Apologies for the click bait title, alas I’m not running a competition for the Tokyo hosted Olympics next year. Instead I am following up on my promise to post more information about the competition The Australian Weekly rang in tandem with their serialisation of Margot Neville’s Murder of Olympia, in the runup to the Melbourne Olympic games of 1956. On 27th June 1956 readers were given the first instalment of Neville’s new story. They received the second instalment of the story on the 4th July. You can click here for my review on the story which was published as a novel later that year.
All contestants had to do was read these first two instalments of the story and then in 400 words or less write in how they would finish it; in particular identifying which character would be the killer and explain how they did the crime and why. The competition closed on the 6th August and readers could send in multiple entries.
First prize for this contest were two tickets to the Olympics, (which was taking place in Melbourne), return transport to Melbourne, accommodation in the Hotel Chevron and £100 spending money. Second prize was the same, except only £75 spending money would be given. Third prize was £50 and then there were 5 consolation prizes worth £10. Contestants had to reside in the commonwealth of Australia and the Olympic tickets covered entry for the opening and closing ceremonies, 8 different athletic sessions, 3 sessions of swimming and one session of soccer, hockey, basketball and wrestling.
I’m not sure if the story was shortened for the newspaper publication, but the second instalment ends with the final line of the 11th chapter of the published novel. There are only 14 chapters in the book and the 11th chapter ends 34 pages from the final page, so presumably some cutting down may have been required to get the 190-page novel into three instalments.
On the 3rd of October the winners were announced, with the solutions for the top three winners being printed alongside the final instalment written by Neville. There is also a section in which the “Judges” comment on the entries sent in. One paragraph particularly interested me as it goes through the most popular choices for the role of the murderer. The most popular character was Hazel MacPherson, which surprised me as she seemed the second most obvious choice. After that came Ross Bannerman, who one could definitely regard as a least likely suspect. Dr John Innes-Muir was the 3rd most popular, which makes more sense as he is the prime, (and yet too obvious), suspect. The biggest mystery for me though, was the fourth most popular choice – Theo. Who the heck was Theo? I cast my mind back over the characters and I couldn’t recall a single Theo. I returned to the newspaper to read the paragraph again, in case I got the wrong name, but I hadn’t. Re-reading one of the entries for the competition, though, has given me the clue that Theo’s character might have had his named change to Basil in the final novel, Hazel’s love interest. Thankfully we are back onto names I do recognise with Camilla in 5th place, followed by Larry in 6th, Dagmar in 7th, Mike Francis in 8th, Herbert Archer in 9th and Emmy in last place. I think given how involved Emmy is in the plot and investigation, it would have taken a great deal of sleight of hand to plausibly make her the killer without swathes of cheating going on.
The judges’ comments also discussed how the entries were assessed and what types of things they were penalised for. For instance, entries were marked for their accuracy. If an answer had a time inconsistency or included a procedural error, then it would not be considered. Impossible and improbable theories also seem to have been discounted. Some entrants were thrown by technical points involved in the murder and many struggled to come up with a plausible reason for how the murderer found the chloroform in Irene’s bathroom. The best answers had the culprit possess knowledge of Irene’s domestic setup or had the killer bring their own, whilst the weakest ones had the killer break off mid argument and go to the bathroom on a pretext.
I really enjoyed reading about the winning entries, sometimes more for what they said about the winners, than the actual solutions. One thing which may strike you when reading the next section is how much these winners really didn’t know how to read a mystery novel properly…
The first-place winner was Mrs Gill. Her husband was to be in New Zealand during the Olympics, so she was taking her 20-year-old son, Robert, who was studying science at university. It does not seem like she was an avid detective novel fan, as it is said that she was a ‘keen reader, preferably of biographies and travel’ and she herself goes on to say that:
‘I am too impatient to read murder books […] I can’t resist reading the end first and then all the time I’m reading the rest of the book I’m so sorry for the hunted one that I don’t enjoy it a bit and often don’t finish it.’
I did have to breathe in and out a few times after reading this…
Both her answer and the one for the second-place winner are written as narratives and in her entry, she made Hazel MacPherson the culprit. The motive was that Hazel blamed the deceased for her suitor losing interest in her. She is said to have gone to plead with Irene, but when she enters Irene’s home, she finds her deeply asleep. Full of hatred she fingers the bottle of chloroform in her pocket, (which she was experimenting with as a solvent for cast and mould making) and doses her scarf in it to kill Irene with. The chloroform found in the bathroom is a red herring and she empties the bottle to make it look like it was used. Her entry ends with the Inspector informing everyone that the killer had left a confession, due to guilt and fear of the wrong person being arrested and has gone to drown herself. The police are looking for her body. The chloroform is found and the crime itself is committed, opportunistically.
In second place was Allen Woods and in fact his wife had also submitted a separate entry. She didn’t need to worry that she was going to miss out, as her husband was giving her the second ticket. Probably a sound idea or there might have been a real-life murder…
Allen chose Ross Bannerman as the killer, giving him the motive of worrying that his son would lose out on another Olympic medal, due to the detrimental effect Irene has on him. He hopes to use her bigamous marriage as leverage and when he confronts her with this truth she faints. When he goes to find smelling salts to revive her, he discovers the chloroform in her bathroom and decides to bump off her off instead. Again, this seems to be a crime of opportunity.
The third-place winner was Mrs R. Baldwin, who came from Queensland and was the wife of a tobacco farmer. Like Mrs Gill she too:
‘confessed that she always reads the back pages first, then follows up the clues from the beginning to see how they dovetail with the solution she already knows.’
Seriously who are these people who read the solution first? Is this still common practice?
She then goes on to say how, ‘the more I thought about the murder the more it got me in’ and that it kept her up at night, trying to figure out how the crime could be managed. In keeping with the second-place answer Mrs R. Baldwin picked Ross Bannerman to be the murderer. In her version of events Ross knew of Irene’s bigamous marriage and decided to use that to make her give up his son Larry, whose Olympic career was at stake. However, Irene then discovers that Ross is involved in dealing in cocaine, using his daughter’s health clinic as a cover, and tries to blackmail him instead. His previous visits to Irene’s home meant he knew where the chloroform was, and he decided to kill her when he felt cornered by her threats.
Nestled among the judges’ comments, the newspaper also includes snippets from the writing duo which wrote under the Neville penname. They thought the entries were ‘really splendid’ and that ‘the entrants showed imaginative perception and remarkable observation.’ They felt ‘everyone followed up the clues that needed explaining and equally disregarded those that didn’t need further consideration.’ They also acknowledged that this was no simple task as there were many clues to consider.
The newspaper also included an amusing anonymous answer, which didn’t win:
‘Murderer: Inspector Grogan
Motive: Allergic to Mink [As Irene wore a mink coat]
Method: Overcomes Irene with a well-aimed chloroform tart. Then places body on waiting wheelbarrow, pushes her along street to bridge meanwhile singing “Goodnight Irene” in a loud voice. Threw body into river.’
Certainly, a more whimsical option…
I hope this post has been of some interest and if you want to see the original newspaper pages you can find them on TROVE; a website run by the National Library of Australia. It is a great resource for fans of mystery fiction written by Australian authors, such as Margot Neville and June Wright.
Merry Christmas everyone! I wish you all a wonderful day, with lots of book shaped presents!