Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Who Took the Book?

"Don't judge a book by its cover"

Last year, I reviewed Ashibe Taku's Double Mystery, which had an interesting set-up as a physical product: the book consisted of two seperate narratives, each starting at a different end of the book. You could start reading from either side, and in the middle (where the two narratives meet), there was a sealed section, which you had to cut open to find out the solution to the two mysteries presented. ....And next I was going to write that somebody in the comment section there dropped the name Dennis Wheatley in regards to me writing about sealed pages in mystery fiction and how you'd sometimes see them in relatively modern Japanese publications, but.... there's no such comment. Huh. So err, I totally forgot where I first learned of the name Dennis Wheatley. Anyway, Wheatley was an English writer and in the 1930s, he came up with a series of mystery fiction not presented in a novel (story) form, but as actual case files. Inside the folder-like productions, you'd find official police reports, photographs, telegrams, handwritten letters and other physical pieces of evidence like strands of hair and matches. The idea was that you'd get to examine all the facts and evidence yourself. At the end of the booklet, you find a section with sealed pages, and by cutting them open, you could find out whether your solution to the mystery presented was correct.

A while ago, I happened to come across a complete copy of the first of the four Crime Dossiers Dennis Wheatley and writing partner J.G. Links published, titled Murder Off Miami (1934). When you open the folder, you first find a telegram sent from the yacht the Golden Gull, which had left Miami earlier that evening. One of the guests on board of the Golden Gull, the British soap magnate Bolitho Blane, had apparently committed suicide during its trip, prompting the immediate return of the Gull. The next document you find is an internal police memo where Police Captain Schwab puts Inspector Kettering on the case. The Golden Gull is the property of Carlton Rocksavage, a rival soap magnate who lately had been in a very fierce product war with Blane, leaving both of them close to self-destruction. Blane had been invited for the yacht trip, among some other guests of Rocksavage and his daughter, to see if they could work something out that would be less harmful to both of them. Before dinner however, Blane disappeared from the yacht, and in his place a suicide note was found. At first, the case seems simple, but some marks in the carpet indicating a body had been pulled across it then appear to suggest Blane didn't jump out of the window of his cabin on his own. What follows are all the police reports (with the testimonies of all the witnesses and suspects) and the evidence found by Kettering addressed to Schwab. At the end, it seems Kettering is completely baffled by the events, but Schwab manages to solve the whole case based solely on everything Kettering himself had gathered.

I have not played any real Escape Room games myself yet, but I had to think of them constantly as I was going through Murder Off Miami, for the basic concept is the same: within a very minimalistic approach to narrative, "you" (the reader/player) use "real" evidence and reports to solve the crime yourself. It is a game set-up in a sense, but modern mystery videogames are narratively speaking far, far deeper than what Murder Off Miami offers. The whole "narrative" of Murder Off Miami is solely presented through official documents and piece of evidence, so as a tale it's rather bare-bones. You won't be here for the deep characterization, the witty author's voice or for some quotable prose. The exact intention might not be the same, and there is of course the limitations in technology back then, but an actual videogame nowadays usually offers everything Murder Off Miami has (you basically always collect evidence and testimonies in mystery games), but usually presented with an actual story and characters, rather than getting to know everybody through police testimonies. Again, presenting a prose story is not the intention of Wheatly and Links here, but I think it is worth noting that Murder Off Miami will remind of modern mystery videogames, but is at the heart also very different.

The goal is to put yourself in the place of Captain Schwab, and figure out what happened to Blane aboard the Golden Gull based solely on the information obtained from the dossier. As you go through the five different reports of Kettering, you get to know the cast of suspects, among them a wealthy widow who's whole fortune depends on Rocksavage making it through, a Japanese negiotiator who hopes to get a soap deal for his government and a sly society man who is more than meets the eye. But you'll also find a wealth of other evidence: photographs taken from the suspects during their police interviews, a lot of handwritten letters (even on in Japanese!), telegrams, diagrams of the Golden Gull. Heck, even strands of hair retrieved from a comb and a match are included in the dossier!

Given you get all these kinds of documents and pieces of evidence, you of course expect the mystery plot to make use of this fantastic gimmick, right? And in a way, it does. And in a way, it does not. First of all, I think the main mystery is perfectly solvable without even looking at the physical evidence like the hairs and photographs. It's pretty easy to figure out who did it (even if the motive is a bit... undeveloped) based solely on the police interviews. In fact, I pretty much guessed who'd it was in the very first report, even before I got to the photographs and stuff, and all the subsequent reports by Kettering only support my theory. And once you figured out who did it, all the rest is just bonus points. That said, the physical evidence collected in the dossier does help further support the solution, though some of these clues can be a bit hard to figure out (the printing isn't really good and some of the clues I shrugged off as "I totally thought that was how things were in the 30s). I would guess that most people who are able to solve this mystery, figure it out based on the police interviews. Once you think you're done, you have to cut open the seal of the last few pages, in which Schwab explains to Kettering who the murderer is and how he figured it out. My copy was already unsealed of course, but if you happen to have a copy too, you could just seal it yourself with some tape before you start with it, of course.

When these dossiers were first published, there were of course worries about whether they would sell, as they took on a very curious form. In fact, it's insane how they did these books. Everything is printed in different kinds of paper in different formats (the telegram is small on cheap paper, the police reports are on typing paper, a letter is written on good quality paper), there's a sealed section in the back, there's friggin' hair and a match in a little plastic bag... No normal publisher could just print and bind the thing, so it must've taken a lot of labor to put these things together. The whole package reminds more of a board game than a book. Apparently, Murder Off Miami managed to sell 120,000 copies within six months (and it is even said Queen Mary bought six copies on release date), so it definitely did hit it off with this concept, but was it really necessary to publish Murder Off Miami in this manner, in the sense that the mystery plot actually demanded this? No. Not really. They could have just printed the whole thing like a normal book, with photographs of the evidence and it'd still work exactly the same. Of course, it's more fun the way they did, but practical, it certainly was not. Apparently, they later made cheaper versions of the four Crime Dossiers without the physical evidence, sealed pages and the ten types of paper and ink and stuff, and at least for Murder Off Miami, I can't see it hurting the mystery plot in any manner. Funnily enough, it appears there's an actual videogame based of Murder Off Miami too.

I did enjoy Murder Off Miami as an experience: it's really fun going through all the police reports and looking with your own eyes, and even holding all the evidence that is usually just described in a few sentences in a story. As a mystery story however, Murder Off Miami is a bit simple, and it's not a story that is made possible because of the concept, but more a story that also makes use of the concept. So that was a bit disappointing, because I was expecting san experience that could only be presented in this way. As complete, good condition copies of the actual dossiers aren't really cheap, I think that if I were to return to this series, I'll try to find the cheaper reprinted versions.

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