Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Exploits of The Chevalier Dupin - Michael Harrison

Edgar Alan Poe, the acknowledged Father of the Detective Story created the First fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin in the year 1841. Dupin featured in only three stories: Murders in The Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1843) & The Purloined Letter (1845). With just 4 detective stories (including Thou Art the Man – not featuring Dupin), Poe laid down, for all time, the major principles of the detective story.
It took more than 120 years for someone to dare to bring back Dupin – this feat was achieved by the British author Michael Harrison, a technical writer in the field of nucleonic and cybernetics, an historian of World War II, a cryptanalyst and archaeologist. This collection features 7 new Dupin stories – which were all published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine from 1965 to 1968.
It’s indeed a herculean task to get under the skin of Dupin but Harrison has done a tremendous job of bringing Dupin back to life – these 7 pastiches of Poe which includes 3 Locked Room or Impossible Crimes makes for a fascinating read and you can’t but agree with Ellery Queen when they say these stories are truly ‘tec tours de force!
In addition to the seven stories, the book features an introduction by Ellery Queen concerning Poe and his creation of Dupin, and an article by Harrison titled Dupin: The Reality Behind Fiction – which presents an article on how Poe could have been inspired to borrow the name Dupin from a real person by that same name who could have been one of his close friends when he was in France.
The Vanished Treasure
An interesting story to bring the great Chevalier back – the Gold treasure from the Cathedral of San Isidro has been stolen by one of the generals. It was loaded on many mules and transported into a naval ship and from that moment on the ship was under constant observation and when the ship lands on the other side – there’s no sign of the treasure. The only possible land which the ship could have touched on its journey is thoroughly searched but they find no sign of the treasure. Dupin then presents the most logical explanation for this simple problem.
The Mystery of The Fulton Documents
The Fulton Documents containing the secrets of a weapon of mass destruction is a byproduct of the French Revolution and is under locks in a safe – to which only 2 people have the access – the head of the department and a clerk. This sealed document has never been opened until the clerk confesses to the head that he opened it on his somnambulistic outing. But when the Head opens the safe, the envelope is still intact and when they open it, the documents are also intact. So how can the clerk be so confident that it was opened and yet it was sealed when it was opened for the second time? Further when Dupin asks the head to enact the whole scene; when the envelope is reopened, the documents are missing. How did the documents vanish when the head himself sealed it in the presence of the clerk? Dupin recounts a diabolic plan and shows how this clever conjuring trick was carried out.
The Man in The Blue Spectacles
This story about a man in the blue spectacles who visits a certain café every day at the same time is the only weak link in this book. The spectacles become darker & darker as the days progress. What kind of a man needs such dark glasses and why? What is his profession? What’s his motive in keeping an eye on Dupin and the Prefect of Police when they meet daily in the café? He turns out to be an archeologist involved in the digging of a recently discovered tunnel in the streets of Paris bordering the Bank of France. Ah! Do we see a pattern? Or is it a cleverly planned misdirection? Well, in any case, Dupin is equally up to the task.
The Mystery of the Gilded Cheval-Glass
This is an elegant dying message clue story, mastered to its greatness by the duo of Ellery Queen. The only story where Dupin is approached by a person of lower class to solve a problem: to exonerate her husband Timoleon Delacraye from the murder charge of killing a moneylender. The moneylender is found stabbed multiple times with a full size mirror resting on his body. When the gilded cheval-glass mirror is removed by the police, they realize that the man is still alive and he utters just one word “Delacraye” before he breathes his last. The moneylender’s clerk informs the police that Delacraye had an appointment that day to return his entire debt and the police promptly arrest him. The Chevalier says that there’s another meaning to the dying message: de-la-craye in French means a piece of chalk and one of the hands of the dead body has such a piece of chalk clutched in it.
People who dislike the stories with the theme of the dying message clue might have this objection, “why does the victim always has to write something which doesn’t make sense instead of just writing the murderer’s name? Surely the murderer won’t re-visit the murder scene to specifically check whether the victim has put the murderer’s name somewhere in the room before his death?” This is one of those stories where the victim has certainly written the murderer’s name and yet it is still invisible to the ordinary mortals and only the clever understanding of the scene of murder by Dupin helps shed light on what exactly the victim meant when he uttered the accusatory word.
The Fires in the Rue St. Honore
This is one of the best locked room mysteries that I’ve come across in the past two years. In fact it doesn’t involve a murder but its locked room arson! The Insurance Company has got a third claim within a year from the same claimant that his warehouse has been burned down with all the imported clothes inside destroyed. The first two claims have been honored. But now the insurance company wants the help of Dupin to figure out how exactly the fire was set. Here are the circumstances: the owner has built a fireproof warehouse with only one solid iron door, which is safely locked by a trusted guard after making sure that everyone has left the premises. The guard is the only one who has a key. To make sure that somebody else doesn’t use a duplicate key, the guard seals the keyhole with wax and a piece of paper with his signature – which just can’t be replicated if the seal is broken! But in spite of all these precautions, a fire was set inside the warehouse and the insurance agency has investigated all the three sites for all the known sources of starting a fire automatically (acid reactions, sponge bombs etc etc) and no such device was found.
For each of the three occasions, the owner has an iron tight alibi. The guard is in the clear. Who is the accomplice who could have triggered the fire? How did he set fire – if he was inside the warehouse, how did he escape? If he triggered it from outside, how could he do so when there is just one fireproof iron door with no windows or any other openings? A scintillating performance, a solution which tips it hat off to both G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr!
The Murder in the Rue Royale
How did the murderer make his escape from a window on the second floor, literally within seconds of his having fired the one shot which killed the well known banker? Moreover, how had the assassin made his escape with such miraculous speed that those who forced open the door of the bedroom never caught a glimpse of him? The only possible person with a motive was outside the room in the presence of others when the shot was heard. It’s certainly not a suicide as it couldn’t have been self inflicted though it looks like a close shot wound and there’s no presence of a murder weapon inside the room. These are some of the questions which mystify the police and Dupin in this wonderful locked room mystery. The locked room enthusiasts could certainly guess about one part of the solution but the other ingenious idea, I guess, will elude most of us – as it looks like something which has never been tried before.
The Facts in the Case of the Missing Diplomat
An American diplomat on the way to the British Embassy disappears in an open courtyard which is under constant observation from both inside and outside – one of the clerks watches him walk all the way across the courtyard, pass the gate & turn left and when the same clerks tries to catch up with him to hand over a parcel which the diplomat has left behind, he is nowhere to be seen. The diplomat couldn’t have run as he has a wounded leg and there are no immediate gates or doors for him to enter in the near vicinity. Further, the man who was guarding the outside gate claims to have not seen the diplomat at all. This impossible crime tale is neatly clued and is the only tale by this author to find a mention in Robert Adey’s Locked Room Bibliography.

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