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The Hands of Mr Ottermole

Page history last edited by PBworks 18 years ago

Anthony Boucher on Thomas Burke’s The Hands of Mr. Ottermole


Mr. Burke’s genius was obviously not apparent to everyone, as Anthony Boucher selecting this tale for MWA’s 1948 anthology “Murder by Experts” felt he had to write not only an introduction but also a postface explaining what in his opinion made “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” a landmark in mystery fiction. I thought it was worth sharing with the group.



The story that follows is so impressive a masterpiece that it drove Ellery Queen to write a terse introduction. In 101 YEARS’ ENTERTAINMENT be headed ‘The Hands of Mr. Ottermole’ with one simple declarative sentence: ‘No finer crime story has ever been written, period.’ There is nothing to add to that verdict - now. When you’ve read the story, we’ll try to see why it is justified.”




Ellery Queen’s verdict on ‘The Hands of Mr. Ottermole’ I have already quoted. John Dickson Carr, in the great Locked Room Lecture in The Hollow Man (titled in the United States, THE THREE COFFINS) brackets it as one of four short detective stories which share ‘the honours for supreme intouchable top-notch excellence.’ Why does this story receive (and in my opinion deserves) such superlatives?


The most obvious answer is psychological rather than critical. It is a sheerly terrifying story. It imparts to the reader a quality of horror and shock usually associated with tales of the supernatural or of pure sensation, while staying in the bounds of the strict detective story.


Related to this are the obvious fact of Mr. Burke’s literary skill, considerably above that of many criminous practitioners, and his wisdom in the choice of commonplace victims. This lends to terror a fresh immediacy - you know very well your secretary is never going to murder you in the library for the £10.000 he embezzled; you don’t have a secretary or a library or, perish period, £10.000. But (something inside you whispers insidiously) are you safe from the hands of Mr. Ottermole?


But all these factors might have made only a good story. I am inclined to think that the ultimate accolade falls to ‘The Hands of Mr. Ottermole’ because it successfully violates two of the tabus of the detective story.

Tabus are made to be broken. No decalog (like Father Knox’s) or icosilog (like Van Dine’s) contains a rule which cannot be broken by a detective story writer who (a) recognize the rule’s existence and (b) is good enough to get away with it.


Marie Rodell, in her invaluable MYSTERY FICTION: THEORY AND TECHNIQUE, lists as a specific tabu the insane murderer. Her reasons are cogent and well-stated; but the successful violations of the tabu are many - among others, Q. Patrick’s The Grindle Nightmare, Philip MacDonald’s X vs Rex and (one of the most underrated of criminous classics) Murder Gone Mad, and Helen Eustis’s recent dazzling debut, The Horizontal Man.


What Mrs. Rodell has overlooked is the element that can make the insane murderer legitimate: Posit a situation to which the reader knows that X is mad; which character can be proved to be the mad X?

This may be done by psychological clues, or by a physical method-andopportunity elimination. In either case, provided the insane killer is handled with psychological plausibility, the result can be an unusually chilling detective story.


You will have observed that these notes (and the Carr quote above) consider ‘The Hands of Mr. Ottermole’ as a DETECTIVE story, while Queen relegates it to the classification of the CRIME story. And here we meet the second broken tabu.


All authorities agree that the detective story must have a detective.


Where is the detective here? There is, of course, the unfortunate and nameless young journalist who meets a fate that most amateur detectives seem to be asking for. But there is, in the sense of the tabule, no formal detective.

Or is there? Reread the story. Read it closely, read carefully the description of each murder and its discovery, and watch the words THE SERGEANT leap out at you as though they were in hold-face type.


Mr. Burke has stated his problem with all the fairness in the world.


He has planted every essential clue. He probably reread the Ms. carefully, wondering ‘Have I been too obvious?’ And abandoning the traditional detective, he created a new form (which the Eustis novel mentioned above follows admirably).


You do not read about a detective, because the detective is you.




Xavier Lechard

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