The Locked Room Reader V: A Selection of Lost Detective Stories

"It is the manuscript of a completely unknown story by Edgar Allan Poe..."
- Sir William Bitton (John Dickson Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery, 1933) 
One of the well-worn tropes of the traditional detective story is the long-lost manuscript of a famous novelist or playwright, usually by the Bard of Avon, which has since become a bit of a cliché, but John Dickson Carr found an original use for this plot-mechanism in The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) – which entails a hitherto unheard of Auguste Dupin tale by Edgar Allan Poe. Carr even "reproduced" a short and convincing passage from this lost detective story.

At the time, I was intrigued by the idea of lost and forgotten detective stories, but, naively, assumed they were artifacts of fiction. Well, I soon learned that lost detective stories and unpublished manuscripts are far more common outside of the printed page than I expected. This realization came with a collection of short stories.

A long-lost, pseudonymous JDC novel?
The late Robert Adey, who compiled Locked Room Murders (1991), wrote an introduction for Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004), in which he mentioned Joseph Commings attempted to transition from writing short stories to writing novels – an attempt that ended in the most tragic loss on this list.

During the 1960s, Commings found "sales of short fiction were either slow or stationary" and tried his hand as novelist. Adey mentioned how Commings "vividly recalled a lunch he once had with John Dickson Carr," someone he greatly admired, who was very enthusiastic about the idea and had some sage advice for the budding novelist: "why not make it a locked room?" The first attempt, The Doctor Died First, was aborted after only four chapters, but Commings eventually completed four, full-length mystery novels starring his series detective, Senator Brooks U. Banner. All of them are now considered to be lost manuscripts!

One of them, the New Orleans set Dancers in the Dark, was dispatched by a literary agent to France and "was never seen again." The remaining three novels, Operation Pink Poodle, The Crimson Stain and One for the Devil, which was described "along the lines of a Carr novel and containing two impossible murders," were rejected by every publisher in New York and time probably reduced them to crumbling pages of carbon – never to be read on this plain of existence.

From all of the missing and unpublished manuscripts, the lost of One for the Devil stings the most. I would accept every other title mentioned in this blog-post as irreversibly lost in exchange for One for the Devil. Yes. There are many more examples of this.

Edward D. Hoch wrote a short introduction for The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant (2003) and mentions how C. Daly King, "encouraged by Dannay's praise of the Tarrant stories," completed the manuscript for a full-length Mr. Tarrant novel, The Episode of Demoiselle D’ys, which was to be published in 1946 or 1947. But the book never got any further than an announcement in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

On his excellent website, called "A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection," Mike Grost labeled King's long-lost novel a piece of evidence of "the deliberate suppression of the traditional detective story after 1945 by publishers." Grost also alluded to other well-known mystery writers who began to have hard time getting their work published, such as Mary Roberts Rinehart, T.S. Stribling and Milton M. Propper, but the most notable name on this list is that of Hake Talbot – a locked room artisan who failed to find a publisher for his third Rogan Kincaid novel, The Affair of the Half-Witness. It's a book that joins that long, lamentable list of lost and unpublished detective stories.

A lesser-known example of a lost manuscript happened to a massively underrated writer, Glyn Carr, who specialized in mountaineering mysteries and had several of his mystery novels reissued by the now defunct Rue Morgue Press. Some of the latter reprints had a shortened and revised introduction, which mentioned the following in passing: over a period of eighteen years, Carr produced fourteen Abercrombie Lewker books, but they number fifteen in total if you count "one last, currently lost unpublished manuscript." Nothing else is known about it.

The next example is a truly obscure one. On his blog, Curt Evans dedicated several blog-posts to a long-forgotten mystery novelist, Theodora DuBois, who wrote primarily between the late 1930s and early 50s, but her profile-page on GADWiki tells how one of her last works, Seeing Red (1954), caused somewhat of a backlash – which made her publisher, Doubleday, back off of her work. And that pretty much spelled the beginning of the end for her literary career.

Once a lost, unpublished story
Regardless, DeBois "continued writing and the collection contains several unpublished manuscripts written in her later years." Her papers are archived at the City University of New York and you can find a listing of her unpublished work on their website, which includes such titles as The Fearful Guest (1942), The Mayverell Plot (c. 1965-75) and Sweet Poison (c. 1970).

So they're not completely lost forever and I've several more of such examples, but first there's one more lost manuscript that ought to be acknowledged on this blog.

Over the pass twelve months, I've reviewed several novels from The Three Investigators series, which were penned by such writers as Robert Arthur, William Arden and M.V. Carey, but even this fairly innocent series suffered a great loss: a number of websites, dedicated to The Three Investigators, mention a forty-fourth book, The Mystery of the Ghost Train. Carey and an editor were working on this title when the series was cancelled in 1986 and "it is not known with certainty whether or not a manuscript still exists."

Thankfully, there are also several, fairly well known cases of unpublished manuscripts that are in "cold storage." Here are two of them.

Officially, Anthony Boucher's first novel, The Case of the Seven of Cavalry (1937), is a standalone mystery, but he did write a follow-up to this story, The Case of the Toad-in-the-Hole, which is patiently waiting for an editor/publisher in the Lily Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Tony Medawar is a mystery scholar and editor who compiled a volume of Christianna Brand's short fiction, entitled The Spotted Cat and Other Mysteries (2002), which contained "a previously unpublished three-act detective drama featuring Cockrill." On January 3, 2010, Medawar dropped a message on the GAD Yahoo Group informing everyone that Cockrill appeared in an unpublished novel, The Chinese Puzzle, and her secondary character, Charlesworth, was at the center of unpublished novella, "The Dead Hold Fast."

So these unpublished, but shelved, mystery novels offer us a slim change that some of these lost detective stories will one day find a home on our shelves. After all, June Wright's Duck Season Death (c. 1955) and Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Errors and Others (1999) were once forgotten, unpublished and pretty much lost detective stories. As long as they're kept in storage, there's a future opportunity to publish them.

Finally, some of you are probably very curious about the old-school, black-and-white photocopied book cover of The Problem of the Black Road (1941) by Philip Jacoby. Is it really a long-lost, forgotten John Dickson Carr novel? Unfortunately... no. The cover is a complete and utter fake. It was used as a convincer for a hoax perpetrated by Bill Pronzini and the publisher of a 1980s fanzine, Collecting Paperbacks, which was done to see if they could fool collectors into believing they had stumbled across a remnant of an obscure, short-lived wartime paperback outfit – called Sceptre Books. On top of that, they claimed Carr must have written the story, because the writing, characters and plot were all covered with his tell-tale fingerprints. Hoch was apparently the first one who saw through the hoax.

Sorry if I got your hopes up and for this very depressing blog-post, but, hopefully, most of you found it still interesting and the next blog-post will probably be mystery novel that was recently brought back into print. So some things are looking up!


  1. On the other hand, look on the bright side; if the didn't sell, a certain percentage of them were probably bombs. Something always looks better to us when we know we can't have it. I don't know if we can really support a case that publishers would not publish fair-play style mysteries after 1945, when we see that Freeman Wills Crofts, Agatha Christie, H.C. Bailey, John Rhode, etc. all had books published in their accustomed style after 1945. It is just that mighty Mike Hammer and the hardboiled p.i. was the dominant mode of production after 1947.

    1. Well, the writers who had their books published in their accustomed style, after 1945, were all household names with an established audience. Ones who suffered from these rejections lacked name recognition and had a much smaller readership. They never got an opportunity to work at building up such an audience.

      I agree there must have been some bombs among them, but Talbot's follow-up to Hangman's Handyman and Rim of the Pit does not sound exactly like a dull dud to me. Same goes for Commings' attempt at the novel-length mysteries. Mike Hammer and his hardboiled friends seem like a very bad and poor trade-off for these lost mysteries.

    2. I didn't say they were good (although some of them were, Spillane and Ross Macdonald in particular, and Chandler did his best work after the war), just that they were the dominant mode. The hard-boiled p.i. has its own set of virtues. I imagine that the destructiveness of the war also changed the tastes of mystery readers, because the hard-boiled p. I. existed long before the war, he just was not dominant. The fair-play mystery was probably tapped out by that point anyway; there are just so many variations you can have on the locked room.

    3. Commings, King and Talbot tried to continue the tradition of the fair-play and locked room mystery, but they got rejected.

      During the 1980s, Resnicow showed new variations on the locked room theme and some interesting impossible crime ideas (e.g. corpse puzzle) have come out of Japan. So who knows what we could have seen, if publishers had continued to back the traditional mystery to the hilt.

    4. Although the solutions to some of Commings' Banner stories that I've read in the Crippen & Landru collection were a little too mechanical for my taste, I nevertheless enjoyed them. Talbot's RIM OF THE PIT--though some disparage it--is, to my mind, one of the greatest impossible crime novels of them all.

      I have to agree with Anonymous about the hardboiled and noir schools dominating the market after WWII, but many a hardboiled detective novel was fairly-clued, and some even included locked rooms and other seeming impossibilities.

      But as for the fair-play locked-room/impossible crime story being "tapped out, one only has to look to Paul Halter for some brilliant takes on the genre. Granted that he's far from stellar when it comes to characterization, that his sense of atmosphere is only so-so, and that he scrupulously avoids the big dramatic scene, some of his plot devices are nevertheless extremely clever.

      Overall, however, it's a pity that these authors and others you cite are, barring happy future surprises, lost to fans of this kind of mystery. (May I live long enough to read them if they surface!)

    5. I would suggest that by the late 1940s, the fair play mystery was tapped out, in that the fair play possibilities of that social system and that level of technology had been used up. However, by now there has been sufficient social and technological change to fill up the well with new ideas for fair play mysteries (except in Japan). The problem is that I don't see hardly anyone using the new opportunities here in the West.

    6. @Barry: there are degrees of mechanical solutions. Commings'"Murder Under Glass" has both an original problem (murder inside a sealed room of glass) and a clever, but mechanical, explanation. Compare this to messy, overly complex solution from Carr's The Problem of the Wire Cage.

      And what if One for the Devil has some impossible crimes as new and original as "Bones for Davy Jones"? I NEED TO KNOW, BARRY! I NEED TO KNOW!

  2. Yeah, given how many accepted classics have lingered and drifted out of print and beyond the availability of most mortals, it shouldn't really be a surprise that some possible classics never even got to see the light of day to begin with. It is entirely possible that they weren't especially good, of course, but I'm a firm believer in reading a book and discovering it to not be to your taste rather than having to spend a lifetime wondering!

    Ans as much as you'd love to see the Commings, I'd personally bur all ther others you mention for someone to stumble across that Hake Talbot manuscript and pass it onto Ramble House (the current publisher of Talbot's first two novels). Aaaah, a man can dream...

    1. You would actually pick The Affair of the Half-Witness over One for the Devil?

      I love Talbot as much as the next locked room fanboy, but Commings' story is a Carr-style mystery novel and features two impossible murders! TWO! If I had to pick between the two, it would be Commings.

      Maybe we can ask Satan a favor and ask for both of them? We have mutual friend in Carr. ;)

    2. Ah, but if Hangman and Rim are anything to go by, Half-Witness would have been an impossible stew...no mere two impossibilities, but a Tower of Babel I tell you!

    3. Merely two?

      Paul Halter wrote one--though not, to my taste, one of his best--that contains seven impossible situations.

    4. A-a... Towe-er of B-babel? I-impossible stew? Of impossible crimes!?


      Guys, call CERN. We're going to break open a time-portal!

    5. Is this a reference to Steins;Gate?

  3. Never heard of that Philip Jacoby hoax. But I don't know how any real collector or bookseller could be fooled by that obvious fake. The design template is clearly lifted from Penguin Books and that similarity alone ought to have been a red flag.

    1. Obviously, it's a fake, but, apparently, the cover seemed far more credible in the days before Photoshop, which, in this case, was the early 1980s. Even a simple fake, such as this cover, required some handy work. Pronzini also wrote a convincing account of how he came across the book with a report on the obscure, wartime publisher. I think this included an explanation as to why the cover looked similar to that of other publishers.

      Without the internet at your fingertips, it was far easier to full for such a hoax.

  4. Fascinating post, TomCat. Nice work.

  5. Don't forget that a fifth "Don Diavolo, the Scarlet Wizard" novella by Clayton Rawson (writing as "Stuart Towne") was promised for the Feb. 1941 issue of RED STAR MYSTERY -- which was never published. I'd presume Rawson would have already written it, but that it's now lost (or Battered Silicon or some other publisher would have ferreted it out and published it). The Towne stories are not up to Rawson's "Merlini" work, but I'd gladly snap up the Diavolo novella if it ever does surface. / Denny Lien

  6. Forgot to mention that said fifth Diavolo story was to be titled "Murder from the Grave." Certainly sounds hardcore impossible-crimey! / Denny Lien

    1. I had no idea Rawson had a lost story to his name! It's the first time I've heard about it. And again, it happened to a writer who was closely associated with the impossible crime story.

      As if the idea of a lost detective story isn't enough. No, no. They've to be locked room stories as well.

      Anyway, thanks for the info!