We've already looked at Porges's Dr. Joel Hoffman stories. As the title clearly indicates, this time it's time for the Cyriack Skinner Grey stories.
Grey is a wheelchair-bound detective, a former research scientist who had an accident while mountaineering several years before the first story. That means that these stories can be seen as pure armchair detective tales. For his help, Grey has both his son, Edgar, and his former student and current police lieutenant Trask. They act as "Watsons" to Grey's Sherlock Holmes.
In this volume, all sixteen stories about Grey are featured. A slight drawback of the stories is that they are quite formulaic - Lieutenant Trask comes with a problem to Grey, describes the background, and then Grey sits and thinks about the whole thing (sometimes sending out Edgar to perform some kind of check) until he finally finds a minor thing that could explain everything. This minor thing is often fairly obscure as well.
This impression is also enhanced by the fact that all stories have the same title structure: "The Scientist and the..."The stories are also generally quite short, just a few pages or so.
In fact, because of this structure, they can almost be compared to the Donald J. Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown stories for young adults. Certainly they're not as juvenile, but an astute reader can solve the crime the same way by discovering the important fact that will solve the whole crime.
The first story is "... Bagful of Water". The problem Trask presents to the researcher is a man who died while walking outside his hotel. It turns out that inside the hotel is a gathering of drunk men who seem to have had the great idea of dropping bags of water from their windows on the upper floors. However, the only witness is the person who benefits most from the death...
So, what Grey needs to do here is explain if and how the witness could have engineered the death to look the way it did. And he does so by pointing out a fact which I'd say is almost impossible for the reader to even guess at - it's not even something mentioned before in the story. As an introduction to the series it is good, because it's an archetypal Grey story, but the obscureness of the solution lets it down.
Next is "... Wife Killer". Here, Lieutenant Trask has come across a man who's suspected of murdering two former wives, and now his third wife has died, but he has an ironclad alibi - he was several miles away, on the telephone with the police.
This is a bit better. The fact that Grey uncovers to smash the alibi is something the reader also can find. The fact that the man is a multiple wife killer is also a clever way to give some justification to such an elaborate scheme as we get here. So all in all, a distinct improvement.
"... Vanished Weapon" comes next. A teenager is chased by a couple of cops. He runs into an apartment, and the cops hear him fire his gun inside. When the cops break down the door, apart from the teenager there is a dead man inside, but the weapon simply cannot be found.
The story is one of the shortest one here. Unfortunately, it's less solvable than the previous story, for two reasons: First, the thing that causes the weapon to go undetected is not signalled very well in the story, and second, it's incredibly hard to imagine that the police wouldn't actually search there anyway.
Let's move along to "... Obscene Crime". Here we have a man making obscene calls to a woman, and Trask asks Grey if there is some way they can stop the man from telephoning her.
To be honest, this story is bordering on silly. There's no detection here, what we get is Grey devising a way of scaring the telephone terror guy from continuing his obscenities. At least it's very short.
And that's as opposed to "... Multiple Murder", which is the longest story here. Trask is called out to a penthouse where he finds several people lying dead in a swimming pool, even though no one could access the floor.
As you can see from the description, the length of the story allows Porges to round it out a bit better with some background. It's not just simply a case where Trask comes to Grey's house and presents him with a problem - we get a bit of setup and some police investigation as well. This is to the advantage of the story. The explanation to how the murder was committed is also good, making this the best story of the collection so far.
With "... Invisible Safe", we're back with the short brain teasers. Here we have a jewel thief who's stolen a diamond and hidden it somewhere in his hotel room. The police have arrested him, but though they search the room thoroughly, they cannot find it.
Admittedly, the hiding place is great. No doubt about that. I just wish that Porges had taken the time to flesh out the story a bit more. As it is, it's just a quick puzzler and not entirely fair to the reader, because I fail to see how I was supposed to know what I needed to know to solve it.
"...Two Thieves" is another story about a diamond theft. In this case we have a religious nut who steals a packet of diamonds from a jeweller's store and then legs it. However, there are police on his tail, and they catch him fairly quickly. Only problem is - he doesn't have the diamonds on him anymore...
We get what amounts to a rare example of a false solution from Grey here, before he deduces the correct one. It's one of the breezier stories in the collection, though again it's hardly fair play to the reader.
The next story, "... Time Bomb", features a man who is threatening the city with a timebomb, several years after his death! Now Grey has to find the bomb before it explodes, but first he needs to work out how someone can manage to get a timebomb to work from the grave.
The whole setup shows off Porges's imagination. I'm not sure I'd think this is a particularly possible or probable scenario. And again, I think the obscure fact that the whole plan relies on is unfair to the reader. Still, a fun read.
"... Platinum Chain" follows, and here Grey needs to find out what happened to the titular chain. A man has been killed by strangulation in his workshop while working on the platinum chain. However, when the only other person present exits the chain has vanished into thin air. And since the chain is the only possible murder weapon, it needs to be found for the case to stick.
Another short-ish story with a quick solution from Grey. Again the hiding place is something I'd have expected the police to search even though they mightn't have known that it was the hiding place, so that's a bit disappointing.
In "... Exterminator" we're taken into the world of dictators and assassinations. An old dictator has been killed in his hotel room even though the room and the hotel was guarded everywhere. And yet somehow managed to bring a large enough quantity of cyanide into the room to kill the old man.
This is a longer story again, and again that is to its advantage. Another good thing about the story is that solution doesn't hinge on a single obscure fact. Yes, it's quite technical and I'd defy anyone to guess it, but compared with some of the previous stories this doesn't feel like a letdown.
"... Missing Pistol" presents a problem where two business partners are together inside a room. One of them dies from a gunshot wound, and the other claims that the shot came through the open window. This seems unlikely to the police for a variety of reasons, but unless they can find the weapon they might have to settle for that explanation...
I like this solution as well. It's prosaic and simple, and more to the point doesn't involve something very technical or obscure. Sure, I think it's pretty far-fetched, but it would most probably work in the real world.
A fence has taken a "... Stolen Rembrandt" onto his boat, but when the police search it, it's nowhere to be found. As usual, Trask comes to Grey to ask him to suggest a possible place where it could be hidden.
This story is a kind of homage to Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (and probably Edgar Wallace's "The Missing Romney" as well). The painting is hidden almost in the open, and yet no one finds it. Again, I liked the simpleness of the solution, and again, I think that like the two stories it celebrates the police should be expected to find such a hiding place...
"... Impassable Gulf" is again a bit longer and is unusually an inverted mystery where we see the murder committed by the criminal. However, after the murder the body appears in a muddy clearing on the other side of the titular gulf - and neither we nor the police know how it was transported there.
This might have been the easiest solution to see through, and that is mainly due to the fact that the story is longer and gives us more background. So while having a greater length is generally to the advantage of Porges's stories, in this case it actually weakens the impossibility. A pity, really.
We get a bit more background in "... Poisoner" as well. A man is having his usual Thursday restaurant dinner. He's been going there weekly for 23 years, but this particular night he dies from poisoning.
This story has an explanation that brings a smile to my lips. It's devilishly simple and yet so clever. I guess that again the police seem quite negligent when they couldn't find how the man was poisoned, but I'll let that slide.
"... Heavenly Alibi" gives us a situation where a man is murdered on an isolated part of his farm, and yet the obvious suspect is photographed far away from there by his wife.
I like this type of stories, where the detective has to break through a photographic alibi. The solution here reminds me of the one in Clayton Rawson's "Merlini and the Photographic Clue". It just adds one thing to the whole setup that makes it just a tad different. Clever.
"... One-Word Clue" is the last Cyriack Skinner Grey story. It's a very short one, where Grey has to explain a dying message. A reporter has been killed and left only the word "Thais" on a piece of paper.
I don't know if it's because I'm not a native speaker, but my first interpretation of the clue was not the one that Porges imagines is the first interpretation... Instead, I immediately read the word as Grey did when he came up with the solution. However, making the correct interpretation didn't help me see the whole solution. On the other hand, neither could anyone else have done so because the explanation hinges on something we couldn't have known.
The Grey stories are, on the whole, not as good as the Dr. Hoffmann ones. They are just a bit too slight, too reliant on one single thing to be effective as mystery stories. As I said earlier, they are very reminiscent of the Encyclopedia Brown stories in this regard.
I'd say they'd gain from being read with a couple of breaks, not immediately after one another. There are some other aspects of the stories that are quite repetitive - Grey's offer of a cold drink, Trask's and Edgar Gray's stilted banter - that makes it more of a chore reading them in one session.
But that's not to say that the stories are not worthwhile. I've decided to use seven of these sixteen stories, and that's clearly not a bad batting average. The stories chosen are "Vanished Weapon", "Multiple Murder", "Invisible Safe", "Exterminator", "Missing Pistol", "Poisoner" and "Heavenly Alibi".
As with the former Porges volume, TomCat has reviewed it on his fine blog Beneath the Stains of Time: http://moonlight-detective.blogspot.se/2012/06/go-gadget-go.html