Friday, March 22, 2013

FFB: Vanishing Men - G McLeod Winsor

Looking at the table of contents and reading the chapter titles I learned that Vanishing Men (1927) promised five disappearances and a laboratory explosion. Good enough for me. I plunked down my money and bought the book. I was hoping for something along the lines of the scientific impossible crime novels of Nigel Morland under his many pseudonyms. Would this one involve esoteric chemistry experiments like the books featuring Johnny Lamb? Would I learn of mechanical or engineering problems as in the novels Morland wrote as Neal Shepard? Perhaps physics or biology would be featured. I was surprised when the story hinted at invisibility, matter disintegration and experiments with radioactive elements. The solution to the crimes seemed to be heading toward science fiction and fantasy rather than real hard science.

Prosaically titled The Mysterious Disappearances in the original UK edition the story takes the form of a detective novel opening with the theft of diamonds and gems from a jeweler's office and several apparent murders. The biggest mystery that plagues the several policemen from Scotland yard tackling the various crimes, accidents and vanishings is the fact that the victims' bodies cannot be found. Among the many baffling and inexplicable events the police face:
  • A jeweler disappears from his locked office. There is only one door watched by two clerks who saw only a single visitor enter and exit during the work day.
  • The body of a Maharajah disappears from a plane crash site with no sign of footprints or any other disturbances surrounding the wreckage.
  • A policeman enters a building in full view of his colleagues but never returns. A search of the house reveals it to be completely empty of inhabitants.
The primary suspect is Arthur Seymour, a reclusive misanthropic amateur scientist who lives next door to narrator Sir Henry Fordyce. Seymour has been conducting strange experiments with uranium and radium but will not go into details about the specifics of his work. Fordyce happens to be privy to Seymour's personal life and relates how a broken engagement and his one time fiancée's marriage to another man drove Seymour to the brink of madness. The man who stole Seymour's bride-to-be is also the jeweler who disappears at the start of the book. The police are determined to find a connection between all the vanished men and Seymour and thus prove a case of elaborate revenge. They, however, need some vital information from Miss Arnold, the adopted daughter of the jeweler's widow. Inspector Gilmour turns to Fordyce who he believes might more skillfully obtain Miss Arnold's cooperation. She has refused to talk with Gilmour who she finds a boor and Inspector Glynn who she found inappropriately friendly. Fordyce, a dignified middle-aged gentleman, is shocked when in the course of his sly interrogation he finds himself falling in love with the woman, fifteen years his junior.

The book has a somber often humorless tone thanks in large part to the extremely uptight Henry Fordyce as narrator. But the adventures and multiple puzzles keep the reader engaged. Only the introduction of the at times sappy love story subplot periodically detract from what otherwise is an intriguing mystery that soon becomes a science fiction adventure. In the final chapters Seymour's experimental work is revealed to be an early form of quantum mechanics and particle physics. Fordyce finds himself rendering those experiments in very basic layman's terms in an attempt to convey the often difficult mathematics involved which he confesses he does not understand at all.

George McLeod Winsor, apart from sounding like a character found in the pages of a Stevenson novel, was a little known scientific romance writer from the early part of the 20th century. His best known work -- thanks to its inclusion in 333, a bibliography of fantasy, science fiction, lost race and supernatural fiction -- is his novel Station X (1919). The book is a bizarre tale of interplanetary warfare between Mars and Earth. I have not read the book but the plot summary in 333 certainly makes it seem like a War of the Worlds knock-off with the added bonus of alien mind control. But then there are dozens of books published between 1890 and 1920 about evil Martians invading Earth taking all sorts of forms from bat winged humanoids to metal encased tentacled machines. Though no aliens are involved in the mysterious events in Vanishing Men the solution depends on something just as fantastical as Martians or Venusians.

8 comments:

  1. This sounds really all over the place but good fun all the same and love the 'creeping menace' DJ too - cheers mate.

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    1. I would've preferred a little more humor in this one. I think the absurdity of the impossibilities in these books almost demands some sort of black humor in order to lighten the mood of what can often become melodramatic and histrionic. Winsor tries to make it very mysterious but the abundance of disappearing men nearly becomes self-parody. I'm glad I stuck it out, though. The ending was kind of mindblowing even if it was fantasy.

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  2. T. S. Eliot as I recollect criticized this book on orthodox grounds, on account of its solution, to which John alludes:

    "an intriguing mystery that soon becomes a science fiction adventure"

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    1. Despite it being a mystery that breaks the so-called rules of traditional detective fiction I thought it a good read and neat piece of imaginative writing. You have to admire Winsor for understanding experimental physics and early theories then inventing possibilities based on those theories.

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    2. Personally, I'm fine with rule-breaking!

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  3. John Russell Fearn penned a number of detective stories set in the future and involving crimes of a highly scientific nature. For instance, in The Master Must Die, a power-hungry industrialist in the year 2190 receives a letter warning him of his demise on the 30th of March, in three weeks' time. Despite his troubles to keep himself safe - being sealed in a guarded, radiation-proof cube - he meets his end on the day in March as forecast. It is up to the investigator to solve this highly scientific murder. If you haven't read this one, John, it was reissued a few years ago in the Linford Mystery Library.

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    1. I have read THE LONELY ASTRONOMER which is supposed to be a science fiction mystery but includes a fantastical Martian spider the habits of which are crucial in solving the murder. For that reason it was more of a fantasy to me than a true science fiction mystery. I didn't really like it primarily because, like most of Fearn's mysteries, part of the solution is transparent. You have to wonder why only the detective can see it while none of the other characters can. This bothers me in any type of mystery. Fearn plants his clues blatantly in nearly every mystery I've read by him. The detective, Adam Quirke (I think that's his name) is an egotistical ass and not in a fun way. He annoyed me a lot. He also appears in THE MASTER MUST DIE. If I come across a cheap copy I'll try that one. I have yet to read a full-fledged science fiction mystery by Fearn. Maybe when he sticks to his strengths the books improve.

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  4. Love that Station X jacket, by the way!

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