When Words Collide

"Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"
- The Mad Hatter (Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)
So recently, I reviewed a locked room mystery by Philip Wylie, entitled Corpses at Indian Stones (1943), in which I referenced a second detective novel by Wylie that was catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crime (1991) – namely the tantalizingly titled Five Fatal Words (1932). I promised a review would soon follow and, well, here you are.

Five Fatal Words was co-authored by Edwin Balmer and appears to have been the first collaboration between Wylie and Balmer, but it wouldn't be the last. In the following years, they penned two science-fiction novels, When Worlds Collide (1933) and After Worlds Collide (1934), which seem to be still fairly well remembered among science-fiction readers – as well as giving me a punning post-title for this review. I know it'll probably make some people cringe, but I couldn't let it pass.

Interestingly, there are some mild science-fiction elements evoked in the second half of the book, but the first part seems to have taken its cue from the Victorian-era detective stories.

I found the opening chapter and immediate aftermath to be somewhat reminiscent of "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), which begins with an unusual advertisement in the "Help Wanted—Female" column – asking for a young lady who "must have no ties" and "willing to devote entire time for one year" to her job.

Melicent Waring has been out of a job for nine weeks and is becoming desperate now that her money, and that of her friend and roommate, has dwindled to a grand total of seven dollars and forty-two cents. So, of course, she goes to the job interview and the person who placed the advertisement, Mr. Robert Reese, turns out to be very reputable lawyer.

The advertisement was placed on behalf Miss Hannah Cornwall, who belongs to one of the wealthiest families in the world and has a habit of replacing her entire staff once a year. Miss Waring assumes she merely has "to read" and "be polite to a rich old lady of sixty who wants a lot of attention," but she soon figures out that her new job also consists of having to share her new employers fear and dread – which she fully comes to realize when she has to switch beds with Miss Hannah on her first night at the Cornwall estate.

Miss Hannah Cornwall's fear is rooted in the will of her long-departed father, Silas Cornwall, who bequeathed his six children a regular income drawn from his two hundred million dollar estate, but the only person who can inherit it all is the last survivor. That's simply asking for trouble!

A recent letter Miss Hannah received from a nephew in Dutch Guiana has greatly disturbed her: one of her brothers, Daniel Cornwall, has possibly succumbed from poisoning after receiving a weird and cryptic five letter message – which read "Doubtless Even a Tulip Hopes." A second brother, Everitt, dies under her roof and behind the locked-and bolted door of a bathroom after receiving a cryptic message saying "Don't Ever Alter These Horoscopes." There are more brothers and sisters who'll follow their unfortunate fate.

Destruction on a larger scale
I've always associated the tontine-scheme and sole survivor plot-line with Ellery Queen, who successfully played up this device in "The Inner Circle" and "The Gettysburg Bugle," collected in Calendar of Crime (1952), but it's also present in Will Levinrew's little-known Death Points a Finger (1933) – which appeared a year after Five Fatal Words. So maybe there was a cross-pollination of ideas there.

In any case, Five Fatal Words and Death Points a Finger are of interest to Ellery Queen fans as being early examples (and possible) inspirations for that typical Queen-ish plot-device.

Well, after the suspicious-looking death in the bolted bathroom and discovery of a potential, tale-tell clue to a possible explanation they're being abruptly forced from the estate. This marks an unfortunate decline in the plot and begins a thug-of-war with the reader’s credulity.

First of all, they make a brief excursion to Belgium, where a sister of Miss Hannah lives in a chateau on the river, but death even follows them there and strikes in a most unusual way – a deadly, poisonous mist smothers Domrey Valley and Alice Cornwall died alongside "sixty other old people" in "the Belgian fog."

If it’s murder, the murderer racked up quite a body count to get to one person, but be prepared to throw the book across the room when you reach the "explanation" for this death-mist. I always thought Doyle's The Poison Belt (1913) had a cop-out ending, but Balmer and Wylie showed him!

The quality briefly picks up again when they go back to America to visit Theodore Cornwall in New York.

Theodore Cornwall is a health-obsessed vegetarian who paradoxically praises science that "has made it possible for us the extend" the "great gift" that’s life, but completely allows astrology to dictate his life. A man who trusted science with his health believed "stars and constellations so immense and far away that the mind could not encompass their distances" concerned themselves with the "petty, individual, human fates and affairs," which seems to be confirmed when Theodore has a close-encounter with a "bit of cosmic debris" – when "a shred of some star" is catapulted into his bedroom.

The meteorite failed to kill him and, obviously, it had fallen from space long before it was hurled through Theodore’s bedroom window, but it was interesting to see how the science-fiction background of the writers crept into this story. It just struck a false note in the overall structure of the book. The bits and pieces with Theodore seemed to have been more at home in the pages of a screwball-type of mystery instead of dark, dreadful crime story about the slow extermination of a family.

I probably should mention Michael Innes' The Weight of Evidence (1944) here, which has a nifty, well-done murder with a chunk of meteorite an English university.

Anyhow, I guess the overall theme of the story is that everything seemed of the mark. The death messages were mystifying and had an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about them, especially the first two or so, but they were just side dressing to the plot. The locked room mystery was interesting, but was only a minor part of the overall plot and one part of the explanation left me unsatisfied. The deadly mist was obviously meant to make the murderer look omnipotent, but how it ended up fitting into the story makes you want to bludgeon the authors with a ball-peen hammer. The final explanation... well, I can't say I was either impressed or surprised by it, but the unusual chase at the end was nice.

I'm afraid Five Fatal Words is a little more than a curiosity of the Golden Age of the American detective story. A curiosity with some points of interest, but a curiosity nonetheless. So read it at your own discretion. 

And thus ends one of my longest runs of reviews of good, great and downright excellent mysteries. Well, hope to pick it up again with the next one. Stay tuned! 


  1. Thanks for the review. This book also sounds interesting and off-beat, and I would have bought it, but the cheapest copy I can find is for $60. Balmer, by the way, had a long connection with the mystery field: he was co-author with William MacHarg of The Achievement of Luther Trant (1910), which was probably the first set of detective stories (or one of the first) to make use of discoveries in the science of psychology for detective fiction.

    1. I've heard about the Luther Trant stories, but never read any of them or sought them out. Presumably, the "science of pyschology" aspect makes the stories somewhat dated to modern readers, but they're probably interesting from a historical perspective. Well, there's another title for Mount TBR, I guess.

    2. The Luther Trant stories are fun.

  2. A couple of months ago I read Wylie's The Smiling Corpse, which he devised with Bernard A. Bergman and then wrote on his own, so it appears a lot of his work was done in collaboration. In TSC he has Dashiell Hammett, Sax Rohmer, S. S. van Dine and G. K. Chesterton investigate a murder at a cocktail party; it starts brilliantly and tails off as it goes on (an it's not a very long book..!) and for a novel with four crime writers as its protagonists has appalling clue-ing...I get the impression from that and your review here that Wylie is perhaps a better writer than he is a plotter. No harm in that, but it's a shame when form and function don't quite match up!

    1. Well, the plot of Wylie's solo-mystery, Corpses at Indian Stones, was more streamlined and read as a single, solid piece. It was not the best detective story I've ever read, but the plot progressed logically from one point to another, which made it, overall, a better novel than Five Fatal Words.

      So, from your impression of The Smiling Corpse, which I haven't read, and the books I've read it just might be that Wylie's writing/plotting suffered more than it gained from having a co-author. I wish Wylie had written more solo-mysteries.

    2. It appears that Wylie also wrote some books under the name Leatrice Homesley, one of which - Blondy's Boy Friend - is available from Ramble House. Sounds more pulp-y that detection, but apparently contains an impossible crime....I'll get to it in due course, but thought it worth mentioning if his solo stuff proves more intriguing to you.

    3. Interesting. The original edition seems to have been listed as a "love story," but the plot-description is that of a pure, Golden Age mystery novel: country house with an impossible murder and a hint of a lurking ghost. Well, that's another addition to the never-ending wish list.

  3. THE SMILING CORPSE is primarily intended as a parody of the genre and a satire of the mania for detective novels. I don't think Wylie really cared if the plot made sense.

    Have you read any of his short stories in 10,000 BLUNT INSTRUMENTS, the Crippen and Landru collection? I've been told that volume is his best work in the genre. I think there are a couple of impossible crime plots in that anthology.

    1. I read Ten Thousand Blunt Instruments, but barely remember any of the stories. However, I'm sure the collection didn't contain any impossible crime plots. Some of them might lean towards the how-dun-it, but I'm pretty sure there weren't any impossibilities.

      The Smiling Corpse sounds like fun if you don't expect too much from the plot.

  4. On the subject of tontine schemes I highly recommend Hawley Smart's 1880 short novel The Great Tontine. It's included in the excellent anthology Victorian Villainies, edited by Hugh Greene and Graham Greene.

  5. Bit of trivia for you - originally, the film DEEP IMPACT started off as a remake of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE but many rewrites later this was dropped from the credits - I got this from one of the (uncredited) early writers, Christopher Hamnpton.

    1. As I said in the review, it's what they appear to be mostly remembered for by SF fans. Interesting bit of trivia though. Thanks for sharing, Sergio.