What the Hex is Going On?

"This is too strange for school, Hadji."
- Jonny Quest (East of Zanzibar)
One of the umpteen entries in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) that caught my interest was R.H.W. Dillard's The Book of Changes (1974), which has a problem of the impossible variety that is described as follow: "death of a man inside a locked room that could only be locked from the outside, yet the sole key was in the victims stomach."

A brief search on the web revealed that the book is still available in paperback, a 2001 reprint from the Louisiana State University Press, but this good news was accompanied with a sobering and off-putting review – calling the book "pointless experimentation" and "potsmoke prose, accompanied with babygoo beatifics." I was still intrigued though and bumped the book up my list of priorities, but now I have to review a story as disjointed as a recently unearthed skeleton.

To understand this, I can easily place this book in the canon of the genre alongside Virgil Markham's Death in the Dusk (1928), Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) and Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock (1950), stories with either a nightmarish or dreamlike quality that ditch realism at the side of the road and string together a series of often episodic events that defy common sense, and Dillard goes all out in The Book of Changes! The stories switches from scene to scene, era to era and from characters to characters and none of them seem to make much sense. One of the persons we follow around, throughout many decades, is the consulting detective Sir Hugh Fitz-Hyffen, a distorted, funhouse mirror reflection of Sherlock Holmes, whose cases lead him from the home of an English matriarch, after a number of the local women turned up dead and a wolf is seen dancing on its hind legs, to Chicago where a Zodiac killer stalks its citizens and a man turns up dead in a locked room.

Regrettably, Fitz-Hyffen's cases are more anti-detective stories than proper mysteries and readers like yours truly should expect not much from them. The explanation for the problem of the locked door was even more disappointing than venomous animals, secret passageways or another Isreal Zangwill rip-off – while another, simple but elegant, solution presented itself based on the evidence given in the story. According to the pathologist, who dug the key from the victims innards, it was acid bitten and might not have properly worked if they tried the lock. Dillard could have easily made that key a false one, while the murderer used the actual key to lock the door.

The episodes set on a street named Life, where the moral fabric is slowly disintegrating, were, perhaps, my favorite segments in this book and showed that Dillard had more than just a nodding acquaintance with the genre. Inhabitants of Life includes, alongside Oscar Wilde, a pair of twin brothers, separated at birth, named Leslie Ford and David Frome, and a couple who listen to the names of Michael Venning and Daphne Sanders. Everyone can come across as genresavy by referencing Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and Sgt. Cuff, but I bet those four names would go over a lot of readers heads nowadays. Oh, and did I mention this weird plot also involves The Moonstone and the Mask of Fu-Manchu? Both of them nicked.

I think this makes the "potsmoke prose" and "babygoo beatifics" the least of the books problems, if they are problems, because the style seems to fit what Dillard set out to do and you can’t fault an author for doing that. It would be akin to lambasting Dashiell Hammett for not writing village cozies featuring Nanny Spade. The real problem is that The Book of Changes is a story without a payoff and Adey mentioned that liking this book depends on your allegiance to the genre. I guess I'm not that enlightened yet to embrace a book like this, but what amplified this weakness, for me anyway, is that I know of three, much earlier, books (mentioned above) that did this long before Dillard and they all did it better than him. Heck, even Rogers' The Red Right Hand was better and I belong to the group who think it's overrated. 

So I can only recommend this if you’re in the mood for something goofy.  


  1. No surprise Dillard alludes to Craig Rice. This is the kind of nonsense she'd love. This is one I must find and add to my alternative mystery colelction.

    My immediate reaction was that R. H. W. Dillard is a pseudonym for a writer who was "slumming." But amazingly there is a Wikipedia entry on this guy. He was an esteemed literary critic, translator, and prize winning poet. At one time married to novelist Annie Dillard. My jaw dropped. I also like that he was one of the screenwriters for a schlock horror movie I've actually seen - Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster

    1. That's kind of surprising, because I expected Dillard already to be a part of your alternative mystery collection. Not sure if you'd enjoy a mystery as alternative as this one, but let us know if you came across a copy. Happy hunting! :)

  2. There is that major difference between an author writing something that is so out of register that you feel you can't quite grasp it, but are left with the feeling of substance none the less; and then there are those that leave you feeling frustrated that really they just didn't care enough to really try. If the characters are strong I can forgive a weaker puzzle but I tend to find the delirium tremens school of detective fiction (and I'm one of those people that thinks the Rogers book is a genuine masterpiece) too horribly hit and miss most of the time. Really good review though TC, despite the book's flaws.

    1. Thanks, Sergio!

      You're correct that these types of stories are very hit-and-miss, because it takes an expert plotter and stylist to pull it off.