#777: Circumstantial Evidence – The Baffle Book (1930) by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay [ed. F. Tennyson Jesse] Problems 22 to 28

I struggle to think of the last thing I read that disappointed me as much as F. Tennyson Jesse’s 1930 edit of Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay’s Baffle Book puzzles. From stories where subtle changes in detail make finding the solution impossible (‘The Warfield-Cobham Jewel Robbery’) to those whose insistence of physical evidence is so ignorant as to defy explanation (‘The Wayside Mystery’) it’s been a…not good time.

Herewith, then, the final seven puzzles so that I can move on with my life.

First, ‘Who Murdered Algernon Ashe?’ sees the eponymous playboy and womaniser found shot in the back while having apparently been awaiting a liaison with his latest beau. His pockets were rifled and valuable items ignored, so it seems case of pure vengeance rather than theft. Add to this a letter for Ashe that arrives the next day from “M.” saying that she is being called away suddenly by “him” and will be back in a few days to elope with Ashe and, well, there’s your motive. All well and good.

Three women whose names begin with M and who left the hotel the previous day are identified, and you must choose between them for Ashe’s conquest and (it is taken as read) the man in her company who is responsible for the murder: fathers, brothers, husbands. A burned piece of card found at the scene proves crucial, of course, but I sincerely doubt anyone would have reasoned this out since about 1940 — it’s refreshing that you’re not required to intuit the missing text on the back of the card (c.f. ‘The Problem of the Forger’s Torn Note’), and the reasoning ain’t bad…but you’re not solving this, no way no how.

‘Edouard Trimpi’s Perplexing Dispatch’ sees a New York paper receive a baffling telegram from a correspondent in Barcelona and then, upon contacting said correspondent for an explanation, learning he had been arrested and is incommunicado. What in the telegram will explain his arrest? Clumsy analogies! Fascinating for the historical context — genuinely, fascinating — but nothing more.

I live in London, so ‘The Club Car Mystery at Syracuse’ opening with the description of a passenger train hurrying to make up time because it’s running 15 minutes late strikes a false note straight away. The history here is again more interesting that the problem — a “club car” being, apparently, almost a literal gentlemen’s club on wheels where, no wimmin allowed, men could smoke and play cards and “tell each other all about their wives and other people’s wives” — with a passenger being denied entry to the car and, at the next station, an unconscious porter discovered within.

There seems to be a real lack of information for the deductions needed — Q: Where is the brakeman from the carriage beyond? Q: Why is there a dead body on the tracks behind the train? Q: Where is the murderer? Q: Is the brakeman an accomplice? — and this is because the answers are simplistic at best (A: Probably dead on the tracks back there somewhere — A: Probably because someone shot him — A: Jumped from the train, probably — A: No, probably). The only really interesting feature is the insistence that, when asked the time, “no railroad man” would say “eight of eight” and would instead say “seven fifty-two” and this highlights my precise problem with these supposed edits of these stories: it’s such an American phraseology, and so key to the mystery (indeed, it is arguably the only clue) that including it in a selection of stories that have, elsewhere, been amended to make them solvable by British readers is…appropriately baffling.

It also reminds me of the convenient law of Everybody Does — like in The Hog’s Back Mystery (1933) by Freeman Wills Crofts where Inspector French has to track down an unknown woman based on her unpredictable movements around London and is able to do so because he knows she would have stopped for afternoon tea at 2:30 (because Everybody Does, see). In many ways this is a nice piece of reasoning, but at the same time my brain revolts at the idea that every single person in Group X would exhibit Behaviour Y. C’mon, really?

“We’re worried about you, Jim.”

India in 1879 is the setting for ‘The Mystery of Haji Lal Deb’, in which a wealthy merchant vanishes without trace, and suspicion falls on a servant dismissed from the man’s house. Once again, the history here — the region is stricken with the plague — is lovely, and this is, in fact, the exact sort of story you could see Melville Davisson Post writing. It has about it the simplicity of Edmund Crispin’s best short works, based as it is on a single clever idea, and the only real flaw that can be levelled at it is that there is really nothing from an evidentiary perspective to make it worth constructing a baffle around. However, the fundamental quality of this makes it shine like a diamond in the rough, and I’ll take whatever positives I can get at this stage.

The next two cases are guilty of the backwards reasoning that sees so many of these stories fail: backwards because the writers know what the answer is, and so consider the, er, clues placed to point in one direction only.

Firstly, ‘The Strange Case of the Promissory Note’, in which a recently widowed lady is presented with evidence that her late (and very wealthy) husband had agreed to pay a sum of money to an old business acquaintance. This agreement, as the title suggests, is presented in the form of a note bearing the man’s signature — examination of said note showing signs of it having been typed on a typewriter from the appropriate era, as well as the signature being genuine and bearing out the characteristics of the deceased gentleman at that time of his life. All well and good, except that the Golden Age taught us to be suspicious of typed notes — suicide, promissory, or otherwise — and so it must be fake; the question is how to prove it.

The reasoning used here is intended to be clever, but doesn’t convince. Indeed, given the apparent ubiquity of the central item in the con — both out of vogue these days and, despite my understanding to the contrary, difficult to believe ever put to the purpose it was — the argument could be made that the signature was done in that manner because it was the one form of paper easily to hand at the time. Checkmate. I should have been a lawyer in the 1920s; my complete lack of scruples in these fictional circumstances would have seen me make a (no doubt equally fictional) fortune.

“Challenge reality!”

Additionally, ‘The Death of Barnabas Frobisher’ — found shot in the middle of the forehead while alone in his house with a butler who claimed not the hear the gun — is so obviously a faked suicide that you’re never encouraged to think of alternative interpretations. The location of the wound is the giveaway here (Edmund Crispin would expand on this in The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944), aided by a rare appearance of Mrs. Fen), as is the fact that marks of gunpowder are found on “the backs of the fingers of both hands” despite only one shot being fired. You’re given a map of the room, then told the evidence of that map could be worthless (it is), and thankfully it turns out to be murder, deduced from possibly the shonkiest piece of reasoning in the entire book (rot13: gung n zna nobhg gb or fubg va gur snpr jbhyq unir “pynccrq uvf unaqf bire uvf rlrf” frrzf engure gbb snapvshy gb zr).

There’s an Anthony Berkeley-esque alternative explanation that works just as well, but is conveniently ignored: it is suicide, made up to look like murder-disguised-as-suicide (the note later found in Frobisher’s papers, taken as positive evidence above, could be complete fabrication for the purposes of vengeance): were Frobisher to hold the gun in front of his forhead with both hands to steady it, the shot would leave gunpowder on the backs of his fingers. Checkmate. The motive could even be the same as in the story already — it would make about as much sense. Frankly, the weirdest part of the whole thing is the butler claiming not to hear the shot when alone in the house. That changes…nothing.

This inability to let things go and just have fun is why no-one invites me to parties, isn’t it? Sure, no-one should be having parties at present, but invites weren’t exactly flooding in pre-March 2020, either.

Final problem ‘The Huppenheimer Museum Robbery’ sees valuable jewels stolen from a museum — except, haha, they’re replicas — except, ohno, they’re actually the real ones. The problem is fine, and the solution equally fine, but this is one of those crimes that by its commission alone immediately implicates one of the criminals and seems pointless as a result. However, I must also acknowledge that it was written as a diversion in a puzzle book intended as a bit of fun, and that my general lack of good feeling towards this book overall will have left me more down on it than really seems fair given its purpose.

~

Here endeth the Baffle Book and, to be honest, it’s been a disappointment. The best of these — ‘The Elevated Transit Mystery’, ‘The Sandy Peninsula Footprint Mystery’, ‘The Beals-Bligh Anonymous Letters’, ‘Messer Bellini’s Report to the Doge’, ‘The Mystery of the Murdered Physician’ — are built on the sorts of clever, rigorous reasoning that betokens the best of the Golden Age and makes for some wonderful puzzles. Alas, then you resort to games which are essentially, Guess Napoleon’s Signature, Spot the Matching Fingerprint, Whose Handwriting Matches?, and Guess the Missing Words from this Torn Bit of Paper and it goes downhill, all the way to Ignore That this Event Has Two Possible Interpretations to end up in the wet mess on the floor that is this version of ‘The Warfield-Cobham Jewel Robbery’.

Treated, therefore, like a series of actual 1930’s puzzle plots this will, if anything, make you realise how damn hard such things are to write. As more than a casual distraction to find frustrating, however, it is difficult to recommend to any but the most tolerant.

~

The Baffle Book as edited by F. Tennyson Jesse:

Part One: Problems 1 to 7
Part Two: Problems 8 to 14
Part Three: Problems 15 to 21
Part Four: Problems 22 to 28

4 thoughts on “#777: Circumstantial Evidence – The Baffle Book (1930) by Lassiter Wren and Randle McKay [ed. F. Tennyson Jesse] Problems 22 to 28

    • An idea far too advanced in subtlety for this collection, alas. No, “M.” stands for her name — the key information is not provided in my summary; I’ll leave it to the curious to discover it for themselves…

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  1. Well done on getting to the end of what sounds like a difficult read. There is something vaguely satisfying about finishing a book which you didn’t enjoy. A sort you made it achievement! Really looking forward to seeing what you make of Bruce Graeme’s book.

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    • When this is good it’s very good, but the edits — and the selection of some stories — are bafflingly poor at times.

      In fairness, I tend to assume that the precepts of GAD were so ingrained by 1930 that anyone who worked in the puzzle genre would do so flawlessly. And, of course, that’s not the case: we’re all aware of detective novels from the 1930s whose logic doesn’t add up.

      The introduction to this does say that alternate interpretations are piossible, but then the answers go into such depth and detail that you wonder why they bother. It’s lilke someone wanted to write short stories without wanting to go to the effort one usually would to write short stories.

      Anyway, it’s over, so now I can move on and work on myself as a person 🙂

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