Originally published in 1908 as Die schwarze Schnur, English translation published in 1911.
Part of the Detective Muller series.
Author originally credited as Augusta Groner on English language translation.
The English language translation of this work is in the Public Domain and a digitized copy is available through Hathi Trust.
A rich man disappears from within a suite of rooms that have been locked from the inside and no trace of him can be found except a half-melted candle and a short but cryptic note. The windows are barred and there are no secret passages into the room, stumping the police.
Not exactly what I expected or hoped for but this adventure story is still quite readable, if a little slow.
During the Summer I decided that my crime and mystery reference library needed some further development. To that end I purchased a number of reference books and guides including the recent Locked Room International reissue of Bob Adey’s Locked Room Murders (and Brian Skupin’s Locked Room Murders Supplement). I have made scant use of these tomes so far, perhaps because I have not read as many impossible crime stories as usual since purchasing them, but I found myself browsing them for ideas earlier this week as I tried to find inspiration for my next locked room read.
The Man with the Black Cord jumped out at me for a number of reasons. I was intrigued by its premise of a man disappearing from within a locked room, the nationality of its author (I had yet to review an Austrian crime novel) and its year of publication. Perhaps most of all though I was interested to discover that I seemed to be unable to find a review of the book on any of my favorite impossible crime speciality blogs. Always keen to fill in some of the blanks, I decided to track down a copy to see whether I had uncovered some lost classic.
Leopold Erlach is the miserly owner of the Green House, a small but imposing mansion in Austria. He lives alone in the house except for his housekeeper but maintains a rigid routine. When he fails to arrive for breakfast his housekeeper is worried and after waiting a short while, investigates only to find his bedroom door and study locked from the inside and no response from within. With the assistance of a locksmith they are able to enter the rooms but find them empty except for a half-burned candle on a desk near the barred window and an open work of ancient history with three words from the text underlined: He – was – here.
Leopold has only one close relative – Lt. Paul Erlach who lives in Vienna. While Paul will inherit the estate, it will take thirty years unless a body is found. That does not prevent him receiving a suggestive letter pointing out his good fortune which he takes to the police. Having reached a dead end, they suggest he hire Joseph Muller, a former policeman turned private investigator, to see if he can discover what has happened to Uncle Leopold.
I think the opening chapters to this book are very effective. Groner lays out the circumstances leading up to the discovery of the disappearance well and does a pretty good job of covering the different ways that the room was secure, although I was not clear on how they were certain that the room had been locked from the inside until the detective summarizes everything at the end (for the record: the only set of keys are inside the locked room).
I also enjoyed the chapter in which Muller is approached to accept the case. We quickly learn that he is both diligent and highly observant as well as seeing that he has some strong people skills, reassuring reluctant witnesses to share what they know. We also learn of his softness and empathy – traits that made it impossible for him to work within the stricter notions of justice pursued by the police force. The result is a character that combines the professional know-how of the formally-trained detective with the informality of the amateur detective. I liked Muller a lot and I would not object to trying other stories featuring the character in the future.
Unfortunately having established an interesting scenario in the first few chapters, the book then headed in a direction that I had not expected. Much of what follows plays out in the style of an adventure or thriller, albeit quite a gentle one, and there is next to no consideration of the locked room puzzle at all. In fact, I can only think of one sequence prior to the explanation in which the matter is looked at or discussed in any detail meaning that there is little sense of discovery. This was a disappointment given the impossibility was the aspect of the story that drew me to it.
I think that the explanation as to what happened seemed to make sense, although I am not sure that every aspect of the room was described in enough detail that the reader could recognize how it might work. I did guess it, though I think that was based on the relative simplicity of the crime scene and having encountered variations on this idea elsewhere. It is a solid, if pretty simple, early example of a locked room story. Just be aware that it does not feature much in the body of the work to avoid disappointment.
The bigger issue for me in the midsection of the novel was its pacing which struck me as quite slow. While I appreciated the way this part of the book seems to increase the scope and scale of the story, I felt that this section of the book lacked the sense of discovery found in the first few chapters of the investigation while I also felt that the decision to have Muller adopt a false identity to go undercover came a little too early for me, coming before I felt I really knew him fully.
The final few chapters of the novel are much tighter and contain much of the explanation of what took place. The clues are generally quite well distributed even if a very small number of physical attributes of the room in which the disappearance occurred could have been more thoroughly described. In most other respects however I think that the ending answered most of my questions and provided a solid explanation for the strange events.
Sadly The Man with the Black Cord was not the forgotten masterpiece I had hoped it would be but that does not mean it is without merit, particularly given the age of the work. The Austrian setting is interesting, as is the central problem at the heart of the story. If you come to this expecting a slower pace of storytelling along with the occasional sensational plot development, you probably won’t be disappointed.