Umberto Eco is an author who has been on my radar for positively decades now, and I decided to start not with the far more famous The Name of the Rose (1980, trans. 1986) but instead the Middle Ages-set, wandering storyteller tome Baudolino (2000, trans. 2002) because, well, it’s probably not a common starting point (yes, I am contrary; it has been noted). So imagine my frank surprise and delight when about 300 pages in it suddenly — after lots of vignettes and philosophical off-shoots about, crikey, all manner of things — transformed into a legit locked room mystery.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I is staying at a castle, and sleeping in a bedroom which is inspected at great length by his faithful entourage (who will be spending the night sleeping outside his door) to ensure his safety: the flue of the fireplace “narrowed almost immediately, allowing no room for the passage of a human being”, and his “defecation cubbyhole” is safe as “nobody could have climbed up from the bottom of the pit” (a quite horrible image, frankly…). They taste his water, check his pillow for poison, and even give him a panacea for all possible poisons which one of the simpering nudniks samples to ensure that it has not itself been replaced with poison.
They went out. Frederick drew the leaves of the door closed, and they heard the click of the latch. They stretched out on the surrounding benches.
What I immediately missed is that the “click of the latch” is actually the drawing of a bolt on the inside of the door, locking it against all intrusion. And, of course, in the morning they find him dead, without a mark on him, having drunk the elixir that was intended to save him, evidently having been poisoned and unable to reach the antidote in time…but, of course, no-one could have gotten in to administer the poison.
Duhn-duhn and indeed duuuuuuuhn.
Now, this comes pretty much completely out of nowhere in the narrative; I even read the chapter in question twice so that I was certain of what I was getting. Yes, some politicking makes his position anywhere subject to attempts on his life, but this locked room murder suddenly descends like manna from heaven and our erstwhile Mediaeval folly transforms into something more interesting and possibly a lot darker. For, of course, those present have the stain of the emperor’s death on them, and inevitably doubts arise and accusations start to fly. Throw in the vanishing of a disputed religious artefact and it’s all systems go for a bit of intrigue in the middle of this romp. Everything gears up nicely for a but of sturm und drang detection and the tying in of the various threads that have been explored thus far.
Which lasts for about, oooh, six pages. Then folly and wandering abounds, some shenanigans are had, and I was inclined to believe that the case for Frederick’s death being some natural cause that Eco put forward was actually what killed him: the impossibility was a bit of an accident, thrown in to spice up a chapter. Honestly, the book is so scattershot in its focus that this could legitimately be the case. Eco writes very well, and the translation by William Weaver reads very easily indeed, but if I did as little work as Eco’s editor appears to have done here…well, I’d be as good as retired.
And then suddenly, about 20 pages from the end, we get not just a solution, but multiple ones. Don’t get too attached to the idea of rigour — the basis on which the chief deduction is made is shown almost immediately to be false, though this is never actually addressed in the book itself — but it’s quite good fun, even if the solutions are…well, not good. It would be suppositious to claim that Eco was trying to write a stone cold locked room masterpiece, but it’s interesting to note that the man’s mind is freewheeling enough in its associations that it would actually probably be bloody superb: if Eco wants to commit to writing a 500 page series of impossible crimes, I’ll sign up to that right now.
So…well, the impossibility serves a narrative purpose of sorts — well, okay, no, the death serves a narrative purpose, and the fact of it being impossible is used to heighten this in the closing stages — even if it’s not one of the hidden gems of the genre (sorry, TomCat). The resolution is massively delayed, almost to the point of being forgotten about, and I don’t really feel his heart is in it, but it was nice to stumble upon an impossible crime that I had no idea was going to be there. If you can get a copy cheap, I think the two chapters concerned can be read as a short story independent of anything else. A few details matter, but you’ll get the general idea, and I’d be interested to see what others make of it.
I’d ask if anyone knew of any other books that do this, but it would kind of defeat the point, hey?
This weekend, with a long train journey ahead of me, I shall be delving into the Russian Roulette that is late 1980s impossible crime novels. Expect a report on Tuesday, and here’s hoping it’s a good ‘un…