August Blanche was a Swedish journalist, politician, playwright and novelist who not only dabbled in detective fiction, decades before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson popularized the genre, but made a historically important contribution to my beloved locked room mystery – penning a surprisingly inventive impossible crime tale in the 1800s. A short story predating some of the better known trailblazers like Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1892), L.T. Meade & R. Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) and Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907).Blanche's "Lars Blom" was possibly first published in an 1857 edition of Illustrerad tidning (Illustrated Magazine) and collected six years later in Hyrkuskens berättelser (The Stories of a Horse-Cab Coachman, 1863), but an English translation would not materialize until a good 140 years later. Bertil Falk translated the story, now titled "Lars Blom and His Disappearing Gun," which got published in the September, 2002, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. The translation also appeared in Falk's Locked Rooms and Open Spaces: An Anthology of 150 Years of Swedish Crime & Mystery Fiction of the Impossible Sort (2007). "Lars Blom and His Disappearing Gun" is one of the earliest up-in-smoke locked room/impossible crime stories involving a vanishing weapon and presented as a delightful cat-and-mouse game.
Lars Blom was a vigorous, 30-year-old gardener, "reddish-brown from health and sun," who supports two younger siblings and day takes a gardening job with "one of the richest land owners in the province of Skåne," the Colonel – who's known as "a downright scourge to his tenants." Someone who has a special "whipping room" on his estate for "the lecturing of his dependents." Lars Blom had been warned against the Colonel, but accepts the position as gardener regardless and there's an inevitable confrontation ("what do you say, you dog!"). But when the angry colonel reaches to grab a rubber cudgel, Lars pulls a gun out of nowhere and promises that every blow will be repaid in lead. Colonel's cries for help are answered by some farmhands and crofters, who are ordered to search the gardener, but no gun is found. One moment Lars was pointing a gun, and the next it had vanished into thin air! It's not the last time he makes the gun disappear without a trace.
The enraged Colonel succeeds trapping a gun-pointing Lars inside a storage shed, securely padlocked on the outside, which is opened in the company of impeccable witnesses like the vicar and a rural judge in the district. Lars is searched a second time without result and turns the small shed inside out, floor, walls and ceiling, but "it was all in vain." So things were beginning to look bad for the Colonel as Lars Blom continued to back him into a corner and get one over the "number one among all unjust and cruel masters."
Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) highlighted and praised "Lars Blom and His Disappearing Gun" in the introduction under "New Discoveries from Before 1991." I agree with Skupin that "the trick is simple and comical, but it is streets ahead of, say, "The Murder in the Rue Morgues," by Edgar Allan Poe, the first locked room detective story" – published all the way back in 1841. However, the trick is not only noteworthy for eschewing any of the poorly dated, 19th century (locked room) tropes like secret passages, hidden cubbyholes, animal culprits, unknown poisons or obscure natural phenomenons. It's also that the problem of the disappearing gun is not presented as a typical impossible vanishing, but used as a tool to help Lars turn the table on a thoroughly unpleasant character. Even today, such an approach to the impossibility of a vanishing weapon would be considered a fresh and inventive. So to do it in 1857, or 1863, when even the standard locked room mystery was still in its conceptual phase, is more than a little impressive. While the trick is simple and comical, I only figured out the easy part and never would have hit upon the second part. I had no idea that was even a remote possibility at the time, but checked up on it and, technically, it could have been done. Possibly. But if anyone could have made it work, it's a crafty character like Lars Blom!
So, no, your eyes are not deceiving you. August Blanche, a goddamned Swede, not only refrained from brutally butchering a detective story, but somehow wrote a classical, historically not important, impossible crime tale. A perceptive short story as amusing as it's ingenious (for its time) that deserves to better known and sorely needs to return to print. Since it's doubtful Falk's Locked Rooms and Open Spaces will be reprinted anytime soon, I propose to include "Lars Blom and His Disappearing Gun" in the potential, eagerly anticipated sequel to the international anthology The Realm of the Impossible (2017).
This one sounds tempting, although I have no idea how I'm going to find a copy.ReplyDelete
Your best shot at the moment is getting a copy of the September, 2002, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, but it really needs to be reprinted somewhere. I believe enough material has accumulated since 2017 for LRI to do another, if somewhat slimmer, anthology.Delete