Having previously read two fabulous impossible crime stories by Robert Arthur, I was especially eager to see what he’d cooked up for this week’s tale.
To bring you up to speed, this is the program for this month, where I’m working through the stories Arthur concocted for the Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries (1963) collection:
Both ‘The 51st Sealed Room’, a.k.a. ‘The MWA Murder’ (1951) and ‘The Glass Bridge’ (1957) managed to dispatch their victims in entertaining fashion from a sealed cabin and a snow-surrounded house respectively, and seeing Arthur turn his eye to another swing at the impossible for a juvenile audience was something to be keenly anticipated. So when this tale starts with high school teacher Howard Matthews taking student and mystery fan Jeff Landrum along to a meeting of the Mystery Writers of America and introducing him to Harley Newcombe who “writes mysteries that take place inside locked rooms” who is about to write his fiftieth locked room mystery based around a brilliant and baffling idea…well, the deja vu was strong.
Because, yes, this is ‘The 51st Sealed Room’ except the author in that was called Gordon Waggoner and had come up with the same method for his, er, fifty-first example of the form, not his fiftieth. And, look, it’s a great story, it really is, and it would take a churlish soul to find fault with having to read ‘The 51st Sealed Room’…but I suppose I was disappointed because I hadn’t realised until this point that some of the tales herein — it as also true of the previous two in this collection — were reworked versions of extant tales Arthur had originally aimed at a more grown up audience. He’s not even contravening some sort of mystery writer code or expectation by telling the same story twice, since we know authors like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr would expand short stories up into novellas and novels for a past-time (c.f. ‘The Case of the Caretaker’ (1942)/Endless Night (1967)) and so there’s really no grounds for complaint at all. But, maaaan, I was really hoping for an original impossible crime story, because Arthur was fabulous.
I’ve also run into the difficulty of having written about this story under its other title before, and so doing so a second time seems a little redundant. The method is the same, the resolution is the same, the motive is the same, the means of discovery for the motive is the same…why would you want to mess with something that’s already so damned good?! So let’s look at a couple of key differences instead, since I have to write something and it might be interesting.
In the version I read, Arthur name-checks and briefly features the authors Lawrence Blochman, John Dickson Carr, Brett Halliday, Helen McCloy, Clayton Rawson, Helen Reilly (“who probably had forgotten more about police procedure than most of the writers present would ever know”), Georges Simenon, Rex Stout, and Percival Wilde trusting, you must suppose, that they were in fashion at the time and so would mean something to a sizeable cross-section of his readership. By 1963, however, some of these names would have fallen from favour, and for a younger audience others would perhaps land with more impact. And so we have:
Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of the world-famous Perry Mason [who] turned out to be a stocky, energetic lawyer… The equally famous Ellery Queen turned out to be two men who worked as a team [and] The Great Merlini…whose real name turned out to be something else…and who actually proved to be a magician himself.
I find the inclusion of Merlini interesting here because I can well believe that ESG and the Queens would be familiar to young people on account of TV and radio, but the handful of movies and TV shows featuring Merlini wouldn’t have had the same level of cultural impact, surely? Also, weren’t the Great Merlini books published under Rawson’s own name? The only time I’m aware of the The Great Merlini being listed as an author is as the author of a book about magic tricks, so surely Jeff’s realisations are all the wrong way round here — if he knows him as the Great Merlini, he should be surprised that he wrote mystery novels.
Illustrations by Fred Banbery
Anyhoo, the crime here is also — understandably — slightly different from the original version, since the following scene would doubtless scar too many young minds to be worth the risk:
The writer’s body had been found in his Connecticut cottage, seated at his desk, one hand resting on the keys of his typewriter, the other apparently in the very act of moving the spacer arm.
The body had no head.
Gordon Waggoner’s head, silvery hair carefully combed, had been found perched on a large beer stein, on top of the bookcase which held a complete set of first editions of his own books.
Instead, the focus is on Newcombe’s disappearing from a cottage whose windows and doors are all nailed shut, the only clues being his typewriter upon which is written “Help! Help! I’m starting to shrink…” and a trails of footprints apparently made in blood. Oh, shrinking footprints, as if he was indeed getting smaller as he ran away…though where to, and how me must have shrunk, is of course the point.
A couple of nice clues present themselves, at least one of which has gone thoroughly out of fashion in the intervening years, and our killer gets surprisingly lucky with a key aspect of the crime, but I really enjoyed this story first time around and still really enjoyed it here. In my review of this I wrote that the original version “contains flashes of the sort of ghoulish creativity that you get the impression Arthur has to restrain himself from including in his T3I output” and I’m pleased to think that he was able to retool it for younger readers to appreciate. It does a thing similar to The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson in making you think about a physical space differently, and it’s that precise creativity when presented with apparent known and fixed principles that bring out the best in mystery readers. Several young minds would have no doubt been touched by this and moved to investigate further, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
But, well, I still can’t help but wish it was an original method. This shows how great Arthur could be at his best, and it’s always tempting to want Just One More New Story from the greats…