"A film is a ribbon of dreams. The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins."- Orson Welles
The backdrop is the largest studio at the disposal of the Elkin-Filmmaatschappij, an hour away from Berlin, Germany, where an internationally assembled cast and crew are shooting Vrouwen die vergeten (Women Who Forget), a "talkie," starring Neri Vallona and Iwan Inkow – with an unaccredited cameo from Death in one of the key scene.
As you might have noticed from the language, this is not going to be a review of one of Ngiao Marsh's theatrically staged mysteries, but the author in question, Willy Corsari, performed on stage before becoming a successful writer. In January of last year, I reported on her country-house mystery, Voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937), and while there was a fatal flaw in the plot, I was nonetheless entertained – and the first example I found of a Dutch-language impossible crime novel from the Golden Age of Detective Stories!
De onbekende medespeler (The Unknown Co-Player, 1931), which was also published as Het mystery van het filmatelier (The Mystery of the Filmstudio), is a standalone from early in Corsari's career and focuses on the peculiar stabbing of an unlikable, but desirable, actress in front of a camera. The opening chapters and structure of the book show imagination, rewinding and fast-forwarding between scenes like a movie, giving the reader a fractured view of what happened before Neri Vallona collapsed in Iwan Inkow's arms. It conjures up a picture of a woman who practically handed out motives, ranging from jealousy to greed, and even robbery is an option when discovered that her villa has been burgled and a necklace was snatched from the body.
Unfortunately, the impossible situation is underplayed and has a surprisingly routine (read: dull) solution based on a technique that locked room aficionados will be more than familiar with. I suspected Inkow for the longest time, because the medical evidence and movie reel proved conclusively that he was physically not capable of stabbing Vallona, but I presumed that she had died before the scene was shot – keep in mind that they're all in costume with dancers twirling around them.
The strong Inkow carries the body onstage, underneath his burly cape-like costume, with masked accomplish/mistress as a stand-in for Vallona and swaps places with the body when she swoops to floor (covered by the cape). He then slipped her out of the room when everyone was concerned with the body or when they carried her out there. A bit of a credulity stretcher, I admit, but the gaudy scene and confusing snippets that describe the murder would've been a perfect sell for such a risky method. Once the camera stopped, there was ample confusing to pull a switch and even if someone saw something, it's a detail that's easily lost in the chaos of the moment. It even provides a clue, if you put in a witness who swears s/he saw Vallona's "ghost" sneaking around the hallway after the murder. But you retain the illusion, because everyone thinks they saw her die in front of a rolling camera. Anyway, that's how I would have played it.
The police arrest Jan Ewoud Martens, the recording supervisor, on suspicion of the murder, prompting his friend and mystery writer, Juttu, to launch an investigation of her own – and yes, it's a simmering love story. Juttu soon bumps into an allay, Inspector Lusch, whose head's filled with fanciful theories and still pursuing leads on the case, but it's Juttu who reaches the unexciting end of the problem that began very promising.
I have to say in it's defense that it's mountainous improvement over her first detective novel, De misdaad zonder fouten (The Faultless Crime, 1927), which is a profusion of hackneyed plot devices like twins, sleepwalkers and duplicate keys – all of them brought in with a straight face. The Unknown Player may not be a groundbreaking detective story, but it lost its juvenile plumage that made her first outing an embarrassment and put me off her trail for years. And they can't be all classics.
However, what was interesting is that this may be one of the earliest examples of a fictional mystery writer complaining about growing tired of her own detective(s).