Browsing through the pages of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders I came across an obscure book from the early 20th century by an utterly forgotten writer with the impossible situation described as a "death... in a locked room with a swimming pool." I immediately went looking for Behind the Bolted Door? by Arthur E. McFarlane and found a handful of copies.
One was being sold by someone on eBay who happened to live in Illinois
so I know I would get the book quickly. Was it worth the $30 I shelled out? Well, certainly not for its shoddy condition. (I'll spare you my rant and email exchanges with the seller) But as an example of early 20th century detective fiction it was worth obtaining (perhaps at not such an inflated price) and reading for it serves as a template for other writers who improved on the many conventions and motifs employed in the book. At times it was a puzzling story, frequently it was entertaining, but in the end it proved to be an infuriating read.
Mrs. Fisher, the philanthropic wife of a science professor, is found with her head bashed in the locked hall that contains a swimming pool in her luxury duplex apartment in midtown Manhattan. A strange circular indentation is found in the head wound and her body has been moved from its original position. All rooms leading to the swimming pool hall have been locked on the inside, the only entrance to the corridor is from a staircase and no one was seen leaving that way. (see the plan below) By all accounts it seems to have been an impossible crime. If it was an accident then who moved the body and why? And if it was murder how did the killer escape undetected?
|Judge Bishop listens |
to the werid voice
Obviously McFarlane is trying to make a point. But that he needed to justify his thesis by couching it in psychology theory is troubling. For a thorough search of early 20th century psychology texts turn ups no one named Emile Zancray. I entered multiple phonetic French spellings as search terms in my many internet searches in case McFarlane had never seen the name in print (Sancré, Cincré, Zancré, etc.) and came up with no one at all resembling this Zancray and his postulate. LeRoy Lad Panek in The Origins of the American Detective Story (2006) has a section in which he discusses the novelist's desire to make crime fiction seem authentic by name dropping both real and imaginary experts of criminological breakthroughs. Bertillon, the famed French criminologist, turns up in dozens of early 20th century detective novels and short stories, and Panek cites many of them, so too do myriad psychologists and other men of science. Most of them are real, some of them never existed. Zancray is mentioned in Panek's study as is McFarlane's book but Panek does not tell us if he found that either Zancray or his postulate were factual.reminded of a book which on the first page purported that a character had been hunting tigers in South Africa. An utter impossibility because tigers are indigenous only to India and a few other Asian countries. Here are the two most egregious examples of McFarlane's lack of expertise:
1. The German for “world” is die Welt, and not der Mund.
McFarlane must be confusing Romance languages which are all similar in spelling and phonetics — mondo (Italian), mundo (Spanish) and monde (French) — with his understanding of the various translations of word “world.” German, however, is not a Romance language. Mund means mouth! Always has and always will. He had his detective make the very false statement that “mund is German for world” not once in the book, but twice. The second time to a native German speaker! I was prepared for an outburst from Professor Fisher (whose name should be spelled Fischer if he’s a real German). But no, the professor given to many an outburst throughout the story says nothing and never bothers to correct Dr. Laneham.
2. Hypnosis is achieved almost exclusively using verbal cues. Rarely is any touching involved. And most importantly the subject must be willing to undergo hypnosis.
Dr. Laneham manages to hypnotize the fiery tempered and foul mouthed Italian maid Maddalina by massaging her temples and “smoothing the skin” on her arms and face. She never consents to being hypnotized either. After wildly resisting arrest and clawing at the faces and arms of her captors she is subdued. Laneham somehow manages to stand behind her and without her consent he hypnotizes her by touch. Then with an assembly of props in front of her -- and without any verbal instruction whatsoever! -- she replicates a series of activities using those props thus incriminating herself in the theft of Mrs. Fisher’s money. According to McFarlane hypnosis is some sort of magic act that can be achieved through a combination of simple massage and telepathy. In order to get Maddalina out of her tactilely created trance he merely has to slap a pair of handcuffs on her wrists. She not only snapped out of the trance instantaneously she once again became a “female hellion” slapping at anyone near her and swearing up a storm in two languages.
So is Zancray a real person? I sincerely doubt it.
Behind The Bolted Door? seems more inspired by silent movie adventure serials and the nascent pulp fiction of the era than it is any genuine psychology theories and practices. The characters are stock and lacking in any real dimension. Only in the action sequences does McFarlane reveal character. Daphne -- or D. Hope as she is referred to throughout the entire book -- is the typical New Woman: willful, independent, and possessing an athleticism that would rival any superhero. She manages to save "Owly" Willings (so called for the round Harold Lloyd style glasses he wears) from drowning in the frigid and icy East River when Willings jumps in to rescue Jimmy the butler from a rash suicide attempt. But when she's not in Wonder Woman mode D. Hope is just a starry-eyed female waiting for acknowledgment of love from her reticent do-gooder. Maddalina, the Italian maid, is an insulting stereotype of the "hellcat", lacking in all self-control, easily riled and quick to claw at eyes and pull hair when she loses her temper which is almost on every page. Two elevator operators are West Indian immigrants and speak in the usual phonetic dialect reserved for Black characters in this era, constantly referring to all the White men as "boss", ever fearful when being questioned. Ghosts, eerie voices and supposedly spectral knocking feature in the plot. When the interrogation turns to these apparent supernatural events the two men are reduced to quivering spooked cartoons.
The farfetched rescue sequence in the East River is only topped by the bizarre near murder of Dr. Laneham late in the novel. In trying to figure out how the elevator might have been stalled while traveling to the Fisher home Laneham manages to open the door grate and expose the elevator shaft. A mysterious hand appears from nowhere and gives him a shove. Because the story is inspired by cliffhanger silent movies Laneham expertly grabs hold of the grating and saves himself from a fatal fall. No mention is made of the possible dislocated shoulder or torn and bloody fingers he must have suffered in saving himself. He merely gets a bandage placed on his shoulder.
Oh! Did I mention the knife throwing gangsters that nearly do in one of the policemen guarding the scene of the crime? There. I just did.
Behind the Bolted Door? is a cornucopia of crime fiction conventions and motifs. The novel even has a superfluous seance to round out the "eerieness" just in case the talk of ghosts, spectral knocking and weird voices crying out "Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!" weren't enough. Strange objects are manifested in the seance that allude to the murder method the revelation of which causes the murderer to flee the room and plunge to his death in a convenient suicide.
The denouement takes place over three chapters. Three characters must explain the various mysteries that complicated the plot. In addition to the murder, you see, there was the donation of $500 to the settlement project that went missing, a message in strangely ornate copperplate handwriting that appeared to imply Mrs Fisher was being coerced into committing a crime, a burned magazine with a back cover that had only the letters "mund" legible, and a manuscript of a play that enters the story in the penultimate chapter that comes out of nowhere. That the novel was first serialized in a magazine (Maclean's, May through November 1916) easily explains the melodramatic, incident filled story, but cannot excuse the sloppiness in which it is told nor the misinformation that was never corrected by an astute and careful editor.
You can read Behind the Bolted Door? for yourself at Maclean's website of archived issues where all but the last installment have been uploaded. Inexplicably, the November 1916 issue is missing though Maclean's claim that their archive is complete. You'll get to see all the original illustrations by Henry Raleigh there too. The original Dodd Mead edition, should you be lucky to find a copy, has only four of the over one dozen pictures Raleigh created for the serial version of McFarlane's novel. I've included several of them in this post. Alternately you can read a PDF of the entire book at Hathi Digital Trust courtesy of The Ohio State University. However you choose to read it, be prepared to be infuriated.