#805: Minor Felonies/Little Fiction – ‘The Adventure of the Single Footprint’ (1948) and ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’ (1963) by Robert Arthur

The final Tuesday of June brings us the final two stories from Mystery and More Mystery (1966) by Robert Arthur. And with one of them comes some excitement…

Here are the links of what has gone on this month:

The source of my excitement is that I was distinctly under the impression that I had already encountered ‘The Adventure of the Single Footprint’ (1948) in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) edited by Mike Ashley, but it turns out I was probably thinking of ‘The Impossible Footprint’ (1974) by William Brittain because that first story under discussion today was completely new to me.

“And your memory is famously faultless.”

Concerning the death of munitions manufacturer Lawford Holmes, the story begins with complications in declaring it suicide or murder. For one thing, two guns are found by the body — one with its chamber jammed by a faulty bullet — and for another there’s the small matter of a single footprint found outside the house in newly-seeded ground. That the grounds should also be inaccessible — behind a ten foot electrified fence, with “[a]ll tress or brush within half a dozen feet on either side” removed and no low-hanging branches left to allow access — and the footprint is “midway between two flagstone walks some twelve feet from each other”.

Stories of incompetence that may have resulted in several thousand deaths had haunted Lawford Holmes, and he has been dogged by a pair of family tragedies — his brother died at this same house in mysterious circumstances, and the dead man’s son has been an inmate of a local asylum since returning from the war — and so Lieutenat Oliver Baynes has called in our narrator, a reporter with whom he is friendly, to get a fresh scoop.

He had helped me get many a true crime story which I had written up, with a reward in publicity to him — and no official shuns publicity. But behind the face and figure of a bloated pixie Baynes hides the soul of a frustrated dramatist. He loves to be mysterious, as if to prove that life, properly stage-managed, can be more startling than any of my fictions.

Baynes’ idea here is certainly dramatic and startling: the committed nephew of the dead man has, for some time now, been labouring under the delusion that he is the great Holmes — “His full name is John Sherwin Holmes. What else could the other kids call him but Sherlock?” — and Baynes has consulted him on a number of cases over the years (“[W]hen he learned my name, he fell on me like a long lost brother. It seems there’s a Baynes in one of the Sherlock stories” — extra credit if you know which one without looking it up). Why not use the death of his uncle to shock young Jack out of his fancies and both get him back on the path to reality and solve a perplexing murder? All our narrator is required to do is forswear that he is Dr. Watson in order to strengthen the impression of the genius detective, and Baynes will furnish the details to get the Great Detective Thinking.

“Clever.”

The majority of the remainder then takes on the form of a Holmes pastiche, and the time spent in this framing is rather fabulous in building up to the sheer damn oddness of the masquerade. The miasma of unreality in watching someone who isn’t Holmes behave as if he is could be taken as a meta commentary on most of the non-Doyle Holmes tales (and, hell, some of the actual canon too, amIright?), but there’s no harm in assuming this is just Arthur having some fun playing with pastiche. And it enables an ending that — as with last week’s ‘Hard Case’ (1940) — seems oddly out of place in a collection apparently intended for younger readers. It’s brilliant, and possibly one of the most inspired uses of the Holmes milieu I’ve yet ecountered — Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine named it ‘Best Sherlockiana 1948’ for good reasons — but let’s just say that I doubt anyone would be brave enough to write this for ten year-olds today.

Of particular interest are references made to two works — Varieties of Human Physique (1940) and Varieties of Temperament (1942) by William Sheldon — that turn to be real, even if the conclusions they draw do feel more like something from the Victorian age (which, to be honest, makes them only more fitting for this tale about a Victorian-era detective). It seems bizarre that within the last century the conclusions that Arthur cites (always assuming his claim is correct, but then why use real works if he was just going to bastardise their contents?) could have been reached as a result of research, and peer-reviewed and deemed suitable for publication. But then, what do I know? Even if Arthur’s use of these was calumny, it’s interesting; the fact that he’s probably used them genuinely is…compelling in the extreme.

I’m going to cheat a little myself now.

See, the remaining story here is ‘The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice’ (1963), which I wrote about before, given it’s inclusion in Alfred Hitchcock’s Solve-Them-Yourself Mysteries (1963). Having read it again, and having consulted my thoughts from last year, I don’t know that I really have anything to add. The story does a lot that is great, even if it does feel like two mysteries glued together, and I’d just repeat myself to no particular end. In the final section of this collection, however, where Arthur talks about the genesis of his ideas, it’s interesting to note that the starting principle for ‘…Three Blind Mice’ was something involving a painter’s ladder rather than the dying message that opens the tale. I would have assumed that the message came first — dying messages do sort of fascinate me, I’ll be honest — and everything else was built around that. But, from what the man himself says, it would appear not.

I also love this paragraph towards the very end of this explanatory chapter:

One last word: as you will see on looking back at these stories, a great deal of characterization, background and action had to be added to the basic idea. However, while much of this was the result of hard thinking, much of it also came more or less spontaneously as I was writing. There seems to be a little mechanism in the writer’s mind that blends supplementary ideas together and feeds them to him without conscious thought once he gets started on a basic idea that interests him.

Robert Arthur was a dude, and his short fiction is a wonderful time. A compilation of his short works must surely be in someone’s mind, and no doubt many of us would be delighted to have easy access to what he created. I’d champion it myself, but no-one listens to me; so what do we have to do to make it happen, eh?

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