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

Hitchcock STYM

For the fifth and final Tuesday in June — holy hell, that means the year is practically half over — the fifth and final story in this collection.

Here’s the rundown of what we’ve looked at:

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’

And, well, it’s long been a homily of mine that no-one ever wrote or compiled a collection of short stories without at least one duff.  Even The Speciality of the House (1979) by Stanley Ellin, probably the most brilliant collection of short fiction ever assembled, has one dud slap in the middle of it, so there’s no shame in any assemblage of short mystery fiction following suit.

verycutepomeranianpuppiespics

“I think I know where this is going…!”

‘The Mystery of the Four Quarters’ has some very good ideas, as you’d expect from Arthur, but the final utilisation of them all together is…flawed.  And, in a reversal of ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’ a few weeks back — which had one mystery solved and then stirred up an extra intrigue for the last ten pages — this resolves itself, stops, and…nothing.  If anything, this was the story that needed an extra thread, if only to make up for the unsatisfying way that the mystery is resolved.  Here more than anywhere else in this collect, ‘Solve It Yourself’ is not an assertion that really holds true.

Following twins Nick and Bettye — no, that’s not a typing error, so enjoy trying to figure out how the hell it’s pronounced — Layton, this starts with a great idea which is introduced and then dropped almost immediately: the Blackwell mansion, built by Mr. Amos Blackwell, where everything is scaled down to approximately half size in order to accommodate that millionaire’s dwarfism.  It’s a great setting, and it would have been fun to see Arthur play with the possibilities, but instead the twins are told to investigate it via a letter from Peter Perkins (he of ‘The Mystery of the Seven Wrong Clocks’) and are then kidnapped from the house by two thugs and locked up in a room with…a table tennis table.  And since it turns out that Peter Perkins didn’t tell them to investigate the house anyway, the inclusion of a character from a previous story — complete with footnote telling you that it is the same person — is an unnecessary touch that adds nothing and simply ends up being bizarre.

But we’re not done with the interesting ideas yet: the head goon, Mr. Nemo, is from unspecified foreign parts and obviously very proud of his English:

“A very interesting colloquy, meaning an informal conference or conversation,” the small, fat man observed.  “See, I know more English words than most Americans.  I study it very hard.  I know twelve languages, but English is the hardest.”

Not only does this enable the riddle-loving twins to have some interesting conversations with Nemo in order to help his mastery of the language (“Why is a foolish man like a bunch of artificial flowers and a counterfeit dollar?”), but it also provides the principle by which the mystery comes into play.  When the purpose behind their kidnapping is revealed, and they are asked to write a letter to their father assuring him that they are being treated well, the twins concoct a hasty means of hiding within the letter how they might be found.  Obviously is must be coded, since Mr. Nemo is going to read the letters before they are sent, but the preceding conversations about wordplay and the vagaries of the English language should enable some anticipation of some very clever occlusion on their (well, Arthur’s) part.

Banbery Four Quarters

Illustration by Fred Banbery

Now.  I’m not saying these clues are bad, but even Ted Rogers would have blanched at some of the links you’re supposed to make (Google “Ted Rogers 3-2-1 clues” if that reference leaves you baffled).  For instance, when Bettye has written about a horse in her letter and Nick writes in his that “Peggy’s as a good a name as any” for a horse…this is supposed to get you thinking of Pegasus and the explanation provided by ‘Alfred Hitchcock’ at the end says with a straight face:

Pegasus of course was the flying horse of mythology.  Today’s flying horse, I think you will agree, is the airplane.

…from which Nick’s father is to deduce that he needs to take an aeroplane to fly to rescue them.  Arthur goes to great lengths to point out various clues along the way — telling you, via Hitch, which paragraphs to go back and read, say — but it’s hardly satisfying to see in the final summation that you’ve been pointed towards one glaringly obvious pointer (which, in fairness, I had forgotten, exercising my brain as I was in the hop of decoding something in the missives) only because the remained is beyond the scope of…well, I’ve already made a Ted Rogers reference and I don’t really know what else fits.

Some nice ideas creep in, such as the use of diacritics in a way that feels like Arthur throwing a playful nod at the books in Latin and Greek that are found in the Blackwell mansion (so we get coöperate and fȯreigner).  Plus, I love the idea of an old-fashioned doorbell with a handle that you spin, and if I ever earn sufficient money to buy an isolated mansion house, that’s darn tootin’ the sort of doorbell I shall install…but, well, given the richness of possibilities this offered — I had envisaged the oversized lug Fritz crashing around a half-sized house, which has a lot of potential, I feel — these little glimmers are little more than that.

This story, then, is not to be taken as a bellwether for the collection overall — Arthur’s fictitious felonies show him to have a masterful command of the form when at his best, and we all have our off days.  Were I to rank the five stories in this collection in terms of quality, I’d probably go with the following:

1. ‘The Mystery of the Man Who Evaporated’
2. ‘The Mystery of the Five Sinister Thefts’
3. ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’

Then allow a gap for three or four other stories, and then…

4. ‘The Mystery of the Seven Wrong Clocks’
5. ‘The Mystery of the Four Quarters’

This collection has been much more fun than not, though, and only increases my resolve to track down a copy of Arthur’s collection Mystery and More Mystery (1966).  One of these days…

2 thoughts on “#690: Minor Felonies – Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries [ss] (1963): ‘The Mystery of the Four Quarters’ by Robert Arthur

  1. Don’t deprive yourself of ‘Mystery and More Mystery’, as it’s really a splendid tome, and quite affordable (though shipping *can* be prohibitive); aside from the stories themselves and Saul Lambert’s gorgeously moody cover, there’s a feature I think you’ll be very interested in: at the end of the book, there’s an eight-page section wherein the author graciously provides specific insights into the inspiration and composition of each tale. I live for that kind of stuff and, I surmise, so do you. For a peek at the cover, here’s a nice copy on eBay: https://ebay.to/3eRfK3F

    Like

    • Rest assured, it’s not some long-suffering self-abnegation, I simply can’t find it in decent quality for a sensible price. I’m sure I could scour the internets more thoroughly, but I like the romance of finding it in some corner of a secondhand bookshop at some point. Plus, my TBR doesn’t need augmentation at this stage…! I’ll definitely get to it in due course, but thanks for the reassurance that it’s a more-than-worthwhile purchase.

      Liked by 1 person

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