As a kid, I’d sometimes read a story where one line has stuck with me over the years as the perfect expression of some archetype. I find myself wishing that other people knew these same stories, so that I could actually use these lovely shorthands.
One such story is “The Case of Willie the Wisp,” from Donald J. Sobol’s Two-Minute Mysteries (1967). (Borrow it from the Internet Archive or buy it on Amazon.) This gem of a book, from the creator of Encyclopedia Brown, contains 79 separate mystery stories, each of which occupies exactly one page.
Dr. Haledjian [the famous sleuth] was vacationing in Europe when Count Schwinn, head of the customs in the country, requested help on a “perplexing problem of suspected smuggling.”
Schwinn had scarcely entered Haledjian’s hotel suite when he blurted, “Are you acquainted with Eugene W. McNally?”
“Better known as Willie the Wisp?” asked Haledjian. “He fenced diamonds in America for years and never got caught.”
“That’s the man,” replied Schwinn. “He’s got a new game. Six months ago he showed up at our customs post at Durien driving a new black convertible Fiorta, a foreign car that costs eleven thousand dollars. Naturally, we checked every inch of it. Nothing. But each of his three pieces of luggage had a false bottom.”
Schwinn shook his head in exasperation. “In the false bottoms were three jars — one filled with molasses, one with ground oyster shells, and one with bits of colored glass. We couldn’t hold him for hiding such things, naturally. Now twice a month here comes a big black expensive Fiorta into the country at Durien. Willie again! Hidden in his bags are the jars filled with the same curious contents: molasses, glass, and shells.
“The brazen crook just sits and smiles at my customs men. They’re forced to admit him into the country!” concluded Schwinn.
“Molasses, shells, and colored glass,” mused Haledjian.
“What do they add up to?” cried Schwinn. “What’s he smuggling?”
Haledjian lit a pipe and drew upon it reflectively. At length he grinned. “Deuced clever fellow, Willie.”
What was Willie smuggling?
As with each of Sobol’s one-page mysteries, the answer is printed upside down at the bottom of the facing page:
Willie was smuggling black convertible Fiorta automobiles!