There comes a time when you finally accept that there are some books that you’re just never going to get a chance to read. I’d claim I’ve had my eyes fixed on The Death of Laurence Vining for years now, but I don’t recall my eyes ever even seeing it available. If my memory is faulty it’s likely because those eyes glazed over at the sight of a four digit price tag. Yes, this was a book that I was willing to break my normally steadfast $12 limit to acquire – possibly shelling out an unthinkable $20 for (I know, I know, don’t be crazy Ben) – but yeah, I’m not going to be even touching on a hundred dollars for a book. I didn’t even do that for Death of Jezebel.
And honestly, I’d be taking a chance with that $20. Alan Thomas is an author that I’ve never read anything by, plus I’ve only seen two or three reviews of The Death of Laurence Vining, and I don’t recall that anyone was screaming from the heavens that this was must read material. But it is featured on THAT list: the Roland Lacourbe list of top locked room novels. The bulk of the list is made up of what you’d expect: really strong impossible crimes that you can imagine receiving a mention if a bunch of geeks like me got together to create their own list (hey, should we do that?). But there are a handful of titles – the likes of The Shade of Time, Into Thin Air, The Wailing Rock Murders, The Malinsay Massacre – that fly under the radar, most likely due to scarcity (ok, the last two of those are kind of available). And when I see an impossible crime novel that’s… er, impossible… to obtain, I simply obsess over getting it.
Such is The Death of Laurence Vining. Hundreds of dead end searches across the web over the years, and then the searching becomes less frequent as the searcher realizes the futility. And then, out of the blue, a chance to read the book!!! Yes, some kind soul was willing to give me access to their treasure – which is kind of unthinkable given how rare this is – and suddenly I was finally going to read it!
So how was it? Eh, it was ok I guess. I know – I let you down immediately, instead of drawing things out. Sorry. The Death of Laurence Vining is no long lost locked room masterpiece, although it’s an interesting snapshot of where the genre was at the time when John Dickson Carr was just on the cusp of publication.
The set up is quite nice: the title character Laurence Vining – a legendary detective of the Holmes variety – walks into a lift at the entrance to a subway station, and when the gate opens at the bottom he collapses forward with a knife in his back. The elevator is manned by attendants at both the top and the bottom, and so we’re certain that the victim entered quite alive and exited quite dead. Murder in the elevator is a classic locked room setup, executed quite well by Carr a decade later with Fatal Descent.
There’s so much potential in this story, and as I read I couldn’t help but watch it be squandered. Vining gets knocked off almost immediately, and although the impact of his larger than life character is felt throughout the story, we actually never get to see him in action as a detective. And that’s too bad, because the novel opens with the closing of a court case in which Vining has brilliantly solved a crime that left Scotland Yard stumped… but we’re never given any details about why the crime was unsolvable, nor how Vining pulled off his miracle. We just have to trust that. I wanted so bad for this to play out instead like Carr’s Below Suspicion, where the opening few chapters are a court case involving an unsolvable crime, and we get a sort of short story to kick start the novel.
The other weakness of the story is, well, the story actually doesn’t matter. In between the murder of Laurence Vining and the final chapter that provides the solution, I can’t think of a single thing that actually mattered in terms of solving the case. We do indeed watch a detective make the rounds interviewing a bunch of people and chasing down threads of investigation, but startlingly, none of it plays into the solution. You could seriously skip immediately from the murder to the solution and you’d miss nothing – you’d have all of the context to understand what happened.
Most really good mysteries litter the numerous interviews and other goings on with scraps of information that all tie into the solution. Come the denouement, these fragments snap together and you experience that aha moment. I mean, that’s what’s so brilliant about Carr’s locked room mysteries – simply reading the mechanics of how the impossibility is pulled off is only part of it. In fact, most of Carr’s solutions wouldn’t really make sense if you skipped the middle 100 pages. Yeah, you’d understand some aspect of how the trick was pulled off, but you’d be missing an appreciation of the misdirection presented throughout the story.
But enough about Carr, let’s talk about Alan Thomas. Alan Thomas reads exactly how I stereotype 1920s mysteries to read. There’s this thinness to the writing – everything is done to fit into story (which is odd given how none of it matters in the end) – that somewhat reminds me of Carolyn Wells. My stereotype of the 20s has been blow out of the water by authors like Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, R Austin Freeman, and the like, but The Death of Laurence Vining is the unfortunate book that reinforces the stereotype.
And here I am, having ragged on the book for a handful of paragraphs, but really, it was a decent read. It has a good pace and plenty going on to hold your interest. The solution to the impossible stabbing is not original by a mile, but there’s enough trappings put around it that even though I suspected it, I simply couldn’t fathom how it would have worked. With that said, there are some details (including a second map) dropped in the final chapter that sure would have helped earlier. Plus, the final chapter is a bit like getting hit by a firehose of information, and I know I should have been eating up the denouement but it ended up feeling a bit stodgy.
Aw, crap, I was trying to say some nice things about the book and ended up on a negative tangent. Anyway, I’m delighted to have read it and still blown away that I got the opportunity. If anyone has some other rare books (say, all of Virgil Markham’s output), feel free to send them my way. I promise I’ll be much more enthusiastic about them. Honest.