Earlier this year, John Pugmire’s Locked Room International imprint answered the prayers of every impossible crime fan the world over by reprinting the genre reference bible Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., 1991) by Robert Adey, liberally revised by Mystery Scene co-publisher Brian Skupin.
It’s a fascinating work built around a very simple idea: the front section is an alphabetical list of authors and their impossible crime novels and short stories, giving their provenance and a brief (~15-20 words) outline of the problem, and the rear section contains a brief (<50 words) outline of the solution. Thus, anyone who wishes to discover any impossible crime stories by a favourite author is free to browse the front section without spoilers and so be enticed into tracking down these stories to see how they fare…which is, in part, how TomCat and I ended up producing Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums a little while back.
So, now that I have my very own copy, I thought I’d take advantage of my proximity to that wonderful institution the British Library and look up a few more stories listed therein which had caught my eye, and then talk about them on here. My criteria were pretty much “Huh, [author name] wrote an impossible crime short story? I’d be interested to read that!” and “Is [magazine of provenance] in the British Library catalogue?”. So this week we start with possibly not the most obscure story — don’t worry, we’ll get more obscure as the weeks go by — but one that I’ve heard plenty about and never been able to track down: ‘Solved by Inspection’ (1931) by Ronald Knox.
The version of this I read was taken from the Dorothy L. Sayers-edited Great Short Stories of Detection, Mystery, and Horror (Second Series, 1931) published by Gollancz and containing quite some luminaries of the genre including Anthony Berkeley’s ‘The Avenging Chance’ (1929) which would go on to become The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929), plus recently-republished impossible crime stories such as G.D.H. and M. Cole’s ‘In a Telephone Cabinet’ (1928) which recently made it into the Otto Penzler-edited Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014), and Freeman Wills Crofts’ baffling — and not entirely in a good way — ‘The Mystery of the Sleeping Car Express’ (1921), which cropped up in LRI’s other recent gigantic undertaking, The Realm of the Impossible [ss] (2017).
However, let’s get on with the business at hand.
The business at hand concerns “the eccentric millionaire, Herbert Jervison” who, having made his money in newspapers “had pottered about the East, and had got caught up with all that esoteric bilge — talked about Mahatmas and Yogis and things till even the most sanguine of his poor relations wouldn’t ask him to stay”. And so Jervison spent his money setting up the Brotherhood of Light with four “Indian frauds” with the indeterminate aim of achieving some form of higher consciousness — it’s amusing here to see Knox flailing a bit, with references to “vegetarian food” and automatic writing — and at the start of the story he’s a recent corpse, having starved to death while conducting some kind of experiment to “set his soul free from his body”. In and of itself not especially baffling, but for the fact that “he was fully victualed…for a fortnight” — Jervison had locked himself in the old gymnasium of his property with simply a bed and two weeks worth of food for company, and yet here he is, expired from a lack of eating:
It was not a room in which the ordinary man would have sat dow cheerfully to eat a meal; but, what was more important, it was a room in which you could not possibly starve.
It’s a nice problem, and one you feel Paul Halter attempting to echo in his novel The Seven Wonders of Crime (1997, tr. 2005) wherein a man dies of thirst while locked in a greenhouse with a pitcher full of water beside him. Knox’s solution is actually a variation on what I had in mind for Halter’s resolution (maybe that should be the other way round…), but how Halter eventually chose to wind up that particular conundrum was, alas, somewhat disappointing. Monsignor Knox, however, complete with reference to the scriptures, has a very, very smart answer, and I agree with Dan wholeheartedly when he calls “it extremely clever, simple and terrifically dark. One that lingers in the mind for some time”. Enough to make you rethink your plans of running a mystical cult after making your fortune and then deciding to separate the soul and body as part of some experiment to achieve transcendental awareness, at any rate. Which, er, now I think about it probably isn’t on everyone’s bucket list…
The story us so good, in fact, that its exclusion from more recent, visible collections like those mentioned above — plus the British Library’s own Miraculous Mysteries (2017), the two Mike Ashley-edited Mammoth Books (2000 and 2006), and even David Stuart Davies’, ahem, contribution to the ranks — seem a bit odd. Sure, it’s not really fair play, but that’s hardly counted against something in the past (or present), and it displays the utilisation of the professional detective admirably: Miles Bredon’s role as investigator for the superbly-named Indescribable Insurance Company casts this in a suitably humorous and yet era-appropriate light, and there’s even scope for some moral philosophy on the grounds of whether “a man who starves himself without meaning to kill himself” qualifies as having committed suicide. For this to linger relatively unappreciated while the likes of — urf — ‘The Sands of Thyme’ (1954) by Michael Innes is allowed to stink up fully two of those collections is…well, a little weird. Sure, it may be a rights thing, but given the availability of Knox’s novels in ebook format from The Murder Room that seems unlikely.
“I’m sure you have a theory, though…”
Part of me wonders if the racial attitudes on display might cause modern editors to shrink from it in horror. Be it Bredon’s expression of surprise…
“Hullo, there’s a black man on the platform.”
…as his train pulls into the station at Yewbury, or the favourably-captured Dr. Mayhew — who “seemed incapable of suspicion and radiated hospitality” — confiding in Bredon on the way to the crime scene:
“Hope these niggers’ll clear out after this…lowering his voice for fear the driver [the “black man on the platform”] should overhear him. “The neighbours don’t like ’em and that’s a fact”.
…it’s easy to see modern minds shying away from such language, especially from the mouths of ostensible ‘good guy’ characters. And while I’d never suggest that the word ‘nigger’ should ever be taken lightly and have come down fully in favour of preserving original references to such ignorant attitudes, it would be a shame if no-one could find away around this to enable the story to be more widely anthologised. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s never any suggestion that it’s purely on account of race that “the neighbours don’t like ’em” — the notion of a bunch of fakirs setting up some weird cult of transcendence next door has put the wind up many a GAD neighbour without the colour of the participants’ skin ever coming into it (Exhibit A, m’lud) — and so replacing the offensive term with something akin to ‘fakir’ (hell, you can even have that, editors of the future) would get around solidly 90% of the issues people may choose to make of it.
Anyway, we have veered from the subject. While its problematic historical heritage will undoubtedly be a cause of discussion for some, taken for its intent — to provide and resolve a baffling circumstance in as efficient and clever a manner as possible — it’s a triumph. I certainly enjoyed this a lot more than The Footsteps at the Lock (1928), the only Full Knox I’ve attempted to date, and after the intense dullness of his chapter in The Floating Admiral (1931) I suspect Father Ronald may be better suited to the short form. Adey lists no more impossibilities, but this doesn’t mean I’ll stop here: if I can track down a collection of Knox’s shorter writings, it will definitely feature on this blog at some point.
Next week, then, something from the road less travelled…