“The only way to solve a case like this is to forget that it’s a human drama, in which a human life was lost, and to think of it as a trick—as sleight-of-hand. When we do that, we know that all we have to do is find the one move that is the key to the trick, and the whole thing will fall apart.”
Magicians tend to be drawn to dreaming up impossible crime mystery stories. Clayton Rawson, of course, is the most well known and even his detective The Great Merlini is a magician. Hake Talbot (aka Henning Nelms ) was also a stage magician and one time stage designer for theater. Ken Crossen who used a variety of pseudonyms in his writing and his pal Bruce Elliot were also magicians and members of an elite circle of illusionists and magicians, many of whom were also writers. Crossen has written widely in the genre and used some rather clever gimmicks, though not always done fairly, in creating impossible situations in his mystery stories. While he is not as well known or as talented in whipping up ingenious locked room problems as his colleagues Rawson, Carr and Anthony Boucher (aka H.H. Holmes) who are mentioned in passing in this short novel, Crossen deserves at least an honorable mention for his clever spins on well-used tricks and his obvious love of the genre.
I’ve written about Crossen before in his guise as “Richard Foster”. Both those books also featured impossible crimes and “miracle problems” but were not as engrossing nor as clever as this one. Perhaps Crossen was caught up in the novelty of having his detective be a Tibetan American or maybe he was expending much of his energy on creating the Green Lama pulp magazine stories. In any case both books featuring Chin Kwang Kham were not as interesting as this one featuring a Nero Wolfe clone in the person of gigantic Jason Jones.
Crossen, who has clearly borrowed from the pages of Rex Stout, even shamelessly has one character call Jason Jones “a poor man’s Nero Wolfe”. Jones is a colorful character who like Wolfe and his orchids enjoys tending to his geraniums on a rooftop hothouse. There is a strange section in the book where we learn that he often uses various geranium varieties in cooking like an exotic recipe calling for geraniums as a flavor enhancer in lemon jam.
Oddly, Necessary Smith though he is ostensibly engaged to investigate the murder by drama critic Thornton Rockwood acts as a sidekick and legman to policeman Jones. Smith does some sleuthing and even offers up a theory (which perhaps most readers will come up with pages before he does) that turns out to be utterly wrong. Jones is the real detective here. It’s an odd pairing and I’m sure that no real life police department would look favorably on Jones using a P.I. as his partner. But we’ll let it slide because it’s all done in pulpy fun. It’s a book, after all, and hardly grounded in reality.
Speaking of books Crossen uses a particular mystery novel as one of the biggest clues in this story. It also happens to show one of his weaknesses as a pulp writer –- self-referential jokes. One of the characters is a mystery novel addict and his copy of The Laughing Buddha Murders has gone missing. It turns up in a hotel room briefly and just as quickly disappears. The joke here is that The Laughing Buddha Murders is by a writer named Richard Foster and it happens to be very real. (Anyone curious about the book can briefly read about it in my post on Crossen writing as Foster by clicking here.) For the sake of the story this “version” of The Laughing Buddha Murders has not been officially published even though in real life it was published one year earlier than …Phantom Fingerprints. Both books were put out by the digest publisher Vulcan Publications; Buddha is Vulcan Mystery #3 (1944) and Fingerprints is Vulcan Mystery #5 (1945). Over the course of the novel Smith and Jones try to find out who has read the book and who might have borrowed the advance copy from choreographer and detective story nut Gregor Santos. There is also a brief mention of John Dickson Carr and his ingenious locked room mysteries which turn out to be the preferred reading of both Santos and a ditzy actress named Toni Dorne.
In …Phantom Fingerprints Crossen makes use of a very familiar plot from the annals of Golden Age mysterydom. A group of theatrical professionals are at the mercy of a scheming ruthless blackmailer who happens to be producer Max Black. Many of Block's productions are staffed with big name stars who he has wheedled into working for him lest he reveal their deep, dark secrets. Additionally, Block would demand cash payments for keeping those secrets under cover. No surprise when he’s found stabbed in his home during a big post-theater shindig where not too coincidentally many of his blackmail victims were guests. The weird thing about the crime is that the murderer left his bloody fingerprints on the knife in Block’s chest. The prints match those of Max Thale, a visiting PR man from a Hollywood movie studio. But Thale appears to have dematerialized. He is nowhere inside the house and no footprints can be found outside the snow covered ground to indicate he might have jumped from a window or snuck out some other way. All the entrances and exits were guarded by trustworthy policeman and they swear no one got past them. How did Thale manage his disappearing act? That the book is populated with theater people ought to be a big tipoff.
There are several other murders and found at each scene of the crime a bloody handprint matching the prints of Max Thale. The trick of the fingerprints and how they were created is probably the most original feature of a book filled with familiar characters and situations. We even get a “talking villain” scene that seems to have been created solely to fill up some pages with words. I think anyone who knows even a little about stage magic might spot the telltale clue that can lead to figuring out the fingerprint mystery. The explanation when it comes is glibly related and I doubt it would result in the intended effect, but Crossen gets points for trying. Supposedly, the solution is based on fact and can be found in a book on French criminology though Crossen never mentions the exact title nor the author’s name.