"Something terrible lay that way. It was my business to find out what it was."- Professor Challenger (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, 1912)
Max Rittenberg was an Australian-born author of German-Lithuanian extraction who studied science and medicine in Cambridge, England, which briefly secured him a teaching post in South Africa – before returning and settling down in England.
In 1907, Rittenberg launched a magazine, titled The Organizing, aimed "at advising businesses how to operate more efficiently." Several of his earliest published work, such as How to Compose Business Letters (1909), concern this very subject, but what's of interest to us is the period between 1911 and 1915. A brief period in Rittenberg's career when he tried his hands at writing fiction and created a pair of consulting detectives of a scientific bend, Dr. Xavier Wycherley and Professor Magnum.
Some of the short stories about Dr. Wycherley were reworked and published as a full-length novel, The Mind-Reader (1913), but the seventeen recorded cases about Professor Magnum were all but forgotten after their initial magazine appearances – even Rittenberg's children were completely unaware of their existence. This series may have continued to languish in literary limbo if it weren't for the efforts of anthologist extraordinaire, Mike Ashley.
Ashley has done a lot to bring these transitional detective stories, between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age, back under everyone's attention. One of the earliest stories from the Prof. Magnum series, "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel," was republished in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) and he contributed a piece, entitled "The Strange Case of Max Rittenberg," to Mysteries Unlocked: Essays in Honor of Douglas A. Greene (2014). So this put Rittenberg and his work back on the radar of many mystery enthusiasts, which lead to the inevitable reprint of all his work.
A small, independent publishing outfit, Coachwhip Books, republished The Mind-Reader back in 2011 as a twofer volume with Gelett Burgess' Astro, the Master of Mysteries (2012). Last year, they gathered all of the Professor Magnum and published them as The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016). Of course, Ashley introduced this volume of short stories and gives a lot of background information on both Rittenberg's (family) life and short-lived career as a crime-writer. So, I recommend you read his introduction if you want to learn more about the author of these stories.
Before plunging into this volume, I should describe the protagonist of these stories, Professor Magnum, who's basically a Professor Challenger-type of character (see cover illustration) that took a stab at Sherlock Holmes' profession. A bearded, scientific consultant, whose "manner was brusque and rough-edged to the point of boorishness," which often results in him yelling "rubbish" at people who uttered something he deemed nonsensical – which is only accepted because he gets results. They also accept his steep fees for this very reason. Magnum is assisted by a young Welshman and analytical genius, Ivor Meredith, who suffers from a crippling shyness where the opposite sex is concerned. He plays a vital role in one of the stories, but more about that latter.
|Max Rittenberg's comeback|
I'll try to keep the descriptions and commentary on the stories as short and concise as possible, because, as you probably know by now, my reviews of short story collections tend to expand faster than German territory during the 1930s.
The first story, "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel," was originally published in The London Magazine in October 1913, which concerns the questionable circumstances surrounding the death of Mr. Abel Jonasson. Apparently, he had fallen, or jumped, from a speeding train when he was all alone in a second-class compartment, but trouble arises for a family member when the insurance company flatly refuses to cough up the insurance money – claiming their client took his own life and they fell back on the suicide clause. Magnum wrangles a very Doylean explanation from such clues "a phial of atoxyl" found in the dead man's pocket and gives a delightful demonstration to the representative of the insurance company how a man could have been driven from a closed railway compartment.
Note: this story only deals with the how of the crime and leaves as the questions, of the who and why, dangling in the wind. It's (strongly) hinted at, but not resolved.
"The Queer Case of the Cyanogen Poisoning" appeared as "The Cyanogen Affair" in Blue Book, October 1913, and has Professor Magnum and Meredith investigating a mass poisoning at the family residence of Sir Julian Boyd. All of the family members suffer from severe gastric pains, but every means of administrating poison to the family has been eliminated and nothing was found to be contaminated or laced with poison. So the family temporarily abandon the house as Magnum, while helping himself to "a brace of fat and moneyed-looking cigars," grapples with the problem in the library. It's an OK story that the observant reader can partially solve with some semi-educated guesswork.
The third story of the lot, "The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau," was published simultaneously in The London Magazine and Blue Book of December 1913, which is a fairly typical pulp-ish, melodramatic thriller that were common at the time – coming with a lurid illustration of the gun-toting villain with a miner's helmet. The villain in question is Kahmos, "the poison-merchant," who presents himself as a crystal-gazer and clairvoyant, but his actual profession is selling instructions for murder. A formidable opponent for someone like Magnum, but, personally, I do not really care for these kind of stories.
Next up, "The Mystery of the Vanishing Gold" originally appeared in the January, 1914 issue of The London Magazine and concerns the impossible disappearance of "about twenty thousand pounds' worth of gold," but not in the way you might think. A two-horse lorry, accompanied by several bank detectives, accompanied a cargo of gold ingots from the docks to the Bank of England. The gold was weighted at the docks, but, upon their arrival at the bank, they had lost in both weight and value! Magnum figures out this trick was accomplished by combining modern science with some old-fashioned skullduggery.
"The Secret of the Radium Maker" was published in Blue Book in January, 1914 and deals with a subject that often turns up in the work of the scientific mystery writers from the early years of the previous century – namely the valuable chemical element of the story-title. Rittenberg brings the element back in a later story and Jacques Futrelle also has story revolving around it, "The Last Radium," which I reviewed here. Anyhow, in this outing, Magnum is engaged by Mr. J. Warren Fennimore as a scientific consultant in the purchase of "an entirely new process for extracting radium from pitchblende." This would make him a lot of money, but he wants to be sure before signing any large checks. What Magnum finds is both an honest inventor and clever kind of fraud.
The following entry, "The Invisible Bullet," came from the March, 1914 issue of Blue Book and is one of my three favorite stories from this collection, which is a locked room mystery that showed the genre was slowly moving away from the shopworn bag of tricks of the nineteenth century – one that was filled with secret passages, unknown poisons and deadly animals slipped through cracks or keyholes of sealed rooms. As a matter of fact, it's the kind of locked room trick one would expect from a Golden Age practitioner, such as John Dickson Carr or Clayton Rawson, which may mean this trick was the first example of this particular type of impossible crime. Strangely, the solution also reveals the story to be ancestor of Alan Green's massively underrated What a Body! (1949). But not in the way you might think.
Anyway, the story opens with the shooting of Barclay Walsh, two bullets in the back, while he was exercising in Sergeant McIntosh's Gymnastic and Fencing Academy, which is situated on the top story of a tall, pleasant-looking stone building. One of the first person's on the scene is Magnum and he confirms to the police that nobody could have left the premise unseen. However, that's exactly what seems to have happened, but there's an additional mystery: what happened to the bullet that left the body? The entire floor of the fencing school is meticulously searched without result.
As I noted before, the solution is very cunning and ahead of its time for an impossible crime tale from just before the First World War. Recommended for everyone interested in locked room mysteries and the history of this beloved sub-genre.
My second favorite from this collection is "The Rough Fist of Reason," simultaneously published in Blue Book and The Novel Magazine of April, 1914, which delves into a popular fad of the period – spiritualism and spirit-photography. Magnum is asked by Miss Cicely Cotterell to wrench her aunt, Miss Dallas, away from the influence of Mr. Slivinski. A man who claims to be able to photograph astral bodies of (enlightened) people and his especial effects does not relay any of the well-known tricks, but on something completely new. So you can qualify this story as a semi-impossible crime story, which is always a plus, but the punch of this story is in sad and tragic ending. It shows that the presence of a meddlesome detective can have dire consequences.
"The Three Ends of a Thread" was first published in the May, 1914 issue of Blue Book and reprinted in the July, 1914 installment of Short Stories Illustrated, which derives its interest from Magnum nearly being outsmarted by the criminal – who came really, really close to beating him. A very important piece of paper vanished from the steel safe of an American businessman, William H. Cleveland, but he rules out a burglary. Cleveland only wants to know if the paper could have been dipped "in some chemical which would eat it up silently into vapor during the night," but Magnum would come close to regretting taking what looked like an easily earned fee.
"The Empty Flask" first appeared in print in Blue Book of June, 1914, which confronts Detective-Inspector Callaghan of Scotland Yard and Magnum with a chilling poisoning mystery: an Austrian Baron was poisoned in his London hotel-room, but the problem is that both the hotel-room and the corpse showed no traces of any deadly toxins. Curiously, the bedside flask of the baron, usually filled with orange-flower water, was empty and bone dry. What caused the death of the Baron is quite ingenious. Absolutely horrifying and cruel, but ingenious nonetheless.
"The Secret Analyses" appeared in the July, 1914 issues of Blue Book and Short Story Illustrated, but did not particular care about this one. Magnum's right-hand man, Meredith, gets kidnapped and his captors want a copy from Magnum of a highly confidential report he has been working on for the Admiralty – relating to "a certain new torpedo charge explosive." Not really my kind of crime story.
The next story in line, "The Mystery of Box 218," originally published July, 1914, as "The Virgin Vault" in Short Story Illustrated, which tells of a seemingly impossible theft from a locked strong-box inside a sealed and guarded bank vault. Holborn Safe Deposit has a vault surrounded by foundations "of steel and concrete." The single entrance to the vault goes through "a steel grille" and the opening of the lattice-work allowed a clear view of the whole interior, which is constantly being watched by "a uniformed commissionaire" - who's in possession of the sole key of the grill and he watches as valuables are transferred to or from a strong-box. However, this did not prevent a string of pearls mysteriously vanishing from the strong-box of a diamond merchant.
|Max Rittenberg (1880-1963)|
Magnum immediately came up with a simple, but elegant, explanation for the problem: a criminal might have gotten an impression of the key of the diamond merchant, "rented a box near to 218," and opened 218 as it were his own with the duplicate key. However, this immediately rejected and the actual explanation is far more involved, but also less impressive. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see a Berkeley-Queen style false solution in such an early story.
The following story, "The Mystery of the Tide," is another kidnap story and was lifted from the pages of the March, 1915 issue of Blue Book. A message in a bottle is fished from the murky waters of London's waterways and the author of the letter is Lester Oakeshott of Vancouver, Canada. For the past three years, he has been having a good time in Europe after a financial windfall, but his relatives have not received any personal communications. However, he has been cashing checks all over the continent. So he seemed to be doing well. But now it turns out he has been the victim of kidnappers and the police asks Magnum to help them pinpoint the location where he's being held captive. A good story for what it is, but kidnap plots are largely wasted on me. There is, however, one semi-exception at the end of this collection.
My third favorite from this collection, "The Secret of the Tower House," first appeared in the September 1914 issue of Blue Book, but was also published that very same month in The Novel Magazine as "The Hidden Menace," which brings Magnum and Meredith to the home of Mr. Anstruther – who has recently lost two of his highly prized Aberdeen terriers. All of a sudden, they were died and the veterinary who examined the cadavers to determine an exact cause of death, but Anstruther is convinced they had been deliberately poisoned. Rittenberg wrote here what is, essentially, a medical mystery with deep, dark shades of the historical mystery, because the solution takes a look at one of blackest pages in English and London history. I suspect devoted readers of Christopher Fowler will love the everlasting hell out of this particular story.
"Dead Leaves" was originally published in Blue Book, November, 1914, and republished in the April, 1915, in The Novel Magazine, in which Magnum is tasked with finding the missing will of a dead man. A pretty meh story.
"The Three Henry Clarks" came from the December, 1915 publication of Blue Book and shows the kind of plot-ingenuity that would become the standard during that luminous period known as the Golden Age. During a short period of time, three man, all named Henry Clark, succumbed to the effects of a deadly poison and one of them collapsed at Scotland Yard. The method for administrating the poison may very well be the cleverest aspect of the plot, but the whole scheme and the whodunit-angle showed a new era of detective-fiction was looming on the horizon.
The penultimate story from this collection, "Cleansing Fire," comes from the February, 1915 issue of Blue Book and has Magnum investigating a suspicious fire at the factory of a fur-merchant on behalf of Sir George Herries of the Imperial Fire, Life and Accident Insurance Co., Ltd. - who wants to put "the fear of God into these shifty-eyed little manufacturers." Magnum finds himself among the immigrant workers of the fur-merchant and is fleeced for some ten pounds by Polish workers with "hard-luck stories," but what is really interesting is the who-and why behind the fire. It anticipates a famously obscure story by a full decade. I won't exactly say which story, but you can find it in this anthology.
Finally, there's "Red Herrings," also published as "The Disappearance of Mr. Holsworthy" in Blue Book of January 1915, which is another one of Rittenberg's kidnap tales, but this particular story has some interesting aspects that even I found fascinating. Mr. Holsworthy is the Home Secretary and his captors snatch from the streets of London in broad daylight, but what is really astounding are the ransom demands and instructions from his captors – which are both startling and ingenious. They don't want cash money, gold, silver or diamonds, but "a hundred thousand pounds' worth of radium" that "could be comfortably carried in a waistcoat pocket" and "disposed of in driblets in any part of the civilized world." But the true genius is in the delivery method: the radium was to be attached to four carrier pigeons that were to be released in a flock of fifty others. The pigeons would be delivered to the office of a leading newspaper and the method is basically full-proof.
Unfortunately, Magnum never had to proof how smart he really is by figuring out a way to tail the bird, because the government refused to pay the ransom. It would set a dangerous precedent. So the only way out for him was being found before the kidnappers decided to get rid of him. A story with a lot of promise, but Rittenberg took the easy way out. Nevertheless, still an interesting story and in particular how they snatched the Home Secretary from a busy street.
So, all in all, The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant is a solid and historically interesting collection of detective stories from the period between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. Naturally, not every single story within its pages is a paradigm of fair play, but, as said before, these stories fell between eras. A time when the rules and concept of fair play were not yet clearly defines. However, that makes some of the entries all the more impressive, because they took the first steps on that new path the genre was taking. Steps that were, at the time, also taken by likes of R. Austin Freeman, G.K. Chesterton, Edwin Balmer and Arthur B. Reeve. I think many would consider that to be excellent company to find yourself in.
I also want to point out that the stories within this collection can easily be placed alongside those in similar themed-volumes of short stories, which include L.T. Meade's A Master of Mysteries (1898), Arthur Porges' The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) and Vincent Cornier's The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011).
Well, so far another bloated review of a short story collection. I tried to keep it short, but there you go. I might have something shorter for my next blog-post. Maybe.