You’ll be aware by now, I hope, that I’m quite the fan of a locked room murder. That quantal aspect of something that can’t have happened but nevertheless did tickles me greater the more I read, and so the republication of anything from the classic era is always a cause for celebration. The British Library continue their excellent Crime Classics series with this, their first impossible crime, in which elderly spinster Mary Gregor is found dead in her locked and bolted bedroom (a nice touch with the door lock forestalls the prospect of jiggery, and indeed pokery, there) with no sign of a weapon and the blow that killed her containing the scale from a herring and so stirring up superstitious rumours of merman-like ‘swimmers’ finding their way in to dispatch her.
On the spot is Dr. Eustace Hailey, who by his reputation appears to be Wynne’s incumbent amateur sleuth, and so he is pulled into a Highland mystery at a gloomy old ancestral home that ends up the scene of plenty of mysterious comings and goings, clandestine meetings, false leads, and several further seemingly-impossible deaths. Obviously we know he’ll solve it in time, but who will be left to act as a suspect as the dramatis personae gets whittled down and down?
There is a branch of Mathematics known as combinatorics which studies the interactions of countably finite discrete sets. Or, in English, it’s the formal study of combining things in all the possible ways they can be combined. It’s a little bit like doing a jigsaw by picking up one piece and then going through the box to try every other piece to find one that fits with that piece, and then going through again to find another piece that fits with those two…and so on until you’ve finished the picture. Approximately a third of the thesis I wrote in my final year of university was based in a combinatorial approach to solving a particular problem (I shall spare you the details), and the formalisation of what sounds like an exceptionally dull way to go about something took on for me a particular beauty in the context of all the mathematics I has studied to that point.
I don’t really do news, but am very excited to learn that one of the forthcoming titles the British Library will be including in its increasingly excellent Crime Classics collection is Anthony Wynne’s 1931 impossible crime novel Murder of a Lady (a.k.a. The Silver Scale Mystery). It’s a locked room of some repute, and has been preposterously hard to find for many a year now – I’ve not read it myself, and so am doubly excited that it’s being brought back. Everyone’s favourite rainforest-named internet retailer has the following synopsis:
Duchlan Castle is a gloomy, forbidding place in the Scottish Highlands. Late one night the body of Mary Gregor, sister of the laird of Duchlan, is found in the castle. She has been stabbed to death in her bedroom – but the room is locked from within and the windows are barred. The only tiny clue to the culprit is a silver fish’s scale, left on the floor next to Mary’s body. Inspector Dundas is dispatched to Duchlan to investigate the case. The Gregor family and their servants are quick – perhaps too quick – to explain that Mary was a kind and charitable woman. Dundas uncovers a more complex truth, and the cruel character of the dead woman continues to pervade the house after her death. Soon further deaths, equally impossible, occur, and the atmosphere grows ever darker. Superstitious locals believe that fish creatures from the nearby waters are responsible; but luckily for Inspector Dundas, the gifted amateur sleuth Eustace Hailey is on the scene, and unravels a more logical solution to this most fiendish of plots.Anthony Wynne wrote some of the best locked-room mysteries from the golden age of British crime fiction.This cunningly plotted novel – one of Wynne’s finest – has never been reprinted since 1931, and is long overdue for rediscovery.
This is the first locked room/imposible crime that the British Library have republished, so here’s hoping it’s a sign of more to come as the series grows in popularity. Series editor and current Crime Writers’ Association president Martin Edwards will doubtless have more to say about this on his blog, so keep an eye on that for further information.
Publication is cited for January 2016…can’t come soon enough!