Culture Clash: "The Puzzle Duel" (1928) by Miles J. Breuer, M.D.

Miles J. Breuer was an American physician and short story writer, who wrote science-fiction for Amazing Stories and Amazing Stories Quarterly, but Michael Gray, of Ontos, unearthed a scientific detective story by Breuer back in 2015 – which he accurately described as "a locked room mystery of sorts." Another locked room story that was overlooked by Robert Adey in Locked Room Mysteries (1991).

However, the locked room murder is simplistic and breaks one of Father Knox's ten commandments, but what's interesting is the inverted nature of the plot that comes with a nifty, little twist in its forked tail.

"The Puzzle Duel" was originally published in the 1928 winter issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly and is narrated by a young man, Peters, who's a student at the University of Chicago where he befriends his roommate, Raputra Avedian – a young Hindu who studies electrical theory in the physics department. They got along very well, but one day, Peter is a witness how the normally calm and composed Raputra slaps a German student across the face. Schleicher has a reputation of being personally difficult to get along with and, in response to the slap, challenges Raputra to a duel. Raputra is insulted enough to pick up the challenge.

Peters and Jerry Stoner, another student, conclude that these "benighted foreigners" consider them "under obligation to arrange a fight between them." And this where the story becomes both interesting and unintentionally funny.

You see, Peters and Stoner aren't so much worried about two students "hungering for the other's life," as they are about the police or their professors finding they're planning a duel, which resulted in an unorthodox compromise – "a modern, scientific duel." The fight is going to be "a battle of wits" to devise "a secret, silent blow." Because, you know, having them plot and scheme a perfect murder in secrecy is guaranteed to have a better outcome than as when they would have simply met in an open clearing with rapiers or pistols.

In any case, the idea is a novel variation on the inverted mystery, in which you have two known parties plotting each others demise and the premise, like was the case with the previous short story I reviewed, deserved further exploration. A mere four pages was hardly enough to do the idea any form of justice.

So, after setting the stage, the murder is committed and it's Raputra who bites the dust inside the college dorm-room he shares with Peters. The door that opens into the corridor was locked from the inside and the only window in the room had also been closed from the inside, but somehow, Raputra died on the floor of their bathroom without a mark on his body. However, this locked room trick is not a very interesting one and a blatant cheat to boot, but how the murderer received his much deserved punishment, after apparently having gotten away with murder, ended the story on a high-note – particularly liked the instrument of justice.

You can probably see the twist coming, only a four-page story, but how it was done is what made it memorable. Something John Rhode could have come up with!

So, on a whole, "The Puzzle Duel" is not a overlooked, long-lost classic of locked room genre, but, as a short story, it was a nice, quick and diverting read. You can read the story here (scroll to page 135).

Don't worry, I'll get back to a full-length mystery novel for my next review. So don't touch that dial!


  1. TomCat - When it comes to analyzing locked room mysteries, you know your onions.

    ". . . not a overlooked, long-lost classic of locked room genre, but, as a short story, it was a nice, quick and diverting read."

    Exactly right. The locked room aspect is no great shakes, but the premise had promise; if Breuer had had more time to think about it or more space (Gernsback very likely dictated the story's length), this one could have been a classic.

    1. A great drawback of these really short-shorts is that's difficult to fine-tune them and get them right. They're either insignificant that you almost immediately forget about or the idea is great, but the length prevents the writer from do anything significant with it. This one definitely falls in the second category.

      Ellery Queen's "Diamonds in Paradise" and John Sladek's "It Takes Your Breath Away" are the only short-shorts, I can think of, that got it right with only a couple of pages.

  2. Breuer is a great favorite of mine. He was one of the more important idea men in 20th century American science fiction. For instance, he wrote what was probably the first story about a computerized society (Paradise and Iron), the first story about the giant computer that takes over the world (Mechanocracy), and the first story about the revolt from earth by the lunar colony (The Birth of the New Republic, with Jack Williamson). He wrote at least three stories about cryptograms: "Buried Treasure," "A Problem in Communication," and "The Chemistry Murder Case." A number of his best stories were collected in The Man With the Strange Head (an early story about a type of cyborg).

    1. Thank you for this bit of background information, Anon! SF is not my genre and had no idea Breuer was such an innovative presence there. I'll have to see if I can track down "The Chemistry Murder Case." Sounds like it could be interesting.

  3. sorry to come off as a little rude, but those ten commandments are so obnoxious to me. like, why would any sole person claim territory on what must be done in a certain genre in order to qualify for it? not to mention they are overly strict and limiting in terms of creativity and fiction. there are so many plot devices and vehicules before everything dries up and starts repeating itself.

    sorry i know i am getting defensive and it's pathetic, but i am (of course) projecting and venting for something that encompasses this one example, but people who take it upon themselves to limit others frustrate me so hard.

    1. I don't think they were meant to be taken too seriously and, if you look what was published after 1929, very few did. Same goes for Van Dine's Twenty Rules.

      However, I do agree with Knox on the rule that was broken here. Really dislike that kind of explanation.