The Locked Room Reader XI: A Return to the Phantom Library

Back in 2016, I compiled a brief overview, under the title "A Selection of Lost Detective Stories," listing a number of examples of long-lost or unpublished manuscripts from the hands of celebrated and lesser-known mystery writers – such as Glyn Carr, Joseph Commings, Theodora DuBois and Hake Talbot. The idea of the existence, or partial existence, of a phantom library is as fascinating as it's frustrating. Even more so, when it disproportionately affects a writer you happened to be very fond of.

One of my favorite second-stringers, John Russell Fearn, was a prolific writer of lost detective stories and he didn't limit himself to merely losing sight of manuscripts. Philip Harbottle kindly provided me with all the background details.

A fragment from an alt-reality
Harbottle told me that "several wonderful impossible crime novels," written by Fearn in 1946, were lost and apparently destroyed, because hardcover publishing in the U.K. suffered from paper shortages during the post-war years and many books were delayed – often "never appeared at all" and "were lost." Fearn sold three novels under a penname, "Rosina Tarne," of which only one came close to actually being published.

You Murdered Me would have told the story of the ghost of a murdered woman who helps her grieving boyfriend/detective bring her killer to justice and the manuscript was proofed, blurbed and appropriately advertised on the jacket of Gordon Meyrick's The Ghost Hunters (1947). There are only "half a dozen scattered pages of mss carbon" left of the second novel, entitled The Eyes Have It, which reveal that the story followed a husband-and-wife detective team investigating "a dead body in a swimming pool" with resonances of Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone (1868). Yes, a Fearn mystery novel along the lines of Kelley Roos' The Frightened Stiff (1942) got lost. God has some serious explaining to do!

Sadly, Murder in Suburbia has been completely erased from existence as nothing, whatsoever, is known about it and "nothing has survived." However, the title makes me wonder if Fearn rewrote the story nearly a decade later as Lonely Road Murder (1954). Murder in Suburbia strikes me as an uncomplicated, straitlaced crime story without any locked rooms, cast-iron alibis or science-based death-traps – like Lonely Road Murder. Something not entirely out of the realm of possibilities, because there's a possible change that the presumed lost Partners in Crime was eventually published as Murder's a Must (1949; retitled later as The Tattoo Murders). However, this is just an educated guess by Harbottle.

The last title to be added to this lamentable list is about "an impossible murder on a railway," titled Unfinished Journey, which he intended to get published under the name of "Hartley Grant," but manuscript was apparently rejected. Regardless, Fearn was an amateur cineaste and, in 1949, created the Fylde Cine Club. One of the movies they made was an ambitious, full-length (silent) movie adaptation of Unfinished Journey starring Fearn, Matt Japp and published author Audrey Weigh, who recorded the lines on a tape recorder – a tape that got either lost or destroyed! However, Harbottle salvaged three boxes of the club's 16mm films and them transferred to VHS tapes, but the firm managed to mix "the running order of the three film spools" and made them run backwards. Harbottle said he only watched the silent VHS once, a quarter of a century ago, and was "so traumatized" that he never watched it again.

Honestly, I would love to get a glimpse of that silent film. Not just to get a taste of a lost impossible crime story, but just to watch Fearn acting. Someone should convert those VHS tapes and upload them to YouTube.

Seems appropriate
Sadly, Fearn is not the only one who lost a handful of manuscripts: R.T. Campbell wrote eight popular detective novels about a botanist and amateur detective, Professor John Stubbs. Five more titles were announced as forthcoming, namely The Hungry Worms Are Waiting, No Man Lives Forever, Death is Not Particular, Death is Our Physician and Mr. Death's Blue-Eyed Boy, but his publisher went into liquidation in 1948 and the manuscripts were lost to history. So just between Campbell and Fearn, you have nine or ten mystery novels that were expunged from our time-line. And, yes, there's more. There's always more of the bad stuff.

Willoughby Sharp was the author of two published detective novels, Murder in Bermuda (1933) and Murder of the Honest Broker (1934), who provided this list with the most peculiar and tantalizing lost title. A third novel was announced for 1935, intriguingly titled The Mystery of the Multiplying Mules, which came with a short description of the premise and the story would have made for a most unusual locked room mystery – as mules keep turning up inside the locked barn of the Logan family. No reason was ever given why the book got canceled.

Another mystery writer with a short-lived career was Kirke Mechem and only saw one of his detective novels get published, The Strawstack Murder Case (1936), which has a strong rural flavor. This is likely the reason why his second Steven Steele novel was never published. The plot of the story, titled Mind on Murder, dealt with miscegenation in Kansas and Doubleday, Doran, turned down his manuscript "on account of this sensitive subject matter." The three novels by Mechem and Sharp have been reprinted by Coachwhip Publications.

Christopher St. John Sprigg plunge into Marxism and untimely death in the Spanish Civil War ended a short, but promising, run as a mystery novelist. Recently, Sprigg has profited from our current renaissance era and all of his seven novels has been reprinted as paperbacks and ebooks, but Curt Evans reported in 2013 that there two unpublished short stories, "The Case of the Misjudged Husband" and "The Case of the Jesting Miser" – existing as typed manuscripts in Sprigg's papers at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Evans describes them as "longish short stories" with a certain appeal and a noteworthy detective, Mrs. Bird.

So these two short stories still have a fighting chance to get published and maybe sooner than we think. A recently published anthology, Bodies from the Library 2 (2019), had never before published material by Christianna Brand, Edmund Crispin and Dorothy L. Sayers. I say we loot salvage as much as possible from this phantom library!

Well, hopefully, this rambling filler-post wasn't too depressing and I'll return to you presently with a regular review of a detective story that wasn't cruelly snatched away from us.


  1. Ghhaaaah! Why do you have to reopen old wounds? Every time I remember Commings' The Devil's Third or Brand's The Chinese Puzzle...

    1. "Why do you have to reopen old wounds?"

      Lest we forget, Anon. Lest we forget.

    2. My bad, I meant Commings' One for the Devil