Back in 2012, I reviewed John Dickson Carr's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), published as by "Carter Dickson," but my Dell Mapback edition omitted three stories from the original publication, "The Other Hangman," "New Murders for Old" and "Persons or Things Unknown," that are generally regarded as some of his best short stories. Until now, these stories had completely eluded me.
"Persons or Things Unknown" was first published in The Sketch, Christmas Number, 1938, which was later collected in The Department of Queer Complaints and recently reprinted in an anthology of holiday mysteries – entitled Murder Under the Christmas Tree: Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season (2016). So this is going to be first holiday-themed review of 2018. However, the festivities only serves as an ambiance here for "a historical romance" from the distant days of Charles II.
The story opens during a house-warming party in a centuries old home, hidden behind a hill in Sussex, where a group of people have gathered around the fire in the drawing-room after Christmas dinner. When the conversation drifts towards the little room at the head of the stairs, the host tells them the chilling story attached to that room.
A grisly tale of a man who was hacked to death there, with thirteen stab wounds, by "a hand that wasn't there" and "a weapon that didn't exist." An impossible stabbing that occurred there in 1660. Just after the Restoration.
The story comes from a diary kept by Mr. Everard Poynter, which ran from the summer of '60 to the end of '64, who owned the neighboring Manfred Manor and was friends with the then owner of the house with the little room at the head of the stairs, Squire Radlow – which is how he became a witness of the inexplicable murder. Squire Radlow's only daughter, Mistress Mary Radlow, was engaged to be married to Richard Oakley of Rawdene. A serious-minded, studious, but genial, man several years her senior. Nevertheless, the match appears to be a good one and the only obstacle is the potential ruin of Oakley if the sale of his estate, purchased under the Commonwealth, is declared null and void. And then a young man appeared in a blaze of glory.
Gerald Vanning was one of those "confident young men" about "whom we hear so much complaint from old-style Cavaliers" in the early years of the Restoration. Over a period of weeks, it became a given that Vanning would eventually become the Squire's son-in-law. A plan Vanning had been working towards, but then the news broke that an act had passed to confirm all sales or leases of property since the Civil Wars and Oakley was "once more the well-to-do son-in-law" – finalizing his engagement to Mary. Vanning was out of the picture, but around the same time "curious rumors" began to swirl around the countryside about Oakley. Who was he really? Why did he need over a hundred books? Who was the figure that was seen following Oakley? A creature that appeared human, but the witness was not sure if it had been really alive!
On the night of Friday, the 26th November, Vanning returned to the house and appeared to be on "a wire of apprehension" as he kept looking over his shoulder. Vanning instructed the steward to fetch some servants with cudgels and they went to Oakley and Mary in the little room at the head of the stairs. Shortly after he went in, there was a thud and Mary screaming, but servants found it had been bolted and it was Mary who unbolted the door with blood on her dress – what was left of Oakley had fallen near a table. Vanning was immediately seized and justice threatened to be swift and ruthless, but he tells them he has not touched Oakley and had not been carrying a sword or dagger when he came into the house.
So they comb over every inch of the little room and didn't find so much as "a pin in crack or crevice." The question is if Vanning or Mary murdered Oakley, what happened to the murder weapon? If an outsider did the murder, how did this person enter or leave a bolted room with three armed servants at the door?
Here you have an inverted mystery with a historical backdrop and a challenge to the reader to piece together how the murder was done, which is a fairly clued challenge, but where Carr demonstrated his craftsmanship is the false solution that works like a psychological red herring. You rarely get to see a false solution so nicely positioned next to the actual explanation that it camouflages it.
Unfortunately, the locked room-trick failed to take me by surprise, because Carr reused the idea in a radio-play and the solution immediately occurred to me when the room was described. And if you know the trick, the clues are easily spotted. This was hardly enough to keep me from being an unabashed fanboy and marveled at how the plot stuck together with the clues. Or how a long-gone of passage in history was briefly opened through Carr's writing.
On a whole, "Persons or Things Unknown" can be summed up as an atmospheric historical mystery and an inverted detective story with a clever locked room-trick all rolled into one. A minor gem by the undisputed Grand Master of Detection. Highly recommended!
A note for the curious: this is an obscure, little-known fact, but John Dickson Carr is my favorite mystery novelist. Just wanted to state that for the record.