#509: Fair-Play/Cipher – The Baffle Book (1930) by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay [ed. F. Tennyson Jesse] Problems 1 to 7

Baffle Book. The

You like puzzles, you like detective fiction, so you’d love a puzzle book about detective fiction.  Lo, I give you The Baffle Book — originally running to at least three volumes from what I can ascertain, and here boasting two authors and an editor for reasons that will soon become clear.

Beginning with an introduction in which F. Tennyson Jesse explains how she has simply translated the problems posed by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay into British English from their original — and, one must suppose, therefore intractable — American parlance under which these problems were initially published in 1928, we’re put in the picture from word one:

The Baffle Book is not a collection of short stories.  It is a parlour game, and a very good game, too.

Essentially, the idea is that characters may act inconsistently in a normal narrative, and so Wren and McKay have written problems which “are reduced to the mechanics, or, if you prefer the more swagger terms, the mathematics, of detection.  The game is stark and simple, but such as it is, is a good game, and these authors observe the most important rule of it — they play fairly”.

We then get an introduction from Wren and McKay in which they lay out the principle of the book:

Here are the evidences of the crime.  These are the facts established by the police.  What do you observe?  Which are the tell-tale clues?  What do you deduce? … The clues to the solution of the mystery are always there; it is for the reader to see them in their significance and to deduce from them in the light of the general situation.

The essence of these two sections is to drive home how very definite you can be that the answers can only be reached by logical application of the facts as stated.  Clearly inspired by the prevailing detective fiction trend of the time, this is a very intriguing prospect of how the rules of declaration might be observed.  It’s not really any different to logical thinking or other puzzles in this key regard — let us not pretend for a second that any such conundrum can be solved without sufficient observation of information such as the rules permit — but the fact that the time has been taken to extend the principle to the commission of various crime-related mysteries is very pleasing.  And it may turn out that the later, longer, and presumably more complex puzzles in this collection do indeed fulfil the promise above, but this opening quarter doesn’t quite reach those heights.  At times, they don’t even get off the ground to begin with.

four-little-chow-chow-puppies-portrait-waldek-dabrowski

“Would you care to qualify that statement?”

A quick note on the format before we get going: these puzzles are presented as narratives of the acts as known at the time of the crime’s investigation but prior to the solution (“About two-thirds of the way down, a patch of bright red in the bushes at the south side of the road caught his eye, and on approaching he was appalled to discover the body of a young woman clothed in a flimsy silk dress of brilliant red.”).  Each narrative then ends with between one and six questions motivated by the foregoing, with a “credit” score attached to each answer — each problem is, in the end, worth ten credits, so that across all 28 problems the attentive detective could theoretically amass some 280 cedits…and “theoretically” is as close as you’ll get to that total, given how hilariously out of reach some of the answers in this first stretch prove to be.

The opener, ‘Who Murdered Ellington Breese?’ isn’t a bad start, with an elderly man “murdered by poison gas generated in his bedroom during the night” — get your fart jokes in now — and suspicion falling on Adam Boardman, confidential secretary to the wealthy old blighter, and Breese Walters, nephew of the same.  Boardman had been working with his employer until leaving the house on the verge of midnight, and Breese returned at perhaps 2.30 am and went to bed…yet in the morning the body is found, and one of these two clearly had ample opportunity to do the deed undetected.

The key clue here is, however, spurious in its presentation — the addition of the word “only” would have helped matters significantly — and I can’t actually see anyone hanging because of it.  It’s also weird how the answers (provided upside down in the back of the book, a lovely touch) seek to introduce the human element of motive and drama when the focus up-front was very squarely on how these things can be misrepresented in narrative fiction.  Being told “X confessed when confronted with this, and broke down and was all regretful and stuff and then said how they’d done it because of Y and would have gotten away with it but for those meddling clues” is…odd, to put it mildly, though shows how firmly entrenched such expectations were.

I can’t dress up ‘The Evidence on the Japanned Box’ any more than this: you’re told a story, told how a fingerprint was found, and then shown that fingerprint and six others with which to match it.  It would make more sense if this were the first problem in the book, seeing as it’s really just a matching exercise and requires no deduction at all, and at initial glance I was convinced it had to be cleverer than it first appeared  (YOU WILL BE BAFFLED is one of the headings in Wren and McKay’s introduction).  But, no.  Overlook the fact that the presence of a fingerprint proves only that someone touched something, not that they’re necessarily the thief, and simply point to the one that’s the same.

Three-parter ‘The Elevated Transit Mystery’ is actually pretty good, but suffers from being trisected in order to space out the deductions.  Let us not forget, however, that the late 1920s were still birthing the precise form of logical detection that this book was seeking to ape — the rules were probably understood, if not universally observed — and as such it’s probably helpful that you’re talked through in an almost Socratic vein the various stages of deduction that are necessary to arrive at the answer that is sought.  It’s scrupulously fair, even if you do feel like Homer Simpson being coached on his new identity once enrolled on the Witness Protection Program, and this is perhaps the first real exploration of rigour the collection manages.

Gordon’s beer, though, doesn’t the answer section ever take a dark turn.  The guilty parties are tracked down, evidence conveniently found on them that definitely links them to the crime, and then it’s casually thrown in that “both broke under the third degree and confessed to the robbery and murder”.  Y’know how it is: be talked through a slow and mildly-rigorous process of detection and logical reasoning to deduce the nature of a crime, and then picture the two men who were arrested being beaten to a pulp so that they break down and beg for a respite.  It’s not all darkness and bad news, however:  “Captain Darnforth was promoted and the murderers were electrocuted”.  Holy cow, that’s a calm afterthought; was this book written by a sociopath?

Okay, saddle up for some bullshit: ‘The Problem of the Forger’s Torn Note’ is next.  And here’s the clue you are presented with, a torn note taken from a member of a gang:

Torn Note

You’re told merely that this was recovered from a criminal in Limehouse (in East London, so possibly this is one of those de-Americanised tales), and from looking at the above detectives were able to “deduce the time and place of what proved to be a meeting of the gang”.  Because, of course, there’s only one combination of words that could possibly fit in those spaces.  It could in no way say

Bert, hope you enjoy
the sunglasses.  I’m bankrupt and
would like introductions.

That there’s even the mildest hint of being able to uniquely “deduce” an “answer” from this is laughable, and a far better time can be had coming up with totally harmless notes that reveal nothing about the gang at all.  Sure, the original version may not have been couched in such terms, but this version is.

Perhaps the best and fairest of these opening puzzles is ‘The Sandy Peninsula Footprint Mystery’, in which footprints in the, er, sand along a, umh, peninsula tell the story of events that result in the corpse of Revington Strang.  The answers required appear at first to veer far too heavily into specifics, but with the benefit of a little reflection it’s not all the hogwash it might seem (although those footprints down to the shoreline do, let’s face it, suggest and alternative explanation…).  What is frustrating, though is that the map provided in this Hogarth Press paperback edition is miniscule, meaning a lot of the notations are difficult to read, testing the patience of this reader to extremes.  Stick with it, though, or find a better version of the map, because it’s great fun, and possibly the first real detective work you’re required to do.

The sixth poser, ‘The Case of the Stolen Van Dyck’, again shows up the problematical nature of this sort of riddle-answer setup as exposed in ‘Torn Note’.  A ransom note is replicated in part, and the handwriting of three suspects also given — match the note with the sample and you’re set.  Except, of course, the ransom note appears to be written in a disguised hand, so other means must be employed.  And then, well, the answer is that the handwriting is person X despite it being acknowledged that the handwriting also appears similar to persons Y and Z…but, yeah, it’s person X.  Because we say it is.  Thanks very much for coming.

Is it me, or are there deliberate shades of Crippen in the claim the solution makes that the denouement to the case “involved what is probably the first criminal catch effected jointly by aeroplane and radio”?  Given the era this was written, there’s an understandable breathlessness in the telling of the pursuit and capture of the criminals, making Wren and McKay out as perhaps frustrated writers who wished to enliven their small scheme with a bit more human interest, but who were unable to maintain such levels of engagement for the duration of a longer narrative.  Jesse herself would write several short stories, I’m aware, and I suppose the Frankenstein’d nature of these adapted tales makes it difficult to judge who did what without reference to the originals, but the excess detail in these solutions does feel oddly out of place as we progress.

Finally for now, a case that irritated me beyond all possible reason in ‘The Wayside Mystery’.  Tyre tracks along a muddy road run past a strangled body found hurled into the bushes, and while some of the points raised are so basic they’re not even in the Armchair Detection 101 Handbook — dew on the body means it’s been there since before dawn, etc — it becomes frustrating in how so many assumptions are simply stated as fact, when such assumptions are simply examples of the lazy reasoning that you’d imagine such an exercise as this would be keen to exploit (yes, I’m over-thinking this — at what point did I give you the impression I had a life?).  We’ll overlook the fact that you’re supposed to identify the tyres from a sketch of the tread marks in the mud (common knowledge in 1928, apparently…) and instead look at my main gripe.

One question concerns the direction the car was travelling, to be deduced from the fact that the bushes are bent in a certain direction and the skirt the deceased is wearing is relatively smooth.  But, like, you can throw a body backwards out of a car travelling in the other direction and have exactly the same result.

Body thrown from car

Behold my science!

You’re also supposed to know that the body was thrown while the car was in motion, but I don’t see how.  The tyre tracks appear continuous, but there’s no reason the car couldn’t have stopped, the body been thrown out, and then the car driven on again along the same line as before…right?  Would that look any different?  Both of these feel like the deductions Japp would make before Jeffrey Blackburn — yes, I know I’m mixing up my series, it’s an intentional conceit to highlight the commutativity of such an occurrence throughout all hues and stripes of GAD — lit a cigaret and calmly pointed out the error-strewn path he’d managed to wander down.  For once, my tendency to over-analyse hasn’t paid off, and I’m not happy about it!

~

And so The Baffle Book is off to a shaky start and finds itself on probation at an early stage.  The undertaking is entertaining enough, but the whole point and purpose in GAD of giving specific clues and then unfurling a specific answer is watching the retrospective inevitability of those pointers reverberate all the way down through the conclusions drawn.  Here it’s frequently an exercise in “No, hang on a minute…” and so not the comparative experience I’d hoped it might be.  As a litmus test on the detective puzzle it’s not a great pitch, but I imagine I shall return to the remaining problems peridocially, and the links below will get filled in as I go.  Heaven knows when I’ll tackle the next bunch, but watch this space!

Part One: Problems 1 to 7
Part Two: Problems 8 to 14
Part Three: Problems 15 to 21
Part Four: Problems 22 to 28

9 thoughts on “#509: Fair-Play/Cipher – The Baffle Book (1930) by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay [ed. F. Tennyson Jesse] Problems 1 to 7

  1. Fascinating look at an obscure piece of work, I’ve also loved these sorts of puzzle books but versions for much more adult readers are hard to come by, I’ll pick this up asap!

    And a quick fun fact; In Doug Greene’s biography of Carr, he mentions how The Sandy Peninsula Mystery may have contributed to one of his early Merrivale novels! Figuring out that title, is simply now simply common guesswork 😉

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    • Now that is a fascinating idea — not least because I’m pretty sure I know which book it would be and I can sort of see where Greene is coming from.

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  2. There were three volumes of the Baffle Book. The original US edition has 30 problems in the first volume. I wonder which ones are missing from your reprint. I have all three of them in their original editions, but never once opened any of them. HA! I’m not sure where any of them are — in a box buried somewhere in the “book warehouse” that is slowly transforming back into my second bedroom for guests. (We can actually get to the windows now, but still no room to put up the bed.) If i knew exactly where they were I’d check the table of content to find out which two puzzles you don’t have in your volume. Wren & McKay wrote three more of these for the Mystery League imprint as part of a giveaway/promotional contest. But the solution to the third puzzle never appeared because the imprint went bankrupt and the final two books were never published.

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    • Well, since you asked, the 28 problems in this edition are:

      1. Who Murdered Elling Breese?
      2. The Evidence of the japanned Box
      3. The Elevated Transit Mystery [3 parts]
      4. The Problem of the Forger’s Torn Note
      5. The Sandy Peninsula Footprint Mystery
      6. The Case of the Stolen Van Dyck
      7. The Wayside Mystery
      8. The Death Threat Clue
      9. The Sculptor’s Studio Mystery
      10. The Beals-Bligh Anonymous Letters
      11. Messer Bellini’s Report to the Doge
      12. The Mystery of the Murdered Physician
      13. The Affair of the French Spy
      14. The Shooting of “Whisper” Malloy
      15. The Problem of Napoleon’s Signature
      16. The Great Imperial Bank Robbery
      17. The Problem at the Abandoned Bungalow
      18. The Warfield-Cobham Jewel Robbery
      19. The La Joya River Homicide
      20. The Duvenany Kidnapping Case
      21. The Lighthouse Tragedy at Dead Man’s Harbour
      22. Who Murdered Algernon Ashe?
      23. Edouard Trimpi’s Perplexing Dispatch
      24. The Club Car Mystery at Syracuse
      25. The Mystery of Haji Lal Deb
      26. The Strange Case of the Promissory Note
      27. The Death of Barnabas Frobisher
      28. The Huppenheimer Museum Robbery

      There’s always a chance some of them have been retitled, of course — though not all of them, since “homicide” seems to me a peculiarly American term, where we Brits would say “murder”, and Syracuse is, I believe, a suburb of New York.

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  3. I’ve never read this one, JJ, but I found Part II in an old used bookstore, and it’s a lot of fun—some of the puzzles are significantly better than the ones you describe here. The best five-minute-mystery/solve-’em-yourself puzzle books I’ve read, though, were John Sladek’s The Book of Clues (’84), which has this absolutely brilliant story about a Saudi prince, and Hy Conrad’s Historical Whodunits (2005), which is so much better than it had any right to be.

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    • I have that Sladek book — thanks for reminding me! When Rich was still keeping Past Offences ticking over he’d post a five-minute mystery from one of those sorts of books as a “challenge to the readers” sort of thing, as it was always good fun watching we mystery buffs scramble to defend the various different theories we’d come out with.

      |I’m hoping these improve, but it’s always interesting to pick apart something that doesn’t work as well (that “body thrown from the car” thing really annoys me…).

      A quick online search shows that two volumes of this without Jesse’s involvement — The Baffle Book and The Baffle Book Strikes Again — were reprinted about ten years ago, so it turns out it may be possible to compare these with their original versions. But I shall leave that to someone else 🙂

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      • ’Course!

        Actually, The Baffle Book Strikes Again is the one I have… It’s fairly good. There’s one story about a lighthouse keeper whose premise I keep wanting to rework into a larger mystery.

        The Sladek book is really good.

        The Conrad book is weird because it seems like a generic 5 min. mystery one, but Conrad’s plotting is a million times more complex than, say, Donald Westlake’s, or even some of Sladek’s (!). It really surprised me, in a good way—and he based several of the plots on GAD mystery writers, so there’s a Christiean story, a Carrian story, a Queenian story, etc.

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  4. I assume you’re running through a reprint of the first volume? I ask this because I didn’t know there were three volumes. I have owned what you’re describing here for a very long time. It’s a grubby first edition (U.S. – where you say “Forger” my book says “Bandit.”) I haven’t taken it down from the shelf for decades – not until tonight. What I can tell you, Mr. Critic, is that it seems to me that this was a lot of fun at the time I first got it. I’ve forgotten every bit of it, so I guess I could go through and play again. But I’m one who doesn’t love mysteries “reduced to the mechanics,” even more so now than when I was a kid. Try reading those Dennis Wheatley murder dossiers!! I own them all, and they’re less fun than you might think!

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    • I’m running through the edition shown at the top of the post — the Hogarth Press paperback edition from 1984, that’s a scan of my copy of the book. Since it would seem the first two volumes of this from Wren and McKay contain 15 problems each (right…?) this is clearly a combination of selections from at least those first two, I’m assuming.

      if anything, reducing these problems to the “mathematics of detection” shows that the mathematics of detection is a) an oxymoron, since there’s still so much scope for interpretation (anathema in mathematics, let me assure you), and b) not that appealing for an author given the quantity of emotional baggage piled into the solutions. The effort in producing these is commendable, but there’s a reason people still talk about novels from this era while this remains largely forgotten, I feel.

      Good work on owning those murder dossiers, too. I remember John Curran at Bodies last year talking about how vanishingly rare and valuable they were, so at least that’s your retirement sorted…

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