“Nobody ever notices postmen somehow...yet they have passions like other men, and even carry large bags where a small corpse can be stowed quite easily.”— Father Brown in ‘The Invisible Man’
This climactic observation in the Father Brown series is the culmination of one of the first short stories I ever read that took on the theme of the vanishing corpse and the criminal. It is a theme that is fairly prevalent in crime fiction, but one that may be difficult to execute, especially because the limits of “suspension of disbelief” are often stretched to unrealistic extents due to the dictates of the plot and to lend the “wow” factor to it.
“The Invisible Man” doesn’t exactly dazzle with its plot – it is a rather linear, simple story with a slightly creepy sub-plot featuring headless cleaning robots/machines, the spirit of which would reemerge, later, with the automaton in John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge (1938). What the story does do well, without resorting to any complicated trickery, is the portrayal of the “blind spot” in people’s vision and perceptions, and how context and circumstance determine our observation of and reaction to a particular situation. It is a grounded, back-to-the-roots kind of approach that simply sticks to the fundamentals.
Blind spots and disappearances
Building on these fundamentals, more sophisticated variants of the “disappearing criminal and/or the transported corpse” theme would be plotted over the next few decades. It may not have been intentional but this year I have had the fortune to read three titles of relatively good acclaim that treat this theme to varying degrees of success. The first of these was The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) by Clayton Rawson, an author I was acquainted with having read his previous work, Death From a Top Hat (1938).
A magician by profession, Rawson populated the pages of both novels with magical chicanery of all kinds, but the execution is fundamentally different in the two novels. The Footprints on the Ceiling is replete, top to bottom, with a host of tricks and stagecraft that give Rawson an excuse to describe some engrossing magical secrets for the readers. The novel, however, has many more moving parts and character agendas compared to Death From a Top Hat, which is a more focused read and deals with perhaps only two or three well-defined set pieces.
Consequentially, the minor mysteries in Death From a Top Hat take on a more superficial, showboating nature than in The Footprints on The Ceiling, where the lesser mysteries add to the excessively (and perhaps, irritatingly so) tangential nature of the narrative, yet stay integral to it because the culprit’s actions can only be understood in relation to the individual actions and mutually negating deception of the rest of the other criminal characters surrounding the culprit.
Whether they intend to or not, the sequence of events has the domino effect of covering up not only for their own selves but also for the murderer in their midst. The device of “covering up for another” can also be seen in a novel such as Seishi Yokomizo’s The Inugami Curse, but there, it has a more direct bearing on the main plot than this one and unfolds in a far less confounding manner than here.
The scale and the complexity of the plot also require a breakneck pace to be employed early on in Rawson’s work, which makes for a pulpish and thriller-like read. Within the first few chapters, you have an ad for a haunted house that leads the detective, Merlini, and his journalist friend, Ross Harte, heading to Skelton Island. But, before they can even get to the island, Harte is ambushed (“Something that might easily have been the Chrysler building hit me on the top of the head, and was followed immediately by an elegant display of shooting stars in full Technicolor.”) and there is a switcheroo involving suitcases and counterfeit guinea coins.
Once they land, they come across the corpse of the heiress of the island, Linda Skelton, in an old, decrepit building, followed by an attempt on their own lives when said building is set on fire. Over the course of the night, Merlini, Harte, and the readers come across an excessively suspicious cast of characters, there’s gunfire, a jungle chase and all the boats are scuttled to prevent the escape of any character. All this goodness and more before the police even appear on the island.
One of the problems of a novel with too many moving parts concerns how the author manages to tie it all up with no loose ends, especially if the characters have diverse, personal motivations of their own that sometimes conflict with each other and manage to be congruent with each other at other times. Similar is the case with The Footprints on The Ceiling – and to his credit, Rawson is able to bring together the diverse narrative strands into a coherent whole, mostly by relying on page after page of exposition that describe magical trickery and scientific phenomena in equally excruciating detail. The effort is much appreciated, but it can be trying for a first-time reader unused to such treatment.
However, sprinkled in between are a few neatly and competently executed ideas – the mystery of the blue-skinned man, the mystery of the eponymous footprints on the ceiling and the segment involving decompression sickness which is actually the culmination of the independent actions of quite a few characters that ultimately claims the life of one of the Skelton siblings.
On the flip side, the plethora of mysterious incidents, all to be explained by Merlini, ensures that certain events are simply glossed over. For instance, there are two separate instances in the novel that involve the disappearance and reappearance of corpses and which fulfil different narrative purposes. However, these are explained in a most desultory manner, while the motivations behind these actions seem almost superfluous to the needs of the core plot, existing seemingly to only complicate the story further.
Two other issues hurt the novel even further. One is the lack of a map or diagram of the island and its various scenes of crime, which makes it difficult to picture some of the ingenious tricks such as the bullet “that bends around walls” and the shootout at the climax of the novel that claims the lives of two of the cast, somewhat inexplicably and to the bewilderment of the rest of the characters and the readers. This is a logistical issue that I would perhaps term “the problem of the starting point”. However well Rawson pulls off the connecting-the-threads act at the end, there’s this persistent sense of jarring disconnect throughout. Much of it, I believe, has to do with the point at which the readers are introduced to the novel. As later events attest, the plans of many of the characters are already underway by the time Harte and Merlini land on the island, and even before Harte is attacked in the opening chapters.
One could even argue that Harte and Merlini arrive when these plans have almost matured completely. What this results in is that we are deprived of the larger context because the novel is seen through Harte and Merlini’s perspectives – and the reconstruction of the events prior to those in the novel, which are essential to understand the happenings in the present day, is simply conjecture on Merlini’s part. While this lends to the excellent shock value of the work, for those looking to solve the incidents on their own rather than simply going along for the ride, it can be very frustrating because, without the context of events past, the onslaught of the present events leads to constant cluelessness and befuddlement (what is happening? why is it happening?) and not always in a good way, even with the minor mysteries being explained over the course of the novel.
I think the novel would have been better served if Rawson could have interspersed the narrative with individual perspectives from the suspects (first-person and/or otherwise) other than Harte and Merlini, casting light on their motivations and actions, their personal opinions of their fellow cast members and how their thoughts and plans were influenced by those of the other.
It is a ploy that was used to devastating effect in Szu-Yen Lin’s Death in the House of Rain – and in the case of The Footprints on The Ceiling, it could have successfully shifted the starting point to an earlier period, in the segments where the characters shared their perspectives and provided the necessary context, perhaps making for a fairer and more dynamic read.
Phantom in a locked room
A better example of a good starting point lies in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit (1944), long touted to be one of the best locked-room mysteries ever written. Like Rawson, Talbot too was a magician with the result that Rim of the Pit is full of exquisite magical flourishes that set up an atmosphere of hair-raising, full-blown horror. But, it is not an all-out assault from the word go. A bit of breathing space at the start of the work allows readers to appreciate the background and context, while a few minor but striking incidents (such as the voice of a deceased person being heard over a frozen lake, eerie accordion music suddenly being played in a wooden lodge and threatening messages being left in door cracks) prepare one for the horror soon to unfold.
Things escalate – and brilliantly so, to a feverish pitch – when the cast gathers together in snowbound New England. Eight participants are invited by the Ogden family to attend a seance by one Irene Ogden in the Cabrioun, the two-floored log house built by Irene’s former deceased husband – an elaborate ploy by Irene’s current husband, Frank, to gain the “permission” of Irene’s deceased husband to open up a profitable stretch of a forest for the purpose of logging.
The seance veers off in a most unpredictable direction when the spirit of Irene’s former husband, appears in the form of a Windigo (a mythological creature of evil in Native American cultures) and berates her vehemently before disappearing. To pile on the humiliation even further, one of the guests happens to be a magician called Vok who immediately sees through some of the other mysterious phenomena in the seance and denounces Irene as a fraud, leaving her a bundle of nerves. The only real mystery at this point is the appearance of the spirit.
A somewhat decent page-turner would probably have focussed on developing this singular plot point further in an engaging manner. But, in a masterpiece such as Rim of the Pit, the end of the seance marks the point where the story both springs into life all of a sudden and launches into overdrive. It is also at this point that the novel starts resembling The Footprints on The Ceiling in earnest, with the sheer number and diversity of impossibilities being presented to the reader at a dizzying, breakneck pace.
Irene soon meets her end in a grisly manner in a locked room, mirrors are found smashed in the Cabrioun, footprints are discovered “leading to nowhere” in an open snowfield, the Windigo makes an appearance again, Frank Ogden seemingly loses his mind and still manages to escape from a locked room, using the collective “blind spot” of the onlookers (a throwback to Chestertonian aesthetics?) and is later found dead outside in the midst of a blizzard with no surrounding footprints.
What works for Rim of the Pit, compared to The Footprints on the Ceiling, is its relatively straightforward, linear narrative, with a marked paucity of character motivations and plans as far as their individual actions are concerned. That energy is instead expended in sustaining the ambience of horror, invited and uninvited, throughout the work. This is no mean feat given the fact that some of the impossibilities – such as that of the disappearance of the phantom in the seance, the mysteries surrounding the smashing of the mirrors, the appearance of Irene Ogden’s corpse in a locked room, the disappearance of Frank Ogden from a locked room – are great pieces of logical, rational misdirection and obfuscation that make use of positional and circumstantial awareness to distract readers and characters alike.
What’s really disappointing to me, however, is the denouement of the novel. A work so steeped in horror deserved a better ending, especially when one considers the “false ending’ where the remaining characters work in cahoots to cook up an overelaborate scenario to hoodwink the police who would investigate the incident. In the aftermath of this cover-up, however, in typical GAD fashion, the detective Rogan Kincaid bares it all (and how he did so) before the culprit in the midst of a most genteel conversation in a train car – a starkly observable tonal shift for the worse, veering more towards the armchair-detective school of stories, and not at all befitting of its status as an excellent horror-detective story.
A subversion of locked room conventions
However, in terms of both quality and aesthetics, I think I am most biased towards John Sladek’s Invisible Green (1977) as the best of the lot being discussed here. Now, let me clarify at the very outset that Invisible Green is a work quite unlike either Rim of the Pit and The Footprints on The Ceiling, and comparing them isn’t exactly a fair practice on my part. What they do have in common, however, is a love for impossibilities and locked rooms, even though the way Invisible Green goes about expressing its admiration and then engineering its own twists on these tropes is very different from the treatments seen in the other two.
Invisible Green does not have a sudden spate of impossibility after impossibility as seen in Rim of the Pit, nor does it have excessive distractions in the form of too many divergent character motivations and plans (as was the case in The Footprints on The Ceiling). In fact, it has three distinct, well-defined scenarios with the rest of the incidents serving merely as misdirection/red herrings or to enhance the setting and purpose of these scenarios. All of them feature murders – one of them in almost locked-room conditions, another in impossible circumstances, and a third featuring a clever subversion of locked-room mystery conventions.
For me, the best thing about Invisible Green was its pacing. For a relatively modern work, the setup is as classical as it gets – and befitting its nature, Sladek devotes both time and space to build up the eccentricities of each character, and to allow the plot to breathe, fester and develop. It starts in the past, with a meeting of the Seven Unravellers, a club of seven odd personalities, to whom “murder meant a game with rules” and “suspects with false alibis, clues becoming red herrings, and courtroom revelations”.
The cast is a diverse one – from word-game and logic puzzle aficionado Miss Dorothy Pharaoh and the conspiracy theorist and “crypto Nazi” Major Edgar Stokes (with his paranoia of a Communist takeover) to the bohemian artist Gervase Hyde (with his predilection for real crimes and the psychological angle), the violent police constable Frank Danby (with his love for “sensational news stories of shotgun murders”), the chemistry student Leonard Latimer Derek Portman (who had read “all the weightiest tomes” on forensic chemistry and “the stories of RAFreeman, ... where a murderer is hanged by the evidence from a single speck of dust”), the solicitor’s clerk Derek Portman (who “enjoyed cutting into the legal fabric of other murder mysteries”) and finally, the good old baronet, Sir Anthony Fitch.
The scene soon shifts to more than 30 years later, when Miss Pharaoh sends out invitations for a reunion of the remaining members of the Seven Unravellers (Sir Anthony having long passed away) sometime in the 1970s. In the meantime, Major Stokes has grown even more paranoid of a Communist conspiracy targetting his life (which he does by deciphering “clues” in the Times crossword and codes in a movie hall, no less!).
His state concerns Miss Pharaoh, even more so when it transpires, through Stokes’ own admission, that an invisible antagonist, Mr Green, is issuing threats to the major and offering money to him to move out of the house. Soon, his cat is murdered too. Thus it is that Miss Pharaoh invites her acquaintance Thackeray Phin, a detective whose sense of fashion leads Inspector Gaylord of Scotland Yard to comment that he looked like “best man at a pimp’s wedding”.
Stokes dies of a heart attack in the hall toilet of his home as Phin observes the same fortified house with spiked windows and floors sprinkled with talcum powder to capture footprints. Yet, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the death was not a suicide or accidental. As Phin starts investigating this devilish incident, he discovers that the rest of the Unravellers have been the victims of certain non-malicious attacks, all linked to a common theme – colours.
The investigation soon leads the Unravellers and Phin to Frank Danby’s seaside residence. Here, Danby too is inexplicably stabbed to death while the exits were being watched, after saying “Who are you” presumably to his murderer, even though the possible suspects had been introduced to him only moments before. The third murder, that of Miss Pharaoh clubbed to death, reveals itself with the discovery of Miss Pharaoh’s corpse in her own house, with the rest of the cast miles away at different locations.
So, the three core puzzles of the novel take up different challenges. The first is a classic locked-room setup, the solution to which is underplayed by Phin himself. But, it is no less stunning – and its functionality is borrowed in one of the story arcs of Seimaru Amagi’s Tantei Gakuen Q (more specifically, the Q vs A storyline), even though the tool Amagi uses in his story is the one Sladek rejects in Invisible Green. The second one isn’t really innovative and may even be considered a bit of a cheat by some, but to me, it’s a wonderful case study in realising the difference between a simple observation based on what is visible and making the right interpretation based on the said observation, by also factoring in other contextual information gleaned before, which may not be immediately apparent in the current circumstance.
Personally, however, I have the highest regard for the third incident. Not only is it a subversion of the locked-room trope with the corpse (and by extension, the assumed scene of the crime) and nearly all the suspects seemingly in different locations at the time of commission, but it also deliciously inserts the unbreakable alibi conundrum into the equation. The manner in which this particular incident is explained is perhaps the icing on top of the cake. Seen as a whole, the three problems and the overarching essence and rationale of Invisible Green evoke the spirits of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie in sufficient measure.
What’s even more pleasantly surprising is how contemporary the work feels for its time. The effort spent in delineating the characteristics of the culprit (to make them the “right fit”) and the “modern
nature of the motive behind the crimes not only make Invisible Green a product of its time, it also lends a high degree of credulity and believability to the work. Add to this the wry, easy humour with which Sladek peppers this story (particularly in the climax, which, to me, replicated the chaotic energy and hilarity of the climax of Edmund Crispin’s 1946 work, The Moving Toyshop) – and I think we have a work that is perhaps deserving of a higher rank than what Edward D. Hoch and other literary reviewers and experts gave it in their 1981 poll.
As a reader, one of the most satisfying achievements is to discover an author whose works leave you with the dual feelings of bliss and wanting more, at the same time. Early last year, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of who John Sladek was or what his works were like. I do not believe in subscribing to reading goals, but Invisible Green might have, unwittingly, led me to have one for 2023.