Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, June 20, 2023


 "The Man in the Room" by Edwin Balmer & William MacHarg  (first published in Hampton's Magazine, May 1909; first book appearance in the collection The Achievements of Luther Trant, 1910; reprinted numerous times, including in Amazing Stories [April 1927], Scientific Detective Monthly [March 1930], and Great Detective [April 1933])

Luther Trant has the distinction of being the first psychological detective in mystery literature; or, at least the first to maintain a sustained series.  In this, his first recorded adventure, Trant, having graduated the year before, is a young psychology assistant to the respected Dr. Reiland at an unnamed university.  The brilliant and hardworking Trant is convinced that the scientific methods of psychology can be applied to solving crime; he is also convinced that an early form of lie detector (called here a "chronoscope") could reduce the number of unsolved murders by half.

As Trant is explaining his theories to Reiland while walking through the campus, they are met by an anxious Margaret Lawrie, the daughter of the university's treasurer.  Her father had not returned home the night before -- something that was entirely out of his character -- and she is worried.  Trant and Reiland volunteer to accompany her to her father's office, assuring her that nothing could be amiss.

But something was amiss.  There was a smell of gas in the hallway.  The door to Lawrie's office was locked and some paper had been wedged into the keyhole.  As the two men broke down the door, a heavy wave of gas poured over them, and there on the floor was the corpse of Dr. Lawrie, a dagger letter opener in his hand.  Four gas jets had been turned on, their tops removed by pliers to allow more gas to flow.  The windows, which were usually open, were shut.  Trant shut off the gas jets, opened the windows, and then went to the room opposite the hall to do the same to create a cross draft.  The draft spread burnt ashes from the desk through the room.  Under Lawrie's body Trant found a cancelled note for $20,000, signed by Lawrie.  The note, originally for $2000, had been altered.

Dr. Joslyn, the university president soon arrived, convinced that Lawrie had committed suicide.  Reiland, a friend of Lawrie's for some twenty years, could not acccept this.  Neither did Trant.  He pointed out a number of scientific inconsistencies that showed that Lowrie was dead before the gas was turned on.  Joslyn, also an old friend of Lowrie's, had some shocking news.  There was a discrepency in Lowrie's accounts, which indicated that the man had embezzled one hundred thousand dollars from university funds.  Joslyn said that Lowrie offered no explanation when confronted, but said that he could explain all by the following Monday in time for a meeting of the university trustees and for an audit of his books.  Soon, the head of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Branower, arrived with his young wife.  Branower said that he came in response to a note from Lawrie, asking him to meet out of "pity for a man with sixty years of probity behind him facing dishonor and disgrace,"

Trant repeated his charge that Lawrie was dead before the gas had been turned on.  Trant suspected Harrison, Lawrie's assistant of nearly a year, for the deed.  Harrison, who should have been in the office by now, was missing.  Branower said that Harrison had been in a bad accident several days before and now lay in the hospital, so he could not have been responsible.  Trant then went out on a limb and declared that the man responsible must then be one of Lawrie's three closest friends -- Rieland, Joslyn, or Banower.  (I'm sure that there was some psychological reason for this deduction, but if the authors included it, I missed it.)

Trant felt that Lawrie's daughter Margaret probably had the key to understanding this mystery hidden in her subconscience.  (Again, a stretch, but semi-logically explained by the authors.)  He proposed submitting her to a psychological test using the chronoscope to determine the truth.

The psychological test he used was word association.  And, by golly, it worked!

At the end of the story, the mystery is solved and Trant is ready to give up the unisersity and travel to the big city and start solving crimes.  This he did for another eight stories, all collected in The Achievements of Luther Trant.  Another three stories followed and were included in 2013's The Complete Achievemnts of Luther Trant.

There are a few things to unpack here.  All the psychological theories and facts presented were true as far as the knowledge of the day went.  Psychology as a nascant science was still pretty squishy-wishy, but many reputable scientists felt it was accurate and valid.  The idea of a proto-lie detector was also an established fact, although the dependence on its accuracy was misguided.  (This was years before Wonder Woman creator Charles Moulson came up with a practical, albeit still iffy, machine.)  The conclusions Trant made from the test were specious but, in light of the times, wholly believable.  

Edwin Balmer's father developed psychological methods of advertising, which father and son wrote of in The Science of Advertising (1909).  Edwin Balmer (1883-1959) went on to study under applied psychiatrist Walter Dill Scott, who later advised on the scientific accuracy of the Luther Trant stories.  After graduating from Harvard, Balmer began contributing to the major magazines of the day.  He was the editor of Redbook Magazine from 1927 to 1949, and later the magazine's associate publisher.  Balmer wrote two classic science fiction novels with Philip Wylie:  When Worlds Collede and After Worlds Collide.

William MacHarg (1872-1951) was Balmer's brother-in-law.  He, too, was a prolific writer of fiction, best remembered for his popular stories about a "dumb cop," collected in The Affairs of O'Malley (also published as Smart Guy).

The Achievements of Luther Trant, in addition to being a pioneering work of mystery fictions, remains highly readable.  It can be read online through the usual suspects.


  1. So many ways of solving crimes turned out to be dubious. Here is was bite marks.

  2. Very interesting to have a psychological detective in the early 1900s.

  3. It is difficult not to note how many of the magazines that (at least) eventually became aimed at women were edited, at very least through the '60s, by men, usually with women doing a fair amount of the less well-paid editorial work...and I had not taken the effort to seek out Balmer's non-Wylie collaboration work (not that REDBOOK need be any more women-targeted than was COSMOPOLITAN till past midpoint in the last century...Now I Must Go Look).