Mystery Stories Home Page
Copyright 2003 by Michael E. Grost
A Jacob Black "Impossible Crime" Mystery
By Michael E. Grost
Warning: The stunts in this tale are performed by professional motorcycle riders. Do not try them at home!
When the great French film director Louis Feuillade made his 1924 thriller Secret Service about a group of criminals chased by a heroic American detective, he brought over a series of Americans to help him make the work authentic. Most of these were from Mammoth-Art Studio in Hollywood, a film company that had a tangled financial relationship with Feuillade's own studio in Nice, France. So Hollywood scriptwriter Jacob "Jake" Black and actor Gregor von Hoffmansthal found themselves in glamorous Nice, in March 1924. Feuillade also imported Jake's friend, Los Angeles Homicide detective Lt. Moe Apfelbaum, to be the film's consultant on matters of American police procedure. Moe had also managed to bring his wife Esther and their two kids along on the journey. Everyone expected an exciting trip. However, nobody expected to be plunged into a mystery. Jake, who was a gifted amateur sleuth, frequently worked as an unofficial detective on his friend Moe's police cases back in Los Angeles. But here, everyone expected a vacation from crime.
Greg, as his friends called Gregor von Hoffmansthal, was a dashing actor in his early twenties. Greg, who had spent his career playing European aristocrats in Hollywood films, was now playing an American hero in a European movie. Greg had brought over a series of American suits, to wear on camera while in the role of the square jawed US Secret Service agent on the trail of the film's criminal gang. It was a complete change of image for him. He had often wanted to play such a role, and working with a new director in a different country had given him a chance. The film was being shot on a series of locations in Nice.
Esther had come along as Moe's translator. Her parents had been French Jews, who emigrated to the US by way of the Caribbean. Esther still spoke fluent French, although Moe and Esther typically spoke English and Yiddish at home: they wanted their kids to grow up knowing both languages. Greg, who was fluent in many languages, spoke some French too. The thirty year-old Jake had had some French in college, but this trip was his first chance to visit a country where everyone spoke French. He was looking forward to improving his skills. Already, after just a few days, he was beginning to understand the people around him fairly well.
Greg's first language was Hungarian, but he also spoke both British and American English, German, Russian and Italian. Greg's lack of complete fluency in French was no obstacle to work in silent films. Many of the big European stars in Hollywood spoke no English at all, such as glamorous Vilma Banky from Hungary, and leading man Lars Hansen from Sweden.
The complex interplay of languages in the silent film industry often resembled the Tower of Babel. But it reflected the deep underlying idea that silent film was a universal language, one that spoke to everyone on Earth. People of all languages and nationalities could work together on silent films, and the result could be shown throughout the world. Many people of the era thought that silent film would bring all nations together.
Jake loved the Mediterranean. The rocky, pebble filled beaches reminded him of the equally rocky beaches of Lake Michigan, back home in his native Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Many of the beaches were in front of grand hotels, which were built along the sea front. The hotels had a rich, baroque architecture, full of ornamentation, grill work, domes and huge signs with letters in flowing script. There was a party atmosphere. The guests at the hotels were a mixture of French and British, with a scattering of Americans, Italians and other nationalities.
Feuillade loved to film here. He also liked going into the distant hills in the central part of the city, where the older houses gave Feuillade the atmosphere he craved for his crime thrillers. Feuillade had been born in the South of France, in Lunel near Montpellier, and he still had a strong Southern French accent, the méridional. A hundred years of uniform schooling in France since the Revolution had not succeeded in stamping out the different dialects spoken in the South. Feuillade felt strongly at home in the sunny Southern city of Nice.
Feuillade was 51. He was the greatest director of crime films in the world, haunting, bizarre stories of criminal conspiracies and plots. From the extreme strangeness and sinister events of his films, Jake and Greg had somehow expected him to be a wild-eyed bohemian, dressed in a beret and paint spattered artist's clothes. Instead Feuillade was a genial, highly respectable man, the acme of bourgeois middle class values. A devoted family man, Feuillade had been married to his wife Jeanne-Léontine for 28 years. Feuillade's broad shoulders filled out a rather fancy, well cut suit. As anyone who had seen his films might suspect, Feuillade loved opulent clothes - he had first gotten the idea to go into the movies in 1905 when a writer friend showed him the splendid new suit he purchased after getting paid for a film script. A bushy mustache and prominent eyebrows stood out on his round, gentle, scholarly looking face. Feuillade wore glasses, but with them his sight was still keen. Feuillade wrote most of his films, and also wrote much poetry. It was a rare honor for Jake to collaborate with Feuillade on the script for Secret Service.
Feuillade had set up camp, in a large open area in the countryside near Nice. An elaborate intrigue would take place on film there, involving Greg's hero, traveling on a motorcycle. The whole film crew was present, along with star Greg. Jake, Moe and Esther were watching the filming, although none had a deep role in guiding today's shooting, and expected the day to largely be a holiday in the French countryside. Numerous reporters had also converged on the site; it was to be a day of major publicity for Secret Service. After Feuillade, the most important member of the crew was the cameraman, Maurice Champreux, who was also Feuillade's son-in-law.
Greg was going to be shot on and near the motorcycle his character rode. But for a big race scene down a country lane, he would be replaced by a professional stunt rider. "I can't ride a motorcycle for any major stunts," Greg told his friends. "The studio would kill me. It's much too dangerous."
They met Greg's stunt double, Pierre Carrefour. He was a large Frenchman, around Greg's size. He did not look much like Greg, standing there in his loud blue checked suit. Pierre had light brown hair, while Greg's was black. But soon he would put on a black leather motorcycle greatcoat identical to Greg's; the greatcoats completely covered the men's suits, and it was impossible to tell what kind of suit the men were wearing underneath. This was especially true after the many straps, flaps, belts and buckles that decked out the greatcoat were fastened. On his head, the stunt rider wore a leather aeronaut's helmet, and goggles, also identical to Greg's. When he put the helmet and goggles on, hiding his eyes, he looked just like Greg. While riding the motorcycle, it would be hard to tell the two men apart. Both men wore high black boots with their suits, making it easier to ride the bike.
Pierre had been riding motorcycles for a decade, and was expert on them. He had once done trick riding for a circus, but he was now getting better money from the movies. Like many stunt players in French films, Pierre came from a circus background, and still had many friends among the animal trainers and aerialists of the big top.
The motorcycle would soon be speeding down the back lane in the French countryside, racing against time to enable its heroic secret service agent rider to save the heroine's life. The lane had many twists and turns. Feuillade and his cameraman would be following the motorcycle with a camera mounted on a truck. Feuillade liked to film in "long takes": long, unbroken stretches of film, where the camera focused steadily on the performers and the action. So Feuillade would be filming the cyclist in one long, unbroken shot, as he coursed down several miles of the back lane. The shot would last nearly four minutes, without any cut or break. The curving lane, with its twists and turns, the high speed, and the action on the motorbike would all combine to make an exciting shot. The twisting motorcycle would hold the eye, something Feuillade often wanted: a piece of action or movement that would grip the audience's attention.
The lane was unusual for the high brick walls that flanked it on both sides. "I choose it for its walls," a haunted looking Feuillade told Greg and Jake. "It reminds me of the walled medieval city of Carcassonne, where I spent my teenage years being educated by monks. Walls always convey a sense of deep mystery." Jake, who had grown up as a poor, brainy and much rejected teenager, suddenly felt a pang of sympathy for Feuillade.
The truck with the camera had a large platform in front, big enough to hold Feuillade, the camera, the camera operator, and a dozen more men, if need be. A rail around the truck platform prevented riders from falling off. There was a gap in the rail on the front of the truck, so as not to obstruct the camera's field of vision. The cabin of the truck, behind the platform, was high and elevated, so that the driver could see over the riders' heads and the camera, while steering the truck.
The day before, there had been a rehearsal with Pierre and the bike. This was mainly to help Feuillade and the cameraman establish all of their camera angles during the long take. Feuillade wanted to make sure that the cyclist was visible in his camera for nearly the entire take. He and the cameraman would turn the camera gently on the truck, whenever the road turned. This would ensure it was pointed at the bike. Feuillade was sure that the forward, propulsive movement of the camera down the lane would add dynamic energy to the film.
A young boy, around six years old, had been brought by his parents to witness today's filming. The tiny tike, named André, had managed to worm his way close to the camera, to get a better view. The frail looking little boy was wide-eyed, absorbing everything with great fascination.
André's father held him up so that he could look through the big movie camera. André seemed fascinated by the world revealed through the camera's lens. He was also very interested in how the camera moved. He looked through the camera lens, and the camera's operator panned the camera to the left, gradually revealing a wide, moving panorama of the camp as the camera revolved on its stand. André seemed to understand everything - he was a precocious little boy. André also listened eagerly to the operator's explanation of how the truck would allow the camera to track along with the motorcycle. André asked permission to ride on the truck during the shooting, but was politely but firmly refused - it was considered potentially too dangerous for a little kid.
A group of reporters would ride the truck platform with Feuillade and the cameraman, as the shot was made. It would be good publicity for the film. The reporters were all stylishly dressed as men-about-Paris, and represented some of the highest circulation dailies and magazines in the capital.
The film's publicity director, a charming, affable man of around thirty-five, was chatting with the reporters. It has been Louis Poussin's idea to have the reporters accompany the truck on which Feuillade was shooting. Many of the reporters were carrying cameras. Poussin had a long history promoting vaudeville and circus acts, as well as movies. Poussin was beautifully dressed as a French boulevardier. Poussin spoke excellent English, one of the few people on the movie set to do so. He had worked for a few years in London, promoting British music hall acts.
The film's producer Maximilian Ponticref was also present on location. He was a middle-aged man with the serious look of a banker. The producer was the boss of everyone who worked on the film - that was the producer's job. Feuillade, Greg, Jake, the cameraman, all were employees of the studio of which Ponticref was the representative. Publicity man Poussin and stuntman Pierre were free-lancers, however, hired for the production. Feuillade, as the director of the film, was in charge of all artistic and storytelling aspects of its shooting - how the scenes were staged, how the camera moved, the performances of the actors. The producer restricted himself to the financial and managerial aspects of the film company, including the schedule and the budget. This was the traditional division of labor between producer and director throughout the world film industry.
One of the reporters present was Claude Dufay, a name that rang a bell with Jake. Dufay was around Jake's age, thirty, and had often covered pioneering air flights in France for the Parisian press. Jake, who wrote air adventure stories for the pulp magazines as well as movie scripts, had frequently read Dufay's stories when they were reprinted in translation in American newspapers. The two men struck up an instant friendship. Dufay wore a set of powerful binoculars around his neck. Dufay's father was Haitian, and his black skin and African facial features reminded Jake of the many black people he knew back in the United States. But Dufay seemed more integrated into French society, than most black people had a chance to be in the racist USA of the 1920's.
Dufay also turned out to be an expert on motorcycles, and covered most motorcycle news items and races for his paper too. That's why he was in Nice today.
"Is riding a motorcycle difficult?" Jake wanted to know.
"It's a snap once you get the hang of it," Claude replied. "I've seen a chimpanzee ride a motorbike in the circus, so it can't be that hard. The main thing is to keep your balance at all times, especially going around curves, where you have to tilt the cycle into the twist of the road. Pierre Carrefour is really good. I've seen him and his brother in motorcycle races in Lyons and in Genoa. Riding a bike can be really dangerous, however. One can understand why the studio would want its star doubled by a professional stunt rider. I don't understand why ordinary people want to ride motorbikes on regular roads. It's too easy for them to lose an arm or a leg."
Shortly before the race down the lane was to be shot, a large open touring car drove into the camp. The spectacular looking car was gold colored, and its chauffeur kept honking the car's horn to announce its presence. The reporters all wondered if some big film star were visiting the set. The car braked to a halt, right in the center of the camp. The car's chauffeur was a large man in a bottle-green uniform with a high peaked uniform cap. There was a shining red star in the front of the cap, over the huge curving visor that hid much of his face. He struck a loud gong in the front seat next to him three times. Everyone in the camp became silent. The passengers in the car's back seat stood up. One was a tall, striking looking man of around forty, dressed like a stage magician. He wore a black tuxedo, a long flowing red-lined cape fastened by a string around his neck, and a purple domino mask around his eyes, that hid his features. Next to him was a beautiful young woman, dressed in the skimpy outfit of a magician's assistant. Her long legs were enclosed in patterned black silk stockings. She had the attention of every Frenchman in the camp. Her features too were hidden by a purple domino mask. The reporters all had their notebooks out, ready to jot down anything the magician said.
"We have a message from the Brotherhood of the Red Star," the magician said, in French, in a ringing, resonant voice. "People can disappear into space. They can suddenly dissolve and vanish, like a candle flame that splutters and then goes out. They will leave no trace behind. Later, they can reappear elsewhere. You will all see this happen. A dreaming man can also sent his astral projection elsewhere. It will look just like him, but it is not real. The real man will be sleeping far away. Nothing is more powerful than dreams."
The uniformed chauffeur squared his shoulders, stood at attention, and smartly saluted the magician. With a series of precise moves, he handed the magician a large yellow banana. The magician began to peel it with his white gloved hands. As he inserted the peeled end of the banana in his mouth, the magician and his assistant sat down, and the chauffeur drove the car out of the camp with a roar.
Esther translated everything the magician said to Moe. Moe dryly told Esther and Jake, "I'm glad the magician wasn't trying to be conspicuous!" The observant Esther had also noted down the car's license plate number.
None of the reporters had ever heard of the Brotherhood of the Red Star, and had no idea what it was.
At the last minute, Jake went over and spoke to Feuillade, who was standing with the assembled reporters on the truck platform. Jake asked if he could ride with them, too. Feuillade was clearly dubious, but the reporters cried out for him to take Jake on. With a little bow, the director welcomed Jake up to the truck platform.
With a signal from the whistle Feuillade wore around his neck, Pierre's motorcycle, closely followed by the camera truck, was on its way down the lane. High brick walls rose on both sides of the wide lane. The camera was turning, and the filming of the shot had begun.
A gap eventually appeared in the wall ahead, to the right. Through it, Jake could see a little stone roadside shrine. Wayfarers could pray there, and light candles to the saint whose marble statue appeared on the shrine. First the motorcycle and its leather-clad rider passed the shrine, then the truck. The high red brick walls resumed, on both sides of the road. The motorcycle swept around a curve under a giant oak tree, and was lost to view. The high brick wall prevented the camera from picking up the cyclist. Feuillade kept the camera running anyway. He believed that long, unbroken shots generated excitement on screen. Soon Feuillade's truck had swept around the wall, and the motorcycle was once more in view. The gleaming back of the rider's leather motorcycle greatcoat shone in the sun. There was another little gap in the wall here, by the oak; Jake could see green fields full of barley through the gap.
Soon, the cyclist came to the trickiest part of the drive. He had to go up a steep, arched country bridge over a small stream. The picturesque bridge was not covered, and was open in the sun. The brick walls also ceased shortly before the bridge. The cyclist deftly zoomed the bike upwards on the bridge, and down the other side. Feuillade looked pleased - the camera shot would continue without a break. With a shout of "Hang On!" the camera truck also swept over the bridge. Jake, Feuillade and the reporters had to hang on for dear life.
The high brick walls resumed, even taller here. Jake had not seen any gaps in them except at the bridge, the curve at the oak, and back at the roadside shrine. The road curved to the left again. The cyclist disappeared behind the walls again as he went around the curve. Feuillade, Jake and the journalists soon followed around the curve, ducking under some low hanging telephone wires that stretched over the road just beyond the curve, where the lane straightened out again. They saw the bike ahead, but it was weaving from side to side. Jake suddenly realized why. It was riderless. The bike finally tipped over in the middle of the street. The cyclist's leather greatcoat spilled off the cycle's seat, and landed in the dust. There was no sign of the rider anywhere. Huge brick walls rose up twelve feet on either side of the road. There were no doors or gaps in the walls for a mile, since they had passed the bridge. Feuillade signaled with his whistle for the truck to stop.
The road was filled with dust. It had been two weeks since it had rained. The motorcycle's track was plain in the road. There were no other tracks around it on this lonely lane, whether of vehicles or people. Pierre had not walked off his cycle - there were no footprints anywhere near the cycle's track. If one could judge the evidence of the tracks, Pierre seemed to have vanished into space, while riding the cycle. Feuillade, the cameraman, Jake and the reporters all seemed amazed.
Pierre had vanished as if he had never existed. Just like the magician had predicted.
Next to Jake, reporter Claude Dufay quietly quoted from Hamlet. "O that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!"
The time was eleven - the local church bells tolled it out.
Jake began investigating at once. He had the truck driven over to the side of the road.
One of the biggest reporters, who looked more like a circus strongman than a starving writer, hoisted Jake up, so that Jake was standing on his shoulders. With the reporter standing on the truck's platform, and Jake standing on the reporter's shoulders, Jake had a high view.
Jake examined the telephone wires, pulling on them. "These wires wouldn't support anyone much bigger than a child," Jake said. "Pierre must weigh 200 pounds, at least. I don't see how he could have used them to make an escape over the walls. If he'd grabbed onto them, he would have pulled them right off the poles."
Jake was able to see the top of the left hand wall. The heavy wall was nearly a foot thick. The nobleman who built the wall was obsessed with privacy, one of the journalists told Jake. The top of the wall presented an unbroken layer of dust and decaying leaves. No one had walked on the wall top, or even brushed against it, since the last rain storm. The truck driver slowly moved the truck forward, so that Jake could inspect the whole left hand wall, along the entire stretch where Pierre must have disappeared. It was clear that no one had touched the top of the wall in over a week. The driver then slowly moved back along the right hand wall. Its dusty surface was equally unbroken. Wherever Pierre had gone, he had not climbed over the walls. From his perch, Jake could follow the telephone wires, that stretched over the lane, to a telephone pole outside the right hand wall around thirty yards away. A bright yellow object lay at the foot of the pole. Jake borrowed the binoculars of Claude Dufay. The yellow object turned out to be a banana peel, discarded at the foot of the pole. It recalled the banana the magician had eaten in the car earlier that day. It also reminded Jake that he was hungry for lunch.
The giant reporter turned out to be a Swede, named Sven Nilsson. He was the French correspondent, usually stationed in Paris, of a large daily newspaper in Stockholm. Sweden had long had one of the world's great silent film industries, and the paper's readers were interested in film news from all over the world. The good natured Nilsson, who casually brushed the dust from Jake's shoes off the shoulders of his elegant French suit, turned out to be a highly articulate man. He and the other reporters were all eager to learn what Jake had seen.
A car had driven up, bringing Moe and some members of the crew.
While Pierre's greatcoat had been left on his bike, there was no sign of his helmet, gloves or goggles in the road. They had vanished along with Pierre.
"Maybe he was still wearing them when he disappeared," Jake told Moe. Jake and Moe studied the greatcoat, which was unbuttoned, but otherwise undamaged.
Jake wondered if Pierre had pole vaulted out of the lane, over the wall. But there had been no sign of anything that resembled a pole in the lane. Nor were there any tracks in the lane that could represent a man taking a running leap with a pole. Nor were there any trees overhead, from which Pierre could have been lifted off the motorcycle.
Jake walked over to a brilliant red object lying in the road, around twenty yards further down the lane from where the motorcycle finally tipped over. It was a dead fish, and had been dyed a flaming red color. A line in the dust extended from the brick wall, to the fish.
"It looks as if someone used this fish to make a line in the dust on the road," Jake said. "But why?"
Moe suddenly recognized what kind of fish it was.
"It's a herring," he said with a wry look. "Someone has dragged a red herring across the trail. I've had a lot of metaphorical red herrings on mysteries we've worked on, but this is the first literal red herring. Someone has a bizarre sense of humor."
On the wall, written in French in red paint, were the words "Disappear Here".
"This event was clearly premeditated," Moe said. "And by somebody who is now laughing at us, with these bizarre fake clues."
"Somehow," Jake added thoughtfully, "I think the solution of these events is also going to be far-fetched, outrageous and bizarre."
Feuillade asked Jake what a "red herring" was.
Jake explained that a "red herring" was a promising looking but irrelevant clue, that turned out to have no real bearing on the solution of a mystery. It was an English language term, which is why Feuillade was unacquainted with it. A few years later, in 1931, British mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers would publish a detective novel called The Five Red Herrings. Bad guys in mystery books would sometimes deliberately "drag a red herring" across a mystery's trail of evidence, to confuse a detective. Moe and Jake had seen this saying become literal in this motorcycle mystery.
Moe came back on a bicycle he had borrowed. Moe had explored the road ahead. "There's not another gap in the wall till a crossroads, around a mile down the lane," he reported.
The motorbike was undamaged. A rider from the crew started it up. The endlessly energetic Feuillade, who had a schedule to keep, returned to his base camp. Fortunately, he had completed all the shooting he needed with Pierre. He began to work filming with Greg again. There was a lot of filming to do: Secret Service would be released in ten one-hour episodes, like Feuillade's other serials. Little André was still at the camp with his parents, watching everything like a hawk. Meanwhile Moe was back out the crossroads far down the lane, looking for any prints in the road, while Jake was at the road side shrine in the near portion of the lane, seeing if anything could be learned there. Jake discovered a women's purple domino mask behind the shrine, something unexpected in a rustic shrine in the French countryside.
Suddenly, a loud roar of a cycle was heard. A motorbike swept past Jake down the lane. It emerged from the direction where Pierre had disappeared an hour ago. Jake thought the rider looked like Pierre, as the bike swept past. Soon the bike emerged in the camp where most of the film crew was, passing through the camp at high speed. When it got close, everyone could see it looked like Pierre. He was grinning, and gave a loud toot on his horn as he swept through the camp without stopping. He wore the blue checked suit and striped blue tie he had had on all day, but not the greatcoat. He also had on his distinctive gloves and leather helmet. His goggles were pulled down around his neck, leaving his face unobstructed. In the distance, the bells of the local church began to chime out noon. People were annoyed with Pierre - he seemed to have pulled off a bizarre stunt - but at least everyone was relieved he was not harmed.
Public relations man Poussin had been talking to the reporters, right where the motorcycle drove by in the camp. They all got a close-up look at its rider.
Checking with Moe, Jake learned the biker had not been seen at the crossroads far down the lane. So the motorcyclist had reappeared in the lane, somewhere between the crossroads and the shrine. Perhaps even at the very spot where he disappeared, at the curve near the telephone wires.
Twenty minutes later, the local curate pulled up at the camp in his horse drawn buggy. He helped a dazed Pierre down from his buggy. Pierre was dressed as they had just seen him on a motorcycle.
"I found this man in my church," he told the crowd, "at 11:30 today. Eventually he recovered enough to speak, and I brought him here."
"We saw Pierre here at noon, on his bike," Jake said.
"Impossible," the curate said. "As the bells of my church were tolling out noon, this man was in my rectory. Our bishop was also there, paying a visit, and the good woman who is the rectory housekeeper, serving him luncheon. Actually, it was just after noon when this poor man came out of his daze, and told us who he was, and that he needed to come back to your film camp here."
Feuillade, who was a good Catholic, respectfully thanked the priest for his help.
The local gendarme soon arrived. He immediately recognized the curate, and got an account of the incident from him.
Pierre's story was simple. "As I rounded under the telephone wires on my motorcycle," he said, "I blacked out. When I came to, I was in the good father's church. I know nothing of how I got there. I was awakened in the church by a beautiful young woman, dressed in an elaborate, 17th Century purple gown. She had a purple domino mask over her eyes, and wore a purple headdress covered with purple and white jewels. She was dressed like someone taking part in the annual Carnival that is held on the Tuesday just before Lent. She told me, 'Beware of the Brotherhood of the Red Star!', then slipped out of the church before the Father arrived. I had seen her once before. When my motorcycle passed by the roadside shrine during the filming, she had peeked out from behind the shrine's statue. I just had a glimpse of her, before she hid behind the shrine again."
Pierre denied having ridden through the camp at noon. "At noon I was with the curate and the bishop in the rectory. I know nothing about any ride through the camp."
"It was Pierre's astral projection," Claude Dufay said to Jake, "just like the magician predicted. While Pierre was sleeping in a daze in the rectory, his astral projection arouse out of his unconscious, and drove through the camp on a motorcycle. Only his projection wasn't real. It was just an illusion. The real Pierre was dozing in the rectory."
"Maybe," Jake said skeptically.
"And if you believe that," Claude said with a grin, "I also have the Eiffel Tower I can sell you. What a bunch of hogwash! But still, it's what someone behind all this wants us to believe."
The reporters dashed madly off, to the local town hall, to telephone in their eyewitness accounts to their papers in Paris. The hall was the only building in the little town where telephones were publicly available.
Both Jake and Moe believed Pierre was lying. They did not see how such a bizarre turn of events could have happened without his full, conscious collaboration. But even assuming Pierre was in on the plot, it was hard to see how the events on the lane could possibly have taken place.
Later, Jake had lunch with the reporters. Jake, who loved meeting other writers, was thrilled to meet all these French journalists. He had tons of questions to ask them about being a writer in Paris. They in turn were curious about the United States.
"My favorite American movies are the race car driver pictures Wallace Reid makes," Claude Dufay declared, over a delicious omelet in the country inn. "He is the typical American: clean cut, dynamic, good at every sort of modern technology, and big-hearted." The other reporters all nodded in agreement.
Jake hadn't realized how influential Hollywood pictures were in creating an image of his country around the world. He'd always thought of Wallace Reid as the popular star of light entertainment movies. But he was the image of America to Jake's new friends here.
"This isn't the same motorcycle I was riding early this morning," Greg said to Jake, during a break in the shooting. "That one had a small dent in the fuel gauge. This one doesn't. They're the same model and color, but someone has switched cycles."
"You mean that the cycle Pierre rode out with into the lane is different from the one we found riderless after he disappeared?" Jake asked.
"Yes," Greg replied, "unless they were switched earlier, before Pierre rode it out to the lane, or after."
Greg had been perched on the motorcycle he was using now, when Pierre rode by through the camp at noon. All the witnesses agreed to that. So there were at least two different motorcycles involved in the case, Jake realized, and maybe three. Greg was now riding the bike found in the lane after Pierre's disappearance. And Pierre was riding a second motorbike at noon, one that looked just like Greg's, by all accounts. He had also ridden a different bike out to the lane at the start of the filming, one with a dent in its fuel tank. This may or may not have been the same one Pierre rode at noon through the camp.
Both men were wearing their identical looking helmets, gloves and goggles. Greg's goggles were down around his neck, during the current afternoon's filming, so his face was fully visible. It was clear that it was Greg who was acting in front of Feuillade's camera now, and not some impostor hiding behind the goggles. This seemed oddly reassuring to Jake - he wanted his friend to be as remote from the problems of this case as possible. Other than having his goggles down, Greg was in full costume. His jet black leather motorcycle greatcoat was fully fastened. The huge erect collar that circled his neck was strapped and buckled, both in front of his neck and at its two sides. It looked stiff and rigid, as if its leather were reinforced inside with steel. His tapered coat was tightly belted around his waist, and the double-breasted front of the coat was fastened by the numerous buckles that rose up in a V array from his waist to his broad shoulders. Huge buckled straps on the shoulders served as epaulettes. The long skirts of the greatcoat swirled around Greg's booted legs. The coat was designed to be glamorous, tough and unique. Esther predicted it would start a fashion trend. After the movie was released, every guy in the US and France would want one.
Greg pointed out to Jake that it took him around ten minutes to fasten all the straps and buckle all the buckles that covered every available surface of the glamorous coat. It had taken Pierre, who was unfamiliar with the greatcoat, even longer that morning to get buckled into his coat, shortly before the filming in the lane. Yet when Pierre had vanished, his unbuckled coat had been found on the motorcycle in the lane. How could this have happened?
Jake had examined the greatcoat found in the lane right after the disappearance. There was nothing trick about its elaborate straps. It would take someone at least ten minutes to get out of the complicated coat. Yet Pierre, whose hands were occupied with steering the motorcycle, had somehow emerged from it in the space of less than a minute he had been invisible to Jake around the final curve in the lane. It seemed impossible.
"Heck, Jake," Greg pointed out, "there are even straps fastening the cuffs of the coat to the leather gloves I wear. There are ten straps, all around each cuff, that buckle onto the gloves. And you have to unbuckle and unfold the shoulder epaulettes, just to get at the dozen buckles that fasten the top of each of the coat's double-breasted panels to the shoulders. Heck, even Houdini couldn't get out of this thing in under ten minutes," Greg said proudly.
Moe was amazed at the casual attitude of the local police. They only sent out a lowly gendarme, and he did little but take statements. Moe had looked forward to meeting representatives of the Sûreté from Paris, one of the most advanced crime fighting organizations in the world. Finally, Moe and Esther went to the office of the local prefect of police, showing him Moe's credentials as a Lieutenant in the LAPD. They asked him point blank why no deeper investigation was being performed.
The prefect was cordial, but a bit evasive. Finally, he gave Moe a rueful smile, and spread out his hands in a deprecating gesture.
"It is due to the phone call, mon lieutenant," the prefect told them. "It is these cinema people, very good for trade and business here, but just a bit raffish. Last night we had a phone call, from, shall we say, a high-ranking official of the film. He told us about the forthcoming disappearance. It is all being staged for the newspapers. Such publicity is very good for the box office. It will be a sensation, 'The Great Secret Service Mystery'. The newspapers will play it up. But the police will not investigate it. After all, no crime has been committed."
The prefect had no details on how the disappearance was done. He had wanted the police involved as little as possible.
"So, was it Louis Poussin who called you?" Moe asked the prefect.
Moe could tell from the prefect's face that his guess was accurate. Moe's guess of Poussin was a logical choice - Poussin had set up the junket with the reporters on the truck. And Poussin had the most to gain from the news coverage - he was publicity director for the picture. Moe also realized that Poussin would have the clout to get Pierre's cooperation on any hanky-panky. Also, Poussin was one of the few people on the movie set who was fluent in English, and who would have known about the English language term "red herring". Moe doubted if Feuillade knew about the hoax - Jake had told him that the director had seemed dumbfounded by Pierre's disappearance.
Poussin's involvement also explained, Moe thought, why no one connected with the film had called in private detectives. After all, the famed sleuth Ambrose Ganelon lived in nearby San Sebastiano, and could easily have been brought into the case. Poussin had probably told everybody that such detectives would be bad publicity.
At first Moe was floored, but soon Esther and he were laughing. "It's just like Harry Callaway!" they told the prefect, mentioning the flamboyant Hollywood PR man whose stunts were often a thorn in the side of the LAPD. Harry Callaway was an honest man in his own way, and his outrageous stunts were always to publicize films, never for financial gain or any other disreputable purpose.
The gendarme came into the station while Esther, Moe and the prefect were talking. It settled one issue in Moe's mind - Moe had even wondered if the gendarme sent out to the camp had been a fake, part of the hoax. But the gendarme turned out to be perfectly real, after all. Moe had had experience with some of the fake, but startlingly authentic looking cops, that Harry Callaway had sometimes included in his Hollywood publicity stunts. These had ranged from jut-jawed "federal agents" in three piece suits and fedoras, to an innocent looking young "rookie" in LAPD uniform who had successfully begged the kind-hearted Moe to help him with his first written police report. The wily Harry took a special delight in tricking Moe with fake policemen. It had become a running gag between Moe and Harry. Around once a month, Harry sent in another fake policeman, just to keep Moe on his toes. Moe had successfully pegged the visiting Texas State Trooper as one of Harry's ringers, but had been fooled by the gruff, uniformed LAPD Police Captain from another precinct who had taken over Moe's office and ordered him out on a fake case. Moe had not expected one of Harry's ringers to appear to be one of his own superior officers, particularly not one who had been innocently introduced to Moe by his own Police Captain as his backup replacement for the day. Moe, who had a strong sense of humor, discovered after a while that he was looking forward to the mental challenges these impostors provided him. Feuillade, who regularly included crooks dressed as fake policemen in the plots of his crime thrillers, had been fascinated to learn about Harry's escapades during dinner a few nights before. "Maybe we can ship Harry to over here to work with you in France - permanently," Moe had suggested to Feuillade with a smile.
"No thank you," a laughing Feuillade had replied, "we all have enough trouble coping with Poussin here," nodding across the dining room to where Poussin was sitting, entertaining a group of reporters with witty stories. Poussin had been dressed as a man-about-town in an elegant tuxedo, and looked like a charming, good-natured roué without a thought in his head. Although Poussin was dressed as a sophisticated, well-to-do idler, Moe could see that Poussin was actually hard at work with the reporters, feeding them news items for their papers. "Poussin's relentless publicity sessions are driving us all to exhaustion," the director had added. "He has a lot of imagination, though." Feuillade's words came back to haunt Moe in the prefect's office. Poussin was clearly the mastermind who had dreamed up the bizarre events in the lane.
The prefect wanted to hear all about life in the Los Angeles police. It turned out that he had a nephew who worked as a cotton exporter in New Orleans in the US. The prefect, Moe and Esther had a happy time swapping information about their countries.
Little André tugged on the sleeve of Esther's coat. He had taken a shine to that motherly lady, who could speak to him in excellent French. He had something to tell her.
"When the bike rider went through here at noon, his hair was blond. I saw it peeking out from under his helmet. Now it is light brown. It seems strange."
Esther reported little André's discovery to Jake and Moe.
When Feuillade heard about this, he went over to congratulate André.
"What is your full name, Master André?" Feuillade asked.
"Bazin, Monsieur, André Bazin."
"You are a most observant little man," Feuillade declared. "I predict a great future for a person with eyes like yours."
Feuillade was shooting a scene in an elegant restaurant. The hero would interfere here with a plot by the villains to kidnap the heroine, right in the middle of the society crowd in the restaurant. Greg stood by the dining salon's entrance next to a huge potted palm, looking dashing in white tie and tails. His eyes swept the crowd in the current shot, resting briefly on the bad guys he spotted lurking in the crowd. The various villains had the thin, well-kept beards of French Army officers, and wore military medals on their elegant tailcoats. In the plot, the villains were masquerading as high level military officers. Under the surface of the film, Feuillade was clearly exploiting the unease many people felt about the military. The world war had just ended six years ago, and millions of men had been butchered for nothing. Many people deeply hated and mistrusted the military and its commanders. Having his bad guys disguise themselves as these privileged officers, out for an evening of amusement at an upper class restaurant, allowed Feuillade to portray such officers in a sinister light, without getting him in trouble with the censors.
The filming shut down for the night. Feuillade retreated to a little café, along with the Americans - Greg, Moe, Esther and Jake. Greg asked Feuillade his opinion of current movie serials. Feuillade thought the best serials in the world today were coming out of Germany. "The most imaginative are being made by a young man called Fritz Lang," Feuillade said. "The Spiders was good, and Dr. Mabuse is even better. These deal with master criminals, like my Fantômas and Les Vampires. I got in a lot of trouble with the censors making serials about criminals," Feuillade continued with a smile. "Today all my serials feature heroic good guys, like Judex, or the secret service agent you play." Neither Greg nor Jake had ever heard of Lang, and promised to watch for his films.
Pierre, who had had too much wine, was sleeping in a chair at another table in the outdoor café. He was still in his blue checked suit. The elegantly dressed Poussin was at another table, with a group of reporters. Suddenly, a motorcycle's roar was heard in the street. The cycle slowly passed by the café, sounding its horn. Its rider looked like Pierre. The rider was not in the blue suit; he was dressed in a smart green uniform like the magician's chauffeur had worn earlier. The red star in the center of his uniform cap gleamed in the fading light. Jake, Moe and everyone present could look between the sleeping Pierre in his chair, and the cyclist, before he roared off into the night.
Jake did what he always did, when he wanted to think intensely. He went and sat under a tree. In the hotel garden he found a huge Monkey Puzzle tree from Chile. The tree was a strange but beautiful looking conifer, with giant, candelabra branches sticking out from the central trunk. It was covered with thousands of scale-like green needles, each a small, sharply pointed green triangle. Legend had it that it received its name when someone exclaimed, "It would puzzle a monkey to climb this tree!"
Suddenly Jake began to figure out how the disappearance was done.
Jake made some queries with an expert on French vaudeville.
"There is a French circus act, Little Bobo, the Motorcycle Riding Chimp," Jake began, to Moe, Esther, Greg and Feuillade. "When the road went around the first curve, underneath the oak, the motorcycles were switched. Bobo rode out of the gap in the wall there on one cycle, and Pierre left the road through the gap, and hid behind the wall with his cycle, the one with the dent on its tank. This was during the first period when the motorcycles were temporarily out of sight of those of us on the camera truck. When our truck then rounded the curve, Feuillade and the reporters and I then followed Bobo on the bike down the lane, thinking it was still Pierre. All we could see was the back of his leather greatcoat, draped unfastened over his shoulders. He looked just like Pierre, from the back, in an identical greatcoat and helmet, and on an identical bike. Bobo went up over the bridge, around the next curve, and jumped up from the bike to the telephone wires, while he was out of our sight again. The coat fell off his back onto the bike. Bobo then scrambled on the wires over the far, right hand wall, and climbed down the telephone pole to the ground. It was just as his trainer had rehearsed with him. His trainer was waiting there, rewarding Bobo with a banana, before taking him back to the circus. Bobo is small and slight, even for a young chimp. The telephones wires easily supported him. Bobo's motorcycle soon came to rest in the lane, where we all saw it. It was the motorbike used for the rest of the day by Greg. It had no dent in its tank.
"The domino mask by the shrine, the red fish in the road and the sign on the wall had been arranged earlier that morning, to make mystifying 'clues'. The banana peel at the pole was left behind by Bobo. Everywhere that Bobo goes, banana peels are sure to follow, so having the magician eat a banana during his visit to the camp was a bit of preventive misdirection, helping all of us to associate bananas with the magician instead. One doubts there is any real Brotherhood of the Red Star, either.
"Meanwhile, Pierre's brother was waiting for him, behind the gap in the wall by the oak, and took Pierre's motorcycle from him, the one with the dented tank. Pierre had plenty of time to take off his coat, and make his way to the church by bicycle. He received an alibi there from the honest local curate, who has played the most innocent and unknowing role in this affair. Pierre's brother, who looks a lot like him, later rode through the gap by the oak, down the lane past the shrine where I saw him, and through the camp precisely at noon. He wore clothes identical to Pierre's. His brother has blond hair, unlike Pierre's light brown, but people hoped no one would notice with it tucked under his helmet. Only André did. As soon as Pierre heard the church bells ring noon, he suddenly 'remembered' he was needed at the camp, and insisted the much-imposed-upon curate drive him back. There was no young woman in a purple gown. She was just part of the story Pierre told to confuse us.
"This case really is a Monkey Puzzle," Jake continued, "or rather an Ape Puzzle. The name of the tree gave me the idea about how the disappearance was done."
"There are lots of duplicate costumes in this case. There are four sets of goggles, helmets and gloves, one each for Greg, Pierre, Pierre's brother and Bobo, and three greatcoats, worn by Greg, Pierre and Bobo. There are two identical blue checked suits and striped blue ties, worn by Pierre and his brother. The suits were probably made to be so loud, so that would be instantly recognizable to everyone at a distance. It was easy for the studio costume department here to make so many identical clothes. Film studios always make a lot of duplicate costumes for movies, anyway, so that if one is damaged or soiled, film production is not held up. The costume department knew nothing about the hoax. Poussin simply told them to make up extra copies of the film's costumes for publicity photo sessions, a routine procedure on most films."
Moe, Esther, Greg and Jake stayed on in France as long as they could, and toured the country. Jake wrote a piece about the making of Secret Service for a French newspaper. It was the first thing he'd ever written in French, and he was very proud. Claude Dufay sponsored Jake's admission into a Reporter's Club in Paris. Jake, who'd grown up as a desperately poor and much rejected outsider in Milwaukee, felt quite overwhelmed. Sven Nilsson was there, too, and carried Jake around on his shoulders again to celebrate Jake's induction. This time Jake was in an elegant French man-about-town's suit, too, like all the other reporters; Jake had bought it as a souvenir of his trip to Paris.
The truth about the disappearance never came out. Poussin suggested off the record to curious reporters that it was caused by Pierre's involvement with an affair of the heart, perhaps with the beautiful woman in the purple dress. This seemed plausible to many people - l'amour could cause a young man like Pierre to do anything. Other reporters guessed that it was all a publicity stunt, but since the affair lacked any scandal or crime, no one felt it was worthwhile to expose it in the press.
Feuillade thought it might make a good movie. He planned to include an incident like it in his next thriller.
Author's Note: Louis Feuillade is a real person, as are his family, and as is the great film critic André Bazin, who makes an appearance here at age six. Such real people as actors Vilma Banky, Lars Hansen and Wallace Reid are also mentioned in passing in the tale, as is director Fritz Lang. All the other characters in the tale are fictitious. For biographical information, I am indebted to Henri Fescourt's La Foi et les montagnes (1959), Francis Lacassin's Louis Feuillade (1964), Howard A. Rodman's article on Feuillade in World Film Directors (1987), edited by John Wakeman, and to David Bordwell's On the History of Film Style (1997). Secret Service is an imaginary film, made up for the story, as are the mysterious events that happened during its shooting. Such real films by Feuillade as Fantômas (1913), Les Vampires (1915-1916) and Judex (1916) are mentioned in the tale. Every mystery fan should see Les Vampires, one of the best of all crime thrillers.