The work of Arthur Porges in the field of impossible and baffling crimes carries a salutary lesson: do not mess with mathematicians.
Porges, see, was a qualified Maths teacher before turning to writing in a vast swathe of genres, and through the continued excellent work of Richard Simms we’ve been treated to an authoritative collection of anthologies over recent years. I can’t deny that my chief interest in Porges is, of course, the crime stories featuring consultants Cyriack Skinner Grey, Joel Hoffman, and now Ulysses Price Middlebie, because when Porges turns his eye to the matter of a crime that confounds the servants of law and order what he cooks up is always pleasingly compact, superbly written, and very entertaining, and frequently ingeniously smart and deviously original into the bargain.
As Christian has already pointed out (see the link below his his review) there’s an element of formula to Porges’ work where these consultants are concerned, but from story to story there’s so much variation in his methods — from obscure scientific principles to forgotten historical practices — that I’m always delighted to be freed up to concentrate on what I’m being told, because nine times out of ten Porges is selling you something you have no chance of calling, and on eight of those nine occasions it’s a delight to be surprised by the answers to his apparently insoluble riddles. Simplifying that delivery, rather than dressing it in the emperor’s new clothes of psychological motivations or weirdly long prologues just so someone can sit down and get to the point…yeah, I’m more than happy with that.
And so to These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie, published in 2018, in which eleven conundrums — maybe five of them impossible, depending on how you view these things — are brought to ex-lecturer in the Philosophy of Science Middlebie’s door by one-time pupil Detective Sergeant Black. While I feel Porges is perhaps more convinced of the applied logic and rigour in the philosophy of science than I am — and, hey, I say that as a huge fan of the field — it’s always a joy to watch someone figure out the sorts of original problems we get here. Especially as some of them are absolute diamonds.
Title story ‘These Daisies Told’ (1962) introduces Middlebie, Detective Sergeant Black, and the vanishing of a dead body in fairly short order, and given that the suspect hasn’t left his ranch, the ground in and surrounding said ranch is undisturbed, and there’s nowhere unsearched it’s a pretty decent impossibility. Mainly the story exists for that wonderfully obscure knowledge that so marks out Porges’ tales, though, and this is probably among the most gently brilliant he wrote. Is it fair? Not on your life. Is it creative? Very, and it deserves kudos for the insight to devise not just this form of hiding but also that clue to untangle it all. The further I got from the solution here the more I appreciated its subtlety.
If hired killer Joe Vasta didn’t feel obliged to write letters to his victims detailing his intent to kill them at a particular time, ‘The Unguarded Path’ (1963) would play out very differently. As it is, Franklin Devoe, under 24-hour watch in his fortress of a house and guarded up the wazoo, is going to be killed unless Middlebie can figure out how an assassin can strike when their victim is apparently beyond reach. This is similar in principle to a novel from some 20 years previous (and, in fact, another Porges short), and as such I had an inkling where things were going, but the rendering of the problem is tidy, and the solution intriguing for how obvious it seems in retrospect.
The first inevitable duff comes with ‘The Missing Bow’ (1963), in which a man is arrested for shooting a (most deserving) victim with an arrow…and yet, despite no time or place to hide anything he has no bow on him and there’s no evidence of how the arrow was otherwise projected with the necessary force. The ending here is notable for how diverges from Porges’ usual tone, but the solution, while no doubt smart, feels a little cheap. Still, I’m a fan of my genius amateur detective having to do some research rather than falling back on his infallible hypermnesia to pluck the answer out of nowhere, so that helps soften the blow somewhat.
The essential trick at the heart of ‘Small, Round Man from Texas’ (1964) — in which a Flambeau-esque French master of disguise and cunning outwits the police in the theft of some valuable jewels — is awesome. Do I believe it would work? Not for a second; the man deserves to get away if the people hunting him are going to be that dim. I love the chutzpah of it, though, and applaud Porges’ willingness to go so hilariously pulpy in his search for ingenuity. To see this same concept taken to even wilder extremes, you should read The Day After Tomorrow (1994) by Allan Folsom, and if you’re not on board with this then, heavens, maybe Porges isn’t your cup of arsenic.
“Sounds very promising.”
I also don’t believe ‘Blood Will Tell’ (1964). Not that it wouldn’t work — no doubt, if you want to get a blood sample from a man who is using the Fifth Amendment to protect himself from giving a blood sample since it might prove him guilty of murder, this is the way to do it — but could you then stand up in court and admit it? And have it accepted without question? A shame, because it starts out as a sort of companion piece to the same year’s ‘The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby’ (1964) by Stanley Ellin (which at least shows that 1964 was a boon year for multiple uxoricide) and could do with a sting to match that tale.
And, talking of cups of arsenic, we have a man poisoned by his coffee in a bolted cabin with a nailed shut window in ‘Coffee Break’ (1964), which is as tidy a locked room problem as I’ve yet encountered. The steaming coffee would imply he’s only been dead a matter of moments, but how could he have been killed by the man who left some 30 minutes previously? Pleasingly, this also plays fair enough in one regard for you to solve it — smugface, I did — and is to be commended for how tightly it packs such a clever and simple scheme into so few words. Up there with Porges’ own ‘No Killer Has Wings’ (1961) for short, nifty murder puzzles.
Another impossible vanishing and another dud in ‘A Model Crime’ (1964), wherein highly valuable electronics are being stolen from their place of manufacture despite hugely stringent security measures. I suppose the banality of the solution is a great lesson for how setups can be made baffling and then have startlingly simple solutions — a concept of which I am a fan — but it comes so out of nowhere that you barely realise that’s the answer before the whole thing stops. Cleverly manages that political speech thing of apparently telling you everything but shading away from the final detail, then simply drops the sting from a great height and runs. Entertaining for some, I’m not among them.
There’s a gloriously Chestertonian paradox at the heart of ‘To Barbecue a White Elephant’ (1964), and no doubt Father Brown would have had a great time once the answer of how a man can burn down his house when no-one’s been near it for six week’s and he’s on the other side of the planet at the time of the fire is revealed. Porges is more process-driven, however, and while I don’t mind that it does feel like a slightly missed opportunity. Also, the information he’s given isn’t correct and so he arrives at his solution mainly because it’s the answer Porges wants and not because it fits what he’s been told. Still, the lode of potential here is huge, and no doubt someone has scavenged it to more rewarding ends elsewhere.
“So, are there any leftovers from that barbecue…?”
‘The Puny Giant’ (1964) is great. That a sixteen year-old boy has battered his adoptive mother to death is almost accepted fact, but for the matter of the masonry with which she was beaten being far too large and heavy for any ordinary man to wield. Forget pulleys dropping it from a great height, too, since repeated, fast strikes are what the forensic evidence detects. Not only are the method and the manner of discovery superb, the way the motive plays in and the kicker of a final line are weighed and judged to perfection. Probably my favourite story of the lot, and a story that should be far better known (which, hey is true of all Porges’ Grey/Hoffman/Middlebie output).
There’s again an element of justice done in ‘The Symmetrical Murder’ (1964), when a “cancer quack” doctor whose patients have suffered and died from the multiple fraudulent elixirs he fed them at great cost is found hit on the head on his balcony. No evidence exists of anything being thrown or dropped on him, there’s nothing to be found in the flats above or below, and no sign of anything having struck him and fallen to the ground. A beautifully simple solution results — albeit rather too late to qualify as clewing — and the GAD-esque prospect of the killer being allowed to get away with it is another lovely touch. Flawed, then, but lovely in most of the right ways.
An eleven year gap sees Middlebie and Black pick up in ‘Fire for Peace’ (1975) as if there was no hiatus: incendiary devices are being found in the grounds of a warehouse making classified toxin, and the police and FBI are again baffled. The open ground, security patrols, and ceaseless vigilance make it especially confounding, and the historical element to Middlebie’s solution is again a great one for the detective as researcher. Arguably this is ‘A Model Crime’ in reverse, and it works better for me because of how the “natural” explanation is part of a larger pre-existing set of circumstances that Porges can’t simply fudge at the last minute. Middlebie may be older — and he may not, there’s no sense of chronology — but his final case finds him undimmed.
To conclude, there’s nothing in the delivery of these stories that will surprise anyone who has read another Porges detection collection, but the use of the principles is first rate as always, and it’s wonderful to have these collected and made available as evidence of someone taking the impossible crime seriously well past the point where the puzzle plot’s lustre had worn off. Porges was undoubtedly one of the specialist of the short for of puzzle mystery, and his reputation would be equally as strong had he published these thirty years earlier during the genre’s heyday. Full credit to Simms for his tireless work in bringing these to our attention, too; it’s only to be hoped that the remaining impossible crime stories listed in Adey end up in a collection at some point…and maybe the Stately Homes collection will get a reprint, too, eh?
Christian @ Mysteries, Short and Sweet: The type of stories Porges writes is the kind that generally suits me to a T. His tales are very focused on providing a clear problem, with a solution that’s just as clear. The characterisation is almost non-existent and what there is is just there to provide some context. It’s probably as far from a modern “mystery” as you can come while still remaining in the genre.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: On a whole, These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie proved to be an excellent collection of short stories and showed Porges was a genuine maverick when it came to dreaming up miraculous crimes with often very original explanations. Something that’s exemplified by such stories as “The Unguarded Path” and “Coffee Break.”