Thursday, October 18, 2018
Cricket in Babylon - W W Masters' Murder in the Mirror
In W W Masters’ Murder in the Mirror (Longmans, 1931), a young man finds himself at the wicket in a village cricket match, suffering from a complete memory loss. He is bewildered, but plays on (as if he had been trained to such a priority, he notices), says nothing to anyone else, and begins to piece together a few fragments.
After his innings finishes, he finds out the date by looking over the scorer’s shoulder (9 July – the birthday of Mervyn Peake, Barbara Cartland and Thomas Ligotti, amongst others).
He hopes also to discover his name, but it emerges that he is a passing stranger, who had been roped in to the side to take the place of a missing player. He is therefore shown in the scorebook, as is the usual practice in cricket, under the name of A N Other. Yet when he finds his clothes, a tobacco pouch also has the initials ‘A.N.O.’
The scene shifts to a parson in the East End, who is being threatened by a mysterious oriental figure somewhat in the tradition of Dr Fu Manchu and Dr Nikola: and we then follow the priest to a holiday with three friends in Dorset. Some of them are strangely drawn to a book of Babylonian legends in the library. And then, one by one, they begin to disappear. Clues seem to lead to a sinister figure living in a caravan parked inconspicuously in the downs.
Allen J. Hubin in ‘The Golden Age of British Mystery Fiction’ notes: “W. W. Masters and his only work Murder in the Mirror . . . are about as obscure as they come. But the story is not without merit. The theme is psychic or supernatural menace, with which battle must be waged; I was reminded of the later books by Jack Mann. And quite a nice surprise climaxes the story . . . Babylon, magic, mind control and murder are all effectively worked into the story.”
The tone is quite like Buchan’s, as is the framework: the style is brisk and forceful. The surprise ending delivers a fundamental twist , subverting much of what has gone before: this will appear clever and audacious to some, or a bit too contrived for others, depending on taste. Charles Williams, in one of his detective fiction reviews (21 January 1931), says, “The actual method of the mystery ought, I think, to have been explained a little more; it is hardly intelligible as it stands.” I think that is a little severe, but it is true that the reader is left at the end to infer quite a lot.
Nevetheless, Williams goes on: “The book, I want to make clear, is a good idea, which just fails to get across.” That, I think, is a fair summation. It is original and clever, but a bit too much so; some subtle preparation for what is to come would have been better.
This was not, as Hubin thought, Masters’ only book. His first publication seems to have been Air-Ways, A Story for Boys and Girls, issued by the subsidy publisher Stockwell of Ilfracombe, Devon, in 1927. But more interestingly he was also the author of an earlier occult thriller, Eleven (Chapman & Hall, 1929).
In this, a group of bored young men are interrupted one evening by a stranger who steps into the room from the garden, bearing in his hand a vial of poison. He challenges them to a deadly game. His task is to eliminate them all, one by one: theirs is to outwit him and avoid extinction. The general idea might have been suggested by aspects of Stevenson’s The Suicide Club, although the atmosphere is again more like Buchan’s chase thrillers.
I have been unable to find out anything about W W Masters. When I was looking for his books, the only other copy of Murder in the Mirror I discovered was in a bookshop in Kathmandu, which seemed strangely appropriate for so elusive a figure. It isn't there now.