In the back of my mind when I started The Invisible Event was the idea that exactly half of what I’d post about would feature impossible crimes, locked room mysteries, and/or miracle problems — and although this proportion started an irreversible slide after the first 500 or so posts, the impossible crime remains my first love.Continue reading
One stormy evening, the nebbishy, unworldly Alfred Austin of 57 Caldwell Road is phoned up and asked to take a message to his neighbour Mr. Carey at number 52, only to fight his way through the wind and the rain to be told upon arrival that no-one of that name lives there. When Austin’s wife arrives home later that same evening, she informs him that no-one of any name lives there, as the house has been empty since being built a year previously. The following morning, Alf sees a man with bloody hands leaving number 52 shortly before a dead body is discovered within…and that’s just the beginning of his problems.
How to explain my fascination with the work of Walter S. Masterman? The five books I’ve read so far are all written in a sprawling, loose style evoking detective fiction’s Victorian forebears — as if actually penned in the 1880s and discovered in a trunk before being published during the genre’s Golden Age — and the consequent veering of his plots should vex me immensely. And yet I keep returning to these Ramble House reprints because there’s something fascinating about Masterman’s insistence on writing books in this style despite the genre accelerating away from him. I mean, RH have published twenty-five of his novels…so he was hardly a flash in the pan.
Sometimes I regret saying I’ll do stuff; this week, I regret saying I’ll explore each of the rules of Ronald Knox’s Detective Fiction Decalogue in depth. Mainly because I’m busy, and so I’m not going to do this as well as I otherwise might. And that frustrates me doubly, because Rule 2 is the one that got me thinking about this in the first place.
I very nearly paid a king’s ransom for a secondhand copy of Walter S. Masterman’s debut The Wrong Letter (1926) a couple of years ago, since it was rare as rocking-horse teeth (wait, those are not rare…) and featured on Roland Lacourbe’s “100 Books for a Locked Room Library” list (or, well, the supplemental list of fourteen supposedly excellent impossible crime novels for which there were no French translations, at least). Then, in 2018, Ramble House made it easily available for much more sensible money, and here we are. More power to their elbow, frankly, as this is the strongest Masterman I’ve read, and has encouraged me to not write him off just yet.
I’m on a bit of a Ramble House kick at the moment: Rupert Penny, Norman Berrow, Walter S. Masterman, with E.C.R. Lorac coming soon. The Perjured Alibi (1935) is my third Masterman title to date, and I’d intended this to be where I’d make the decision whether or not to persevere with him. But, well, I have a copy of Robert Adey’s Locked Room Murders (1991) now and that’s got me thinking that I should at least give the remaining couple of impossibilities a go — especially as it turns out Ramble House have recently republished his debut The Wrong Letter (1926), which I’ve been after for a while. So it would be churlish to stop here…
I love a country house mystery, especially those with a body on page one. So when the murder of ex-judge Sir Ernest Ferber in his private garden by man he sentenced harshly and the subsequent suicide of his assailant at the scene is communicated in the opening ten lines of The Baddington Horror, we’re off to a very good start. To my understanding, Walter S. Masterman wrote as many ‘weird tales’ as he did novels of detection, and so it was always a little uncertain what I was going to get here. But the first chapter could not be more Golden Age detection if it tried: murdered aristocrat, retired amateur detective who takes an interest, two big coincidences, and away we go…