"...it leaves us under the necessity of explaining how this murderer entered and left a locked room, how he entered and left a room the door and windows of which were under constant observation, finally how he killed in the open, in the presence of a witness, without betraying himself further than by a gleam of his weapon."- Dr. Eustace Hailey (The Silver Scale Mystery, 1931)
As noted in a previous review, Scottish born physician Robert McNair Wilson had a second vocation as a prolific mystery novelist, under the nom-de-plume of Anthony Wynne, whose forte was the locked room ploy. Unfortunately, for him, his tendency to over dramatize scenes, which are described in a dry, humorless style and littered with pasteboard characters, denied him the chance to bask in the kind of fame that John Dickson Carr, Hake Talbot and Edward Hoch enjoy within the ambit of the genre – and I never expected more from him than a handful of good ideas interred in a very flawed story.
The Silver Scale Mystery (1931), also published under the title Murder of a Lady, showed me that you are at folly when you base your judgment of a writer on a single book – as this one was an out-and-out improvement on The Green Knife (1932). The characters seem to have been aware that they were not, in fact, stage actors in a bad Victorian melodrama and the writing was very sober – although the string of intended suicide attempts, to exonerate family members who've fallen under suspicion, were shades of the authors true nature. But on a whole, Wynne's faults were reduced to a minimum, while his strengths took the center stage.
This has perhaps to do with the fact that the backdrop of the story are the Scottish highlands, where he spend the days of his youth, which translates itself into a dour atmosphere that is befitting for the surroundings of the story – especially the castle in which the murders take the place. The first victim, Mary Gregor, sister of the laird, dies before the opening of the story when she's struck down by a sharp blow in a sealed bedroom.
But despite this early, off-stage casualty the body does not remain a lifeless, faceless pawn who was sacrificed in the opening of the game, but is effectively recalled to life through the reminisces of the people who surrounded her in life – which only serve to garner your sympathy to whomever was so kind to extinguish that life light. Mary Gregor was not a hard-bitten, cold-mannered matriarch who ruled the family with a cast-iron gloved fist, that would've been forgivable, but acted a benevolent dictator who "had a way of restating the most cruel slanders in the kindest terms, assuring you that she had forgiven faults which existed only in her own invention and pleading with you to be equally generous." At the time of the murder, she was laboring ardently on forcing an irreparable breakup between her nephew and his wife in order to take control of their two-year-old son, Hamish, to indoctrinate the poor kid with her fundamentalistic religious views and their family values – something she had done before in the past.
A contemptible woman to say the least, but it demonstrates that Anthony Wynne was capable of exalting himself above sordid melodrama and cardboard characters – which obliges me to rephrase a comment I made in the book report I posted on The Green Knife. I stated that the tragedy of Anthony Wynne was that he was, at heart, a writer who belonged to a different era and had the misfortune to arrive at the scene of the crime long after his time had come and gone, but had the quality of this book turned into a trend he wouldn't have attenuated from our collective memory – at least within the mystery community. Not that he would've been a threat to John Dickson Carr's claim to the thrown, but he would've been definitely considered as serious competitor as his imaginative plotting evidently benefited from the sobered down writing and tighter characterization.
The murder of Mary Gregor is as baffling a locked room mystery as any in the case files of Dr. Gideon Fell or Brooks U. Banner, in which there's not just the question of how the murderer obtained access to a closed space, but also why the victim locked herself in a stuffy room on warm summer night and the meaning of the herring scale found on the body – which leads to local superstition that implied the involvement of the legendary merman, known as "The Swimmers," in the execution of this inexplicable murder. This set-up would be, by itself, enough of a problem to pad out an entire novel with, but Wynne provides the plot with two additional, seemingly impossible murders, to spice up the plot. Both victims were policeman in charge of apprehending the murderer, but every time one of them was ready to secure an arrest he's murdered. The skull of the first investigative officer is shattered while alone in a room that couldn't have been entered without passing Dr. Eustace Hailey, and his successor was slain outside the castle walls in front of a witness who failed to notice the assailant dealing the fatal blow.
The solutions to these miracle slayings are simple, but convincing, which is the hallmark of a clever and well-executed locked room mystery and I loved how, at first, I had my doubts about the method, the identity of the murderer and the motive. I was afraid that this excellent story would end with a dud, but that fear proved to be unfounded and the complete picture of the crimes is as intriguing and satisfying as the problems it consisted of. The only things that can be said against this novel is that a) Dr. Hailey functions mainly as an impartial observer b) one of the main clues should've been divulged a lot earlier on the story c) the implication of "The Swimmers" should've been played up more. You know, like Carter Dickson and Hake Talbot would've done.
But that would be nitpicking the fun out of a competently written and cleverly plotted detective story that really should be known better. I mean, how's it possible that Ellery Queen's The King is Dead (1952) and Randall Garrett's Too Many Magicians (1967) received a spot on the 1981 list of best locked room novels, but this was one was omitted? It seems that this self-professed Fredric Dannay (as Patrick usurped the spot of Anthony Boucher) of the 21st century has a lot of corrections to make before the genre can flourish again. ;)
As a closer, I want to share with you a little treasure that was tucked away in my copy of the book for over 80 years! When I examined the book, I noticed that there was a library card from the 1930s glued on the inside. The first stamp dates from August 6, 1931 and was checked out over thirty times before it was borrowed one last time on February 10 of the following year.
Curt Evans, whose review prompted me to place an order for this book, made the following observation when he saw a scan of the card:
"It confirms how these books were widely read, though comparatively little sold. A mystery that sold but 2000 copies to libraries in the U.S. could have been read by 60,000 people conceivably.
I found in a diary a Kansas farm wife during the Dust Bowl years who was an avid
mystery reader, including John Rhode's The House on Tollard Ridge. All rentals."
Well, I got an excellent, hard-to-get impossible crime novel, in fair condition, with a piece of history attached at a fraction of the price the book normally sells for (note that the only copy currently on sale goes at the tune of four hundred bucks). Yeah, you can consider me a happy boy!