#556: Little Fictions – Curiosities from Adey: ‘The 51st Sealed Room’, a.k.a. ‘The MWA Murder’ (1951) and ‘The Glass Bridge’ (1957) by Robert Arthur

Locked Room Murders

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been slowly working my way through the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, the first tranche of which were written by Robert Arthur, Jr.

Arthur did a lot of work writing ten of the first eleven Three Investigators books and editing anthologies under the ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ banner, but I’d never realised just how much stuff he’d written elsewhere, under pseudonyms as diverse as Andrew Benedict, A.A. Fleming, Jay Norman, and Pauline C. Smith, a fairly comprehensive rundown of which can be found here.  I started getting quite excited when a cursory search implied that he was also involved in the production of a bunch of Hollywood movies, but that appears to be a different man called Robert Arthur Feder and, well, plenty of people have made that mistake over the years.

Tantalizing Locked Room MysteriesFor today, having just looked at the eighth case for Jupe, Pete, and Bob, I’m picking two of Arthur’s impossible crime short stories out of his dauntingly vast oeuvre.  And quite by chance they’re written in wildly contrasting tones which showcase the talent Arthur possessed, which is especially pleasing for those of us (that is, me) who only know him from his Three Investigators output.  ‘The 51st Sealed Room’, a.k.a. ‘The MWA Murder’ (1951) is to be found in the Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982) anthology, edited by by Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin Harry Greenberg, and might be classified, broadly, as a sort of winking pastiche (and the lightly comedic tone is unintentionally prefaced by Asimov et al. making the identity conflation mentioned above…whoops!).

We start in “the small bar of the Fontainebleau, on 52nd Street…snug against an early September fog that prowled New York like a damp gray alley cat” as locked room specialist Gordon Waggoner tells acquaintance and fellow author Harrison Mannix how he, Waggoner, has just come up with a brilliant and completely unique idea for what will be his fifty-first locked room novel:

“The murder will take place in a modern cottage. A fireplace, yes, but with a flue so small only a cat could get out. Two doors, both nailed shut by heavy boards across the inside. Three windows similarly barred, the boards being no more than four inches apart. The roof tightly constructed with solid sheathing, insulating paper, and shingles, not one of which is out of place. The floor solid concrete, covered by linoleum. The walls solid stone. No concealed entrances, no Judas windows, no doors sealed shut by gummed paper drawn against the inside cracks by strong suction. How would you get out of a room like that, eh?”

When Mannix questions the originality of the unrevealed scheme, pointing out that John Dickson Carr has written quite a few impossible crime novels, Waggoner’s disdainful response is:

“Carr is good, very good, but you don’t think I’d repeat anything he’s used, do you? Oh, no, when Carr and Queen and the others upstairs read it, they’ll wonder why they didn’t think of it themselves.”

The ‘others upstairs’, see, are fellow Mystery Writers of America members who are gathered to attend a lecture on ballistics, and Arthur has the winking audacity to mention not just Carr but Anthony Berkeley, Herbert Brean, George Harmon Coxe, Lillian de la Tour, Brett Halliday, Helen McCloy, Hugh Pentecost, and several other actual MWA members in the course of the story.  None of them really feature as characters — we get a brief glimpse of a Great Merlini-esque Clayton Rawson and that’s about it — and so the name-dropping this might irk some but, well, some people will get irritated about anything, won’t they?

Waggoner refuses to reveal his brilliant idea and, six weeks later, Mannix discovers that Waggoner has been found dead under the exact circumstances he posited, “[t]he world’s foremost writer of locked-room mysteries had been rather gaudily murdered—in a locked room”.  Sound familiar?  It might…  His headless corpse is sat at the typewriter, and his head perched atop a beer stein on a filing cabinet in one corner of the room…but how the flippin’ heck was it done?  The answer, and the method of discovery, are both delightful, and I wish to say very little about the second half of the story, because the fun is in seeing the motive and method play out resolve themselves as they do.  It’s smart, a fun — if not entirely original — method, and contains flashes of the sort of ghoulish creativity that you get the impression Arthur has to restrain himself from including in his T3I output, like the moment when a policeman at the scene of the crime “fainted when a trick of rigor mortis made one eye open and wink at him as he was lifting [Waggoner’s] head down”.  Terrific stuff.

Choice of MurderersBy comparison, ‘The Glass Bridge’ (1957), which I read in the MWA anthology A Choice of Murders (1958) edited by Dorothy Salisbury Davis, is altogether more sombre in tone and (ahem) execution.  Starting with a conversation about unsolved murders, the “hawk-nosed Hungarian” Baron de Hirsch tells his two companions about “the case of the blonde blackmailer” Marianne Montrose who “last February 13th…walked up twenty-three snow covered steps to a house on a hilltop about thirty miles from here.  She went into that house and never came out again”.  Of course there’s a search, and of course the house is snowbound, and of course there’s nary a sign of  Ms. Montrose to be found in spite of incontrovertible evidence both physical and visual of her ascending and entering — these are impossible crime stories after all: “her footsteps went up in the snow on the steps. Went up and never came down again”.

To add to the complication, the house belongs to a certain Mark Hillyer, and since Marianne is overheard phoning Mark Hillyer before she goes up to visit him, and further goes on to tell our witness:

“Mark Hillyer doesn’t like me.  And he’s a very, very clever man.  I do think he would kill me if he could get away with it.  But he can’t.  Just the same, if I’m not back here in an hour, send the police up to look for me…”

Added to this is Hillyer’s own physical condition, afflicted as he is by medical considerations which leave him incapable of anything but the most meagre physical feats…and yet (or perhaps that should be “and so”) he seems to take the accusations of murder and vanishment with a perverse glee, while never denying that he had “made a slip years ago and Montrose knew about it.  Since then he’d been paying her off a thousand dollars a year”.  So Motive is covered, Opportunity is clear, the entire thing simply rests on the small matter of Means, and Hillyer’s giving nothing away beyond vague talk of glass bridges, flying saucers, and a reference to a John Dickson Carr short story I’ll not name here because it contains spoilers.

The snow-set hopelessness of it all is part of why I do so love a no footprints mystery. We’re told that the snow around the house is so crusty that skis would leave marks, and that — just in case — two troopers who could ski were sent out around the grounds and gullies beyond to look for any signs of…anything, and of course we know that something is going to be overlooked because that’s what this genre does so well.  And this is my sole complaint here: the oversight that has to be made feels like quite a big one to me — granted, the method is clever, and allows for all the conditions as stated, so Arthur’s not trying to pull a fast one by tricking you as to, say, the magnitude of Hillyer’s infirmity…but if I had to check the thing that isn’t check and I didn’t think to check it…I dunno, Arthur doesn’t quite sell me on that.  Maybe a reread of the details would help (I’ll have to go back to the British Library for that…), but while this excels in the invention and restrictions which are obviously competing to make the situation so intriguing, it falls down slightly in simple detection for me.

The tone is sublime, however, and Hillyer one of the great howcatchem villains of this type of semi-inverted mystery.  And this would have made a great, if rather ghoulish, YA story, being as it is a little more palatable for younger stomachs (no severed heads or winking corpses…).  I’m glad I read this first, because ‘The 51st Sealed Room’ is my favourite of the two, but if you get the chance to check out either story I’m certainly not going to dissuade you.  And this only increases my interest in Arthur’s collection Mystery and More Mystery (1966), which I’ve been very keen to find ever since TomCat first put me onto it.  A man can dream…

~

See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: It’s a physical impossibility for Hillyer to have carried her body off the premises, without leaving any marks in the snow, nor would his heart condition allow him to place any strenuous strain on his body, like chopping up her corpse or digging a grave, without keeling over. However, he’s all to eager to make himself suspicious and gives the police veiled hints, which provides the reader with the maddening problem of knowing who killer is but not how he managed to pull it off.

15 thoughts on “#556: Little Fictions – Curiosities from Adey: ‘The 51st Sealed Room’, a.k.a. ‘The MWA Murder’ (1951) and ‘The Glass Bridge’ (1957) by Robert Arthur

  1. Well, you forced me to buy both Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries and Mystery and More Mystery. TLRM features some of the usual suspects that find their way into every anthology, but there were enough interesting titles that it seemed worth it. Plus, The 51st Sealed Room sounds that good.

    The copy of Mystery and More Mystery that I picked up is a paperback and includes illustrations for each story. The illustration that accompanies The Glass Bridge is haunting – sort of in a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark style – although I’m hoping it doesn’t give things away.

    You’ve had a good run on the short stories lately. It would be interesting at some point to think through which stories would really make a great anthology. Just this weekend I was flipping through The Black Lizard Book (trying to figure out if I’d ever read anything by AHZ Carr) and I was kind of taken aback by just how much Penzler managed to get in there. I mean, it has the entirety of Death Out of Thin Air for god’s sake. Think of how much you’d have to drop on individual collections to even come close to replicating what he made available for a song.

    Like

    • Ah, yes, of course you’ve found the one Dell mapback edition — and unabridged, too! — of Mystery & More Mystery, printed as a trial to see how they felt about expanding into literature for Younger Readers but ultimately abandoned purely so that some guy can buy it for a song 60 years from then. IIRC, there were rumours that Arthur, John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and someone who will revive fair play detective fiction about 70 years from now all signed that edition using their own blood — can you confirm? 😆

      Bur seriously, folks…I hope you enjoy these when you read them, because Arthur is a talented author who has come up with some excellent situations and resolved them very, very intelligently while also writing extremely well — he’s not quite in Carr’s class, but he’s also a damn sight closer than most other people who try to do both manage.

      Picking titles out of Adey has been fun — I figured that, if I’m going to write about them on here, I’m better doing authors people have some sort of connection with or have at least heard of because as much as I enjoyed ‘Footprints in the Snow’ (1946) by Douglas Kennedy…well, if I write about that and no-one has read it, there’s nothing to talk about. So thinking about these from an anthology perspective is an interesting idea, not unlike Christian’s project. And, yes, the more one is moved to reflect on the Penzler collection, the more impressive it becomes. Of course there are duds, there are always duds, but to have collected that range of years and authors in a single volume is incredible; goes to show, too, how many connections you need to make this sort of thing happen…

      Since you’ve gone to such efforts, here’s a preview for you: next week I’ll be looking at another story from TLRM and one from the Penzler collection…place your bets!

      Like

      • Perhaps nobody will have heard of ‘Footprints in the Snow’ (1946) by Douglas Kennedy, but it would be better than reading another review of The Murders in the Rue Morgue (which I’m sure is next on your list… 😛 ). Actually, just the title of ‘Footprints in the Snow’ has me interested, as basic as it might sound.

        Like

        • IIRC, ‘Footprints in the Snow’ was in a collection called 13 Strange Tales and — bear with me — is sort of like an impossible crime as written by Roald Dahl. It also has a thoroughly unlikeable victim named with true Dickensian relish Mr. Bledworthy, but it’s lack of fair play will doubtless deter many from its charms.

          The Dahl comparison isn’t thoroughly unwarranted, I feel, even if it does relegate Kennedy to a sort of “well, he’s like this more famous author” ignominy. There’s another story in that anthology called, I believe, ‘Over the Hedge’ or something similar, and it has the hallmarks of Dahl’s creepy, uncanny, eerie style. They might be the only two, I didn’t have time on the day I read them to go through the other 11 stories, but Kennedy is on my radar now and someone who may crop up here on TIE in the future.

          Rest assured, FitS will be in my own Grande Olde Big Ol’ Book o’ Impossible Crime Stories…you might just have to wait another forty or so years for that to emerge 🙂

          Like

          • Rest assured, FitS will be in my own Grande Olde Big Ol’ Book o’ Impossible Crime Stories…you might just have to wait another forty or so years for that to emerge

            I’ll wait.

            I’ve been thinking of doing a filler-post with recommendations for anthologists of impossible crimes that are not entirely unknown or obscure, but have been inexplicably passed over for every single locked room anthology in existence (e.g. John Sladek’s “By an Unknown Hand”). And pad it out with other recommendations of good, but lesser-known, locked room stories and tack on a wish list at the end.

            Like

            • It’s sweet of you to refer to this as a “filler post” when you know full well that there’s a bunch of us slavering to read that sort of thing — got to get our recommendations from somewhere…and, hey, someone with some clout might be reading. Do it, do it!

              Like

            • Well, you had to wait a couple of months, but that filler-post has finally appeared on my blog. Hope it lives up to everyone’s expectations.

              Like

  2. Well, well, well. Will you look at that? We largely agree on these stories, but differ on which one is better. Progress!

    I rank “The Glass Bridge” above “The 51st Sealed Room,” because it has an original premise and solution. “The 51st Sealed Room” is a good and very well written story, but most of it was nothing more than side dressing (cameos and bizarre crime scene). And that knocked it down a peck for me.

    I don’t know of you’re aware of this, but Robert Arthur’s handpicked successor for The Three Investigators, William Arden, wrote two short locked room stories that strayed from the beaten path. “No One Likes to Be Played for a Sucker” is a hardboiled impossible crime story about a one-armed private-eye, Dan Fortune, who’s confronted with a reversal of the classic locked room trope and “The Bizarre Case Expert” deals with a murder that could be one of three impossibilities – a locked room, a vanished weapon or a cast-iron alibi. You should consider reviewing them as a followup to this post.

    A comparison of the pure impossible crime fiction by Arthur and Arden make for an interesting contrast. Arthur was a much more fanciful writer with his pulp roots clearly showing (The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure), while Arden took a more practical approach to the locked room problem (The Mystery of the Shrinking House). One time he tried to be fanciful (The Secret of the Crooked Cat), he failed spectacularly. The Secret of the Crooked Cat is the kind of story Arthur should have written.

    Like

    • I remember reading Arden/Lynds’ ‘No Way Out’ and not being exactly blown away, but I had also seen those couple of stories listed in Adey and, rest assured, there’s a plan in place to get to them once I read his first T3I book — great minds, TC, great minds.

      It was your championing of Arthur that resulted in me buying those Three Investigators books in the first place — at least in part, since I retained a certain curiosity about them from my youth — and I’m very grateful for the steer towards these couple of stories since they’re very good examples of the genre (and, wow, do they ever need to be made more available…). Even if the other tales in M&MM don’t live up to these, I’m very eager to track down a copy forthwith.

      I take your point about the fairness and presentation of ’51st…’ — it’s not fair, but then it’s also not the brilliant original Waggoner claims, and so the whole thing feels like it’s a deliberate skew on the expectations of the impossible crime and I’ll give it a pass for how much fun I had with it. The setup of ‘Glass’ is certainly more original, and with a couple of great flourishes, but I’ll need to read it again because that oversight does stick in my memory. Hopefully someone will come through with an anthology featuring it soon, and I’ll be saved another trip to the BL where I sit feeling like a charlatan while reading inventive murder tales among all the serious academics…

      Like

      • …great minds, TC, great minds.

        I wouldn’t say I’m as smart as two people… but hey, thanks for the compliment!

        Even if the other tales in M&MM don’t live up to these, I’m very eager to track down a copy forthwith.

        If you get a copy, don’t read the back cover as it pretty much spoils “The Adventure of the Single Footprint.” Whether or not the other stories will deliver (for you) is hard to say, because they have a very wide range. For example, “Larceny and Old Lace” is a delightful, comically done, semi-hardboiled crime story and hard to compare to either “The Glass Bridge” or “The 51st Sealed Room.” Same goes for most of the other stories with exception of the other locked room story, “The Blow from Heaven.”

        …trip to the BL where I sit feeling like a charlatan while reading inventive murder tales among all the serious academics…

        Pfui! A gentleman of taste reads detective stories. Nothing to be ashamed of.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I was just a teensy bit disappointed with “The 51st Sealed Room”. Not because of the name-dropping – that doesn’t matter to me – but more because it wasn’t particularly fair play. The solution is a bit too technical, and yeah, when you create as locked and sealed a room as we have in this story, it’s going to be a bit hard to devise a solution that actually works, but well… A good and fun story, there’s just that little tiny sting of disappointment…

    The setup of “The Glass Bridge” sounds intriguing enough that I’d be willing to overlook that it’s semi-inverted!

    BTW, why can’t authors be bothered to create foreign characters with names that actually sound authentic? Baron de Hirsch – Hungarian? Bah.

    Like

    • BTW, why can’t authors be bothered to create foreign characters with names that actually sound authentic? Baron de Hirsch – Hungarian? Bah

      Perhaps the precise inverse of this problem is the only real fault I can find with Detective Conan: everyone they encounter in their cases has a Chinese name, but the three central characters are called Richard, Rachel, and Jimmy? C’mon, guys…!

      The inverted impossibility is something I’m starting to sit up and take notice of now, because it has some interesting possibilities. L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Suicide of Kiaros’ was in Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums and shows a murder being stage-set to look like a suicide, and ‘The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr’ by William Brittain does a great job of playing with and then subverting the trappings of both the inverted and impossible subgenres…what else is there? Anyone any suggestions?

      I think you’d prefer ‘The Glass Bridge’ — I can see TC’s reasons for liking it, and I think it would be more your sort of thing too. It’s very inventive, and a lot of fun — grisly without actually being grim very inventive…I should really like that one more, shouldn’t I?

      Like

      • The renaming of the three central characters in Detective Conan is a pet bugaboo I’ve had since forever. Luckily, I haven’t had to read the English translations until now, because everything up to book 63 was translated into Swedish, where they did keep their names. I truly wonder about such decisions.

        I don’t know if it fits your criteria, but Bill Pronzini’s “Proof of Guilt” might fit the inverted impossible crime. In it, it’s certain who’s the killer from the very beginning, the only question is how he managed to get rid of the weapon.

        Like

        • It’s not exactly a deal breaker for me, and I’ve learned to live with it, but I find it odd. It wouldn’t even be possible to blame the fact that it’s being aimed at a young market in English since all the names of any minor characters appear to be Japanese. Pretty sure “Ran Mori” and “Kogoro Mori” wouldn’t explode too many heads where my linguistic brethren are concerned…

          I’ll avoid offering an opinion on Pronzini by saying that I remembered another inverted impossibility: the first episode of series 5 of Jonathan Creek, The Letters of Septimus Noone shows the commission of a murder and how it would appear impossible to the witnesses. An interesting idea, but to do it so late in the running of a show that excelled and traded in doing the precise opposite was an odd choice (though, Creek had jumped the shark well and truly by then, as we know…).

          Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.