Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009/20??) by Arthur Porges (edited by Richard Simms)

A quick explanation of that second date in the title: There are two editions of this collection floating around. See this review from TomCat and this one from Christian Henricksson; the latter reviews two additional stories, “The Scientist and the Missing Pistol” and “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf.” The one on Amazon is the full collection, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re looking for it used or something similar. I’m reviewing the updated collection.

I need a list of science jokes or something for short story collections like this.

Some time back, I looked at No Killer Has Wings, a collection of short mysteries by Arthur Porges. I enjoyed the collection, but felt that it was a tad too short. Thankfully, I also had two other Porges collections by the time I read it. This is one of them.

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey is a collection of short stories dealing with the investigations of the titular scientist, who was crippled in a mountaineering accident (except in “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf,” where it gets retconned into a car accident that also killed his wife), but who still uses his brain to solve the variety of impossible problems brought to him by Lieutenant Trask. Grey often makes use of his son Edgar, a teenage genius who serves as Grey’s eyes, ears, and legs when crime scenes need to be investigated. Unlike No Killer Has Wings, the stories here are mostly reverse whodunits; there’s very rarely questions about who, the question is how. The stories are much shorter than in the previous (actually published later) collection, but there are more of them.

“The Scientist and the Bagful of Water” is more of a “howtoproveit” than anything. A man murders his business partner and tries to pass it off as a freak accident caused by a bag of water being dropped on the victim’s head from a hotel. The question is simply how Grey can prove his guilt. The solution is okay, but you the reader probably won’t solve it.

“The Scientist and the Wife Killer” is more interesting. Samuel Clayton is a fox who has already disposed of two wives in “accidents” and has decided to up the ante for his third wife. He rings her up on the phone, but when she doesn’t respond, he summons the police to investigate. They break down her locked bathroom door to find her dead of electrocution…but there are no electrical appliances in the room to shock her. Once one gets around the question of asking why Clayton would make this third death an obvious murder instead of just going the accident route again, the story itself is solid. Once again, not much of a chance of solving this on your own, but it’s fascinating to sit back and watch Grey unravel it all.

“The Scientist and the Vanished Weapon” begins a story type that will be seen many more times in this collection: A killer makes a weapon vanish. This time the weapon is a .38 that a delinquent unloaded into a police officer before fleeing into an apartment. The killer was cornered, but the pistol has vanished. Once again, the explanation is based on something that you might not know about, but is honestly pretty cool anyway. One gets the impression when reading these stories that Porges would read about or see these interesting phenomena and try to find ways to work them into a story.

“The Scientist and the Obscene Crime” is more in line with “...Bagful of Water.” Grey is brought in to help a woman receiving obscene phone calls from a stalker who is just clever enough to evade police attention. The way that Grey deals with him is expected, especially since the clue is given a little bluntly.

The next story is both the longest in the collection and also the most gruesome. “The Scientist and the Multiple Murder” opens with the discovery of eight executives floating dead in a rooftop pool. The doors were either locked or watched, and the roof could not be accessed from other roofs. The solution to this one is vaguely guessable, but still requires some technical knowledge to fully piece together.

“The Scientist and the Invisible Safe” pits Grey against a clever jewel thief who is always able to conceal his stolen goods in his hotel room in spite of police searches. The hiding place is clever, although a key piece of information about the thief that might have made it a more fair mystery isn’t given until near the end. This is the case for most of the mysteries in this collection; they’re similar to No Killer Has Wings in that they’re more like problems to observe being solved than a straightforward mystery with clues to be pieced together, and that means that the clues are often withheld.

“The Scientist and the Two Thieves” is more of the same. A religious fanatic makes off with a small fortune in diamonds and is cornered in a blind alley. When the police move in for the arrest, they find that the diamonds have vanished. Grey actually manages to pull out two solutions for this one, and it’s even possible to deduce the second method, in my opinion. I do feel that the first one could have been better hinted at. Considering what I said about the last story and the collection as a whole, this might seem like an annoying and persistent complaint, but when the author can clue something fairly and doesn’t, I get frustrated.

The most unique story in the collection is “The Scientist and the Time Bomb.” Fifteen years ago, the home of Horace Colman, which his grandfather had planned to leave as a public museum, was effectively stolen from the family by the city and turned into a paying exhibit. Cut to the present day when a letter from Colman turns up, in which he claims to have planted a bomb before his death to blow the house up…with a fifteen year fuse. The main question is how he could set up a bomb with a fuse like that. The solution is certainly...unique, and again shows Porges’ knack for taking seemingly irrelevant facts and making them the centerpiece of his mysteries.

“The Scientist and the Platinum Chain” is another vanishing weapon story. The killer murdered his employer, an aggressive and short-tempered man, with a platinum chain, but somehow the chain vanished from a closed and watched room. Another good problem, although when I first read it, I felt that the police should have found the hiding spot. This feeling mostly faded on later re-reads, and I’m willing to admit it was probably down to me misunderstanding what the solution was trying to say.

“The Scientist and the Exterminator” feels like “Dead Drunk” from No Killer Has Wings. Another unpleasant man, this time an unrepentant warlord in the States for medical treatment, is gassed in his locked and guarded hotel room. The hotel itself was filled with guards and was being monitored from the outside, not that it stopped the killer from delivering a dose of cyanide gas into the room and leaving no trace behind. This time the solution feels clunky; the stories before and after this might have solutions that incorporate unfamiliar scientific principles, but they were explained in a way that was clear and understandable. With this one, I found the solution somewhat hard to visualize and understand, since there are a few moving parts around what is admittedly a simple idea.

“The Scientist and the Missing Pistol” is yet another vanishing weapon story. Two men meet in an office, and one claims that the other was shot by a sniper while writing a confession to embezzlement. Trask is suspicious of the story, but no weapon is found in the room, and the other man had no opportunity to dispose of it or pass it off to someone else. This story annoyed me a bit, since, once again, I felt that Porges could have very easily hinted at this one, but the solution itself is satisfying.

The next story breaks from the murder pattern, but still has an object vanishing from an enclosed space. “The Scientist and the Stolen Rembrandt” has Grey putting his brain to work explaining how a fence, cornered on his fancy yacht after a sea chase, can make the titular painting disappear. Another story with a good solution that could have been excellently clued if it were were adapted to a visual medium. The “The Purloined Letter” references aren’t quite 1:1 with this story, but I see what Porges was going for.

The final officially published story is a good finale for the series as a whole. “The Scientist and the Impassible Gulf” opens with Bryan Jennings Latimer (real subtle there Porges), a gentle if henpecked man, murdering his wife in a rage after she sends one of his model cannons into a gulch. Latimer knows he’ll be blamed but comes up with a plan, unseen by the reader, that leaves his wife’s body on the other side of a canyon, the surrounding ground unmarked by any footprints. This is a personal favorite of mine. For one, I like how Porges shows the build-up to the murder, which has always been offscreen until this point. This time he gives us an interesting murderer and victim, showing a murder that is both unjustified but understandable. I also like the “how”; this is one of the few stories where I feel that the average reader can solve the crime, or at least grasp the broad strokes about what happened. There is a little bit of luck that the murderer’s plan hinges on, but it’s pointed out in the story, so I can forgive it.

The next three stories were never published until now. “The Scientist and the Poisoner” opens with the poisoning of a nice old man in a crowded restaurant. Trask is angered by the death, but the death seems impossible. Not only was no poison found in the food, but no one approached the victim beyond an old waiter who has no motive for the murder (and no, he didn’t do it). The solution is clever enough, but the cluing doesn’t work for a very odd reason; it is partly based on a cultural reference that I do not think that most readers today would get. I didn’t, at least.

“The Scientist and the Heavenly Alibi” is a story that doesn’t match up to its awesome title. Trask suspects a rancher of murdering his business partner, but the man has a picture showing him two hundred miles away from the crime scene, and the sunlight in the picture seems to verify the time it was taken. It doesn’t take Grey long to break the alibi, but something about this story just doesn’t click with me. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like this should have been seen through sooner. Also, we have another example of Porges withholding a vital fact until the end.

The final story ends the collection on a bit of a plop. “The Scientist and the One-Word Clue” has an investigative reporter being stabbed to death in his office. The office was ransacked, but the victim was able to leave a note with only one word on it: “Thais.” Grey is the only one who can solve the case...but really, Trask was phoning this one in. Considering how most of the stories up to this point made the point that Trask is a thorough cop who leaves no stone unturned, the fact that he missed this one is disappointing.

All and all, I actually did like this collection. While I do sound nitpicky, it’s because I saw more pure mystery potential that to me seemed squandered. Also, the stories do start to seem familiar when you read them all in a row; even the solutions can feel like variations on the same idea. But I liked the way that Porges managed to work science into these mysteries in a way that shows that he had a genuine love of science and had the ability to make it interesting to others. Like I said earlier, these are “problems” more than “mysteries.” Read them with that in mind and you’ll get more enjoyment out of them.

Recommended, but don’t read too many at once!


  1. A nice roundup of these stories. They are worthwhile, particularly for a fan of impossible crimes, but should not be read in one sitting.

    1. I'm glad to see that I've won agreement. :P Although it does seem that we differ a bit on individual stories, like "...Impassible Gulf."

  2. Yeah, the Cyriack Skinner Grey stories are a little bit more pulpier than the Dr. Joel Hoffman or Professor Ulysses Middlebie stories with its gadget studded wheelchair and bizarre solutions ("Time Bomb"), but the three main characters are the best series-characters Porges ever created. A unit as opposed to a single problem solver and loved the bantering between Edgar and Trask. It's sets it apart from Porges' other series. This makes it such a shame that the stories are so uneven in quality.

    1. I'm now annoyed that I didn't mention the banter between Grey/Edgar/Trask, since it was a highlight of the stories. I could overlook some of the repetitiveness just because I enjoyed seeing these characters all sitting around discussing these impossible crimes.

      That being said I don't know if I'd describe the stories as "uneven" per se. They felt pretty consistent when I was reading them, I just didn't always like what they were doing! But I'm thinking more about the structure than the quality per se.