#684: Minor Felonies – Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries [ss] (1963): ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’ by Robert Arthur

Hitchcock STYM

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.

Banbery Three Blind Mice

Illustrations by Fred Banbery

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.

Given that earlier Arthur has, under the guise of these interjections, already told you he’s giving you a clue by recounting the properties of oak — it makes good furniture, the trees have acorns, they keep their leaves until late in the Fall, the bark can be used in tanning — and then playfully enquires “Is this any help?”, it’s fair to say that he’s rather enjoying himself with this one.

Like all dying messages, though, this has its flaws, mainly in that the victim saying “I suspect…” and presumably trying to name someone doesn’t necessarily mean that person is guilty: the suspicion could be misplaced.  However, the scheme utilised by our killer is clever, and I was delighted to pick up on the clues that pointed away from certain people (not necessarily to the guilty party, since there’s nothing to convince about them that a ready lie on their part couldn’t undo).  The detection along the way is enjoyable, too, like Andy’s suggested alternative use of a ladder and the way that his father and the investigating officer unpick the problems in it easily and, again crucially, in a manner that’s easy both to visualise and to understand.

verycutepomeranianpuppiespics

“You should probably put some stamps here, Jim.”

Then comes the second component, which sees Andy placed in jeopardy and required to think clearly under stressful circumstances to save himself.  This is…less successful, feeling as it does like an idea for a separate story that Arthur didn’t have the means to expand up into a standalone tale, but I enjoyed how it gave the killer a chance to demonstrate a moral aspect that it would be easy (or tempting, perhaps) to overlook.  It’s only a small aspect of the whole proceeding, but the idea that you can show a Bad Person still doing something that is essentially the Right Thing is very pleasing to me — I find the tendency of some juvenile fiction and quite a few movies to paint Bad Guys as capable of doing only Bad Things without compunction or scruple to be insultingly simplistic — and further evidence of Arthur’s great insight where this field of fiction is concerned.

Additionally, it’s pleasing to see Arthur’s rendition of the mystery story continue to take on so many forms — yes, there was a code last week, but the nature of that code was different and the method of solving it much more…mechanical, I suppose.  By advocating a variety of approaches he continues to show off the versatility of the genre, perhaps anticipating the capricious nature of his intended audience and mixing up the different styles so as to better keep them entertained along the way.  With two stories remaining in this collections, it remains to be seen just how much of the gamut he can run, but he’s doing very well so far and it would take a brave or foolish person indeed to bet against his continuing to reach for even more options from the wealth of material available to him.  I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.

4 thoughts on “#684: Minor Felonies – Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries [ss] (1963): ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’ by Robert Arthur

  1. This is my favorite story in the collection, but I have to admit I don’t remember the code part. In those simpler times when I first read this, there was nobody around to tell me that dying messages were silly clues. I loved them, and I still do. However, they are admittedly tricky things: because the nature of a good dying message is that it should be capable of serious misinterpretation, it should never be the be-all/end-all clue. Henry Wade does this nicely in The Dying Alderman, where you’re presented with the message right away, and then Wade moves on to more important matters, solves the case . . . and then explains the dying message at the very last minute.

    Now that I think of it, I can’t remember the fourth story at all. I haven’t been reading along with your posts, but I think I need to reread about the man who evaporated before next Tuesday!!

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    • I enjoy a dying message, though since TomCat got me reading Case Closed I think that the English language isn’t really geared towards it. No tongue that admits puns, homonyms, and lazy rhyme scheme so easily is ever going to provide the necessary rigour the dying clue requires to be compelling. Seen as a bit of linguistic tomfoolery it had huge potential, but I prefer it taken as a piece of the jigsaw rather than the picture on the box.

      And, having just read ‘The Man Who Evaporated’ I can safely say that there’s a good chance you’ve already read ‘The Man Who Evaporated’. Though tune in next week for that parting shot to be explained. Unless I die in the meantime, in which case figure it out for yourself…

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  2. I think I must have read a different version of this story, as I don’t remember the “uncrackable code” part at all – but maybe it’s my memory at fault, given that I read it over 50 years ago!

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    • 50 years ago?! But you pepper your messages with the emojis of a 30 year-old! Man, this is really messing with my perceptions of people based on their blog comments…

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