The Shade of Time – David Duncan (1946)

The Shade of Time has always been somewhat of a legend to me.  It’s a book that receives few reviews, and yet it somehow obtained a slot in Roland Lacourbe’s list of top locked room mysteries.  It isn’t easy to find either, at least in the price range that I’m willing to pay for a book that I know so little about.  After years of hunting, I’ve never seen it come in for less than $20.

“Don’t spend $20 on it”, I recall JJ from The Invisible Event telling me, crushing my dreams of a long lost impossible crime masterpiece (do you hear me JJ?  You crushed my dreams!).  A few others pitched in a similar opinion, and I had to settle for the reality that this legendary book long sought after just wasn’t going to live up to my expectations.

Except they were wrong.  The Shade of Time isn’t perfect, but if you excise the last two chapters, it damn well is.  And maybe those less than raving opinions were a blessing, because rather than walking in with high expectations, I instead found myself lapping up page after page.  This is a story that you just have to read in a single sitting.

Sebastian Sands spent 10 years in prison for a murder that he couldn’t have possibly committed.  John Harth was found dead in a locked laboratory with an arrow through the heart.  Sands was the only member of a house party to approach the area during the time of the crime, and winds up in the clink as a result.  To be fair to critics of the book, there’s never an explanation of how he was convicted despite the impossible premise of shooting someone with an arrow through a closed window, but I’m still granting leeway.

I’m a sucker for a murder in the past.  There’s something about unlocking a mystery obscured by the shade of time (see what I did there?) – see Murder in Retrospect and The Crimson Fog to name a few –  and author David Duncan knows exactly how to structure the story in the most addicting manner.  The details of the crime come out in a steady stream, but there’s always unanswered questions about exactly what happened.  What were the details of the locked crime scene?  What experiment was John Harth conducting in the lab?  Just what is being shown in the mysterious set of photographs (illustration provided) featuring what looks to be sound waves, a ruler, and a strange clock?  Why does one character seem convinced that he knows how to fire an arrow through a glass window without breaking it?

Duncan plays it well, never teasing or holding back; he just simply hasn’t gotten to those details yet.  The chapters provide revelation after revelation; never anything stunning, but more of a constant clicking of the puzzle pieces.

Of course, what better way to investigate a crime from the past than to gather the original suspects together.  We get a nice break from the typical New York and Los Angeles locale, with the events unfolding in a house situated above the cliffs of Monterrey.  And wouldn’t you know it, another character winds up dead in that same locked laboratory, with an arrow in the chest…

The crimes are investigated by the cast of suspects themselves, but with enough of an outsiders perspective that you can’t be certain who is really playing things straight.  There are a few outside investigators as well – a doctor and a detective – who provide an additional perspective on everything that’s going on, and even in the final pages I wasn’t certain who was going to solve the crime.

Up to the final two chapters, The Shade of Time was one of the best Golden Age mysteries that I’ve read.  Then, yeah, it kind of goes off the rails.  You do get some satisfying explanations (and a flurry of false solutions), but similar to John Dickson Carr’s The Red Widow Murders, or Christianna Brand’s Heads You Lose, the ending just doesn’t hold up to that wonderful setup that came before it.  I’d say that’s a pity, but these are all still damn good books.

I enjoyed the solutions to the two locked room puzzles, but they aren’t of the brilliant sort.  One case of “oh, I didn’t think of that” and another case of “I didn’t realize that’s how something worked”.  Still, there’s a nice reversal of expectations.  Things go a bit more off the tracks when it comes to the guilty party, and that’s where I think most readers will feel let down (and a bit confused).

So maybe JJ was right that The Shade of Time isn’t worth $20, but then again, I don’t spend $20 on any book (Death of Jezebel being the one exception).  It was still an amazing read.  Any author who can actually have me convinced that they’re going to explain how an arrow can phase shift through a plate of glass has won me over, because they’ve made me buy into the illusion.  And sometimes that can be just as effective as an outstanding solution.

13 thoughts on “The Shade of Time – David Duncan (1946)”

  1. As I think I said when we discussed this, the “people in a house and one of them is a murderer” aspect of this is superb. The “philosophy on the nature of objects” somewhat killed it for me, and divested of that I think it would be a far stronger book. I’m glad it was better for you than your hopes had led you to expect — that way round is always the best way round!


    1. “People in a house and one of them is a murderer” has been overdone to the point where it’s hard to get excited about the setup (although still an oldie but goodie). The Shade of Time is an example of the device at its best. Hmm, a piece on that theme could be interesting….

      I totally anticipated being turned off by the philosophy part, as I detest that sort of thing when it crops up in books like this. Somehow David Duncan walked the tightrope and I actually found the bits interesting, probably because I thought they might hint towards the solution.


      1. Believing there may be a hint in the cod philosophy where the solution is concerned would certainly help with tolerating it. I never even entertained the possibility, I’m sorry to say — it always seemed too heavy and lumpy to me, unlikely to serve any purpose beyond Duncan holding forth and boosting his word count.


      1. Just finished this and I think your review is spot on. The first 11 chapters are up there with Rim of the Pit and the best of Carr. But then the solution was….not great. I now find myself wishing that David Duncan and Derek Smith would have formed a writing team. Duncan could handle the writing and Smith the plotting and solutions. If only there were a way to go back in time….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Duncan and Smith would have made a brilliant pair. Smith’s writing in Whistle Up the Devil is mostly a cardboard structure to set the field for for two of the best impossibilities of all time. Put Duncan’s writing on top of that and you’d have a consensus #1 impossible crime novel.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for refreshing my memory with your review. I only remember the locked room-trick, an uneven plot and some of the philosophic elements, but can imagine being more positive to it today as The Shade of Time can be lumped in with the pulp-style locked room mystery. A particular, wildly imaginative style I didn’t fully appreciate until discovering John Russell Fearn.

    Liked by 1 person

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