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The Darrow Enigma

Page history last edited by barry_ergang@... 13 years, 5 months ago

Severy, Melvin L - The Darrow Enigma (1904)


In my never-ceasing quest to find impossible crime stories, I discovered this one on eBay a couple of years ago. (You'd be amazed at what you might find if you use their search feature and type in "locked room.") I'd never heard of the title nor of the author. The Darrow Enigma was originally published in 1904 by Dodd, Mead, according to the A.L. Burt edition I bought.


I spent a couple of days reading it, and finished it last night.


I thought it was howlingly funny, although inadvertently so, for a lot of reasons, not the least being its overwrought prose style (Bill Pronzini would love it), and I considered writing a "review" of sorts here because of the book's obscurity and the likelihood that it's long out of print. However, curious about the author, I tried to do an online search for information about him. I came up empty on that score, but discovered that the book itself is available online:




The link above should take you to the first chapter. If you read to the end of it, you'll be able to decide whether you want to continue because the basic setup, corpse included, is all there.


Don't expect fair play; it was written before that became a vogue. Do expect a narrator whose medical practice can't be very demanding; a lawyer-chemist hero (yes, you read it correctly: I said "lawyer-chemist") ready to traipse halfway around the world on a moment's notice; a murderous East Indian; some "Chinamen," to use a politically incorrect term; inept American policemen; a French detective of high repute; "fluttery" but intelligent, steadfast women; snakes; a bottomless pit; some exotic weaponry; and a thoroughly improbable murder method.


Expect, too, essential information withheld from you, the reader, which would clear up part of the puzzle in the first quarter of the book. Expect to correctly guess at the murderer's identity within the first three or four chapters and become increasingly certain of it—for no good reason!—the further you get into the story. The Darrow Enigma is one of probably many early efforts that could serve as a primer on how not to write a detective story. It almost falls into the "it's so bad it's great" category.


—Barry Ergang, June 2003




Reviewer's addendum


In October 2003, having posted the review above at the Golden Age Mysteries forum (http://jdcarr.com/forum/index.php?), I received an e-mail from Bonita Severy regarding the review and the author. I requested her permission to post it at GAM, and she kindly granted it. Therefore, in the interest of full disclosure, I reproduce it here:



"I came across your post (copied below) on some sort of mystery site while I was Googling something else. I don't know if you're still interested in The Darrow Enigma's author, but if so, read on . . .

"Melvin L. Severy wrote a few books and also dabbled in the arts and music. However he was primarily an inventor, as was his son, his grandsons and...well, I don't want to spoil the ending of this email for you. He held patents for about 80 or so inventions including one for the electric organ chorancello) and one for fluid drive (for cars). So, while the technology-related prose in The Darrow Enigma is somewhat "dense", and thus not a quick read, it is technically sound. I don't think he ever intended the books to make him rich. The patents had already taken care of that detail.

"His patents might be archived at the US Patent and Trademark Office, but I'm not sure they're available online. I feel certain that this saddens you greatly, because it appears from your post that you're a big fan and eager to read more of his work. If so, I do have two thick books of his patents at home.

"BTW: You also posted, incredulously: '(yes, you read it correctly: I said "lawyer-chemist")' As it turns out, I'm a 'lawyer-chemist,' so the novel's not all that far-fetched wrt the protagonist's backstory. I am also the author's great grand-daughter, so he just got the gender wrong. Of course, he would have had no way of knowing this since he died when I was 2 years old. However, it does sort of make you wonder if his theories about clairvoyance that pop up occasionally in his mystery novels might also be sound . . .

—Bonita Severy"


It was after I wrote to thank her for contacting me and providing me with this information about her great-grandfather, and to ask her permission to reproduce her letter in a public forum, that she responded with some additional information:



"I think that the full text of The Darrow Enigma is posted at Project Gutenberg, in case any of your readers are as adventurous as you were and want to move beyond the first chapter. Also, here are a couple of links to the choralcelo. The first one has a picture of the instrument and the second one has some background on Melvin and a description of some of his other inventions. The second article also has WAY too much information on how the instrument works, but I include it for those who loved the level of technical detail in The Darrow Enigma:






The Darrow Enigma is narrated by an unnamed doctor, consulted by chemist and lawyer George Maitland for a bit of a nerve tonic. They become friends, for the narrator is greatly interested in the science, and it is through this friendship that our anonymous physician becomes involved in the case.


Ultimately Maitland confesses the real reason he visited the medical man is because he is the Darrow family's physician, and Maitland has fallen for Gwen, daughter of the house, and wishes to be introduced. Needless to say Gwen is beautiful even though, whisper it quietly, she does not imprison herself in corsetry. Well, then, an introduction to the young lady is effected and it is while the two friends are visiting the Darrow household and Gwen is appropriately singing In The Gloaming as dusk falls when her father John clutches his throat, cries out he has been murdered, and dies.


Yet there is nobody in the room other than the Darrows, Maitland and the doctor, and two other visitors. How then how was it done? The doors into the room were closed or locked, the only open window was perhaps six inches ajar and locked in that position and John Darrow was sitting in a high-backed chair over eight feet from it in any case, plus there were no niches or cupboards or curtains behind which the unseen assassin could hide. Or was it suicide? Either way what was the weapon and where has it gone? To find out the police bring in three investigators: Mr. Osborne, Mr. Allen, and French-born Louis Godin, now reportedly the best detective in the U.S.


And so begins a tale with a dab of woo woo and a touch of gothic. John Darrow had had dreams foretelling he would be murdered, as a result of which Gwen makes him a certain promise that will later cause romantic havoc. It is established there's a connection to India long ago -- though it is nothing to do with gems stolen from Indian temples -- and Maitland steams off to pursue investigations there. After that he is off to San Francisco to find and interview a couple of Darrow's former servants, who are Chinese and so, we might say, automatically suspect.


There follows a series of Strange Coincidences involving Anthony and Cleopatra, leading to what can only be described as a brilliant piece of deductive reasoning (involving reading detective novels!) that puts them on the track of certain parties of interest. The culprit is brought to trial but is it the right person? Was the murder committed by the bizarre method the man on trial describes? What about the motive?


My verdict: First, the method employed is one that fits a clue hidden in the text, though I must say that more clues are needed so the reader can deduce the culprit. There are red herrings and side trips and everything seems to fit together very well until the final confrontation in the court room when the entire case is turned upside down. Thus The Darrow Enigma is a bit of a mixture, though unlike the proverbial curate's egg on balance I would give it a nod rather than a frown since, despite the weakness mentioned, I found this novel enjoyable enough and the weapon utilised so outrageous and yet simple that points must be awarded on that alone!


In an aside, I was intrigued by Severy's description of the eavesdropping device employed at an important point and consulted an electrical engineer about it. He said theoretically it was possible but the technology was not up to it at the time. However, invention of this gizmo is not surprising as Severy held at least 90 patents. His fictional bugging device involves a piece of burnished silver fastened to a diaphram, a small beam of light trained on the silver being reflected onto a sensitised moving tape photographically registering movement of the diaphram for later conversion to an ordinary record, and needless to say the result is a vital piece of evidence.


Etext: http://www.freeread.com.au/ebooks/c00040.txt


Mary R http://home.epix.net/~maywrite/


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