The Duel of Shadows by Vincent Cornier
Theme: Crippen & Landru Lost Classic Series
Source: The Duel of Shadows – The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth
Story Number: 118
The Duel of Shadows is the 31st in the Crippen & Landru “Lost Classics” series – it contains 11 stories featuring Cornier’s series detective Barnabas Hildreth, an agent of the British Secret Service. In most of these truly extraordinary cases, the reader is presented with a fascinating problem in what looks like an impossible situation with some supernatural elements to give it a wonderful atmosphere and the detective with his superior knowledge of some obscure concept of science is able to provide a scientific explanation to the strange phenomena observed earlier in the case. The reader really doesn’t have much of a chance to arrive at the solution before the detective does but that in no way hampers the reader from thoroughly enjoying the way in which the plot strands are peeled away like the peels of an onion to reveal a hidden scientific concept around which the whole solution to the impossible situation is based upon.
Consider the story under consideration – Henry Westmacott is sitting by his own hearthside in the drawing-room listening to a concert broadcast on the radio. His wife and a maid are the only two other occupants of the house. They both hear the concert abruptly ending midway and a big commotion from the room. When they enter the room, they find that Henry has been injured with a thick bullet – which has deflected from his shoulder and hit the radio. There is no weapon present in the room from which the bullet could have been fired and no individual was seen walking out of the room as the door was under constant observation. It is found that the bullet was very old and was so big that it could have been fired from only one pistol – that pistol turns out to be one of the two duel pistols which was fired only once in its lifetime some 222 years ago!
The other strange phenomenon is noticed by the photographer – when he develops the first set of exposures of the damaged radio set still having the bullet embedded in it, he notices a strange object like the planet Saturn in all the photos though there wan’ t anything of that sort in the room. When he takes a second set of exposures on a different day with exactly the same set of circumstances, the photos come out clear without any strange objects in them.
The solution which explains all the above problems depends on a series of scientific phenomena colluding together. This includes lead mining, marsh gas, growth of annular rings in an elm tree, properties of pitch-blende among many others! Though the critics have pointed out the non feasibility of a few aspects of the solution, it doesn’t really take away anything from this very well constructed story.