The God of the Labyrinth - A Republication

April 13, 2024

A reprinting of Herbert Quain’s original 1933 classic. You can view a scan of the original version here.

In my final months of working with that eminent detective, I only saw her complete one case; and though the outlines of that case have been much discussed in these daily papers, I find it significant to recount my own narrative. This was the last time that I ever worked with R in such a capacity. Though she gave me the permission to continue to recount these tales (leaving aside her name, as before), we soon after parted company, and not on entirely good terms.

I have thought to turn to fiction. But my whole life I have never met a person so singular and fantastical as her, and it seems that any character of my own fashioning should pale on the page against her presence. I will, therefore, permit myself only to tell the last of those true tales available to me. Further stories of murder should be left to other writers more suited to ghastly affairs.

Following my usual summoning by telephone we met on the mid-day street. It was that more urban part of the city, where grander apartments and hotels stood thick on every side. R had said nothing else about the situation, and thus I asked her.

“Another murder!” she said. “Apparently it has just occurred. A member of the constabulary had the good fortune to be present when the shot rang out. Some order has been established, and some search conducted, but there is strangeness afoot. The premises are secured and we have been asked to review the scene before any of the individuals are allowed to leave.”

“Who is the victim?” I asked.

“You should know him as a great inventor of automatons.”

Indeed, I did – this man was quite famous, for inventing automatons which could play chess without the aid of a human player. Recently there had been quite a bit in the papers about a challenge between himself and a great rival from Europe. The person who might construct the better player would be deemed the winner between them; the challenge had captured the attention of the public, as such things commonly do. The murdered inventor himself had not been seen in public in some time. “That’s a foul occurrence. I liked the man.”

“I believe he had a reputation for cruelty. But that is beside the point.”

The deceased had quite famously lived in a two-storey apartment on the top floors of a larger building, a locale he himself had dubbed The Labyrinth. Few were allowed inside the premises, apart from the man’s closest friends, and as we now made our way up the stairs I was rather curious to see what was inside.

After some effort we arrived at the top of the building. A single door here cut into the landing, unadorned with any markings. R knocked a single time, and a voice rang out for identities. The cry I recognized: it was the Prefect, for whom we had made investigations in the past.

“It is myself,” said R, “and my usual companion. You sent for us. Otherwise we are alone.”

I heard the turning of a key from inside the door (and thought it strange that the door may lock from the inside). Then it was opened. Indeed, the Prefect stood there in the doorway – I was surprised that he would be here, and I told him so.

“I was already here when the incident occurred,” said the Prefect. He looked quite unnerved.

“And there is no other member of the constabulary on the premises?”

“None whatsoever.”

The Prefect then permitted us to come inside. We first came into a vast and broad stairway - what the Prefect referred to as the Stairway. There was a pattern of a compass rose on the floor, proclaiming that we had just entered from the south. There were wide, winged doors leading north, and west, and grand steps curled above us. The Prefect took great pains to lock the entrance behind us with a large metal key.

“Why is the Labyrinth locked from the inside?” asked R.

“It is a matter of psychology,” said the Prefect, “that the master of the house felt more secure when locking the door in this manner.”

“Perhaps so. And are there any other exits?”

“The only way in and out of this apartment is through this front door, which I locked immediately upon hearing the gunshot. I have kept it like this since.”

“Were there other keys?”

The Prefect brought out the metal one he had shown before. “The victim often professed that this was the only key. He was a paranoid man. It seemed to bring him a degree of pride.”

R took the key from him and examined it closely. “Very well. So then, I take it, your logic is that the murderer in question – whoever they may be – must still be on the premises. Perhaps the summoning of the constabulary could provide an essential cover by which the murderer may escape, under some pretense.”

“Precisely!”

She smiled and pocketed the key. “We are afforded a rare opportunity. You should show us the body first.”

We were led through the door to the north into a new room. The room was sparsely but finely made out, with a rough-kept bed holding court in the corner. The doors had a habit of closing behind us, and the one back to the Stairway swung shut.

“The Bedchamber,” said R, as if reading it from a sign. “Or perhaps he preferred to call it a parlor.” Then she looked sidelong at the other door in the room, to the west. “Shall we?”

The Prefect took us through that other door, and I was confronted with a scene of carnage.

A desk and a door lined the southern wall. Scattered about were many papers, detailing what I presumed to be the inner workings of mechanical men. An empty stand for a mannequin stood in the southwest corner. A large framed schematic of some kind took up most of the far wall, but it was not well-cared for, and there were cigarette burns across the edges.

On a chair in front of the desk was our victim. He was facing the wall, slumped over his workstation. His blood covered whatever he had been working on. One did not need an examination to determine the cause of death was that clean bullet-hole through the skull.

When I turned to look at the east wall, I saw it covered with red matter; as the eastern door we had come through swung closed I saw that it was also painted red. In the middle of it there was another bullet-mark, where the bullet had come to rest.

R had crossed the room, and was examining the side of the head closely. “He was shot by someone standing to the west of him,” she said, “and either the killer was close or was a very good marksman. The shot is quite precise.”

“He was surprised,” I ventured, “given that he is seated quite comfortably in his chair.”

“Yes. Either the person who shot him was familiar to him or crept up silently.” R looked up at the door to the south, which was next to her. “Familiar, I should think, if the killer came through the southern door. Otherwise our victim would likely be surprised at their entrance into this Drawing Room.”

I moved to better see the contents of the desk. Aside from the papers, and drawing utensils, there were many mechanical parts; gears, levers, even an entire mechanical arm attached to a gearbox. Many parts were smashed and broken, as if torn apart in a rage. Then I spotted the handgun.

“Is it possible he killed himself?” (I thought it unlikely, if R had not mentioned it, but I had contented myself long ago that my role was to ask trifling questions.)

“If he had, he would still be holding the weapon. But his hands have fallen into his lap, and the gun is far away, on the table.” R pointed at the southern door. “What’s through there?”

We were led through the door to the south. It was a Storeroom, filled with junk of all kinds; clearly the man liked to spend time here, too, for there was evidence of much life all about. A mechanical man drooped in the corner; his legless torso protruded from a large square casing, and he seemed to be without power, for his body hung listlessly from the top of the box. There was a paper with writing in front of the machine, as if someone had tried to communicate with it.

Aside from the passage behind me, two more exits went to my left and right. I also took time to note a shag rug in front of the door to the right; two sets of footprints crossed it, both heading once in both directions. One style of footprint was from a large, heavy boot, the kind that the Prefect wore; the other I could not easily identify.

R observed all of this in a single instant. “I believe this room will not help us at present. Where to next, my friend?”

“I think we should speak to anyone else here during the murder,” I said.

The Prefect nodded. “The others are waiting in the Salon upstairs.”

At that point the policeman led us back east, into the Stairway; then up the stairs, onto the second floor of the Stairway, and west again through the only door on the landing. This was a broad room, with a faux-sky pattern on the ceiling. (“Salon in the historical sense,” said R.) A fine painting detailed a forest scene on the wall across from us. The wooden floor was covered with plush red pillows; at various lengths tables were set up with chess boards upon them. On one, multiple boards were lined up abreast. Two men were playing a form of chess that I did not recognize. One was older, with dark hair and a serious complexion; he introduced himself as Herbert. Another was younger, with lighter, wiry hair and an excitable disposition; he spoke as if from Europe, and introduced himself as Kearsley.

“We three men were the only people in the Labyrinth at the time of death,” said the Prefect. “I and Mr. Herbert were in the Storeroom, talking niceties, waiting for our host to finish preparing. When the shot rang out we immediately went into the Drawing Room and found him dead. Kearsley was climbing the Stairway; I heard him start running down immediately after the shot rang out. He came through the Bedchamber to witness the same scene as us.”

“How long were you apart from Mr. Kearsley?” asked R.

“Perhaps a minute,” said Herbert. “Our host retired to the Drawing Room to arrange things, and sent Kearsley upstairs himself. It took him no more than several seconds to run down the stairs and through the Bedchamber. I cannot imagine he could have even been on the top of the landing.”

Kearsley nodded. “Seems about right. I was going to bring a chess board down to the Storeroom. I was climbing the stairs, heard the shot, came straight back down. I didn’t pass anyone coming through the Bedchamber, and when I came into the Drawing Room the policeman and Herbert were both standing and gawking.”

At this I suddenly recognized the blonde man, and spoke of it. “It’s you! The great rival… the inventor of automatons! You and the victim were both building clockwork chess players, with one to defeat the other. There was to be a great competition.”

“Yes!” said Kearsley. “In fact it was this competition that we were about to have! By chance I had met my rival on the street of Providence this morning. He said at once to me that he had completed his chess playing machine. He was so assured of his success that he was prepared to play mine that afternoon. Mine was not entirely finished. But it could play the London and the Sicilian acceptably, so we agreed upon the terms of a preliminary game. You may have seen my construction in the Storeroom.”

“We saw it,” I said. “They’re all infernal creatures.”

R shot me a look, and I felt slightly reticent at interrupting her with my opinion. “You are sure the encounter happened by chance?” she asked.

Kearsley hummed. “Purely coincidental. I didn’t want to see him – he wasn’t a friendly man – and he said he wasn’t expecting me.”

“Why did he then invite our Prefect here? And another guest?”

“I can speak to that,” said Herbert. “I am a writer by profession, though not one of acclaim–”

“A writer!” I said. “I am a writer too, as it happens.”

Herbert looked at me with a twinkle in his eye, as if he were well aware of my life story. “I am familiar with your work. I was also a friend of the departed. He invited me to chronicle the game which was occurring tonight, whatever came of it.”

“And the Prefect,” said the Prefect, “he invited in case an altercation broke out. The inventor seemed convinced his machine was so impressive that it would drive Kearsley into a rage.” The policeman looked quite embarrassed by the failure of his charge.

“Were you separated at any point from one another?” said R.

“None of us were allowed inside until the Prefect arrived,” said Herbert, “and the Prefect arrived last. Me and Kearsley arrived at around the same time and were waiting on the landing together. When the Prefect came we were all let in. Then a short conversation proceeded in the Stairway. We agreed to conduct the game in the Storeroom… Kearsley put his machine there, naturally. Then my friend went into his Drawing Room. Then Kearsley went upstairs to fetch the board. Perhaps a minute later we heard the shot, and we all convened in the Drawing Room.”

“So, at no time was any one of you separated from the others, except at the very end?”

Everyone agreed that this was the case. None of them, I noted, appeared to have any suspicion of one another.

“And what have you been doing since?”

“We all went together to watch me lock the front door,” said the Prefect. “I insisted we stay together, to prevent one of us the chance to slip away and conduct wrongdoing. Then I walked Kearsley and Herbert up here, to the Salon, and asked them to watch each other.”

“Neither of us have left,” said Herbert. Kearsley groaned, as if to prove this.

“After that I permitted myself to search the premises. I looked through the Drawing Room, the Bedchamber, the Storeroom, the Kitchen, both landings of the Stairway, the Salon, the Cloakroom, and the Library. Then I returned here and watched these two.”

“And at any time did you tamper with the scene?” asked R.

The Prefect blanched. “No! I did not touch anything.”

“You were alone.”

“I am a member of the law! I did nothing to obscure the truth–”

“I believe you entirely,” said R. “Otherwise you would not have called for a detective.”

There was a pause, as the Prefect looked offendedly at R; then the moment passed. “And you must see why I summoned you,” he said. “Nobody present had any opportunity to conduct the murder, but suicide seems entirely out of the question.”

R nodded slowly. “I agree. Then the next thing at hand is to explore the rest of the Labyrinth.”

There was another exit in the room, to the north. R gestured for the Prefect to stay with the others, and took off. I assumed that it was her intention for me to follow, so I did. But it appeared that she had forgotten my existence entirely. It was a mood of hers that I was well familiar with, and I usually held it as a good sign that something truly strange was occurring. R’s mind, I had found, was like a corkscrew; entirely twisted by design, and equally as effective at carving through the densest of problems.

This next room was a cloakroom (or, perhaps, a Cloakroom). It was of great strangeness to have this room so far from the entrance, but this Labyrinth was an odd place all told. Rows of shelves rimmed every wall, snug and tightly packed. Many outfits of all kinds were folded and hung. A few were strewn across the floor for good measure.

I noticed R appraising a still life of bottles to my left; it was hung directly across from a short door to the east. She ran her hand down the right-hand side of the frame, and seemed interested in something. “Anything?” I asked.

“Parts,” said R. “Give me time.”

We moved east. The shorter door opened silently (like all the others) onto a surprisingly spacious room. It was a large Library, well-traveled, with books stacked dangerously high in various places on the shelves and floor. A squat table adorned the center of the room; it, too, was packed with volumes.

More notably, I thought, there was a set of handguns on the furthest wall. There were five in a row, slung into a stand – I did not know the proper term – and there was a space on the right hand side for a missing one. Each of them were identical to the handgun I had seen downstairs on the Drawing Room desk.

I felt the urge to remark: “Why keep handguns in a Library?”

“He lived alone. And was prone to eccentricities.”

She brushed a knuckle against each of the handles. I knew this trick of hers already. It was unlikely that the victim used these weapons recently. If some man had held the handgun and returned it, the handle might be warm, even coated with a bit of sweat. Instead, she shook her head. “The handles are all cold.”

I took to scanning the rest of the bookshelves as she brushed a finger against the barrels – and found something of interest. It was a notepad, with what I took to be a to-do list. Amongst it were rooms, like the Library and the Salon; but also rooms that the Prefect had not listed, like the Atelier and the Cellar. I imagined that the Labyrinth was to be expanded in the future.

When I turned back R was sucking her index finger gently, as if it had just been burned, but with the other pointed to the door. “More to explore,” she said.

We went back through the Cloakroom and into the Salon again. Kearsley had apparently beaten Herbert soundly, and another game was proceeding between the European man and the Prefect. Herbert, meanwhile, was explaining how a secret answer may be encoded into the movement of a murderer after they committed the fatal deed, using a book code. I did not listen much further, for my eyes alighted onto the painting upon the western wall, and I was rather taken with it. It was a field of deep blue sky, cast into relief by a rising field of greenery. I did not recognize the landscape – but I was immediately distracted, for I then noticed two items glinting gently on the right side of the image.

Upon closer inspection they were well-oiled hinges, mostly hidden under the bulky picture frame. I ran my fingers under the frame on that right side, and discerned a thin seam between the back of the frame and the wall.

R was watching closely. I admit that I had a hope that my discovery would surprise her in some way. Instead she gave a tiny gesture of the hand as if to say, Open it. With my other hand I explored the frame on the opposite side, and found a latch. The slightest pressure swung the painting, revealing a passage set into the wall.

“My god!” said the Prefect. In my fascination I had not paid attention to the others, and only then did their crowding around become apparent. I was unsure how to proceed; but with another gesture from R, I climbed through the portal, and into another room.

Whether by someone’s touch or by counterweight the painting swung back into place behind me, leaving me in a new part of the Labyrinth. It was a low, bright room, illuminated by windows on the exterior walls and more glass above – skylights, I thought, except they took up most of the ceiling. Plants stood watch on all sides. The floor was dusty, and a set of footprints led from where I was standing to the center of the room. Aside from the cramped passage in the wall behind me, there was no other way out.

“Strange,” said R, from behind me. I had not realized she had come in too. “A Conservatory.”

“Seems so,” I said. “Why is it hidden in this way?”

“There are parts of the Labyrinth our host did not want the guests to see. It appears this was one of them.”

She crossed the floor to where the footprints stopped, and stamped on a part of it; it sounded deeply, and I understood at once what she meant to say. Closer inspection revealed a trapdoor with a metal ring, which I pulled upon. The door turned upward without noise. Beneath us, a ladder descended into the room below.

“That makes three connections between the lower and upper floors,” the detective said. (I thought she was mistaken but did not correct her.) “After you.”

Down I went. I was at this point tiring of the exploration, and the rather treacherous set of rungs did nothing to cheer me up. Eventually, though, I stepped upon solid ground, and came away from the ladder to observe. That ladder was disguised into the scenery of a Kitchen, so that even a keen eye would not light upon it except with direction.

This room was cramped and poorly kept. Dirty things and cooking pots crowded open surfaces, and in places even spilled over onto the floor.

Finally, we took the only door in the room (to the east), and found ourselves back in the Storeroom. (With our crossing the shag rug, there were now two sets of footprints leading one way across it, and five in the other.) At that moment I thought we had explored every room in the house. “Not as big as I thought,” I remarked, perhaps too flippantly.

“To the minotaur, the labyrinth might seem the whole world,” said the detective. She drew a hand across her face. “Indeed, we now have enough information to solve the case.”

In my earlier years I would have expressed some kind of shock. At this point, I knew the pattern of things, and would wait patiently for the truth of the matter to unfurl.

R drew out two armchairs from the mess, which we took. I said: “In my opinion, detective, there are no suspects, and seemingly no motive. I would be stumped.”

She nodded. “The first thing to consider is the character of our victim. We may have discussed it briefly, but I’ll ask you again. What do you think of the man?”

I thought for a moment. “You said he had a reputation for cruelty. Kearsley seemed to agree.”

“Not only Kearsley. The man was messy, in itself no crime. But he also seemed to care little for the machines with which he worked. You may remember how the pieces he worked with were torn apart, just as a cruel ringmaster may be quick with the whip. His schematics – which any engineer I have ever met would treat with utmost kindness – were burned and marked with holes. I imagine that he had the habit of stabbing his lit cigarette violently into the paper when he was frustrated. I imagine he did this often.”

“Hardly a crime, if he reserved his rage for mechanical things,” I supposed, “which cannot think or feel.”

She gave me a long look. “That leads me to something else. This entire case revolves around a particular object; an object, I think, that summarizes this case in its entirety. And yet we have not seen it anywhere in the Labyrinth.”

This I could guess, for I had dreaded happening upon it. “The victim’s automaton.”

“Precisely. We have explored ten of the Labyrinth’s rooms – and yet we did not see it anywhere. In fact, nobody did. Kearsley and Quain were waiting for it to be procured, before the inventor departed.

“Which leads me to a singular conclusion. The reason that this case seems strange and impossible is because it is rooted in the strange and impossible. Kearsley and his ilk work with the magical and the bizarre; it is from this bizarre that our predicament was fashioned. But if you accept the magical, and accept what it must mean, then the person responsible for all of this is plain. Despite, I should think, the fact that we have never spoken to them.”

R stood. At this moment she had that gleam in her eye: the gleam of calculation, of the burning away of irrelevancies. I also fancied to see some kind of judgment; but of what, I did not and still do not fathom.

She began.

“Everyone thought the encounter of the two chess players was accidental,” R said. “But it was, in fact, a careful gambit. And when our European fellow is invited into the Labyrinth, a more subtle and deadly line of play begins.”

“Kearsley meant to meet his rival on the street?” I said.

R smiled. “The opposite. Kearsley is completely innocent in this. Instead, look at our host. It would have been simple for him to tail Kearsley, even without particular experience.”

“For what purpose?”

“Purpose! Yes, you could call it that. A rather vicious kind of purpose. Consider this man; consider his cruelty, his rage, his destruction of his work. His entire career hinges on his ability to invent a superior automaton, and yet no automaton is seen. Consider, perhaps, that he found himself unable to build one at all. That he has at last found his ability to design not up to the task. He wishes to be venerated as a great inventor, but has no such talent in him. What would such a man do?

“There is only one play left in him, and it is a callous series of sacrifices. He invites his great rival to his home. He makes sure to brag about his own assured victory beforehand; he invites a writer and a policeman to act as trustworthy witnesses. Kearsley now appears to have every reason to be turned to murder, and is in the prime situation to be caught. The host then makes sure that every person is in their proper places before he sets his work into motion. It is paramount that everything occurs correctly for his plan to work.

“He invites everyone into the Storeroom, adjoining the Drawing Room. He makes sure to send Kearsley away, and keep Quain and the Prefect together; his opponent must be unobserved by the others for a significant period. Then he retires to the Drawing Room, where the mechanical man is supposedly kept.”

“But nothing was kept there.”

Another nod from R. “Instead our host brings out another machine. It is a machine that you yourself saw, though you paid no attention to it; it was lying in plain view. You must have ignored it as incidental.

“The inventor wishes to discredit his rival and prove himself the victor. Therefore he creates a plan; to frame Kearsley as a murderer, and to cast doubt upon his achievements. It would appear Kearsley was afraid of losing, and struck out vengefully. The true vengeance lay in assured self-destruction.”

“The inventor constructed a machine,” I said, with dawning comprehension, “to hold and fire a handgun, and then drop the weapon on the table.”

“The mechanical hand,” said R. “To any observer it would appear that Kearsley shot and killed his opponent; then fled through another of the exits before the others overcame their shock. To a detective it would seem that suicide were impossible, as the victim’s own hands were not on the weapon. Alas, they did not need to be for the wound to be self-inflicted.”

“But Kearsley was exonerated by timings.”

“That was either luck on his part or a mistake on the other’s. Had Kearsley not, maybe, hesitated on the landing, or been quick enough in coming down the stairs, I think the Prefect would have arrested him immediately. There would have been no need for a detective to be summoned.”

There proceeded a long silence. As often happened I found myself locked into the chair, still attempting to process this explanation. R rose, and told me something (to stay there, I would wager); she then went to the north, into the Drawing Room, to confirm her suspicions. At length I heard her talking out loud to herself; gentle footsteps from the north, and then to the east, and the motion of doors; and then the sound of R climbing the stairs.

I did not witness the conversation she had with the Prefect, but the results of it were much reported. R gave the same story as was given to me, which both the Prefect and (eventually) the public accepted readily enough. The death was ruled a suicide, and the detective’s new intellectual triumph held the attention of the press for a day.

As for me and R, I last spoke to her heading out of the accursed Labyrinth. I had found the front door unlocked without the need for a key. And as we descended the stairs, it appeared that R was displeased; though when I asked her, she said that she was not, and refused to comment any further on the matter.

That was the conclusion of events. Since then R has not called on me in any capacity, and when we have spoken it was clear that she considers our partnership to be over. I do not know why she has made these arrangements. It does pain me that something, whatever it may be, has made it necessary. But, to that end, I trust her judgment; and my dear readers must be content with the exploits of the past, and not hold with any hope onto the promises of the future.






With thanks to my beta readers: Julia Ceccarelli, Jaclyn Cohen, Aren Guralp, and Bailey Merlino.