Our little circle of folks who enjoy Golden Age mysteries have found untold pleasures finding each other on the Internet. While Agatha Christie may be the most frequently published author of all time, I have become convinced that I may be the only person west of the Mississippi who – well, not reads her, but deep dive-reads her. (If someone in the Bay Area of California is out there, please send a message, and the coffee will be on me! I promise we won’t swap murders. I promise I won’t frame you for my own brilliant embezzlement schemes; heck, I can’t even do my own taxes!)

I have made some brilliant contacts in the course of my hanging out online with other fans of the Golden Age of Mystery. We don’t qualify as part of the dark web, even though we talk about murder all the time. I will say, though, that one time a person on Facebook’s Agatha Christie Appreciation page asked a spoilerish question, to which I responded, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” . . . whereupon Facebook promptly banned me from that page for issuing a deadly threat. (Happy ending: I was quickly reinstated by the incredulous moderator.)

Naturally, all fans are not alike, which makes for an interesting dynamic when we talk about what we like – or books we hate – but which can also lead to some uncomfortable confrontations. This is especially true about two of my favorite people, Christie and Alfred Hitchcock. Far be it from me, however, to vocally disagree with someone whose opinion differs with mine. Thus, if, as often happens, somebody posts this – 

Happen to be re-reading The Secret of Chimneys for the seventh time. It’s definitely my favorite Christie, with They Came to Baghdad running closely behind.” 

  • I’m certainly not going to challenge their opinion, to which they are justly entitled.

(However, if you truly feel this way – or if you think Rear Window is not one of the best movies ever made, and you happen to live in the Bay Area, you’d better not contact me. Or, at least, the coffee will be on you.)

Differing opinions are glorious things, and I don’t have a problem perusing them, particularly when, as in Jeopardy they are phrased in the form of a question, like so:

I do love Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, and I think her constant little cough is the most adorable quirk any detective has ever had. What quirks do the rest of you favor?”

This gives everyone a chance to express their opinion about Poirot’s eyes glowing green or Nero Wolfe sputtering, “Pfui.” And nobody has to let the owner of the original opinion know that Miss Silver’s cough is insufferable and makes me want to drown her in a vat of codeine. 

Of course, sometimes people offer an opinion as a proclamation, to which one must respond at their own risk. This happened recently to me on Twitter. The author of the opinion was my friend James Scott Byrnside, a meek individual who writes pleasant little cozies. All right, that’s the opposite of Byrnside, who self-publishes impossible crime novels that manage to mix erudite ratiocination with in-your-face horror. I would never have forgiven him for killing off his best character in his second book – except then he brought the character back in a prequel. Plus, he has a way with scenes of people drowning in a flood, or being buried alive as a vampire (spoiler: they’re not a vampire) or having their faces burn off in a forest fire. 

Recently, Byrnside tweeted the following: 

John Russell Fearn’s Pattern of Murder features the greatest murder weapon ever used in a murder mystery.

Now, more than once I have come across a person asking the question: “What do you think is the best murder weapon ever used in a classic murder mystery?” I have responded every time I see this question because I absolutely know what the best murder weapon ever used in a classic murder mystery happens to be. And, as far as I knew, it was not found in John Russell Fearn’s Pattern of Murder. But then, I had never read this book, nor anything in fact by this author, largely because he’s most famous for his science fiction, although TomCat has spoken quite fondly of Fearn’s mystery writing on his blog

Even though I knew that Byrnside must be wrong in his statement, I could hardly argue the fact without reading the book. Fortunately, JSB said that Pattern of Murder was readily available in a cheap edition and would take me a day to read. It took me a little longer – everything does these days – but I have finished the book and am not only prepared but eminently qualified to state that Byrnside is wrong. Or, at least, I am righter than Byrnside when I tell you I have a much better weapon than the one Fearn created here. 

I will tell you the better – if not the absolute best – murder weapon of all time in a bit, but let’s talk about Pattern of Murder and the nature of murder weapons. First of all, this book cannot be considered part of the Golden Age of Mystery. For one thing, it was published in 1957, and for another, it’s not a classic mystery at all, despite this blurb on the back cover: 

For cinema projectionist Sid Elbridge, it seems that things can’t get much worse. First, circumstantial evidence has made him the prime suspect in the police investigation of a robbery at the cinema where he works. Secondly, his fiancée Vera has been horribly killed in the same theater, victim of a falling light fixture. Then he discovers strange, intricate patterns traced in the dust on the wooden frame of a steel-case. 

There’s something very wrong about this “accident,” he now realizes, and begins investigating what actually happened. Slowly he realizes that a ruthless murderer is lurking in the shadows, and only Sid can uncover the Pattern of Murder! 

Another great mystery story by a master of intricate plot twists.

Although everything written here does occur in the story, it’s all presented the wrong way around. The presence of “a ruthless murderer . . . lurking in the shadows” as described here suggests that this novel is a whodunnit, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We meet the killer, Terry Lomond, on page one, and the first half of the book centers on this handsome, increasingly desperate psychopath and his crime spree robbery and murder. 

This is very much an inverted mystery. In fact, my friend John Norris, begins his own review of the novel with the question: “Any Columbo fans out there?” There is Columbo vibe about this book. First, we follow the circumstances that lead Lomond, the head projectionist of a small British cinema, to rob his place of employment and then, when he is caught in the act by a fellow employee, to come up with an incredibly unlikely method of getting her out of the way, something that involves ultrasonics and incredibly lucky timing. 

Lots of mystery readers enjoy crazy murder methods, the sort of “loco” locomotionary devices that appeal to kids who loved to play the game Mousetrap. I liked that game, too, but my tastes for weaponry are a bit different. That might be why I avoid like COVID the works of John Rhode, who my friend and fellow blogger Nick Fuller spoke about only yesterday: “John Rhode was the sort of man who looked at a toilet-chain and thought: ‘I can kill someone with that.’

Terry’s method of doing away with the venomous Vera (who almost kinda sorta deserves it maybe?) is very much in the fashion of Rhode, a mixture of sound technology and physics that requires several pages to explain. We get to watch Terry test out his theory over the course of one or two chapters, and then later on we get to watch second projectionist Sid – who is bereft at losing Vera, suspicious of his boss, and, despite the blurb on the back cover, never really under suspicion for anything. 

Look, I enjoyed the book as a game of cat and mouse, although as clear-eyed and cold-bloodedly as Terry plans out and executes both a robbery and a murder, he makes about six jillion mistakes and loses his cool at the drop of a hat. In fact, the police make clear to Terry’s boss on page sixty that they know he is guilty of the robbery. The fact that both the cops and the boss decide to adopt a “wait and see” policy should make both feel guilty after they discover that Terry resorted to murder, but no man here is willing to shoulder much responsibility for his inaction. 

At least Sid remains a sympathetic figure throughout, and he gains remarkable intelligence as the case proceeds. He is aided by the cinema manager, Mark Taylor, who was probably meant to be sympathetic in 1957 but here comes across as a sexist pig, manipulating the pretty young usherette into marrying him. By far, the best character is Billy, the low man on the totem pole in the cinema’s screening room, whose wisecracks and high energy almost keeps the book’s pace from flagging, but things got sluggish for me when, after running through the construction and implementation of the murder method through Terry’s eyes, we switched to Sid’s point of view for a slow reconstruction of events. 

The book provides a wonderful look at what it took to run a movie house and work as a projectionist in 1957, when celluloid was a complicated and dangerously toxic mess to work with. We also get a nice look at the interrelations of a hotsy-totsy group of working-class Brits, all on the make for a better life and a little bit of love on the side. I can understand why Byrnside might find the murder weapon intriguing. I’d love to know what he makes of John Rhode’s use of a toilet-chain in By Registered Post (1952). But Terry Lomond’s scientific deathtrap, clever though it may be, is not anywhere near “the greatest murder weapon ever used in a murder mystery.”

The greatest weapon ever used in a murder mystery was conceived, of course, by Agatha Christie.

It appeared in Murder Is Easy (1939). 

The name of the weapon . . . is Wonky-Pooh. 

28 thoughts on “THROWING DOWN THE GAUNTLET: The Best Weapon

  1. I haven’t read this one by Fearn so can’t comment, but you’re right that Wonky-Pooh and the sinister way it was done is clever. Hat dye as a weapon by the same culprit was fiendishly inspired as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hat dye – or is it hat “paint?” – is wonderful, but she had used it only a few years earlier in Cards on the Table. I remember Kemper and Catherine had a lot of trouble with hat paint on All About Agatha!


  2. Sounds like the Fearn could make a good double bill with Jim Thompson’s NOTHING MORE THAN MURDER, set in the world of small town cinema exhibition and local film exchanges. My favourite weapon may be Carr’s use of an automata.


      • The automaton is rather a red herring though, don’t you think? I JUST re-read that one, and I love the automaton. But does it actually kill anyone?

        For no reason whatsoever, I bought two Jim Thompson novels, and one of them happens to be Nothing More Than Murder!!!! So this is a great reason for me to dive into Jim Thompson – that, and it’ll irk JJ no end if I end up hating the guy.


        • It is possible that I am mis-remembering the mechanics of the actual murder, I thought it was used as part of the plan. Should re-read it, admittedly… (I am sure we are on the dame page but I mean the Fell novel that is amiably mocked in the opening of SLEUTH 😆). JJ loves that Thompson novel, it has a classic loser protagonist who is much number than he thinks he is and who, basically, is screwed from the opening page!


  3. I recently read a shory story where the weapon was an entire horse, which was propelled onto the victim. Not my favourite, but worth a mention.
    Unfortunately this is one of these questions where as soon as it’s asked, my mind goes completely blank, and also, I don’t even know how I’d define “best murder weapon”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Best murder weapon . . . ”

      That’s a very good question.Most unusual? Most clever? Most fun? Byrnside must have loved the clever use of science of the method in the Fearn story. I have no relationship to science whatsoever. I love Wonky-Pooh for its surprise factor and the idea of using anything to hand. I suppose we are all so bombarded by guns, knives, clubs, and poison that we always enjoy a deviation from the norm. I just find some of these “mousetrap” murder methods so complicated that they make me giggle and wonder why the guy didn’t just take her into a dark alley and bop her over the head with a brick. The victim had not been well-liked, even by her parents. The list of suspects would probably not have been small. No, the killer used the method he did because John Russell Fearn thought it would be fun for us to read about. And it was.


      • Hmm… after thinking about it a bit, I quite like the method for the present-day murder in The Demon of Dartmoor. One of those methods where I went, “oh god, that might actually work!”
        I think for me, it’s gotta be:
        – Simple. Easy to understand, easy (well, relatively speaking…) to do. I don’t think deathtraps work for me either.
        – Memorable. Not just a standard stabbing/shooting/poisoning.
        – Effective in some other way. Ironic, or scary, or scarily plausible.


  4. You know Fearn is my favorite second-stringer who had some good and even original ideas to offer to the detective story, but he remained a second-stringer due to his pulp roots. Fearn simply was not anywhere as good a writer or plotter as Carr or Christie. Pattern of Murder is one of a handful of novels in which Fearn (ever so slightly) rose above his status as a second-stringer. So glad to see you at least enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game and the authentic cinema setting.

    That being said, I agree Wonky-Pooh is one of the greatest murder weapons ever devised in a Golden Age detective novel. Certainly one of the greatest in the “weaponized animals” category. So much more practical and convincing than poison-coated claws or fur. Another really good one is the out-of-order sign from Towards Zero.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hmmm . . . if Pattern of Murder is high-notch Fearn, I might pause before returning to him. I enjoyed what I said I did, but I, too, feel the pulp roots strongly – and that’s rare for me with a British writer.

      I think that, as with her characterization, Christie is underrated for the cleverness she brings to weapons. From the first novel, which admittedly required scientific knowledge most readers probably didn’t possess, she came up with some fun methods. I also love the out-of-order sign: like Wonky-Pooh, it’s an example of a murderer improvising with what they’ve got. If I think about it, I’m sure I can come up with more. Even when she’s dealing with “normal” weaponry, she gives it some flair: a sugar hammer instead of an axe or club, poison in a cake called “Delicious Death.” That sort of thing!


      • Maybe I should start referring to Fearn as an acquired taste instead of a second-stringer. It did the trick for Gladys Mitchell.

        Even when Christie went to town on a victim with a knife (Murder on the Orient Express) or an axe (After the Funeral), she usually had a good reason to do so. Only exception is the acid poisoning in Murder in Mesopotamia. That was one of her nastiest, needlessly cruel, murders.

        By the way, the third murder in W. Shepard Pleasants’ The Stingaree Murders has a good and original “weapon,” but some readers will no doubt roll their eyes at it.


  5. Kemper, who does of lot of deep diving @ All about Agatha where I believe you made at least one guest appearance, lives in LA — West of the Mississippi.


  6. Pingback: The Gauntlet has been Volleyed – James Scott Byrnside

  7. Permit me to intrude on your interesting discussion on murder weapons with some interesting news especially for impossible crime fans.
    The next two releases of Locked Room International are as follows:
    1. Death On Bastille Day by Pierre Siniac translation of French novel Un Assassin, Ca Va, Ca Vent (1981). Likely to be released in July/August 2022.
    2.Masahiro Imamura’s second novel (sequel to Death Among The Undead). English title not yet decided. Likely to be released in September 2022.
    Also, Death On Gokumon Island is being released by Pushkin Press on 6th June.


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