Another short conundrum from Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries (1963), which contains the following being covered this month:
‘The Mystery of the Seven Wrong Clocks’ is the shortest of the stories herein, and revolves around an idea that is far less multi-layered than in last week’s ‘The Mystery of the Five Sinister Thefts’. It’s also, on account of this, not really possible to solve with the simple reasoning that marks out Arthur’s better tales, but I can’t help but be amused by the wryness of the comment from ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ upon the conclusion that, if you didn’t possess the requisite specialist knowledge, then “obviously a facet of your education has been sadly neglected” — plus the disclaimer that any errors in the answer as provided are the fault of the proof-readers. See? There’s so much charm here that it becomes difficult to hold the obscurity against it.
But I get ahead of myself…
We begin with Peter Perkins being enticed, for reasons that have no bearing on the plot, to take a short cut through an out-of-use House of Terror in a fairground. He’ll pass through this and end up at the place he was going anyway, but it give Arthur a chance to play with the expectations of the setup: given that Terrill’s Castle in The Secret of Terror Castle (1964) was essentially a ghost train without the train and that young boys are likely to be all a-spooked when encountering one (in the 1960s, at least…), it’s fun to see this up-ended by Perkins being a grown man who is less affected by such obvious charlatanism…or so he’d like to think:
“Welcome,” the skeleton said in a ghastly voice. “If you insist on being foolish, follow the footprints. If your act has grave consequences, the management disclaims all responsibility.”
Peter knew perfectly well that the skeleton was made of plastic, the the voice came from a magnetic tape, and that the lightning was controlled by an automatic switchboard. Nevertheless, all alone in the darkness, he felt he would like to hear the sound of a real human voice — even if only his own.
From here, we end up (quite jarringly, it has to be said) at a crime scene: the man Peter is visiting — Fritz Sandoz, clock-repairer extraordinaire — is found murdered in his Clock Hospital and Peter, as a friend and fellow puzzle nerd, is intrigued by the prospect of seven clocks in the scrupulous Fritz’s office that show a succession of incorrect times.
Inspector Magrue, despite the fact that “several times in the past Peter Perkins had given him suggestions on difficult cases [and some] had been good ones, which only made Magrue angrier”, is unconvinced that these clocks have any significance…but, man, I thought the Amateur Detective with Obscure Interests was established enough a thing by the 1960s that no fictional cop worth his salt would ignore any such suggestions. Sure makes a guy think.
It’s difficult to talk about this in too much detail from hereon, because there is only really one thread and it resolves in a way that, as mentioned above, I’m guessing solidly 99% of the readers will have seen coming but also be powerless to engage with. Arthur, of course, has a cast-iron rigour with which to unpick the skein, and the simple joy with which you’re dropped into this setup is another delight to behold, but the lack of any real characters or setting to engage with leave it feeling a little emptier than last week’s foray into the juvenile mystery. Still, I do admire the restraint in not adding a side quest or some B-plot just to add an extra 15 pages and give it all the impression of Significance. Sometimes it’s just great for a neat, quick idea to be deployed neatly and quickly.
Illustrations by Fred Banbery
The opening ploy, too, which teases a dramatic situation and then, post-Hitchcock interruption, jumps back in time a minute or so to explain the prosaic reality, is a pleasing touch. No, we’re hardly plying with structure in any meaningful way, and you could argue that this is just doing a Case of the Abominable Snowman (1941) by Nicholas Blake and putting its sole dramatic moment out front to stave off boredom…but I don’t think that washes, because this is hardly a story that lacks for dramatic incident in the first half. I suppose it’s a bit of fun, and maybe I shouldn’t seek to over-analyse it, eh?
From an amateur detective perspective, this feels like the sort of caper we were getting in the 1930s — Magrue getting Peter out of the way by sending him to sit in the office that has recently been ransacked by a murderer gave me flashbacks to the reporters being given a conducted tour of an active crime scene in Blood on His Hands (1937) by Max Afford. Add to this that reliance on esoteric knowledge and the ‘It’s so crazy, it just might work’ denouement and you get a sense of just how heavily Arthur’s sympathies lie with the classic era of detective fiction (and clearly had done for some time, too). From this starting point, it seems inevitable that he should go on to write his own clue-and-detection based series for younger readers, and we can all be very grateful indeed that he was given the chance to expand upon these promising beginnings.