#902: The Malinsay Massacre (1938) by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links: Week 4 – The Solution

So, after delighting me and then slightly underwhelming me, how did I do in solving the mystery of The Malinsay Massacre (1938) as laid out by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links?

Let’s do this in two stages: the first before I read the solution, the second afterwards. There will of course be spoilers, since it is impossible to talk about the solution to a mystery plot without spoiling it. I’m aware that such an approach will limit the already minute audience this blog and post is likely to have, but what else can I do? Also, since I’m spitballing in the first part, it could all be wrong and you’ll likely want to read it so that you are able to laugh at my naivetĂ© when you’ve read The Malinsay Massacre and solved it for yourself.

THE FOLLOWING WAS WRITTEN BEFORE I READ THE SOLUTION

NO, I CAN’T PROVE THAT

First, some concrete evidence: you’ll not convince me that the handwriting on the label of the package that contained the (possibly…?) poisoned sweets and the handwriting of the letter from Oscar Grundl aren’t the same; see for yourself.

There seems to be little other reason for the inclusion of these two sample than that they be compared and found at least very similar. And so, I deduce that — on one of his many trips away from the island — Grundl sent the sweets to the Viscount to (possibly…?) poison him.

The key thing to unpick for my first line of thinking is why these sweets were posted. If there was nothing suspicious about them, Grundl could have just delivered these to the castle while on the island, which makes it look as if they were indeed poisoned and the bottle of posionous tablets attributed to the manservant Stobart is a blind. But if Grundle posted them because he was worried about them being traced back to him, surely he would be wiser than to provide a handwriting sample or two for the police or whoever to compare, right? Let us dispatch with that, however, because it upsets my theory. See, when you add these poisoned sweets to the reluctance of Grundl to meet with Henry when called upon, especially on a small island like Malinsay and in an era when the landed gentry truly would have been Lord and Master both, my mind makes a leap that’s pure GAD: Oscar Grundl doesn’t exist.

“You’re losing it, Jim.”

What I can’t get around is the lack of motive overall, which since we’ve seen successive parts of the Malinsay family slain is surely something simple like the neglected branch of the family wanting the money the Malinsays possess and so killing everyone to get it. And the only surviving member of that offshoot is young Colin, to whom Henry has been writing those interminable letters. Henry mentions early on that Colin is sick, lamenting his inability to come to the island, and I propose that this is a ruse. Colin is pretending to be sick so that he is free to move as he likes. Colin wants the money, so Colin is killing them all, and is posing as Grundl to justify his place on the island. He is reluctant to meet Henry face-to-face as he knows that any disguise he’s adopting will be seen through, but the clandestine photograph of him is suitably murky and poor to pass close inspection.

The commission of the other murders — an Ophelia-esque shove into deep water and a stabbing — we need hardly trouble ourselves with, but the initial murder, the locked room gassing of the Fourth Earl, George, baffles me simply because of a) the lack of any discussion in these documents about possible clues and b) the apparent contradiction in the medical evidence as discussed last week. As such, I can only make some futile observations which feel unbefitting of someone who recently killed several people in locked rooms.

Firstly, if the contradiction of the medical evidence is an accident, we can assume that George expired at some point in the night. He has been gassed — we’re not told what the gas was, where’s John Thorndyke when you need him — and there is no evidence of any lethal gas in the room. So, I propose that the gas was actually contained in George’s pillow: the inner stuffing was treated with some compound — no difficulty for someone who would poison sweets and/or tablets later on — that was warmed by the heat of a sleeping body and released enough to kill a man but not enough to fill the room as a whole. Yes, I know this is a gimmick from a classic short story; do you think I’m going to devise a perfectly original method in the pursuit of merely trying not to embarrass myself? If George took a sleeping draught, more’s the better: he would be unconscious and unlikely to awaken at the stifling of his air.

If, however, the medical evidence isn’t an error…well, then we have a few problems. I can’t be bothered to comb back through the precise timelines, but something along these lines could have happened. George, discovered dead before noon, had been dead for 12 hours according to the evidence, and so has to have been killed elsewhere before going to bed. In that case, it wasn’t George who was seen going to his room, but someone — Colin, leaning hard on the family resemblance that all GAD novels seem convinced we possess where any blood relative is concerned — impersonating Henry. It was, then, the valet Stobart who was drugged, so that Colin could creep out in the night and carry in Henry’s body from where it had been gassed (perhaps knocked out in the back of a car, with the old “hosepipe on the exhaust” setup — though I remember no mentions of cars on the small isle of Malinsay, so it might be a petrol powered generator, etc.) and place him in bed.

“So how was the door bolted?”

How was the door bolted? Well, the fact that the bolt is shown to be close to the bottom of the door seems significant. This wouldn’t provide much resistance when the door was being kicked in, and so could have been broken off before the door was closed to give the impression that it had been broken when the door was forced open. Again, no, it’s not original, but it’s the best I’ve got given the lack of alternative information. So the killer — Colin, in disguise — breaks the bolt, exits the room, locks the door and slides the key back under the door or shuts the door with the key in the lock on the inside and turns the key from the outside with pliers, etc. Job done.

There are doubtless considerations I’m not…considering — that document about the Raeburns having wealth, the spirit writing machine, the bottle of poisoned pills — but I’m only doing this to entertain myself and I fear that sticking bits of paper on the walls to establish timelines, etc. is not my idea of fun. I posit the above, apologise for any oversights, and shall now see what Wheatley and Links’ solution offers.

IMAGINE ME FRANTICALLY READING THE SOLUTION

TALK AMONGST YOURSELVES

Okay, well

OH, SPOILERS — SPOILERS FOR THE MALINSAY MASSACRE; I HAVE READ AND SHALL NOW DISCUSS THE ACTUAL SOLUTION, SO SPOILERS
SPOILERS
SPOILERS
SPOILERS

Okay, well, I think I did quite well. I like the double nature of the solution: Colin is the murderer, and originally wanted Grundl to be suspected, and its only all these years later that he’s dead that the truth is now able to come out. Some of the points are perhaps too subtle — the fake document implying that there’s great wealth hidden somewhere, which I suppose we’re supposed to recognise as fake because the writing also matches Colin’s (though to me they seem very different) — but let’s talk about what’s successful and then what really, really fails.

Successes: The opening tranche of family tree, short letters, telegram, house plans, etc. sets the scene very compactly and with far greater elan than is typically managed by straight prose. The newspaper articles, too, while a little vexing to pick through, are presented with admirable verisimilitude and, with their repeated reports on the progress of the Boer campaign, add an element of history and context that’s able to bleed through rather than cudgel you over and over and over.

Failures: Firstly the photographs, from which far too much must be determined and for which end the picture quality is incredibly poor. We’re supposed to tell that the image of ‘Grundl’ has been taken with the plate reversed because text in the background is hard to read…but I can make out no text in the background; we’re supposed to deduce the loosening of the sink pipe for the Fourth Earl’s murder because there’s a water stain on the ground beneath the sink that’s bloody hard to spot. I get some subtlety is required, but the grimy, lousy quality of these pictures does no favours to this form of clewing at all. Perhaps if we’d been required to look that closely elsewhere — “As you can see, he is missing the ring finger of his right hand”, making us go back and double check — but hiding your crucial points under lousy visual declaration is poor form indeed.

Certain historial aspects cannot help but be lost to time, so I’ll not gripe about conceits like being expected to recognise that the remaining sweets in the poisoned box were all mints or that a revered plate in an old style camera would produce the backward image that gave the wrong impression of handedness — there would be ways to clue this for later audiences (including a description of sweets in the box, mentioning someone’s revered plate making one of the other photos look weird), but I’m willing to accept that Wheatley and Links believed these fair game in 1938, and would not consider a man such as myself pouring over this unimaginably far into a future whose technological advances were not their purview. The implications in conclusions drawn from these clues is badly handled, however: the poison tablet being peppermint flavoured and so unlikely to be eaten by the young Viscount who had left the mints alone in that sweet box…how the hell were we supposed to know that? Did they want us to taste the tablet? Might it have had a peppermint bouquet originally? Gleeps, guys, c’mon!

“Peppermint is the Devil’s flavour.”

The locked room solution is…meh. I understand (now) that the dashed lines on the plan of the castle are supposed to be drains, but I’d wager it’s far from obvious to anyone from the map alone (a legend on the map would help here…these problems are so easily fixed!). It also seems to me that the killer would have to securely block every other drain or sink in order for the fumes passed along the pipe not to seep into the castle anywhere else and…I dunno, expecting you to make that leap is too much for me. The method has an Edgar Wallace quality to it which I like, but I don’t consider it fairly declared — as I said above, do we even know that there are cars on Malinsay? The map of the island seems intended to reinforce how small it is, and I don’t remember a car ever being mentioned.

Anyway. For a post that only about five of you can fully access, this has gone on long enough.

The question to answer, then: Is The Malinsay Massacre worth tracking down? And, y’know, yeah, on balance it is. I maintain that even dissatisfying books are worth reading because they help us figure out what we like and what our subjective responses interpret as “good” and “bad”. And this might be one of the most interesting Frustrating Books I’ve yet encountered: it’s undeniably flawed, and those flaws make it difficult to recommend that you spend loads of money on this, but the effort that has gone into it is interesting, even if the most interesting thing at times is when you catch yourself thinking “Hell, you could do that better if you…”.

6 thoughts on “#902: The Malinsay Massacre (1938) by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Links: Week 4 – The Solution

  1. Believe it or not, I pitched an idea for a story to Tom a while ago. The main conceit of the story was that it was meant to be a mystery story told entirely within the confines of the last will and testament of the victim… Isaac Stump. But when I’d hit a head with the concept, he suggested I do something like a collection of inter-media materials. Newspaper clippings, letters, the last will and testament, etc., etc., and I was struck while reading your posts that Tom’s idea was basically for me to write “The Last Will and Testament of Isaac Stump” like Malinsay Massacre. 😛

    Like

  2. I’ll have to loop back and read your post once I get around to actually cracking this open. I didn’t even read the solution spitballing to keep my mind untainted.

    Having skipped over this post, I’m curious about your overall reaction to the book, given it being featured in the Lacourbe list. Does the impossibility and solution make up for some of the tediousness of the format that you highlighted in your previous posts? I’m going to guess no.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like the impossibility solution, so it has that going for it. I’m not sure it would work, and I’m not sure how you’re supposed to tumble to it from the information provided, but it’s not bad as impossibilities go.

      Its inclusion on the Lacourbe list might simply be due to the novelty of the presentation. I mean, quite a few books on that list aren’t even impossible crimes, but something like The Polferry Riddle at least has an intriguing idea at its heart which makes you understand how it might be deemed notable and so accidentally make its way onto a list it doesn’t technically qualify for. Though if sheer novelty alone meant qualification, I get the impression that list would be about 30% Edgar Wallace titles…

      Liked by 1 person

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