7/17/11

The Barricaded Room

"But no matter how I tried 
The other side was locked so tight
That door, it wouldn't open." 
- Gotta Knock a Little Harder 
"Anthony Wynne" (1882-1963)
Back in September of last year, Curt Evans wrote a number of book reviews (here, here and here) on the rare and hard-to-get locked room novels by Anthony Wynne, the nom-de-plume of Scottish-born physician Robert McNair Wilson, who still stands as one of the most fertile writers of miracle problems. But in spite of fathering sixteen impossible crime novels, more than one-half of his entire output, he never accumulated the prestige and credit that was bestowed on John Dickson Carr, Hake Talbot and Clayton Rawson – or even that of lesser known writers such as Joseph Commings and Arthur Porges.

The impediment to acquiring ever-lasting fame, within the confines of the genre, was not due to a lack of imagination to deliver on resplendently conceived premises, but that he was depraved of even particle traces of humor and populated his stories with pasteboard characters who act like stage actors in a Victorian melodrama – prompting John Norris to aptly label them as "Detective Operas," in which an overwrought, melodramatic dénouement ends with the murderer promptly committing suicide after an aria of a confession.

But in defiance of these dire forebodings, I found myself unable to ignore a writer who turned out over a dozen locked room stories, occasionally packing a plot with more than one or two seemingly impossible situations, which reputedly are, at times, worthy of John Dickson Carr himself. I'll take a humorless, baroque style of writing, littered with two-dimensional characters, for granted if the exchange includes miracle problems of a Carrian quality – and I felt vindicated in that attitude after finishing The Green Knife (1932).

The flaws attributed to Wynne all give actes de présence in The Green Knife, but the murder of Sir Dyce Chalfont, an opulent power player on the financial scene, who "with the stroke of" a pen could "hand over a million men to despair and ruin," proved to be sufficiently baffling to distract your attention away from them – and the circumstances in which he died had me grasping at straws until the final page.

Here are the facts as they are known: witnesses that rushed to the bedroom door, after a disturbing scream, heard someone moving furniture around, to barricade the entrance, but when they managed to break-down the barrier the only occupant of the room was the body of the dead millionaire and the windows were securely bolted from the inside – creating an almost perfectly sealed area. But more importantly, the fatal stab wound inflicted on him precludes the possibility that he was attacked somewhere else in the house and fled into the bedroom to escape a murderous assailant – as he died within seconds after the blade ruptured his heart. I usually have a theory to offer as to how someone could've fled from an inescapable environment, but the best I could muster in this case was that the murderer curled himself up in a hidden compartment of the sofa that barricaded the door – an idea inspired by Edogawa Rampo's short horror story, "The Human Chair."


Fortunately, for my bloated, but fragile, ego, Dr. Eustace Hailey, who has a non-commending presence and a bland personality, was completely confounded, as well, especially when the servants start turning up dead under similar, apparently unfeasible, conditions – and every time they assume to have unlocked the door to one of the barricaded rooms, evidence from one of the other impossible murders breaks their theoretical key in several pieces and forces them to rethink their entire case all over again. The eventual solution is as clever as it is simple, a hallmark of a grand locked room trick, although you could draw a question mark or two in the column concerning the fair play aspect of it.

These engrossing puzzles and subsequent theorizing will occupy most of your attention, and therefore tend not to be bothered too much about the hammy writing or flat characters, but, to be honest, there was one excellent scene in the book that definitely benefited from the overwrought prose – which was when Dr. Eustace Hailey was locked-up in the darkened murder room with the killer, who was obliterating evidence from a previous murder, while the doctor was stumbling around in the dark and expecting any moment to feel a sliver of cold steel burying itself in his back. 

However, at times, he was also sloppy where details are concerned and any editor worth his or her salt should've picked up on them. When Sir Dyce was discovered it was immediately pointed out that he was stabbed in the back but when they discuss a bizarre suicide/accident-combo they talked as if the titular knife entered through his chest – and when the first servant is murdered, under eerily similar circumstances, they talked about back stabbings again. Huh? There's another irregularity in the story, concerning the impossibility of the first murder, but I can't go into details without divulging the solution of the locked room trick.

The tragedy of Anthony Wynne is that he was, at heart, a writer who belonged to a different era and had the misfortune to arrive on the scene long after his time had come and gone. I'm convinced that had he published such a book as The Green Knife 30-40 years earlier he would've been placed alongside Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Gaston Leroux as one of the trail blazing pioneers of the genre – instead of being perceived as a curiosity.

It's a shame, since you really have to admire someone who was able to saturate a story with impossible situations and false solutions, but I am afraid that less dedicated readers will find themselves bogged down by the overwrought writing and a deficiency of characterization, not to mention the scarcity and price-tags attached to most of the books, making this more a series for hopeless devotees of the locked room story and zealous collectors of hard cover editions than for regular mystery readers.

Yes, I'm one of those incurable aficionados of the impossible crime story, which means that you can look forward to more reviews of books by this obscure and forgotten author in the not so distant future – even if it means burgling the private libraries of John and Curt! Wait, did I just type that out-loud?

6 comments:

  1. No, I assure you we didn't hear any typing over in Canada.

    I would like to now twist this defense of Anthony Wynne and use it for my own selfish purposes. As you elaborate, the writing is very flawed but the man's imagination is fascinating and the solutions are good ones... Hm... Does this not sound like my constant defense of Paul Halter? ;)

    As for Wynne, two of his books are in the UW library. I plan to read one, and depending on how well I can stomach it, might read the other.

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  2. Ha! I just knew that a) Paul Halter would be dragged into this, and b) you proudly reporting success in locating one or two deserted copies somewhere in a obscure bookstore or a forgotten nook of a library.

    First of all, if you dig into the archive of the GAD group you'll find that my praise and criticism of Halter's The Lord of Misrule pretty much coincides with this review. But keep in my mind that I had an extra incentive to enjoy this book: it was expensive! ;-)

    By the way, which titles are in the UW library?

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  3. "The toll house murder" and "Death of a Banker". I will start with the first one and hold off with the second depending how it goes.

    And I was thinking of your comment on my review of "Le Roi du Desordre"-
    "... Halter is a very problematic author whose imagination is intriguing, but his inability to properly clue, tell a story and lacking any sense of time and place makes you, at times, want to chuck the book back in his face. During the GAD era, he would've been a second-stringer at best."

    Of course, me having read some of his finer works (trust me, The Lord of Misrule is one of the more problematic I've read thus far), I'm at a bit of an advantage. You'll just have to take my word for it that stuff like "Le Tigre Borgne" and "Le Diable de Dartmoor" definitely belong among the best of GAD works- I'd place "Diable" in the same league as "The Hollow Man"!

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  4. I did a cursory check on The Toll-House Murder and Death of a Banker, and the former is a sealed car mystery, parked in a field of un-trodden snow, and the latter has a horse rider shot in plain view of a bunch of spectators – and if the first one is any good I have to track down a copy. I don't think I ever read a locked car mystery.

    Note of warning: avoid the review of Death of a Banker on Mystery*File as the reviewer doesn't even try to be cute when he blatantly spills the culprits identity!

    Like you said, I only read The Lord of Misrule, but overall that comment could also apply to Anthony Wynne, who definitely is problematic and a second-stringer at best, but I didn't go into this book expecting the second-coming of John Dickson Carr – and all the puzzling and theorizing was pleasantly distracting from the bad parts. ;) But I know Paul Halter's possesses a spark of ingenuity. Most of the stories from Night of the Wolf were amazing!

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  5. I said that Wynne had no paperback reprints. Guess I was wrong. The illustration for Curt's review of MURDER OF A LADY shows a UK paperback. So there goes my supposed knowledge right out the window.

    I took up your challenge, TomCat, but I chose to read a Wynne mystery that Curt recommended rather one that I was intrigued by. I just finished it one hour ago. THE ROOM WITH THE IRON SHUTTERS has become my second favorite of his books. Well told, interesting characters, a smart policeman in charge of the investigation, and a suitably melodramatic ending with an attempt on Hailey's life. Wynne loved that bit - he used it frequently. The murder method was so bizarre that it prompted me to run to the internet to find out if it was truly viable. It's not. McNair based it on scientific experiments done in the 1920s which have since been proven harmless to humans though they were deadly to the animals used. The murder method was incredibly original nonetheless and the story telling top notch for Wynne. And this one actually has an example (the only one?) of McNair's sense of humor. It's rather a cruel sense of humor - making fun of people with speech impediments, not once but three times. I'm glad we were spared this kind of thing in the majority of his books.

    My review will be up later this week. Maybe it'll be the FFB post this Friday.

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  6. Well, the prices for secondhand paperback reissues aren't much better than the ones attached to his hardback editions – especially the ones that still have a wrapper. Wynne really is long overdue for a massive series of paperback reprints.

    Mike Grost has a short review of The House With the Iron Shudders on his website, but it's divided between praise for its ingenuity and criticism for lacking fair play. But more shockingly, is that he apparently actually showed traces of humor, which isn't something you would suspect from the book I read.

    Looking forward to your full review.

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