder-mongers, of miracle pretenders — of BUNK. And of all the low-down creatures in the world, the religious faker, the scoundrel that pretends to trusting and ignorant people that he can bring them face to face and voice to voice with their beloved dead, is the most contemptible.”

His Autobiography, begun in 1949 and published posthumously in the sixties by his son Ousler Jr., also reiterates Fulton Oursler's paternity of his works, which clearly says (page 361 of Behold this Dreamer!): At the same time Fulton kept up his parallel careers. Between 1938 and 1941 he completed two more Anthony Abbot novels (The Creeps and The Shudders) and one short story, “About the Perfect Crime of Mr. Digberry,” which was published in the first issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and later made into to movie.

There are many other references to previous novels in the novel: for example. the note on the elegance of Thatcher Colt. In this regard, in Fulton Ousler's biography, we read (page 256): The hero of these detective tales, incidentally, was one Thatcher Colt, the police commissioner of the City of New York. In my mind he was a combination of two men: Grover Whalen and Theodore Roosevelt — the one an impeccable dresser, the other blessed with real brains.

However, although there are very original ideas in the solution of the three crimes, the murderer, despite being present in the story from the beginning, is identified on the basis of clues that appear clear only to Colt, but of which the reader is not precisely informed . Furthermore, as Curtis Evans insinuates, how does the son know where his mother was buried? There are some passages that are not very polished, weak. In the fake message from the mother's spirit, it says more or less "you must bury me Christianly.. it is not right that she is buried like this.. here, my bones are in this house..". Now, if the message had been true, the continuation of the actions, especially the discovery of the bones by his son Terry, would have made sense. But if the message is false, that is, it does not come from Gertrude's spirit, but is the result of a plot carried out by two people, and the words are invented, how does Terry find his mother's bones right in the house? It is a pure coincidence, because the body could have been buried elsewhere, taking into account that when the crime occurred, there was no one in the house except the victim and the murderer, and the estate was one hundred and twenty hectares in size.

This means that the story, despite being original, even if influenced by Ellery Queen and perhaps also by Anthony Berkeley (Murder in the Basement, 1932) or rather by another Vandinian like Stuart Palmer (Murder on the Blackboard, 1932), is more weak in the plot of the other previous novels by Anthony Abbot, even if it has a great atmosphere, and even if the reading is very pleasant and the solution manages to convince. Perhaps this is why Abbot, in retrospect, having ended his period as a writer of detective novels in 1941 with The Shudders, recognized only the six previous novels as public successes, despite having published the other two, again with Macfadden Publications (with whom he published continuously from 1921 to 1941). Moreover, we also have other examples of authors who, very original and appreciated by the public in their first novels - I am thinking for example of Rufus King - over the years, and the loss of their own examples (Van Dine), looking for references in other writers (e.g. Rex Stout) lost their originality and their impact on the public.

Pietro De Palma

 

Monday, April 15, 2024

William Willoughby Sharp : Murder of the Honest Broker, 1934 (Italian Edition: Morte di un broker onesto - translator: Marilena Caselli - Publishing House Polillo, 2024)

 


 

Willoughby Sharp... who could he be? one could say paraphrasing Alessandro Manzoni.
The great tomes of detective literature, dictionaries like the Maspléde do not report it, in GAD there is not a page that concerns it, in Mike Grost's analytical work on the internet, ditto. Yet he is an author of the golden age of the Golden Age of Detection, of the full Thirties.
What we know about the author we learn from the notes on the cover flap: William Willoughby Sharp born in 1900 and died in 1956, he was a New Yorker. Son of high society, he found work on the Wall Street Stock Exchange. After the crisis of 1929, and a much talked about marriage, he left W all Street and, together with his wife, moved to Bermuda, where he wrote his first novel, Murder in Bermuda, in 1933, followed by the second a year later, Murder of the Honest Broker. A third, The Mystery of the Multiplaying, 1935, should have followed after the founding of the company between Sharp and the New York publisher Kendall, but the project did not materialize, and the company soon dissolved. It is not known what the writer did from 1935 to his death. 

Warning: Spoilers !

The novel published by Polillo presents a double crime, which took place in the Stock Exchange Building on Wall Street. In essence, two brokers, Philip Torrent and Sandy Harrison, are killed by curere, absorbed in the case of the first through a cut on the right ear, while in the case of the second by scratches given to him on the left cheek by a woman, Torrent's former lover . It is not clear how the two could have been killed, and above all what motive they had in common, because it seems they have no connection. It would also seem that Philip Torrent was loved by everyone. Of course someone didn't love him if he killed him, but then, under the respectable hypocritical veil, we learn that Torrent had plenty of people who wanted him dead! Not only Jack McDonald, also a broker, lover of Torrent's wife, Mary; but also obviously his wife, Mary; Torrent's abandoned lover, Lucy Laverne; Chipo Martinelli and wife, owners of a clandestine bar set up with 70,000 Torrent dollars, not intending to return it to him; broker associate Temple Hastings, who defrauded him of approximately $300,000; his nephew Howard Torrent, debauched and without ever a dollar who leads an expensive life.
 

 


 

With a meticulous investigation, and with some ideas of genius, Bullock will be able to understand how the two victims were killed and why, and by whom, taking into account that at least Torrent was injured by someone using an improvised weapon, consisting of a pencil in which it was not inserted a graphite lead, but a tip of a phonograph blackened by the fire of a lighter, near its location at the New York Stock Exchange, and then killed in an ingenious way using Curare.
 

The End of Spoilers

The novel is stylistically a procedural, a precursor procedural if we want, seen under the guise of the activity of an inspector who is essentially an amateur detective: there is no usual basic police activity, such as for example. in Hillary Waugh's procedurals, which are real procedurals, but the investigative activity only of Inspector Bullock who, if anything, imitates his boss. In the novel, Inspector Bullock, who moves in the same New York in which Philo Vance, Drury Lane, and Thatcher Colt, deeply detested by him, move, if at first glance he differs from them, in reality he shares them. If anything, it is an attempt to increase visibility and general curiosity about one's hero.
Other details that indicate Bullock to us as a Vandinian hero could be: first of all, the Inspector Bullock (detective) / Mackay (Chief of Police) relationship seems to reiterate that of Philo Vance (detective) / Markham (District Attorney); and then, when Bullock goes to visit Torrent's wife, he appreciates two small Corots hanging near the fireplace, just as the embroidery of the Queen Anne style chairs (late Baroque: 1702-1714) arouses admiration in him: so it is certainly of an inspector with a medium-high cultural level, different from the masses. Furthermore, the weapon with which the murderer kills Philip Torrent reminds us of others from the Vandinian period: the mouthpiece of De Puyster - Rufus King's first detective, who seems to have even influenced Van Dine's Philo Vance - which in The Weapon That Didn't Exist he uses a Curare dart. In turn, the pencil on which, instead of a lead, was inserted the needle of a phonograph - metal - blackened with carbon black, reminds me of the cork on which the pins dipped in nicotine are inserted, from The Tragedy of  X  by Ellery Queen, all those fancy weapons, which are typical of the period. You should read Sharp's first to get a precise idea of the stylistic derivation, that is, whether he is a writer in his own right or whether he can be attributed to a stylistic current of fiction of the period. Mike doesn't mention it at all in his encyclopedic history of online detection, and after all the two novels were released in 2013, ignored or almost ignored.
I also notice in the novel the tendency, already noted in other witers, to humanize the characters of Abbot, Ellery Queen and Van Dine, that is, to decontextualize them and instead talk about them as if they were truly historical characters, not invented in the pages of a book. In this way the author in turn decontextualizes his character and gives him his own characterization. 

Pietro De Palma

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Georges Meirs : La main fantôme, 1913



After several years we return to Georges Meirs, to talk about an excellent novel from 1913: La main fantôme.

Although it is a more than dated text, it is an excellent example of a mystery with an almost impossible crime and three locked rooms. In short, an almost unknown novel, but capable of keeping the reader captivated with a plot full of twists and turns and inventiveness.

 WARNING : SPOILERS !!!

 William Tharps, the famous private policeman, is urgently requested by Inspector Asselin: a crime has occurred in absolutely extraordinary circumstances, and the police are at a loss. In Miromesnil street, on the fifth floor of a building, an elderly sculptor was found dead in an apartment. The doctor has drawn up a death certificate due to embolism, but the inspector has a premonition, which turns out to be right: from how the body was found and from its appearance, Tharps formulates the hypothesis that he was killed instead. The autopsy will attest to Veronal poisoning.

Already in these first signs of a novel, Tharps shows all his deductions and observations, indicating both a series of fingerprints, even on the frame of a painting, and some signs, and finally the imprint of a hand, and poses an antithesis to Doctor Mortet: it would even seem that he hastened to diagnose a natural cause to mask the poisoning. Why?

However, this is not the only oddity, as the police in the figure of the Chief of Police Assarde and the Investigating Judge Ballencourt have already amazed several others: all around the body there are footprints, as if someone had done something during or after the death. Yet it is strange: he was not shot or stabbed or beaten, but poisoned. And the murderer seems to have remained there next to him until his death, which in itself has unparalleled audacity and temerity, and was looking for something: it seems something connected to a check book that Tharps finds while searching the house . It's not the only strangeness: there is an even more astonishing one. The assassin who murdered Mr. Corbat by giving him an elephantine dose of Veronal, entered a house completely barred by bolts and bars, while the servant was busy with his duties, in the other rooms of the house, entering the study, from which he it is also accessed via an external door secured by bolts, passing through a door concealed by a tapestry, which was known only to the staff of the house. But it wasn't the servant: everyone swears by his innocence and even Tharps is convinced of it. Yet someone must have entered the study illuminated by a large window in the ceiling: perhaps he passed through there? Hypothesis immediately set aside: the putty surrounding the glass is old and has no cracks and there are also cobwebs all around which make one think that no one could have gotten through there.

An invisible killer, or rather... a phantom killer. And yes because a hand, a ghost, will make an attempt on Tharps' life later, shooting him in the apartment, guarded by the police, where no one has entered from the outside, as the doorman of the building swears. A killer materialized, who escapes and vanishes into the air: Carr would have been delighted.

But before this occurs, the checkbook will also disappear from the investigating judge's office, barred, and without any break-in having occurred; and for that matter neither Ballencourt nor his highly trusted Chancellor can be held guilty of it.

And after the attack on Tharps, thank God, grazed by two bullets and slightly wounded, another closed chamber with another crime will occur in the apartment, an apartment already defined as cursed before Corbat's death, because in the previous years a series of tenants had died in mysterious circumstances: not least the last tenant, Barolais, who fell from the window into the living room. An unknown body will be found in the apartment watched closely by two policemen, and absolutely barred: how could it have materialized?

Tharps, during a session, in front of Doctor Mortet, the Chief of Police, Judge Ballancourt, the servant and his assistant Pastor Linhyam, will discover his papers and identify the culprit, or rather... the culprits.

 THE END OF SPOILERS

Written in 1913, this novel by Meirs, despite having certain quite dated characters, e.g. the deductions based on Lynham's appearance and several others, which also concern the places of the crime (for example that the murderer must have been of average height) which clearly refer to Sherlock Holmes of whom Tharps is clearly a clone, undoubtedly possesses of his qualities:

for being from 1913, therefore in an age of the detective novel still influenced by adventure, this story is captivating, proposing a series of false culprits: first Mortet, then the servant who leaves the apartment and disappears in search of a phantom person, then again Mortet who materializes, when Tharps is shot, and another servant of the neighbor, then again Corbat's servant, until the unexpected conclusion; a series of cursed and suspicious deaths; a strange bankruptcy story, curiously linked to that apartment; a missing banker with a treasure trove of securities; a poor sculptor living well beyond his means; and a series of near-murders and murders and disappearances of objects and people, in impossible situations.

The solution is logical, and today we would say almost obvious, but not that much: one by Halter is directly connected to it (which makes me suspect that he had read this novel: I'll ask him sooner or later) and also one by Rogers, for one thing clearly indicated, when it is mentioned at the beginning. And that of the disappearance of the checkbook, based on the absolute innocence of the Chancellor and the Investigating Judge who had it in their possession, once resolved, we would say: overused trick, but, if we refer to the time in which it was written... And frankly I hadn't thought about it, because in a book like this where the impossible lingers everywhere, you don't expect something like that, but it's perfectly logical.
 

Tharps reveals everything and triumphs: and explains why there are two murders, attributable to two different people, but committed without real premeditation. However, the first was put into practice by someone who steals and almost kills Tharps, the second by someone who would like to steal a treasure. While the first uses the impossible escape route, the second accesses the apartment naturally, but is not investigated. And the murder happens while the two agents, in charge of surveillance of the house, are down at the bar sipping a coffee and eating a sandwich, having a perfect view of the door, which can only be accessed from the outside, not seeing anything strange. , but then finding the body of someone who is unknown who he is, but who will remind Tharps of someone.

Tharps, who was originally called Thorpe, and who one day had his surname changed because a certain Thorpe showed up at Meirs' publishing house threatening to take legal action if the character's surname was not changed, today shows his great popularity which the now forgotten Meirs, who seems to have also been the illustrator of the covers of the first editions of his novels, already enjoyed at that time.

To add is that the novel is ignored both by Robert Adey in "Locked Room Murders And Other Impossible Crimes, A Comprehensive Bibliography, Revised and Expanded" of 1991, and by Brian Skupin "Locked Room Murders Second Edition", Revised By Robert Adey, Edited by Brian Skupin from 2018, and in Brian Skupin's 2019 compendium "Locked Room Murders Supplement (to "Locked Room Murders And Other Impossible Crimes" by Bob Adey). Also in volume 99 Chambres Closes by Roland Lacourbe, it is not mentioned.

 
Pietro De Palma

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Hake Talbot : The Hangman’s Handyman, 1942

 

One of the best Locked Rooms ever 

Even from the first lines we see projected on a remote island, battered by gales, which has a name that says it allKrakenlike the mythological monster of the deep seaAnd the atmosphere already expresses its first signs ofstrange and threatening.

Nancy Garwoodactress and showgirlis found lying across the bottom of the bed, still wearing the evening dress and and then she doesn’t how she arrived  to be in bed. She remembers when she arrived in the afternoon along with Jackson Frant and dinner: as yousay later, she knew Frant “intimately perhaps” but certainly notgood .. (it means that he had sex with himbut as a person he knewlittle)Also remembers the heavy atmosphere of that house and palpableservantssilent and without an identity as  if they were shadowsthe strange and the guests seated around the table, eight including the host and five empty seats to form thirteen places, omen of doomShe remembers the salt dropped in error on the tablecloth, she remembers the broken mirror, remembers thefrightened facesShe doesn’t remember anything.

When Nancy falls in the living roomby candlelight, the clock strikes ten o’clock p.m.. She remembers that she was at dinner at nineMust have been unconscious at least one hourThe guests should be thereplaying the piano, playing cards .. Insteadthere is none.
Nancy increasingly tensethe show turns to the dark and threateningby candlelight.
We observe the sceneHake Talbotwith consummate skill we would like to say (but this is the debutintroduces the story as if it were not a detective novel, but a fantastic novel, a gothic novel : it would seem one of Radcliffe or WalpoleThe candlelightinstead of decreasing the voltagefor the darkit increases it, because it illuminates what is directly in frontbut leaves the rest in darknessAnd while Nancy advances frightenedscared and tensethe sound here is powerful and unexpected: someone knocks at the door.
She goes to openbecause not even the servants made himas if the house was emptyand she founds Roger Kincaida professional playerwith an ambiguous pastbut who knows human nature better than othersand above all knows how to go down to things, even to those who apparently are not seen.
Talbot reserves entrance leading to Kincaidwith which we can understand that we are facing thedeus ex machina” of the situation.
The nature of the character is also entrusted with the clothes she wearsa heavy raincoat and ahat from the wide brimwhich remind us instantly (at least on those familiar with the detective genrethe most famous character of Carr, the Dr. FellIt way as any to tell the readerit is the investigatorthere are the typical conditions of carrian novels, that are impossible crimes or closed chambers.
The impossible crime is what distinguishes the novel, and is also the event that caused the amnesia of the girl.

Nancy recalls that the number of thirteen invited (but a family of four was not reachedhad provided an opportunity for Jackson Frant, industrial chemicals, could make fun of her brotherLord Evan Tethryn enormously superstitious.
The mockery that was continued in a crescendo of tension, before reading an ancient documentwhich indicated an unspeakable family secretthat the brother had thrown into the fire, then causing the breaking of a mirror, powder, and then causing the deposit of salt on tableclothand at the same time emphasizing the ensuing seven years of troubleThe effect of this series of eventsis the curse cast by Evan at Jackthe real secret unspeakableto kill the recipient immediately,and let him rot in a short time.
So did the exasperated Lord Evan against the brother Jack FrantAnd hearing the curse  Od rot you!” Jack was struck by lightning felldead: apparently Od, the sea goddess whom Evan had turnedwas briskly to oblige. The body was then transported to his room and left there.
But we have before pointed to a crime impossible: what ever it would be impossible in instant death as surely falling into a pure coincidence, a man cursed by his half-brotherIt could very well be a heart attackSo far nothing indicates manifest impossibilitythere is only a coincidencealso if strangeThe impossibility instead will be realized before our eyes, when Kincaid will travel to see the corpsewhose memory causes fainting again of Nancy. While Kincaid her aidsa new character materializesArnold Makepeace.

I note that the expedient of heightened tension, we have already seen both in the wake of Nancy (who finds herself in a strange house and darkness), and in the verbal confrontation between the two half-brothers, reappears now in the brief dialogue between these two characters: Arnold if at words he confirms as told by Nancy and tries to be as objective as possible, speaks almost shouting, in a tone that suggests to Rogan, as his partner is terrified.

Well, he obviously present in the stroke, he is hoped in his heart that even Dr. Braxton defines it such. And the tension grows, and continues when the first Rogan rummaging through the ashes of the fireplace, he founds almost intact the loot of pages that had been thrown on the fire (which is a series of reports showing old black magic powers given to the family of two brothers by Od, an elemental spirit of sea) and then when he himself, in the library, founds a series of books specifically occult character, read and reread, especially one with such a famous short story by Edgar Allan Poe: The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Do you remember that case? No? It talks about the mesmerism, animal magnetism made in the case of a man at death, which remains in a state of suspended death, until awakened from this state of decomposition in a heartbeat. Because Talbot refers precisely to this story by Poe? Why Kincaid will find Frant, wearing the dress evening, died not from a few hours, but died at least a month, in decomposition so advanced that the only way to assign him the identity, it’s a ring that could not have been imbedded after died.
Here is the manifest impossibility that would legitimize a supernatural intervention, to Od.
That’s it?
No. Someone tries to kill Kincaid strangling and yet manages to leave the room leaving her locked inside, with mosquito nets and intact old-growth, impossible to disassemble and assemble outside. Carr would say vanished into air.  Only Od in person could have been!
But why Od would want to kill Kincaid?
Nothing I will say more, except  that the ending of novel is amazing.

Why the novel did impress me so favorably?
The first, we are dealing with a crime so impossible that it can not be more impossible, and even a beautiful Locked Room. Talbot, in short, to create his debut novel, in honor of Carr and Rawson, and fills it impossible crimes and locked rooms, in a supernatural tricks illusions (the same Hake Talbot dabbled in magic) and centers the target , expecting to an established pattern of classic mystery (island battered by storm, secluded villa, curse, crime impossible and even more in a closed chamber, substitutions in person, continuous plot reversals) and creating an atmosphere dense and palpable able to fascinate.
Also it wouldn’t seem to be a debut. It has not flaws in the final by Rim of the Pit, though a lot of persons still consider it superior to ours. The fact is that the ending can not hold the tension accumulated up to that point and Rim of the Pit seems to be missing something, because, summingimpossibilitytoimpossibility, and concentrating the explanation of all the mysteries in the finale, “with an effect of complexity a bit too exhausting”, as would tell someone I know, Talbot can not answer all the questions, to satisfy them completely, and leaving a sense of something unresolved.
This leads us to consider how, instead, the first novel, with some humility that is lacking in the second hand, tends to solve the puzzles, each time, leaving only the final identification of the murderer (which is not easy). In fact, the first Talbot/Kincaid addresses the Locked Room, and then he explains the crime impossible.
Beyond this there are similarities between the two novels.
First, the mythological allusions: here is an elemental deities, Od, a demon of the deep sea while there another demon is, an Indian demon, a Windingo. In addition both novels, show magic tricks performed and explained by the guests.
Here and there you notice any mistakes, you may notice that only after reading the novel several times: first it says that an examination of the fingers of the corpse decomposed by Kincaid, Sergeant Dorsey, the police photographer and Feldman Medical Examiner Dr. Murchison, we note that had been removed the skin of the fingertips; then at the end of the novel, we read that the corpse was that of Frant because Feldmann had taken fingerprints: inconsistency perhaps be explained by a previous draft of the novel different?
Beyond this, even Talbot, as Halter, may have used, to wrap the plot of his novel, a series of references to him earlier: the guests present at a villa on an island, reminiscent of And Then There Were None 1939, by Agatha Christie; the 13 dinner guests, another novel by previous Christie, Lord Edgware Dies, 1933; and finally, I would be even tempted to believe that the same misfortune Rogan on board the vessel in the middle stormy sea and its landing on the island where the other guests are waiting, could refer to Careless Corpse, 1937, by King Charles Daly.
Well … an extraordinary novel, which takes engrossed until the last page.

Pietro De Palma

P. S.
The device by Talbot, also was used by Bill Pronzini and  Paul Halter.

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