Friday, May 20, 2016

Two Impossibilities from William Brittain

Editor Mike Ashley characterized William (Bill) Brittain, while he was alive, as . . .

   ". . . one of those authors who has consistently produced clever crime stories for the magazines for the last forty years and yet has had none collected in book form. That in itself is a mystery. He has written a long-running series featuring Leonard Strang, also a high-school teacher, who unravels unusual problems and whose adventures are long overdue for book publication." — Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000)

. . . a statement that is still true today.

Mike Grost elaborates:

   "Brittain's best stories generate considerable intellectual excitement as the sleuth reveals their solution. It is very interesting to any true mystery fan to see a whole hidden pattern come to light out of a surface story. The fact that the solutions are often rich in detail adds to their excitement.

   "Brittain's best stories are true mysteries, with puzzle plots and solutions. He and his technique are much weaker on suspense plots, or tales that reveal most of the facts about the crook and his schemes early in the tale. Such tales are strictly among the minor works in his output.

   "William Brittain is clearly an intuitionist writer. His techniques are those of the intuitionist school: ingenious mysteries solved by pure thinking, often by an amateur, genius detective. Brittain's works are full of references to earlier detective writers, and these are typically of the intuitionist tradition: Doyle, Christie, Carr, Queen, Rex Stout. Several of Brittain's best works can be seen as armchair detective stories, where the sleuth solves the problem immediately after the facts are presented to him, without any further on scene investigation or sleuthing. This too is in the intuitionist tradition. Brittain often shows little interest in investigative technique, moving right from the puzzle to the solution. The fact that his works are compact short stories probably encouraged this approach. But it most deeply reflects his intuitionist emphasis on pure thinking." — Michael Grost, "William Brittain," A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection

The first story below might not have Mr. Strang, but it is a very clever impossible crime tale with a most unusual amateur detective; whereas the second story highlights our perspica-cious pedagogue's ingenuity at its best.

"The Impossible Footprint."
By William Brittain (1930-2011).
First appearance: AHMM, November 1974.
Short story (17 pages).
Online HERE.
"An’ that’s the way it wuz, ez they say on the tellyvision."
In this murder mystery, the game is not afoot; the game is a foot.

Main characters:
~ Matt Kehoe, a cop on holiday:
   "I understood [says Joshua Red Wing] ye wuz one o’ them detective chaps like oi’ve read about in the penny-dreadful magazines. Oi thought ye’d be used to a bit uv hardship, what with runnin’ down alleys an’ climbin’ fire escapes like I see on the tellyvision. It’s a sad disappointment to discover yer as soft as the rest uv the hunters from the city. Next oi’ll be findin’ out ye can’t shoot worth a damn, neither."
~ Joshua Red Wing, a woodsman's guide who, says Matt, sounds "like an Irish Geronimo":
   "Joshua turned to Kehoe, a look of intense interest on his face. 'Do that, Mr. Kehoe,' he said. 'Talk to me about how the police ignore clues that’s right in front of their noses'."
~ Tip Spearing, the victim's son:
   "Tip Spearing was in his mid-twenties, at the peak of his manhood, but judging from the ghastly expression on his face, he had looked into the deepest pit of hell itself."
~ Sheriff Vernon Lefner, the local law:
   "'Murder!' Lefner’s face turned a beet-red. 'Josh, I’ve heard enough already. Nothing’s been said at all about Karl Spearing’s being murdered."

. . . but he was.
~ ~ ~

"Mr. Strang Accepts a Challenge."
By William Brittain (1930-2011).
First appearance: EQMM, November 1976.
Novelette (21 pages).
Online HERE.
"'Last July twenty-first,' he began, 'over in the Bay Ridge section of Aldershot, Simon Winkler died. The cause of death was a blow on the head – a fantastically powerful blow, since not only was the skull shattered, but two of the cervical vertebrae were crushed.
"'Now Simon’s aunts, Agnes and Lucille Winkler, were within a few feet of him when he died. Furthermore, they both had every reason to want him dead. And yet it’s impossible that either of them struck him down. The police even investigated the possibility that the whole thing was an accident. But that was just as impossible. You see, we not only can’t find out how the blow was landed, but also, whatever object struck Simon Winkler seems to have disappeared.'
"The students leaned forward like bloodhounds on the scent. 'I don’t have to worry about withholding information,' the detective went on, 'because there’s nothing to withhold. By the time we’re through here today, you’ll know as much about the case as I do, and I was the man in charge of it. But the police are really stumped by this one'."
When he's challenged by his students to use the applied logic he's been teaching them in figuring out how Simon Winkler was murdered even though there's no proof that he was, Mr. Strang reluctantly agrees to try. For him, determining whodunit is a no-brainer, but how-they-dunit could be a lot tougher, as he must match up the murder weapon with the abilities—or, you could say, the disabilities—of the killer.

Principal characters:
~ Mr. Leonard Strang, Aldershot High School science teacher:
   "The method of murder was not only heartless, as all murders are, it was also devilishly clever . . ."
~ Jerome Lockley:
   "We want you to figure out how Simon Winkler was wasted."
~ Detective Sergeant Paul Roberts, shanghaied into helping "because he hadn’t been alert enough to think of a plausible excuse when Mr. Strang had called him yesterday evening to ask him to come to the classroom and discuss the Winkler case":
   "So there you have it. The death of Simon Winkler. Was it a perfect crime? Was it an accident? We just don’t know. Frankly, this case seems immune to any logical approach. But I’d be very happy if Mr. Strang could shed any light on it. I don’t like cases that remain in the Open File. And neither does the lieutenant."
~ Father Raymond Penn, "the perfect, incorruptible, unimpeachable witness":
   "The thing holding open the storm door was the body of Simon Winkler. He was lying on the front stoop with blood gushing from his head. There were some gardening implements on the stoop – a bushel basket and some other things – and the blood had stained them all red, even in the rain. I was numb. Didn’t know what to think or do. Finally I felt for a pulse. There was none. Winkler was dead."
~ Agnes and Lucille Winkler, the victim's aunts:
   ". . . at the time Simon Winkler came to call on his aunts, he was in the process of trying to take their house away from them by some kind of sharp legal ploy. The two old women hated his guts. They made no bones during the entire investigation about how much they despised their nephew. So Simon Winkler’s visit to his aunts was hardly a social call."
   
Resources:
- Both Wikipedia HERE and the ISFDb HERE have some things to say about William (Bill) Brittain.

The bottom line: "I defy gravity."
Marilyn Monroe

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