Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Magnum of Mystery Tales: The Invisible Bullet (2016), by Max Rittenberg

Magnum pursued the monologue to which the circle was listening in awed silence: "There was only one contingency they failed to guard against."

"And that was--"

"Myself," answered the scientist, with entire complacency.

                                                                                      "Red Herrings," Max Rittenberg

In 2014 genre fiction expert Mike Ashley (among many additional things editor of the popular Mammoth Book short story anthologies) contributed a piece, "The Strange Case of Max Rittenberg," to Mysteries Unlocked, a collection of essays I edited that were written in honor of Douglas G. Greene, biographer of John Dickson Carr and owner of the mystery short fiction imprint Crippen & Landru.

I had never heard of Max Rittenberg (1880-1963) and I was much interested to learn about him in Mike's essay.  As Mike explained in the essay, Rittenberg (who was born Max Mark Lion Rittenberg in Sydney, Australia but migrated with his family to England when he was a child) in a creative burst between 1911 and 1915 published a flurry of mystery short stories with two series sleuths: Dr. Xavier Wycherley, a psychologist and psychic detective, and Professor Magnum, a chemist and scientific consultant.

 In 1913 the Dr. Wycherley tales were collected in book form in The Mind-Reader, and they have since been reprinted by Coachwhip.  However the Professor Magnum stories, a bountiful eighteen in number, had never been collected in book form until now, Coachwhip having published them in a well-designed volume with a new introduction by Mike Ashley: The Invisible Bullet & Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant.  (All the artwork from the original serial publication of the tales is included.)

In his introduction Mike notes that despite the supremacy of Sherlock Holmes in crime fiction of the day, "it was not until R. Austin Freeman brought Dr. John Thorndyke centre stage in The Red Thumb Mark, published at the end of November 1907, that the scientific detective really took off." ("....Holmes does not use the results of his experimentation quite as much as you'd expect," observes Ashley, with some justification in my view.)

With the landmark "The Blue Sequin," published in the United Kingdom in Pearson's Magazine in December 1908, Freeman, a doctor by profession, launched a long line of classic Thorndyke short stories, all with true scientific detection.

In the United States, where Dr. Thorndyke first appeared in magazine form in May 1910, Edwin Balmer and William B. MacHarg a year earlier, in May 1909, introduced Luther Trant, a "psychological detective" who "used scientific instruments to measure the reactions of people to a series of set questions and from that deduced the guilty party," while Arthur B. Reeve's mystery-solving Professor Craig Kennedy debuted in print in December 1910.

"Within a little over three years," note Ashley, "the British and American reading public became acquainted with the full gamut of scientific and forensic analysis though Dr. Thorndyke, Luther Trant and Craig Kennedy."  Max Rittenberg's Dr. Wycherley and Professor Magnum soon joined this distinguished company.

Magnum--in the tales he goes by his surname alone--first appeared in print in "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel" in October 1913.  Physically Magnum is, Ashley notes, "not unlike Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger, with bushy red eyebrows, an unkempt beard, an explosive temper, and exuding self-importance" (Challenger had debuted the previous year in the classic sci-fi novel The Lost World).  Throughout the cycle of tales Magnum is aided by an intensely shy Welshman, Ivor Meredith, a brilliant chemical analyst who is much less sure of himself outside the laboratory.  There are a couple additional semi-recurring characters: a young attorney named Stacey and Detective-Inspector Callaghan of Scotland Yard.

As Mike Ashley notes, the Magnum short stories include a number of intriguing "impossible" situations.  "The Mystery of the Sevenoaks Tunnel" is a railway mystery that concerns the question of how a man, evidently alone in a second-class railway compartment, came to take a fatal tumble out of the compartment as the train passed through the Sevenoaks tunnel.  In "The Mystery of the Vanishing Gold," "six large ingots of gold, conveyed across the capital, reach their destination considerably lighter than when they started," and Magnum is called in by the baffled authorities to discovered how the precious metal went missing.

In "The Invisible Bullet," for which the book is named, "a man is shot dead with two bullets in a gymnasium, with a policeman on the scene within seconds, but no perpetrator visible, no means of escape and no sign of a second bullet." (A floor plan is included.)  In "The Empty Flask" a man appears to have been slain by some toxic substance, but police investigators can find no evidence as to what this hypothetical toxic substance was or how it might have been administered.  In "Red Herrings" Britain's home secretary is mysteriously snatched "in broad daylight on a busy London street without anyone noticing."  In "The Three Henry Clarks," a trio of men, all of them named Henry Clark, "die within hours of each other, apparently poisoned," but the matter of means and motive stumps the police.

These are all fine detective tales.  Another favorite of mine from this collection is "The Queer Case of the Cyanogen Poisoning," in which Magnum investigates an apparent mass poisoning in the household of a wealthy family.  One of the later tales, "The Secret of the Tower House," is somewhat similar to the earlier story, but it has an entirely different, and striking, solution, as does "Cleansing Fire."

Two cases veer more toward pulp thriller melodrama: "The Bond Street Poisoning Bureau," about a sinister occultist of indeterminate origin, and "The Secret Analysis," which sees Ivor Meredith kidnapped and cruelly threatened with execution in attempt to extort valuable information from Magnum.  The metaphorically-titled "The Rough Fist of Reason" pits the skeptical Magnum against a (sham?) spiritualist, a favorite stock figure in crime fiction.

Max Rittenberg
Magnum is presented with some unobtrusive humor by the author, who gently mocks the consultant's vanity and (as I see it) insularity and chauvinism, while never taking away from his impressive accomplishments as an investigator.

There are bits of interesting social observation here and there, concerning new technology and even the "new" woman.  For example, Magnum's client in the entertaining "Rough Fist of Reason" is a "modern young woman, one of those bright-hard college girls who are not abashed by any authoritativeness on the part of man."  Naturally, Magnum takes umbrage at this presumption!

In his own life Rittenberg was a keen-minded and worldly man, the son of a Russian-Jewish merchant and an Australian-born woman of German-Jewish ancestry whose father had made a fortune in the Victorian gold rush.  After a peripatetic adolescence Max became an expert in business organization and the science reporter for newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail

He married at the age of 38 in 1918, founded a noted advertising and public relations firm, Max Rittenberg & Partners, in 1920, and had two children, who were born in 1920 and 1924.  With so much to do on his hands, he left fiction writing behind him, but thanks to Mike Ashley and Coachwhip, Max Rittenberg's fine legacy of crime fiction has been revived for a modern readership.

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