Out of Time's Abyss

"Everybody was wrong... The judge was wrong. The jury were wrong. The prosecution was wrong. The defense was wrong."
- Dr. Gideon Fell ("The Hangman Won’t Wait," collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, 1980)
Before taking a stab at reviewing an impossible crime novel from the heyday of the detective story, I want to direct your attention to a post I compiled last year, "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels," which I updated a few days ago. I've added and replaced numerous titles that made list bulkier than it was before. So if you’re looking for suggestions for your TBR-pile, you might want to take a peek at the new list.

David Duncan's The Shade of Time (1946) was favorably commented upon by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), "more than just an excellent essay on the locked-room theme" and "first-rate detective novel from a writer better known in the science-fiction field," and I agree, if you single out the impossible material in the book – which is there in abundance. But in my opinion, I think Adey over praised Duncan's overall contribution to the locked room sub-genre. However, that's not to say that The Shade of Time is not without merit and personally liked the theme of the past rising up to obscure the present.

The premise and opening shares some similarities to the last mystery I reviewed on here, The Case of the Drowning Duck (1942) by Erle Stanley Gardner, in which a murder that was shelved as solved with the conviction of the murderer is reinvestigated – except that the wrongfully accused man in this story lived to conduct his own investigation upon his release from prison.

Sebastian Sand was convicted for murdering John Harth, a promising physicist laboring on the atomic displacement theory, with an arrow to the chest in his sun-porch converted laboratory on the strength that Sand was the only other person in Harth House at the time of the murder – arguing that the arrow could not have been loosened from the outside because there were no broken windowpanes. A windowpane next to the door had to be smashed to unlatch the door, but it's a spring-lock (of sorts) that snaps into position after you close the door behind you and everyone else was accounted for at the time of the murder outside of the house. The influential Harth family also did their part in helping Sand to be convicted in order to keep him away from John's sister Constance.

A decade later Sand is pardoned and conspires with two of his friends, Ray and Alice Kingsley, in arranging a reunion party at Harth House to find the person responsible for the murder of John Harth by playing mind games and staging a reconstruction of the crime – in an attempt to prove the displacement theory that would allow an arrow to pass through a pane of glass without shattering it. Unsurprisingly, something goes horribly wrong when Sand fires an arrow at the supposedly empty and somewhat overgrown laboratory, as dim and ghost figure looms up in the window, taking the projectile full in the chest! The theory of atomic displacement and how it was entertained for a while was a nice a substitute for ghosts and curses that commonly haunt these tales.

What looks at first glance as a foolish, but genuine, accident slowly, but surely, begins to look more and more impossible as the official investigators gather more facts and what happened to create this second locked room killing is more worthy of that label than the first one – which was more a question of alibis than trickery. Even if the overall effect of this second locked room is a patchwork of ideas most readers are bound to recognize. Still, I can understand Adey's praise because the most fun part of the book was the discussions of the seemingly impossible elements in the case including a bunch of false solutions.

By the way, the official investigators I referred to are Jim Quigley, a highly educated chief of police, and a Dr. Cook, who are introduced in the opening chapters of the book discussing the Harth case and meet a few more times before they officially become involved in the second shooting incident and Quigley handed me the idea of quoting Dr. Gideon Fell for this post.

I'm sure that Duncan was familiar with John Dickson Carr, and other mystery writers who dabbled in the miraculous, and Quigley seems to have been attempt at a cast-off of the Great Detectives and he has his own ideas on crime, like a disease it should be prevented instead of solved, but does nothing himself but sit around waiting for something to happen at Harth House. Why test your theory when an opportunity presents itself and safe a life in process? Anyway, in the second chapter Quigley said, "if it was a classic case, it was classic in the sense that the police couldn't possibly go wrong,” appending, “and in spite of it all, the police possibly did go wrong,” which is something that would've no doubt infuriated someone if Dr. Fell or H.M. had uttered it. And it reminded me of that quote from that radio play that now only exist in it entirely as a typescript.

But Duncan was far from the writer that Carr was, and while the locked room elements and discussions were good reading, the writing and characters were not and closer to Anthony Wynne – another locked room specialist scuttled for his embarrassing and unrealistic melodrama and often bad writing but still had some good plots. I'll probably get some flack for bringing up Paul Halter, an impossible crime from the past parroted in the present is a hallmark of his fiction and his characters have a tendency to feel out of their time, but for all his faults, Halter is leagues better as a mystery writer than Duncan was. Now that I think of it, I wonder what Halter would've done with this plot since Quigley and Dr. Cook could easily be swapped for Owen Burns and Archilles Stock.

To sum this lengthy, rambling review up is that David Duncan's The Shade of Time has points of interest as a locked room/detective problem, even if bits and pieces of the plot became muddled and confusing towards the end, but otherwise, it falls short of the mark and the interesting points aren't strong or original enough to make it eligible for my list of favorite impossible mysteries.

Hm, a very uneven conclusion to a very uneven story.


  1. I'm not a Duncan fan. I think this book is highly overrated and undeserving of being honored on the "Best of the Impossible Crime" lists it always shows up on. The dialogue is arch and stilted. The relationships are lifted out of the movies and not real life. The story is often preposterous and laughable. The locked room elements are obvious or lame. And the inclusion of ignorant and prejudicial commentary about gay men and cross-dressers (yet another mystery writer who confuses the two) made me livid. I notice you didn't mention anything about that part of the book.

    David Duncan later abandoned crime fiction for his obvious first love -- science fiction. He is also the screenwriter for some terrible 1950s monster movies (The Leech Woman, The Monster that Challenged the World, The Black Scorpion) and one fairly good SF-fantasy movie -- The Time Machine, the George Pal version with Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux. SF can have him, but even those fans seem to be embarraseed by his contributions. Read this post if you're interested in some Duncan slamming.

    1. I agree that the book isn't exactly list worthy or very original, however, I have read locked room mysteries that were much worse than this one. Much, much worse. Does the name Joseph Bowen ring any bells?

      And I wanted to mention the misconception Duncan made about gays and cross dressers, which definitely caused some confusing towards the ending, but decided against it because I was dreading the comments.

      I can't get worked up like you apparently were when you read it. You say you were livid over what a cheap-jack writer, who was born around the time when automobiles were becoming a typical street picture, wrote in an obscure and undistinguished, second-rate mystery from the forties, while there are currently only twelve states in the US that allows same-sex marriage. I'm just saying.

      Do we really have to look at the flaws of dead and dying generations to find something to be angry about today? I'm just interested in finding out if their writing, plots and characters stood the test of time and not measure them with a politically correct yardstick.

      By the way, I took a look at your review of this book on the GADWiki and you were not exactly Mr. PC yourself. You said, and I quote:

      "He [Duncan] shuns the use of contractions for some reason and this makes everyday speech come out stilted or as if everyone is a foreigner.

      You're not implying there that everyone whose first language isn't English sounds like Charlie Chan when they speak it, are you? Because that qualifies as "stereotyping" and is frowned upon by today's society. ;-)

      Oh, and thanks for the link. I love a got slamming.

  2. TomCat,
    I could not agree with you more. It appears that there are many people today who think that they are in a position to criticize the works of the past because they do not meet the standards held by persons in their own current time and place. People who do that are simply making a parade of their own supposed virtue while at the same time insulting their audience. I think that people are sophisticated enough to realize that when they read an older book, they are very likely to find language and attitudes that may be different from their own. To have to be constantly reminded of that fact by supposed critics is an insult to my intelligence. I don't think our civilization has arrived at such a utopian level that it can afford to criticize anyone else.
    Mr. Duncan also wrote some pretty good science fiction novels, especially Beyond Eden.

  3. TomCat,
    Just a few facts about Mr. Duncan, since he is no longer alive to defend himself. His Wikipedia page states that he was born in 1913 and died in 1999. It also states that he wrote 3 science fiction novels and six other novels. This last statement is probably incorrect. I count 3 science fiction novels, one horror novel (The Madrone Tree), one mystery (The Shade of Time) and 6 other novels. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia ends its entry on Duncan with the following words: [After writing Occam's Razor] "Duncan then fell silent as an sf novelist, and is not now well remembered. Those who rediscover him will find his work quietly eloquent, inherently memorable, worth remarking upon." This is also my own opinion. He was not a hack. I have found his books to be well-researched. I think this is an author due for further assessment.