To further reinforce the message of staying in and making your own fun this Winter, let’s return to the parlour game-esque antics of The Baffle Book (1930) and see what mental gymnastics the third quarter has in store for us.
In what is fast becoming a recurring theme, it doesn’t start well. ‘The Problem of Napoleon’s Signatures’ presents you with “facsimiles of eight authentic signatures of Napoleon I” and the occasions on which they were written: when he first became emperor in 1804, his exile on St. Helena in 1815, etc. And, yup, it’s a match ’em game, where you determine how he’d’ve been feeling and thus say which signature is from which event. You might guess right, you might guess wrong, but you will guess.
Next up, ‘The Great Imperial Bank Robbery’: robbers fleeing a bank raid in a car are chased by the police, who must rely on the tyre tracks left on muddy ground to track them. The tracks become confused with some others — parallel marks, so clearly a vehicle, with a third set running down the centre, so clearly a three-wheeled vehicle — and the car when pulled over contains no money and the men are dressed very differently to how they left the bank. What happened?
This provides a diagram that is both useful and completely useless, because it gives you only some of the information the investigators have. The way it’s written certainly makes it sound like it could have appeared slightly differently, but it also feels like it’s been deliberately phrased to invoke bafflement where none would exist (I suppose that is the title of the book…). After all, if these three-wheeled tracks appear out of nowhere and then disappear without warning after a bit, what else could the answer be?
Certain elements of next baffle ‘The Problem at the Abandoned Bungalow’ that are quite pleasing, which is nice. Based on cigarette butts, coffee cups, and dents in a wooden box you must deduce the number of members in the cocaine-smuggling gang that have been using said bungalow as their hideout. Then dents in the box are especially lovely, as is the era-specific deduction about the matches on the scene. Not all the deductions you’re supposed to come to work — it requires that nothing be moved, no-one move around too much, and everyone drink whisky — but this is one of the occasions when Wren and McKay seem to display the understanding of logical inference that can go missing elsewhere, and it’s lovely to see (though Dorothy L. Sayers might take issue with the cigar-based claim in the solution…).
A cipher confronts us in ‘The Warfield-Cobham Jewel Robbery’: the thief ‘Gentleman Claude’ appears to be the culprit of a jewel theft, but an accidental witness saw what appeared to be someone signalling him with a light from inside the house on the night of the burglary. The butler sent a letter out that certainly contained details of the crime, but since it’s in the form of a ‘Help Wanted’ advertisement in the local paper you have to work out how it could be done. For some reason — the police in these stories, you really do have to wonder — we’re not told which advert was his, instead being given the whole page with six different adverts and asked to work out which was the butler’s and if/how he used it to communicate with Claude.
What’s annoying here is that if the butler didn’t use his advert to communicate with Claude, there’s no solution — so obviously he did and the question should really be how. You spend ages reading all six adverts and trying various combinations of reading…and it gets boring, so I just looked up the answer. Given the compromising ad itself and none of the others, this would be a far more stimulating puzzle. Or it would, but for the fact that, when you look up the answer, it doesn’t actually come out as claimed. Here’s the message:
And here’s what the answer says in the back:
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but if I take every sixth word of that advertisement, the message that I get is:
back bureau South in immaterial a advancement wide evening
Those are…not the same thing. And this is not the first time that — presumably — Jesse’s editorial hand has naffed up a puzzle in transferring it from America to Britain for this edition. Did she understand that changing the question also changes the answer? Because at times it doesn’t look like it.
‘The La Joya River Homicide’ is tedious. A body is pulled out the river. You know when it was pulled out. You know when it went in. You know how fast the river is flowing. Work out where is was dropped in. “The murderer was never caught” we’re told. Was this really one of the best puzzles from the original selection?
By a failure of internal logic, ‘The Duvenant Kidnapping Case’ assures us it’s not possible to tell which direction a car was travelling on flat ground (Baffle No. 7 ‘The Wayside Mystery’ had assured you that it was…), but invokes Melville Davisson Post to explain how direction of travel can be deduced from tracks on a slope. Interesting, and lovely to see credit given to the originator of the idea, but a minor footnote in a story with too much detail. Why do we need to know about the position of the velocipede tracks? Although I did learn what a velocipede was, so there’s that.
Finally for today, it’s ‘The Lighthouse Tragedy at Dead Man’s Harbour’ which if not already the title of a Hardy Boys novel, should be. The setup here is superb: a lighthouse on a raised island which can be walked out to at low tide but is cut off by the sea when the tide comes in (think Lindisfarne or St. Michael’s Mount, but smaller), a vanishing lighthouse-keeper, and a mysterious trail in the sand out to the island itself, as if someone has dragged a plank after them to obfuscate their footprints. There’s something very shin honkaku about the setup, and the diagram of the lighthouse and the nearby mainland only enhances this — the idea of being so close to help but unable to reach it is a compelling one.
Throwing caution to the wind, I imagined some fabulously complex misdirection here…and would have done better to remember whereof I speculated. The actual answer is fine, but feels like a false solution in so interesting a setting. I’m half tempted to take this setup and turn it into a better story, but I lack the talent and so will instead just bemoan a wasted opportunity without offering anything better in its stead. That’s how criticism works, right? Also, gotta love how after the answer tells you that after a certain Mr. Jacbos is arrested for the murder — and the conclusion of murder seems a bit specious to me — the final line is simply “Jacobs was executed”. They didn’t fuck around in the 1930s, did they?
The Baffle Book, then, continues to fail to cover itself in glory. I’m not even that bothered any more, it just makes me sad. Sure, this could be the cumulative effect of a year that’s thrown nothing but misery, death, economic ruin, and incompetence at us from just about every direction possible, but I’d prefer to ignore that and blame these disappointingly-wrangled puzzles intended as a disposable form of entertainment. We should take more joy in the things we can control, y’know? Your family, your job, your day-to-day living. In hoping for The Baffle Book to provide a lift out of unremitting misery, I — uh, I mean, you, or we, I suppose — have learned the most valuable lesson of all: the true baffle is the human heart. Or something.
Stay safe, stay well; I hope those of you celebrating it have had an enjoyable, relaxing Christmas, and those of you not celebrating it have had an enjoyable, relaxing couple of days freed from the insanity of Christmas. Do not expect any more Baffle Book on here any time soon; I may not even finish it after this.
The Baffle Book as edited by F. Tennyson Jesse: