A year ago, Dean Street Press reissued three detective novels by a British husband-and-wife writing team, Edwin and Mona A. Radford, who together concocted close to forty complex, scrupulously plotted and richly clued forensic detective novels – strongly influenced by R. Austin Freeman and Ellery Queen. Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) and Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947) were two of the titles specially selected as strong examples of their ability in constructing and tearing down intricate, unpadded plots. Radfords peppered their detective stories with challenges to the reader!
Nearly a year later, on March 3, DSP is going to release a further three novels, introduced by Nigel Moss, each "quite different in approach and style," but "retaining the traditions" of the great detective stories of yore.
The Heel of Achilles (1950) is an inverted mystery and Death of a Frightened Editor (1959) an impossible crime novel about a poisoning on a London-to-Brighton train, but the obscure Death and the Professor (1961) is of particular interest to every locked room reader. A collection of short stories structured as a detective novel with seven of the eight stories covering an entire page in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).
The stories from Death and the Professor are centered around a small, exclusive dinner club, The Dilettantes' Club, whose distinguished members gather once a fortnight at a Soho restaurant where they dine in a private-room and debate any problem "besetting mankind" – a varied "selection of brains" browsing "the bric-à-brac of events and happenings in the world." Every member is "a doyen of his own particular profession." Sir Noël Maurice is an eminent surgeon and "one of the world's greatest authorities on the heart." Norman Charles is a psychiatrist of international repute and Alexander Purcell a Cambridge mathematician who holds a Chair in Mathematics. William James is a pathologist and Sir Edward Allen, Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, whose presence places these stories in the same world as the Dr. Harry Manson series! A very rare, but genuine, Golden Age detective crossover!
The sixth and last member of the club is a former Professor of Logic, Marcus Stubbs, who's an elderly, mild-mannered man with a goblin-like head, a shock of gray hair, "gig-like spectacles" and a stammer. A quiet, unimposing figure of a man, but appearances can be deceiving. Very deceiving! Professor Stubbs is nothing less than an armchair oracle who uses strict logic and reasoning to find solutions to the most unfathomable mysteries discussed by the club.
Nigel Moss compared The Dilettantes' Club to the Crimes Circle from Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and Isaac Asimov's Black Widower series, but I think Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1929) is actually a lot closer to Death and the Professor. I've seen Partners in Crime being described as a nostalgic farewell to the 1920s with a thread running through the stories that tied everything together. Death and the Professor was published in the early 1960s, when the Golden Age had come to an end, which gives you the idea it was written as a fond farewell to that period with an armchair detective and plots paying tribute to some of its greatest hits – like a tribute band playing all the old songs. There's a red-thread running through the stories ending in knotted twist.
If a novel such as Who Killed Dick Whittington? demonstrated the Radford's plotting skills, Death and the Professor is an exhibit of their knowledge and love of the traditional, puzzle-driven Golden Age detective story. So let's dig into these (untitled) stories!
The first story briefly goes over how Professor Marcus Stubbs became the sixth member of the club before they settled down with port and cigars to listen and discuss "a very intriguing problem" brought to them by Sir Edward. A problem of a possible criminal nature that took place in the The Lodge Guest House, in Coronation Road, South Kensington, where one of the nine residents was an unlikable businessman, Frederick Banting, who was "cordially disliked by one and all." One day, after dinner, Banting retreated to his upstairs room, annoyingly slamming the door behind him, which was followed by "a second bang." A gunshot!
So the whole household rushed upstairs, opening the door with a spare key, where they find Banting lying on the floor with a revolver besides him, but the local police inspector, who spent twenty minutes in the room, called in the Murder Squad – because papers were missing. But how? Every possible exit, doors and windows, were either locked or under observation. There were only two minutes in which to commit the murder and the eight guests alibi each other. So how did the murderer manage to vanish into thin air without leaving a trace? Stubbs logically reasons his way to the answer, "logic, purely applied, can make no error," but the locked room-trick and left-handed clue are old hat. However, I appreciated how the clue eliminated all of the innocent suspects in one fell swoop!
The second story brought the distinguished company concerns two people, John Benton, who's a 68-year-old jeweler and his much younger, more ambitious, partner, Thomas Derja. Benton and Derja boarded a 9.18 train to London to personally deliver a £5,000 necklace to a client and, along the way, Derja bought a packet of wrapped sandwiches from a trolley. Derja cut the sandwiched in half and gave one piece to Benton, who took a bite, gave "a kind of gurgle" and slipped down half under the table as dead as a door nail. A post-mortem revealed cyanide had been mixed with his food and the necklace turns out to be a forgery! So did Benton commit suicide, because he knew the necklace would be recognized as fake? Or was he cleverly murdered? More importantly, how was it possible that only one piece of the sandwich was poisoned?
Stubbs uses irrefutable logic to demonstrate Benton had not committed suicide, but was murdered, why and how his sandwich was poisoned. Arguably, this is the best impossible crime in the collection with the blemish being that a well-known mystery writer used exactly the same solution in a 1950s short story.
The third story begins with a discussion on the difference between truly unsolved, practically perfect murders and murderers who are known to authorities, but there's no evidence to convict. Sir Edward tells his fellow dilettantes about "the most perfect murder" committed in Sam Reno, on the Italian Riviera, where four dead men were seated around a table – a pile of large, pigeon-blood rubies lay on the table. Three of the victims were British who were known to the police as receivers of stolen goods and the police had followed a suspicious trail to the doorstep of Villa Pinetta. Where they discovered the bodies. But how were they poisoned? Why did the murderer leave the £6,000 worth of rubies behind?
Sir Edwards ends his stories with a list of five questions, illustrating the impossibility of the murders, that "modern detective skill" have "failed to find the answers." Stubbs doesn't have to think very long to come up with the answers and an explanation how the rubies were smuggled pass customs. Solution to the impossible poisoning is another golden oldie.
The fourth story brings another jewel haul and one of those "dashed locked room problems" to The Dilettantes' Club. Ambrose & Company in Conduit Street, jewelers of some standing, where looted when burglars bypassed the steel grilled windows, treble locks and anti-burglar alarm by breaking into the tailor's shop next door and drilling through the wall – getting away with £18,500 in merchandise. The police recognized the modus operandi of a certain group of a men and the safe-cracker of the crew is a character known as "Lady Dan." A dandy, impeccably dressed womanizer who followed "every pair of trim ankles which came into his line of vision," but the police had no evidence and the case gets another dimension when the body of Lady Dan is found inside a bolted, first-class sleeping compartment of the Blue Train. He had died of a heart attack with an expression on his face of "complete and utter stupefaction."
Police found a half-full bottle of champagne and two tumbles, one with traces of a strong sleeping draught, in the compartment. Lady Dan had been seen with the lady from the next compartment, Liza Underwood, but she "disappeared as though she had never been" and there has never been passport issued in that name! And the communicating door between the compartments were bolted on both side. So how did she vanish? Stubbs gracefully thanks Sir Edwards for the "intellectual labyrinths" he has presented for their consideration and explains facts that do not conform, or are "alien to logical explanation," are impossible and therefore unacceptable. And demolishes the case. The problem of the locked compartments has a simplistic, routine answer, but the explanation for the stupefied expression on the body's face was a nice, perfectly done touch to the plot that clicked together with the premise like two puzzle pieces.
The next story is the only non-impossible crime story of the collection and is, as Moss described it, "a cleverly plotted 'eternal triangle' murder" a la Agatha Christie (c.f. "Triangle at Rhodes" collected in Murder in the Mews and Other Stories, 1937). Stubbs is the one who brings the problem to the attention of the Dilettantes.
Stubbs is convinced that the conviction of John Parker for the murder of Mary Bloss was a grave miscarriage of justice. Parker is a businessman and an enthusiastic lepidopterist (a moth collector) who had a motive, means (killing bottles loaded with cyanide) and opportunity to poison to dental cream of his mistress, Miss Bloss – who had also been a close friend of his wife, Eileen. A sordid, dime-a-dozen murder that ended with Parker being convicted for premeditated murder. So they go over the sordid history, examining every detail, with Sir Edwards representing the police case and Stubbs taking on the defense – "demolishing by pure logical reasoning" their case point by point. And, in the process, reveals what really happened. Undoubtedly, the most original and best story in the book!
Sadly, this excellent story is followed by the worst story in the collection, which is called in the story "The Strange Case of the Sleepers," in which people inexplicably lose consciousness and are robbed without remembering a thing. A very pulp-like, uninspired story reminiscent of Max Rittenberg's "The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau" (The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant, 2016) and C.N & A.M. Williamson's "The Adventure of the Jacobean House" (The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, 2000). But this is the only real dud in the series.
The seventh story centers on another locked room murder, known as "the Chelsea flat puzzle," brought to the Dilettantes by Sir Edwards. Three days ago, the body of Miss Menston had been found in her ransacked flat, strangled to death, but various witness statements and a side door to an outside passage, closed from the inside by a thumbscrew bolt, turned the case into a locked room mystery. However, the whole plot borrowed a little to liberally from S.S. van Dine's The Canary Murder Case (1927). It goes way beyond saluting a past master or a classic detective novel.
Thankfully, Death and the Professor ends strongly with a two-pronged story of a man who had been murdered at 7.30, but "was seen alive at 10 o'clock" and "again at 10.30" by two different witnesses. Once again, the solution to the impossibility is not terribly original, but there's a twist in the tail tying all of the stories together that beautifully tipped its deerstalker to two classic pieces of detective fiction. I can say no more without giving anything away.
So, on a whole, Death and the Professor was obviously written as a nostalgic tribute, or a fond farewell, to the detective story's Golden Age brimming to the rim with all the classics from locked room murders and stolen gems to mysterious poisonings and a surprise ending. A tribute tour that came at the expense of the ingenuity and originality that can be found in the Radford's novel-length detective stories, but every, long-time mystery addict will appreciate this warm homage to their drug of choice.