I very nearly paid a king’s ransom for a secondhand copy of Walter S. Masterman’s debut The Wrong Letter (1926) a couple of years ago, since it was rare as rocking-horse teeth (wait, those are not rare…) and featured on Roland Lacourbe’s “100 Books for a Locked Room Library” list (or, well, the supplemental list of fourteen supposedly excellent impossible crime novels for which there were no French translations, at least). Then, in 2018, Ramble House made it easily available for much more sensible money, and here we are. More power to their elbow, frankly, as this is the strongest Masterman I’ve read, and has encouraged me to not write him off just yet.
Clocking in at a brisk 111 pages — discounting a weirdly muted praise-filled preface from G.K. Chesterton which doesn’t quite stoop to contractual obligation but also feels a bit like he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t’ve and is writing this to make amends — this manages to cram a lot in while also indulging in Masterman’s too-frequent habit of loquacity and narrative-impeding scenes of Not Much Really. We’re out of the blocks so fast — a murder announced separately to Superintendent Arthur Sinclair and his pet Amateur Detective Sylvester Collins, incredulity expressed at the cheek of the criminal, the scene achieved, the room discovered locked on the inside, and the Home Secretary discovered within having been shot in the head at close range in the last thirty minutes — that it put me in mind of James Ronald. On his first go at fiction, Masterman has an evocative staccato delivery that gets the job done and keeps things pressing with laudable urgency:
The walls were covered with books to a height of seven feet.
Above that, one or two choice pictures were hung.
The fireplace was a fine piece of carved oak.
As far as they could see, the room was empty.
The windows were hasped, and there was no other entrance.
Into this, Masterman drops some vinegar-sharp character notes — the image-conscious sawbones who is summoned to the scene aware that the “great drama…would bring him notoriety and clients” later having “wormed his way into assist [and being] full of importance”, or Scotland Yard’s big egg Commissioner Boyce who has achieved his position through contacts alone and “subsisted on the brains of his subordinates” — and some casual asides about the sudden emergence of laudatory obituaries for the unpopular deceased (“old stock-in-trade, kept ready for any assassination of a notable person which might occur, and adapted to circumstances”) and the politicking that inevitably goes on behind the scenes as the killer continues to elude the police:
“You are being worried by all kinds of people to solve the problem. You see that your professional reputation is at stake and that much hangs on it. And you see here a good chance of finding a [scapegoat] who will not suffer any hardship in any case, as he obviously ought to be under lock and key.”
The relationship between Sinclair and Collins is an odd one, too. They apparently know each other well enough to have worked together several times, yet each discovers elements of the crime that he keeps to himself — even to the extent of impressing upon witnesses the importance of lying about something if pressed by anyone else. The Holmes comparison Masterman shoves on you on page two is further enhanced by little moments like Sinclair getting “irritated when his colleague assumed this superior manner” and Collins being “disappointed if a problem proved quite easy of solution” and hoping for the sort of complications — a rifle bullet in the wound when a revolver is the weapon, say — that John Dickson Carr would spin for a pastime in a few short years.
It’s difficult to shake the late-Edwardian dust off Masterman’s writing, because he’s so fond of a style of expression that belongs in an earlier era. Odd inconsequential details — like how long background activities take — impose because he needs something done and can’t be bothered to fill time appropriately before it happens (for instance, a letter is delivered across London faster than most emails could travel the same distance…). A surprisingly large amount of space is given over to Collins’ pursuit of Mabel Watson, the dead man’s adult daughter, and while this may be argued as a sort of plot-camouflage it also feels like he’s putting it in to fill up a bit of space at times, and this began to grate a little with me given the brevity of the text. And yet, this also allows for some of his best writing at times, such as when Mabel is told of her father’s death:
The shock of such an announcement does not, as a rule, have the instant effect that is supposed to take place. The mind cannot at once grasp the facts. It is like a shell wound. For a moment the wounded man gazes in surprise at a stump where his arm was a moment before. It takes some seconds before realization or pain is felt.
Additionally, the time taken to solve the locked nature of the room — and, interestingly, the solution here is not the one stated in Adey — isn’t always used well. Since they gain entry by turning the key in the lock with pliers, why does it never occur to them that that’s how the killer escaped (it isn’t, I just find it odd it doesn’t ever come up)? Maybe all the booze Sinclair can’t help but put away — drinking from glasses at the scene because he’s so shocked by events, tut-tut — has more to answer for than it seems. We’re keen to move on from the secret panels and hidden doorways of early impossible crimes — “That’s kept for detective stories” — but more time is spent discussing whether unexpected visitors have the correct mode of dress for dinner (they don’t, so a “scratch meal” is prepared in its place) than actually, y’know, how the murder was done. Also, on this text alone I’m going to put forward the theory that Masterman was, like, a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan.
When the answers come, they’re enjoyable, and it’s appropriate that Carr would repurpose the core trick of the locked room here — and just as suddenly — in one of his better-regarded works later in his career. The killer is a good choice, the motive gloriously enjoyable, and there’s a great sense of retrospective analysis where you realise that what seemed like accidental details on Masterman’s part (reinforced by the sheer number of accidental oversights, cf. that timing issue above) were actually a lumpy-if-honest attempt to clue us in. There’s one key aspect, too, that the later reader will definitely benefit from, given a certain element of GAD fiction that Masterman couldn’t have been aware would develop in future and yet works in with (again, accidental) brilliance. Man, I enjoyed that part so much, but am obviously keen not to divulge details.
A good early locked room murder, then, showing the subgenre as a legitimate force for good in the emerging GAD style — and making me wonder if Masterman’s early writing, before mood and oddness overtook him, might be more my tempo. I’m delighted not to have paid a small fortune for this, but this is one of those rare as hens’ shit (hmm, that’s not rare either…) books where the errors and failures within shine a greater light upon the time at which it was written and make it stand taller than it otherwise might. Recommended for those who like to see the genre in transition, as well as anyone who finds the relentless plot-driven craziness of the pulps a little too outré for their tastes; moored as it is between two such strong influences, a fascinating time will be had by the interested reader.
Walter S. Masterman reviews on The Invisible Event, all books available from Ramble House: