What Happened to Hammond? (1951) by John Russell Fearn

Robert Adey observed in Locked Room Murders (1991) that there were only two mystery writers, John Dickson Carr and John Russell Fearn, who regularly produced impossible crime novels during and after the Second World War. While Fearn was not as prolific as Carr, he was able to match the master when it came to the sheer ingenuity of his impossible situations and the answers he conjured up to explain all those criminal miracles – which is a contribution that deserves to be acknowledged. Fearn is a fun, pulpy second-stringer with a repertoire of (scientific) locked room stories that should delight fans of Arthur Porges, Paul Halter and Jonathan Creek.

A ghost and a demonic entity physically manifest themselves inside a cursed room in "Chamber of Centuries" (1940) and Within That Room! (1946). A house that kills appears in Account Settled (1949) and a whole laboratory vanishes from a watched room in Vision Sinister (1954). The Silvered Cage (1955) has a woman gradually fading into nothingness during a stage performance and Pattern of Murder (2006) uses the inverted mystery format to show how an impossible murder is engineered, which is unusual, but the method is brilliant. And there are a host of regular locked room mysteries such as Black Maria, M.A. (1944), the Halter-like The Five Matchboxes (1946) and Death in Silhouette (1950). 

What Happened to Hammond? (1951) plays with a rarity of the impossible crime genre, a possible case of teleportation, of which I only know one other example: the Kaito KID heist story from Case Closed, vol. 61.

Before taking a crack at this book, I have to point out that the splendid cover of the 2006 Borgo Press edition was commissioned by Philip Harbottle during the 1980s from Ron Turner, because he had done covers for Fearn in the 1950s and Harbottle envisioned new editions of Fearn's work with old-school Turner covers – placing the commissioned art work in cold storage for when he was able "to get the books reprinted in the future." Harbottle also provided me with a scan of the book cover of the original and rather rare edition of this book. Yes, I'm using the poor man as my personal, interactive encyclopedia on all things Fearn. Just try to stop me! :) 

What Happened to Hammond? was originally published as by "Hugo Blayn" and begins with a shipping-yard tycoon, Benson T. Hammond, consulting Chief Inspector Mortimer Garth of Scotland Yard on a string of weird notes he has received. The latest note read, "Any Moment Now," implying without being actually threatening, but Hammond has a good reason to fear "the lingering threat" of physical violence. Hammond suffers from fragilitas ossiumtarda, an abnormal brittleness of the bones, which makes him "a walking glass ornament" and a series of blows could make him a bedridden invalid for life – or end him permanently. So Garth decides that the strange complaint and his standing in the community entitles him to police protection. Hammond also has trouble brewing at home.

Harvey Dell works as a senior electronic engineer at the Noonhill Teleradio Combine and wants to formally ask Hammand permission to marry his daughter, Miss Claire Hammond, but as soon as he consented to the engagement Dell asked him for a business loan of two million pounds! A quarrel erupted and Claire caught snippets like "some high-flown notion," a chance "to beat the airlines at their own games" and "cuts in shipping rates." The quarrel ends with Hammond branding Dell as a fortune-hunter and kicks him out of the house. Later that evening, Dell sends a letter to Claire, asking her to come to 9 Stanton Street and to destroy the letter, but she only tears it up and throws it in the waste basket – where her father finds it and pastes it together. And, naturally, he goes after her.

When Claire arrives at the house in the dilapidated Stanton Street, the door is answered by a servant who tells him he has never heard of Harvey Dell and closes the door in her face. However, the next part of the plot took a sudden, unexpected turn into the Twilight Zone.

Hammond arrives at the home with two policemen on his tail and they, alongside with Hammond's chauffeur, witness how he entered the 9 Stanton Street, but he never came back out again. But when they enter the house, they found it completely empty. Not "a stick of furniture" and dirty, defaced walls. Even more astonishing is that the place is covered with "a thick, even layer of dust on the floor of the hall" and nowhere was it broken by the marks of where furniture might have stood – nor where there "a trace of a single footprint." Previously, lights have been seen in the house and the door had been answered twice by a servant. So how did a house that had been occupied only moments previously turned into a rundown, abandoned home with a thick carpet of unbroken dust on the floor?

This apparent miracle is compounded when the body of Hammond is found lying on a road between Shoreham and Worthing, sixty miles away from Stanton Street, but only ten minutes had passed since Hammond was seen entering the house and his remains being found on the road! A gruesome detail is that every bone appears not only to be broken, but shattered, which make the body like a partially deflated inner tube.

Chief Inspector Garth has his work cut out for him and the investigation by the police takes up three quarters of the story. This part of the book reads like an early police procedure and has Garth, alongside with his men, doing all of the legwork as they attempt to put together all of the pieces of this complicated puzzle. They figure out the dust-trick and find all of the bigger pieces of the puzzle, but the insurmountable wall they keep bumping into is the problem of a body traveling sixty miles in a mist-enshrouded winter night. So they call upon Dr. Hiram Carruthers, who looks like the bust of Beethoven, to help them figure out scientific end of the investigation.

I think the first three quarters make up the best parts of the story, because the last quarter exposes the same mistake that ruined Robbery Without Violence (1957). I like it when a pure, fair play detective story is placed in a science-fiction setting, but hate it when a science-fiction solution is used in a regular looking detective story. It's plain cheating!

There are, however, mitigating circumstances. Firstly, there's proper foreshadowing and even clueing that the plot is slowly inching towards science-fiction territory (e.g. the autopsy report). Secondly, the science-fiction element, weirdly enough, didn't feel like a cop-out explanation and this probably has to do that the method, like most new sciences, was in its infancy – therefore imperfect and unrefined. Something that needed fine-tuning. This treatment was very different from the way the science-fiction element was handled in Robbery Without Violence, which even had a bad, comic book-like villain who talked about getting delivering the world into the palm of his hand. However, this didn't diminish my disappointment that the teleportation problem didn't have really clever and original solution.

This makes the problem of the empty, dust-covered house bare of any footprints the only real impossible problem of the story. Interestingly, the idea behind this trick is not entirely new and have come across two variations on this trick, but Fearn applied it here to an entire house.

So, on a whole, I was not too let down by What Happened to Hammond? The first three solid quarters read like an early police procedural without the troubled cop trope and a good stand-in impossible crime, but hated that the second impossibility relied on pure science-fiction – which simply does not work for me. I'm too much of a purist to go along with it. Still, I appreciated Fearn clued his way to this U-turn and the book is a decent, middling effort in his body of work, but not one you'll find on my inevitable list of favorite Fearn mystery novels.

On a final note, you might also be interested in reading John Norris' take on this book, which he reviewed here.


  1. It's these sudden lurches into apparent rule-changing grounds that dissuade me from reading Fearn, especially when there's so much else to get my teeth into. Id ove to share your enthusiasm for someone who throws so many different ingredients at the impossible crime subgenre, but to get 15% from the end and have some nonsense thrown at me instead of an explanation is one of my severest dislikes. One of these days I may overcome this and check him out...but don't hold your breath!

    1. You've got the wrong picture of Fearn's impossible crime fiction.

      I'm not particular fond of those sudden lurches either and it ruined Robbery Without Violence, but this is only true for a very small portion of his locked room mysteries. You'd probably enjoy the Halter-like The Five Matchboxes or Death in Silhouette, which has a great play on the double-edged solution. Or perhaps one of those two brilliant inverted mysteries (Except for One Thing and Pattern of Murder). Just give him another shot!

    2. I dunno, man, I've formed an opinion on near-zero actual experience, and after all that work I'm reluctant to do anything that might change my perspective...

      Okay, fine, I have Death in Silhouette. Dunno when I'll get round to it -- I've been promising both of us that I'll read Christopher Bush's Cut-Throat for weeks now -- but I have it and shall make it my next JRF.

      If I end up loving it and becoming obsessed with his writing, then I'll seriosuly begin to think that I have some sort of three-named-author fetish having done with same with John Dickson Carr, Freeman Wills Crofts, and Erle Stanley Gardner...

    3. See? You're destined to fall in love with Fearn's writing!

  2. I liked this one precisely because of the bizarre science fiction/fantasy element. I knew exactly where it was headed and did not care that there was no rational explanation for the murder. It was definitely the most fun of the Dr. Carruthers books I've read. FLASHPOINT for me is his most successful detective novel in this short series with Hiram and crew. In the other two books I've read with Dr. C the culprits were easy to spot because the suspect pool in each is so limited and the plot gimmickry was rather obvious. But I still have three others to read.

    1. "I knew exactly where it was headed and did not care that there was no rational explanation for the murder."

      The clueing and foreshadowing definitely helped sugarcoating the plot's U-turn into science-fiction territory, which Robbery Without Violence sorely missed, but I'm too much of a purist to appreciate it. I like my normal looking, straightforward detective stories to have a rational explanation.

      That being said, it was a fun read. Most notably, the first half of the story detailing Garth's investigation.

  3. What would qualify for your list of favourite Fearn novels - particularly puzzle mysteries?

    1. I would place Thy Arm Alone, Except for One Thing and Pattern of Murder at the top of my list, but not everyone is charmed by the first one and the last two are inverted mysteries. Two very good examples of the inverted detective story, but the format may not fit your definition of a puzzle mystery.

      So, I would say that the following titles are his best:

      Black Maria, M.A. (introduces Miss Maria Black who solves the locked room shooting of her own brother in the U.S. and reads like a Stuart Palmer mystery)
      Death in Silhouette (an impossible crime story with a clever, two-pronged solution)
      Vision Sinister (not his most perfect locked room story, but the sheer ingenuity of the impossibility is something to be admired)

      An honorable mention for The Five Matchboxes.

      These seven titles are his best ones so far.

  4. I've read two or three (can't remember) Fearn books and liked them well enough (that much I do remember). I'm going to add this one to my list just because it sounds 'a little different.' I've been meaning to read BLACK MARIA. I did read ONE REMAINED SEATED which I enjoyed though I figured out how the thing was done midway through. The more I learn about Fearn, the more I realize how truly prolific he was. Wow.