William F. Deeck

AUSTIN J. SMALL – The Master Mystery. Doubleday Crime Club, hardcover, 1928. First published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1928, as by Seamark. Lead novel in the pulp magazine Detective Classics, March 1930, as “The Crimson Death.”

   Everything red in Gairlie Castle disappears sooner or later, usually sooner. On the night that the betrothal of Lord Gairlie’s daughter, Lenora, to Tommy Delayn, all-round sportsman, dilettante chemist, and recent pauper, the Gairlie Rubies, 811 perfect stones, are stolen. Since Delayn was left alone to watch the room containing the rubies, he is naturally accused, as the room was — and here we have to take the word of the author — hermetically sealed except for the door at which he was standing lookout.

   While Delayn is in jail, a housemaid is murdered in the library. There are no marks on her body, but her purple uniform is stained an uneven red, with streaks of vivid scarlet, and there are pieces of glass in her clothing. Then a Scotland Yard detective is found dead, under the same circumstances in the same room — a windowless room with only one door, and that door being watched in his case.

   Another detective, in the hope of capturing whatever it is committing the murders, stakes out the library, with the room being observed closely by his colleagues. He fires his gun, and when the others rush into the room they find it unoccupied except for his corpse. His clothes, too, have red streaks. Meanwhile, the removal of all red items continues.

   The case is solved — or, more accurately, the criminal, who could only have been one person, is revealed — by a mysterious and utterly strange person named John Argle, who was in love with the murdered housemaid. Argle spends a fair amount of time impersonating, literally, a statue of Rodin’s The Thinker, but he spots the killer while he (Argle), again literal!y, is up a tree.

   Of course, Delayn gets the girI and saves her father from ruination. The locked-room murders are explained to the satisfaction of The Chief, a Scotland Yard man who has no name, but not to this reader. There’s at least one gaping hole in the explanation.

   This novel was no doubt exciting in 1928, but those interested in it today are probably limited to impossible-crime fanciers who don’t mind straining their credulity.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 9, No. 6, November-December 1987.

Editorial Comment:   I didn’t know why this novel sounded so familiar until I used the Google and discovered that, yes, I’d read it before, but in the pulp magazine version, and more than that, my review of it was posted on this blog about five years ago. Check it out here, and be sure to read the comments also. As always, they are very useful.