Saturday, June 16, 2018

Walter S. Masterman: The Wrong Letter. 1926

The novel The Wrong Letter by Walter S. Masterman is  the literary debut by Masterman, an ex officer of the British Army, then fell into disgrace for an embezzlement that cost him three years in prison. Returning freely decided to try the path of the detective story, a genre that then reaped successes and was followed by many people, and wrote the first of a long series of novels. In the preface, we read it was covered by praise from G.K. Chesterton. Let's go find out why.
Sir James Watson is Minister of the Internal Affairs. He has a beautiful daughter, Melba, to whom he is possessively bound, who in turn loves the father's secretary, Eric Sanders. But Watson disapproves this sentimental union. He is also very hated by his position. The fact is that Watson, after sending a letter to the Superintendent of Scotland Yard Sinclair, is killed in virtually impossible conditions.
The cruelty of the murderer is to call Scotland Yard, ask for Sinclair and then announce that the Minister of the Internal Affairs has been killed, and he certainly can be sure of the news because he is the killer. And in sending to Scotland Yard a letter with a Scotland Yard heading, signed by no other than by Sinclair himself and with an official stamp announcing the death of the minister.
While Sinclair is mulling over the strange phone call received, comes a friend of his, the amateur detective Sylvester Collins who asks him why he sent for a call. Sinclair falls from the clouds, then they understand that it is always the hypothetical assassin of the Minister to have wanted to put together, and together they go to the minister's house, finding him closed in his library. Collins with a pair of tweezers can turn the key inserted inside the lock, from the outside, and when they enter, he finds the minister dead, shot in the temple. On the ground a gun, and while Collins shouts to Sinclair to run to call Scotland Yard and a doctor, Collins covers with the mats the possible prints in the carpet of the carpets, and examines the room, noting how it is hermetically closed. Only are found two used glasses on a small table: in fact, the housekeeper says that the minister before going out to send a letter and then close in his library, had received a visit: a man but she had not been able to identify, having seen him only from behind.
Upon the arrival of Sinclair with a doctor, the minister's death has been ascertained for a short time: the gun would be a Webley, but the wound raises some perplexity because it is not a hideous wound which should have been caused by a war weapon , but a relatively modest wound from which a trickle of blood runs. However, the minister is undoubtedly dead, and therefore he explains his death by means of a pistol equipped with a silencer. However, if the minister had killed himself, he would have had to find the pistol with the silencer engaged (and then why a suicide would worry about the noise?), But if he was killed, we must find how the door was closed from the outside (and not sure with tweezers, because it would have to take some time that could not be wasted at home because the housekeeper could have appeared at any moment).

The police intervene and then in search of the way out of the murderer, literally rips off the oak panels from the walls, turning the room upside down, but finds no hidden escape route.
Meanwhile, a certain J.K. Jackson is constituted by claiming to have killed the minister: it is Boyce's glory, Commissioner of Scotland Yard, rather late of savagery, but that arrests the paternity of the arrest. The confession is vague and although it is in some ways unreliable because it is based on a rather nebulous reconstruction of the facts, having no other suspicions for the murder, the offender is accepted as such.
However, Collins does not accept it, and neither does Sinclair. The two follow two separate tracks: the first goes to the country house of the daughter of Sir James Watson, where he discovers the affair with Eris Sanders; and that there is a long-lost minister's son, cited in the will, who might be involved in the murder; the second follows other tracks, including the one that appears on his right-hand man Lewis, escaped, which is charged with the theft of the letterhead and then to be if not complicit, even the murderer, and another in which the Minister shortly before being killed he would have entrusted him with the task of investigating the exploits of a dangerous villain, blackmailer, asking him not to warn Collins.
Collins will even learn of a mysterious appearance of a character dressed in court attire and resembling the deceased, in Mabel's villa, which later turns out to be her brother, Sir Ronald Watson, hidden in Mabel's villa, by her and by the notary Alley , friend of the deceased minister, as long as the investigation had cleared him from the accusation of killing his father. Moreover, it will be discovered that Watson is the same Lewis Sinclair was looking for, and therefore essentially a policeman.
Then a first reconstruction of Collins will follow, and then after that the same man will be left with Ronald Watson, a second reconstruction entrusted to Sinclair who will overturn the cards, will explain the death of the minister, will identify the murderer and will offer Eric the possibility to get justice, killing him.
The novel after a brilliant beginning - and it could not be otherwise with a double challenge of the Scotland Yard assassin - and tense, it flattens out as the Collins investigation goes on, and it becomes a mere chronicle of facts that do not seem to have any relevance and relationship with the murder; even the discovery that the apparition of the alleged ghost in reality is not so, does not lead to any additional tension, and the novel languidly would come to an end if there was not the entrance of Sinclair that reveals the solution to the case. We would not know whether to blame this, to a translation not perfectly centered, or to a willingness to face the story in a really
schmaltzy manner.
In reality, the second possibility seems to us the most sensible, and the same deliberately bland rhythm could be explained by the Collins investigation that our own investigation is not or if we want it to some extent.
In the novel there’s there is the combination of two famous works: one from Gaston Leroux, the other from Chesterton.
Moreover, the figure of Collins, that of Sinclair and the investigation about the locked room, ideally compare to another famous investigation - in which a detective and a policeman act against the background of another famous locked room - signed by Gaston Leroux. In this case, however, the figures are opposite to the others, and the police individually wins on the investigation of the amateur detective that in the novels of the twenties and thirties, always manages to get the better.
There is another historical reference, I would like to say a famous quote, which explains why Chesterton had praised The Wrong Letter: Masterman's novel uses the same trick used in a famous story by Chesterton, a story of 1910: The Wrong Shape, which also speaks about a letter, although there it is written in such a way as to confirm the suicide, while here from the beginning the murderer puts the accent on the murder, because only talking about a murder it it could not be explained (you note also the similarity of the titles: The Wrong Letter and The Wrong Shape). And the same sending of the letter and the phone call have a determining value, as much as that of Collins to put the mats on his fingerprints.
The Wrong Shape is the basis of a series of works that were written later and which all resume Chesterton's gimmick: for example, this novel by Masterman and then Evil Under The Sun by Agatha Christie. But unlike Agatha Christie's novel in which the victim before being killed was conscious, here as in Chesterton's story, the victim is asleep. And only the mode of killing changes: there with a dagger, here with a gunshot.
A beautiful novel, in which even the references to the detectives and the locked room refer blatantly to other writings to which they refer, and in some ways the only bright things, are the inversion in the roles of the main figures, the use of a weapon compressed air, long before it became almost a leitmotif of Carr, and the sending of two letters by a certain person, who mistakenly post them, puts in the condition the Minister to whom one is addressed, to suspect that the sender is a famous blackmailer on whose footprints has long been, and at the same time provides the blackmailer with the motive to kill him.

Pietro De Palma

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