8/6/22

Dr. Eustace Hailey, Ghostbuster: "Footsteps" (1926) by Anthony Wynne

Robert McNair Wilson was a Scottish-born physician, medical correspondent of The Times and a one-time aspiring politician who's best remembered today as the author of twenty-seven mostly rare, often costly detective novels – published between 1925 and 1950 under the name "Anthony Wynne." All but six of his novels fall under the category of locked room mysteries and impossible crimes. So he was, in fact, "one of the leading exponents of the locked room mystery" in his day. Wynne also wrote a slew of short stories during the twenties that appeared in such publications as Hutchinson's Magazine, Flynn's Weekly and The Illustrated Detective Magazine. Two of his short stories are listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). 

"Footsteps" original appearance came in the January 9, 1926, edition of Flynn's and reprinted

a year later in the extremely scarce collection of Wynne's short stories, Sinners Go Secretly (1927). Recently, the story reappeared in Martin Edwards' latest anthology The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime (2022).

The story takes place in a dark, old seaside castle in the West Highlands that has recently become haunted by ghostly footsteps. A very peculiar ghost with "a very mysterious and ghostly history" going back only seven years. The previous laird of the castle, Colonel McCallien, supposedly committed suicide on the eve of his wife's funeral, who unexpectedly died in her sleep, but his body was never found – only his hat was found on the rocks below the cliff. The constant footfalls being heard supposedly belong to the ghost of Colonel McCallien trying to find his wife. Understandably, the ghostly footsteps began to work on the nerves of Lord Tarbet and asked Dr. Eustace Hailey to come down to lay the ghost as he can't stand much more of the ghost.

Dr. Eustace Hailey, "Giant of Harley Street," is a celebrated nerve specialist, professional snuff-taker and an amateur criminologist who gets to experience the phenomenon first hand in the story's opening pages.

Lord Tarbet and Dr. Hailey hear the sound of footsteps in the dim corridors of the old castle, slowly approaching the door of the room, before coming to a stop, but, when they open the door, nobody is there. It's "utterly impossible that any human being, no matter how swift-footed, could have escaped from it in so short a space of time." Even when the door is left open, the footsteps are heard again, "growing louder and louder," but the corridor remains deserted. Dr. Hailey finds a rational explanation to the footsteps only a few pages later, but this uncovers another mystery. What, exactly, happened to Colonel McCallien seven years ago, while his wife lay in a coffin in the room that since attracted those phantom footfalls?

So really not all that bad of a detective story, but "Footsteps," like so many of his other detective stories and novels, painfully reveals the Great Tragedy of Wynne's career as a mystery novelist.

Wynne possessed the imagination needed to come up with original locked room-tricks (e.g. The Silver Scale Mystery, 1931) or pepper his plots with false-solutions (e.g. The Green Knife, 1932), which should have given him a towering reputation among locked room fans. Regrettably, Wynne was a writer who belonged to the Doylean era of the genre with his period-style writing, flat characterization and a tendency towards Victorian melodrama, which becomes even more apparent in his short stories – like the Sherlockian homage "The Cyprian Bees" (1926). "Footsteps" feels like it belonged to the period of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's Master of Mysteries (1898). This makes it so tragic Wynne arrived on the scene a good twenty-five years too late, because Wynne would have been remembered today as The Father of the 20th Century Locked Room Novel had he belonged to the previous generation of mystery writers. Isreal Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1892) and Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) have exactly the same flaws as Wynne, but fondly remembered as trailblazers that moved the locked room mystery away from the secret passages, hidden panels and poisonous animals from the 1800s. The Silver Scale Mystery and The Green Knife would have been game changers in 1911 and 1912.

So, if you want to fully enjoy and appreciate Wynne's work, you have to knock two decades from each publication date and pretend in your head the story was published sometime during the first twenty years of the previous century. It helps you look pass his shortcomings to see the criminally underrated locked room specialist underneath the faded, Victorian exterior. "Footsteps" is yet another reminder most of Wynne's locked room treasures, like The Case of the Gold Coins (1933), Door Nails Never Die (1939), Emergency Exit (1941) and Murder in a Church (1942), remain out-of-print and elusive as ever. And that needs to change!

4 comments:

  1. I had a rather negative reaction to Murder of a Lady (AKA The Silver Scale Mystery) although the locked-room aspect was very neat. Looking back over my review I think you may have a point. I'm surprised now that I disliked the melodramatic touches since on the whole I enjoy melodrama. So yeah, had the publication date been 1901 rather than 1931 I might have really enjoyed it.

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    1. You're likely not the only one who had a negative response to Murder of a Lady. You expect a 1930s locked room mystery and get a throwback to Victorian times, which is probably why the British Library quietly dropped Wynne. Oh well, there's always the remote possibility Black Heath decides to reprint him in bulk. Fingers crossed!

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  2. He's also drearily humorless in nearly all of his books. The first time I encountered a joke and off-color wit was in The Fourth Finger. It was a rural Scottish character, IIRC, who makes the insulting jibe so it was a chance for Wynne to revel in his native Scottishness. Wynne was really Robert McNair Wilson, born, raised and educated in Glasgow. To date it's his only book in which I've encountered humor.

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    1. You can't hold being a dour Scotsman against someone who was actually a dour Scotsman.

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