#269: The Road Not Taken – Thoughts on Minor Instances in the Thackeray Phin Short Stories of John Sladek


Thanks to the beneficence of Dan at The Reader is Warned, I have been loaned a copy of Maps (2002), an anthology of short fiction and other reflections by John Sladek which were previously not anthologised elsewhere.  Sladek wrote two impossible crime novels — the excellent Black Aura (1974) and the exemplary Invisible Green (1977) — and Maps contains the two short-form tales to feature the same American dandy sleuth, Thackeray Phin.  Both could be discussed at length, but TomCat’s already done that very well indeed and I’m more interested in looking at small moments within them that don’t actually contribute to the plot.  I know, right, what am I like?

The first story, ‘By An Unknown Hand’ (1972), was written for a competition in the Times newspaper and concerns the death of the celebrity artist Aaron Wallis.  Found murdered in his specially-modified flat — the only one on the 11th floor of the building, all the windows bricked up to occlude natural light — with Phin sat outside the door on bodyguard duty for several hours before Wallis returned and locked himself inside, it’s a nice impossible setup that manages a good range of suspects and motives in a relatively jam-packed eighteen pages.

I don’t want to get into it too much, because there’s a lot here to enjoy without knowing what’s coming (though the clewing is rather flawed…), but let’s take one brief aside that I think warrants a little more attention.  Allow me to clarify that what I’m about to talk about occupies approximately half a page and is cleared up almost as soon as it’s mentioned, having absolutely no bearing on the central mystery of Wallis’ murder.

Wallis’ brother, Hector, performs as a stage psychic under the name Ozanam and — after he has sent a warning to the gallery owner who hires Phin saying that Aaron’s life is in danger (separate notes threatening the artist have also been received independently of this) — Phin and his housekeeper Mrs. Dawson attend one of his shows.  As part of his act, Ozanam invites members of the audience to write questions on a card and then place it in an envelope.  The envelopes are collected and Ozanam selects one, holds it to his forehead, answers the question within the envelope, and then opens the envelope to confirm the previously-unseen question.

This isn’t a million miles from the ‘divining messages at a séance’ conceit employed in the likes of Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot and The Fourth Door (1987) by Paul Halter, among others.  What is nice about this, in common with those two previous examples, is how effortlessly and quickly Sladek (via Phin) explodes the mystery of the ‘readings’ — both Talbot and Halter gave nicely workable answers to this apparent miracle, and Sladek’s slight wrinkle on the workings gives rise to another clever little ruse that works equally well in both the setting and practise of the trick.  It boils down to something you may have seen elsewhere in a different form, but it’s a very enjoyable addition to a clever story that doesn’t rely on too much in the way of obvious methods or suggestion and will doubtless catch a few people out.

Psychic Skunk

The second, much shorter, story is ‘It Takes Your Breath Away’ (1974), which was originally printed in various theatre programmes (what a time to be alive, hey? The last theatre programme I bought was full of adverts…).  Appropriately enough, this concerns the murder of a man that occurs while Phin and a friend of his are queuing to get into a cinema.  The victim is stabbed while standing in the entrance to an alleyway, the police — who were following the man in question — converge on the scene and block off the dead end, but there’s no sign of the killer…

Now, again, I don’t want to get into the mystery itself, but instead focus on one moment that subverts the expectations of such stories beautifully.  If you’ve seen the first episode of the fifth series of Jonathan Creek, ‘The Letters of Septimus Noone’ — and if you haven’t, don’t bother, it’s deeply bad — you may remember that the entire point of that hour of your life you’ll never get back was to show up the essential falsity of deductions as represented by the massively-popular Sherlock starring Boondock Cabbagepatch.  Two little moments herein achieve that same aim far more successfully and far less pompously, and they’re little flashes of beautiful joy in a story that is already clever enough without the need for further embellishment (it’s things like this that make Sladek such a loss to the detective fiction genre).

Both are rather throwaway — the story is all of four pages long — but fun nevertheless.  The first is the following exchange:

He drew out a huge magnifying glass an inspected the black brick wall next to him.

“Looking for clues?”

“Looking for a clean place to lean against.”

Which, fine, you might not see as especially relevant, but it amuses me that a) the essential expectation is that our detective has seen something relevant, and b) the wall is so filthy that a magnifying glass is needed to try and find a clean spot.  No?  Fine, just me, then.  How about this:

Phin examined the pavement with his magnifier.  “Hmm, about twenty-four hours ago a man passed this way who has grey hair, a slight limp, recently returned from Majorca, and often wears white.”

I’ll not spoil the reasoning behind this deduction, I will preserve that for you to discover on your own, but the way it is explained away — and, again, this has no bearing on the actual central mystery of this story — shows a lovely insight into the subversion of expectations we have when reading this type of fiction.  It’s sad indeed to think of the delight Sladek would have been able to wreak on the genre had he persevered with his impossible crime stories rather than veering into the much freer and (for someone of his creative tendencies) rewarding fields of SF.  To be able to throw such moments of canny self-awareness into two stories which — on account of either their density or their brevity — would not be expected to show such a panoply of invention is testament to the talent Sladek possessed.  Aaah, what might have been…


I apologise for putting this song in your head, too.  Not my fault.

Also contained in Maps are seven further crime stories by Sladek that TomCat discusses in his post above but which I’ve not got round to reading yet.  All being well, we will get to those next week, provided I’m not just going to repeat about them what can already be found elsewhere, so who knows?  Consider this a cliffhanger.

12 thoughts on “#269: The Road Not Taken – Thoughts on Minor Instances in the Thackeray Phin Short Stories of John Sladek

  1. Great take on these stories, JJ. You might also want to track down Sladek’s “The Locked Room,” which is a tongue-in-cheek story-within-a-story consisting entirely of the stuff you liked in “It Takes Your Breath Away.”

    You’re absolutely right that our beloved detective story lost a great writer in Sladek, but sadly, he was not unreasonable when he said you could starve very easily, in the modern era, writing (locked room) mysteries. But just imagine what we could have had if, at the time, a publisher had decided to fully back and promote an entire series of Thackeray Phin novels.

    Finally, someone else is going to read the splendid “You Have a Friend at Fengrove National.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I very much do want to check out ‘The Locked Room’, you’re right!

      I didn’t get into the actual direction these stories take since you did such a good job already, but the nature of the solution in ‘It Takes your Breath Away’ is just the kind of clever throwaway thing Sladek would have brought in spades to more of this had he ever written it. Between him and Hake Talbot we’ve got a lot of what might have been, but thankfully there’s always more to chase.

      Just trying to finish those stories today before going on holiday tomorrow, so we’ll see if a follow-up post comes. I mean, it will at some point, it’s just a matter of when…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Rather frustratingly, my local Kindle store only has ‘Maps’, and not ‘Invisible Green’ or ‘Black Aura’. 😦 Oh well…


    • Yeah, I’m not aware of the tahckeray Phon novels being Kindlised…or even in print, to be honest. They’re currently pretty rare, to the extent that I just bought both of them again in paperback despite having hardback copies of each. Here’s hoping someone sees sense and brings them out again, hey?


    • Sladek was something special and you did us all a favour in getting this together, for which we can all be very grateful. I don’t get to talk about his SF stuff here because of my chosen focus, but anyone who brings that inventive and brilliantly off-kilter imagination more into the public eye has done a great service. Many thanks, David!


  3. Pingback: #272: John Sladek’s Criminal Year – 1968 and the Fruits Thereof… | The Invisible Event

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