The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba

The Adventurous Exploit of the Cave of Ali Baba is a very strange Lord Peter story. It’s primarily an adventure story, though it has minor elements of mystery to it. The mystery is primarily about how Lord Peter plans to get out of the trap he walked into, so in a sense it’s backwards from the normal situation in which somebody has used their intellect to mess things up and the detective uses his intellect to put them back together; here Lord Peter has used his intellect and we watch the villains try to match wits with him. As I’ve noted in other reviews of short stories, this will contain spoilers. That said, I don’t think that the story will be all that surprising.

The story begins with the announcement of the death of Lord Peter Wimsey on a hunting trip in Tanganyika. I don’t really like that sort of device, myself, though it’s really just an annoyance because no one believes for a moment that Lord Peter was actually killed off at the beginning of a Lord Peter Wimsey story. But this device also stretches one’s imagination to the breaking point. It seems very out of character for Lord Peter Wimsey to pretend to be dead for over two years in order to catch a criminal gang. Granted, it is supposed to be a superlative criminal gang, but at the same time it is limited to 50 members who don’t know each other. And this presents real problems.

Even granted that most of its members are among the most capable in the world—and Lord Peter got in pretending to be an ex-footman whose only real value was in knowing the household routine of a number of great houses—fifty people is still not enough to silently carry out executions in prisons and other things like that. To carry out executions in a jail one would need at an absolute minimum two men on the inside. But they can’t work together if they don’t know each other, since they would have to act with the authority they have. The rule that no one knows who anyone else is (save Number One, who knows everyone) severely limits the sorts of conspiracies which can be undertaken. Also a problem for the gang is that there is more than one jail in London. I suppose this could be solved by having assassins who can sneak into and out of the jail to perform an execution, but that does nothing to restore credibility to the story. The society does not train people in secret schools and with only fifty members most of whom are skilled at performing robberies, they will have more than a hard time recruiting uber-assassins. The problems go on; fifty men can do a lot, but they can’t be everywhere, especially in England during the interwar period when telephones were relatively new inventions.

Which brings us to the science fiction element of the story: the voice-activated sliding door. Certainly this is very possible today, and if one is willing to stretch a bit it is possible that it could have been done using the technology of the 1920s. How one could do it using the technology of the 1920s that allows more than one try, I don’t know, and certainly the explanation of a needle tracing vibrations gives no clue. That mechanism could work once, perhaps by depositing a conductor. Actually, come to think of it, if the needle and the trace were conductive, the thing could be hooked up to a timer which will activate if the needle closes the circuit for a minimum amount of time. That could give most of the desired properties, though I will also note that the thing would require an enormous amount of precision. Granted, Lord Peter could pay for such precision, but delicate and experimental machinery is an odd thing to gamble a man’s life on. Granted, a very bad man. In any event such technology lacks the wow factor it would have had to readers in the 1920s. And further, it seems a bit gratuitous. Maybe it’s just a long history of wildly complicated plans in fiction together with most plans that are even mildly complicated going terribly wrong in real life, but the whole thing seems needlessly elaborate without having a corresponding coolness to make the reader not care about the over-elaboration. This may perhaps be related to the way that such a door would now just be expensive but not at all technologically difficult; that would remove the coolness but not the original elaborateness. Alas, not all stories are meant for the ages. On the plus side, the ones that aren’t tell us more about the time period they were written in, since they don’t transcend their time.

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face is a short story featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. According to this book it was originally published in 1924. (Incidentally, in googling for the original publication date I discovered this interesting chronology of Lord Peter’s life. Also curious is that it appears to have been republished in Great Detective volume 1. So far as I know it was first collected in Lord Peter Views the Body in 1928. Short stories, at the time, seem to have lived interesting lives.) As usual with short stories, this post about it will contain spoilers. Go read it now if you haven’t yet, it’s not the best story but it’s worth the time.

As with some of the other Lord Peter short stories, The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face is fairly long. In my copy which isn’t small it takes up 30 pages. Like The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention it almost verges into being a novella, and it feels like it. As I’ve said the classic murder mystery short story involves a complicated setup, the sleuth announcing that he’s solved it (letting the reader know he’s gotten all the clues he’s going to get) followed by the sleuth explaining the solution. This has been endlessly varied, of course, but it does generally hold. There’s far more story and characterization in The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, and it takes its time to allow one to enjoy them. In many ways this story could easily have been written as a full-length novel; it would have taken fairly little re-jiggering to add in some additional characters as well as false trails and smaller mysteries to solve—without fundamentally altering the structure. As it stands it is somewhat reminiscent of Have His Carcase, though only in the setting of the murder—a lonely beach near a seaside resort with a body discovered with only one set of footprints. Have His Carcase was considerably more mysterious, since there was the lingering question of whether the death was suicide which was not a concern here, but I can’t help but wonder if Sayers liked the setting enough to do it over again.

The story also features her odd fascination with artists and their single-minded devotion to the truth of their art. I’d call it a theme except it’s really just taken as a fact that is relied upon but doesn’t mean anything. I’m mostly ignorant of art history, but the inter-war period was I think the last time when such an idea might have been tenable. I don’t think that it was long afterwards that art transcended beauty, then meaning, and when meaning left so of necessity did truth. I believe technique has also been left behind, though of course one can always find people painting in older styles which aim for things like beauty using disciplined techniques. In my very limited experience, however, these people don’t tend to be as pretentious as artists are reputed to have been in the early 1900s. I think part of it is that the early 1900s saw artists trying to replace religion in the fashion of the superman which Nietzsche had identified as necessary for mankind to continue after the death of God. Those artists who seek beauty these days tend, I think, to be religious, and consequently see no need to try to replace God.

Be that as it may, the most interesting part of the story, from the perspective of considering all of Sayers’ work, is that Lord Peter lets the murderer get away with the murder because of some combination of the victim being a bad man and the artist being a great artist. Now, I’m often fond of endings where the detective solves the case but does not bring people to punishment because that would not be the best balance. This is perhaps best epitomized when Sherlock Holmes lets a thief go because he has already suffered enough, and explains to Watson, “Scottland Yard does not retain me to supply their deficiencies.” I may write such a story myself, some day. This ending is very unsatisfying, though, because the man being a good painter seems rather the reverse of a reason to let him get away with murder. That said, much of my reaction is a reaction to the odd sort of idolatry shown towards art in much of what I’ve read from the early 1900s, so I may perhaps not be judging it fairly. On the other hand, when Lord Peter says:

“What is Truth?” said Jesting Pilate. No wonder, since it is so completely unbelievable….I could prove it…if I liked…but the main had a villainous face, and there are few good painters in the world.

I actually rather doubt the “I could prove it” part. It’s true that he could prove parts of his story—with some detective work he could probably prove that the painter was in the same seaside area as the murder, and he could probably prove from the painter’s painting several years ago of the beach where the murder took place that the painter had been there years before. But beyond that, I don’t think that Wimsey could prove much. There was no hard evidence linking the painter to the murder scene on the day of the murder; the best he could do is hope that the owner of the garage where the murderer dropped off the victim’s car could recognize the painter, but at best that would be difficult in an era when photographs are hard to come by. And though it wasn’t something talked about much in Wimsey stories, witness identification of people who the witness doesn’t know is notoriously unreliable. So, while Wimsey could probably put together a case, it would be a very circumstantial one at best.

Though re-reading the lines I do suspect that Wimsey was primarily motivated by how the victim had it coming, and less that the artist was a great artist; it was established that the victim was a bad man, though not a criminal. It is, none the less, very unsatisfying. A detective letting a murderer go should not be done lightly, and here it almost feels like Sayers simply took the easy way out after painting herself into the corner of not having any really hard evidence. That said, real-life jurious are notoriously willing to convict people based upon relatively flimsy evidence. Then again, fiction is supposed to be more believable than real life.

In short, it’s worth a read, but I doubt I’ll be re-reading it much.

The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head

I recently got a collection of Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. I’ve already reviewed The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention. It has elements which remind me of the current pulp revolution, which made me curious as to its publication. Unfortunately, publication information is not easy to come by; why books which collect short stories don’t see fit to include this information I cannot fathom. Anyway, this book says that The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head was first published in volume 61 of Pearson’s (a literary magazine) in June of 1926, so I don’t know if it would technically count as a pulp, but despite being about Lord Peter Wimsey, it definitely has pulpy elements. Since it’s approximately impossible to discuss short stories without giving spoilers, I will simply give a spoiler warning here and then discuss the story with spoilers. I do recommend the story—it was an enjoyable read.

(This is your last chance to go read it before spoilers, just so you know.)

We might loosely divide the story up into three acts. In the first act Lord Peter is in an old book shop with his ten year old nephew, who buys a damaged version of an old book which would be valuable in good condition. In the second act, a man approaches Wimsey and tries to buy and then steal the book. In the third act, Wimsey goes off to the home of the original owner and discovers that the book may be the key to a family legacy of pirate treasure.

The first act is rather prosaic, and has probably the most familiar elements of Lord Peter novels—interesting characters and engaging dialog. One gets the most flavor of Lord Peter’s banter when he is not active, so this is the part of the story which has the most Lord Peter flavor.

In the second act we get to see Lord Peter’s burglar alarms which, given the publication date of 1926, verge on being science fiction. The action was over relatively quickly, but in an expert fashion which reminded me of the supreme competence of the man of bronze, Doc Savage. Not nearly as over-the-top as Doc Savage, but then compared to Doc Savage most things are barely a fifth of the way up. Still, a theme in short stories from the time seems to have been hero worship; short stories are often forced to do a lot of telling rather than showing and there was clearly an appetite for the glories of achievement through hard work in those days. There was also, interestingly, a reference to Sexton Blake (in the quality of the rope-work used to tie up intruders). Mystery has always been a self-referential genre; it is a very long-standing tradition for fictional detectives to reference other fictional detectives as fiction. I think it works within mystery fiction better than it would in most other genres, which do better to pretend that their genre doesn’t exist within the fictional world in which they’re set. Science fiction characters should not, as a rule, read science fiction novels, just as sorcerers shouldn’t read fantasy novels and people in a love story shouldn’t read romance novels. (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I suspect that these are sensible rules.)

The third act takes place in the decaying family estate from which the book came to the book seller. It’s also interesting to note that while modern retrospective dramas such as Downton Abbey or The Crown take place in families which still have money and therefore can afford the miniature villages which great houses could be—if they could afford to employ most of the villagers—when mysteries of the early 1900s were set in great houses, it was usually in great houses that were falling apart from (relative) poverty and neglect. This is no accident, of course. A house that is lived in has its secrets, but many of them can be found out simply by asking, and even the ones that can’t are often at least partially known by people who weren’t supposed to know them. A house that had been lived in requires investigation to find out most of its secrets. There’s also a much wider scope for motives to strange actions in a decaying great house since a functioning great house takes care of most of its occupants’ needs.

In The Learned Adventure of the Dragon’s Head, the almost mandatory unkempt gardens  and Chinese pagodas symbolizing the bad taste of someone who came into money later in life are actually a key to the mystery. This is, I think, a good example of Chesterton’s dictum that the culprit should be, whenever possible, someone we would never suspect. Chesterton warned of the problem of there being only one person we’ve never suspected making that person the obvious culprit, of course, and praised Conan Doyle’s story Silver Blaze as being the best example of this trick (spoiler alert), since the horse’s presence is completely explained by the owner keeping horses for racing. In the same way, though the scenery isn’t a murderer, it is hiding the treasure and I think it a very good construction that the scenery we assume exists only to denote the conventional bad taste of a progenitor actually served the progenitor’s purpose; in a man-made lake the burier of the treasure actually made his little Islands to correspond to an ancient map in an ancient book. This may be the only example I know of in which the treasure map came first and the treasure was buried according to it. It is an ingenious device for disguising the treasure map.

Overall I strongly recommend this short story; unlike the previous one I reviewed I do expect to re-read it on occasion.

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of the Contention

I was recently given a complete collection of the Lord Peter Wimsey short stories. Some of the Lord Peter novels are among my favorite detective fiction—especially those involving Harriet Vane—but oddly I hadn’t really enjoyed the few Lord Peter short stories I had read. My mother—who introduced me to Lord Peter—gave me the collection saying that it was a mixed bag and I had the bad luck of picking the worst of them.

As I’ve mentioned before, in detective fiction short stories have a very different structure than novels do, not merely because the normal differences between the two media, but because a completely different sort of story is possible in a short story. Specifically: the puzzle. A short story permits a complex setup which is then unraveled in the end to the (possible) astonishment of the reader but a novel simply doesn’t permit of that sort of story. The thread can’t be stretched that far without breaking; there is no possible excuse for the detective spending so long without revealing what he knows. (TV shows have this problem, though TV episodes are more similar to short stories, and solve it by having the detective suddenly remember or realize something, in order to give the viewer time to figure the solution out.)

The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention is interesting in that it’s almost a very short novela rather than a long short story; certainly it lingers on the characters and atmosphere in a way that is more the domain of novels. The characters and atmosphere being one of the strengths of Lord Peter this is a point in its favor, but it never really fleshes the characters out enough for any of them to be really likable. I know that likability can be overrated; perhaps it’s better to say that we never really learn enough about the characters for any of their concerns to matter. Lord Peter views his surroundings with a sort of detached air and nothing counterbalances this. This is true of almost all of the Lord Peter stories, but in the good ones he has some other character to counter-balance this with attachment. Even where that isn’t Harriet Vane, as in, for example, Clouds of Witness, there is still the fact that people Wimsey cares about care whether Wimsey’s brother will be hanged for murder. Here, Wimsey doesn’t want to be involved and gets dragged in by others who don’t want to be involved either. This doesn’t ruin the story, but it certainly doesn’t help.

The mystery itself is really several (related) mysteries, but they’re not at first obviously related to each other. Even that would be fairly normal, except that there is no particular reason to solve the first mystery except for the sheer curiosity of Lord Peter. Granted, a ghostly coach passing in the night would arouse curiosity, but at the same time the solution simply drops when Lord Peter discovers it. It has no significance at the time. In fact that’s probably my real complaint: the story never sets up the mystery properly; everything happens and then we’re presented with the mystery and its solution in rapid succession. On the other hand, I will say that I appreciated Lord Peter ruling out a supernatural explanation of the ghostly coach no on a priori grounds since that would be unsound, but because the apparition didn’t bother his horse at all, as one would expect a ghost to. It was a nice touch of rationality in a character who does not believe in the supernatural (Sayers famously said that Lord Peter would consider it an impertinence to believe he had a soul).

Overall I enjoyed reading the The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention, but it’s hard for it not to be marred by comparison to Sayers’ best work. I recommend reading it, but I doubt that I will reread it often.