A surgeon, a policeman, a psychiatrist, a mathematician, and a pathologist walk into a club — the foundation not of some esoteric wit but instead the Dilettante’s Club, a dinner-and-discussion group who meet fortnightly for their own entertainment. And when Professor Marcus Stubbs joins their number, those discussions take a frequent turn into the realm of the impossible crime.
So runs the essential setup for Death and the Professor (1961), a collection of eight short stories by E. & M.A. Radford that follow the well-established pattern: someone holds forth on a crime, making its very impossibility clear, and Professor Stubbs picks through the aspects that stand out to his logical brain to show how the answer was staring the police in the face all the time. It’s a tried and tested formula — Nigel Moss’s introduction highlights the similar setups in The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley and the Black Widower stories (1972-91) of Isaac Asimov — and one that works very well here. The stories are easy to read (the Radfords having been at this for a while by this point in their career) and unroll in such a manner that the incidents are clear to the mind and eye and thus easy to follow, and the problems distinct enough to stick clearly in the mind.
Arguably six of the first seven tales are apparent impossibilities — the shooting of a man in a locked room, the poisoning of a man who shared his food with an unaffected acquaintance, the murder of four criminals with no poison in sight, the vanishing of a murderer from a locked train compartment, the poisoning of a woman seemingly achievable by only an innocent man, and the murder of a woman in a locked, watched, and otherwise empty flat — with the story christened ‘The Strange Case of the Sleepers’ by the newspapers (the only one to have a title bestowed upon it, the rest simply being chapters 2 to 5, say) concerning thefts accomplished while the victims fell asleep for no accountable reason. The last story, concerning a man see alive when the science suggests he was dead, isn’t pushed so hard as an impossibility, relying instead on the interpretation that one of the two situations must have resulted in genuine error.
Some nods to the classics aside — there’s an “Inspector Lestrode”, the poisoning of the four criminals is described as having a setup “better than a Christie thriller”, Stubbs expresses disdain with a well-timed “Pfui!” — it would be very difficult to place the era of these stories based on their contents alone. The Radfords have a slightly late-Victorian air about their schemes, and feel perhaps fittingly about as comfortable as did Dame Agatha when venturing into the lucrative waters of international thrills, suggesting that the genre had not extended to such considerations yet, and moment such as a woman saying “Damn!” upon hearing a gunshot “probably be[ing] held against her for the remainder of her stay…she being a consistent church-goer” place this somewhere around the 1920s. At the same time, the utilisation of science is insightful and informed — powder burns around the site of a gunshot wound, casual references to “the laboratory lads” doing the usual tests for poisons or gasses, the specific use of the properties of one gas neatly side-stepping a ‘poison previously unknown to science’ accusation — and would you really get away with a sentence this playful in the 1910s?:
He staggered into the hospital with head and face wounds, as well as a broken rib or two, and was taken off the bed. There he bellowed for a ‘dick’, and when the doctors understood what he meant, they telephoned the police.
However, some of these criminous schemes are, er, not exactly well-developed, and at times we veer into the Victorian tendency for outright lying in order to preserve the surprise ending: that locked room shooting, for instance, achieves its appearance of impossibility from something relayed as a fact that relies on an oversight surely too large to occur. Equally, every time you’re told that a door was observed during the crucial period and no-one could possibly have gotten in or out…rest assured, the observer wasn’t actually there the whole time. Additionally, for Stubbs to shine, not only must the police be quite exceptionally dense (not exactly a new feature of crime fiction, it must be said…) but there are also some leaps of logic that would terrify anyone trained in the discipline (the discussion about perception and induction in the sleeping case is swiftly ignored by Stubbs at a key point, n’est ce pas?).
However, this is 1961, an era wherein the puzzle plot has fallen from favour and, I’m sure, not a great deal of this sort of thing was being written. In that regard the currents of criticism could turn awry, because clearly the Radfords are working to popularise or sustain a neglected style of somewhat faded glamour and we could absolve their flaws on the basis of this good work. But, well, there is that (at least glancing) familiarity with what has come before woven through all these stories, and you’d be hard pressed to admit that anything here really builds on these foundations. Indeed, so much of it is straight up repurposing of common and familiar ideas that it’s possible a lot of the time to ascertain the solution once the crime is explained. That would probably be the case all the time but for those unfortunate, er, mis-truths thrown in to, one imagines, forestall such eventualities. So for the aficionado this falls down by reason of design, and for the newby it doesn’t really show the genre at anything like its most appealing.
And yet, almost frustratingly, it is a very difficult collection to dismiss out of hand. The stories really are very pleasing to read, with prose polished to maximum efficiency (lingering descriptions on the food being eaten aside, but I appreciate this is partly a touch of verisimilitude), and events told clearly and compactly. Additionally, each story does a great job in folding these familiar ideas into narratives that actually support them: yes, you know what the answer is going to be, but some very good work is done in writing a setup so that it feels natural, or at least believable, and also admits the solution without much in the way of objections. Allied to this is the fact that some decent work is done in laying or suggesting false solutions, or in first establishing possible explanations that are rejected for good and sensible reasons rather than simply diving straight in to the heart of the matter and hitting the bull first try, and a humanising element introduced by the personal frailties of the criminal ‘Lady Dan’, say, or the admission that the police know guilty men go free from the courts and are powerless to do anything until they transgress again.
Overall, Death and the Professor feels as if it’s stuck between stools in trying to make the apparently sere trappings of the classic-era puzzle clear yet relevant to a 1960s audience about to have other things on their minds. “Is there nothing new under the sun, then, Professor?” Stubbs is asked in slightly long-suffering tones at one point, and it’s tempting to see that as an expression of frustration by one of the Radfords after crafting such pleasing little tales that nevertheless bring nothing new to the genre and, unfortunately, came at a time when, even if they had been the most brilliantly dazzling ideas going, would doubtless have been overlooked by the ever-shifting genre passions of the age. You come away from it feeling a little sorry for them — they were ether 30 years too late or 60 too early.
Who, then, do these stories suit? Well, given the reservations above, I can’t deny enjoying these — I’d love there to be more originality and a little more effort put into the deception or conclusions, but the simple truth is that I enjoyed them and look forward to reading more of the Radfords’ work. For something undemanding they come highly recommended, and for those interested in plot construction in the genre this is almost a nuts-and-bolts guide at times. Those hoping for rhapsodies of rigour need not apply, but if you’ve dug around in reading a lot in the genre the Radfords will bring immense charm to your deepening that hole a little.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: [O]bviously written as a nostalgic tribute, or a fond farewell, to the detective story’s Golden Age brimming to the rim with all the classics from locked room murders and stolen gems to mysterious poisonings and a surprise ending. A tribute tour that came at the expense of the ingenuity and originality that can be found in the Radford’s novel-length detective stories, but every, long-time mystery addict will appreciate this warm homage to their drug of choice.
Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: The Radfords’ style lends itself well to the short story form – some of their novels have, to my mind, dragged a tad in the the middle section, but with a limited word count, the focus is much more on the crime and the deduction is simple and elegant. The stories are well-constructed, even if some solutions are a bit old hat – the poisoned sandwich story has been done before with exactly the same method, but I’ll be damned if I can remember where. Have to say, I wasn’t convinced it would work the first time I read it, and I still don’t… Oh, and the impossible falling asleep case is a bit sub-par.