The Case of the Invisible College and Other Mysteries (2012) by Andrew May

Recently, I stumbled across a modern, little-known volume of short stories with a book-title that captured my imagination, The Case of the Invisible College and Other Mysteries (2012), which had an equally alluring sub-title – "Old Style Mysteries Set Amidst the Dreaming Spires of Oxford." This collection is comprised of seven (very) short stories, written by Andrew May, who published his own work under the banner of Post-Fortean Books.

So, naturally, I approached this self-published collection of detective stories with a great deal of trepidation, but an internet search brought some promising facts to light.

I found a rare review of The Case of the Invisible College, which was generally positive, but, more importantly, the reviewer noted that the lively stories were written by someone who evidently spent time learning how to write – rendering the customary criticism of self-published fiction irrelevant. The reviewer also suspected the stories were reprinted from “some periodical” and this turned out to be correct. All seven stories were originally published in the British Mensa Folio newsletters of 2009 and 2010. Mensa is the high IQ society. So I believe we can infer from this that May is probably a smart guy.

Secondly, I found May's blog, Retro-Forteana, which is dedicated to "the weirder fringes of history," but, to my delight, discovered he had also written about John Dickson Carr. I would really like to read his article about "the Fortean aspects of John Dickson Carr's 'Locked Room Mysteries'" in Fortean Times, 288.

So that was all I needed to know to take the plunge on these Fortean detective tales, but what I found was still different from what I was expecting.

The cases in this collection are tackled by SOLVED: the Secret Oxford League of Volunteer Extracurricular Detectives. A crime-fighting network lead by Pierce Stormson, Professor of Advanced Studies, who functions as "the central coordinating brain" of the league and "bore a close resemblance to the fiction character he admired so much," Sherlock Holmes – which is one of the many Holmesian charms of this series. For example, Stormson has the habit to deduce the name or occupations of clients who visit him from the first time and the stories are littered with references to previous cases (The Case of the Weeping Buddha, The Case of the Somerville Stripper, The Case of the Devil's Footprints, etc). And then there's the Watson-like narrator of the series.

Melvin Root is doing his Ph.D. on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and acts as both the chronicler of SOLVED and Stormson's right-hand man, but is prone to jump to the most outrageous conclusions imaginable. Stormson and Root draw on the specialized knowledge and talents of the various SOLVED members who are scattered throughout the university and beyond. SOLVED is pretty much the Baker Street Irregulars, the College Years.

"The Case of the Dangerous Book" is the first story and has Miss Higgs, a librarian of Old College, consulting Stormson on an 18th century book. A book bound in human-skin, belonging to a man who studied at the college in the early 1700, but the book was gifted to the college under the condition that it should never taken from its shelf as it was "a dangerous book" - only problem is that it had been taken of its shelf. The book was kept in the Lower Library, where book can only be read, which are then left at the table to be collected by the librarian. And this dangerous book was one of them. So who consulted this obscure book and why? Only three students were present at the time, but they appear to be innocent.

Stormson and Root discover a coded message inside the book and the decoding the message helps them to uncover a sordid attempt at an equally sordid crime. The culprit was a dunce, but, on a whole, this was a fun, little introductory story. Nothing outstanding, but fun.

The second tale is "The Case of the Invisible College" and, in spite of the promising title, it's not a grand-scale impossible crime story about an entire college building vanishing from our plane of existence. I'm not going to lie, I was mildly disappointed.

Stormson is called upon by Dr. John Philpott, a post-doctoral research assistant at the Department of Experimental Physics, who claims to be on the brink of a breakthrough in cold fusion, but "they" are out to suppress his work. Dr. Philpott has received a threatening letter from this nebulous group, telling him not to mess with the Invisible College, which is why he convinced the head of his department, Professor Carr, to move his equipment to a secure laboratory – a laboratory only four people had access to. However, this did not prevent the destruction of a valuable piece of research equipment. And, no, this problem isn't an impossible crime either.

The solution reveals that a respectable university, once again, served as a respectable front for a sordid criminal operation. So not a bad story, but again, nothing outstanding.

"The Case of the Shakespearaan Super-Chimp" is the shortest story in this collection, but also one of my two favorites. Bonzo, the experimental chimp of the university, is wired up to a machine and pictures appear on the screen that shows what the monkey is thinking. Like a picture of a banana. However, all of a sudden, passages from Shakespeare's Hamlet began to appear on screen. Root solves this case with the help of Sanyo Fujitsu, an "electronics wizard," but without Stormson. A nice story for something so short.

"The Case of the Abducted Astrobiologist" is next and begins when Stormson is visited by Anna Moletsky, the conference manager of Wolfsbane College, which has a profitable sideline conferences during the summer vacation when students are away. A conference is about to be held there on astrobiology and the keynote speaker is Dr. Haakon Asgrad from Oslo University, who was to give presentation on images from the Mars Rover, but Asgrad has gone missing – leaving behind an empty hotel room. Root immediately suggests that aliens come for him, but Stormson uncovered a more conventional answer rooted in academic backstabbery. Plot-wise, not a very interesting story, but ended amusingly when SOLVED dished out their own brand of justice to the culprit.

The next story, "The Case of the Ghost in the Machine," is only interesting to readers who are really fond of lurid pulp-thrillers from yesteryear, because the story reads like a tongue-in-cheek treatment of such stories.

A SOLVED member from a previous case, Sanyo Fujitsu, receives an unusual email, asking her to come to an address in North Oxford. A connection is quickly with Professor Maxwell Quain, a once eminent nuclear physicist, who went mad and began to obsess over alchemy and the occult – earning him the reputation of a mad scientist. Root is ready to tackle the case, but loses all interest in the case when he gets invited to a pagan orgy. Fortunately, for Fujitsu, he mixed up the addresses and ended up at the home of the mad scientist, who has sinister intentions and comic villain motive, but it's Stormson who comes to their rescue and saves the day.

A very pulpy story that had its moments, such as when Root broke into the locked house, because he assumed the screaming meant that the orgy had started without him, but nothing of interest for the amateur armchair detective.

However, the next story, "The Case of the Shocking Science Quarterly," is the standout title of this collection and is only story here with a truly inspired plot. I was pleasantly reminded of Charles Ardai's "The Last Story," collected in The Return of the Black Widowers (2003), which both fall in the same pulpy sub-category of the bibliomystery.

The plot concerns the extremely rare issue 23 of the Shocking Science Quarterly, a British pulp magazine, which was printed in the Summer of 1938, but, as soon as they were reprinted, the Home Office recalled all copies and had them destroyed – as it reputedly violated "one of the many obscenity laws of the time." There are, however, conspiracy theorists who claim to government wanted to suppress important scientific ideas in the back-up story, "The Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine" by Wilfred Barnes. So all 750,000 copies were recalled, but only 749,999 copies were destroyed. One copy was retained for legal reasons and stored in a sealed vault at the Bodleian Library.

This 1938 copy was finally released to the public, under the Freedom of Information Act, but the only surviving copy disappeared that same day. Or, rather, the original copy was replaced with a false copy. A switch that was discovered when Root, who studies gives him a natural interest early twenty century fiction, found a peculiar print-error on one of the pages, "Error! Reference source not found." Sure, it was a science-fiction magazine, but "a modern-day computer error" is unlikely to appear on the pages of even the most visionary science-fiction publication of the 1930s. So who made the switch and how was the person able to fabricate an almost perfect copy of a pulp magazine that had been sealed for seventy years?

A handful of people studied the magazine when it was released and all of them have potential motives.

A number of people studied the magazine and they all have agendas, and thus potential, motives to take or destroy it: Sam Rosenberg is a multimillionaire and well-known collector of 1930s ephemera. Ms. Arcadia Wolfe is a feminist writer and an anti-pornography crusader. Professor Harrison Carr is the nuclear physicist who previously appeared in "The Case of the Invisible College." Finally, Lancelot Austin, the elderly art-critic and political loudmouth.

All of them had the opportunity and motive turns out to be key that unlocks this case. This story is really a why-dun-it, but an excellent specimen of its kind with a beautiful answer as to why a false copy had to be supplied. Even more importantly, this is the only SOLVED story that actually has clues in them! So, yes, this is unquestionably the best one of the lot.

Finally, this volumes closes with "The Case of the Inverted Pyramid," which sounds interesting, but the story is a complete dud and the plot reworked Agatha Christie's "The Case of the Missing Lady," from Partners in Crime (1929), which is acknowledged by the end of the story – all that can be said about this story.

On a whole, these Fortean detective tales were entertaining, well written stories, but with exception of "The Case of the Shocking Science Quarterly," the plots tended to be unimpressive. Honestly, I was surprised that these stories, originally published in a Mensa newsletter, turned out to be relatively light-weight pastiches of Sherlock Holmes instead of Ellery Queen-like Puzzle Club stories. Nevertheless, despite their short comings, this collection stands head and shoulders above most self-published books. I think readers of Holmesian fiction will particular like this short series and anthologists should keep "Shocking Science Quarterly" and "The Shakespearean Super-Chimp" in mind. Those two stories deserve to be preserved.


  1. Hey, welcome to the occasional joys of self-published detective fiction! You've got me very intrigued by the two stories you highlight, so thabks for sharing this. And if you've any plans to return to these waters again, well, we're bound to uncover something good between us at some point...

    1. There are one or two titles on my pile that fall in this category. So I'll definitely be returning to the uncharted, savage lands of self-published detective fiction in the future.

      Hey, we're like Lewis and Clark when it comes to exploring this nook of the genre!

  2. I doubt that an English science fiction magazine in 1938 would have had a sufficient expected sale to justify a print run of 750,000 copies, even if it had such a magnificent title as Shocking Science Quarterly. The British were not big on pulp science fiction in the 1930s (or at any other time). The only two British science fiction pulps of the 1930s of which I am aware were "Tales of Wonder" and "Fantasy," both of which had miniscule print runs. To the extent there were pulp science fiction magazines in Great Britain in the 1930s, they would mainly have been American pulp magazines (sometimes referred to as Yank magazines) which had been shipped to Britain as ship's ballast. George Orwell has an interesting essay on the subject. Mystery writers should make some attempt to get the details right.

    Also, the author seems to be interested in the works of Charles Fort, but it does not seem to me that you cited any attempt by the author to present stories with Fortean themes. More modern opportunities wasted.

    1. I'm sure you're right about the excessive print run, but that one, erroneous background detail does nothing to diminish its status as the top-tier story of this collection. You could easily edit the number of printed copies and it would take nothing away from its clever solution.

      "...it does not seem to me that you cited any attempt by the author to present stories with Fortean themes."

      Well, the Fortean themes were a trifle weak and in some stories completely absent, but there was an old, dangerous book in the opening story and another one about a chimp who apparently quoted Shakespeare, which (I assume) would qualify as a Fortean phenomena. And the possibility of life on Mars was in the peripheral in the case of the missing astrobioligist.

      So I wouldn't say the author made no attempt whatsoever, but yes, they're a trifle weak and counts as a missed opportunity. A story about a stolen out-of-place artifact, reputedly from a long-lost, forgotten civilization, would have been fun.

  3. I don't remember anything in Fort about dangerous old books; he was much more into newspaper cuttings. However, he did have a section on talking dogs (they say good morning, but don't quote Shakespeare!) in Wild Talents.

    The problem is that regardless of whether the new books are published by large corporations or are self-published, they still aren't very good.