Saturday, June 11, 2016

Patrick Laing (Amelia Reynolds Long) :The Shadow of Murder, 1947

Amelia Reynolds Long was born on November 25, 1904 in Columbia, Pennsylvania. When she was young, she moved with his family in the nearby town of Harrisburg where she lived for her entire life. After attending the University of Pennsylvania and graduating in 1931, she found work at a publishing house, the Stackpole Publishing Company, founded the earlier year, and she remained there until 1951, then she became curator of the William Penn Memorial Museum. In the 30's she wrote a series of non-fiction stories that were published in several magazines of the time, before turning his talent to detective novels. Admirer of Agatha Christie (she thought nobody better than the british writer had followed the footsteps of Poe) and instead detractor of atmospheres "fists and gangsters" of the hardboiled school, she began her literary career writing Behind the Evidence in 1936, with the pseudonym of Peter Reynolds, a mystery published in only 75 copies, whose basic idea was taken from the Lindbergh kidnapping. In 1939 she published under her real name, her first real mystery published in mass circulation, The Shakespeare Murders, which was a great success. This was followed by three other novels, all based on the character of Edward Trelawny. Then she wrote six novels based on the figure of the lawyer Carter who defends just who he is sure being  innocent: among these, Murder by Magic (1947) in which there is a Locked Room. Between 1947 and 1952, she wrote six novels, with pseudonym Patrick Laing, based on the exploits of the homonymous psychologist blind Patrick Laing. Amelia Reynolds for a long time has thought on herself burdened a curse or a great misfortune: the fact that when she wrote something, then something happened that had a relevance with that title.

I report her impressions, released during an interview in the early 70s

”It seemed that every time I used a place or a character as a basis for a story something happened. A woman that I had met in college asked me to write a story placed at her husband’s old home up in State College called Meadowside. I went up, and it was a picturesque old place. There was a place on the landing where there was a little door that led into a back attic, and every time either my friend or I would pass that door we’d get the cold shivers. We never heard that anything had happened in that room, we just had the feeling that something had. I wrote the book, the book came out in the summer, and late that fall her husband’s mother, in trying to smoke some ham in the smokehouse, let the place catch fire and burned the whole house down. Then I wrote MURDER GOES SOUTH placed in New Orleans at the time of the Mardi Gras. The book came out in the fall — next spring no Mardi Gras — we were at war. This sort of thing kept up; people that I would use for models in my stories would drop dead! It had me scared. The worst thing happened when I wrote MURDER BY SCRIPTURE at the request of my editor, since THE SHAKESPEARE MURDERS had been pretty successful. It was based on a series of murders in the Bible in which a reference to a passage in scripture would appear applying to someone, and within the next 24 hours that person would die. The book was doing okay, but shortly after it came out a child was kidnapped in Chicago, and what happened? The family started to get Bible references. I was scared silly. I thought, has my book given someone ideas? And I thought if that child were to be killed I’d quit writing. But it was found that the Bible references were a hoax and were not sent by the kidnapper at all, but it was some prankster who may or may not have read my book. Anyway, the child was found and all ended happily”.

Amelia Reynolds Long shared the same fate of Cecil Day-Lewis (aka Nicholas Blake), writing in addition to detective fiction also poetry: in fact, the last years of his life were devoted to composing poems inspired by the themes of the death, of the transcendence and of the country's history of Pennsylvania, which she picked up in the anthology Pennsylvania Poems, received with great enthusiasm.
The writer died at her home, in Harrisburg, in 1978.

The Shadow of Murder, 1947 is the fourth novel by the series signed with the pseudonym of Patrick Laing.

Thelma Joyce is poisoned and she dies. Who had motive and also materials opportunities to eliminate her? Her husband Stephen Joyce, who is acquitted from accusation of first-degree murder (for which there is the electric chair) because his defender Courtney Lane, manages to shed light in the jurors, the realization that a man's life can not be destroyed by a few clues gathered by the police that are not enough to declare him guilty in an incontestable manner. So he is acquitted, as we would say, "for lack of evidence." The fact is that Stephen Joyce, however is marked, at least in personal affections and in the context of certain knowledge, from the suspicion of being "the" probable murderer.

Now he is going to get married and he would like to be recognized morally innocent: for this some people, who were involved, as relatives or friends, in the story of  the earlier fifteen months, ask the famous Professor Patrick Laing, professor of Psychology and skilled detective, albeit blind , to investigate on the basis of that data and testimonys that he will collect, and to establish, with only private investigation, if indeed Stephen Joyce is innocent or if he is not. There is also at stake the life of another person, his future wife, Virginia Thorne, who at that time she was involved in the investigations also. And the convictions by other people: from Waldo Mercer, brother of the deceased and journalist to Kimball Kent, publisher; from Courtney Lane, Joyce defender and guardian of Virginia and Thelma to Rosemary Sullivan close friend of Virginia, to the younger sister of the latter, Doris.

Laing must operate only on the basis of the evidence, and can not even personally examine the places where the murder was committed, because he’s blind, and he should only rely on the reconstruction made by others and he should base his interpretations on the clues he could collect from them. We understand that, on the basis of this thing, his judgment to exclude any liability by Joyce in the death of his wife, will be very difficult. He knows, however, that, at least, it will be equal to that of judges and jurors who, like him, had to judge only on the basis of what was explained to them, not having had anything instead part of the collection of evidences materials and in the collection of statements by those who had taken part in the tragedy as spectators.

What does  Patrick Laing learn? Thelma Joyce was killed in August of the previous year by a powerful dose of mercury dichloride dissolved in the lemonade that she had drunk, and that had been dished up in a period that ranged from eight o’clock p.m. to half past eight p.m.  However, beyond the evidence, the problems begin here: first of all, who did slip her it? The husband, who had gone on appointment to her house to discuss the divorce between them, had been alone waiting for her, after she had gone out for a moment . When she returned, and had picked up her glass of lemonade that was left on the windowsill where she had left it, she had informed her husband she would not intend to discuss the divorce and she would make life of him difficult.

He was gone away, slamming the door, but shortly afterwards, became suspicious from non-responses of his sister, her stepbrother Waldo, had managed to get in and found her in agony on the floor, with her knees bent at chin level. He had called the doctor, but then, in front of the evidence of poisoning, had been called the police. Now, it is obvious that the investigators, learning there a short time before had been the husband to which his wife had denied the divorce, and so he had had the opportunity and had the most valid reason ever to suppress her, they decided to indict him. But here it was arrived the knockout blow: how did someone  slip the poison and from where did the mercury dichloride come from?

No one, least of all the police, was able to figure from where it came from the poison, and then, above all, how it was slipped to the victim, because into the glass no trace was found, least of all had been found trace in the full pitcher of lemonade . Yet on the window sill, around the footprint of the glass, tiny drops of poison had been observed. Here ends the evidence, and begin the doubts. The lawyer Lane, guardian of Virginia and Thelma, after his parents had died tragically, had bothered to bring out during the process these doubts, noting as Thelma, many years before, she had tried the suicide by ingesting calomel.

Laing, questions the six people who signed the letter and each of them gives own reconstruction of the facts, which substantially coincides with that by others. Patrick knows, however, also only for the fact that the six persons concerned are those who participated in the tragic events, with the exclusion of Doris, who was a child and had no reason to want to kill Thelma, among them is also hidden the real murderer, since it is possible that it may have been a man but also a a woman, and that the poison is notoriously a feminine weapon.
From the six stories, emerges:

- Such as marriage between Stephen and Thelma was born for a Thelma scam and then had become a ball to foot for Stephen;
- Kimball Kent that had been touched by the murder of Thelma, because he would have wanted marry her if she had not married Stephen, and anyway it was always related to her as a friend, and he always had to provide proof that a marriage unilaterally canceled Mexico had no legal effect in America (he wanted to avail Stephen), in that span of time in which she had moved away from the room where he was talking to Stephen.
- That no one was in the house or had escaped in that span of fifteen minutes since she had moved away, that Stephen had always remained in the room, and he ruled out that others had approached;
- A mysterious man with a revolver, of which nobody knows anything and that is quoted only by the small Doris, had approached the window, without being seen;
- That strange to say, throughout the sequence of events that had had the fatal evening, someone had even dared to steal the small Doris games.
From the depositions comes to light a succession of various significant moments, such that individual minutes acquire an extraordinary importance: something must have happened even without the other they did not notice!
At half past seven p.m. Kimball Kent gets Joyce’s home Joyce, where there is Thelma but also Virginia and Lane; at a quarter to eight  p.m. Lane and Virginia come out on the terrace (while the small Doris plays in the meadow); at ten to eight p.m. Virginia reachs the little girl and at five minutes to eight p.m. both are reached by the Virginia’s friend, Rosemary Sullivan; at eight o’clock p.m. Stephen comes into home Thelma to talk about the divorce; at a quarter past eight p.m. Thelma remains alone with Kent; five minutes later Kent goes away and he leaves the home at twenty-two minutes past eight p.m.; at twenty-three minutes past eight p.m. Virginia who had returned home three minutes before, goes into the bathroom to take the mercury tablets and dissolves them in the water (in fact the small Doris has hurt her knee and the doctor has recommended her daily dressing using the dissolved mercury water); at twenty-four minutes past eight p.m. the phone rings: it's Thelma who wants talk to Virginia. The lawyer Lane answers from ground floor while Virginia takes communication from the first floor. The phone call lasts five minutes; Lane at twentyfive minutes past eight p.m. returns from his home to the terrace; Thelma returns into the living room to talk to Stephen at half past eight p.m.; finally, four minutes later, Stephen, upset, goes away from home.

here is the element that was missing: Laing understand to kill Thelma has been the mercury of those tablets dissolved in water, containing mercury bichloride: but as the water of the solution is going to end in lemonade is a mystery. However, from the depositions he had had previously, he has managed to know that probably in the glass something was up, but Virginia and Rosemary had rinsed and cleaned the glass because of it they had maked use to attempt an urgent remedy to save the life of Thelma: had mixed mustard with water and had then tried to Thelma swallow to induce vomiting. Then, they had cleaned up the glass and had filled it by lemonade, thereby altering the scene of the crime, but did not they know (or rather yes?) in that glass had been mercury?

Inside the riverbed of the testimony, more than one are the suspects, though Laing knows that at least Virginia like Stephen would be a suspected sure if Stephen and some others had mentioned it, something that has not been.
Who did kill Thelma? Was one almost six? Or the mysterious man with the pistol?
Or was it suicide?
Thelma was not a person to kill herself, and about this everyone agrees. But it is also true that the tare of madness lurked in her home: in fact the mother had been treated at home from the husband, doctor, until he had not realized that his wife had become socially dangerous and as such he had decided to suppress her with a dose of poison, a sort of euthanasia that had not avoided him the electric chair. Possible that the germ of madness is reborn in Thelma and it has expressed itself in self-defeating form?

Laing will provide the proof of the innocence of Stephen, elaborating two theories, the second excluding the first, in which before he will accuse Thelma to kill herself unintentionally having drunk alcohol before and calomel after, with which she would attempt a fake suicide to concentrate the attention to herself: then when the others were hurried to find help, she'd really been poisoned as a result of the combination of lemonade with the calomel that would produce mercury bicloridio, causing her death. In the second theory, not revealed publicly, but extorted from his wife Deirdre, who has not believed to the tall tale of her husband, he will indicate the real murderer and how has been possible slipping the poison without anyone noticed it.

Beautiful novel, proposes, it beyond the blind detective protagonist of Baynard Kendrick’s stories (ie Duncan Maclain), a new blind detective, Patrick Laing, professor of psychology, that only with the strength of his mind can reconstruct crimes and nail guilty. Laing uses psychology to explore six depositions ( note as 6 is that the number who appears in several detective novels, as well as in the present: Six hommes morts, of Steeman; Six Were to Die, James Ronald; Six crimes sans assassin, of Pierre Boileau; etc ..): 666 is the number of Satan in  the Apocalypse. The detective in question will appear in the other five novels, all signed by Reynolds under the pseudonym Patrick Laing: If I Should Murder, Stone Dead, Murder from the Mind, a Brief Case of Murder, The Lady Is Dead.

Also in this case we have the situation that the paper detective corresponds to the actual writer in turn pseudonym (as Ellery Queen), situation we see also realized in the case of Abbot and Van Dine with the particularity that here is the identity between the writer and the assistant of the detective, all cases that still seem to me tending  to frame a fiction situation "made in USA".
That the american writer liked Agatha Christie and the British crime writers, it is confirmed by the theme of the devised plot: poisoning, treated very well and played with interesting implications. Even the same detective work of the psychologist follows the approach of Poirot: listens everyone, asks questions, notes, deduced, he takes notes. He doesn’t disdain anyone, not even the little Doris, who however, not being touched by partisan interests, provides the testimony truer and at the same time the most decisive for the resolution of the case. Then, at the appropriate time, he brings together all the suspects in a closed place and here closes the case providing his truth and his guilty. And besides the same attention to the times of the situations which lead to crime, remind us that particularity, by  a lot of novels of the Golden Age, especially by British authors, to favor the dismantling of unassailable alibi (eg. Croffts, Agatha Christie, Wheeler, etc ..)

Interesting murder with mercury dichloride, HgCl2, very toxic and corrosive poison (it is the first time that I see it used) and ingenious is its medical uses (true) which explains his availability. Again more ingenious it is how it’s used and the manner in which it is administered: by a toy. At the double solution, the real (by the toy) and the false (with the mixture of calomel and alcohol), the ability by Amelia Reynolds writer not only of mystery but also of science fiction manifests itself to be able to invent situations that leave amazed. I must say that probably she understood about chemistry or at least she was prepared: infact, if she demonstrates the possibilities in the first explanation, the false that calomel, mercury protochloride (Hg2Cl2) or mercurous chloride, could be transformed into mercury dichloride thanks to combination with an acid reagent (true), it could have been achieved only by combination with concentrated hydrochloric acid, HCl, boiling.

Now, this at the stomach can not take place, because the presence of hydrochloric acid is minimal, and the rest as recognizes Laing, if this could have happened, it would have occurred many times before (and instead of this the medical literature does not take tracks). But meanwhile the hypothesis, as it has mixed truth with falsehood, has left incredulous the reader, before to reassure him and to proceed to the real solution. And also this seems to me a bond that unites her to her model, that is, Agatha Christie, queen of poisonings (with Anthony Berkeley, Belton Cobb, etc.). And at the same time she manifests herself race writer, because she knows the incredible mix with credible, hatred with love, madness with compassion.
And after having convinced us with the impossible, leaves us speechless with the reality, and proposes once again, at a memorable, and pathetic final, the repetition of the crime, only narrated, which had brought the father of Thelma to the electric chair: as her mother, had been killed for pity  so that her madness didn’t provoke successive tragedies, for the same reason has been killed the daughter.

Pietro De Palma

A tribute to Amelia Long Reynolds is on:

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