#893: The Malinsay Massacre (1938) by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links: Week 1 – The Dossier

Whether or not you agree with the concept of detective fiction being a game, there can be little doubt that much has been done to play up to the game-esque elements of murder mysteries for well-nigh the last century.

We could start — non-chronologically — with the murder jigsaws popularised by, among others, Ellery Queen: a story is related, the literal pieces of a puzzle provided, and upon completion of the puzzle you’re provided either with the answer to the mystery or another clue that finally makes it all (ahem) click into place. No less of a literal puzzle, albeit a more tedious one, is Cain’s Jawbone (1934) by Torquemada, nom de plume of Edward Powys Mathers, in which the pages of a novel are provided…but out of order, so that the ‘pieces’ must be put in order so that the narrative can be understood.

Equally, a similar element of reductio ad absurdum can be found in The Maze, a.k.a. Persons Unknown (1932) by Philip MacDonald, where plot events are stripped of their usual prose trappings and related to the reader instead related via court transcripts and a couple of diagrams — the human emotions and distractions completely stripped away. This epistolary approach proved popular in classic era fiction — c.f. The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker — as well as during detective fiction’s Golden Age, as seen in the likes of The Documents in the Case (1930) by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace. Recently, the likes of Janet Hallett brought it up to date with The Appeal (2021) and The Twyford Code (2022).

Whatever title and form it is given, this dessication of the detective plot has the effect of heightening the role of the reader in ‘playing along’ — you are welcome to take a passive role in all but Mathers’ efforts but, because evidence is apparently being presented to you shorn of much of the distracting psychology of human interaction, surely most people would see this as missing out. The author has removed all but the base ingredients, taken away the smokescreens, and the implicit challenge of “You still won’t solve it…” resonates somehow, igniting our baser desire to prove ourselves against such an open-handed slap of a challenge to our intellect.

“Oh, god, don’t you start talking about the Oscars, too.”

Into this category must also fall the ‘murder dossiers’ of Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links: Murder off Miami (1936), Who Killed Robert Prentice (1937), The Malinsay Massacre (1938), and Herewith the Clues! (1939). Here, the ‘playing along’ aspect is uppermost, with each dossier taking the form of a folder of letters, photographs, maps, newspaper clippings, and physical evidence such as hair samples and cigarette butts, all bound together and presented to the reader as if to some investigatory expert. The intent is clear: here’s everything you need, shorn again of prose stylings behind which all manner of chicanery might be played…can you solve the mystery elucidated herein?

To a certain extent, this is the logical progression of the Golden Age mystery. I’ve mentioned before my thinking that the Golden Age can be said to have started in 1920 because of how two debuts published that year — The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie and The Cask (1920) by Freeman Wills Crofts — were at pains to show you verbatim evidence as encountered by their sleuths (a handwriting sample and a footprint, respectively) which ensured the validity of the evidence the reader was able to access. Of course, being pieces of prose, we’re reliant on our narrator or perspective character to provide their own impressions or descriptions of the scenes they witness, but the importance of the aforementioned clues was to great to risk tipping the author’s hand ahead of time through overly-detailed description…and yet the authors were at pains to see the information handed over, as it were. Well, Links and Wheatley took that and applied it to every piece of evidence in their plot.

I say “to a certain extent” because, obviously, a lot of brilliant work was done by Golden Age authors with that slyly misleading prose — a photo of a butler squinting at a calendar, or a transcript of four people watching a brief dumb show in the next room is all well and good, but doesn’t carry quite the same scope of involvement. One of the many delights of the detective prose novel is arguably being drawn in to something without realising the significance of what you’ve seen, only for that to be unveiled with a flourish in the penultimate or final chapter. The limitation of Wheatley and Links’ approach is that Everything Is Significant (though I understand that not to be the case…) and by keeping you at arm’s length this manner of delivery is perhaps going to have to work far harder to make you forget what you’re looking for.

“You should talk to Bono about that.”

I’ll be honest: my ardour for these dossiers cooled in light of my experience with Cain’s Jawbone, an undertaking to which I gave untold hours and on which I made who-knows-how-little progress. And yet The Malinsay Massacre has always held a particular fascination for me, purely on account of my fondness for impossible crimes and its inclusion on the Roland Lacourbe-curated list of 100 impossible crime novels you should own. Now, bitter experience has taught me that at least eight of the books on that list aren’t impossible crimes (like this one, and this one, and this one, and this one…) and so maybe I’m setting myself up for yet more disappointment, but them’s the breaks. I was recently fortunate enough to acquire a copy of The Malinsay Massacre, and over Tuesdays in April I’m going to catalogue certain elements of my reading it, on my way to seeing if I can indeed solve it.

And solving it, if I can, presents an interesting challenge at the moment. See, these dossiers do, as elsewhere, come with the answer provided: the final section, as pioneered by Harpers a few years earlier, was contained in the final section, sealed shut to reduce people jumping ahead and claiming to have worked it out themselves — surely the lowest form of behaviour possible in relation to the treading of mystery fiction. Well, my Mayflower Books reprint from 1981 — that’s a scan of my copy above, not some image pilfered from elsewhere on the interwebs — is still sealed. I have no idea if this makes the book valuable (I doubt it) and that’s not really a concern as such…but I’m going to need to decide come the end of this undertaking whether I’m happy enough in my deductions to simply let it ride or if I wish to disarrange a four decade-old artefact purely for the sake of curiosity.

Next week, I shall start digging into the plot and the clues — I fully intend to take advantage of the recent WordPress updates in sharing several images with you, probably in a fashionably incomprehensible layout — and try to communicate the experience of picking through a mystery so boldly thrown at the reader in this manner. It might be fun, or it might be like reading someone trying to find their way out of a maze…whose to say?! Tune in next week to find out!

14 thoughts on “#893: The Malinsay Massacre (1938) by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links: Week 1 – The Dossier

  1. In general, you’ll see more video games on my blog than game books, but I did happen to have played Murder Off Miami, Who Killed Robert Prentice? and The Malinsay Massacre two years ago. As long as you don’t pay too much for them, they’re pretty fun, though I have to say that it’s clear that by the time they got around to The Malinsay Massacre, they probably got less budget, because that volume has noticably fwer physical clues (like objects) compared to the previous two, focusing more on documents as evidence.

    I’ve been playing a few more mystery board games the last few months, and really enjoyed MicroMacro: Crime City and, of course, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective if you were thinking about trying more of these games (the first is so much fun, but is a visual experience so doesn’t lend itself for a description/playthrough for a blog however).

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    • I’m certainly more likely to look at board games than computer games — not through any snobbery, but rather because I already spend too much time staring into my computer as it is.

      Quite how one would write about a game of that ilk remains to be seen, but I appreciate the recommendations. Maybe I’ll write them up some day. Or, hey, maybe I’ll just play them and enjoy them without feeling the urge to turn it into Content 🙂

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  2. Judging from your last post on Cain’s Jawbone let’s hope this one goes better! I have to confess the stream of consciousness stuff would be a struggle enough even in the right order, and I quit only a dozen pages in or so.
    Probably very few people will get to experience these dossiers so having a write up will be great. (I can’t imagine mass production of the appropriate hair samples and cigarette butts – I mean for the reprint they’d have to hope the cigarette companies were still producing cigarettes of the same type or at all wouldn’t they? Or have I misunderstood and they’re just photos?)
    I recently did an online murder mystery game and was surprised by how fun it was and with some clever clues and surprises. Not heavy on verisimilitude but focused on being a fun game with varied activities.

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    • The good news is that the opening pages of this are already far more interesting than anything Cain’s Jawbone had to offer: the reader is drawn into a narrative very quickly with a neat framing device that encourages you to fill in blanks yourself and thus invest a little more from the very off. So it’s already at least one — hell, five or six — up on Torquemada!

      The earlier dossier’s did contain physical clues like cigarettes, yes. Malinsay contains mostly text and photos, and one physical object in the form of a poisonous tablet (from which, we’re assured, all poison has been extracted…don’t want to make any new murderers out of their clearly homicide-obsessed readership!). I can’t help but wonder if those physical clues were actually important (we’ve all seen at least one Columbo where the precise state of a cigarette butt was in itself vitally key to the whole thing) or if they were just very accomplished set-dressing.

      For now, then, it’s good news. Hopefully that continues as I read further!

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  3. A hint—or perhaps just an irritating comment. I ended up finding all of these (but my lips are sealed on my opinion of each), in two of which the ending was still sealed. And it is possible to find out what it says without cutting it open. There you go, another “locked room” (or “locked pages”) puzzle for you.

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    • No, not irritating in the least, great to know that this can be solved and that the premise is followed through on. Since I may opt not to open my end section, it’s nice to know that someone out there will be able to confirm or refute any solution I put forth in ignorance of the “true” solution.

      Of course, how I do that is itself an unknown, since I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who hasn’t read it. Hmmm, I may need to think this approach through some more.

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      • Perhaps, once you have gone through the case and have developed your solution, you could ask readers of your blog who know the solution contained in the sealed envelope solution to reach out to you via email or other non-public channel.

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  4. I bought all four dossiers, one at a time, as they came out. As Ho-Ling points out, it becomes a matter of diminishing returns in terms of clues. With Murder Off Miami, I was handling buttons or cigarette butts and slipping out documents, and by The Malinsay Massacre, you’re looking at photostatic copies of crushed flowers or whatever. But it doesn’t matter: none of the stories themselves is particularly interesting; it’s just a nice little oddity to own. UNLIKE Cain’s Jawbone, which is impenetrable and dull, and I only hope that in a few years, my doorbell rings, and a wild-eyed man is standing there, who says: “I’m sorry to disturb you. I heard a rumor that you might possess a copy of the reprint of Cain’s Jawbone. I’m willing to offer you $50,000 for it!” It’ll be in his hands faster than the ink can dry on the check!

    I also own many “chapters” of Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective. Ho-Ling calls it a board game. When it first came out, it was a binder with documents. I think the new packaging is probably much lovelier inside, but it’s an expensive game. It’s also wonderful. I’ve never played it with other people, but it really is a deep dive into interactive reading, often with really subtle clues to what path you ought to take. While I’m not sure I will ever re-read my Wheatley dossiers, I look forward to replaying SHCD one of these days – hopefully with a group of like-minded friends!

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    • Count me as one among the “wish I could play Consulting Detective with others” people. I convinced my parents to play it with me on a lockdowned Christmas and we got through one case, it was quite an undertaking (though we investigated a lot more stuff than we needed to).

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  5. First The Death of Laurence Vining and now The Malinsay Massacre? What’s next, Into Thin Air? Tuesdays are becoming the day for super obscure impossible crimes.

    Looking forward to the multi-part review. I picked up a copy of Malinsay about a year ago and then kind of lost track of it at the bottom of a pile of books. I don’t know about your experience, but these dossier books are fairly expensive. Patrick Quentin released one, and it goes for at least $100.

    I take a bit of issue with the comparison of early Ellery Queen novels to puzzles, although I’ll concede that is how everyone refers to them. Yes, there’s a challenge to the reader, but I’ve never felt that the presentation of the mystery nor the solution is any different than most other GAD. If there’s anything unique, it’s that the solutions rely on a long chain of logic, and there are always several extremely shaky assumptions that would unravel the whole thing. If the killers at the end of the first four books simply said “uh, nope, that didn’t happen”, Ellery would be standing there looking like a fool.

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    • Patrick Quentin did two, in fact: The File on Fenton and Farr (1937) and The File on Claudia Cragge (1938). No idea what the contents of those are like, but the general obscurity of these dossiers will no doubt combine with the general obscurity of PQ to make them harder to find than…well, than Winslow and Quirk’s Into Thin Air!

      I love that you got this but have so many books to read that it ended up lost amidst the rubble. I’ve been keeping it until I felt I had time and bandwidth to devote to it, and it’s certainly proving to be an interesting read based on the first quarter or so. No idea how I’m going to write this up, but the final post will probably be lots of rot13 and a request for someone who knows to confirm or deny my conclusions.

      I agree, and wouldn’t say the likes of Roman Hat and Dutch Shoe qualify as puzzles in the purest sense…but then many people would claim that novels as a whole don’t qualify as puzzles in any sense. Mainly I’m intensely curious about ho the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective game works, but that, too, seems rather expensive and so might have to wait until my retirement.

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