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.
8 thoughts on “#681: Minor Felonies – Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries [ss] (1963): ‘The Mystery of the Seven Wrong Clocks’ by Robert Arthur”
Yeah, in comparison to the others, this is probably the weakest mystery. I liken it to one of the later Ellery Queen short stories, say the ones about the Puzzle Club, where there’s no “story” per se, just a cute puzzle. One has to smile, however, at the burdensome amount of specialized knowledge one ultimately needs here. It’s like Arthur is telling us: “I know you’re eleven years old, but you’re not too young that I can’t wink at you and include you in a rather good joke at the end.” Because of that, I’m rather fond of this tale.
And honestly, who has read a good mystery about a bunch of clocks?!?
I actually had an alternative solution to this, which would be (hopefully) fun to try and write, and would rely on far less specialised knowledge. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually get round to this sort of thing…hmmmm, if only something would happen that’d allow me to spend ages at home and have a legitimate excuse for not meeting up with people, maybe then I’d finally have a chance to try becoming a writer…
Well, JJ, if something like, let’s say a new mutant virus invaded the earth I’d be writing a mystery novel too, you know. And I’d even put two timelines and three different kinds of impossibilities, one of them absolutely brand new, never-before-seen and totally bonkers. And I’d release it next year. Maybe…Let’s us dream, my boy, crazier things have happened.
Check out a post on carrdickson.blogspot.com for March 28, 2020 for another Robert Arthur story (“Time Will Tell”) that has this clock theme. The comparison between it and this story is interesting.
Here’s the link, for anyone who is interested — I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be very similar to this story, because one of the later stories in this collection is a slightly rewritten version of a story Arthur had published several years earlier for a non-juvenile audience.
The grown-up story is better than the other in that we at least get to meet the suspects. The clock trick is sort of related. My favorite aspect of the AH collection tale is that hygvzngryl lbh qba’g arrq gb haqrefgnaq n sernxvat guvat nobhg pybpxf!! Nyy lbh unir gb qb vf xabj ubj gb pbhag!!
See, I do love a problem rooted in esoteric concerns, and really enjoys those concerns being crucial to the unravelling. Like, it’s nice if the — to pick an example at random — campanology actually plays into the plot and you get to learn about campanology as a bonus…otherwise you end up with what Noah would call an Information Mystery, a.k.a. “I want to show how much research I did about Subject X…oh, and there’s a crime in there somewhere, too, probably”.