‘I solved this case in an unusual way,” said Giacomo Flange, raising a brown bottle of stout to his lips, “though I have no training in crime detection, or in telling tales of detection. On the other hand, we’re all saturated with this stuff and are more or less aware of the conventions.”
“Never knew you’d solved any cases,” said his friend Hamish Quemerford; “you never say much about yourself, if you don’t mind me pointing that out. You’re a very private person, as perhaps corporate photographers need to be. Portraits in the board room and all that. Discreet might have been a better word. In what way unusual?”
“Discreet is good. What is unusual is this, that there wasn’t properly speaking a case until I solved it. And I have to admit, I enjoy turning that in my mind from time to time.”
“I can hardly blame you,” said Quemerford. “But what you say sounds to me like a contradiction.“
“It was the greater of my two great successes,” Flange continued. “I will give you a full account of the details, and we’ll see if there’s a contradiction.”
“I don’t think so,” said Quemerford, looking at his watch. “I have a train to catch. Why don’t you summarize your case? X murdered W, and so on. To all appearances it must have been Y or Z who did it; but at length you were happy to prove that X was the culprit, resulting in his eventual apprehension.”
“That doesn’t make for much of a story,” said Flange.
“Fifteen minutes is all I can give you.”
“Tell you what,” said Flange. “I’ll dictate the list of characters. Jot them down on your napkin and you’ll be spared the lengthy descriptions.”
“What really interests me,” said Quemerford, leaning closer, “is the femme fatale. Did I say that right? Femme fatale. No description of her can possibly be too lengthy.”
“You said it right; but if I tell you there is no femme fatale, will you abandon me before I finish?”
“You have — let’s see — now just under fifteen minutes to gain and hold my attention. I’ve given up on many a book in less time than that.”
“I’ll just plod along, then, sticking to absolute facts. Run if you must.”
“For the moment, I’m yours,” said Quemerford, screwing up his brows to listen.
“The initiating force in my investigation,” said Flange, after wetting his lips, “what set me to thinking, really, is a kindly woman of about sixty years —”
“Sorry to interrupt,” said Quemerford; “but as it is often the one least suspected who does the crime, did she do it?”
“Or least expected,” said Flange. “No she didn’t.”
“Give me the list, then.”
“Right. They’re in the order I encountered them in. A sentence like that requires two ins, no?”
“I think so.”
“Never mind. Leaving aside the runners and dog walkers and hikers and fishermen scattered about the parkland, there’s, first, myself, because I am always in my own company; second, the kindly woman; third, two park rangers with the victims of a theft; fourth, two police officers; fifth, the malefactor.
“Notice,” Flange continued, “you will not have the privilege of knowing anything of the victim until you have solved the case, as I did; you will therefore not have the sympathy you would typically feel for the victim; it will be that much less urgent to you that the malefactor should be found and brought to justice.”
“The challenge is to solve the puzzle,” said Quemerford, “with the few niggling clues you provide me.”
“Right. So, I meet the kindly lady by chance along the shore of the lake and accompany her for a while as she talks about the birds. Had I the good fortune to see a blue grosbeak, was her opening remark. She carries a simple camera but good binoculars and there is, it seems to me, no bird she can’t identify. She often watches with a much younger woman — a pretty girl, a ‘sweetie,’ she calls her — who is a well-equipped photographer, who comes there on her lunch hour to photograph the birds, then to eat her salad in her car, before returning to her place of employment. The kindly lady offers to introduce me, but as we come over the rise from the lake to the lot it is evident the girl has left early.
“Instead of the girl, we happen upon the two park rangers interviewing the two victims of a theft. Someone has broken into their trunk and stolen a purse. The rangers can be heard calling for police backup as we approach. They ask us to stand aside and afterward to answer a few questions separately. Have we seen anything out of the ordinary.”
“I don’t see the young female photographer mentioned anywhere on your list,” said Quemerford, lagging a bit behind.
“It is a list of persons encountered,” said Flange, “as I mentioned.”
“Then was this just by-the-way talk?”
“It was not.”
“Was it the girl who did it?”
“The crime that’s yet undiscovered.”
“Hear me,” said Quemerford, showing himself flustered; “Whatever you may wish me to think, it was the girl who broke into the car, to steal the purse to fund her hobby. The girl and the malefactor are one.”
“But as I encounter the malefactor eventually, that rules the girl out.”
“Okay, so the malefactor returns to the scene and the police frisk him because he looks guilty and find the purse up his sleeve.”
“No, no. It’s the crime I discovered we’re looking for, not the theft of the purse.”
“So there are two trunks broken into and you discover the second. The thief shows up looking guilty with two purses up two sleeves.”
“Clever. Hadn’t thought of that. But let’s wait for the story to unfold.”
“Okay, let’s move on.”
“Right. So the police arrive at last with the head of the driver half out his window, staring at the kindly lady and me like we’re the suspects. Since I know the county police department fairly well, I strike up a mollifying conversation.
“‘Are you in Peter Fajinsky’s squad?’ I ask him, deploying a confidential tone of voice. I run down the list of squad sergeants, past Harold Satterthwaite and Phillip Throgmorton and reach Patrick Shanahan before he says ‘That’s the one.’ Then they confer in the dark interior of their car and, suitably mollified, drive over to question the victims.”
“What is the relevance of the bit about the squads?” said Quemerford. “What does it matter in a short account like this what the name of the squad leader is?”
“The driver was a rookie under the supervision of his police coach. What? Yes, you’re right, it doesn’t matter. But do you understand the concept of verisimilitude?”
“Well, I read about it in a book on writing mystery stories,” said Flange, “but it’s of no great importance here.”
“Moving right along, then.”
“Okay. So the police have asked us to hang around a bit and we end up standing in the spot where the woman had said the young girl had parked. As I have nothing much to do but stand and observe, I begin to study the ground at my feet. The surface of the lot is a fine, soft gravel, just a few measures coarser than sand. There are footprints aplenty. One set is likely the malefactor’s, another the girl’s, another my own, and so on. As I observe I notice two things that strike me. One is a rill of gravel that looks as if it has been pushed up by the sidewise pressure of a boot, and the other is tiny bits of red plastic.
“The kindly lady says the girl had been wearing red-rimmed glasses and if she broke them that would explain her early return to the office. When I look closer, I see places where probing fingers have tried to fetch the pieces out of the gravel but have missed a few, as the glasses, or at least the frames, must have been shattered.”
“The girl loses her footing as she climbs into her car,” said Quemerford, “because her unaided vision is poor, and pushes up a pile of gravel in her clumsiness.”
“Did you take impressions of the fingerprints or probings or a photograph?”
“To see was it the girl picking up her own plastic bits, or someone else not known to her.”
“I could do no more than photograph.”
“Is it another foot that pushes the gravel up?”
“So, what did you find?”
“Nothing. By then the police have approached us on foot and have begun to ask more probing questions. We repeat what we said to the rangers. When I point out the plastic and the rill in the lot, they conclude that it’s nothing to do with the theft of the purse. They ask do we know of any witnesses to interview regarding the theft, which we don’t, so they return to the rangers, where they stand sharing mildly humorous talk.
“By this time I had begun to consider a number of different possibilities — all of them involving the violated trunk, the girl on her lunch hour, the bits of plastic, the rill in the gravel — and I knew I needed something to tie them together.
“And then, as we’re waiting, we spy the shape of a man making his way up from the tree line, or from the stream behind it, heading straight for the lake behind me. He’s coming jauntily across the green field, displaying a certain studied unconcern, except that when he takes the full measure of the gathering commotion he breaks his stride slightly, almost imperceptibly, then continues as before, as if he were resolved not to be put off his goal. He’s carrying a big camera and a big lens, so I conclude he’s been shooting the small birds notoriously hard to see in the woods.”
“Your man,” said Quemereford. “With two purses up his sleeves.”
“The theft of purses is not the matter of this story,” said Flange.
“He strangled your blue grosbeak, then, or the common red robin.”
“Something far worse. And by now you have begun to put it all together, if you’re anywhere near as good as I am.”
“I am,” said Quemerford, looking down at his list and adding a few scribbles round the edges; “time is nearly up.”
“Last clue, then. When the man has finally drawn near enough to hear us, I address him as one photographer to another:
“‘Great birds-in-flight lens, you have there,’ I say.
“‘It is that,’ says he, holding it out a little before him, but making no effort to stand for discussion.
“‘Looks like the 400mm, f/5.6.’
“‘It does,’ he says.
“‘No auto focus,’ I say, for a feint.
“‘No,’ he says.
“‘I meant to say, no image stabilization. It has auto focus, of course.’
“‘I understood you,’ he says.
“And now, Mr. Quemerford, when I hear the answers he’s giving, I call to the law enforcement standing nearby, saying, ‘I believe there’s more here than theft. Someone ought to go down and have a look in the stream.” As I’m speaking, I’m gesturing toward the ground where the red plastic lies and then toward the man, who’s started to bound up the hillside. Then the officers close in at last. And after the rookie returns from the stream the police and the rangers surround the man and put his arms behind him and bind his wrists with cuffs.
“It was a poignant moment I had no words for; particularly when I considered the violence done to the victim.”
“A melancholy affair,” said Quemerford. “When a fantasist has no words.”
“There you have it,” said Flange.
“A puzzler,” said Quemerford.
“But did you get it?”
“Anyone could see it coming,” said Quemerford.
“What is it, then?”
“Drive me to the station,” said Quemerford, “and I’ll tell you.”
Along the way to the station, Quemerford said nothing at first until he broke the silence with a pronouncement: “In the big scheme of things,” he said, “what does it matter? A lost purse equals — what? a day away from the mall?”
“Then you didn’t get it, if you talk like that,” said Flange. “You’re a geometer after all.”
“Do you understand the concept of a red herring?” said Quemmerford.
Author’s Note: “Flange’s Greater Case” is a spoof of mystery story conventions and embodies a discussion of some of those conventions by the principal characters. The story is a puzzle laid out basically in the reverse order of most conventional mysteries, but I think the attentive reader can piece together the main features of the crime and its belated discovery and solution. Whether it’s worth the close attention is for the reader to decide. Flange and Quemerford are alter egos with essentially opposing ways of interpreting human action; but this opposition can only be hinted at in a short narrative of this type. It is, of course, Flange’s purpose to stump Quemerford, but we can’t be sure whether he has succeeded. Quemerford isn’t saying.
Symons, a Pennington resident, is a freelance translator and technical writer, as well as a long-time member of the U.S. 1 delivery team and, along with E.E. Whiting, a reviewer of the submissions to the Summer Fiction issue.