This week, as we dive into two more stories by Robert Arthur from Mystery and More Mystery (1966), I meet the two earliest works of his I’ve yet encountered.
Here’s how things are unfolding on Tuesdays this month:
Week 1: ‘Mr. Manning’s Money Tree’ (1958) and ‘Larceny and Old Lace’ (1960)
Week 2: ‘The Midnight Visitor’ (1939) and ‘The Blow from Heaven’, a.k.a. ‘The Devil Knife’ (1936)
Week 3: ‘The Glass Bridge’ (1957) and ‘Change of Address’ (1951)
Week 4: ‘The Vanishing Passenger’ (1952) and ‘Hard Case’ (1940)
Week 5: ‘The Adventure of the Single Footprint’ (1948) and ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’ (1963)
Continuing with the variation in tone and style presented in the opening brace of stories, ‘The Midnight Visitor’ (1939) veers into the gritty, anfractuous world of the spy story. At probably just under 1,200 words in length, Arthur shouldn’t leave himself space to do much more than hit you hard and run away, but the layers and implications behind what happens on the page are very smarlty imbricated and so it feels as if there’s a great deal more going on. Quite how the writer Fowler and the secret agent Ausable came into contact with each other is unnecessary information, and why Ausable should allow himself to be accompanied by someone while carrying out his clandestine business is equally unclear, and yet from the very first exchange their brief, uncertain association feels rich and real:
“You were told that I was a secret agent, a spy, dealing in espionage and danger. You wished to meet me because you are a writer, young and romantic. You envisioned mysterious figures in the night, the crack of pistols, drugs in the wine.
“Instead, you have spent a dull evening in a French music hall with a sloppy fat man who, instead of having messages slipped into his hand by dark-eyed beauties, gets only a prosaic telephone call making an appointment in his room. You have been bored!”
The clever layering and ability to tell the reader of so much without ever speaking about it reminds me of the masterful work done with the short story by Stanley Ellin. The simple rabbit-punch savagery of this one, with its subtle misdirection and kicker of a final line, reminds me of Ellin’s equally gloomy and foreboding ‘Death on Christmas Eve’ (1950). There is also — in the casual acceptance of Ausable that he is disappointing, as well as in the manner that the very real disappointment Fowler feels is undoubtedly reversed (characteristically, we don’t hang around long enough to see this) — much of the genius detective who is happy to appear ridiculous if it lowers the guard of the suspects and allows the criminal to be caught. It is perhaps unsurprising, given the vintage of this tale, that we should find shades of Hercule Poirot and his ilk in this “sloppy fat man” and be moved to reflect that the very nature of his appearance, and the response he knows it engenders in those around him, is the greatest asset he possesses.
With ‘The Blow from Heaven’, a.k.a. ‘The Devil Knife’ (1936) we move into the sort of moody, gloomy impossibility that John Dickson Carr was making his own at around the same time — a comparison that becomes especially apt when you get a sense of what the story involves.
Professor Natzof Kohn, of the Anthropology Department of Queen City College, has recently returned from one of his many trips to Africa that have been sponsored by the wealthy, “withered and witch-like” Madame Fage and is due to talk that evening at the Fage house on the discoveries he has made about black magic in Africa. Dr. Albert Cane, physician to the elderly woman, invites his sceptical friend Oliver Dace along to listen and, as Dace is no fool, the latter begins to suspect that Kohn’s experiences with Death Worship may not be all they are claimed.
At a certain point in the evening Madame Fage retires to bed, leaving select crowd — “the cream of Queen City society” — rapt with attention at Kohn’s narrative. When a lightning strike knocks out the power and Madame Fage’s nurse goes to check on her ward, the unfortunate woman is discovered stabbed through the chest in a room that no-one would have been able to enter or leave unobserved. Kohn, of course, has an explanation ready:
“When a witch doctor has placed a curse of death upon a victim, he waits until a thunderstorm is brewing. Then he places one of these knives where the victim will find it. It is a superstition that Death walks abroad, unseen, when a storm is raging. Death approaches the man the witch doctor has cursed, and causes him to drive the blade into his own breast. Death then takes his spirit back to the Land of Shadows when the storm is over.”
This isn’t quite an impossible crime — it must be accepted that the nurse is not the killer, and suicide can’t be ruled out entirely — but you’ll no doubt see familiarities with Carr’s oft-adapted story published as ‘The Silver Curtain’ (1939) in his Colonel March collection The Department of Queer Complaints (1940). There, as here, someone is stabbed in circumstances that preclude anyone being near them; there, as here, the answer is neat, tidy, and very, very cunning. It’s part of the genius of Carr that his later story has perhaps the more elegant solution, but seeing Arthur throw himself into this type of tale, setting up store on Carr’s doorstep rioght at the time Carr would have been the name in this sort of thing, is a delight. The criminal here isn’t quite a clever, and Dace must go through rather more rigmorale to prove his point and get his murderer (er, spoilers?), but it’s great to see more of this creepy, tightly-wound stuff from the genre’s Golden Age so neatly deployed.
My overriding feeling at reading these is that we really, really, really need to get more of Arthur’s short work collected. The contrasting focuses here show how cleverly he could apply himself to the quick game as well as the more involved tale of unease, and I’m mighty peeved that only six stories of his remain easily accessible to me. Especially as I’ve read three of those to be discussed in the forthcoming weeks before!