Magnum Opus

"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.


  1. Thanks for the review. This one also sounds good and I have to pick it up. The stories sound a lot like the somewhat earlier Thinking Machine stories (also available in a great 2-volume edition from Coachwhip).
    It strikes me how little creativity there is in the human race. I notice that as we start digging we always tend to find a precursor to a story idea we thought was original. It is like the Epic of Gilgamesh: every hero story since then tended to include the same elements, even when it was impossible for there to be any direct influence of Gilgamesh on the later stories. (See Campbell, Hero With a Thousand Faces.)
    I think that your point that these stories are transitional between Doyle type stories and Golden Age type stories is important. If we look at cultural transitions between various styles in accordance with complex adaptive systems theory, we tend to find that a particular dominant style has a beginning, a high point and a falling off, after which there is a transitional period as a new dominant style is sought. When the new dominant style finally arrives, it tends to do so all at once, as the system emerges from the chaotic regime. The new dominant style does not emerge from nothing, but rather from a reorganization of new and old elements that were available or emerged during the transitional period. For instance, the idea of the fair play mystery was not original to the Golden Age period; a pretty good summary of it appears in the preface to Zangwill's Big Bow Mystery first published in 1891. What had been a minor element in an earlier period comes to be a dominant element in the next period. We were not to see this sort of transition again until the fading of the Golden Age during the 1940s and the emergence of the hard-boiled mystery of the dominant mode of the mystery novel in the late 1940s.

    1. Oh, yes, you can definitely draw a comparison between the Magnum and Thinking Machine stories. I even mentioned one of them in the review.

      Speaking of ancient ancestors, you should read "Rhampsinitus and the Thief," which was written down by Herodotus in (circa) 440 BC and is one of the earliest locked room mysteries ever written as well as an inverted crime story. There's also a biblical story, entitled "Bel and the Dragon," concerning an impossible problem with a logical solution.

      However, I do not believe the repetition of certain themes or formats is necessary due to a lack of originality. Or not entirely. People have always experimented with story-telling, themes and trying to invent new tropes, but the ones that interest and resonate with people tend to stick around. Some of them are pretty universal, such as heroic epics, which is why such tales popup everywhere without being influenced by others. They simply work and people want, or wanted, to read or hear about them.

      You mentioned the preface of The Big Bow Mystery as a summery of the fair play concept, but those very ideas were put in practice by Conan Doyle in "Silver Blaze," which foreshadowed the Golden Age with it's meticulous clueing – from "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time" to the "singular epidemic among the sheep." I do not believe any other Sherlock Holmes story was as fairly clued as that one.

      So you can probably mark The Big Bow Mystery (1891) and "Silver Blaze" (1892) as the enthusiastic start of the transitional period that would, eventually, give birth to the Golden Age. But would you describe this process as chaotic? It seems to have been a pretty organic transition, up until World War I, when the genre went into hibernation and awakened in the 1920s as an early, imperfect form of the 1930-and 40s style Golden Age mystery.

  2. This is my theory:
    My feeling is that the transition from the Doyle type Great Detective to the Golden Age lasted from the period of about 1910 to 1920. Some historians think that Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913), with its more human and fallible detective, marked the start of something new. The fact that Zangwill understood the nature of the fair play mystery as early as 1891 does not mean that it started a new trend or became a dominant mode of production. I think Zangwill just threw the idea into the pot without much followup by other authors because I see little in the way of fair play as a general motif until the Golden Age. It was just a concept fermenting in the general matrix. I think that the dominant mode of production was the Great Detective until about 1910, and then he sort of faded out; people get tired of an idea and the applicable variations get used up. In the period from 1910 to 1920, you see authors casting around for new ideas, such as a lot of scientific detectives like Craig Kennedy, Luther Trant (and Prof. Magnum)and so on. Finally, out of the stew of available ideas, people who read detective stories came up with a new combination of new and old ideas which became a new dominant mode of production, and that was the Golden Age. The defining ideas of the new dominant mode of production could be seen in such things as the rules lists of S.S. Van Dine and Father Knox. They explicitly rejected many of the motifs and clichés of their predecessors, and established the dividing line between the detective story proper and the thriller (the "no Chinamen" rule). And so it went on until the Golden Age type became exhausted in its turn, and a new dominant mode appeared. The hardboiled type appeared at least as early as the early 1920s with Race Williams and the Continental Op, but it did not become the dominant mode until 1947. You can see the waning of the Golden Age type, for instance, in Rufus King. He wrote 11 volumes of Golden Age style stories with Lt. Valcour from 1929 to 1939. Then he dropped Valcour for good, and thereafter he wrote some "women in peril" novels during the 1940s, and largely dropped all the Golden Age apparatus. For some reason the "woman in peril" books seemed to be very popular about this time both in books and the movies. This abandoning of Golden Age style series detectives occurred a lot among younger writers during the 1940s.
    My use of the word "chaotic" is the meaning given to the word in complex adaptive systems theory.

    1. Sorry for the late response, Anon, but was kind of busy yesterday. Anyhow...

      I think 1910 is too late a start for this transitional period, because the detective story went into hibernation during the First World War (1914-1918) and only really awakened during the early 1920s. But I see your point about the 1890s being far too early in the game to be considered a time of transition.

      So why not settle for the nine years between 1905 and 1914? During those years, the most important writers, who linked the Doylean Era with the Golden Age, appeared on the scene: Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine (1906), R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumb-Mark (1907), Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1911) and Arthur Reeve's The Silent Bullet (1912) etc.

      After this period, the war intervened and not much, if anything, of note was produced, but, when the 1920s rolled around, a new generation of mystery writers were ammassing (e.g. Christie and Sayers) who would go on to define the Golden Age.

      About the 1940s, I think there was a definite change in the air at the time and new aveanues were being explored, but never really understood why so many people consider it to be end of the road for the Golden Age – when practically every established writer were publishing some of their better work. There were even new writers making their debut whose names are synonymous with the Golden Age, e.g. Christianna Brand, Edmund Crispin and Kelley Roos.

      You could see the wind was slowly changing during the 1940s, in particular during the post-WWII years, but I always felt that everything attributed to the 40s is more true of the 50s, which I consider to be the waning, twilight years of the genre's golden period.

    2. About 1952, W. Somerset Maugham wrote an essay called "The Decline and Fall of the Detective Story." For him, the detective story really meant the British Golden Age style. He saw this as having been superseded by the hard-boiled style. "The story of pure deduction has run to seed. It has been replaced in the public favour by the "hard-boiled" story." He thought highly of Hammett and Chandler. But at the time of his writing he found that even the hard-boiled story had failed due to its excesses. Maugham was a contemporary of these events and I see no reason to doubt his word. Of course, the detective story had not fallen, it had just changed to a type of story he did not like.
      I have not done a book count, but it appears to me to be plain that by the 1950s the American hard-boiled private eye story was dominant and selling in millions of copies. There were a very few Golden Age holdovers, and some who wrote in their style, but they were selling thousands to the private eye millions. By 1950 virtually all the Golden Age stalwarts had stopped publishing. Freeman, Crofts, Connington, Bailey, Sayers, etc., etc. were all gone or had only a few books left in them. The Golden Age paraphernalia was also gone. Of the three authors you mentioned, all of them began to write in the early 1940s and their subject matter was set. They were estimable writers, but in no way either pioneers or best-sellers.

  3. I've read the Dr. Wycherley stories and thoroughly enjoyed them. The Invisible Bullet looks like a must-buy for me.

    1. I'll keep the Dr. Wycherley collection in mind, D!

  4. This sounds like an awesome collection, and amazing how it occurred exactly in 'the time between times', acting as an important historical document in itself.

    1. It's certainly an interesting historical document for people interested in the history of both detective stories and the locked room sub-genre.