“I am afraid this is a serious case. What has been done has been so thoroughly well accomplished that I believe we have no fool to deal with. His is a master hand.”
Final Proof is a group of linked novellas and short stories that seem to show the fair-play mystery developing before the reader’s eyes. These tales pit two detectives against one another in friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) rivalry. John Barnes is a professional private detective, while his friend Robert Leroy Mitchel is a gifted amateur with Sherlock Holmes-like powers of deduction. Mr. Mitchel will stop at absolutely nothing in pursuit of a case, and even tries to prevent crimes before they happen, often leaving Mr. Barnes gently bewildered in his wake.
Their ingenious solutions are not always what we would now consider fair play, partly because they are discovered using what, at the time, would have been cutting-edge technologies, some of them created by the author himself. Rodrigues Ottolengui was an innovative dentist who is credited with inventing forensic dentistry, as well as pioneering the use of dental x-rays and root canals (thanks for that, I guess). He was also a man of many other interests, which are reflected in this volume, including adventure and fantasy tales, entomology, and geology. As a result, not all of these stories reflect pure detection, but they all have interesting features.
The Phoenix of Crime (7/10)
When a dead man bobs up in New York harbor, a rare skin condition makes the corpse easy to identify as wealthy businessman Rufus Quadrant. There’s only one problem: Rufus Quandrant died weeks ago, and the family witnessed his cremation. Mitchel and Barnes now have a case with two corpses whose identities and causes of death are far from certain.
This lively novella features a group of obstreperous suspects, who openly lie and do all they can to thwart the investigation. Mrs. Quadrant, who hires Mr. Barnes, says she wants to help but doesn’t seem to have witnessed anything herself—her husband’s brothers worked suspiciously hard to shield her from the funeral arrangements. Brothers Mark and Amos defiantly refuse to cooperate, one providing multiple accounts of Rufus’ death, while the other will not talk at all. Of course, mysteries are based on the idea that suspects will lie, but it’s rare for them to openly declare they are doing so. The undertaker and his staff are more talkative, but perhaps no more honest. It’s almost shocking how much this destabilizes the whole narrative. Mr. Barnes has absolutely nothing to hold onto. There is no fact that is not in dispute.
The Phoenix of Crime provides an additional layer of mystery through the competition between Mr. Barnes, Mr. Mitchel, and Mr. Burrows, a young and eager police detective. Each of the three finds compelling evidence to support their own individual theories, which are completely at odds with each other. Their rivalry is also a source of some humor, as does the undertaker’s matter-of-factness about his trade and Mr. Barnes’ consultation with a very bright and opinionated tenement girl.
When one enters a place of this character asking questions, if he addresses any of the adults he is likely to receive scant information in reply…The children, however, and they are as numerous as grasshoppers in a hayfield, not only know everything, but tell what they know willingly. It is also a noteworthy fact that amidst such squalor and filth, with dirty face and bare legs, it is not uncommon to find a child, especially a girl, who will give answers, not only with a show of genuine intelligence, but, as well, with an air of dignified courtesy which would grace the reception-rooms of upper Fifth Avenue.
“An opinion is dangerous,” Mr. Mitchel warns. “One is so apt to endeavor to prove himself right, whereas he ought merely to seek out the truth.” With so few honest answers, however, it seems the detectives have no actual facts to guide them. Instead, they must put their faith in science, using a revolutionary new method to identify the disputed corpse. This method is now commonplace, but was seemingly invented by Ottolengui—after reading about it in this story, a police officer successfully put it into practice, apparently the first time this method was used in real life. Thus, as entertaining as it is, The Phoenix of Crime is influential for reasons far beyond its literary merits.
The Missing Link (10/10)
Murder strikes close to home for Mr. Mitchel, as the nude, dismembered body of a woman is found in a nearby vacant house. This is a story you will either love or hate. The solution is insane, with Ottolengui’s very deadpan, excessively formal style carrying the story to even greater heights of surrealism. “The Missing Link” is certainly some kind of masterpiece.
The Nameless Man (6/10)
An amnesiac hires Mr. Barnes to discover his true identity. Amiable, low-stakes puzzler that doesn’t even try to play fair, though Mr. Barnes spots some subtle clues that went right over my head.
The Montezuma Emerald (5/10)
A prominent New Yorker disappears after purchasing the famed Montezuma Emerald, a dazzling but cursed stone whose last owner was murdered. Normally, Mr. Barnes would be excited to investigate such a sinister crime, but not in this case: the missing man is his friend Mr. Mitchel. A great deal of exotic intrigue that does not add up to very much in the end.
A Singular Abduction (5/10)
Fourteen-year-old Elinora Gedney vanishes from her bed overnight. Her distraught father doesn’t care about catching the kidnappers. He just wants his daughter back. Mr. Barnes cannot let the culprit go so easily, however. While Barnes uses some wily techniques to prove his suspicions, the solution is unlikely to surprise anyone.
The Aztec Opal (6/10)
A yacht runs aground on a sandbar, briefly plunging the vessel into darkness. Mrs. Gray feels a pair of hands around her neck. By the time the lights come back on, her priceless opal necklace is gone. There are only six passengers on the boat. Which of them stole the necklace? Pretty good closed circle mystery which features an interesting character, a female detective who is hired by Barnes to go undercover in the Gray household but has her own ideas about how to solve the crime.
The Duplicate Harlequin (5/10)
A sequel to the previous story. Since the missing opal that was stolen on the yacht is one of a matched pair taken from an Aztec temple, the thief who was thwarted in the earlier story returns in another attempt to obtain both jewels. Despite the perilous situation, Mr. Barnes is confident in Mr. Mitchel’s abilities.
“Were you any other man than yourself, I should say most decidedly that you are in danger.”
“But, being myself, you fancy that the danger will pass from me?”
“Being yourself, I anticipate that you will compel the danger to pass from you.”
This time, there’s no mystery about who the culprit is, only the question of how he plans to pull it off. The answer is underwhelming.
The Pearls of Isis (7/10)
Not a detective story, but enjoyable nonetheless. After concluding the affair of the opals, Mr. Barnes asks Mr. Mitchel about the history of a fabulous pearl necklace he owns. We learn that Mr. Mitchel’s life goal is to own every major jewel in the world so that no one will ever again be tempted to commit a crime. Not only does this seem pretty tough on the rest of the world, but we’ve also seen plenty of thieves and murderers try to steal Mr. Mitchel’s gems, so it’s not really bringing the crime rate down.
This atmospheric tale unfolds one warm night during a fancy-dress party at an old New Orleans mansion. While strolling in the garden, Mr. Mitchel overhears a criminal plot, only to find that the situation is more complicated than it originally seems. There is very little detection and an awful lot of convenient eavesdropping, but Mr. Mitchel puts his almost psychopathic skills of manipulation to good use.
A Promissory Note (5/10)
Mr. Barnes must protect a client from a deranged cowboy who believes the man has stolen his wife. In return, the cowboy has forced the client to sign an IOU promising to forfeit his life within 30 days…and he intends to collect. An intriguing backstory and a fascinating murder method, but there are two big flaws here. One is a question of timing that is so elementary it is almost embarrassing that it is overlooked by several of the characters. Also, the two men involved in the dispute each provide very different versions of the events that led to their deadly standoff; it’s never stated which is correct, so it’s difficult to know how to interpret their relationship.
A Novel Forgery (6/10)
Mr. Barnes is bored, hoping for “something that will make me think,” when just such a case walks in the door. A reputable bank has accepted forged checks drawn against the same customer’s account four times, leaving them $40,000 poorer. The manager wishes to clear his bank of wrongdoing—not to mention financial liability—which Mr. Barnes manages quite ingeniously. “Mr. Barnes, you are a genius,” his client cries. “Not at all,” he replies modestly. “I am a detective.”
A Frosty Morning (6/10)
The recently deceased Thomas Eggleston has made a sentimental bequest to his niece, the thousand pound note he used to build his fortune, while leaving the rest of his estate to a nephew. As the heirs are preparing the household goods to be auctioned, the thousand pound note vanishes, right under everyone’s eyes. It must still be in the room, but where? With limited information, Mr. Mitchel must decide in a hurry how to interpret his one major clue. A simple but rather satisfying story (despite one big coincidence).
A Shadow of Proof (7/10)
A society lady misplaces a diamond stud after rejecting two applicants for her exclusive club, Daughters of the Revolution. She’s turned the room upside down, so there’s only one explanation: one of the other ladies must have taken it. The stud is not very valuable, but tensions are high in the case. The other two women, wealthy themselves, are offended to be suspected of the crime. Barnes and Mitchel must walk a fine line to solve the case without insulting any of the ladies. Amusing high-society comedy with some entertaining characters and a subtly clued solution.
Publisher’s Weekly, July 31, 2020
Mystery fans devoted to logical deduction will welcome this reissue.
Final Proof will be available from Poisoned Pen Press on October 6, 2020.