As in life, this blog has a few untrimmed threads hanging — one of these days I really must return to The Knox Decalogue and The Criminous Alphabet — but for today it’s back to The Baffle Book (1930). The first seven problems in F. Tennyson Jesse’s edit of Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay’s famous puzzle series failed to excite my reason or my enthusiasm, so how does this second quarter of puzzles stand up?
Well, ‘The Death Threat Clue’ asks you to believe that a gang would have the foresight to cut words for a threatening letter out of a magazine to evade detection on graphological grounds, but would be too stupid to dispose of the magazine afterwards. So not a great start, all told. Let’s move right on.
‘The Sculptor’s Studio Mystery’ frames its problem well, but would do better to reveal a piece of information only told to you in the answer. Concerning the death by blunt instrument of sculptor Reginald Lamont in his studio, and the shattering of the head of the statue of Venus he had been working on, the text is littered with contradictions: the opening line tells us how the body was found “on the morning of November 3rd, 1922” and yet later we’re told it was “discovered at 5pm by [the] elderly handyman who was accustomed to sweep the studio daily”. And since we’re also told that the handyman had arrived at 12:30pm to sweep the studio prior to Lamont starting work after lunch, the fact that he returns at 5pm should surely be a clue, right? Since sweeping the space “daily” would imply once a day, and that his arriving in the morning to tidy up before work was started was his normal proceedure. Alas, no, it simply goes unaddressed, and you’re supposed to know these contradictions are errors.
Instead, the one clue we get is this “perplexing bit of paper” recovered from the fireplace along with various flotsam and jetsam:
And this is what it would be good to have told you: it’s the envelope for a Venida hairnet. Not that it helps per se, since we’re supposed to believe the killer went into the studio, put on the hairnet, and then killed the victim…when, in fact, there’s nothing to say Lamont couldn’t have thrown the enveloped into the fire when he put in all the other things also recovered (circulars, cigarette butts, etc). All the guilty party has to do is say “Oh, I asked him to dispose of it for me” and they’re safe, especially as they have no other reason to be suspected. Fine, have your clever clue, but make sure it’s actually clever, y’know? Surely the tale could be vastly improved by both of the suspects having been in the studio that day — the first claiming to have left Lamont alive and the second claiming to have found him dead.
My griping about errors above is relevant because you’re supposed to notice and rely on them for ‘The Beals-Bligh Anonymous Letters’, wherein the married Sir Chatham Beals-Bligh receives anonymous letters threatening disclosure of his carryings on with an Austrian countess if they carry on carrying on. While some of this is classic casual GAD clue-dropping — it’ll spoil things completely to reveal that the use of an American spelling is key — the adding in of additional misspellings changes the face of the game a little. By implication, the lady’s maid Suzette could be responsible for both letters: not simply posting the second one, but writing and posting both.
Beals-Bligh’s manservant Hobbs falls under suspicion on account of his engagement to Suzette, and Suzette could be equally keen to see the affair cease for the same reason: it would bring her fiancé home to her. The Americanism throws suspicion on the American Mrs. B-B, with the misspellings indicating a less educated mind. But, no, for no good reason we’re simply told to ignore that — yet another case of an author having an answer and so deciding all their clues point towards that answer even when they don’t necessarily. It can work in a novel when there’s too much else going on for the reader to pick holes, but for this supposed “game” with its definite answers you notice the falsity to a more distracting degree.
I actually really like ‘Messer Bellini’s Report to the Doge’ — false Middle Ages writing style and everything, which works beautifully as a way of keeping your interest engaged — and the solution to the apparent impossible poisoning problem is simple and easy to understand. But, like, wouldn’t he have to keep his hand in place at all times? The second he moves his finger away, out comes the poison…
‘The Mystery of the Murdered Physician’ tries to get in your good graces by supplying a lovely scene of crime diagram:
…and then giving a classically compact case of a Harley Street psychoanalyst found murdered in his office with his safe opened and the notebooks in which he wrote the details of his patients’ conditions missing. The clue by which the gender of the killer is determined is very good, as is the additional reasoning behind it supplied in the answer section. One of those lovely cases where some details matter and others don’t, and the ones that do matter for good reasons. On the negative side? Not much. In fact, I’ll give this a full pass — a lovely puzzle, very well reasoned. And I’m not just saying that because it has a map. Sure, that doesn’t hurt, but I’m not that easily won…
We almost veer into lateral thinking puzzle territory with ‘The Affair of the French Spy’ — how can a double agent get an urgent, live-saving message to her genuine masters when there’s a very real chance she’s being watched, and that anyone she communicates with will be followed and doubtless come badly out of said following? The answer is good, and the thinking clever, but the reader will struggle because information to be relayed isn’t known to us. She could sit there and blink letters out, but if the message is a list of 200 spies and their aliases it seems unlikely. It would actually be a good test of the reader’s thinking skills if they knew what was being told, so I shall tell you the text of the message here on the off-chance you want to have a stab at solving this. If you’d rather not know, scroll down past the bit below.
NOT REALLY SPOILERS FOLLOW NOT REALLY SPOILERS FOLLOW NOT EVEN MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW HONESTLY IT’S NOT A SPOILER FOLLOWS WHY YOU’D BE WORRIED ABOUT THIS BAFFLES ME FOLLOWS NEED TO CONSIDER THE DEFINITION OF ‘SPOILERS’ FOLLOW
The text of the message is “HB 26”
OH MAN YOU RUINED IT ENDS I’M NEVER READING THIS BLOG AGAIN ENDS WHY DIDN’T YOU WARN US? ENDS NON-SPOILERS END NON-SPOILERS END NON-SPOILERS END
Knowing the above will improve this neat, clever little tale for you, since there is absolutely no way you can deduce it from the story — none, I promise — and so now you at least are on equal footing with the writers in terms of thinking. Bonne chance!
Finally for now, ‘The Shooting of “Whisper” Malloy’, which adds to the corpus of Hog’s Back-set detective fiction. The discovery of mob informer “Whisper” Malloy and his long-time enemy hoodlum “Long Dan” Shutz both dead in Malloy’s car poses the challenge of fitting together an order of events. Both men have been shot by rifles, the one that killed Malloy found on the ground and the one that killed Shutz in the car between the bodies. There’s also the small matter of some unidentified footprints approaching the car in it’s final, crashed position to add to the whowhyhowdunnit problem.
The answer here is again a possible answer, but there’s no way you can confidently draw those conclusions absolutely from the setup as it appears. I really want to get into this, to illustrate the problem with this kind of specious reasoning in these stories, so consider everything after the picture of the crime scene below to be spoiler territory.
The given solution is that Shutz hid in the shrubs at the top of the picture and shot Malloy as he was driving along the road. The tyre tracks veer about because the car started to run wild after Malloy was shot, so Shutz jumped in to the car to correct it and was starting to turn into the bend in the road when he himself was shot from a distance by the third, unknown, man. This unknown then dumped his rifle in the car to give the impression the two had shot each other.
There are more than a few problems with this version of events.
Firstly, given that Malloy is at the wheel of the car, if Shutz wanted to correct the course the car was taking, he’d most likely jump on the running board and grab the wheel, not clamber over the body of Malloy to sit next to him. He would, then, have more than likely dropped the rifle with which he shot Malloy on the side of the car where he, Shutz, had been hiding, rather than throwing it over or behind the car where it’s found. And, if there was time for him to clamber over Malloy’s body, how fast could the car really have been going? And, why should Shutz care if the car runs wild? It’s not as if by guiding it to a gentle stop he’d disguise the bullet wound in Malloy’s face. And the Third Man, putting a rifle in the car to make it look like the two men shot it out…who’d believe they’d have a shoot-out in a car using rifles? Nonsense.
One of the many equally-plausible solutions that fit the above situation could be:
Malloy has convinced Shutz to also become an informer, and was taking him down to Southampton to tell the police. But Shutz doesn’t want to be seen with Malloy ahead of time, so arranges to be collected in a remote spot of the Hog’s Back. Malloy pulls to the side of the road, hence the veering wheel marks, and Shutz gets in, clambering over the back for maximum speed. Once he is in, Malloy pulls away and Shutz is shot by the third man, causing Malloy to panic and crash. This third man then approaches the car ready to also shoot Malloy but, seeing another rifle in the car, discards his own and uses the second gun to shoot the stunned Malloy to give the impression that the two had killed each other.
No, it’s not perfect, but neither is the “actual” solution, and no I don’t know why this bothers me so much. Oh, well. The standard of stories in this second quarter is certainly higher than the first tranche, and the handful above that I enjoyed do show a lot of what is good about this sort of compact, puzzle-focussed problem solving. It’s a shame McKay and Wren didn’t have quite the grasp on clewing they thought they did, but it’s almost as much fun picking apart the flaws in their intended reasoning as is it trying to figure out what you were “supposed” to see. Expect the remaining puzzles the follow…at some point.
The Baffle Book as edited by F. Tennyson Jesse:
Part One: Problems 1 to 7 Part Two: Problems 8 to 14
Part Three: Problems 15 to 21
Part Four: Problems 22 to 28