It’s Max Afford Week on The Invisible Event…not through any design, but purely because I selected his novel The Dead Are Blind (1937) as my review this coming Thursday and the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ chosen topic of ‘Poison’ gives me the chance to look at one of the three short stories in the Ramble House collection Two Locked-Room Mysteries and a Ripping Yarn. But, hey, that’s no bad thing, as Afford is one of my discoveries of the last year or so and it’s always nice to shine a little light his way.
‘Poison Can be Puzzling’ was originally published in the Australian Women’s Weekly on 12th February 1944, and features his series characters Detective Inspector William Jamieson Read and genius amateur Jeffery Blackburn. Blackburn is now married – this was written after the novels I’ve read to date, so I’m yet to discover if he utilised the standard Golden Age method of finding a spouse, namely ‘have them suspected of some terrible crime while finding them attractive’ – and is called in by Read to help out on a case. Someone dies, apparently poisoned, but without any poison evident in their system — the drink they had in their hand at the time is cleared immediately — and so bafflement ensues.
It’s not an especially long story (I’d estimate about 5,000 words) but the seeming impossibility does have a nice solution which, despite being stumbled upon by pleasant serendipity rather than pure detection, bears up to scrutiny and more than warrants a read. To establish a hermetically-sealed environment, some atmospheric backstory, an impossible crime, a nicely-worked piece of misdirection, a well-developed strand of paranoia, some half-decent clues, and a clear, concise, believable, well-motivated solution to everything in so little space is an achievement beyond a lot of novelists and evidence enough that Afford must have been pretty decent at his job (spoiler: he was). This is actually one of the better poisoning tales I’ve read, and among the very best impossible poisonings, and I thought I’d use it as a gateway to looking at the problems the method has faced in the past which always leave me a little apprehensive when it get utilised, and how this becomes an even better story for avoiding them so adroitly.
Effectively, the difficulty with a poisoning tale is that often the intent is to get away with poisoning someone without it being realised by the other characters they were poisoned. This, of course, led to the hoary ‘poison previously unknown to man or Science’ that left no traces and presented itself in all manner of unusual ways that happened to conveniently muddy the waters of detection. Even the Sherlock Holmes canon, if I remember correctly, stooped to such inglorious means at one stage, and it became the lazily convenient solution to many an otherwise interesting-until-that-point tale (chief among these is ‘The Adventure of the Jacobean House’ by C.N. & A.M. Williamson — doubtless the most irritating story of this ilk ever committed to paper, and almost worth reading to experience just how bad it is).
Afford’s own The Dead Are Blind has a wonderful riff on this, with an extended discussion early on about how ridiculous and unrealistic such things are only for a murder to then be committed using an apparently untraceable, unknown poison. As tropes go it was doubly frustrating because no other murder method has this convenient option. As a counter-point: Carter Dickson’s The Plague Court Murders and Paul Halter’s The Invisible Circle both rely on unusual swords for their impossibilities, let’s say, but you can’t be stabbed with a sword that wounds in a way unknown to man or science. All those other methods of dispatching someone with maximum bafflement had to deal with physical facts — hell, even basic Physics — whereas our early poisoner could transcend anatomy and Chemistry and leave no sign of himself (and, even with that advantage, the bloody idiots still got caught).
Now, I use ‘himself’ in the previous sentence advisedly because we’ve also had to endure generations of patriarchal detectives confidently asserting that poison is a woman’s weapon as men are more likely to seek their vengeance in less subtle ways (presumably while talking about the football and asking what kind of car their victim drives). And what usually happens? The perpetrator turns out — oh, my sainted aunt — to be a man. It’s a misdirection as old as the hills and about as difficult to miss, but the absence of any other physical clues inevitably leads us into the realm of Amateur Psychology 101 and from their into questionable attitudes towards the fairer sex, or proclamations about the degenerate thinking of a criminal that a) age these classic stories so badly, and b) typically get forgotten when it turns out to be the sensible bank manager who was responsible. One interesting side-note to this is that I recently read a book contemporary to this which asserted that a stabbing was a feminine crime, which is surely a reversal of the usual attitude taken. Refreshing, but confusing. And besides, we all know that if the women of the 1930s stabbed anyone they’d risk dropping a stitch…
Thankfully, as Afford showed and as can be backed up by any number of wonderful Golden Age poisoning tales, writers eventually (mostly) wised up to these trappings and started crafting stories that played fair with the Chemistry and so drove them to even greater heights of invention. The brevity of ‘Poison Can be Puzzling’ leaves no space for too much that dates it unflatteringly; and while the motivation behind the poisoning is, in effect, to make it not look like a poisoning, the fundamental rules of Chemistry are observed and a real poison named. In short: this provides the template that a good many poisoning tales should follow, and bodes well for the idiocy of the unfindable poison being banished to the hell it deserves (presumably where no-one eats or drinks anything). But I’ll still feel a slight catch in my chest every time I pick up a classic poisoning tale because, well, you never really know, do you…?