Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Unfinished Murder

Graham Greene is famous for his novels, which he initially divided into ‘literary works’ and ‘entertainments’, but he also wrote many intriguing shorter works. His first novel – The Man Within – was published in 1929. It seems that three years before that, he set out to write a short detective novel called The Empty Chair. It’s an Agatha Christie-style mystery. A group of guests spend time together at a manor house in the English countryside in winter. One morning there is an empty chair at the breakfast table, and it transpires that the missing guest has been murdered in his locked room. (It’s not a locked-room mystery though; there is an open window with a convenient balustrade that runs around the house.) The story unfolds through the eyes of Sir John Collis – a famous, but aging, actor – who joined the party only the day before the murder. His involvement with the group is sufficiently remote to allow him to become the confidant of the rather eccentric detective-inspector by the name of Maybury. (He is not the only character with whose name Greene had fun. There is also an overweight man by the name of Chubb, and the lady of the manor rejoiced in the maiden name of Joy before she was “happily widowed” into the aristocracy in a stroke of “well-earned” luck.) The story was written at the time when Greene was having instruction in Catholicism, and one of the characters is a Catholic priest with intriguing theological perspectives.

The novella was never finished. Perhaps Greene lost interest in it and looked for something deeper to cut his teeth on, or perhaps he meant to come back to it one day and then forgot it. It’s also not impossible that he set up so many twists and clues that he wasn’t sure how to tie it all together at the end. More of that later. In any case, the handwritten unfinished manuscript came to light at a university in Texas a few years ago and created quite a stir.

The story was obtained by Strand Magazine and the first three chapters were published in 2009. Chapter 4 was published last year in their June-September issue (which was handed out at Bouchercon and also, coincidently, contained a Michael Stanley short story). The editor Andrew Gulli chatted with Professor Cedric Watts about the new discovery and its importance on BBC radio:

The question is: how does the story finish? The last chapter Greene wrote will appear in the next issue of the magazine. Surely the readers can’t be left forever wondering whodunit? So Andrew decided to open it up to the readers of his magazine, asking them to write an ending in 5000 words. $500 prize and the winning ending to be published after Greene’s chapter 5.

It really sounded like fun, and Stan and I had just sent off the revised manuscript of our third book, so why not? How hard could it be? The characters are all set up, the clues are in place. All one has to do is use them to solve the mystery and write a last chapter or two.

Well, it was fun, but it wasn’t easy. There are too many clues to easily resolve, yet they don’t point clearly to any particular culprit. And 5000 words doesn’t allow much leeway to unravel knots. There are a variety of possible endings but some are trite, certainly not what Greene would have had in mind. In the BBC interview Andrew Gulli describes Greene as the “greatest writer of the twentieth century”. I guess that’s arguable, but he’s certainly up there. Obviously it would be pretentious to try to be Greene writing the story, but we did try to produce the sort of ending which we think he may have found acceptable.  After all, this was the man who reputedly said: "In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths".

Well, it will be interesting to see who wins. Whoever it is, I’m looking forward to finding out who really was the murderer!

 Michael - Thursday


  1. Wow, sounds fascinating. Can't wait to what transpires. Keep us posted. I love a bit of Greene.

  2. Well, it's an interesting story. Several experts were asked to identify the author of the mystery, and none picked Greene. But he was very young at the time, and KNOWING it's Greene it's not hard to see the similarities with some later themes.
    We're keeping our fingers crossed...