‘The Three Widows’ concerns the apparently impossible poisoning of a step-matriarch who stands in the way of her two step-daughters accessing their dead father’s fortune (“Penelope, to whom money was nothing, and Lyra, to whom money was everything, consequently each required large amounts of it.”). The thankfully neat problem is summed up by Ellery with a delightful adroitness:
“You’ve bought your own food. You’ve done your own cooking in this room and you’ve eaten here alone. … Further, you tell me you’ve purchased new dishes, have kept them here, and you and you alone have been handling them. … How then was the poison administered?”
‘Double Your Money’ would at first appear to be about the apparent fiscal acuity of Theodore F. Grooss, who is able without fail to make a 100% return on any financial investment laid in his hands. However, upon being confronted by Queen Sr. and Jr., Grooss stages an impossible disappearance from a room with only two exits: “the doorway to that outer office where Inspector Queen and I were waiting for him, and the window there overlooking Amsterdam avenue”. Simple enough — he must have gone out the window. Aaah, Watson, you see but you do not observe: the window was, of course, locked on the inside…
What’s Good About Them?
They’re brief! Good, sweet, judicious Mercy, these are the sort of one-two punch stories that Leo Bruce produced for the Evening Standard, or can be found in Edmund Crispin’s shorter works. Each is clearly the result of a single idea, and the story is appropriately written to fit that idea, with no extraneous maundering or muddled profligacy of verbose scenery. By the time the setup has tantalised you with possibilities, the solution is upon you, and Dannay and Lee’s less than meritorious attempts at the impossible crime are far more palatable in this quickfire format.
Not allowing themselves too much background or an excess of attempted verisimilitude — and it seemed to me that the more they wrote the less believable it all became — they’re forced into actual good writing. Who knew they had it in them? The pithiness here pays off perfectly: stepmother Mrs. Hood II, the third widow, being described as “a cathedral-like lady of great force of character” or the simplicity of the statement that the conundrum here was “the kind of problem which Ellery’s thinking apparatus, against all the protests of his body, cannot let alone”: gorgeous. That he makes a mistake in this first story, too, and we’re not subjected to any agonising or gnashing of teeth just to pad out a word count. Ah, bliss!
And the second, slightly longer, tale is also not without its own sly wit: removing from the record the epithet by which Ellery refers to the vanishing “Wizard of Amsterdam Avenue”, or the danger of the man’s apparent dishonesty lightly conveyed by the range of people crowding outside his office when the Queens call on him — abrogated are the memories of hideous prolixity of ‘The Dauphin’s Doll’ and it’s wonderful to see: setup, problem, execution, solution follow in quick succession, and it’s like Dannay and Lee finally cracked the short story by working out how many words an idea will support.
What’s Bad About Them?
Well, they’re not exactly super-complicated, but to my way of thinking it’s a small price to pay given the improvement in craft these represent. After two weeks of complaining, I’m going to vouchsafe no greater difficulty than that.
How Are the Impossibilities?
The first doesn’t quite make sense — given what happens, and how it plays out, it would make more sense for things to be played in an entirely different way by a particular person — but then impossible poisonings are very difficult to get right (hell, why do you think I haven’t written up my impossible poisoning short story? It’s such a good idea, but, man lining up those figurative, narrative ducks…). Beyond Carr’s The Red Widow Murders (1935) has there actually been a brilliant deployment of the poison in an impossible crime story? And, yes, as soon as I post this I’ll think of eleven of them…
The second is smart, at least makes some sense in having been anticipated in the narrative itself. Sure, neither of them offers anything new to the genre, and you’ll spot the culprits easily, but that’s less of a problem for me when it’s done in four minutes of reading against 30-odd. Besides, most of Clayton Rawson’s short stories are pretty easy to solve — steady now, I said most — and are considered classics today, so there’s no shame in writing a brief and enjoyable story that’s easy to play along with. It is supposed to be entertainment, after all.
It’s true that we have less in the way of incidental contemporary details in ‘The Three Widows’ than elsewhere, and you’re not picking it up for its fascinating social milieu or the sidelong look they provide at the mores of Upper East Side living in the early 1950s. In reality, it could be taking place anywhere between about 1840 and 1967, but that’s hardly a fault of the story and more a comment on the constant nature of this sort of plot — it was used a good many times for a reason, as it admits much filigreed additions to bend it to any purpose. Here we’re just stripped of all that, and for the better.
However, ‘Double Your Money’ does tease a beautifully succinct summation of an economy not at its strongest, providing amply sufficient background for the motivations and reasoning of those who are at risk from such potential chicanery, implicitly motivating the Queens to get involved. This is, for my (ahem) money, the best written of the four stories thus far encountered this month, feeling very much like the first time the authors are trusting their audience to pick up on the details without feeling the need to repeat and rephrase and rehash every little detail, dictum, and development.
Well, this is nice, isn’t it? Not sure now if I’m keen to get to next week’s story or if I want to bask in this enjoyment for a bit longer…