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.
For 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.
By 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…
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.