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Locked Room Reviews:
Author: Eden Phillpotts
A new look at The Grey Room
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Note: The solution is not revealed in this review, so no spoiler alert, but most of the novel is summarized and a few comments are made concerning the solution.
It is just possible that I am the only reviewer that actually likes Eden Phillpotts’ ‘The Grey Room’! The only other review online is by Jon at Gadetection, who calls it a stinker and gives it a 0 out of 10! (Gadetection Review) This is a sentiment echoed by the influential mystery critic Anthony Boucher who was equally contemptuous of this early mystery pioneer. Writing of his novel ‘Flower of the Gods’, he noted, “infinite talk and no action. A doctor’s prescription should be required for this powerful soporific.” (Passing Tramp Blog) All of which suggests that my attempt to argue for a rehabilitation of this mystery, may not be an easy task, but I really feel we should take a second look before locking Phillpotts out of our locked room libraries!
Eden Phillpotts (1862 – 1960) was an English author, poet and dramatist. He was born in Mount Abu, British India, and educated in Plymouth, Devon. He worked as an insurance officer for ten years before studying for the stage and eventually becoming a writer. His most popular works today are a series he wrote on his beloved Dartmoor. At near the time this book was written, he recommended a struggling fellow writer from Devon, by the name of Agatha Christie, to his publisher – which resulted in the publication of ‘The Mysterious Affair at Styles’. His writing is clearly in the Victorian style, wordy and more than a little too verbose at times, but his plots are extremely well crafted. I find him a joy to read, but I am an avid fan of Victorian fiction, and others may not find it as much to their taste. Unfortunately, little information is available on Phillpotts private life, and as we will discover in this review, this leaves us with a few disturbing questions!
The basic story is fairly easily summarized. It begins at Sir Walter Lennox’s family estate of Chadlands, where a large party has gathered for a weekend in the country. After playing billiards, a group of men sit down for a final nightcap. The group consists of Sir Walter; his nephew and heir, Henry Lennox; the much beloved new husband of his daughter Mary, Captain Thomas May; an old friend, Ernest Travers; a psychic investigator, Felix Fayre-Michell, and the young Colonel Vane. The conversation drifts over several topics, until Tom finally brings up the subject of the Grey Room, a beautiful bedroom at Chadlands, with ornate Italian ceilings and Oriel windows, filled with valuable antiques, and a haunted reputation. Only part of the history of this Elizabethan room is now known. Sixty years earlier, an old aunt had once arrived late for Christmas, and declared she was not afraid of haunted rooms, only to be found dead, locked inside, the following morning. Then twelve years before the time of the novel, a healthy young nurse, who was looking after Mary during a bout of pneumonia, also died in the room. No reason for the death could be discovered after an extensive examination, but the family decided to play it safe, and the legend began to grow. The party ends the evening with a tour of the room, and Thomas May announces his desire to put this old superstition to rest. He asks Sir Walter to allow him to spend the night in the room, but Sir Walter refuses and asks Henry to return the key to his study. However, the idea has now been planted, and both Thomas and Henry want to test this old tale and declare the house exorcised the next morning. They finally flip a coin, and Thomas wins, just before Henry gets a bad feeling about the plan, which is now taken as mere sour grapes. The next morning, Henry arises early and is relieved to see Thomas kneeling in the oriel window, apparently in a trance. However, when the door is finally broken down, he is discovered to be quite dead, and once more the doctors can find no medical cause for the death of this healthy young man. Mary is left to mourn her lost husband, while Walter and Henry are badly shaken by this bizarre tragedy.
Sir Walter is determined to clear up this mystery, and at the suggestion of Colonel Vane, he sends for the renowned Scotland Yard detective, Peter Hardcastle. In the meantime, Thomas’ father, Reverend Septimus May, arrives and declares this to be a spiritual matter. He wants to exorcise this evil power from the room, but Sir Walter has already put his faith in reason, and insists that Septimus wait for the official investigation. Hardcastle arrives on the scene the day after Sir Walter’s decision, and proves to be a strict materialist with no sympathy for any form of religious beliefs. After briefly interviewing the family, he shuts himself into the Grey Room in the middle of the day, only to be discovered a few hours later, apparently dead! I say apparently, as the powers that be in London now believe that these deaths may be merely a profound stupor, much to the horror of Mary – and the disdain of the local doctor, who heads off with Henry and Hardcastle’s body for the city.
However, this apparent defeat of logic has dramatically swayed Sir Walter, and Mary is no longer able to prevent him from allowing Septimus to spend the night in the Grey Room. The priest begins to pray away this evil manifestation, and survives for several hours, as his prayers echo down the corridor, but his fate is ultimately no better than the unbeliever. Early the next morning, he too is found dead, again without any sufficient cause or reason.
Sir Walter’s world is rapidly crumbling, as four Scotland Yard detectives, led by Inspector Firth, descend on Chadlands. They empty the room, inspect every inch, and spend the night locked inside, clad in gas masks, with a lab rat and a pair of birds to act as mine canaries – but the night passes without incident. This full investigation into every member of the household, and every victim, continues for several weeks, but is finally concluded without any glimmer of a solution. Sir Walter and Mary then finally escape the claustrophobic terror of Chadlands and head to winter in Florence, where Mary discovers the wonders of Renaissance art and music, and Sir Walter begins to heal – until their vacation is cut short in the early spring, by the arrival of a letter from an Italian nobleman, Signor Virgilio Mannetti. Mannetti has travelled to England, after his interest was peaked by a brief encounter with Colonel Vane, only to find that Mary and Sir Walter had already left for Italy! He claims to have the answer to the mystery of the Grey Room, so Mary and Sir Walter quickly make their way back to Chadlands, where they are joined by Henry. Mannetti arrives soon after their return and proves to be an ancient, extremely knowledgable gentlemen, perhaps even a descendants of the infamous Borgia, who investigates only briefly, before dramatically announcing his very strange solution!
Perhaps the most critical issue with this novel arises from our own expectations! This book essentially predates the modern locked room mystery, with only a few English examples, like The Big Bow Mystery, to set any genre parameters. In fact, I would suggest that Phillpotts did not write this primarily as a locked room mystery. It is actually a much more expansive work that deals with the early post war social crisis in England – an event that stirred politics, science, and religion – which just happens to use a locked room device to make its point!
The main theme of this novel is clearly our modern struggle to find balance between the spiritual and physical aspects of life. Must science be all in our modern world, or is there still room for faith, art, and mystery? This is primarily the story of a Victorian man, who accepts reason as one of the pillars that supports his Christian faith, coming into conflict with a series of impossible events. The first impels him to look for a rational, scientific solution. The second turns him back to the superstitions of the past, then the third rocks him to his core, leaving him without any philosophical foundations. Though he once again rejects the supernatural explanation, there is no path left to resolve this gnawing mystery, until his daughter discovers the healing power of art and music, and the Renaissance man, Mannetti, arrives on the scene to rescue him from his quandary. Mannetti does not deal in superstition, nor does he follow the path of science. Instead, he relies on early 16th century history and the magic of alchemy to reveal a very different resolution to this haunting mystery. The result is not very satisfying to modern logical minds, as it still leaves far too much room for unfinished business, but, for Phillpotts, the solution to our modern existential woes, did not lie in strict faith, nor in the excessive application of logic. It could only be found in the steady progress of humanity, and the acceptance that there are far more things in heaven and earth than will ever be dreamed of by our science or religion.
When I finished this book, I first felt a bit cheated, then it began to dawn on me that Phillpotts is warning us not to allow logic to destroy all the wonders that makes life worth living. Science is an invaluable fountain of knowledge designed to purge ignorant superstition, but it should not be allowed to remove all the shock and awe that man encounters in this ultimately inexplicable universe. Mankind needs mystery to thrive, which is why, nearly a century later, we are still fully engaged in our spiritual quests, still looking for aliens under every bed, still marvelling at the incredible accomplishments of past civilizations, and still struggling to understand fundamental enigmas like ESP, meditation, and acupuncture. In fact, it would prove to be a very bleak future, if every mystery was resolved by the relentless march of reason! As Phillpotts notes in ‘A Shadow Passes’ (1919), “The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to get smarter.”
There is also a secondary theme that takes this idea a bit further, it lies in Phillpotts scathing critique of his own countrymen as being slaves to reason, and therefore boorishly provincial and ignorant of the arts. Ernest and Nelly Travers are the average Brits of the day, who earnestly hope that Mary’s search for peace in art is only a passing phase – as art can be of no permanent interest to a healthy mind! This image is repeated ad infinitum, and Sir Walter even critiques himself as a former philistine, who has only been saved by the trials that have resulted from The Grey Room.
Still, The Grey Room is perhaps, above all else, a metaphor for the social conflict which followed The Great War, including the rise of Labour and the Russian revolution, which was still news at the time this book was written. Like the Grey Room, the war had destroyed the aristocratic Englishman’s trust in a familiar world, and resulted in a significant loss of power and dignity, that left them extremely uneasy. Even inside the hallowed 50,000 acre sanctum of Chadlands, it is clear that Sir Walter is not simply responding to the impossible deaths, he is being challenged on all fronts by a changing world which he no longer understands. Sir Walter is constantly warning of the dangers of rule by the proletariate, a too free press, and the need for benevolent aristocratic rule to lead the country forward. This belief finally finds authority in the philosophy subscribed to by Mannetti, in his admiration of Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau (1816 –1882), a French aristocrat who is famous for first developing the theory of the Aryan master race! Mannetti even proclaims, “Gobineau is my lighthouse in the storm. You must read him, if you have not done so. He was the incarnate spirit of the Renaissance. He radiated from his bosom its effulgence and shot it forth, like the light of a pharos over dark waters; he, best of all men, understood it, and, most of all men, mourned to see its bright hope and glory perish out of the earth under the unconquerable superstition of mankind and the lamentable infliction of the Jewish race. Alas! The Jews have destroyed many other things besides the Saviour of us all.”
This final frightening piece of anti-semitic doctrine, written well before the world had heard of Adolf Hitler, and proposed by the very man who solves the impossible mystery of the Grey Room, is truly unnerving! If we view the problem of The Grey Room as a metaphorical device for the social threat to the ruling class of the day, is this Phillpotts final solution! Sir Walter shares many of Mannetti’s views, including his worry that Christianity could be viewed as ‘socialist’, suggesting that, at least at this point in time, Philpotts was actually arguing for a philosophy that would terrorize the world two decades later! Of course, it is extremely difficult to separate Phillpotts use of Sir Walter as a prototypical Victorian aristocrat of his era, and his own personal politics, especially given the lack of available biographical information. Is he warning us of dangers that lie ahead – or urging on those views? It is very hard to tell, and that leaves us with a disturbing taste in the back of our throat!
So how do we rate this unique locked room novel? I find this book to be very well written and extremely thought provoking. I would also suggest, that once we put this locked room solution in context, it is not quite as bad as it may appear at first blush. Yet, I think there is some reason to be wary of Phillpotts philosophy, and this is clearly no locked room masterpiece! All balanced, it is a very strong three star – or a very weak four star read – depending on your attitude towards Victorian fiction – which is where I will leave this far too long review!
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