Last week we had the shortest mystery in this collection, this week it’s the longest.
Before we get any further, the roster of this month’s posts looks like this as I work my way through the pre-Three Investigators Robert Arthur-penned mysteries that comprise Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries (1963):
1. ‘The Mystery of the Five Sinister Thefts’
2. ‘The Mystery of the Seven Wrong Clocks’
3. ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’
4. ‘The Mystery of the Man Who Evaporated’
5. ‘The Mystery of the Four Quarters’
‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’ is a surprisingly elaborate and ornate piece of work, which benefits from some moody scene-setting and yet another observant juvenile sleuth, and improves on ‘Seven Wrong Clocks’ by allowing the mystery to have not one but two components — both a Dying Message and an Uncrackable Code.
The first of these sees investigator Porterfield Adams and his young son Andy summoned to “the only genuine haunted castle in North America” which its owner, millionaire Nigel Mayfair, has had shipped over from the Scottish border with England, proud of the fact that “blood ran deep on the floors more than once in the days when the Scots and the British [sic] were at war”. Keen to replicate the original castle to its fullest extent, Mayfair has even dug a 30-foot wide moat around it and kept the drawbridge that is the only way across to the ‘mainland’…though the addition of electricity, an elevator, and a gigantic steel safe-cum-strongroom are perhaps not entirely in keeping with the castle’s original aspect.
And its the contents of that strongroom that have brought us all here. For Nigel Mayfair is a fanatical philatelist, driven by the need to hoard “stamps nobody else has! The most, the best, and the rarest!” and it is in this strongroom that he keeps his near-priceless collection, and from which several articles have vanished in recent weeks. This is all the more vexing because Mayfair’s elaborate safety precautions — including a cloud of poison gas that it seems unlikely he got permission from the local council to install — include a six-letter word that only he knows and “not a chance in a million any thief could stumble on the right combo”. Nevertheless, “[s]omebody in this house has got into my vault and stole [sic] some of my most precious little beauties!”.
This all gets even more complicated when it transpires that Mayfair has nothing but enmity surrounding him, and that everyone in the household — his butler, his bodyguard, his stepson, his sister-in-law — has enough hate in their heart to dispose of the old invalid (he has, you see, a habit of collecting dirt on the castle’s other denizens). And this gets complicated further when, staying overnight at Mayfair’s insistence, Andy and his father are woken in the early hours by a yell and the sound of Mayfair shouting into the castle’s PA system “I suspect mice!” before being found dead in his bed, having been shot through the window. Add to this a neighbour with whom Mayfair was on unfriendly terms, and to whose house the bullet holes in the window pane seem to point, and you have a neat little murder mystery with a lot going on.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve encountered this story in any of the various locations where it was published under the title of ‘The Case of the Murderous Mice’ — certainly, this isn’t the first or last time in this collection that Arthur will have repurposed a previous story for a juvenile audience. I’ve not read that version, and so know only from its listing in Locked Room Murders (2nd ed., revised 2018) that Bob Adey considered it an impossible crime, which I’d argue is not the case with the presentation here: sure, it could be suggested that there’s an element of alibi-ing for the apparently guilty parties, but Arthur does nothing to drive home the impossible nature of the crime as he would with his bona fide impossible short stories. Also, maybe it’s not really impossible in its original version, either — the more I pick through Adey, the more I realise that he made some unusual choices about the perceived impossible nature of certain stories. But, that’s a discussion for another time.
Quite aside from the core mystery itself, there are some very interesting things happening here that almost feel rich enough to support a mystery on their own: the use of the homonym “killer” — not the one usually found in this type of story — or the legitimate forensic insight which enables Andy to determine the order which three bullets came through the window, and how that is used to line up a bullet in the room with the correct hole to determine where it came from. Not simply hanging everything on one Big Reveal is a neat trick that the best detective stories have up their sleeve, and Arthur plays it well here for his younger audience with something that will also please the adults in the room.
Additionally, the ‘Alfred Hitchcock interjects…’ moments contain some little gems: the fact that its possible to deduce the precise date on which these events occur, or the moment he crops up to point out, yet again that clues have been placed in the foregoing section and the attentive reader should be able to therefore exclude one or more of the suspects from consideration:
If you missed the clue, it will do no harm to reread the last few pages. At the very least it will give you practice in reading, and make the book last longer.