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.

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