Robert Arthur is credited with writing over two hundred short stories, ranging from mysteries to fantasy, won two coveted Edgar statuettes for his radio show, The Mysterious Traveler, and created a popular juvenile detective series, The Three Investigators. But despite these accolades, Robert Arthur's name has all but faded from the publics' collective memory – which I think qualifies as criminal neglect.
I got my first taste of his work last year, when I read the poorly edited anthology Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982) – consisting mostly of over anthologized stories (Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" and Hoch's "The Leopold Locked Room") and a few decent efforts (Kantor's "The Light at Three 'O Clock" (mainly for its Carrian atmosphere) and Woolrich's "Murder at the Automat"), but there was one story that stood out, and that was Robert Arthur's "The 51st Sealed Room."
|Robert Arthur (1909-1969)|
"The 51st Sealed Room" concerns the upcoming book from the hands of a famous artisan of impossible crime stories, who claims to have contrived a new method for escaping from a sealed environment that would make John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen turn green with envy. But before he can put his revolutionary locked room story to paper, his decapitated body, propped up in front of his typewriter with his head gazing down from the bookcase, is found behind the locked doors of a completely sealed cottage.
The solution, however, is not entirely original, but a variation on a ingenious method conjured up by Joseph Commings in one of his famous locked room stories, and most of the fantastical clues turn out to be nothing more than red herrings. However, my curiosity was roused and was thrilled to learn there was an anthology that collected ten of his mystery short stories.
The tales that make up Mystery and More Mystery (1966) is the only available compendium of his detective fiction, written for a young adult audience, but that takes nothing away from the quality and inventiveness of the plots - and especially the locked rooms in this collection makes you mourn the fact that not more of his work was collected (Douglas Greene, if you're reading this *hint* *hint* *hint*).
Ten Tales From a Mysterious Traveler:
Mr. Manning's Money Tree
The collection opens with a diverting story, in which a bank clerk, who's about to be arrested on an embezzlement charge, stashes his loot in a secure hiding place, as a comfy nest egg, to help him begin anew when he has served his sentence. Well, at least that was the plan, but, upon his release from prison, he quickly learns that his task is not quite as easy as he first suspected. A fun, moving story with a neat twist on the "Hoist-On-Their-Own-Petards" gambit.
Larceny and Old Lace
Grace and Florance Usher are two sweet, innocent-looking old spinsters who lived a sheltered existence, tucked away in a small, sleepy upstate town, and the only excitement they ever knew came from their experience as seasoned readers of detective stories. But their humdrum lives is shaken up when they inherit a furnished house from their nephew, who came to a sticky end at the hands of an unknown assailant, inspiring them to pack up their bags and explore the Big City. The only problem is that some shady locals also have a fested interest in the house, but the two elderly maids are a lot tougher than they expected and at times more terrifying than a battalion of hard-bitten homicide cops with hoses.
The story is best described as a precursor to Home Alone, but instead of a beguiling brat there are two seemingly harmless old ladies who act as a holy terror to the criminal elements of the neighborhood. An unapologetically funny story!
Note that the main characters and set-up of the story share some remarkable resemblances to Torrey Chanslor's Our First Murder (1940), and one has to wonder if, perhaps, one sprang from the other.
The Midnight Visitor
A slight tale, in which a spy attempts to pawn off an important document from a confrere. A fun but forgettable story.
The Blow from Heaven
The first impossible crime story of the collection, offering an intriguing challenge to the reader: how did Professor Natzof Kohn murder his benefactor, Madame Farge, who was alone in a room, under observation, when she was stabbed, while her beneficiary was delivering an animated lecture on primitive superstition and black magic? The dénouement is perhaps over ambitious and belongs to a particular type of locked room solution that tends to leave its readers with a sense of disappointment, but the trick is well handled here and all the clues are there.
The Glass Bridge
Like the preceding story, this is an inverted mystery, of sorts, with a locked room puzzle to mull over – and the solution is diabolically clever. The basic facts of the case are as follow: Marianne Montrose (a blonde blackmailer) was seen entering the house of mystery writer Mark Hillyer, leaving a single track of footprints in the two feet deep snow surrounding the house, from which she vanishes as if she never passed the thresh hold at all. It's a physical impossibility for Hillyer to have carried her body off the premises, without leaving any marks in the snow, nor would his heart condition allow him to place any strenuous strain on his body, like chopping up her corpse or digging a grave, without keeling over. However, he's all to eager to make himself suspicious and gives the police veiled hints, which provides the reader with the maddening problem of knowing who killer is but not how he managed to pull it off. Classic!
Change of Address
Another story in which the culprit proves to be a "Hoist-on-His-Petard," when a long suffering husband bashes in the skull of his nagging wife with a spade and buries her body in the cellar of his newly acquired beach house, but there are always skeletons that simply refuse to stay buried! A very, very satisfying story.
The Vanishing Passenger
This tale involves a murder committed aboard a train, solved by a man and his mystery-writing aunt, but it's not a very interesting story and failed to grab my attention. Duds like these are to be expected in every anthology.
Like the title suggests, this is a tougher than usual story for this collections as a father traps a rural highway man who shot his son (and several other locals) in a mug-killing – and extracts his revenge in a particular ingenious manner that involves a hidden object puzzle. This is probably what the Ellery Queen stories would've been like, if they had a hardboiled edge to them.
The Adventure of the Single Footprint
The police solicit the help of a mentally unhinged person, who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes, to help them solve the murder of his uncle – and this could've been one of the better stories of the collection, if the back cover hadn't touted the identity of the murderer.
The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice
A brilliant homage to Ellery Queen, in which a private detective and his young son are summoned to a transplanted castle inhabited by a rich and licentious stamp collector, who suspects one or more of his in-laws of theft. But before the father-and-son detective duo can look into the case, someone takes several shots at their client and his near dying message virtually implicates all the major suspects.
As to be expected from an Ellery Queen-type of story, there's someone who proffers a false solution to the mystery and even a code that has to be cracked by solving a riddle. Now that I think of it, this is not only a nod to Ellery Queen, but also foreshadows Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed. In any case, a must read to fans of both series!