Israel Zangwill | H. Greenhough Smith | Edgar Wallace | The Impossible Crime Movement | M. McDonnell Bodkin | Jacques Futrelle | The Hanshews | Carolyn Wells | G.K. Chesterton | Nicholas Olde | Max Afford | Norman Berrow

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Recommended Works:

Israel Zangwill

The Big Bow Mystery (1891) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/28164)

"Cheating the Gallows" (1893) (available on-line at http://www.hillsdalesites.org/personal/hstewart/Mystery/Zangwill%20(1893-02)%20Cheating%20the%20Gallows.pdf)

H. Greenhough Smith

"The Case of Roger Carboyne" (1892) (available on-line at http://www.hillsdalesites.org/personal/hstewart/Mystery/Smith%20(1892-09)%20Case%20of%20Roger%20Carboyne.pdf)

M. McDonnell Bodkin

Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective (1897) Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective (collected 1900) The Quests of Paul Beck (collected 1908) (available on-line at http://books.google.com/books?id=974sAAAAYAAJ)

Edgar Wallace

The Four Just Men (1905) (available on-line at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700351h.html)

Bland stories

Four Square Jane (collected 1929) Again the Three Just Men The Orator (collected 1928) The Lone House Mystery Sergeant Sir Peter (1929 - 1930)

Jacques Futrelle

The Thinking Machine stories are all available on-line at http://www.futrelle.com/, and some at http://manybooks.net/authors/futrellej.html)

Best "Thinking Machine" Detective Stories (1905 -1908)

Great Cases of the Thinking Machine (1905 - 1908)

The Thinking Machine (collected 1907)

Other Thinking Machine tales

"The Mystery of Room 666" (1910)

Carolyn Wells

Anybody But Anne (1913 - 1914) (Chapters 1-6, 14, 17, 18, 20) (available on-line at http://archive.org/details/anybodybutanne00presgoog)

The Room with the Tassels (1918) (Chapters 1, 6, 15, 16, 18) (available on-line at http://archive.org/details/roomwithtassels00wellgoog)

The Man Who Fell Through the Earth (1919) (Chapters 1, 3, 4, 8, 11, 18) (available on-line at http://archive.org/details/manwhofellthrou00rogegoog)

Raspberry Jam (1919 - 1920) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/5335)

Short stories

Thomas W. Hanshew

The Man of the Forty Faces / Cleek, the Master Detective (collected 1910) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/28264)

G. K. Chesterton

The Innocence of Father Brown (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/204)

The Wisdom of Father Brown (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/223)

The Incredulity of Father Brown

The Secret of Father Brown

The Scandal of Father Brown

The Club of Queer Trades (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1696)

Thirteen Detectives

Seven Suspects

The Man Who Knew Too Much (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1720)

The Poet and the Lunatics

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond (1935-1936)

Nicholas Olde

The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern (collected 1928)


Israel Zangwill

Zangwill's classic novella "The Big Bow Mystery" (1891) is the flagship of the modern locked room story. In these tales, a crime is committed in a room that is locked from the inside. How could any murderer have committed this crime, and then escaped? It seems impossible. This sort of puzzle is one of the main categories of modern mystery fiction. Writers have devoted considerable ingenuity to developing solutions to the locked room murder. Locked room puzzles climax with the work of John Dickson Carr. A full detailed history of locked room fiction can be found in Robert C. S. Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes. This book contains a bibliography, listing over 2,000 impossible crime novels and short stories.

The non Locked Room aspects of The Big Bow Mystery

The mystery set up of Israel Zangwill's "The Big Bow Mystery" (1891) reminds one in general terms of Fergus Hume, and his pioneering mystery bestseller, The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886). It also has features in common with such Hume influenced authors as Bodkin and Orczy. All of these writers share some basic paradigms about what a detective story should be like. Although they are contemporary with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, they seem less influenced by him than one would suspect. Zangwill opens with an elaborate inquest, which is followed by public speculation on the solution of the crime: features found in Hume and (and later in Orczy). The public speculation is done through reading about the crime in the paper, followed by offering solutions to the crime in letters to the editor. Orczy's use of armchair detectives in The Old Man in the Corner (1901), who discuss and solve the case based on what they read in the newspaper, can be seen as just an elaborate extension of the many solutions offered by the newspaper reading public in Zangwill's story. There is also a network of relationships between the characters in the tale, which can be interpreted in different ways to create solutions to the mystery. This network is not set forth quite as calmly and dispassionately as in other writers who use this basic approach, however, such as Hume, Orczy and Bodkin. Zangwill's tale has plenty of humor, an attribute as well of Bodkin.

Zangwill has some unique characteristics not derived from Hume, however. Importantly, Zangwill's book shows a full commitment to the puzzle plot. Zangwill's 1895 preface to the book is the first statement known to me of the principle of fair play in detective fiction, although he does not actually use the term "fair play".

The Locked Room

Chapter 4 of Zangwill's story contains multiple proposed solutions to his locked room puzzle. It is a virtual locked room lecture, 44 years before Carr's famous one in The Three Coffins (1935). The immense variety of solutions suggested makes "The Big Bow Mystery" not just a single mystery, but virtually an entire genre of "Locked room fiction", all in itself. Did Zangwill dream up all of these ideas by himself? Are they references to earlier authors? Did he incorporate ideas from his readers' letters? (The novel appeared serially, and Zangwill's preface describes the mass of proposed solutions he received from readers.) Zangwill might not have invented the locked room mystery, but he definitely crystallized it as a genre with this book.

Zangwill's book explicitly invokes Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841) as its ancestor. There was a whole Victorian tradition of direct variations on Poe's tale, largely by casebook writers such as Charles Martel, M.M.B., and the casebook-influenced Arthur Morrison. All of these writers limited themselves to very small variations on Poe's original solution. Zangwill is vastly more inventive. His chapter 4 lists a large number of far more ingenious variations on Poe. Then his actual solution at the end of the tale develops a radically different approach from Poe's to the impossible crime, one not dependent on physical objects, but on deceptive rearrangements in time and space. This is the major new direction to be followed by 20th Century locked room fiction, especially G.K. Chesterton and his successors.

Zangwill's use of multiple proposed solutions also anticipates such Golden Age books as Bentley's Trent's Last Case, Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, and Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery.

The best part of Zangwill's story is the first four chapters, which outline the mystery plot, together with the final chapter. Most of the other, later chapters, outline a blind alley in the investigation, and contain a great deal of off beat characterizations. This is a bit padded.


H. Greenhough Smith

H. Greenhough Smith's "The Case of Roger Carboyne" (1892) is one of the earliest "footprints in the snow" impossible crimes. In such tales, a corpse is found alone in the snow, with no footprints of any possible killer near the body. It looks impossible for the murder to have happened. A common variant has the victim isolated on a sandy beach without footprints. "The Case of Roger Carboyne" contains such a puzzle, mixed in with related kinds of mysteries.

"The Case of Roger Carboyne" is brief, even for a short story. The tale does not resemble a Sherlock Holmes story, with a crime developed into a complex dramatic arc of considerable length. Instead, "The Case of Roger Carboyne" resembles a bit the brief crime tales that often appeared in American newspapers in the second half of the 1800's. Like them, it has mystery ideas, and sets them forth in a direct, straightforward manner.

"The Case of Roger Carboyne" contains no detective. The mystery is set forth, then almost immediately, the solution is presented.

"The Case of Roger Carboyne" perhaps influenced Meade and Eustace's "The Secret of Emu Plain" (1898). "The Secret of Emu Plain" is not a footprints mystery. But its geography is similar, and events in the two tales' mysteries are also similar. The solution in "The Secret of Emu Plain" can be read as a variation of the one in "The Case of Roger Carboyne", although it has significant differences as well.

Samuel Hopkins Adams' "The Flying Death" (1903) is a footprints mystery - but one with a very different approach in details and solution than "The Case of Roger Carboyne".


Edgar Wallace

Zangwill's "The Big Bow Mystery" (1891) anticipates in tone Wallace's The Four Just Men (1905). Both books are full of liberal satire, both feature crimes that are public cause celèbres, both are locked room stories, and in both the motive behind the locked room is partly to create The Perfect Crime. Both are also novella length. Zangwill's finale, where one of his characters penetrates rather threateningly to the Home Secretary, reminds one of the central plot in Wallace against an English minister. The Four Just Men surprises with its liberal attitude toward politics and social justice. It is far more openly liberal than about anything in modern mystery fiction. Current mystery writers suffer from their disinterest in politics, society, science or just about anything else out of the common range of interests. Wallace's book seems like a model of openness in a desert of right wing Tom Clancyness. Wallace also includes mountains of sparkling social satire in his book.

Wallace was still writing impossible crime stories fourteen years later in "The Stolen Romney" (1919). There is the same attempt by sympathetic, idealistic criminals (and Robin Hood types) to penetrate a government protected sanctum here as in The Four Just Men, and the same defiant warnings from the criminals to the cops. The first half of "Code No. 2" (1916) is another good crime tale in the same mode, with agents sneaking up on a government code book. Although Bland is a spy with England's' Secret Service, this story is close to the puzzle plot mystery.

Wallace went on to become an immensely popular writer of thrillers. I cannot justify these books as mystery classics - their plotting is often routine and the writing perfunctory - but I always enjoy the raffishness and brio of Wallace's characters. They lead the sort of lives of adventure that most people would enjoy. Wallace was noticeably internationalist in scope, and his characters come from every ethnic group, and globe trot around the world.

Sergeant Sir Peter

Wallace's Sergeant Sir Peter (1929 - 1930) is a collection of stories about an aristocratic young man who becomes a Police Sergeant. Despite this conceit, this collection is much more realistic about life in Britain than many Golden Age works. The first two stories deal sympathetically with people who are discriminated against in British society: Indians, women, and the working poor. Wallace bluntly shows discrimination against racial minorities, and the oppression of women. Wallace also delights in exposing the flaws of the rich. There is also an emphasis on the financial needs of workers. Such material is fairly unusual in his era, and is consistent with the liberal sensibility Wallace exhibits in his other works. Unlike many writers with a point of view, Wallace shows little self righteousness. Instead, there is a tone of sly, risqué comedy, as Wallace gives us a inside look at the vices and follies of British life. The tone is one of an exposé, a droll recounting of the faults of everyone in the tale. The liberal look at social oppression is simply woven within this, as one more strand within his realistic account of British life.

Some of the sociological background here seems similar to early Dorothy L. Sayers, although Wallace is much more liberal. The look at people of color in Britain recalls Unnatural Death (1927), while the feminist aspects of women coping with difficult husbands reminds one of The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. Wallace's sleuth Sir Peter shares both Lord Peter Wimsey's first name, and his aristocratic background.

Sergeant Sir Peter bears some resemblance to Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1924-1928). Christie's sleuths were young socialites playing at being private detectives, Wallace's a young aristocrat taking on the job of a policemen. Both series are full of humor and social satire. The puzzle plot of Wallace's first story, "The Four Missing Merchants", resembles to a degree Christie's "The Case of the Missing Lady". In general, there is a Christie like feel to Wallace's puzzle plots here. Wallace, like Christie, is clearly in the tradition of Intuitionist detective writers. Wallace's "The Desk Breaker" deals with events whose motivation and hidden, underlying pattern are difficult to determine. It involves looking at the events in a different light, to understand their cause. This is the same sort of plot approach one will find in such inutuitionist tales as Christie's "The Affair at the Bungalow" (1930) and Ellery Queen's "The Seven Black Cats" (1933). Wallace's plot is composed of not just one, but two such events: the crime and the "domestic objects".

Several Wallace tales similarly deal with relationships that can be interpreted in more than one way. Such relationships are prominent in Fergus Hume, and writers who descended from him, such as Wallace and Christie. Wallace sometimes uses these relationships to build puzzle plots, as do other mystery writers. But he also sometimes sets them forth without any mystery, right in the exposition of the story. For example, the relationship between the policeman and the crooks at the start of "Death Watch" can be viewed two different ways, something that victimizes the innocent policeman in the tale. Wallace uses this not to build a mystery, but to get his plot rolling. Such relationships show Wallace's ingenuity. They adapt a technique, that of the ambiguous relationship, originally developed for puzzle plots, to do storytelling instead. Wallace is full of unusual relationships between crooks and other groups, such as police, middle class people, both honest and dishonest, and other professional crooks. In addition to ambiguity, these relationships tend to cause surprising consequences and results.

The Three Just Men tale, "The Man Who Sang in Church" (1927), also employs ambiguity in an unusual way. Here, the detective and the reader get only the sketchiest idea at the start of the story, about the backgrounds and activities of a criminal and his victim. The mystery in the tale involves the detective's attempt to figure out this background, and give a consistent, logical explanation of the few strange and apparently illogical clues he has about this background. This is an unusual structure for a mystery tale. While a typical mystery story involves a mysterious crime, here the mystery is in the lives and background of the people involved in the crime - the blackmail crime itself is not especially mysterious. This story can be considered an "experimental" work. Like Erle Stanley Gardner, Wallace is a writer with a prolific outflowing of plot, a gift that sometimes help him construct stories that experimental in form.

The details on police incompetence at the start of "Death Watch" are also interesting; they give the lie to the statement that British Golden Age fiction always depicted the police in a favorable light. The article on H.C. Bailey discusses this in more detail.

"Death Watch" is a novella, more a thriller than a mystery. It is one of what seems to be a whole genre of British thrillers, mainly novels, in which a country villa is under siege by night by "supernatural hauntings". Such works include Georgette Heyer's first crime novel, Footsteps in the Dark (1932), and Elsie N. Wright's Strange Murders at Greystones (1931). William Hope Hodgson's "The Searcher of the End House" (1910) from Carnacki the Ghost Finder is an early version of this kind of tale, although it has quite a few differences from the later stories. One wonders if there were silent movie melodramas with similar plots. These books are only on the fringe of the mystery proper, being closer to the thriller. They have elements of mystery: they are usually seen from the point of view of the innocent inhabitants of the villa, who have no idea what is going on, and who treat the happenings as unexplained mysteries. However, there are no ingenious solutions, just the exposure of the bad guys. The bad guys are a gang, so there is not a revelation of a single hidden criminal, either, the way there is in a murder mystery. There always seems to be a hidden tunnel into the cellar. The residents of the villa tend to be middle class, and very proper, with touches of satiric humor, whereas the crooks tend to be small potatoes British crooks, bad guys, but not terrifyingly lethal. The servants of the villa always seem to know more than they are letting on, and have hidden ties to the criminals. There is definitely a touch of comic class warfare to these tales, with the middle class inhabitants versus the working class servants and crooks.


The Impossible Crime Movement

Calling the entire period 1891 - 1914 the Sherlock Holmes era is misleading. It actually splits into at least two periods. Doyle's Sherlock Holmes became famous in 1891, and there came a flood of writers in 1891 - 1896 that were clearly influenced by Doyle. These included Arthur Morrison, C.L. Pirkis, Harry Blyth, Headon Hill, and M.P. Shiel. All of these wrote Doyle-like short stories about consulting detectives. This phase did not last long, but it did give rise to a fundamental change in the detective fiction market, the emphasis on the short story.

After the initial Doyle era (1891 - 1896), there came a large number of writers who often focused on impossible crimes during the period 1897 - 1914. Bodkin, Meade and Eustace, Edgar Wallace's The Four Just Men, Gaston Leroux, the Hanshews, Futrelle, Ernest Bramah, William Hope Hodgson, Carolyn Wells, some of Whitechurch's Thrilling Stories of the Railway, parts of R. Austin Freeman's John Thorndyke's Cases, even The Red Thumb Mark, and G.K. Chesterton, for starters. (Meade and Eustace's fiction well could be discussed here, but it was even more pioneering in the history of scientific detection, and is included in that article.) Even a veteran like Fergus Hume got into the act with "The Ghost's Touch", and Robert Barr wrote "The Sad Case of Sophia Brooks". It is hard to know what prompted such an approach. Most of these stories are not explicitly labeled as "impossible crimes", although they are. One possibility is that a mystery just looks that much more mysterious if it is impossible. Certainly, these tales played a role in the rise of the puzzle story. Earlier mysteries sometimes found it hard to draw a clear line between the mystery and the adventure tale. But once you got an impossibility in a tale, there is now a puzzle that must be explained. Adventurous sleuthing around, and chasing down bad guys is just not going to cut it. Sooner or later, the detective is going to have to explain how the seeming impossibility was committed. This means that the detective is now firmly in the role of explainer of puzzles. In other words, including impossibility in their tales helped these writers solidify a genre, that of puzzle plot fiction.

The role of the impossible crime story in the history of detective fiction seems similar to the role of infinity in the history of mathematics. In mathematics, infinity seems at first glance to be just another topic of study, one branch of mathematics among many others. But a closer look reveals the study of infinity to be the well spring of many advances in mathematics. Mathematics as a whole does not contain infinity as a subtopic; rather infinity is a source or root, out of which the rest of mathematics springs. (I learned about this from Carl B. Boyer's classic A History of Mathematics (1968).)

Similarly, it looks to a degree, as if the fair play, puzzle plot school of mystery stems from the impossible crime movement, rather than the latter just being a subgenre of the former. First, around 1897 impossible crimes became the rage, and helped lay the foundation for the modern puzzle plot mystery. Then around 1910, the impossible crime specialist G. K. Chesterton's work became the leading role model for the Golden Age mystery writers of the 1920's and 1930's. In pulp magazines, the "weird menace tales", pulpdom's version of impossible crime fiction, which were born around 1930, became the origin of many "hero pulp" writers, and laid a foundation for Cornell Woolrich and the modern suspense tale, as well. Finally, so many American Golden Age writers specialized in impossible crimes, especially the great John Dickson Carr, but also C. Daly King, Clyde B. Clason, Hake Talbot, Clayton Rawson, and later Joseph Commings, that impossible crime fiction seems not like a subgenre of Golden Age detective fiction, but one of two equal branches of detective fiction of its era.

What the infinite is in mathematics, the impossible is in the mystery story. There are formal similarities in the two concepts, as well. Both the impossible and the infinite are two of the deepest mysteries of their subjects, difficult concepts that puzzle and stimulate the intellects of all who study them. Studying them is like looking into a very deep well, or into the eye of a dragon in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Farthest Shore.


M. McDonnell Bodkin

M. McDonnell Bodkin's works show several similarities with those of the later writer Ernest Bramah: The rogue in Bodkin's story "The Vanishing Diamonds" (1897) has some distinctive personality traits. Bodkin's detective Paul Beck is his friend, and Beck is in the habit of going to him for advice on solving his cases. Beck thinks this man would have made a great detective, and finds it a pity that he choose the profession of a magician instead. The advice is often given over meals the two men share, meals that take place in the rather ordinary, middle class restaurants the magician-rogue favors. The rogue follows cases through newspaper clippings, as well as from information delivered to him by Beck. To illustrate one of his points about unraveling a crime, the magician makes knots in a piece of string, and unties them. Does this sound like anyone we know? It sure reminds one of The Old Man in the Corner, Baroness Orczy's armchair sleuth, who debuted four years later in 1901.

Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective

Dora Myrl, Bodkin's "Lady Detective", shows some similarity with Grant Allen's Lois Cayley, whose adventures appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1898. This was apparently before Dora Myrl, whose stories were collected in book form in 1900, although I don't know their original magazine publication date. The scenes in "How He Cut his Stick" in which Dora Myrl trails the male villain by bicycle, remind one of the bicycle race in which Miss Cayley tries to catch up with a male cyclist. Both Lois Cayley and Dora Myrl seem to be "new women". Both are in business, and both make much money off of their efforts. Both deal with male businessmen on a position of equality, both constantly impress men with their intelligence and ability, both wind up being highly respected by the men around them. Both also have to rescue young male heroes in the stories, who while very likable, wind up seeming a lot less competent that the heroine. This whole approach marks these women as the precursors to the highly able heroines of contemporary books.

The Quests of Paul Beck

"The devilish ingenuity of Mr Bodkin's criminals is such as to make the nervous tremble for a world without Paul Beck." - Yorkshire Daily Observer

Impossible Crimes. "Trifles Light as Air" is not an impossible crime tale. But its murder method has links to Bodkin's impossible crime works. Also, the hidden murder method makes it look impossible for the real killer to have done it.

"Drowned Diamonds" is a borderline impossible crime story. Its puzzle anticipates such works as S.S. Van Dine's The Dragon Murder Case (1933), John Dickson Carr's A Graveyard to Let (1949), and Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Poisoned Pool" (1993), although it is simpler than those, and not quite as "impossible" looking as a mystery situation. Its solution is different from Van Dine's, Carr's and Hoch's. "Drowned Diamonds" also pleases, by having extra mystery subplots, linked to its main puzzle.

"The Rape of the Ruby" is a mystery, but its main merits are its good story telling - its robbery plot is simple and easily figured out. Once again, Bodkin makes it look impossible for the actual robber to have committed the crime, giving the tale a bit of a connection to the impossible crime tradition. The simple diagram and what it leads to, are also a pleasing plot element. Having its heroine be an actress not only adds a bit of show business to the story. It also offers a welcome change from all the idle young heiresses that are the main heroines of the Beck tales. Both the actress and her maid are working women.

"The Unseen Hand" is an impossible crime. R. Austin Freeman's "The Blue Sequin" (1908) has a solution that seems like a variation on the one in "The Unseen Hand". The nephew is an early example of a sarcastic, cynical Upper Class Twit: a character type that sometimes appears in the Golden Age to come. He makes outrageously cynical remarks.

Background. "The Spanish Prisoner" is an entertaining piece of story telling. It has no mystery, but rather is a suspense or thriller tale. Much of it takes place in an exotic foreign setting. Other mystery writers sometimes included a change-of-pace foreign adventure in their collections: Max Pemberton's Jewel Mysteries I Have Known (1895) has "The Watch and the Scimitar", set in the Casbah in Algiers. Unlike many writers of the era who seem prejudiced against foreigners or Latins, Bodkin treats his Spanish characters with sympathy.

"The Ship's Run", one of the stories in Bodkin's The Quests of Paul Beck (collected in book form in 1908), takes place on a huge ocean liner called Titanic. This is four years before the actual ocean liner Titanic sailed - and sank. At first glance this looks prescient, even clairvoyant. Actually, plans for a Titanic like ship had been highly publicized for years. And these plans referred to the ship under its original name, Gigantic. Long before Bodkin, the American author Morgan Robertson published a whole novel called Futility (1898), about a huge, "unsinkable" ocean liner called Titan, that promptly hits an iceberg and goes down. It was an attack on the shipowners' disregard for public safety that affected the building of the actual Titanic. Readers can get much more information about this from Martin Gardner's book, The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? (1986). Bodkin was far more optimistic about the whole Titanic enterprise, incorrectly as it turns out. His ship sails smoothly on over all obstacles. Bodkin's fiction shows a fascination with trains, bicycles, ships and other modern, high tech forms of transportation. Bodkin was not alone in this. His fellow impossible crime writer, Jacques Futrelle, actually sailed on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. After seeing his wife May Futrelle to safety in a life boat, he went down with the ship, taking the manuscripts of several unpublished Thinking Machine stories with him.

"'Twixt the Devil and the Deep Sea" is another shipboard tale, with an easily guessed mystery plot. The subplot about Archer is not bad, though, and the story has some plot surpasses. The tale is notable for its liberal politics, dealing with labor relations.

"The Voice from the Dead" has a millionaire's study fixed up with every modern, electric machine. Notable also, is the "electric motor" car that brings the detective to the mansion from the station.

Detectives. Bodkin's sleuth Paul Beck has some features that anticipate Thomas Hanshew's detective Hamilton Cleek:

At the end of the otherwise routine "His Hand and Seal", sleuth Beck has the Attorney General gather all the witnesses who had appeared at the inquest together, before Beck reveals the solution. This is not quite a "gathering of the suspects" found in later detective fiction, but it is similar.

Into the Matrix: The Work of Jacques Futrelle

Jacques Futrelle's tales of the Thinking Machine are some of the best detective stories even written. The Thinking Machine, a professor who received his nickname from the press for his intellectual acuity, appeared in a series of around 50 stories, from 1905 to Futrelle's death on the Titanic in 1912. Even the less successful Thinking Machine tales have features which make them enjoyable and worth reading. What seems to be the complete Thinking Machine stories can be found on-line at: http://www.futrelle.com/. This contains all the Thinking Machine stories in the recommended reading list at the start of this article, by the way.

Futrelle's tales seem extraordinarily surrealistic. Events in them are often bizarre, and with strange emotional undertones that come right out of the unconscious. Futrelle is at the start of an American tradition of "pop" Surrealism, that encompasses the detective fiction of Ellery Queen and Craig Rice, and the films of Buster Keaton and such Warner Brothers Loony Tunes animators as Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. All of these artists produced work as part of popular culture that encompass a full, delirious surrealism. If this work is strange, it is rarely downbeat. There is a harmonious beauty of form to the plots of most of these artists, that seems like the unfolding of the musical argument of a Mozart or Beethoven. It represents the storytelling instinct at its most graceful. Much of their work seems like an expression of joy. Futrelle's stories often pile mystery upon mystery in baffling fashion. The enigmatical detective investigations of the Thinking Machine, whose underlying motivations are not always shared with the reader, often aid the sense of endless mysteries, as well. The Thinking Machine's investigative ideas are often remarkably trenchant.

Futrelle's stories often deal with impossible crimes. He did not invent the impossible crime - he came after such impossible crime specialists as Zangwill and the team of Meade and Eustace, and was a contemporary of Hanshew - but his work in this field has a special exuberance, a rich power of invention. One of his stories, "The Silver Box" deals with the apparently impossible leakage of business information. This same subject was the theme of some of Meade and Eustace's series of Florence Cusack tales. These tales only appeared in magazines and were never collected in book form, so it is unclear if Futrelle ever saw them. In any case, Futrelle's method for the leaking of the information was original, and not found anywhere in his predecessors.

Futrelle's methodology as a writer of impossible crime stories centers on lines of communication. Pipes, strings, telephone lines, chains of mirrors used to reflect light - all of these appear in his stories. All of these devices are used to convey information from one point to another, in a way that seems at first glance to be impossible. A similar approach is found in the works of Meade and Eustace, and to a degree in Hanshew. Similarly, the emphasis on signaling devices in Whitechurch's train stories reflects an essentially similar interest in the high tech matrix of modern communication, a poetic, imaginative response to the growing communication grid of the modern world. This is in contrast to the bad machines found first in the impossible crime stories of M. McDonnell Bodkin, and then in Ernest Bramah.

Futrelle has affinities with the "scientific" school of American detective writers, who were his contemporaries. His detective hero was a scientist, and his plots can turn on technology and ingenious devices. However, this element is but one of many that goes to make up his fiction, and the scientific aspect is much less central here than in the works of Reeve or MacHarg and Balmer. There is also less of an atmosphere of "realism" to Futrelle's tales, compared to most of the works of the "scientific" school. They are more fairy tale like, and escapist. His tone is closer to such successors as Chesterton and Christie.

Futrelle wrote a couple of stories with an art world background, including the simple "Problem of the Stolen Rubens" and the more substantial "Mystery of a Studio". His depiction of painters and their work shows a certain knowledgeability. Boston during his era was a center of American painting. All of this was before the Armory Show (1913) introduced modern art to the American public.

Non-Impossible Crimes

Not all of Futrelle's tales deal with impossible crimes. "The Man Who Was Lost" is the earliest mystery story known to me dealing with amnesia. Futrelle rings many ingenious changes on this theme. He also delved in the mind of a man with delusions in "The Mystery of Room 666" (1910). This story, with its hero-narrator in prison charged with a crime, and with his strange dreams and fancies, seems anticipatory in its apocalyptic tone of T.S. Stribling's "A Passage to Benares" (1926). "The Mystery of Room 666" is the only non-Thinking Machine short story by Futrelle easily available today. E. F. Bleiler says that Futrelle also wrote sports stories and Westerns, but these have not been reprinted.

"Five Millions by Wireless" is an early kidnapping tale. Its solution will become a standard in works by later writers, such as Dashiell Hammett's "The Gatewood Caper" (1923). Like Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales where governments employ Holmes' help on a diplomatic crisis, this story expresses the middle class' strong skepticism about the aristocracy. This tale gets the Thinking Machine personally involved in adventure, as do "The Problem of the Cross Mark" and "The Problem of the Deserted House" (1907).

One year after the Thinking Machine's debut in "The Problem of Cell 13" (1905), Futrelle produced the only novella about his sleuth, "The Chase of the Golden Plate" (1906). This is the only non-short story to feature the Thinking Machine. The novella seems badly padded and slow moving, and is only occasionally interesting. It does build up a carefully constructed plot. This plot has affinities with two short stories Futrelle would write. Like "The Three Overcoats", "The Chase of the Golden Plate" deals with confusions of identity, long buried histories of conflict and questions of honor, and romantic issues. Like "The Problem of the Auto Cab", "The Chase of the Golden Plate" concerns a mysterious robbery during a society party, the return of the valuable loot, and gets Hutchinson Hatch unusually involved in leg work during the early stages of the case before the Thinking Machine is brought into the problem. Both of these brief tales are much better than the novella, with "The Problem of the Auto Cab" being especially delightful.

Some of Futrelle's non-impossible crime tales show the influence of Rogue fiction. Clever, dominating, well-dressed rogues appear in "The Three Overcoats", "The Jackdaw Girl" and "The Problem of the Cross Mark". The young businessman in "The Problem of the Vanishing Man" also falls into this tradition.

Futrelle's novels, which are mainly romantic melodramas, not mysteries, hold up much less well today. They seem thin, padded, and relatively plotless, especially compared to the short stories. His novella "The Diamond Master" (1909) is also a disappointment. The best parts are the first four chapters, which describe the diamonds themselves, with Futrelle's surrealistic flair. Despite some elements of mystery, this is basically a thriller, not a mystery story in any sense. Certain conventions of the thriller are satirized or burlesqued: following suspects (Chapter V), and the third degree (the end of the story). The hero of the story is not the much satirized private detective Mr. Birnes, but the young businessman. Futrelle idolized businessmen, and equated success in business, especially the robber baron, Captain of Industry mode, with male virility. This is odd contrast to his similar idolization of pure intellect, in the form of the decidedly different Thinking Machine. Together with the many dynamic, clearly sexually energetic women found in his work, it gives his stories a strong charge of sexual symbolism. This interest in sexuality is typical of the surrealist mode. One often feels in Futrelle's work that every sort of sexual idea is bubbling up and ready to explode from the subconscious.


The Hanshews

The Man of the Forty Faces

Sleuth Hamilton Cleek made his debut in the short story collection, The Man of the Forty Faces (collected 1910). The Hamilton Cleek mysteries by the Hanshews, which often feature impossible crimes, were favorite childhood reading of John Dickson Carr. Ellery Queen's somewhat satiric comments on the tales focused on the campier aspects of the Cleek saga, with the detective Hamilton Cleek being a Balkan Prince caught up in Ruritanian romance. I have just read one for the first time, "The Riddle of the 5:28", and find it far more of a straightforward mystery tale than I had imagined. It is not at all campy in tone, the Prince works closely and normally with Scotland Yard, and a fair play impossible crime story is spun out, entertainingly if somewhat implausibly in solution. There are signs of trying to appeal to a (male) juvenile audience in the stories: the Prince employs a Cockney lad (19 years old) as an assistant, he being a character with whom boys might identify; the prose tries to create a thrilling tone, complete with dramatic climaxes; and there is a great deal of attention paid to trains, automobiles and other machinery, something that boys of all ages love. By contrast there is a great deal of grown up romance, including a villainous character who engages in adulterous affairs.

The tone of the story over all matches that of Arthur B. Reeve's Craig Kennedy stories to come, with its stalwart, highly intelligent hero; a cast of characters involved in the corrupter aspects of the era's high life and all under suspicion, with the characters all assembled at the end for the revelation of the guilty party by the detective; the emphasis on dramatic writing; the focus on technology and machinery; and a setting more of public life than of pure domesticity. The Man of the Forty Faces appeared in book form in 1910, the year before Reeve started writing his Craig Kennedy tales in 1911.

Some of the other tales in The Man of the Forty Faces also involve scientific mysteries. "The Riddle of the Ninth Finger", "The Lion's Smile", and "The Divided House" are all about mysterious illnesses or afflictions, that seem to have no known cause. Cleek eventually provides medical, science-based explanations for the afflictions. "The Divided House" is the best of these, the one where the solution is cleverest, and also most plausible. "The Riddle of the Ninth Finger" is the poorest, with the circus melodrama "The Lion's Smile" somewhere in the middle. These stories perhaps influenced Agatha Christie, for example, in "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb" and "The Tragedy at Marsden Manor", in Poirot Investigates.

"The Riddle of the Rainbow Pearl" in has a full-fledged background of Ruritanian romance. It is well done and entertaining escapist storytelling. It combines this with a mystery plot about a search for a hidden object, in the tradition of Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (1845). Some of the intrigue also reminds one of Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891). The mystery solution is more science oriented than either Poe or Doyle, however, in keeping with the scientific detection aspect of Hanshew.

Other of the tales also look for hidden objects: "The Riddle of the Sacred Son", "The Riddle of the Siva Stones". "The Riddle of the Sacred Son" has some good storytelling, as well as a clever solution. Just as "The Riddle of the Rainbow Pearl" has a delirious melodrama in a Balkan kingdom, so does "The Riddle of the Sacred Son" invoke an Oriental extravaganza. Unfortunately, the tale's complete lack of realism about Asian countries, and its nonsensical depiction of Asian religion, are in a mode that has become dated, and are now likely to offend. Hanshew went to great efforts to depict the Asian priest in the tale as a man of dignity, intelligence and high moral character. He was clearly trying to write a story that would be non-racist, and which would form a contrast to the racist tales of Oriental villains that were then so popular. This is all to his credit. However, non-realism about Balkan kingdoms, as in "The Riddle of the Rainbow Pearl", is now just considered campy fun. Non-realism about Asia, a place with an ugly history of being exploited by European Colonialism, is still a matter of concern.

Two tales involve disappearances. Such a vanishing inevitably brings up that favorite question of R. Austin Freeman: the disposal of the body. Both "The Caliph's Daughter" and "The Wizard's Belt" have some original ideas on the subject, in their solutions. Unfortunately, neither is really gripping as a work of storytelling. Considering their early date, one wonders if Freeman influenced Hanshew, or Hanshew influenced Freeman, or whether their common interest in the disposal of the body was merely part of the zeitgeist. Elements of "The Caliph's Daughter" anticipate such Freeman novels as The Eye of Osiris (1911) and The Jacob Street Mystery (1941).

"The Problem of the Red Crawl" is a thriller, without real elements of mystery. It exploits Cleek's ability to impersonate seemingly any other person. Cleek anticipates later heroes with similar gifts, such as Ellery Queen's detective Drury Lane (1932-1933), and 1940's comic book characters such as The King and the Chameleon. The real mystery stories in The Man of the Forty Faces do not use this ability. Instead, when Cleek disguises himself in these tales, it is as an imaginary person, a new made-up persona. "The Problem of the Red Crawl" is a fairly entertaining melodrama. The red crawl of the title is vivid.

Cleek's Government Cases

"Murder in an Empty House", from Cleek's Government Cases (1916), is far fuller of Graustarkian fantasies of honor and chivalry. It is at once nostalgically appealing, and absurd. A young Count in the story is described as "the handsomest, bravest chap ever to don the Emperor's uniform". The aristocratic Cleek's use of slang to address his friend Superintendent Narkom of Scotland Yard - "you old fidget" - anticipates similar slang slinging aristocrats as Philo Vance and Lord Peter Wimsey. Cleek disguises himself in the uniform of a British Lieutenant as well. Cleek's constant use of disguises and different identities reminds one of the Rogue school. The solution of the impossible crime disappoints, being based on 1916 high tech gizmos. The affinity to Reeve does persist here, however, in the high technology nature of the crime. The Hanshews' use of Hampstead Heath, the setting of Meade and Eustace's "The Man Who Disappeared" (1901) and Freeman's A Silent Witness (1914), makes one wonder if the Heath were somehow the locale of every high tech crime in British history. Cleek finds a body on the Heath, just as in Freeman's novel.

The World's Finger

Before creating Cleek, Thomas Hanshew wrote numerous mystery novels. The World's Finger (1901) is something of a hack job. Douglas G. Greene, who has written the best article on Hanshew's work (in the Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction, edited by Frank N. Magill), points out that the rivalry between detectives in this book derives from Fergus W. Hume. In fact, much of the book is recognizably in the style of Fergus Hume and his The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), not so much in its detectival technique as in its subject matter: its nocturnal killing on an urban street, its cast of young lovers doubling as suspects, good looking personable young society men hiding discreditable secrets, parent child relationships, hidden liaisons between rich older men and women of the lower classes, shrewd working class police officers and private detectives, boarding houses and upper middle class homes, romantic triangles, and illegitimate births.

Into this Humian stew Hanshew introduces a few original elements. The book's stalwart heroine does some good detection, in her attempt to clear her fiancé's name (in Chapters 1-2 of Part Second). Another amateur detective, a doctor, does a creditable job directing a murder investigation in the opening chapters, before Scotland Yard has a chance to show up. These opening chapters (Chapters 1-3 of Part First) contain a mildly interesting impossible crime, and its solution. The OK solution contains both elements that are ingenious, and something of a let down. Perhaps someday someone will reprint this opening section.

The World's Finger is a good title. It would make a good trilogy with Cornell Woolrich's Night Has a Thousand Eyes and Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness.


Carolyn Wells

Faulkner's Folly

Carolyn Wells' Faulkner's Folly (1917) is the first novel I have read by that author. It shows the frustrating mix of (artistic) virtue and vice that other commentators have discerned in her work. The book is startlingly close to the traditions of the Golden Age novel. But it was written before Christie, Carr, Queen, Van Dine and other intuitionist Golden Age writers had published a line. And this is hardly Wells' first work; she had been publishing for over a decade, since 1906, when this novel appeared. The novel has an apparent medium who holds séances, etc., and whose "supernatural" gifts are ultimately explained naturally; this seems very anticipatory of both John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot. Carr was in fact devoted to Wells' works while growing up, and we know from both Ellery Queen and Carr biographer Douglas G. Greene that he was one of Wells' biggest admirers. Many of Wells' tales are impossible crime stories; she was apparently one of the first to expand this genre from the short story to the novel, following Gaston Leroux.

Faulkner's Folly also anticipates the Golden Age in other ways. It takes place in an upper class country house, and draws on a closed circle of suspects of relatives, guests and employees of the murdered man. There is an atmosphere of culture to the novel, too; the murdered man was a great painter, and one of his guests is the widow of the architect who built his mansion. The whole novel is very close in tone to S.S. Van Dine; in fact it is one of the closest approximations in feel to his work among the mystery authors who preceded him.

Wells would certainly be classified as an intuitionist. She started by publishing in All Story magazine, one of the early pulp magazines that also featured the work of Mary Roberts Rinehart. But her work could not be more different from Rinehart's. There is no sign of an influence from Anna Katherine Green, or of scientific detection à la Arthur B. Reeve. Nor is there much suspense of any sort in Wells' work. Instead, Wells' book is squarely in the intuitionist tradition, and seems on the direct line to such later intuitionist writers of the Golden Age listed above.

The best part of Wells' book is the finale, when the murderer is revealed and the various mysteries are explained. It reminded me of the pleasure I have received from the finales of Christie, Carr and other Golden Agers, when all is revealed.

Now for the down sides of Wells' work. Her book is nowhere as good as a work of storytelling as the later authors we have mentioned. And her plot is nowhere as clever as these later authors, either. Bill Pronzini's Gun in Cheek (1982), his affectionate but hilarious history of really bad crime fiction, points out other truly major flaws in Wells' works. Her impossible crime plots tend to depend on secret passageways. This gimmick was later, during the Golden Age, regarded as a cheat; the locked room novels of Carr and others often contain solemn assurances from the author that no secret passageways were found in the buildings where the crimes occurred. To be fair, Wells showed some real ingenuity in the use of such secret panels and doors; but this gimmick is likely to annoy modern readers.

We can compare Wells' novel with "Nick Carter, Detective" (1891), an early series detective tale. The story opens with a "locked house" crime. Nick Carter suspects secret passageways, and sure enough he eventually finds the house to be riddled with them. They are similar to the secret passageways Herman Landon used for his Gray Wolf stories in Detective Story in 1920. Detective Story was the first specialized mystery pulp magazine. So the impossible crime caused by secret passageways was a common coin of inexpensive mystery fiction. Carolyn Wells also used secret passages for her locked room tales in the 1910's, although she tended to employ Occam's razor on them. She would employ the minimum number of passages need to commit the crime, often just one. It would be strategically placed in the only spot that would allow the crime to be committed. There was a quality of ingenuity to her placement: it was not at all obvious that a secret passage anywhere would enable the crime to be possible; the revelation that a secret passage would make the crime possible would startle the reader at the end of the story. She achieves a genuine puzzle plot effect by this approach: where is the secret passageway, and how could any secret passage possibly enable this crime?

Anybody But Anne

Anybody But Anne (1913-1914) shares most of the characteristics of Wells' later Faulkner's Folly: I do not know if Wells invented the above template for formal mystery novels, or whether she derived it from other authors. Anybody But Anne does establish, that what we think of as a "typical Golden Age style mystery novel", was in existence before what is often thought of as the official start of the Golden Age in 1920. It is also a fact, that Wells was American, and that her book is set in the United States: somewhere in New England.

The best parts of Anybody But Anne have charm. People looking to sample Wells, might enjoy this novel, or at least its best chapters. It is at its best in the opening (Chapters 1-6), which sets up the architecture, characters and murder mystery; two later chapters that tell us more about the house as well as exploring some subsidiary mysteries (14, 17), and lastly the solution (Chapters 18, 20). Together these sections make a readable novella. The novel has been scanned by Google Books, and can be read free on-line.

We get a good portrait of Wells' sleuth, Fleming Stone, in action in these sections. Oddly, he is missing in most of the middle of the book, sections which generally are not that interesting anyway. Like most pre-1945 detectives, he is more characterized by his skills and behavior as a detective, than by any knowledge we get of his personal life. Stone has a penetrating intellect, that goes right to the heart of clues to the mystery, in the evidence at hand. He is crisp and business-like at delivering his insights, sharing his ideas immediately with the other characters and the reader.

We do learn that Fleming Stone is outside of the world of romance, like many other early detectives. Wells gives an interesting psychological portrait of this.

The White Alley

The White Alley (1910, 1915) is not one of Wells' best works. Its chief interest is its setting, a huge suburban mansion in the Washington Heights district of far-Northern Manhattan. S.S. Van Dine would depict a somewhat similar mansion with extensive wooded grounds in The Dragon Murder Case (1933), set a bit further north in the Inwood Hill district.

The mansion, and detective work taking place there, are in Chapters 1, 7, 13, 14, 22 of The White Alley. These sections show some architectural imagination.

However, the mystery plot lacks "fair play": there are no clues that will let readers deduce the solution.

The solution (Chapter 22) includes an alibi idea, that will later be made famous by Freeman Wills Crofts in The Cask (1920).

The tone of The White Alley is much darker than Wells' Anybody But Anne. The characters are nasty, if rich; the story events have nightmarish aspects; the ancient, colonial mansion has a decrepit air than makes it less fun than the chic modern country house in Anybody But Anne. All of these things make The White Alley not much of a reading experience.

Detection

The solutions in the major Wells novels I have read are fairly clued. In Anybody But Anne, there are two major indications of how people got in and out of the locked room. And there is a clue as to the location of the hidden pearls. All of these clues are fully shared with the reader: in fact, they are underlined and called attention to by Wells. In the finale, detective Fleming Stone builds on these indications to solve the mysteries.

Similarly, in Raspberry Jam, sleuth Fibsy first gets an idea of how the murder was committed, when he is having a conversation with the killer. The killer tells Fibsy about the killer's career background. This suddenly gives Fibsy the key idea, of how the murder was done. Fibsy immediately shares his idea with the reader, too. The whole process is eminently "fair play". It can be mildly criticized, however, for not giving the reader any time to mull over the clue about the killer's career.

In his essay "The Grandest Game in the World" (1946), John Dickson Carr makes some observations about Wells' clueing. He claims that there is just a single clue in Wells' The Luminous Face to the solution. Carr states that this makes the book "technically within the rules" of fair play detection. But he also says the ideal mystery will have not just one clue, but rather numerous clues, all linked together by the detective into a fabric of reasoning.

I have mixed feelings about Carr's observations. It is true, that authors who build grand structures out of multiple clues are creating something exciting and worthwhile. But it is also true that a book with just one or two clues to each mystery subplot, is still a fair play, classical detective novel - and not just "technically".

The fact that Anybody But Anne and Raspberry Jam are Impossible Crime tales, adds some further complexities to this issue. In Impossible Crime mysteries, the main job of the detective - and the reader - is to come up with a mechanism of how the crime was committed at all. I think that if the sleuth comes up with a legitimate explanation, it hardly matters if there is a clue for it! Just finding a way to explain how the crime was done at all, is a satisfactory finale. If the author throws in one or two clues as well, the solution is even better, of course.

In Anybody But Anne, sleuth Fleming Stone is off-stage for most of the novel. He shows up in the final chapters, and immediately solves the mystery. This plot construction is not typical of mystery fiction, although hardly unique to Wells: more often in other writers, the detective is present throughout nearly the whole book. Wells' approach has strengths and weaknesses. Clearly, it deprives readers of seeing Fleming Stone in action. People who buy a Nero Wolfe or Hercules Poirot novel, want to see Wolfe and Poirot, and the more the better! But Wells' approach also enables a straightforward, satisfactorily logical kind of sleuthing. Fleming Stone shows up, finds clues, does some thinking, and solves the case. He doesn't tarry, obfuscate, or make knowing, cryptic remarks while concealing his ideas from the police and the reader. No, he solves the crime with admirable logic and dispatch.

Carolyn Wells' Evolution as an Impossible Crime Novelist

Here is a chart, showing common kinds of mystery plot, sleuths and setting in Carolyn Wells' Impossible Crime novels. The categories:
Novel Year Sealed Plan Subplot Sleuth Skill Fake Setting R Chapters
A Chain of Evidence 1907 Apartment - Alibi Fleming Stone - - NYC Apartment - -
The White Alley 1910 House - Alibi Fleming Stone - - Washington Heights - 1,7,13,14,22
Anybody But Anne 1913 - X Pearls, Weapon Fleming Stone 2, 3 - Country House X 1-6,14,17,18,20
Faulkner's Folly 1917 - X - Alan Ford - X - - -
The Room with the Tassels 1918 House - Announced Crime Wise, Zizi 15, 16 X - - 1,6,15,16,18
The Man who Fell Through the Earth 1919 Office - Vanishing in Street Case Rivers 8, 11, 18 - NYC Business X 1,3,4,8,11,18
Raspberry Jam 1919 Apartment - Psychic Demos Fibsy 13 - 18 X Newark X whole book
The Vanishing of Betty Varian 1922 House - - Wise, Zizi 10 - Maine coast - 1-3,7, 10

A Chain of Evidence is a poor book, but it is included for completeness' sake. Some very poor books that simply reuse previous authors' ideas, The Diamond Pin and The Mystery Girl, are not included in the chart.

One can give a picture of the evolution of Wells' impossible crime novels:

Non-Impossible Crimes

Wells wrote novels that did not feature impossible crimes. In the Onyx Lobby (1920) has an apartment house setting, like A Chain of Evidence. It is a dying message mystery (a kind of mystery puzzle already well-established by other writers by 1920). Imagery in the solution suggests it might have influenced Ellery Queen's The Scarlet Letters (1953), in some small ways - the actual dying message clues are quite different, but the way they are written by the murdered man has some similarities.

G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton wrote five story collections about Father Brown. The best are the first, The Innocence of Father Brown, which contains Chesterton's most ingenious paradoxes serving as detective concepts, and the third, The Incredulity of Father Brown, which offers his best put together impossible crimes. Chesterton's impossible crimes in Incredulity all involve action - they focus on some ingenious way of committing murder, often involving moving both the killer and/or the victim's body from place to place. Chesterton's vision is architectural, as well, involving the layout of buildings and rooms. As in John Dickson Carr, Chesterton's solutions are even more imaginative than the impossible problems themselves.

These books are among the high points of the puzzle plot mystery story. Chesterton's fiction seems to be the main model for the great works of the Big Three puzzle plot detective novelists, Christie, Queen and Carr.

Kinds of Chesterton Stories

Bringing Melodrama to Life. “The Sins of Prince Saradine” and “The Sign of the Broken Sword” deal with strange schemes by bad guys to kill people. Both are remote from impossible crimes; instead they rely of clever, off-trail schemes of their villains. Such tales in The Wisdom of Father Brown as “The Paradise of Thieves” and “The Head of Caesar” also look at criminal schemes, although these involve financial gain rather than murder. None of these stories have anything to do with the Rogue tradition of gentleman crooks. Instead, they focus on ingenious new plot ideas of Chesterton’s. These stories link with “The Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown”, The Man Who Was Thursday, “The Duel of Dr. Hirsch”, “The Mistake of the Machine”, "The Ghost of Gideon Wise", “The Blast of the Book”, "The Insoluble Problem", "The Vampire of the Village". All have to do with Imagined Melodramas: bizarre, lurid events out of trashy fiction, that are somehow brought to life, to conceal or enable various ends.

Unique Personalities. “The Blue Cross” and "The Purple Jewel" offer appealing, unusual personalities, set against paradoxical stories involving both daily life and melodrama.

Multiple Interpretations. “The Honor of Israel Gow” challenges the reader and the detective to explain surreal situations, that seem incomprehensible at first glance. It is delightfully outré. “The Absence of Mr. Glass” is similar, in its dual explanations of multiple strange phenomena, although it never has the apparent unexplainability of the earlier tales. “The Absence of Mr. Glass” does have something the first story lacks: a locked room problem.

"The White Pillars Murder" is another story that develops a dual explanation of all phenomena within it.

Impossible Crimes. “The Secret Garden”, “The Invisible Man”, “The Hammer of God”, "The Salad of Colonel Cray", “The Fairy Tale of Father Brown”, "The Vanishing Prince", "The Soul of the Schoolboy", "The Hole in the Wall", "The Arrow of Heaven", "The Oracle of the Dog", "The Miracle of Moon Crescent", "The Dagger with Wings" are impossible crime tales, Many of Chesterton's impossible crimes revolve around architecture. They depend on the geometric, spatial arrangement of their setting.

“The Wrong Shape” (1910) is the weakest of Chesterton’s impossible crimes, simply being a reuse of a standard gambit. The tale also suffers from stereotyping.

Stories that derive from Impossible Crimes. While “The Eye of Apollo” is not strictly impossible, it derives in technique from the impossible crime tale (it looks impossible for the two main suspects to have committed the crime – they both have alibis). "The Garden of Smoke" is another story in the same mode, with an unusual, ingenious murder method that borders on the impossible crime. Both tales also have a female victim, involved with avant-garde movements, and who is concealing a sinister secret.

"The Crime of the Communist" (1934) resembles a bit "The Garden of Smoke", in dealing with an unusual murder method. It has no impossible crime features, however.

Techniques

Chesterton's superb literary style has some obvious ancestors. His prose style, with its rich descriptions of atmosphere and light, comes from Robert Louis Stevenson. So does his sense of adventure lurking in every corner of London. Chesterton's love of paradox, and his ability to sustain a philosophical argument with wit and invention, is modeled after the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

Chesterton's "The Vampire of the Village" shows one of his techniques in pure form. First we see the character as the conventions of society have it, such as the Rebellious Son, or the Society Widow. Then we have Chesterton and Father Brown commenting on what the character is really like, morally and socially. This allows for a great deal of paradoxical reversal of conventional ideas, and much social commentary and even satire. It also allows for a hidden plot to be built up, with the characters and their relationships being Not What They Seem. This sort of technique was heavily used at an early date by Fergus Hume. It shows up in many impossible crime writers, and the intuitionist tradition in general: Hume, Orczy, Chesterton, Christie, Leslie Ford. To solve such stories, you have to look at the relationships in The Right Way. The world has to be looked at upside down. You have to change your point of view 180 degrees, and 100 percent. When you get ahold of the idea and the hidden relationships, then you can understand the mystery.

Chesterton wrote many books about other detectives than Father Brown. Most of these works contain some gems, as well as a lot of more ordinary material. I have read all of these, and was going to offer some detailed suggestions for further reading, but there is now no need. Marie Smith has edited two anthologies that contain nearly all the best tales from these collections, Thirteen Detectives and Seven Suspects. (I haven't felt in such detailed agreement with a critic's judgment on an author's work since I read Francis M. Nevins' Ellery Queen study, Royal Bloodline.) She has also included some really good rare works, that I had never read.

Chesterton's Father Brown stories largely stick closely to the paradigms of the detective story, while his non-Father Brown stories often go beyond them. Many of these latter tales have to be described as extravaganzas, not conventional fiction at all, with unusual themes, strange situations and events. Some are not conventional murder mysteries, but instead focus on some other kind of puzzle: one story's mystery centers on locating an elusive address.

The Novels

Chesterton's novels are nowhere as good as his short fiction. Ideas are stretched out to their breaking point, and a great deal of uninspired philosophical and religious matter is introduced. The Man Who Was Thursday is particularly overrated, although it contains an interesting central gimmick.

Manalive (1910), which has never had much of a reputation, is a mildly interesting novel, barely on the borderlines of mystery fiction - today's authors are not the only ones publishing works that weirdly stretch the boundaries of the genre. By contrast, Chesterton is certainly a major author in the realm of the short story.

Influence of Chesterton on later writers

One can see the influence of “The Invisible Man” on John Dickson Carr. The numerous impossibilities. The nice, adventurous young man who is the viewpoint character, but who is clueless at detection. His romantic rivalry with another man for the heroine returns throughout Carr. So does the sense of sudden “devilment”: here the stamp paper appearing on the window. There are specific echoes as well. The snowy street, the footprints, and the voice calling seemingly out of nowhere return in The Three Coffins, and its second murder.

Other Carr-like features of Chesterton: “The Sign of the Broken Sword” and “The Fairy Tale of Father Brown” are historical detective stories. The key plot idea of the solution of “The Eye of Apollo” is the same sort of mystery concept as underlies the key idea in the solution of Carr’s The Crooked Hinge.

Father Brown argues that suspects could not have committed the murders in “The Mistake of the Machine” and “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois”, because it is against their psychology. This is a frequent technique in Carr.

The surrealist tale “The Honor of Israel Gow” anticipates Ellery Queen. As in EQ to come, we have a mysterious set of objects that need to be interpreted. Father Brown provides many false solutions, before the true one, in the manner of Queen. When other people despair of making sense, Father Brown comes up with a series of creative ideas, that show the power of human intellect: also anticipating displays of brilliance by Ellery. The dark, countryside setting, with a storm raging outside, returns in EQ tales like “The Two-Headed Dog” (1934). The atmosphere also anticipates "The Invisible Lover" (1934). Another similarity with “The Two-Headed Dog”: the story’s events do not seem to allow ANY logical explanation, at least at first.

“The Strange Crime of John Boulnois” anticipates Agatha Christie stories, in which romantic conflicts and psychological characteristics of lovers and rivals, are woven into the plot. The story also anticipates Christie with its characters from the intelligentsia, and its English Country Estate setting. “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois” is rich and absorbing in its characters, and their backgrounds in the intellectual world. But it is pretty minimalistic as a mystery plot.

The influence of Chesterton's impossible crime tales on Carr is well understood, but their similar impact on Agatha Christie is less often cited. Some of Agatha Christie's works are straight out impossible crime stories. For example, take "The Million Dollar Bond Robbery" from Poirot Investigates. In this work, some stolen bonds are smuggled of a ship in a manner that seems impossible. Unlike Chesterton and Carr, Christie does not try to bring in any supernatural atmosphere. The general tone of the inquiry is, "Gee, this is really puzzling!" - there is never an eerie suggestion of supernatural menace. But it is a very Chestertonian tale, all the same. Many of Agatha Christie's other tales are what one might call disguised impossible crime tales. In these stories, one of the characters has an alibi, because it looks like it is impossible for him or her to have committed the crime. Eventually it is revealed that this person is the real killer, who used an ingenious method to pull off what seemed impossible. Chesterton would probably have used this impossible crime method to construct a tale in which it would have looked impossible for anyone to have committed the crime. Christie took a different approach, but her underlying basic technique is identical. Some of Christie's tales are even closer to the impossible crime proper. Take "The Regatta Mystery". In that tale, a diamond mysteriously disappears from a room, and only one man had any apparent way of smuggling it from the chamber. He is the natural suspect, but Parker Pyne wonders... Christie could have not included this one suspect's "obvious" smuggling method, and then she would have had an impossible crime tale. This is the approach that would have been taken by Chesterton or Carr. Instead she has a tale where it looks as if only one person could be guilty. This is a very common pattern in her work, and it is very closely aligned with the impossible crime tale.

Chesterton and Bigotry

Chesterton's lesser fiction shows major problems with bigotry against minority groups. His worst stories are full of hatred for Jews and black people. There are also tales attacking people in Asia, and gays.

A list of bigoted mystery short stories by G.K. Chesterton would include:

Anti-Black

Anti-Jewish Anti-Asian Anti-Native American Anti-Gay Chesterton's best forty or so short stories mark him as a major mystery writer. These are the tales listed in the Recommended Reading list that opens this article. But when one explores beyond these stories, the quality of his work falls off rapidly. The lesser stories are much weaker in terms of plot. And quite a few of them are deep into bigotry and hatred. Beware!

Most of the above stories are not much good by any standards, considered as works of literature. The best is "The Duel of Dr. Hirsch", a tale with some imaginative ideas, unfortunately marred by Chesterton's nasty comments on the Dreyfus Affair. "The Worst Crime in the World" also has a decent mystery plot, similarly harmed by Chesterton's anti-gay commentary on Edward II.


Nicholas Olde

The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern (collected 1928) is the sole known work of fiction by the little known Nicholas Olde. Olde's book is a collection of mystery tales, starring Rowland Hern, a genius consulting detective in the style of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Thorndyke and Hercule Poirot, complete with an admiring Watson-narrator. Most are very brief, around ten pages, and comic in tone. One does not want to oversell Olde. He is indubitably a minor writer. The small size of the tales mainly precludes them from being full scale whodunits, with an opening murder and a cast of suspects. Instead, Olde often unravels some mysterious situation. Or presents a surprise ending of a criminal scheme hiding under what looks like respectable daily life. But his tales are also well crafted, done with a deft command of plotting and wit, and are fun to read. Their obscurity could result from the fact that only a few of them deal with murder. Most look at criminal schemes, such as theft, and in a light-hearted way. Just as anthologists have ignored H.C. Bailey's comic mystery tales, despite their excellent formal craftsmanship, to concentrate on his grimmer works, so might Olde's little bon-bons not have satisfied murderous norms of later publishers and anthologists. Olde's disregard of realism in his tales, with the stories turning on far-fetched conceits, might displease some realism-oriented modern readers, although their imaginativeness might also delight fans of the surrealism that is so prominent in much pre-1965 mystery fiction.

"The Invisible Weapon" contains the book's sole impossible crime plot. The gimmick in this tale was known long before Olde. The characters in Carolyn Wells' Anybody But Anne (1914) mention having read it in "a book".

Some of the stories show the strong influence of Chesterton, as J.F. Norris points out in his introduction to the recent reprint of the book, from the publisher Ramble House. "The Windmill" and "The Two Telescopes" are especially Chesterton-like, in their philosophical dialogue and symbols that show an ongoing evolution throughout the tale. Both stories also underscore Olde's bitter skepticism about the upper classes and their criminal behavior, a form of social criticism also found in Chesterton. Both of these tales also include full fledged mystery plots, and are closer to Golden Age mystery paradigms in general, and Chesterton's Father Brown stories in particular, than many other stories in the collection.

"The Man with Three Legs" and "The Sin of the Saint" are also Chesterton-like, but resemble less one of Chesterton's murder mysteries, than Chesterton's borderline-mysteries in The Club of Queer Trades and some of Tales of the Long Bow, which deal with men who take up strange activities. "The Man with Three Legs" shows the twists and turns that Olde often added to his plots. It is the richer of these two works.

But other stories have aspects of the British Realist school of the era, and more specifically R. Austin Freeman. "The Monstrous Laugh" takes place in a seaside town, like so many of Freeman works, and is heavily oriented towards both landscapes and technology, also in the Freeman tradition. "The Collector of Curiosities", with his own private museum, could have stepped right out of R. Austin Freeman, as could the specialty store selling animals in "Potter". Strange wills, trains, doctors' consulting offices, ordinance maps and messages with secret codes are also Freemaniana that run through these tales. Also Freeman-like, unfortunately, is the way in which the stories are not always fair play - Olde sometimes withholds much plot information from the reader.

J.F. Norris speculates in his introduction that "Nicholas Olde" was the pseudonym of some other writer. He turns out to be correct: Allen J. Hubin has revealed that Olde's real name was Amian Lister Champneys (1879-1951).

If I had to guess, one might conjecture that Olde might have been a writer of humorous sketches, maybe for a magazine like Punch - or at least influenced by the literary tradition contained in such sketches. The concise writing style, the ability to pack characters and plot into a small space, the enthusiastic comic tone, the repartee filled with ironies seen by the reader but invisible to characters in the story, all are skills the author might have honed in writing or imitating comic sketches for British magazines.


Max Afford

Max Afford was an Australian mystery writer, and also a well-known radio dramatist. His mysteries are available from their publisher Ramble House.

The Dead Are Blind

Locked Room. The Dead Are Blind (1937) is a locked room novel. It has a strange construction for a locked room mystery. Some locked room books, such as John Dickson Carr's The Judas Window (1938), have an innocent suspect locked in the room with the murder victim, looking like the only possible guilty party. The Dead Are Blind has a whole series of suspects locked into the room. At first, this makes the crime not look impossible at all. But eventually, it develops ideas that firmly link it to the locked room tradition.

The Dead Are Blind is best in the opening, which shows the events leading up and including the murder (Chapters 1-3), and a later explanation of how the crime was committed (Chapter 6). The explanation occurs half way through the book, and shows how the crime was committed, but not who done it.

The actual murder method is the same one previously used by Stuart Palmer in The Penguin Pool Murder (1931). However, Afford extends this method into an ingenious locked room killing, while Palmer simply has it as a murder method without impossible crime features.

The novel includes a pleasant floor map, but it doesn't turn out to have much to do with the mystery puzzle.

Radio Background. The opening has a pleasant Background, showing a BBC radio broadcasting studio in London. Radio was then at its height of its popularity and prestige. Oddly, this radio background largely disappears from the novel, after this opening section. The Dead Are Blind looks at both the technological and artistic sides of radio. Its backstage glimpse of a radio play in production reminds one of Ngaio Marsh's theatrical mysteries. The Dead Are Blind explicitly compares a radio broadcast to a stage play. While the depiction of radio in The Dead Are Blind seems sound, it is also brief and fairly generic. One is not going to learn much new about radio from this novel. The discussion of acoustics in the various rooms is good; so is the related depiction of different studios for specialized purposes.

The opening pages enthusiastically mention a series of trade fairs going on in summertime Britain. They sound interesting, and one wonders why such events are so rarely described in Golden Age British mystery fiction. All of them sound much more worthwhile than the upper class twits sitting idly around country houses that often appear in books.

Detectives. The Dead Are Blind features Afford's series detectives: amateur genius Jeffrey Blackburn and his policeman friend Chief Detective-Inspector William Jamieson Reid of Scotland Yard. Blackburn is the main detective. The pair resemble other Golden Age amateur detectives with sympathetic police contacts: Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance and Van Dine's followers. Blackburn has an affected, intellectual way of talking, full of literary quotations and sarcastic satirical remarks. He seems like Philo Vance lite. Sayers is actually quoted in The Dead Are Blind, at the start of the second half of the novel. Blackburn's literary quotations are well-informed and often wittily related to the events of the tale.

Blackburn is a younger man and Reid is older. The two are roommates: which is definitely atypical of such pairs in the Golden Age, although Ellery Queen lived with his father, and police contact, Inspector Queen. Today a pair like Blackburn and Reid living together would suggest a gay relationship. Nothing specific in this direction is included in The Dead Are Blind, though. An unsympathetic character mades an anti-gay comment about effeminate gays he once met at a party (Chapter 4, Section 2). This comment is neither endorsed nor condemned by the author.

I enjoyed Jeffrey Blackburn as a sardonic commentator in the opening chapters. But feel generally unimpressed by work he does as a detective after the killing. This is not one of the better portraits in mystery fiction of a "sleuth in action".

Schools of Detective Fiction. Impossible crimes were regularly featured in the works of S.S. Van Dine and his followers in the Van Dine school; they are much rarer in the works of the British Realist school of mystery writers. Although The Dead Are Blind is set in London, in this regard it seems to have more in common with the American Van Dine school, than with British Realists. The show biz background of The Dead Are Blind and its Philo Vance-like sleuth also seem Van Dine-ish.

The article on Ngaio Marsh sets forth features in her writing that link her to the Van Dine school. Just as Marsh was a New Zealander who set most of her books in England, so is Max Afford an Australian who wrote British-laid detective novels. While explanations based in nationality are risky, one does wonder whether Antipodean writers like Marsh and Afford were open to Van Dine school approaches.


Norman Berrow

Norman Berrow was a New Zealand mystery novellist. His mysteries are available from their publisher Ramble House.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy

The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1949) is an impossible crime novel. It is a series of three linked mystery puzzles. The middle section of the three, is far and away the best. This section is not perfect, and so complex that it lacks plausibility, but it shows imagination.

The first section is awful. Its mystery plot has an obvious explanation. The writing is also dour and depressing.

The last of the three mysteries is somewhere in the middle. It has some obvious features. And its impossible crime aspects also are less than wonderfully inventive. But it does have some imagination.