Theodore Mathieson was an American schoolteacher from Oregon, who taught in the public high schools of California, but turned to writing during the late 1950s and published a number of novels, which include the historical mystery The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961) and two juvenile detectives featuring The Sleuth Club – entitled The Door to Nowhere (1964) and The Sign of the Flame (1964). So those titles have been jotted down for my future explorations of the juvenile mystery genre.
Mathieson also penned a score of short stories that were published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The first of these short stories, "Captain Cook, Detective," spawned a twelve-part series of historical standalone stories starring famous figures from history as detective. Galileo, Alexander the Great, Hernando Cortez, Alexandre Dumas and Florence Nightingale were all fitted with a caped mantle and deerstalker hat by Mathieson.
The most-well known and frequently anthologized story from this "Great Detectives" series is "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective," originally published in the January, 1959, issue of EQMM, in which Da Vinci is tasked with finding an explanation for an impossible murder – committed in front of witnesses by an apparently invisible killer. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, recently reviewed The Devil and Ben Franklin and mentioned that this short story was described Mike Ashley, a prolific anthologist, as "one of the most ingenious" of the series with "its step-by-step unravelling of a seemingly impossible crime." So I decided to take down one of the anthologies with this story and see how good this story really is.
I read "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" in Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits (1993) and takes place on a late spring afternoon in 1516 when Da Vinci, now in his sixties, has left Florence to life in France.
Da Vinci is in the favor of the King of France, Francis I, but "the regal French beauty," the Queen, has never liked him. One afternoon, Da Vinci is sketching in a rose garden when a messenger from the Queen summons him to come to Amboise at once. Da Vinci is brought to an amphitheater where "a fine demonstration of marching formations" by "troops from the Netherlands, from Spain, and from Scotland," but, as the exhibition closed, Monsieur Philip Laurier, approached the empty center of the field – to blow a trumpet signaling the end. But when he began to raise his trumpet to his lips, Laurier began to stagger and crumple.
The witnesses who saw this happen caught the glimpse of a knife-hilt as he dropped to the ground, but "the knife could only have been thrown by someone standing at the level of the arena floor." Philip was the only one who stood in the empty arena! Queen is very anxious that this problem is solved as soon as possible.
I think "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" is better written than plotted. Not that the plot was bad, not at all, but the clues were clumsily handled. Mathieson deserves praise for sticking to the principle of fair play and placed as many as the short story form would allow in the hands of the reader. However, they all stuck out like rusty nails. Norris has criticized John Russell Fearn's clues tend to stick out like sore thumbs, but, compared to this story, Fearn has the subtlety of John Dickson Carr. I initially felt underwhelmed by the explanation for the invisible murderer until thinking about it a little more. The trick gels perfectly with the military background and the period in which the story is set works like a red herring, because the principle idea behind the impossible stabbing is associated with modern warfare. A similar piece of out-of-time misdirection was cleverly used by Carr in Fire, Burn! (1957). I needed some convincing, but ended up liking the impossible crime trick.
So, all things considered, this was not a bad story at all, either as a historical mystery or an impossible crime story, but the clumsily handling of the clues keeps this one from a first place. Nevertheless, I find it surprising that this often anthologized story never found its way in any of the specialized locked room anthologies. The detective, plot and setting are certainly original enough to be included in a line-up.
Anyway, my next post is going further back into the post when I'll be looking another of Paul Doherty's historical locked room mysteries. It's like the best of two worlds!