Friday, January 13, 2012

By an Unknown Hand - John Sladek

Name of the Story: By an Unknown Hand

Author: John Sladek
Source: The Times of London Anthology of Detective Stories
Story Number: 13
Out of the 1000 plus entries received for the detective story competition hosted by the Times of London in 1972, this story with its stylish whodunit and a top-notch locked room murder was deservedly the winner of this competition. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that this story has not found its way into any of the locked room anthologies. However, this story has been collected in “Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek” edited by David Langford, along with his science fiction stories. John Sladek was first and foremost a science fiction writer but he is known to the mystery world for his two very famous locked room novels ‘Black Aura’ and ‘Invisible Green’.
Thackery Phin posts an ad in the newspaper requesting for a challenge to tackle his mental acumen. In response, the owner of an art gallery Anthony Moon hires him to act as a bodyguard to protect one of the gallery’s chief contributors Aaron Wallis. Somebody has been sending threatening letters to Aaron and the last one is very specific that he would die at 9 PM on that day. The same has been prophesized by Aaron’s brother as well - who is a soothsayer.
Aaron occupies the complete 11th floor of an apartment complex and he is the only one who has a key to the floor. When Moon escorts Phin to this floor to start his vigil, Aaron is yet to come back to the house. He turns up at around 8, enters his house, searches the house by himself and provides a chair to Phin to take guard outside his apartment house. All the windows have been barred and Phin has taken a vantage point such that he has kept the apartment door and the only other emergency exit in view. At 1 o’ clock, Moon comes back to the floor to discuss the situation and they decide to call off the vigil as nothing has happened. When they both go to the ground floor, the security guard is having a hard time restricting the entry of two people who want to meet Aaron. They call Aaron from the security desk but he doesn’t answer. They decide to go back in the same elevator (which no one has had the chance to use till now) and when they reach the 11th floor, everything looks the same as it was a few minutes ago – the door is locked, nobody has tampered with the emergency exit and the orange chair on which Phin was sitting is exactly in the same position as he had left it. But when they price open the door, they find that Aaron has been strangled, having met his death between 8 and 9.
Phin turns to some locked room mysteries of Dr. Fell & Father Brown for inspiration to solve this puzzle. He questions the 4 suspects and then summons them to a traditional rendezvous at Hyde Park where he expostulates and discards 7 very ambitious solutions before revealing the actual solution which is simple but elegant, fairly-clued and very satisfying from a locked room mystery fan’s point of view.


  1. Great review, Arun!

    It's this prize-winning story that also earned him a publishing contract for Black Aura, arguably one of the best locked room mysteries ever written. At least, I think so. It's almost criminal that he wrote only two novels and short stories that featured Thackery Phin.

    The short story collection you mentioned, MAPS: The Uncollected John Sladek, also contains another, little known short-short story with Thackery Phin, "It Takes Your Breath Away," as well as an entire section consisting of inverted crime stories. "You Have a Friend at Fengrove National" is, IMHO, the best one of that lot.

    1. Looks like these stories are also worth pursuing! Let me knock out a few more short story collections and then I'll make it a point to come back to this collection. Thanks for the insight on these stories.

  2. I enjoyed Black Aura. But Invisible Green pales in comparison. I've always wondered if Sladek had a crime fiction story collection. Thanks for this review. I'm off to buy a cheap copy of MAPS.