I recently read, with no large amount of pleasure, Evidence in Blue (1938) by E. Charles Vivian. However, I’m not a man to write someone off after one bad book. So the presence of a locked room story by Vivian in the Martin Edwards-edited collection of such impossibilities Miraculous Mysteries (2017) from the British Library Crime Classics series was a chance to give him another go.
The story in question is ‘Locked In’ (1939) and features Superintendent Wadden and Detective Inspector Head from that previous novel. In essence, they are called to a country house where The Squire has done gone shot hisself in the head, his body discovered alongside the gun in a room on the top floor with the door locked from the inside and the window similarly sealed. A little moment of self-awareness sees Head immediately suspect the first person into the room (entry obtained by smashing the window, having seen the body inside), but first suicide must be excepted and then murder and method proven.
It is not a good story. In fact, when you take in its vintage — a year after Carr’s The Judas Window (1938) and Rawson’s Death froma Top Hat (1938), the same year as The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) — it’s really rather bad indeed. The eventual solution belongs in something from the 1880s, and somewhat dampens my enthusiasm for the sole impossible crime novel Vivian wrote that Edwards mentions in his introduction to the story. I’ll still not write Vivian off — though I’m less likely to jump at anything else he wrote — but he does seem to be a touch limited in his scope on these two occasions. If the novel mentioned up top is waaaaay too long, the story here is too slight…and, in part, that may be part of the problem.
See, I think this setup is bloody hard to do well. Not just shooting someone in a locked room — excellent examples inevitably exist, with ‘Duel of Shadows’ (1934) by Vincent Cornier and, oh, I don’t know, ‘The Dream’ (1932) by Agatha Christie springing to mind — but the fact that everything is so very, very sealed and the gun has to be in the room as well complicates matters somewhat. The wound is determined to be immediately fatal, so it’s not as if he could have been shot elsewhere and barricaded himself in for his own safety, or been shot in the room and thrown his killer out and similarly locked himself away…the scope is immediately reduced. I’ve spoken about interesting impossibilities before, and I think the main difficulty Vivian sets himself here is that it’s an archetypal locked room trying to be very fair in its presentation (the gun is the gun that shot him, he was shot in the room, there is no other access beyond the door and the window) and that is extremely hard to do well without a large degree of narrative chutzpah…something I fear Vivian lacks.
Take, for instance, Leonardo’s Law (1978) by Warren B. Murphy. I shall not spoil it here, it’s too good a book for that, but the essential trick is something that could easily be worked in this brief a space and result in the same effect…but be a damn sight more creative and memorable for it. Equally, the impossible shooting halfway through The House That Kills (1932) by Noel Vindry is a perfect example of how to set up, motivate, execute, and explain an impossibility of this ilk in very little space and time. I deliberately choose two examples of locked room shootings that could be written in short story form because it seems only fair to compare like with like. Yes, Carr’s The Hollow Man (1935) or Alice Arisugawa’s The Moai Island Puzzle (1989) admit similarly impossible shootings with no lack of élan, but also necessitate a lot more scope in their narratives to cover the events that allow and explain them. In short, to achieve the sort of effect Vivian is going for, you need to be shameless in what you’re going to attempt. Vivian is simply taking an easy way out with his solution, and it’s very disappointing, but I still think he deserves some respect for trying.
If you’re going to preclude the credulity of the victim required for the similar murder in The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) — another “shooting with the weapon in the room” that could possibly be made to work in short form — or get around the presence of the weapon via method used in Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe then you’ve straight away made your setup far harder than most of the impossible shootings you’d care to name actually do. Sure, they appear impossible in spite, and sometimes because, of the situations surrounding them, but that’s where the clever misdirection comes in. They key to an effective impossible crime is to make any possible commission beyond consideration while in fact leaving a metaphorical window open. Indeed, I have a theory that shootings lend themselves very poorly to this overall and that most of the great examples instead invoke knoves as their weapon of choice. but having recently learned the peril of veering off-topic mid-post I’ll perhaps leave that for a future reflection.
Vivian’s difficulty, then, is that he lacks the legerity to make the problem seem anything other than exactly what it is, and as soon as that happens you limit your options to a fatal degree, something that will anathematise you within the hallowed halls of the Grandest Game in the World. One wonders if Vivian is spiritual kin to Walter S. Masterman in utilising plotting concepts from some 50 years prior, because both are capable of acute and incisive phrasing but find themselves adrift in the limited examples I’ve read when it comes to offering something new in this field. But, as I say, I’m still reluctant to write Vivian off, and if the British Library republish his vanishing footprints novel Accessory After (1934) I’ll snap it up and perhaps then come to some judgement on the man and his writing.