The Man From Tibet – Clyde Clason (1938)

I’m a sucker for a story within a story.  Think the likes of the breathless French Revolution flashback midway through John Dickson Carr’s The Red Widow Murders, or the sea captain’s bizarre yarn in Anthony Boucher’s The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars.  When executed well, these miniature tales sweep you right out of the core story and leave you with the drunken feeling of “wait, what book am I reading?”  It’s like you get an extra short story for free along with the novel.

Clyde Clason’s The Man From Tibet starts off with an absolute whopper of a story within a story; a 20 page account of a westerner’s perilous journey into Tibet, which at the time was completely closed off from the outside world.  I found myself so absorbed in the tale that I simply didn’t want it to end.  The fact that I had sought out The Man From Tibet for the locked room murder that it offered was the furthest thing from my mind.  And thus I became enamored with Clyde Clason.

Clason seems to be capable of spinning some fantastic yarns.  He’s not quite on the level of pulp great Theodore Roscoe, but man, he can absolutely fill your mind with a scene.  At least he can in the several times that the story flashes over to Tibet.  The rest of it takes place in Chicago, and those portions are a bit more of your run of the mill 1930’s American mystery.  Chicago is a welcome relief from the typical NYC setting, but there’s a feel to the proceedings that reminds a bit of Anthony Abbot or maybe Rufus King (which isn’t exactly a negative comment).  Clason has so much going on in his story though that it always feels like something big is happening, despite the word count in The Man From Tibet running a third longer than your conventional mystery from the time.

We open at the home of Adam Merriweather, a wealthy collector of Tibetan relics.  He’s in the process of swindling a religious manuscript from a man who recently returned from an arduous journey to Tibet.  The same man is strangled to death in a hotel room later that night, and the murder instrument appears to have been a Tibetan scarf.  Merriweather too will end up dead – under seemingly impossible circumstances – much much later in the book, but this initial death sets the plot in motion.

Enter the Chicago police, with amateur sleuth Theocritus Lucius Westborough in tow.  Westborough’s an odd little man, and his premise for being involved in the case seems to be that he’s read a book or two on Tibet.  With suspicions that the killer originates from Merriweather’s house, the investigators are desperate to get a man on the inside.  This leads to a grimace-inducing scene where Westborough pretends to twist his ankle, giving him the (paper-thin) pretense to spend a week as a guest at Merriweather’s home.  Cue various uncomfortable scenes where Westborough is caught prowling throughout the residence, despite being supposedly bedridden.

The standout setting at the Merriweather home is “The Tibetan Room”, a museum of Tibetan artifacts sporting demon masks, prayer wheels, charm boxes, and all sorts of other relics that must have seemed truly fantastic to the western reader in the 1930s.  And to be clear, this is a story published in the 1930s, featuring plot elements that touch on Tibet, China, and Japan… and so you can imagine there’s going to be a perspective there that will make the modern reader squirm.  Clason, to his credit, presents his most biased characters as biased, and seems to view eastern culture as fascinating and unfairly villianized by the west.  Still, there’s a lot of phonetic dialog from a Tibetan monk that can be painful to endure, although I suppose it stresses the difficulty in communication between the various characters.

Merriweather, as I mentioned, does eventually wind up dead behind the locked doors of The Tibetan Room.  The murder doesn’t occur until the 2/3rds mark, so I won’t quite go into detail on the circumstances of the death.  It’s not technically a locked room mystery, as there seems to have been a way into the room from an upper gallery (the layout of which isn’t quite explained – the provided floor plan only covers the ground floor), but we’re assured that a heavy coat of dust on some beams means that no-one could have lowered themselves down into the room.  I don’t know that this quite qualifies as an impossible crime, as some rope mechanism immediately jumped to mind.  No matter though: there’s an impossible crime worthy explanation behind it all.  The solution is both clever and unique, although it feels a bit bush league in execution.  This isn’t a book that I’d seek out on the back of the impossible crime alone.

But this is still a book that I’d seek out.  I had a blast reading it and really got swept away in some of the passages.  I already had Clason’s Murder Gone Minoan on my shelf, and I was only one chapter into The Man From Tibet before I was ordering Green Shiver, Blind Drifts, and Poison Jasmine.  Blind Drifts in particular sounds interesting, featuring a murder in a Colorado mine (shades of The Owner Lies Dead come to mind), although I haven’t looked into which of these features an impossibility.

8 thoughts on “The Man From Tibet – Clyde Clason (1938)”

    1. Yes, if I can get my hands on the four books that I don’t own, I’ll do so. I just realized I already have Dragon’s Cave, but I need to pick up The Fifth Tumbler, The Death Angel, The Purple Parrot, and The Whispering Ear. I don’t recall ever seeing The Fifth Tumbler and The Whispering Ear for sale.

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  1. The Man from Tibet is Clason’s most well-known novel and deservedly so, even if it’s not the best (locked room) mystery ever penned. But, as you said, it’s well worth seeking out as it has uniqueness all of its own. I always wondered if that account of Westerns journeying into isolated Tibet was inspired by James Hilton’s Lost Horizon.

    Anyway, you have something to look forward to with Clason. I particularly remember liking The Death Angel, Blind Drift, Dragon’s Cave and Poison Jasmine, but remember Murder Gone Minoan and Green Shiver being stronger on cultural and historical color than plot. The Purple Parrot is the only dud in the series, so far, which makes you wonder what Clason was thinking when he wrote it. Was he challenged to take a bunch of hackneyed, timeworn cliches and had to try to make them seem as plausible as possible or was it written as inside joke lost to time? Either way, The Purple Parrot is uncharacteristically bad.

    I have not read or tracked down copies of The Fifth Tumbler and The Whispering Ear, which would have been reprinted had the Rue Morgue Press stayed in business for another year or two. The Death Angel was actually one of the last titles RMP published before closing down.

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      1. Clason’s ten Westborough novels would make perfect reprint material for Dean Street Press, but they don’t really do American writers. So maybe Locked Room International?

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        1. Having read both The Fifth Tumbler and The Whispering Ear my opinion is that the first is the worst (by far) in the series, but the second is one of the best.

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            1. I can believe The Fifth Tumbler is not the best the series has to offer. After all, it was Clason’s first detective novel, but worst than The Purple Parrot? That’s a tall order! So both still have my vote to get republished.

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