Griswold tells the story of the first time he solved a puzzle for money. He was nine and had snuck out of bed to sit at the head of the stairs and watch a party his parents were giving which he was forbidden to attend. One guest was a boorish know-it-all who had a challenge for the others at the party. He had a list of thirteen words. He bet that no one at the party could put them into their most natural order other than alphabetical order. Naturally, there was a child within earshot who was able to win that bet.
This story exemplifies the real problem with the Union Club stores—and, to a lesser extent, the Black Widower mysteries. It’s not really a mystery at all, it’s a brain-teaser, pure and simple. Yes, there’s a story constructed around it, but the set-up for the story is incredibly contrived and plot-driven. There is nothing to the set-up, nothing at all, which is interesting in and of itself, no characters worth remembering, nothing.
The puzzle itself is fine, and is, in fact, a rather good brain-teaser. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the solution is obvious in retrospect—that is, it doesn’t induce the reader to do a face-palm and say, “Why didn’t I see that!” Rather, the solution is cleverly hidden away, and one does feel that it was a proper challenge for clever people.
Put this in a book of brain-teasers, and it fits in nicely. In a mystery magazine or anthology or any other setting that implies it’s an actual story, it doesn’t fit in nearly so well.