A little while back, I decided that short story collections don’t really merit an overall star rating since the stories should be considered individually. Thus, I stopped reviewing them on Thursdays and moved them to weekends. The upshot of this is that I now have a lot of unreviewed short story collections, so I’m going to pick out four single-author bundles to look at on Tuesdays in February. And first up is this collection recommended to me by Christian of Mysteries, Short and Sweet.
Written between 1947 and 1967, the eight stories in this collection all feature armchair detective Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Welt, Snowdon Professor of English Language and Literature at an unnamed American university, who is very much the Sherlock to his Watson narrator, the unnamed County Attorney of Fairfield, MA (the proximity to Washington and Boston suggests Massachusetts over the countless other Fairfields in the USA, plus Kemelman was born there). The opening story aside, these all follow a broadly similar pattern: a crime has been committed, to which the answer is either unknown or taken as a foregone conclusion, and Nicky, through his association with the CA, is often on the scene to be told the details and draw, through logical inferences alone, a surprising answer out of the facts.
In contrast with, say, Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner — about whom more here and here — Nicky learns the information as the reader learns it, and his deductions are drawn in ‘real time’ rather than having been reached long before the story opens. What’s interesting in this regard is how Kemelman changes the approach of his sleuth following the almost accidental success of that first case: starting out to prove that “a chain of inferences could be logical and still not be true”, the intention of the following stories is not to similarly make logical, albeit incorrect, leaps but instead to use the inferences of logic to prove the accepted answer (where one exists) wrong. Part of me would love to read a series of stories in which someone comes in a plays pure Devil’s Advocate on the way to conjuring up all manner of watertight false solutions, but I suppose that wouldn’t really be in the spirit of the Amateur Sleuth.
Anyway, the stories are great. Kemelman is immensely readable, and his ideas — while not always the most surprising in terms of the conclusions reached — are packed in tight to narratives that barrel along and manage to throw in false leads, incorrect inferences, and good old fashioned ‘Ah, hell, why didn’t I see that?!’ moments that rank among some of the best I’ve encountered in short fiction for quite some time. Eight stories in 20 years, after all, shows that Kemelman was willing to wait for the right idea to come along before committing anything to paper, and it’s an approach that pays off.
It’s really rather delightful seeing how firmly in the Golden Age tradition virtually all of these are written. From little quotidian considerations like a man not wanting to be asked the time in ‘Time and Time Again’, a.k.a. ‘The Man with Two Watches’ (1962) and the implications of a man boiling a kettle in ‘The Whistling Tea Kettle’, a.k.a. ‘The Adelphi Bowl’ (1963), Welt is able to build a chain of (yeah, sure, slightly shaky) logic that’s all the more delightful for being so gosh-darned accessible to us, the dim-witted reader at home. Welt may not be an obvious Sherlock Holmes analogue — though, come on, he’s irascible, dismissive of anything but hard reasoning (“I am not unfamiliar with the more insane theories of the transcendentalists…”), and lives like a monk in a boarding house with a landlady who worships him — but he might be the most invigorating update of the Holmes type in quite some time.
The quotidian is one thing, but Kemelman also embraces the baroque aspects of the puzzle mystery: the choice of an unlikely weapon from those arrayed in a private collection in ‘The Ten O’Clock Scholar’ (1952), the deliberate inclusion of carefully-placed fingerprints on a ransom note in ‘The Straw Man’ (1950), the use of a complex gambit in a chess game in ‘End Play’ (1950), even the second-hand story of someone dying on the other side of town as their name is cursed in ‘Time and Time Again’ leans into the supernatural. And, as we would hope, all these principles become staggeringly clear when merely a little logic is applied to them — the chess gambit in particular, which Kemelman is smart enough to know won’t be a topic the overwhelming majority of his readers are going to grasp.
Some great interior reasoning also helps progress past some of the potential sticking points in Welt’s arguments, too — why a murderer wouldn’t have worn gloves is a key part of the explanation for the choice of weapon in ‘Scholar’, or the choice of room for the apparent suicide in ‘End Play’ leading to an extended piece of reasoning that lays bare the entire structure of the crime — for crime it is — that has been committed. I also loved the moment in the ‘The Nine Mile Walk’ (1947) where Welt asserts that “we are far more likely to know the distance of the city from a given point than we are to know the distance of a given point from the city”; this isn’t without fault — we’re assuming that only one route to and from such a point exists, and the nine miles of the title are frankly alarmingly serendipitous as a piece of knowledge (and maybe it’s an American thing, but it seem to me you would — by which I mean that I would — dwell on the time taken rather than the distance…), but the principle is good, and its execution fun.
What is very impressive, too, is the sheer scope Kemelman has in these tales for false solutions and alternative explanations. It’s not quite an Inspector Joseph French level of pursuing false leads, but simple asides in ‘Scholar’ and ‘The Bread and Butter Case’, a.k.a. ‘A Winter’s Tale’ (1962) give our narrator a chance to look ahead in what seems a surprising direction but, ultimately and to the surprise of no-one, turns out to be wrong. Given that the fault of most whodunnit short stories is how obvious they are, however — and, as I say above, the culprit will hardly surprise in most of these — it’s great work to be able to throw sand in the eyes of the reader and have them wavering in their conviction for even a moment. Hell, ‘End Play’ manages to have essentially three solutions, since it also contains the old Competing Detectives trope.
If you want to know about the collection’s flaws, well, final story ‘The Man on the Ladder’ (1967) is about twice as long as it needs to be and perhaps answers the question of why Kemelman didn’t return to Welt despite continuing to write mysteries — all novels, as far as I can tell, in his Rabbi Small series — for nearly three decades after this. The deductions are good, and it’s well-written (if overstuffed with characters and backstories whose roles, it has to be said, smell rather of the pickled herring after seven light and devious entries that preceded it), but the overall effect is less inspired than the previous entries; maybe it simply seems less good because of the brilliance that has preceded it, who knows? The last line is a kicker, and the Edmund Crispin-esque clue falls lightly and resounds superbly…so maybe read this one first and then go through the others to see that same insight applied even more brilliantly elsewhere.
I know how much everyone enjoys telling me how wrong I am when I make a list, but since the standard here is so high it would seem churlish to order these in accordance with my current tastes. However, while the title story is perhaps the most well-known, I’d name ‘End Play’, ‘Time and Time Again’, and ‘The Whistling Tea Kettle’ as my top three — deceptively simple, perfectly weighted in terms of details and clues, and crammed with so much of what made the detective puzzle the king of genres for a while. So, in case it’s not abundantly clear, this is a book that I highly recommend you track down. And read. Along with It’s About Crime (1960) by MacKinlay Kantor, this is one of the best collections of short fiction I’ve read and, unlike the Kantor, this one is readily available: Open Road Media put it out as an ebook a couple of years back. So what are you waiting for…?