Benjamin Disraeli had it right when he said “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and publishers’ breathless comparisons to the classics”. I’ve been bitten once by this recently, so was doubly shy of the promise on the reverse of Warren B. Murphy’s sole detective novel to feature Dr. David Vincent Leonardo that it would introduce “a splendid new addition to the ranks of Holmes, Poirot, [and] Dupin”. To be upfront about it, obviously that’s not the case, but despite some flaws in the rendering of our genius amateur — of which more later — this is honestly a lot of fun, and joins the ranks of Hmmmm, What If They’d Written More of These? because, yeah, it lacks in artistry, but if you want a swift, reasonably smart, and engaging unheralded locked room puzzle you could do a damn sight worse.
Those references to the classics are extended in the text, too, in a manner that implies Murphy has a vague acquaintance whereof he writes: I’ll forgive him the possible implication that Lestrade is in the Poirot universe and put it down to a deliberate mistake on behalf of our narrator Lieutenant Anthony Jezail, because not only is there a Gideon Fell reference but we also get a locked room lecture! Yup, a legit classification of the four methods by which someone could be killed in a sealed room to add to those in Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat, Anthony Boucher’s Nine Times Nine, Derek Smith’s Whistle Up the Devil and…er…that other one. So, in that regard at least, Warren is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with giants.
The murder involves Barry Dawson, detective novelist, who is found in his isolated writing cabin with his head bashed in and the sole key to the room — the door to which only locks from the inside — in his hand. The windows are locked, the door is locked, his body is several feet from the door and a trail of blood attests to his having been attacked in the room…howdunnit? This book was brought to my attention by this review over at Mystery*File, particularly in the use of the word “audacious” in describing the solution, and I’ll be honest and say that while I’m legitimately unsure how original it is, it certainly sets up and resolves the locked room with some decent pointers (I’m not sure they’re really clues, but you can definitely look back and see some salient points), and I really like Murphy’s chosen method. He has a decent raft of possible explanations that are shot down along the way, too, so if you have a favourite already, well, you may find him ahead of you.
In constructing those explanations, however, there are some mis-steps. There’s a key psychological point which feels like a very 1970s innovation, and a missing object given significance because it’s not at the crime scene and not in someone’s possession…as if those are the only two places it could be (a point never confronted is that it could have been removed from either and, well, disposed of). Murphy is best know these days for co-writing The Destroyer series, basis of the massively entertaining Fred Ward movie Remo Williams: Unarmed and Dangerous, and can be forgiven for failing to fully engaged with these subtleties, though. This wouldn’t hold up in the 1930s, but we’re not in the 1930s and it’ll just about do. But then, on the flip side, there is a fabulous piece of deduction regarding a ransacked chest of drawers that probably would hold up, so again it’s swings and roundabouts.
We should also address the issues raised by the culture of the 1970s in the aggressive homophobia and racism expressed by Chief Semple (who is, at least, meant to come across as an arsehole — “Sometimes I felt like Sisyphus, spending my time in Hell trying to roll the rock of reason up the steeply sloped forehead of Chief Semple”), as well as the more casual attitude towards them of our narrator Jezail. Yes, there is a point where, in a bad mood and deciding he’s going to hate rich people today, Jezail says “I have days when I hate blacks, Jews, Arabs, Chinese, all Orientals, women, firemen, and politicians”. In these more enlightened times we shy away from this in horror, but I think this is another wry expression of Jezail’s innate cynicism. I mean, take the following:
If the Connecticut State Police had been with Columbus when he discovered America, they would have filed a report calling the trip a failure because he didn’t find a route to India.
The selectmen like their letters neat. They’re so goddam busy trying to turn this town into an American displacement of Wembley-Tembley on the Thames that I think they’d like their letters illuminated by Capuchin monks and delivered to them by somebody wearing knickers and carrying the note on a red velvet pillow.
He’s a hugely, hilariously cynical narrator, picking apart everything he sees and caught in a heart-achingly loveless marriage that’s sketched in brilliantly where thicker strokes would have been far less effective. Context is everything, is my point, and I think Murphy has a finer eye with character than simply what’s happening on the surface would allow most people to admit.
The one place this falls down is the eponymous Leonardo — expert in everything, paradigm of brilliance, precise in his speech patterns, gorgeous, beloved by his students, friend (and possibly more…) to famous actresses, holder of three doctorates and several degrees at the age of 34…it almost feels like a parody of the Genius Amateur trope except that everything rides on his successfully ferreting out the culprit. I could buy most of it just for form’s sake, but the bit that really gets me is the idea that he wears wire-framed glasses permanently up on his head because “they make him look scholarly” — would such a genius, with such a demonstrable lack of interest in public opinion, really care about that kind of thing?
But, anyway, it’s a minor point, and one that far from derails a surprisingly good little puzzle. As a piece of vulpine misdirection, I consider this to be something of an undiscovered gem. Get a copy while it’s still cheap!