"The lamps are going out all over Europe..."- Edward Grey
The first conflict of interests on a global scale, usually referred to as The Great War or The First World War, is often cited as the start of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, however, there are barely any war-time set mysteries from the period – unlike the abundance of World War II mysteries from twenty odd years later.
Well, I found a rare World War I spy/detective story when thumbing through my copy of Locked Room Mysteries and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), "Flashlights" by Laurence Clarke, published in the May issue of The Strand Magazine of 1918. The story is illustrated by Warwick Reynolds. I had flicked pass the entry of the story before, but it was an uncollected, stand-alone story and only just noticed the publication date. It was a public domain story and available, fully illustrated, here as part of the collected issues from January to June.
The impossibility of "Flashlights" are the streaks of magnesium-lights being sent up to the sky from Scarthoe Hill, signals to German submarines, and they've cost to British navy two ships as a consequence. To stop the signals, Captain of the Coastguard, Evan Carlton, hermitically sealed off the hillside with a cordon of troops, but the flares persevere. Carlton himself witnessed, through a telescope, the flares being sent up and the barrier of soldiers closing in on the spot where the light emanated from – only to discover the place completely deserted. No. The solution has more originality than revealing the spy was wearing a soldier's uniform and blended in with the cordon sanitaire, but the answer does own some debt to ideas from its time and its predecessors.
|A Military Draft (Get it!?)|
A special-agent attached to the Admiralty Secret Service, Terrence Milner, is dropped from the sea on the land in a one-man amphibious landing and takes cover in an abandoned house. Milner expects to be staking out for days or even weeks, but the flares are soon lighting up Scarthoe Hill again and the manor is suddenly everything but deserted. Laughter is heard. And Milner is confronted with an unusual homely picture. Milner's landing and investigation of the house are the best portions of the story. It's a nice bit of suspense with a wartime setting with an impossible problem lurking in the background and reminded me somewhat of John Dickson Carr's excellent Captain Cut-Throat (1955), which is a historical spy/mystery set during the Napoleonic Wars. I wonder if Carr was aware of Clarke's story.
The last part of "Flashlights" slightly diminishes the overall quality of the story with some Victorian love-friction between Milner and a woman, whom he tries to third-degree from her German husband – who's unflattering depiction can be attributed to the "Down with the Hun" position of the Brits at the time. Overall, "Flashlights" is noteworthy as both a detective-and locked room story, because of its unique setting, impossible problem and (historical) ties to the Scientific School of Detection. It's a short story that's more than worth the few minutes it takes you to read it and can be found (again) here.