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publishing company Jonathan Cape Ltd together with The Times of London announced a literary competition, centered on an unpublished detective story: the winner would win the publication of a novel.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