I enjoy articles that give good value and today SleuthSayers offers you not merely one, but three short stories for your enjoyment, capped with a tiny bit of the philosophy and psychology in the art of the mystery.
Whether reading or writing, my strange brain takes peripatetic perambulations (a polite way of saying it wanders). Today’s article started as a side comment by Steve Steinbock who drew my attention to a 1943 classic short story, 'Murder Through The Looking Glass'. He went on to mention it had been part of that wonderful, long-lived radio series, Suspense.
The program enjoyed an amazingly long run. Many of the early stories were written by the famed mystery writer John Dickson Carr who appears to have been part of the broadcast team.
I found the story, listened to it, and followed that with other Suspense tales. One turned out to be a chilling Lord Peter Wimsey adventure I don’t recall previously encountering, ‘The Cave of Ali Baba.’ The drama brought to mind scenes in Eyes Wide Shut. (See side bar.)
Listening in the Dark
I moved on to 30 September 1942, a story with an intriguing title ‘100 in the Dark’. The author was Owen Johnson, apparently a playwright. As might be expected, "Owen Johnson" is one of those glaring holes in Wikipedia where anything older than its editors’ limited realm of knowledge fades from flimsy prior to 1990 to almost entirely forgotten antiquity by 1950, where history becomes suspect or even disdained. So I dug further and identified Johnson as Owen McMahon Johnson, author of the once popular Lawrenceville Dink Stover prep school hijinks series.
Owen wrote plays and short stories, and ‘100 in the Dark’ occurs as both with minor differences between the two. This parable appears in the book Murder in Any Degree. ‘Murder’ in this case is allegorical, not the usual interest of mystery readers. The book is a collection of literary stories mostly set in a Manhattan club around the turn of the previous century. By Jove, the members speak like acquaintances of Lord Peter Wimsey, old Top. It’s a window into 1900s New York – New England society such as Edith Wharton might have written about. Like Wharton’s agonizing 1905 novel The House of Mirth, Johnson’s stories present an insightful peek both into the human psyche and a forgotten window of that time and era, but if you’re looking for the crime genre, only ‘100 in the Dark’ fills the bill.
I enjoy stories-within-a-story and included a small one about a little thief in my own '8 Across' in Alfred Hitchcock. Today, I’ll give you not only a small dissertation about detective fiction, I present Dark’s embedded mystery, which is curious in its own way: The riddle isn’t so much who stole the coin, but why did the stranger refuse to empty his pockets?
Ladies and gentlemen, I offer you …
The Vanishing Coin
“There are only half a dozen stories in the world. Like everything that’s true, it isn’t true.” He waved his long, gouty fingers in the direction of Steingall, who, having been silenced, was regarding him with a look of sleepy indifference. “What is more to the point, is the small number of human relations that are so simple and yet so fundamental that they can be eternally played upon, redressed, and reinterpreted in every language, in every age, and yet remain inexhaustible in the possibility of variations.”
“By George, that is so,” said Steingall, waking up. “Every art does go back to three or four notes. In composition it is the same thing. Nothing new, nothing new since a thousand years. We invent nothing, nothing!”
“I’ll cite an ordinary one that happens to come to my mind,” said Rankin. “In a group of seven or eight, such as we are here, a theft takes place; one man is the thief– which one? It certainly is an original theme, at the bottom of a whole literature.”
“Detective stories, bah!”
“Oh, I say, Rankin, that’s literary melodrama.”
“I shall take up your contention,” said Quinny without pause for breath. “Admit at once that the whole art of a detective story consists in the statement of the problem. It appeals to our curiosity, yes, but deeper to a sort of intellectual vanity. Here are six matches, arrange them to make four squares; five men present, a theft takes place: who’s the thief? Who will guess it first? Whose brain will show its superior cleverness, see? That’s all; that’s all there is to it.”
“Out of all of which,” said De Gollyer, “the interesting thing is that Rankin has supplied the reason why the supply of detective fiction is inexhaustible. It all comes down to the simplest terms. Seven possibilities, one answer. It is a formula, ludicrously simple, mechanical, and yet we will always pursue it to the end. The marvel is that writers should seek for any other formula when here is one so safe that can never fail. By George, I could start up a factory on it.”
“Of course, of course, my dear gentlemen,” said Quinny impatiently, for he had been silent too long. “Now quite the most remarkable turn of the complexities that can be developed is, of course, the well-known instance of the visitor at a club and the rare coin. Of course every one knows that? What?”
Rankin smiled in a bored, superior way, but the others protested their ignorance.
“A distinguished visitor is brought into a club where a dozen men sit down to dinner at a long table. Conversation finally veers around to curiosities and relics. One of the members present takes from his pocket what he announces as one of the rarest coins in existence. He passes it around the table. Coin travels back and forth, every one examining it as the conversation goes to another topic, say the influence of the automobile on domestic infelicity, or some other such asininely intellectual club topic you know? All at once the owner calls for his coin.
“The coin is nowhere to be found. Every one looks at every one else. First they suspect a joke. Then it becomes serious: the coin, immensely valuable, is missing. Who has taken it?
“The owner is a gentleman, does the gentlemanly idiotic thing, of course, laughs, says he knows some one is playing a practical joke on him and that the coin will be returned to-morrow. The others refuse to leave the situation so. One man proposes that they all submit to a search. Every one gives his assent until it comes to the stranger. He refuses, curtly, roughly, without giving any reason. Uncomfortable silence… the man is a guest. No one knows him particularly well but still he is a guest. One member tries to make him understand that no offense is offered, that the suggestion was simply to clear the atmosphere and all that sort of ballyrot, you know.
“‘I refuse to allow my person to be searched,’ says the stranger, very firm, very proud, very English, you know, ‘and I refuse to give my reason for my action.’
“Another silence. The men eye him and then glance at one another. What’s to be done? Nothing. There is etiquette, that magnificent inflated balloon. The visitor evidently has the coin but he is their guest and etiquette protects him. Nice situation, eh?
“The table is cleared. A waiter removes a dish of fruit and there, under the ledge of the plate where it had been inadvertently pushed, is the coin. Banal explanation, eh? Of course. Solutions always should be. At once everyone’s in profuse apologies! Whereupon the visitor rises and says:
“‘Now I can give you the reason for my refusal to be searched. There are only two known specimens of the coin in existence, and the second happens to be here in my waistcoat pocket.’”