Believe it or believe it not — though in all likelihood you’ve actually forgotten about it — Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums is nearly ready. Version 1.0, containing 13 of the intended original 15 stories, should be available by the end of the month, missing two stories because the process of wrangling them into shape when it’s just me, TomCat, and our spare time is proving rather more long-winded than previously thought. A v1.1 may be available at a later date once I’ve got these two remaining stories edited into readable form, but I figure most of something is better than all of nothing.
Anyhoo. Much like before, when I talked about the process of transcribing A. Demain Grange’s ‘The Round Room Horror’, I wanted to share a few thoughts on Tom Gallon’s story ‘The Mystery of the Locked Room’, originally (and, as far as I can tell, only ever) published in the Chicago Daily Tribune newspaper on August 27th 1905 — yup, apparently newspapers used to publish short stories of crime and detective fiction (to be fair, I did already know this as the stories in Leo Bruce’s collection Murder in Miniature are all swiped from the pages of London’s Evening Standard, now unrecognisable as a free newspaper filled mainly with adverts for paintballing and holidays). There is one key aspect of this story, and particularly its publication in a newspaper, that I wish to explore here, but firstly think a few words about Gallon himself are in order.
They will be brief: I know practically nothing about Tom Gallon. There is a fairly detailed biography of the man here, which lists an impressive array of works which have been lost to the mists of time, though, by a scan of their titles, there’s nothing which stands out or strikes a chord of anywhere in my memory. Nevertheless one imagines that he must have had some influence or enjoyed a measure of success in his day. I say that for the following reason: I recently attempted and failed to read Charles Dickens’ final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and my Vintage edition contains details of a trial of the main suspect, John Jasper, as apparently actually held in public following the publication of the book in which G.K. Chesterton played the part of the judge. Glancing through this, I happened to notice that Gallon is listed as one of the jury alongside such luminaries as George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and Arthur Morrison, so one imagines he must have been doing something right to be mixing in such company. I was rather struck by the coincidence as I was busy trying to type up Gallon’s story at the time, but I admit there’s really no more to this than that. If you follow me.
It is possible that ‘The Mystery of the Locked Room’ was Gallon’s only foray into detective fiction — certainly it’s an interesting if flawed take on the Miraculous Disappearance — and it’s hamstrung by one rather massive problem, entirely out of Gallon’s hands. As presented in the newspaper, the text is five columns wide, presented as a capital H on its side, with the first two and last two columns split over pictures that have been commissioned specifically for this story. All well and good, and nice to think they’ve sprung for an illustrator specifically for this one-off tale, except that the first picture — the one on the left-hand side of the page and therefore the first thing you’re likely to see when you even so much as glance at the story — shows the solution to the problem.
It’s difficult to overstate how explicit this is. Imagine Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ — and if I’m about to spoil this for you then I apologise, now’s your chance to skip ahead — being published with the header image featuring a drawing of an orang-utan stuffing a dead body up a chimney, or G.K. Chesterton’s ‘The Invisible Man’ — I do not apologise for spoiling this, it’s a ridiculous story — opening with a drawing of a postman stuffing a dead body into his letter sack (<sigh>, don’t get me started)…it is that hilariously explicit. I honestly can’t believe that no-one looked at it and went “Um…d’you…d’you think that’s the best choice of…I mean, it seems a bit…well, a bit spoilery if I’m being honest…”. They had spoilers in 1905, right? Much was made of the competition to guess the solution to Israel Zangwill’s ‘The Big Bow Mystery’, like, 20 years earlier, so the idea of a surprise ending wasn’t exactly new. The mind boggles!
All chillin’, zero killin’…what, too soon?
Now it’s far from the only case of this ever happening, even in this ending-dependent genre — folk among you will be aware of the Edmund Crispin novel that featured the workings of its killing on the cover, and the John Dickson Carr novel showing the key piece of equipment being used in the key way that explicitly shows one of his murder methods. Then as here, you do have to wonder how anyone decided these were good calls: it’s not like those Carr and Crispin books were irredeemably bad and no-one was ever going to read them, and this Gallon story is far from perfect but fairly brief (it’s definitely under 5,000 words…I’m not sure of the exact total as I’m still typing it up), so it seems a shame to spoil it so thoroughly before anyone even has a chance to get started. Suffice to say I shall not be including the image in YOBoLRC because, well, firstly it would be bloody stupid and secondly I’m already unsure of my precise legal standing as far as this thing goes. Certainly I have no desire to flout the law, and so the fewer claims on ownership there are the better as far as I’m concerned.
As for the story itself, well the act of transcribing it has been fairly straightforward since it was possible to buy a scan of the story from the Chicago Daily Tribune website. There are a couple of instance where, due to the poor image quality of the document I’m working off, I’ve had to take a slightly educated guess at a word or two, but if anyone is especially concerned by this I will (please note the absence of the word ‘gladly’ or any of its near-synonyms here) provide a list of the occasions where I’ve taken these liberties. There are, like, maybe three. And, actually, upon reflection, if you’re worried about the veracity of my version then I respectfully invite you to pay for your own copy of the story and compare it to mine once it’s available. Some people…
I leave it to you if you wish to have the surprise spoiled ahead of YOBoLRC; the story on the newspaper’s website is easily found. My advice would be to wait and then get the best of both worlds — read the story pure, then see the comical job done in promoting it — but you’re doubtless capable of making your own decisions.
Right back to it…