Back in September, 2017, I reviewed Arthur Porges' No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman (2017), a slim, 86-page volume comprising half a dozen short detective stories, which were first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine during the early 1960s and finally brought back into print by Richard Simms – who runs The Arthur Porges Fan Site and Richard Simms Publications. I closed my review with the comment that, hopefully, the next collection would gather the stories from the Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie series.
Simms posted in the comment-section that he was seriously considering doing such a collection and eventually received an email from him telling me that he was working on another volume, entitled These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie (2018), which was released in early September.
So that was surprisingly fast considering there was less than a year between my suggestion and publication, but very much appreciated.
The series consists of eleven stories and were mostly published in the previously mentioned Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, from 1962 to 1964, with only two of them appearing in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and This Week – a Sunday magazine supplement to The Los Angeles Times, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Cincinnati Enquirer. A final story was published more than a decade later in the May, 1975, issue of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine. This is the first time they appear in print together.
Prof. Ulysses Price Middlebie is a retired Professor Emeritus of the History and Philosophy of Science. A keen ornithologist and devout naturalist who began to apply his scientific knowledge in the field of criminology when a former pupil, Detective Sergeant Black, asked his advice in a disappearance case and he has kept coming back ever since – usually with a seemingly impossible problem. I should mention that not every story in this collection is, strictly speaking, an impossible crime or locked room story. They're all howdunits with seven, or so, qualifying as (quasi) impossible crime stories. So a nice little feast for fans of the pure, puzzle-driven detective story.
The opening story, "These Daisies Told," introduces the reader to Prof. Middlebie and how "his universal grasp of nature" helped him to acquire "his niche as consultant in crime" when a former pupil turned up on his doorstep with a tantalizing problem.
Detective Sergeant Black knows Dale Corsi murdered his wife, who has been gone for a week, but is unable to locate the body. A problem exacerbated by the fact that they lived on a small ranch quite off the main highway. So there are more than enough place where Corse could have secreted the body, but Middlebie's mind houses a rich depository of knowledge about the natural world and this helped him spot the hidden location of the body without too much trouble – revealing a truly clever way to dispose of a body. Apparently, Porges thought this was "one of his cleverest ideas" and you can hardly disagree with him. My only complaint is that the central clue required specialized knowledge to get an inkling of the solution. Still a good opening to a solid collection.
The second story, "The Unguarded Path," has a unique premise for a locked room mystery: Middlebie is not asked to help his one-time pupil, Detective Sergeant Black, to solve an impossible crime, but to prevent one from happening. An angle that had never been used before.
Franklin Devoe was the lawyer for the Syndicate and knows "where all the bodies are buried," which makes his ex-employers very nervous, because Devoe is ready to talk and they sicked their best contract killer on him. Joe Vasta is described by Black as "a kind of criminal Professor Middlebie" with a habit of sending "a whole series of letters to the man he's after" and is behind a string of mob hits that "left the police flatfooted" – now he has been sending letters to Devoe promising he'll be dead before he can appear before the Grand Jury. The police has Devoe "covered the way they watched Khrushchev when he came to New York" and his estate is a locked up as tight as a drum with guards patrolling the grounds.
So Black asks his former professor to help prevent a murder that could not possibly happen and Middlebie uses his scientific knowledge to show him "an unguarded path for murder" that "most houses have." The idea of this unguarded path is almost on par with the idea of the Judas window from Carter Dickson's homonymously titled The Judas Window (1938). Easily one of my favorite stories from this collection!
The next story is "The Missing Bow" and the plot is odd one that doesn't really work for me. Howard Cole used to manage a sporting goods store, but more importantly, he was "an expert archer." He even did all trick shots for a Robin Hood TV-series. That all ended when Victor Borden rammed his car into Cole's that killed his wife and 8-year-old daughter. Cole lost an arm and was so mangled below the waist he can only hobble around now, however, he somehow managed to fire an arrow into Borden, but was practically caught in the act in a blind alley and here the problem begins – no weapon, like a bow or crossbow, was found on him. And there was no place or time to hide one. Not to mention the physical impossibility of loosening an arrow with one arm.
Middlebie finds the solution to this conundrum in an old, dusty tome from 1903 and the explanation is legitimate, but unconvincing and Porges must have realized this, because a lot of emphasize is placed on the motive. This is a trick requiring a very dedicated and driven murderer. So it might work for some readers, but I was not impressed by it.
The fourth entry is a short-short, "Small, Round Man from Texas," which reminded me of the shorter works and radio-plays by Ellery Queen. Black and Middlebie assist a French policeman, Inspector Paul Hermite Rameau, to capture a master thief, Cauchy Fourier Boussinesq, who's internationally known as the Chameleon. A man of six feet five inches tall, but has a talent for illusions to make himself unnoticeable and this short-short is a demonstration of his talent. And, no, Porges didn't copy-paste the solution from John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge (1938). So, this was really short, but fun, little story.
The next story is another short-short, "Blood Will Tell," in which Black poses an impossible challenge to Middlebie: a multi murderer is about to go off scot-free unless they can get a blood sample, but the suspect simply refuses to give them a sample and has claimed everything from religious objections to the Fifth Amendment. So the courts has warned Black not "to touch his sacred veins" or else. Middlebie has a trick up his sleeve to get a blood sample and this makes for yet another very short, but incredibly fun, short-short story. As an aside, I think "Blood Without Violence" would have been better title for this impossible challenge.
The next story is one of Porges' best locked room stories, entitled "Coffee Break," which ranks alongside "No Killer Has Wings" and reviewed it separately back in April. So I'll skip it to keep this post as brief as possible. However, one thing I'll note here is that this story finds Middlebie with a taped ankle and this injury forces him to act as an armchair detective in the next couple of stories. And there are numerous comparisons to Mycroft Holmes in them.
The seventh story, "A Model Crime," is minor one and deals with the theft of eight ounces of custom-built transistors from the heavily guarded and secured premises of Morton Electronics, which are worth about twenty-one thousand dollars – "quite a haul." Only a handful of dependable engineers had access to the locked room where the transistors are being kept and taking them from the plant is next to impossible, because the place is run like Fort Knox or Area 51. The method is actually not bad and very practical, given the circumstances, but not as impressive in 2018 as it probably was in 1964.
Next up is "To Barbecue a White Elephant" and the problem of the story is somewhat reminiscent of "The Scientist and the Time Bomb" from The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009).
Black brings a baffling case or arson to Middlebie: a man has inherited a house, or white elephant, which is highly taxed and comes with barely any income. The house is tied to the estate and, if he abandons it, he forfeits the annuity and other benefits. So the man goes on a two-month holiday to Mexico City, a thousand miles from the house, while the place is locked up and closely watched by a security company. After six weeks, "a fire of unknown origin levels the building." Middlebie is tasked with finding out whether there's something like an incendiary device with a six week delayed time-fuse. A clever, scientific detective story with nifty gimmick that's not as insane as the fifteen year fuse from "Time Bomb." You really have to read that Grey story to believe it.
The following story is titled "The Puny Giant" and has an unusual impossible problem. A woman was found dead in the middle of large lawn battered to death by "a broken chunk of solid concrete" that weighed over ninety pounds. Only problem is that Black's primary suspect is her scrawny, sixteen-year-old adopted son who could not have lifted the chunk of concrete to deliver the deadly blows. However, I figured out this trick when his hobbies were mentioned. Still a pretty good yarn with a couple of slightly unsettling final lines.
The next story is "The Symmetrical Murder" and concerns the death of Howard Davis Valind, "a cancer-quack" or "mass-murderer," who preyed on the fatally ill, but was justly murdered when staying at a seaside hotel. He was killed when standing on the balcony to feed the birds when he was smacked in the head by "something moderately heavy and fast-moving" or "something massive," but a lot slower moving. However, the balcony was roofed and the hotel room had been locked from the inside. So how was he killed? I actually figured out the method based on the story-title and remembering a locked room novella with almost exactly the same impossible situation and explanation. I'm sure this is merely a coincidence, because you would expect a writer of scientific mysteries to hit upon a trick like this one.
On a side note, why do so many detective stories force the reader root for the murderer? I try to be a good boy, I really do, but even Middlebie here called the victim a swine who preyed on "the most pitifully helpless human beings." And told Black he would not cry if he failed to build a court case against the murderer.
Finally, this volume ends with the 1975 story, "Fire for Peace," in which Black and Middlebie is confronted the bad combination of "fire and fanaticism." A chemical plant full of inflammable material is working on a nerve gas, but the place is targeted by an arsonist who, inexplicable, has started a dozen fires on the premise and has been sending letters taunting them – all signed "Committee of One, for Peace." The solution here, like "The Missing Bow" is taken from history, but this one was a lot easier to swallow. A good story and decent ending to this altogether too short a series.
On a whole, These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie proved to be an excellent collection of short stories and showed Porges was a genuine maverick when it came to dreaming up miraculous crimes with often very original explanations. Something that's exemplified by such stories as "The Unguarded Path" and "Coffee Break."
Personally, I can't wait the for the upcoming entries in this ongoing series and the next volume is titled The Price of a Princess: Hardboiled Crime Fiction (2019), which I hope will be of the same quality as Edmund Crispin's surprisingly hardboiled short story, "The Pencil," from Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979). After that, there's a good chance Simm will compile a volume with the four Julian Morse Trowbridge impossible crime stories with the eleven uncollected, standalone locked room stories. And that would give us an almost complete collection of Porges' locked room fiction. The key word there is almost. I hope that Simms will also consider re-reprinting Eight Problems in Space: The Ensign De Ruyter Stories (2008) and The Adventures of Stately Homes and Sherman Horn (2008).
So we have potentially a lot to look forward to on the Porges front!