Monday, April 22, 2013

Something To Do With Figures - Miriam Allen deFord

Story: Something To Do With Figures
Author: Miriam Allen deFord
Book: The Theme is Murder, To The Queen’s Taste
One of the finest stories that I’ve read in a long long time.
Lorina Brackett and her brother Willard stay in the Wyndham hotel in adjacent rooms and the usual residents of the hotel are fed up of the notorious quarrels which they indulge in on a day to day basis. One fine day, Eric Scholl, the other neighbor of Lorina’s calls in the police complaining that something extreme was going on in her room. When the pole break in, Lorina is found stabbed to death with her brother Willard standing over her dead body with the murder weapon in hand. Seems like an open and shut case and the brother is convicted even though he claims he is innocent.
The only person who is convinced that the murderer was Eric and not the brother is Wedderburn, the narrator and the detective in the story who also stays in the same hotel. He provides the reader with the set up, the clues, the timings, the evidence and the possible motives for both the brother and Eric. The brother has already appealed several times, his execution has been stopped in anticipation of some new facts or proof being presented but dismissed each time with no conclusive evidence to show that the murder was committed by a third party. With just a few days to go for the final execution (after the last appeal has been rejected), Wedderburn battles with his mind to find that one vital point, that one vital clue which would conclusively show that the wrong man was being executed. Wedderburn, being an accountant, knows that the clue lies somewhere with the figures involved – what was wrong with the figures present at the scene of the crime? Will Willard be saved in time? To say that the reader is in for a surprise would be an understatement – it is an ingenious twist, its cleverness surpassed only by the cunningness with which the author has played fair with the reader.
236 different stories of detection, crime and mystery were published in the first four years of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. 36 of the best out of these 236 were collected in To The Queen’s Taste, the first supplement to 101 Years’ Entertainment. Ellery Queen includes this story by Miriam Allen deFord in Queen’s Taste and instead of providing an introduction to this story (as he does for all the other stories), he provides a note after the story: If you anticipated Miss deFord’s surprise ending, chalk up a large point for your side. Your Editors confess that they were completely taken aback by the revelation in the last sentence …. If you were fooled as neatly and unexpectedly as your Editors were, don’t blame it on “unfairness to the reader.” At no stage did Miss deFord violate the canon of fair play. As clearly as the … (let’s just say somewhere in the 1st page), the author revealed the whole “trick” of the story – go back and read that sentence in the light of what you know now. True, she has deliberately and with malice aforethought tried to mislead you. But all’s fair in love, war & detective stories, and if you read the story again, you’ll find that strictly speaking, Miss deFord always told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Brava to Miss deFord for a remarkable performance in literary legerdemain!

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