Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints - Ken Crossen

Detective Jason Jones and his tagalong partner Necessary Smith, a private eye, are confronted with the puzzling disappearance of the prime suspect who has left behind incriminating fingerprints on a murder weapon in the first few chapters of The Case of the Phantom Fingerprints (1945). Jones is known for handling unusual cases and he is prompted to deliver a mini lecture on the nature of impossible crimes and why murderers indulge in them. After offering up four different categories that might explain what appears to be an impossible vanishing Jones then goes on to draw analogies to the world of magic and prestidigitation.

“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.

14 comments:

  1. Impossible to get except at an exorbitant price !

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  2. Take comfort in knowing you can't have everything, Grasshopper. Breathe in, breathe out.

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  3. This sounds awesome, John - anyone who can write a book that warrants a comparison to Hake Talbot is alwys a cause for excitment in my house. And I get that self-referential jokes may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's something about the artifice at the heart of most puzzle plots that makes it not only permissible but part of the fun for me... Alas, I shall have to hope this becomes available at some point, but thanks for flagging it up all the same!

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    1. I didn't compare Crossen to Hake Talbot at all. Talbot is mentioned above because he's a magician who wrote an impossible crime mystery. Crossen is a pulp writer and all his stories and novels reflect that. He tries hard to be original but as this book clearly shows he's more of an imitator. Entertaining most of the time, but an imitator all the same.

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    2. Yeah, upon rereading this I see that you don't actually compare them. Hmmm, do I sure look stupid now...

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  4. Got the message, Grasshopper. Breathe in, hold breath, breathe out.

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  5. I came across this title in Adey's Locked Room Murders and expected the explanation for the phantom fingerprints to be a variation of the trick from Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten or Joseph Commings' "Fingerprint Ghost," collected in Banner Deadlines, but I gather from your review the answer is actually original. I'm afraid I can't take comfort now, Sensei John!

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    1. I read Nine -- And Death Makes Ten last year and figured out the second murder and the corpse that went overboard and therefore knew who the murderer was. However, I didn't figure out how the first murder was done. A veteran mystery reader can easily see through the charade of the second murder and I wasn't wowed by much of the mystery plot. In fact it all seemed rather ridiculous in the end. I liked it for the discovery that blackout rules extended to ocean liners and found the shipboard culture a lot more intriguing.

      But I completely forgot about the fingerprints in Carr's book. So I just looked up the solution in Adey's book. Guess what? Exactly the same explanation in Crossen's book! Since Carr's book was published in 1940 I'm pretty sure Crossen got the idea from him. So Crossen is imitating Carr as well as Stout in this book. Disappointing. And therefore not worth reading if you have already read Carr's book.

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    2. I knew it! By the way, there's a Nero Wolfe radio play, titled "The Case of the Phanton Fingers," which uses the same trick. So now you can link all three writers together with the same trick.

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    3. Now there's a hysterical coincidence. The fingerprint gimmick makes no sense to me. I have tried to imagine it as explained and I don't really see how anyone could be fooled. I think it could only occur through a complete accident and not be something that could be consciously created as these writers would have us believe. The way Crossen has the killer repeatedly create entire handprints, not just a fingerprint or two, makes it all the more farfetched.

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  6. You know, it doesn't surprise me that Crossen is of secondary interest as a crime-fiction writer as well in his work in speculative fiction. He did indeed have a Green Lama to keep him warm for a while.

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    1. I keep reading him hoping that one of his impossible crime plots will really deliver. The Invisible Man Murders came close to being brilliant but it was utterly unfair. Plus, I wasn't thrilled with the incongruous sadistic side of a Tibetan detective. Made no sense to me knowing what I know of Tibetan culture. I am starting to buy/read the Milo March private eye books he wrote as "M. E. Chaber" and hope to write about those later his year.

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  7. A PI named Necessary Smith could launch a whole nother series. A newspaper reporter colleague of mine who went by Justice Smith was also a dog catcher who carried a gun. One day the editor told him to choose between going unarmed or switching careers. Justice couldn't give up his gun, but he forgot a handful of .38 cartridges he'd kept loose in a desk drawer when he left. Or maybe they were "intentionally" forgotten as a remembrance. Last I saw him he was driving a patrol car for a rural police department. He and Necessary might have made a good team.

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    1. Great story! I've met some eccentric people in my life, too, but never a gun-toting reporter/dog catcher. Necessary used to go by John Smith and the origin of his odd name (not a nickname but a legal change) as Crossen tells it is fairly amusing.

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