"A box without hinges, key or lid; yet a golden treasure inside is hid."- J.R.R. Tolkien
The elderly, gentle minded professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, a scholar whose expertise encompasses the Roman Empire, was the brainchild of mystery author Clyde B. Clason who produced ten detective novels during the mid 1930s-and early 40s.
Clason belongs to the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection and was clearly influenced by its members, from stories centering on collectors with private museums stuffed with artifacts from erstwhile civilizations (e.g. The Man from Tibet, 1939) to taking a murder tour in a business enterprise or institution like perfume manufactures (e.g. Poison Jasmine, 1940), but more importantly, they were cleverly crafted and minutely analyzed mysteries. Sad to say, Clason's insistency to hang on to that particular branch of crime fiction also meant that, once the sex and violence school of Mickey Spillane began to pick up momentum, he felt there was no longer a place for the cerebral detective of yesteryear and never wrote a follow-up to Green Shiver (1941) – which thus became Professor Westborough's last (recorded) case.
However, Clason left us with a small, but memorable, body of work and a notable one for connoisseurs of miracle problems, because more than half of them contain a variation on the impossible crime. Granted, they're not exactly spectacular illusions that are pulled off with the routine of a Las Vegas stage magician, but simple, workable (and convincing) gimmicks that are cogs in the machine of the overall plot. Clason is one of those writers you can get an overall enjoyment from: stories as intelligently written as they are plotted and populated with interesting characters that move around in specialized fields.
For his third outing, Blind Drifts (1937), Clason took a shot at explaining how someone could be hit with a bullet fired from a non-existent gun in front of seven witnesses in a mineshaft at a depth greater than the height of the Empire State Building and to do so he dispatches Westborough from Chicago to Colorado as one of the shareholders of the Virgin Queen Gold Mine – inherited from his late brother. Barely out of the plane, the mild-mannered professor is thrust into a feud between Mrs. Edmonds, major stockholder, and Jeff LaRue, owner of the neighboring Buenaventure Mine, who wants to lease the Virgin Queen. This also gives Clason an opportunity to illuminate his readers on the inner workings of a gold mining company.
As Westborough takes a few days to inform himself, he also looks into a local mystery that may have ties to his current predicament, a department store owner and a Virgin Queen director, George Villars, disappeared without a trace, but it's the ongoing dispute between Edmonds and LaRue that ends up providing the main puzzle for the mild-mannered professor. Instigated by the suspicious mind of Cornalue Edmonds, they descend into the belly of the Virgin Queen, where, inside one of the blind drifts and in front of a number of witnesses, Edmonds is felled with a bullet, severely injuring her, and a smoking gun fails to turn up in the subsequent search.
It's the side-puzzle of the dissolved gun that contributes the most satisfying portion of the overall solution, simple and therefore convincing, but the remainder of Westborough's problems, including a pair of successful murders, are marred by a convoluted explanation. I love ingenious, complexly woven plots that consist of multiple layers, but juggling with timetables and travel schedules just doesn't do it for me.
All in all, Blind Drifts is a solid, but not the highest rated, entry in this, altogether too short, series and will be appreciated by both fans of Westborough and puzzle-oriented mysteries.Clason's work is fairly obscure and older editions of his books come with a hefty price-tag attached to them, however, the Rue Morgue Press has reissued a seven of his ten books and Blind Drifts is their latest offering.