We’ve all done it — in the excitement of finally stumbling across a novel by an author we’ve heard a lot about (or maybe heard nothing about, if you’re feeling adventurous) you snap up a book, take it home…and it lingers and lingers on your TBR, staring at you every time you go near your bookshelves to pick something out. The guilt of its unread-ness builds inside of you, but the inclination to actually open it and read it never quite matches the initial rush of blood to the head that saw you buy it in the first place.
While we can be thankful for real-life developments in forensic science that enable the speedier detection of criminals, there can be little argument that it was the death-knell of good detective fiction. Dull Inspector Arnold and his genius amateur sidekick Desmond Merrion spend so much time combing through the minutiae of the physical and mental aspect of the crime in Death in the Tunnel, and come up with such entertaining possibilities while doing so, that a crime scene tech in one of those all-over white body suits could never be a fifth as much fun. It makes me all the more appreciative of this kind of classic approach, knowing that this sort of book has seen its heyday pass.
Over the summer, I read certain sections of Masters of the Humdrum Mystery by the blogosphere’s very own Passing Tramp, Curtis Evans. Certain sections because, to be perfectly honest, Curtis has done an amazing job in analysing so much of the work of J.J. Connington, Freeman Wills Crofts, and John Rhode/Miles Burton that it’s clear I need to do a lot more reading to get the most out of what he has written. Upon (in fact, while) reading A Smell of Smoke I went back to see what insight Curtis could offer to explore Street’s motivations or intentions, but there is no mention of it at all; no fault of his, as Street published over 130 novels under his two most famous pseudonyms, but I suspect I know why it doesn’t get a mention: it isn’t very good at all.
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.
A door is broken down, a dead body is found behind it; there is no other exit from the room, but equally no sign of a weapon nor any evidence of suicide…these classic staples of the archetypal impossible murder are put on page one of Miles Burton’s Death Leaves No Card. Added to this is the puzzle of precisely how the deceased came to decease, as there is sign of neither violence nor harm on the body, no evidence of poison or gassing, and, this being the early 1940s, the house is not yet fitted with electricity so it can’t have been electrocution. It may or may not be a locked room, since the window might or might not have been open, but the unclear nature of the death definitely makes it an impossible crime in my eyes. Either way, cue sensible Inspector Henry Arnold.