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.


 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.


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