20051022

How Mysterious

I've been obsessively reading books of "Solve it Yourself" mysteries lately. These are short vignettes -- a page or two -- detailing a crime, which you (the reader) must solve. These puzzles are inevitably quite irritating, since they almost invariably follow the same pattern: in the description is some detail which, combined with some external knowledge shows a contradiction in the story of one of the characters, indicating them to be a liar and hence guilty. At the best of times these stretch credulity. My favourite of these is one in which the murder victim shot his precious diamond out of the window at the top of his narrow house attached to an arrow to avoid the murderer getting his hands on it. The investigating officer tells the chief suspect that the missing diamond is only "an arrow flight away", to which the suspect responds "Well, go outside and look for it then". This immediately proves his guilt. Because, apparently, any innocent person hearing the sentence would assume that the officer said "It's only a narrow flight [of stairs]" away, and respond "Well, go upstairs and look for it then." Clever, eh? And also possibly the most convoluted and forced set up you can possibly think of.

The principal author of this crimes against logic is Donald J. Sobol, the creator of Encylopedia Brown, a children's version of the same thing. For four dollars, I bought a copy of a collection of his "two minute mysteries", a 400 page book where each mystery occupies two pages. That's 2c (approximately 0.01GBP) per mystery, and in several cases I feel that I have been cheated of my two cents worth. I'm going to quote one mystery in its entirety, because I can, and because it's fair use, and because this one above all others seems simply wrong in its execution. Take a read and see what you think:


The body of Monroe Sheld, an impoverished sixty-year-old painter, lay over a table in his sweltering one-room apartment. A bullet had entered his right temple. On his right side, by the leg of his chair, was an old fashioned single-action revolver. The table was bare, except for a cracked plate, a saucerless cup, knife, fork, and spoon, and an overturned salt shaker.
"Sheld has been peddling his sketches for a dollar or two in the local bars," said Inspector Winters. "His doctor says he was stricken with heart failure two months ago and nearly died. You migh say he ate a last meal and committed suicide."
"Correction," said Dr. Haledjian. "There was a bit about him in today's paper. A small but fashionable art gallery announced a one-man showing of his paintings next month. He had everything to live for."
Haledjian opened a small cupboard layered with dust. One plate and cup, and a setting of cheap silverware, however, was quite clean. Next he opened a paper garbage bag and sniffed.
"This food was put in the bag with the past three hours, or about the time of Sheld's death," asserted Haledjian. "Longer than that and it would have begun to spoil and smell in this heat."
Haledjian shut the bag. "I shouldn't close the case quite yet, Inspector. Sheld had a dinner guest, who tried to cover up his presence here."
What made Haledjian so certain?


After this question, at the bottom of the same page and upside down is the answer. In a vain attempt to create a false sense of tension, I shall try to write the answer using a white font, which will therefore be invisible until you highlight it with your cursor, unless your browser ignores these kind of instructions, or you are using a text or speech based browser. But anyway:

Sheld, having suffered a heart failure would have watched his diet carefully. He never would have brought the salt to the table unless it was for another's use

Now here's my challenge to you. Read the story and the author's explanation to the answer. Why is the explanation complete and utter bollocks?

Post your responses in the comments, and if no one can work it out in a reasonable amount of time, I'll post the reason myself.

3 comments:

Graeme said...

I know! I know!

I'll ROT-13 the answer to save spoiling it.

Gur fnyg pbagrag bs n zrny jbhyq uneqyl or gur sberzbfg pbaprea bs n zna jub vagraqrq gb xvyy uvzfrys.

Anonymous said...

YUM YUM YUM SALT.

msw said...

Hold on: his narrow house was attached to an arrow?