"The Man Who Liked Toys"
(Aug 4, 2005)
Every now and then, a Locked Room mystery hits the spot. Even if the solution is about as likely as having lightning jump start your truck, the ingenuity and craftiness the writer puts into the story always gets my admiration. For a classic Locked Room, it's hard to beat John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen, but this yarn shows Leslie Charteris could work up a perfectly fine specimen in the subgenre.
"The Man Who Loved Toys" started life as a stand-alone story, "The Mystery of the Child's Toy" in the September 1933 issue of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE.* It was set in the States and featured different characters acting out essentially the same narrative. Now, why let that hard work fade away forever when it could easily be reworked into a Simon Templar story, be included in the new collection BOODLE (itself soon retitled THE SAINT INTERVENES), and so help generate income indefinitely? Why indeed. So it came to pass.
Charteris' prudent habit of revising unrelated stories to fit into the Saint series is one reason why our own Simon is such a complex and contradictory character (well, by pulp thriller standards; we're not analyzing Arthur Miller here).
The Saint in several of his early stories retains some of the traits of the completely different character retrofitted into him. Yet, he is so flamboyant and borderline irational that it all fits together into one larger-than-life personality.
So it is that we find Inspector Teal and Simon Templar at their most chummy, enjoying a quiet evening schmoozing in the dance hall of the Palace Royal, debating the methods of police work. ("It was another of those rare occasions when Mr Teal had been able to enjoy the Saint's company without any lurking uneasiness about the outcome.") But it wouldn't be much of a story if they just had one more glass of wine, clapped each other on the back and got into taxis. So Fate (that is, the Fate sweating behind the typewriter) wills they encounter something ominous.
There in the lobby, they observe three well-known financiers bidding each other goodnight. One, Lewis Enstone, evidently having altered his blood alcohol content recently, makes an odd gesture. ("In obscurely elaborate pantomime, he closed his fist with his forefinger extended and his thumb cocked vertically upwards, and aimed the forefinger between Hammel's eyes.") The three laugh and separate, Enstone going up in the lift to his flat. (Oh, all right. Up in the elevator to his apartment.)
Then, after Teal launches into a drab and lengthy account of how he once lost money in the stock market, Simon overhears a bellboy discuss how Enstone had just shot himself. Giving up on the idea of getting some sleep that night, Inspector Teal announces himself and goes up to the scene, "and quite brazenly the Saint followed him" as though he had any business doing so.
Enstone is on his bed, quite deceased, with a bullet hole square in one eye and the gun still in his hand. The man's valet rushed into the room seconds after hearing the shot, the doors and windows are all locked from the inside... Teal phegmatically writes it off as obvious suicide, the lack of a farewell note or motive not bothering him.
The Saint is not so sure. All his instincts and judgement of human nature shout that Enstone did not willingly kill himself, that he was somehow made to do so. But how? One of the most devious criminal minds in England starts digging for clues and tagging along with Teal to question the dead man's associates. It would be wrong to give away the solution, which is as fair and plausible as any mystery fan might ask. If you are not likely to ever pick up a copy of the book and are curious as to just what did happen to the unfortunate Lewis Enstone, e-mail me at email@example.com and I will cheerfully give some Spoilers.
There is a startling moment when, ransacking a suspect's workshop, Simon Templar blithely picks up a small revolver and looks down the barrel, his finger on the trigger; this nearly gives Teal cardiac arrest. But if you're a police inspector who makes friends with the Saint, of all people, you have to expect some hair-raising experiences.
*I can imagine some misunderstandings as Charteris tells his friends, "I've just sold a story to THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE," only to be asked, "Which one, Leslie -- COLLIERS, BLACK MASK?" "No, it's THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE!!" Rather like a vaudeville routine.