The Duel of Shadows - Vincent Cornier

I remember reading "The Duel of Shadows" in an anthology and being quite taken with the story. I found that it was a really interesting way of solving an impossibility. And therefore I had no hesitation in picking up this collection (another one published by Crippen & Landru) when it was published a couple of years ago.

Vincent Cornier seems to have been an interesting man, judging from the introduction by Mike Ashley. His stories are never commonplace, always offering something outré. This collection only features those short stories where Barnabas Hildreth is the detective, which means that one of his better known impossible stories, "The Courtyard of the Fly", is not found here. Still, most of his other impossible works are here. Not that there are too many of them, which was a bit disappointing to me.

We're introduced to Hildreth in "The Stone Ear", where his uncle is killed holding a medieval goblet, right in front of Hildreth and our newspaper narrator. A fairly short story which mainly serves as an introduction to Hildreth, it relies perhaps a bit too heavily on a language clue which seems somewhat farfetched - something Cornier is prone too, as we'll see. There is no impossibility here, nor any real suspense in finding out who the killer is. But at least it's short.

Hildreth's next case is "The Brother of Heaven", which is an impossible crime story. A Chinese triad member is found murdered in an old warehouse, but there are no footsteps leading to the corpse even though the floor is very dusty.

The impossibility is solved in a somewhat trite manner, reminiscent of stories from the early 1900s. My feeling is that Cornier didn't really focus on the impossibility as such, instead opting for a focus on the more adventurous bits about the Triad and their goings-on. The story feels rather dated to a modern reader.

Next we come to "The Silver Quarrel". This is an adventure story, a treasure hunt in fact, where Hildreth gets to solve old clues to find the treasure. There's hardly a villain in this story, and again, the story harks back to mysteries of old times.

The disappointments continue with "The Throat of Green Jasper". This time it's an Egyptian curse, and the hoary old cliches start to pile up. (Yes, yes, okay, they may not quite have become cliches yet when Cornier wrote the stories.) We get some nonsense about reincarnation and then this reader's brain starts to turn off.

But here comes "Duel of Shadows" to the rescue, which is fortunate, because it's been fairly rough going so far. In this story, which is only partly an impossibility, because the reader is actually always aware of what happened (a man is shot while sitting alone in front of a fireplace by an 18th century bullet) - the only question is how it could happen.

This is a good read. I'm not entirely sure the science of it all works, but it really is imaginative. We get to follow Hildreth as he puzzles together all the clues that we've already been presented in the beginning of the story - AND there's a diagram. That's always a plus point.

In "The Catastrophe in Clay" a vagrant disappears and then turns up again, dead and somehow transformed into some kind of stone statue. Could it be a curse that killed him and transformed him?

The story is only tangentially impossible, the main thing here is Cornier's fertile imagination and trying to work out how he's going to get this all to fit together in the end. Again, I'm not sure about the science here, but Cornier's chutzpah is something to behold. A fun read, whatever you say.

I don't actually know how to describe "The Mantle That Laughed", except that it's crazy. In this case we have a number of valuable objects that when handled seem to kill the person touching them. There's never really a mystery, since we find everything out in real time.

Again, Cornier goes far out on the scientific limb to produce some esoteric fiction that probably wouldn't work in the real world. Either you just sit back and admire his ideas, or you do what I did - roll your eyes and scoff. It's not an impossible story, though it could have easily been if Cornier had wanted to go that way.

"The Tabasheeran Pearls" is more of the same. The main difference from the former story is that, as the title indicates, here we have pearls doing the evil deed. We also have some Japanese background bits and a vain British lady. And again this reader is starting to get a bit fed up with this whole "based on science but really just a bunch of tosh" shtick.

So, moving on to "The Gilt Lily", I pricked up my ears when I found that this was in fact an impossible crime story, wherein a high mucketymuck in the Secret Service gets papers stolen from his room while he himself is in it. Unfortunately, this is a really poor story. Cliches about exotic drugs and European princes and princesses abound and a lord who is really a villain about town at night, and the solution is extraordinarily trite.

The next to last story, "The Monster", is at least somewhat different from the preceding stuff. Cornier tells us about a pair of twins where one of the boys is never seen by anyone at close range. Then people start to die, and gossip starts to accuse that twin...

And in this case, instead of relying on cliches, the writer actually manages to use them to trick the reader. However, he does so by introducing something that's arguably even worse. It's really just a Gothic short story set in more modern times. Good if you like that kind of thing, but only tangentially a mystery.

The collection ends with "O Time, In Your Flight". A short-ish story where an old Jewish jeweller is killed in his home and the only possible suspect has an ironclad alibi. This has none of the preceding stories overreliance on imagination, nor any supernatural trappings. Instead this is the most realistic and prosaic of Cornier's Hildreth stories. And it's also quite a success. The explanation for the alibi is really good, relying on something that would actually work in real life. Okay, in real life the police would probably have worked it out on their own, but that's only a minor quibble.


Cornier isn't for everyone. At least, he isn't for me. First, I'd hoped there would be more impossible mysteries here, since that was what I thought he was known for. Before reading this I'd seen Swedish translations of "Duel", "O Time", "Tabasheeran Pearls", "Gilt Lily" and "The Brother of Heaven" of which four are impossible - unfortunately those were also the only ones in the collection...

Generally, Cornier either bases his stories on old cliches or on some kind of scientific fact that he turns inside out in order to produce a mystery out of it. Sometimes the stories feature both things at the same time.

On the whole, I found this collection to be a disappointment. I'll only be using two stories for my own impossible project - "Duel of Shadows" and "O Time, In Your Flight", which to me are heads and shoulders above the rest.

TomCat discusses this collection on his excellent blog Beneath the Stains of Time here: http://moonlight-detective.blogspot.se/2013/05/the-case-book-of-black-monk.html


  1. Hmmm, you've got me both not really the bothered that I haven't read this and also quite curious about 'O Time...' -- so I'm in a quandary...

    I read the title story in one of the Mike Ashley collections and enjoyed it...except for the fact that Ashley's introduction gave away far more than seemed necessary to me. Interestingly, I don't remember that version having a diagram, and I'm something of a sucker for a diagram, so if I can find this cheap that might be enough to sway me into buying it.

    I'm curious, too, to see how Cornier's use of science in his explanations compares to Arthur Porges' use in his Cyriack Skinner Grey stories, because Porges alwayys struck me as the king of obscure scientific paraphernalia when it came to clever and unexpectedly off-kilter explanations. Aaaah, dammit, I'm talking my self into this, arn't I?

    1. Heheh, it's not horrible in any way, and you may just enjoy the stories more than I do, who knows?

      As for your comparison with Porges, well, he will appear on this blog in the future as well - ooh, some subtle PR there - but the main difference is that Porges is very scientific and actually adheres strictly to science, while I think Cornier instead finds some fairly obscure scientific fact and then proceeds to spin a whole fantastic - and probable very un-scientific - story out of that fact.

      Since you've read "The Duel of Shadows" I think you might get the gist of what I mean. I don't think it could ever work the way it happens in the story, but the bits about the bullet and the wood and so on probably have basis in fact.

      The diagram is not that fantastic, it's simply a drawing of the piece of wood and it's innards, so maybe you actually have it without remembering it. :)

  2. Very interesting to see your views on my great-grandfather from a modern perspective. Quite interesting indeed! Thank you very much for taking your time with this article.