Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bird in the Hand - Erle Stanley Gardner

Story: Bird in the Hand
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Source: The Adventures of Lester Leith
Theme for the Month: Locked Room or Impossible Crime Stories
Erle Stanley Gardner is not a name that we normally associate with locked room mysteries but he has four such stories to his credit as per Robert Adey’s Locked room bibliography. 2 out those 4 feature Lester Leith, the Robin Hood of detectives who solved baffling mysteries in order to crack down on cracksmen. Instead of robbing the rich to help the poor, Lester robbed the crooks “of their ill-gotten spoils” and gave the proceeds to deserving charities – less “20 percent for costs of collection.” Gardner wrote around 75 stories featuring Lester Leith and 5 of these novelettes are collected in this volume including the 2 locked-room or impossible crime stories. The locked room puzzle of “The Exact Opposite” was featured in the locked room anthology ‘Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries’ and here is the second one.
An international gem thief has smuggled in a rich booty inside a big trunk with a secret compartment. He clears the customs and enters a very reputed hotel where each guest’s luggage is given a tag and is verified while it’s checked out. One without a tag can’t go out the hotel and the one with the tag has to verified and cleared before checkout. The gem thief is followed in by the police a few minutes later to arrest him but he is found dead inside a locked room (quickly explained - the murderer got in through the fire escape) with his big trunk missing! The trunk is so big that it couldn’t have been taken out of the window, it’s not inside the room and it’s not found in any of the rooms or for that matter in any part of the hotel. And it’s not of the type which could be dismantled and taken away.
The police spy who is undercover (to catch Lester red handed) as a valet to Lester Leith requests him to apply his mind and provide an ‘academic’ solution as he has done before on numerous occasions. Lester’s mode of operation generally is to device a con job in such a way that it provides both a solution to the case and pulls a fast on the police in helping himself to a part of the booty! The scam in this case is not only extremely elaborate but it is diabolic and wickedly funny. He goes in for the combination of a kleptomaniac & bloodhound-canary. What in heaven’s name is a bloodhound-canary (BC) one might ask. Here is what Lester gives as an answer: “The chief trait of BC is that it can trail things through the air – other birds, or airplanes, or falling bodies – anything that goes through the air. That’s due to its wonderful ability to recognize scents. We have canine bloodhounds that trail things across the ground. The rare BC does the same thing in the air a bloodhound does on the ground.”
With these two elements to work as his gargantuan con, he traps the murderer and identifies the invisible location of the trunk. It doesn’t end there – there is another impossible disappearance to contend for - just before the police is about to apprehend both the criminal and the booty, Lester has the chance to pilfer some of the best gems and it disappears as smoothly as the trunk had in the previous instance. Though the police know very well that some of the gems have been robbed right under their noses, no amount of search (including x-raying the canary!) yields them the goods and they have to let him go! The reader is in for a tremendous joy ride in this wonderfully constructed story.

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