The Newtonian Egg - Peter Godfrey

Peter Godfrey had a run of short stories published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine from the 50s on. They all feature his detective Rolf Le Roux, by one and all called "Oom Rolf". In this collection, we get all these stories as well as a couple that were only published in Godfrey's native South Africa.

Not all stories are impossible crimes - in fact, in the stricter sense, there are only two of them here. But Godfrey had a fertile imagination, and there are some interesting ideas in these stories that make them well worth recommending for the discerning mystery reader. Another fine collection from Crippen & Landru.

The first story of the collection is the title tale, "The Newtonian Egg". It is one of the minor classics of the impossible crime genre, and I'd say thoroughly deserved. In it, a bedridden man in a hospital is served a boiled egg for breakfast, but after having cracked the shell and bitten into the egg, the man dies from poisoning.

A minor complaint is that the motive is quite flimsy. One has to wonder if a presumptive murderer wouldn't actually check everything first before committing this crime. But as I said, that's a minor quibble. Otherwise, this works nicely. The whole setup with the discussion in the hospital is great, the characterisation works and the solution to the impossibility is excellent in its simplicity.

"The Fifth Dimension" is one of those stories that feature a serial killer matching his wits with the police by sending them cryptic messages. As you might imagine from that description, there's no impossible crime here.

In a short afterword, Godfrey explains some of his clues in the story, and it has to be said that he plays very fair with the reader. It's arguable that one has to be well-read in the mystery genre to correctly interpret the clues, but again that's a minor quibble. A good read. (And that's said by someone who doesn't really like this type of story.)

We have another serial killer story in "Kill and Tell", which is the only story to feature a narrator, - the secretary of a man who seems to fit all the clues and evidence that the police have managed to gather on the serial killer in question.

As an experiment having a narrator works well here. There's however a dearth of characters in the story, which makes it fairly easy to see through. Not as good as the predecessor.

In "And Turn the Hour" a man is found with amnesia that in some way might be related to a crime, and the man does not want to be cured from this amnesia.

An effective, yet bewildering story, where the author uses the amnesia as a storytelling device that lets the reader experience the same hopeless feeling of the amnesia victim, before Oom Rolf comes to solve the whole thing. This particular reader was not completely taken with the story - I think the bewilderment at the beginning affected my reading experience too much.

"The Angel of Death" is described by the author as an "atmosphere story", which is a good description. A man is found killed on the docks one foggy night, and the police round up everyone who is present at the time, and then they need to figure out who committed the murder.

There is a dying message featured here. Dying messages are inherently a bit absurd - it's generally hard for the author to justify why the dying message is so opaque. (Obviously it has to be for the story to be effective as a mystery.) But if the reader can accept the fact that it's all a bit artificil, this dying clue is quite good indeed. The whole setting in the fog plays out well, and it's all really a rather good read.

If the former story was a fairly obvious homage to Ellery Queen's writing (the master of dying messages), "Time out of Mind" seems to be the same with its Alice-in-Wonderland feeling. The whole story is set in a mental institution where one of the nurses is found murdered.

The Alice feeling mainly comes from the different witness statements we get from the inmates at the mental institution. Godfrey handles this sensitive part well, and uses the different voices well to enhance the mystery. The final clue is well hidden, even though the murderer perhaps isn't.

"The Face of the Sphinx" follows. It's a definite change of pace with gang wars, racial issues and the search for a man who threatens several people with a knife and then robs them.

Not really my cup of tea, this. Yeah, it is in fact a fair play mystery, even though the description above doesn't indicate anything of the sort. But it just didn't really sit well with me for some reason. I don't know if it's the dichotomy between the subject matter and the fair play mystery genre.

Moving on to "Little Fat Man". A man comes to the police complaining about having been followed for a very long time by a man he only knows as a "little fat man". The police (and Rolf Le Roux) have to find out how the fellow has managed to follow him all over the world and why.

The trick in this story is pretty old hat. It's a storyline we've seen many other authors do, and the experienced mystery reader will know after two pages what's going to happen. So, on the whole this was a bit disappointing.

The next story, however, is the oft anthologised "The Flung-Back Lid" (which is a rewritten and somewhat longer version of the story "Out of this World"). A man gets on a cablecar and is then seen dead while travelling down from the Table Mountain.

A good story, this. I think it's well deserved to have been anthologised so often (in both versions). This is probably the better version. The main drawback is if you think hard about the impossible situation it's rather easy to come to the correct conclusion, and in turn spot the murderer. But that's mainly because there's only one solution possible. The story still features a very good impossible situation and, as I said, is a well deserved classic.

The final story of the collection is "Perfumes of Arabia", set in the theatre world. The star performer in a play is battered to death by a man with some kind of blunt instrument when coming out from his hotel.

This is maybe the most "normal" mystery story of the collection. We have the whole shebang of an investigation with interviews, a search for clues and so on. Perhaps the only thing that makes it stand out is the murderer and the motive. It's complicated enough that the whole part where Oom Rolf explains takes up almost one fourth of the whole story. I'm not sure I like the revelation of the murderer.


This is for the most part a really good collection of stories. It has a couple of true classics ("Newtonian Egg", "Flung-Back Lid", "The Fifth Dimension" and "Time out of Mind"), and also a couple of clunkers ("Little Fat Man", "The Face of the Sphinx"). If you like variety in your mysteries, there's a lot of that to be found here.

The two main impossible mysteries here ("Newtonian", "Flung-Back") are the ones I will use in my project.

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