Monday, January 23, 2012

Death of Laurence Vining - Alan Thomas

What a lucky find this was! I went into one of my favorite used bookstores looking for two Ed McBain books which I knew I would find. Before leaving I skimmed the shelves for odd hardbacks with DJs like I always do hoping some treasure will magically appear and I saw the spine of a book way up on a top shelf and I could only read VINING. "Is that what I think it is?" I mumbled to myself. I had to grab a stepladder, climb up, and pull it off the shelf. Lo and behold! The Death of Laurence Vining (1928) -- an impossible crime novel I've been on the hunt for years. And when I opened the cover to check the price and saw it was under $10 I had to buy it. I was in the midst of finishing a book for the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge but I set it aside so I could finally read this incredibly hard to find book, let alone one with a dust jacket. (That's the tattered DJ over to the left - I take what I can get these days, especially for $9.25) I was pleasantly surprised that this book turned out to live up to its reputation as a minor classic with a very original spin on the detective novel and an ingeniously thought out impossible crime.

Laurence Vining is an arrogant, supercilious wanna-be criminologist who dabbles in solving crimes with the aid of his sidekick Dr. Benjamin Willing (no relation to psychiatrist Basil, BTW). After recently receiving more accolades from local newspapers for his capture of the killer in the notorious "Shop Murder" he returns home to find a letter from someone signing herself "Red Hat" who desperately needs his help. The letter instructs Vining to meet her in the Hyde Park tube station the following day at 3:25 PM and seek her out near the elevators. She'll be wearing a red hat, of course. Vining asks Dr Willing if he wants to join him, but Willing declines. That afternoon Vining is discovered stabbed, a ceremonial Malaysian dagger sticking out of his back, after descending alone in the elevator at Hyde Park station. There were only two people present at the time and both were on the platform to witness Vining falling out of the elevator. No one was inside the elevator and no one was on the upper level from where he descended. How was it done?

The Scene of the Crime - one of three diagrams in the book (click to enlarge)

I was expecting that Dr. Wiling would take over as the main sleuth having always lived in the shadow of Laurence Vining. But it is the shrewd and intolerant Inspector Widgeon who takes charge of the case and will solve the complicated murder.  Widgeon suffers no fools gladly often rudely interrupting long-winded suspects and urging them to get to their point quickly.

DJ illustration from 1st US edition, Lippincott (1929)
Soon after the discovery of Vining's murdered body his nephew Jack who was longing to marry Vining's secretary vanishes. Also the trusted Malaysian servant Suleiman flees the household when he learns that the weapon used to dispatch Vining was the very same rare artifact of religious importance stolen from a locked cabinet in Vining's study.  Widgeon has two teams of policemen searching for both missing men while he continues to interrogate Vining's servants and the tube station employees looking for some motive for the bizarre crime. In the process he uncovers some strange sexual relationships among the suspects, an adulterous affair, Vinings' intent to disinherit Jack, and an outlandish secret involving Jack's true parentage that rivals anything in a Dickens novel.

The whole book is something of a send-up of the traditional detective novel. The amateur sleuth is the victim, the sidekick disappears into the background becoming almost invisible, the policeman sleuth is brusque and far from gentlemanly, and several of the suspects are presented as burlesques of the stereotypes found in the genre. While there is a trace of comedy here the book is not intended as a parody. The complexity of the plot, the singularity of the murder method, and the motive are all deadly serious at heart.Most impressive to me was discovering how meticulous the murder was planned. Not only was the deed itself thought out to the last detail, but all variations of the "impossibility" being ruined by unexpected tube passengers, ill timing of the elevators, absence of the lift man who opens the elevator doors, etc. were all taken into consideration so that the actual murder would only take place in the presence of two specific witnesses and no one else. If anything occurred to prevent this from happening the plan would be abandoned.  It's truly a bravura performance on the part of Thomas.

This is the third book in the Perilous Policemen portion of my adventure in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge. Below are the other titles I have read so far in which the primary investigator is a policeman. Five more will follow and then I'll move on to Part Two of my three part challenge.

Part I. Perilous Policemen
The Case of the Beautiful Body - Jonathan Craig
Murder by the Clock - Rufus King


  1. John, congratulations on your serendipitous discovery and know that I feel very envious at the moment!

    This book is marked down for a hunt later on in the year, but this review might end up shoving it further to the top of my wish list. I think I would enjoy this story.

    Is it just me, or is there an influx of reviews of impossible crime stories over the past few months?

  2. Congrats on the discovery! Now you've made me want to get my hands on a copy! This was, after all, one of the books warmly recommended to me in the comments on my "Best of 2011" list.

  3. How great for you that you've finally gotten your hands on this one. It sounds very good. I'll be putting it on the list...but knowing that you've been searching for years doesn't make me very hopeful. Here's hoping for a pleasant surprise in my future. :-)

  4. I never find this sort of thing at used bookstores. I think they sell them all online and just keep the standard mass pbs in the stores.

  5. I agree. It's hard for me to find anything worthwhile at the few used bookstores that are left around here. Ah, for the Ohio of my youth when every crossroad had a used paperback store.
    Also wanted to mention that Ramble House just released a book on the KEW list: MAKER OF SHADOWS by Jack Mann.

  6. Congrats John, on the excellent review and for the successful resolution of your book hunting 'case' - my envy continues ... you do realise that at this rate you are likely to end up in the centre of a plot to nick half your stock in the most unguessable manner possible, right?

  7. Well done, and it's obvious you have access to an excellent used book emporium. Your review of this one makes me want to read it, but that sounds very unlikely indeed. Still I'll keep y eye out for it, one never knows.

  8. I did find a copy, supposedly VG but with no DJ, for about $20. What do you think? Too much?

  9. I've personally placed a hold on this via Interlibrary Loan. The Canadian Library system strikes again!!!

  10. Sounds like a great classic mystery read, John. I can just see you in that dusty book shop, maneuvering the ladder while the thrill of the hunt quickened your blood. Ha.

    I know the feeling.

    I so wish there were a second hand bookstore around here. But no such luck.

  11. Sounds much better than the author's "Tremayne Case" which also had an impossible situation (a stabbing in a taxi IIRC)but seemed more like a short story expanded to novel length.

  12. Richard -

    I say go for it. The $15 - $25 range is what I would pay for a copy of this book. I truly lucked out with this cheap copy. Mine is a later reprint and I guess the dealer didn't realize even for a reprint it was a scarce title in any edition. The DJs for the Harrap Shilling series are very hard to find - especially in US used bookstore - and I'm glad to have another to add to my collection.

  13. Darrell -

    I had a copy of THE TREMAYNE CASE but couldn't find it (did I sell it to you?) when I went digging for it after reading this one. Never did get to read it. ...Laurence Vining must be Thomas' best mystery. It's falls just short of being a true tour de force in the genre.

  14. According to my records it was an ABE purchase (and probably the last affordable copy on it), so hopefully your copy will turn up. It's disheartening how depleted the book sites have become during the last five years...I think I'll go hug my copy ;)

  15. John: I wish I had access to your used bookstores. Do you only look in the Chicago area or do you go further afield?

  16. Bill --

    I visit four different used book shops in Chicago regularly - about twice a month. Most of them tend to have good turnover in stock. There are three more in Evanston that I go to about once every three months or so. We used to frequent the used book sales throughout Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin that have "bag sales" (fill up a shopping bag for X amount of dollars) all year round, but I have accumulated an awful lot of "chaff" from those sales and it's hard to sell. So I've curtailed the visits to the book sales.

    When we're on vacation I always make an effort to devote a single day to checking out the used books stores and the antique malls. We were just in Tucson over the weekend where I found a first edition of Edith Wharton's XINGU and an early UK edition of an Arthur Machen book in one store as well as a few hard to find books in cheap vintage paperback editions at various Bookman's (an Arizona chain similar to Half Price Books). Not too bad. I think my finds are part luck and part assiduity.

  17. Congratulations on your find! This book was selected as one of the top 50 Locked Room Mysteries in one of the magazines recently(shared by John Pugmire on GAD) and I've been keeping my eyes open for this title ever since! I was in Phoenix for 2 years and I've picked up some absolute gems from Bookmans. And I'm going there this weekend - hope you restricted yourself to Tuscon and didn't raid the Phoenix stores? :(( :((

  18. Very interesting to see with a dust jacket. The book made a splash in its day.

  19. Arun-

    I found nothing of real interest at Bookman's other than some Dover reprints like DEATH AT PERIGORD by John Ferguson and MURDER BY MATCHLIGHT by E.C.R. Lorac which are absurdly difficult to find in the original hardcover editions so I bought those.

    We were in Tucson, Bisbee and Oro Valley to visit Biosphere 2 which was one of the most fascinating places I've ever been. Didn't make it to Phoenix so those Bookman's shops were untouched by my marauding hands and severely abused credit cards. Hope you find some good books when you make it to Phoenix.

  20. Would you mind scanning it and donating it to open book library,so many more readers could read it.

    1. The same could be said of 99% of the books I write about. It’s up to you to find your own copy wherever and however you do it.