As Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums edges ever closer — 11 of the 15 stories are now typed and ready, and TomCat is beavering away editing a twelfth — I thought I’d share my thoughts on certain aspects from the preparation, because it’s been an interesting insight into some things I’ve previously had no experience with. My apologies in advance if this seems self-aggrandising, I just think some of this will be of legitimate interest to you and have no desire to make it all “hey look how much work I’m doing”. No-one is making me do this, after all, and it’s honestly a huge amount of fun. Yes, my notion of fun is not like that of other people.
1 – Research, research, research!
‘The Round Room Horror’ by A. Demain Grange was originally published in the now-defunct Everybody’s Story Magazine in March 1911. To the best of my knowledge and researches, it has not been anthologised elsewhere since then; consequently, in order to get the text for inclusion in YOBoLRC, it was to Everybody’s Story Magazine of March 1911 that I needed to go. Alas, my personal collection starts in the June of 1911 (I jest, I’d never heard of it). Past issues of the magazine do not appear to be preserved for posterity anywhere online — unlike, say, the Strand — and so I needed to track down an original copy somehow.
Long story short, enter The British Library. You’ll be aware of the brilliant work already done in detective fiction at this fine institution on account of their Crime Classics series — those of us at the Bodies from the Library conference in June were given an additional, fascinating insight into this by Martin Edwards and series editor Rob Davies — but even being told about (not, in my case, the same thing as ‘being aware of’) the sheer range of publications they have available to them, it was still a revelation to search their catalogue, find this magazine among them, and be able to reserve it for perusal.
And even then, there was still the potential for problems. What if the information I was going off was incorrect? I’d done my best to verify it in advance, but who’s to say the sources I’d used weren’t all just repeating what the others were saying without independent verification, having drawn from the same original, incorrect well? The story could easily have been published in the April 1911 issue, or the March 1912 one…it was a weird sensation to be sat there holding the microfilm — yup, actual microfilm — and thinking “Well, this might turn out to have been a complete waste of time…”. After all, what could I do if it was the wrong one? Sure, I could simply search through every other issue until I find it, but what if my sources got the magazine wrong, again not verifying the title for themselves and simply echoing incorrect information down the years. I don’t wish this to sound like nebbish neuroses, but it’s amazing to realise how much you’re taking for granted right up to the point where you no longer have the option of doing so.
The tension was only increased by it taking me about 15 minutes to work out how to use the microfilm reader (I am a stubborn, proud man) and then having to scroll through the December 1910 and January and February 1911 editions only to find…that ‘The Round Room Horror’ was there after all. Relief doesn’t begin to cover it; I think I sat there with a grin a mile wide for about five minutes before realising that this was merely step one accomplished and the real work started now.
One particular delight — and this bears no relevance, so feel free to skip ahead — was reading the brief and tantalising description of each story written by the magazine’s editors on the contents page at the front of each issue. Of ‘The Round Room Horror’ they said “The ingenuity and mystery of this story will fascinate you”, and many others followed suit. Spare a thought for ‘Uncle Richard’ by J. Anthony McDonald in the February 1911 issue, however, which was summed up with this faint praise: “No wild adventures or bloodthirsty episodes, but very pleasant all the same”. One day I really must go back and find out what that story is about…
2 – Those who do not learn from the errors of history…
The narrative structure of ‘The Round Room Horror’ is unsurprisingly similar to a majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories, narrated by the dim associate of the brilliant detective who even goes so far as to describe his own dolt-headedness providing the necessary moments of insight for his far more intelligent friend. The detective in the case is Montague Steele, and the narrator is called Mainwright. At least he is the first time we’re told his name, and then several pages later he is called Wainwright.
So, uh, which is it?
I mean, it’s not like I’m reading about G.K. Chesterton’s clerical sleuth Father Frown, where the error is obvious to the point of not even being worth noticing. And, unless Grange wrote any other stories featuring Steele, there is literally nowhere else to go for verification on this (and it appears there might be a lot of checking necessary). At the time of writing — though obviously not any more — a search on Google for “A. Demain Grange” “Montague Steele” returned zero results. There are ways of finding information outside of Google, naturally, but without Google to point me in the vague direction of another reference work or some history of the form…where the hell did I go?
Equally, there is a minor character Perkins who then becomes Parkins. Now, lesser characters are of an arguably lesser importance — witness Professor James Moriarty and his brother…James — but hopefully the point is clear. I could see no option but to just pick one and hope that history forgave me. This is, after all, something I’m doing just for a bit of fun, and hardly worth troubling the busy people who are likely to actually know this kind of thing. And it could take months to get a response from someone only for that response to be “Yeah, funny, innit? It’s the only story he wrote, so no-one really knows”.
Thankfully Parkins is used three or four times to Perkins’ once, and on the penultimate page our narrator is Wainwright for a second time and so the issue resolved itself to my satisfaction. But I think I’ll always remember that first appearance of Wainwright for how sharply it threw into relief what we really know.
There is another example of this which I wish to raise precisely because others may choose to take issue with it and I want to assure them of the veracity of what they’re reading. At one point in the narrative, Steele is gently mocking Wainwright on a topic over which Wainwright is a mite sensitive and we have the following line of dialogue:
“Stow it,” I growled
I have no idea as to the historical accuracy of this idiomatic use of ‘stow’, but this is what it says in the original printing of the story. A brief investigation shows that typewriters in 1911 were outfitted with the familiar QWERTY keyboard (the Dvorak keyboard, which has M and W on adjacent keys, wasn’t patented until 1936), so with W becoming M for Mainwright it doesn’t seem impossible that this could have been intended as
“Stop it,” I growled
To explore this further (possibly to the point of tedium, forgive me) the nature of old printing presses — as Everybody’s Story Magazine would have likely been reproduced — allows for a W to be put in upside down as an M, but there’s no orientation in which a P could look like a W and so we could consider this to be correct. If it is incorrect then we are both fortunate and unfortunate that it works in context, but it struck me as anachronistic when I read it and don’t want anyone thinking it’s me who has made the error through slapdashery. But if anyone knows of a contemporaneous use of ‘stow’ which is similarly idiomatic, I would be honestly delighted to hear of it.