Sunday, December 6, 2020

Behind the Bolted Door? - Arthur E. McFarlane

 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.

Unfortunately, Adey uses a word in his entry for Behind the Bolted Door? (1916) that somewhat ruins the entire book because the apparent cause of the murder -- a blow to the head -- is not the actual method at all. The method and cause of the murder are not revealed until the final five paragraphs of the last chapter! I don't think he should have employed that word in his entry for Behind the Bolted Door? Luckily, I had completely forgotten that word while reading McFarlane's book. It was the swimming pool in the apartment building that utterly fascinated me -- especially for a book written in 1916.  The murder is committed in a puzzling fashion, but then the story is overloaded with too much silliness that distracts and frustrates the reader. It was easy to overlook the obvious. This novel is unnecessarily convoluted, slipshod in its storytelling, and crammed full of melodramatic incidents, cliffhanger chapter endings and an attempt to add some supernatural elements that were frankly laughable and not in the least bit eerie as presented.  I could see this as one of the many books John Dickson Carr might have read as a teenager and had in the back of his mind when he became the master of apparently supernatural events leading to an impossible crime.  

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

The crime is investigated by a trio of detectives none of whom are policemen. Dr. Laneham, a neuropath "who possessed a name fast becoming international," is assisted by two young people who are considered suspects -- Walter "Owly" Willings, who runs a settlement house and is involved in charitable work on the Lower East Side, and Daphne Hope, secretary to Judge Fulton Bishop, the newly elected District Attorney. The kindly Chief of Police McGloyne allows Laneham and the two young people a few days to gather evidence and thereby clear their names and deputizes them giving them some authority to question suspects. Willings claims to have a better understanding of the mindset of poor people and Laneham as a psychologist is intrigued by alternate forms of police investigation when dealing with unruly suspects, and in one case a different cultures. One of the suspects is the immigrant Italian maid who fled the Fisher household the day that Mrs. Fisher was killed.  Compounding her possible guilt is the fact that she was recently released from prison and was given her job as part of a mission to reform prisoners and give them a second chance at "going straight."

In addition to these social justice aspects that make the novel somewhat revelatory for its era McFarlane brings up an odd psychological technique that becomes the main theme of the novel. He has Dr. Laneham mention Emile Zancray, a supposedly pioneering French psychologist, and his ideas about the behavior of criminal suspects. It is referred to as "Zancray's postulate" which states "that practically never does any friend of the victim tell everything. Either for his own good, or for the good name of the gentleman murdered, the helpful friend will always hold out something." Over the course of the novel this will hold true. Willings, Daphne, Jimmy the butler and others will all withhold vital information, sometimes seemingly trivial bits, but all of which impedes the investigation and leads to further consequences.  In fact, in one case withheld information leads to the death of a policemen.

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.

I mention all this because McFarlane gives away that he is a naive and lazy writer. At two points in the book when Dr. Laneham is supposedly trying to sound an expert or prove that he is a talented "neuropath" McFarlane reveals his ignorance. Reading this book was mind-boggling in the amount of misinformation, lazy writing and just plain wrong “facts”. I was 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.


  1. Before the invention of the 'net it was possible for people to get away with almost anything in their books. There was no need to know what they were talking about. Gladys Mitchell's Mrs Bradley is - at various times - a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a psycho-analyst and a psycho-therapist and the "experts" she refers to are usually no more real than Emile Zancray. The same thing is true of geographical facts. You refer to tigers in South Africa; another distinguished writer, writing very convincingly about Central America, gets the local colour right (taken from travel books), but includes orang-outans.
    Much the same thing applies to hypnotism/mesmerism. People could make just about any claim about it and readers would accept it as possible, even if they were privately sceptical. There was a hinterland on the edge of philosophy and science where strange ideas could interact - the Society for Psychical Research included eminent scientists among its members and they accepted all sorts of strange hypotheses. Nineteenth-century novels featured people who could hypnotise by touch - Swinburne's friend and guardian Theodore Watts-Dunton uses it as a key part of the plot in his novel "Aylwin" and Svengali in "Trilby" can hypnotise her into being a great singer. Some of Conan Doyle's stories involve feats of hypnotism, and well after "Behind the Bolted Door?" Dr Mabuse was hypnotising people against their wills in Fritz Lang's films.

    1. I have a copy of Trilby but have never read it. I was mostly entranced by the illustrations in my edition. I think I've seen the movie version adapted from the novel starring John Barrymore as Svengali. Had no idea about the mesmerism by touch in Trilby. I had always thought Svengali had "magnetism" and powerfully irresistible eyes, but of course this is based only the illustrations. I sound like a child, I know, but I love those drawings and engravings in that old Victorian edition I own.

  2. "Browsing through the pages of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders..."

    Ah, a gentleman of taste, I see!

    A pity this one turned out to be such a frustrating and sloppy read which goes to show not every obscure detective story has been unjustly forgotten. Some of these 1910s and 1920s novels make the blazing thirties look like a distant star instead of being just around corner. Hopefully, the next one will be better.

    1. I enjoyed some of the over-the-top melodrama. It would have made an excellent cliffhanger serial for the silent cinema. But it's really a failure of a book. I confess I skipped over many of the moony-eyed scenes between D. Hope and Owly.

      Did you head right to your copy of Adey and look up this title to find out what word I omitted? ;^) Maybe you figured out the solution based solely on reading this review. Biggest clue is in the floor plan. You're sharp enough to do it!

    2. You bet! :) I even flipped to the back to confirm my suspicion (something I never do with titles I haven't read yet). But you have to give it to McFarlane, the locked room-trick is imaginative and original for 1916. So I can understand your disappointment that all of the good snippets were drowned out by melodrama or rendered ineffective by the slipshod storytelling.

      You can say what you want about John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner, but they actually elevated the quality of these second-string, pulp-style mysteries.

      "I could see this as one of the many books John Dickson Carr might have read as a teenager and had in the back of his mind when he became the master of apparently supernatural events leading to an impossible crime."

      Have you read Max Rittenberg's 1914 short story "The Invisible Bullet"? A locked room mystery a good 15-20 years ahead of its time and it's not hard to imagine how it could have fueled the imagination of a teenage Carr with a new array of possibilities to kill someone in a locked room. You can find the story in the Coachwhip collection The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant.