IT is an odd but very pleasant experience to be asked to tell you something about my friends Professor Wells and Inspector Sims.
I call them "my friends" because I can never think of them as merely characters in books—and my books at that. I have often been asked if they are real people, and have evaded the question, but now, I am told, I must reveal my horrid secret.
Professor Wells, who has figured in some dozen or more of my stories, is founded on a very distinguished scientist who is now dead. Needless to say, he did not live in Russell Square, Bloomsbury (like Wells), and he was not a doctor. Still, he was tall, bearded, gruff-voiced but genial, and, I must admit, an acid critic of my work. He was really an amazing fellow! Although his chief interest was the science of mathematics he was a mine of information on the most unexpected subjects.
It is commonly said that truth is stranger than fiction, but let me assure you that the better kind of detective fiction is largely based on truth. I was more than ever convinced of this after I had completed an investigation (with the courteous permission and aid of the authorities) of one of the most efficient detective forces in the world, while I was preparing my study on The Compleat Crook~In France.
In my fictional books I claim only the merit of absolute accuracy in dealing with the scientific side of criminal investigation—whether in England or on the Continent—and I make that claim only to explain that we writers of detective fiction do not rely on mere chance for our effects.
To get back to Wells: I remember once spending a whole day in trying to find out something about a rare metal of which even less was then known than about radium. Eventually I discussed it with a scientist of international fame, who told me all that there was then to be told about it.
Weary but triumphant I went along to my club in search of tea, and there I saw the Professor—as we used to call him, though he did not assume that title—sitting in his usual corner of the big smoking-room.
"Now," I said to myself with a chuckle, "I will give the dear old man a poser for once," "Oh, Professor," I said innocently, "I wish you'd explain to me what so-and-so is." The Professor's eyes twinkled beneath his bushy brows. "My good fellow," he boomed, "that isn't in my line. All I know about it is . . ." and he calmly proceeded to summarize in a few words all the information I had spent a day in digging out.
As to the good Sims—that cheery, good-natured, and quietly efficient officer of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard—well, the Yard people would tell you that he simply doesn't exist. That is true; but if you had the privilege of visiting the Yard it is just possible that you might meet a pleasant fellow, with the easy courtesy of a man-about-town and the contented air of a sleeping partner in a prosperous business, who might seem vaguely familiar to you. And what a fascinating place the Yard is, with its gruesome Black Museum containing relics of many and many a strange crime!
One thing I will tell you: Sims is true to type in his modest avoidance of fame. Team work is the Yard's motto, and whatever bouquets are handed out by the Commissioner to his subordinates are not hung outside the front door for the public to admire.
I have tried in my books to represent Wells and Sims as human beings rather than demi-gods of criminology. No man is infallible in crime detection any more than in spotting the winner of the two-thirty race or in predicting what his wife will say when he doubles at bridge. The criminologist, professional or amateur, is only human. I have the honour to belong to one of the most exclusive Societies in the world, at which periodically gather men in almost every profession and occupation. There one may hear experts in law, medicine, and a dozen other subjects discuss a given (real) crime in the light of special knowledge possessed by one or more of them. There is no pedantic terminology, no verbal firework display; just a plain, reasoned exposing of the facts. It is a party of fallible men discussing the greater fallibility of a less happy brother.
So with Wells and Sims. They enjoy their creature comforts and discuss their cases with a touch of humour, for crime is a drab affair, and only those who have participated in its detection know how welcome even the smallest touch of light relief can be. Here, for instance, is a scene in the Professor's house. He and Sims have just enjoyed an excellent dinner, and are about to discuss developments in that weird mystery, "The Zoo Murder." Sims has settled himself in an arm-chair in the library, and Wells has taken from the mantelpiece his favourite meerschaum pipe, while Jackson, his butler, pours out the coffee.
"What will you take with it, Sims?" queries the Professor. "But I suppose I need not ask." "You need not," the detective answers. "There is only one liqueur really worth drinking." "So you say. Brandy, Jackson, and put the cigars beside Mr. Sims. And remember that I am not at home to anyone. Well, Sims," he continues when the butler has left them alone, "what about the Zoo murder? (?a marche, hein?" "It marches, my friend," is the reply, "but it marches damned slowly. Napoleon, I believe, said that an army marches on its stomach. That ought to encourage us, for this business positively crawls." "It struck me that it would not be a case of plain sailing." "It's not. How many buttons are there on your waistcoat?" "Eh?" Wells demands, bewildered. "Why on earth——?" "No, don't count them," Sims interposes. "I want you to tell me from memory." "About four or five, I suppose; but I am only guessing." "Exactly. That is my point. I wanted to remind you how inaccurate we are in observing everyday matters." "A truism." "Of course. But here's another. I suppose you've been to the Zoo at least a dozen times in your life?" "A score, more likely." "No doubt. So have I. Yet when I went to the lion-house this morning I was surprised to find that I could not remember exactly how the beasts were fed. It seems incredible that a human body could be pushed through the bars by a murderer, and yet——" "It would certainly be highly ingenious," Wells admits, "but what about the width of the bars?" "Ah," Sims replies, smiling, "that was the real reason for my question about the buttons on your waistcoat."
Well, there we have Wells and Sims talking at their ease. Now let us see them in sterner action, in the final drama of the strange adventure of The Smiling Death. The central character is Gregory Marie, bookseller and master-criminal, whose weapon of death is strychnine, producing that dreadful contraction of the facial muscles known as the risus sardonicus.
Mr. Marle, studying a black-letter volume in the lonely house on the French coast in which he has hidden himself, is startled by the sudden appearance of Inspector Sims and a half-witted man called Jacques, whom he has employed. Marie seizes a pistol, but they disarm him and place him in a chair, bound and handcuffed. The mysterious Jacques tears off his disguise and stands revealed as Professor Wells. Even then Marie does not abandon his cool defiance.
"You will allow me to indulge in my favourite vice?" he asks. "You are surely not afraid of my escaping?" Sims is about to unlock the handcuffs when Wells interposes. "I think," he says, "that Mr. Marie can get at his snuff-box quite well as it is." Marie shrugs his shoulders, and contrives to get at his pocket, from which he takes his snuff-box, raps its lid, and inhales a pinch. "Well, Mr. Sims," he continues coolly, "this is all rather high handed, you know, breaking into a private dwelling on French soil." "Please don't worry about that," Sims responds, in his cheerful way, "the French authorities are aware of my proceedings." "Possibly, but I fail to see what charge you can bring against me." "What about the pearls?" Marie starts and pales. "The pearls?" he repeats. "You do not mean that you have found them—when I—I failed?" "Here they are. Garcia hid them——" "Where?" "In your own office in London. You will remember an antique lantern that hung on the wall? They were there all the time." "My God!" Marie mutters, and his hands move. "Stop him, Sims, quick!" Wells cries, but they are too late. "He's dead," says the detective. "Yes. Look at this tiny dart," Wells answers. "It has been dipped in strychnine. He had it in his snuff-box, and he snatched it out and punctured his wrist."
Sims gazes down at the huddled body. "Look at his face," he says; "that horrible grin." Wells nods. "Yes," he replies significantly; "the Smiling Death!"
Text © 1935 Francis D Grierson-Allen & Unwin Layout © 2004 R.D. Collins
The Great Detectives
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