Something a little different this week, potential threats of legal action notwithstanding.
Nigel Morland is a name that crops up a lot in my researches around potential classic crime fiction, even if “Nigel Morland” is not necessarily the name that crops up — he wrote rather prolifically under that handle alongside pseudonyms as diverse as Mary Dane, John Donavan, Norman Forrest, Roger Garnett, Neal Shepherd, and Vincent McCall. As of yet I’ve not tried any of his novels, but seeing him listed in Locked Room Murders (1992) I picked two short stories from a collection with the intriguing title 26 Three Minute Thrillers! (1946) and dove in.
In short, these are one-page, 500-word stories featuring the amateur sleuth Mrs. Pym who enjoys some success in the opening tale and is then drafted in to help with some baffling crimes when the police get into trouble (so, your classic AD, then). And, in the grand style of Encyclopedia Brown — er, who these predate, so pick a less anachronistic example, like The Baffle Book (1930), which wouldn’t occur to me — after the problem is presented to the reader you’re told that the answer is in the back and to think it over, try to deduce the answer, and then turn to the back to see how wrong you were.
Because, you will be wrong. Not on account of the brilliance with which Morland hides clues in plain sight, but because these are — in fairness, called thrillers on the cover — possibly some of the most hilariously unfair stories put in this form since, er, well since The Baffle Book.
Y-yeah, sure thing, guys.
So, just for shits and giggles, I thought I would replicate the two stories here and then provide a link to the solution as given in the book. The reader is a) warned of the unfairness of the ensuing tales, b) invited to suggest solutions that would also fit the given setups, and c) apologised to if this seems like someone taking liberties by reproducing the entire texts. In my defence, the collection is very OOP and my researches lead me to believe that I’m reasonably secure in reproducing these, but I will of course take them down if anyone wishes to raise the aforementioned threat of legal action. I should probably say that I really like the format of the book, and Morland writes well to set up interesting, if basic, puzzles. There’s some good imagination on display here, so let’s not begin proceedings under the impression that I’m here to put the boot in. Quite the reverse.
And so, without further ado:
THE PHANTOM KILLER
There is a place on the Cornish coast where the surf-riding is the best in the country. But Mrs. Pym was no bather, for she was stolid and not over-young; she preferred to sit in a deck chair.
The late afternoon sun was making her sleepy. Then a burst of shouting brought her out of the chair and saw people were carrying [sic] somebody up the firm sands. She joined the excited throng, watching them work on a man lying on his back.
A good-looking man in a bathing suit stepped back in horror.
“Dammit, he’s dead!”
It was not Mrs. Pym’s place to take charge; she did it just the same. She gave her name to the constable who arrived and he stood back in awe. The good-looking man, whose name was Kerruish, gave her the details in an undertone.
“His name’s Spencer — Johnnie Spencer. He and his missus came down here with my wife and I, and annual affair. He’s as healthy as a dog. We’ve been surf-riding for the past hour, then, suddenly, he gave a sort of a yell and fell off his board as if he’d been knifed.”
Mrs. Pym liked Kerruish. He was quick-thinking, observant and sensible. Under her examination, he thought nobody had been near Spencer; but something had happened. He was not drowned, and his queerly contorted body suggested a poison, which the local doctor confirmed at sight.
There seemed no reason why a comfortably placed, happily married executive on holiday should die in that queer fashion.
In a little circle on the beach, Mrs. Pym, Kerruish, the doctor and a police inspector went over the facts again. The most extraordinary evidence was when Kerruish said he and Spencer had been away from their hotel since dawn. They has eaten nothing but hard-boiled eggs, apples, chocolate, and bananas, an alarming if harmless mixture bought from a kiosk on the beach. The doctor had never heard of a poison that could have been administered something like twelve hours before at the hotel; the food was considered entirely innocent. Their only drinks had been mineral water.
It did not satisfy Mrs. Pym. She could see that Kerruish was likely to be under suspicion, and by the time the wives had returned from Truro, where they had gone for a day’s shopping, it seemed as if he would be under arrest.
It was a question of scrutiny and guess-work. Mrs. Pym dropped on her knees and examined Spencer’s body in the little hut to which it had been taken. She examined his bare chest, revealed by the turned-down blanket, and his surf-board, his towel, the bathing-suit removed from his body by the doctor.
That evening it took her ten minutes to get the truth. After the police had made their arrest, she told Kerruish what had happened.
See, I love that “It was not Mrs. Pym’s place to take charge; she did it just the same” and the classifying of their food over the course of the day as “an alarming if harmless mixture” — how goddamned charming is that? Also interesting to note the potential there must surely be for beach-set impossible crimes…beyond all-time classic ‘No Killer Has Wings’ (1961) by Arthur Porges and the better-forgotten ‘The Sands of Thyme’ (1954) by Michael Innes what else is out there?
Anyway, you can find the solution to this one here, and some very nice ideas it contains, too. Onto the next:
THE IMPOSSIBLE CRIME
The office had waited an hour over the time St. Barbe Mitchell had insisted he would require to finish recording his speech. In the end uncertain men knocked and knocked again on the office door, then, with managerial authority, the lock was forced
The general manager of the National Planing Committee wasted no time. He recognised hydrocyanic acid when he smelt it, and got on to Scotland Yard immediately. It was the evening of St. Barbe Mitchell’s radio speech when he was to give his long awaited Blueprint for the New World over the air. his death was not natural, and the crime so horrifying that it was best to seek the highest powers instantly.
Mrs. Pym, who was linked in the public mind with the gift of solving insoluble crimes, was rushed to Grosvenor Square in a fast car with Chief Detective Inspector Shott for company.
She found the National Planning Building in a furore. St. Barbe Mitchell had been chosen to create order out of economic chaos, and this was the night before his report — the conclusion of eighteen months intensive work. And he was dead.
Cardew, the general manager, Mitchell’s secretary, Peller, and the chief secretary, Baines, received Mrs. Pym in the main hall.
“It’s absurd!” Cardew burst out. “Mr. Mitchell went in alone and locked the door behind him. It’s been under observation by the staff ever since, and yet he’s dead!”
Mrs. Pym nodded, and stumped into the fatal room with a dozen people watching her.
The office was perfectly plain. It contained a bookcase, a carpet, a table bearing a blotter, pencils and paper. Next to this was a dictaphone, and that was all. The windows were locked, and heavily barred; even the plain walls were without pictures.
The doctor was there, shaking his head.
“I can’t understand it,” he said mournfully. “The man’s swallowed a big dose of hydrocyanic acid; it killed him immediately. There’re traces in his mouth, so that rules out a capsule. There isn’t any cup, or anything from which he could have swallowed the stuff.”
And so it proved. There was no hiding place for a murderer. The bare room showed nothing from which poison could have been taken, even if Mitchell had lived long enough to hide the evidence. As a locked room mystery, it was unique.
Mrs. Pym bent over the dictaphone and, after examining it, moved the needle and pressed the stud to set the machine in motion. She listened to Mitchell’s speech, noting the sudden gasp when he broke off almost at the first words.
It was bizarre. Her investigation proved the crime could not have happened, yet the contorted body was there as proof. Finally, she asked for a list of every person who had entered the office that week.
I know you’re going to think I’ve missed a bit off, but I promise it ends there. I’m also not entirely sure that this quite qualifies as a unique locked room murder in 1947, but I suppose you can’t blame an author for blowing their own trumpet. I’m intrigues, too, by what the “St.” in “St. Barbe Mitchell” stands for — I had originally assumed ‘Senator’ but these are set in England (cf. Scotland Yard in this story, for one)…so anyone any ideas?