2/28/15

Uncage the Black Lizard, Part VI: Breaking and Entering


"A thief is a creative artist, devising brilliant ways to steal his prize, and a detective following in his footsteps, hunting for faults, is no better than a mere critic."
- Kaito Kid (Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, a.k.a. Detective Conan, vol. 16) 
I should begin this sixth post in my ongoing reviews of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), edited by Otto Penzler, with listing the links to the previous reviews, which I forgot the last few times.

The reviews up till now of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:


Stolen Sweets Are Best is the seventh category of stories posing more than one answer to a simple question: "How does a thief remove valuables from a closely guarded room?"

"The Bird in the Hand" by Erle Stanley Gardner was first published in the April 9, 1932 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and first collected in The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith (1980), which might end up as one of my favorite stories from this anthology. An international jewel thief is found murdered in his hotel room, bound to a chair with a knife driven through his heart, but the trunk of the victim seems to have "evaporated into thin air" – as it could not have been smuggled out of the hotel without it being noticed. The case is brought to the attention of Gardner's anti-hero, a crook named Lester Leith, who doesn't only figure out how the trunk disappeared, but also were the stones were hidden. It's a cubbyhole I have seen used before in these kinds of stories, but the plan Leith's devises to pilfer some of the diamonds for himself is what gave the story its punch and a second impossible situation.

"The Gulverbury Diamonds" by David Durham was first published in The Exploits of Fidelity Dove (1924), which Penzler notes is "one of the rarest mystery books published in the twentieth century" and stars an angelic-looking woman, Fidelity Dove, running a crooked gang of lawyers, scientists and businessmen. In this story, Dove is attempting to pry the titular stones from a stage actress, Lola Marron, in order to give them back to an old, but kind, nineteenth-century style aristocrat – which his late son gave to her before committing suicide. The theft of the diamonds is partly inverted and partly a genuine locked room mystery, because the reader is aware where Dove put them. However, when Detective-Inspector Rason, from The Department of Dead Ends (1947; written as if by Roy Vickers), bursts in on her scheme, they vanish again from under their noses. A good and fun story, but it doesn't break any new ground in the plotting department.

"The Fifth Tube" by Frederick Irving Anderson was collected for the first time in The Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914), which is a character that I always perceived as the nefarious counterpart to Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine. Penzler even describes Godahl in the introduction as having a "computer-like mind" that "assesses every possibility in terms of logic and probabilities," but now I think Anderson and Godahl are closer to Vincent Cornier and Dr. Barnabas Hildreth – e.g. The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011). The problem here is that of the disappearance of forty gallons of gold from a high-tech and secured company, but, somehow, this story just didn't do it for me.

"The Mystery of the Strong Room" by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace was first published in The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899) and I begin to admire this writing tandem for their contribution to the locked room genre, which I seem to have really under appreciated. They produced the first collection of impossible crime stories, A Master of Mysteries (1899), "The Tea Leaf," from a 1925 issue of The Strand Magazine, cemented a now clichéd explanation and "The Mystery of the Strong Room" plays around with the kind of ideas that were more common during the Golden Age. A valuable diamond is swiped for a replica, while it was safely put away in a custom-made strong room. The room is even outfitted with an electric alarm system that'll go off the moment the key is inserted into the keyhole. But, on the eve of the nineteenth century, Meade and Eustace gave two delightfully simplistic examples of how a twentieth century-style security system can by-passed with a little misdirection. Good stuff!

"No Way Out" by Dennis Lyds, better known as Micheal Collins, originally appeared in the February 1964 issue of the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, which combines the hardboiled voice of the American private eye with some great Carter Dickson-effects. "Slot-Machine" Kelly is one of two one-armed private detectives created by Collins, but I believe Dan Fortune eventually became the character that stuck around. However, it's the former who handles this case as Kelly is hired to beef up the security around five, highly priced rubies, but the end result is a dead guard, stolen gems and a murderous thief who, for all intents and purposes, doesn't seem to have existed. I figured out pretty fast how the murderer remained unseen, but should've caught on quicker how the rubies were made to disappear. This is the kind of story that makes me want to pick up a Bill Pronzini novel again.

By the way, the story opens with Kelly discussing impossible crimes and gives an example from a rather well known mystery writer, which provoked to the following response: "the guy who wrote that one drinks cheaper booze than you do." You know, if this wasn't Renaissance Era of our genre, I would've acted like an indignant fanboy and mentioned Raymond "Drinking is My Hobby" Chandler.

A good round of fun, clever stories about scheming crooks, gentleman thieves and conmen in what are essentially "How'll They Get Away With Its," which are overlooked at times by mystery fans, but they're immensely fun to be burn through – especially when they're of the impossible variety. These stories were, mostly, no exception.

The stories I skipped in this category: "The Strange Case of Streinkelwintz" by MacKinlay Kantor, which is great, but I already reviewed it as part of the short story collection It's About Crime (1960). Maurice Leblanc's "Arsène Lupin in Prison," from The Exploits of Arsène Lupin (1907), and C. Daly King's "The Episode of the Codex' Curse" from The Curious Mr. Tarrent (1935).  

Two categories, four stories and one more post left to go.

2/22/15

And This Little Piggy...


"The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892) 
Margery Allingham is often grouped together with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Dame Ngaio Marsh as one of the four "Queens of Crime" of their time, whose work garnered renewed attention during the renaissance era of the past fifteen years – resulting in numerous reprints.

The praise lobbed at Allingham's legacy is usually reserved for the series literary style, characterization and a variety of styles within the series, which ranges from 1920s thrillers and psychological studies to proper detective stories. It's a combination that charmed readers back then as well as a modern horde of mystery readers, but I had to give up on Allingham somewhere around 2006. I remember slugging through Death of a Ghost (1934), More Work for the Undertaker (1949) and abandoning Flowers for the Judge (1936) halfway through, which (mind you) was centered on an impossible disappearance. They didn't do it for me and simply never bothered with Allingham again.

Earlier this month, I read one of Allingham's short stories, "The Border-Line Case" from Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1937), in Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014) and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Had the time come to give Allingham, Campion and Lugg a second change? There's one book in particular that has always been recommended, The Case of the Late Pig (1937), if I ever wanted to take another shot at the series. And, I have to say, it's definitely the best one I have read from her thus far!

The narrator of The Case of the Late Pig is Mr. Albert Campion himself, who learns from the obituaries in The Times, read out loud by Lugg, about the untimely passing of an old acquaintance – a sadistic school bully, "Pig Peters," from Campion's schooldays. Campion remembers how Pig Peters "took three square inches of skin off" his chest with a penknife and held him "over an unlighted gas jet" until he passed out, which made Campion promise to go to his funeral one day. However, the case doesn't kick off until several months later when a murder happens at the village where the funeral took place and the victim is none other than Pig Peters!

Surprisingly, Robert Adey neglected to mention The Case of the Late Pig in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), but one of the three seemingly impossible situations that occur in this story actually has a solution that qualifies it as a (open space) locked room mystery.

Pig Peters was dozing in a deckchair when a heavy, stone flowerpot, which must have been pushed from its parapet, crushed his head but everyone is in possession of a sturdy alibi. It's such an impossible situation that official police momentarily considered it possible they're all in it together. Plot-wise, the best and most satisfying portion of the story. The way in which everyone is placed and observed different aspects of the crime, from watching the victim in his chair to seeing the flower pot sail pass an upper floor window, gives you the idea the characters are moving around in an actual three-dimensional environment and love this approach with locked room mysteries (e.g. Herbert Resnicow). The gist of the trick is old, but I never saw it used like this. So points for that.

Unfortunately, the questions surrounding the disappearance of a corpse from a secured shed and the double death of Pig Peters are given less consideration, which is a pity, but what (perhaps) initially put me off Allingham was her apparent willingness to sacrifice logical plot advancement in favor of telling a story. The example I can give from The Case of the Late Pig is how the exhumation of Pig Peters, who was supposedly buried six months before he was murdered, wasn't brought up until towards the end and it was to lure out the killer. Wouldn't that be the first thing you would do in this case? And couldn't an early exhumation have prevented the second murder? Why would the murderer take the risk to prop the second victim up like a scarecrow in a cornfield?

Otherwise, The Case of the Late Pig was a pleasantly written, passably plotted detective story that read like an episode of the Midsomer Murders. Not bad... for an Allingham.

So, my fellow Connoisseurs in Crime, are there any Allingham novels that might actually change my position on this much lauded Queen of Crime? I have Police At the Funeral (1931) and The Tiger in the Smoke (1952).

2/19/15

Too Many Detectives


"Go to fuckin' Toys R' Us and get a Sherlock Holmes detective kit, and put the hat on with the magnifying glass and look for clues. You little brat."
- Anthony Cumia
The content of the 50th volume of Case Closed, also known as Detective Conan, was not what you'd expect from a milestone in the series, except for the final chapters, which brings Harley Hartwell in for a story that took place before the series began – involving two seemingly impossible murders in a ski-lift and a legendary snow spirit. However, that's not to say the other two stories were bad, but nothing grand in the way of the 30th volume.

In the first story, Takagi and Sato, from the Metropolitan Police Department, bump into each other at a mixer for singles. As to be expected by now, Conan, Rachel and the great "Sleeping Moore" are there as well, but, surprisingly, nobody ends being murdered.

A young boy, Kota, is swapped for a ransom demand of one million yen (less than ten thousand euros/dollars) and there are three potential suspects, who didn't show up at the singles mixer. It's one of those stories that regular pops-up in the series, in which Conan has to deduce the culprit from a group of only three or four suspects – based on behavior, clothes or items they carried. The clues and red herrings here consist of a rare trading card, lottery tickets, collectible banknotes and an unexciting game of baseball. Not an outstanding story, but good enough, and Takagi finally got to play the hero.

The second story opens with a request from a freelance writer, Masato Sugimori, to Ms. Kobayashi to interview the Junior Detective League from her class, because he's heard they've been assisting the police in several investigations. Even in murder cases!

However, when they come around to his place the following day, they find out that the interview is cancelled: someone bludgeoned Mr. Sugimori to death with a photo-tripod. The plot rehashes a time-alibi trick from an earlier volume, but the main problem here was how Conan was going to solve the case, while their teacher was peeking over their shoulders. I'm usually not too fond of the stories with the Junior Detective League (i.e. dead weight), but here they were actually somewhat useful. Not too bad, but, plot-wise, not too original either.

In the final story, Conan and Harley have a braggers conversation over the phone about the amount of cases they've solved and who's the better detective. Harley has a story for Conan about the best detective he has ever met during one of his first investigations: a man apparently committed suicide while riding alone on a ski lift. There was a gunshot wound to the head and a gun clenched in his hand, but what goes against the simple explanation of suicide is the presence of a snow-filled bag next to the body. The case goes unsolved and few years later a mystery movie is being shot at the snow resort, based on the case, but history repeats itself again – leaving a body in exactly the same situation as a few years before. An unlikely suicide, but murder seems impossible.

Unbeknownst to Harley, Conan (then Jimmy Kudo) was there as well, but they kept walking pass each other the entire time, but there are more detectives prowling the snow-covered slopes of the resort. One of them being a private eye, Rikuto Katashina, who's convinced these suicides are murders and yet another detective reveals himself towards the ending – having merely observed and listened to what was going on. The explanation will be revealed in the first chapter of the next volume, but I have a pretty good idea about the identity of the murderer and the motive. I'm a bit sketchy about the trick, but considering it took place on a ski lift, Aoyama's preferred method for impossible crimes and the bags of snow, I have a rough idea how it was pulled off. 

All in all, a decent volume of stories, but like I said, I was hoping for something more grander than for the 50th volume in the series.

By the way, is Aoyama the most prolific writer of sports (related) mysteries? There have been numerous stories centered around football (soccer), baseball, tennis, skiing, professional wrestling, fishing, kendo, karate, etc. I can't recall any other mystery writer who had so many sports and outdoors-activity related detective stories. And a regular review will be up before the end of the weekend.

2/13/15

Window of Opportunity


"The most creative people have this childlike facility to play."
- John Cleese

Last Friday, Sergio from Tipping My Fedora posted a glowing review of He Who Whispers (1946), which came out on top of a John Dickson Carr poll that was held on his blog in late 2014 and the results were very interesting.

The internet has done its fair share in bringing about a Renaissance Era of Detective Fiction, giving (secondhand) book dealers and independent publishers an open market place, which made hoarding Golden Age mystery writers as easy as pulling a coin from a child's ear. Once popular writers that were relegated to obscurity are being discovered and appreciated again by a whole new crop of readers. John Dickson Carr is one of the mystery writers who benefited from this, as nearly all of his novels are easy to come by today, but this seems to have resulted in a reassessment of what readers consider to be Carr's best work – swapping The Hollow Man (1935), The Peacock Feather Murders (1937) and The Crooked Hinge (1938) for He Who Whispers, She Died a Lady (1943) and Till Death Do Us Part (1944).

Only The Judas Window (1938), published as if by "Carter Dickson," seems to be as popular as ever, which made me wonder: would the story stand up to re-reading? The short, easy answer is: yes. But that would make for a rather short review.

The Judas Window is, unusually for Carr, structured as a courtroom drama with the scowling, Churchillian figure of Sir Henry Merrivale acting for the defense at the Old Bailey in a murder trial. James "Jim" Caplon Answell stands accused of the murder of his future father-in-law, Mr. Avory Hume, who could've only been killed by Answell – despite a clear lack of motive. They were the only occupants of Hume's practically bare and hermitically sealed study. A solid, wooden oak door, bolted from the inside, fits tightly in its frame and the windows were latched and covered with steel, burglarproof shutters. The decanter of the doctored whiskey, which made Answell pass out, has been replaced and Hume lays sprawled on the ground – a trophy arrow wrenched from the wall protruding from his chest.

Nobody believes in Answell's innocence. Nobody, except for Merrivale, his unshakable believe in the "blinkin' awful cussedness of things in general" and knowledge of the existence of a Judas window. And with that, Carr did what he did best and spun something perfectly sinister around something innocuous and everyday as an unseen opening. 

A Judas window is a window in a cell door to the see the prisoner, but H.M. points out there are more of them, "you've got a Judas window in your own room at home; there's one in this room, and there's one in every courtroom in the Old Bailey. The trouble is that so few people ever notice it," which is why H.M. so strenuously objected to the study being described as "sealed." H.M. assured that the door/windows were really "tight and solid and bolted" and "nobody monkeyed with a fastening to lock or unlock either," which was the same for the walls – bare of any crevices or rat-holes. A tough nut to crack and it's an impossible situation begging for a mind bending simple explanation, which (IMO) is a challenge that was met. It was simple and original, but without reducing the sinister aspect of the titular window. This alone will secure it as a favorite among locked room enthusiasts for many decades to come.

The other part that probably made this book an endearing to JDC fans is Merrivale's one-off appearance as a barrister, which was the first time in fifteen years and there was (of course!) some commotion the last time he appeared in court – addressing the jury indiscreetly with, "well, my fatheads." H.M. is prone to theatrics (e.g. The Gilded Man (1942) and The Skeleton in the Clock, 1948), but is more contained here and pounds the enigmatic facts of a perfectly sealed room that wasn't sealed, a missing piece of goose feather from an arrow, golf suits and inkpads, and compiling a "Time-Table for Archers" – while witnesses who were milling in-and around of the house take their seat in the witness boxes. Slowly, but surely, Merrivale peels away the many layers of confusion wrapped around Hume's murder and the Old Man's performance at the Old Bailey would've gotten the slow-clap from Perry Mason, John J. Malone and Francis Pettigrew after concluding the evidence for the defense with "Bah!"

If there's anything to be said against The Judas Window, it's that H.M. takes his sweet time to arrive at the final conclusion and that made it, at times, feel a tad bit padded. Alex Atkinson spoofed this wonderfully in "Chapter the Last: Merriman Explains," from Murder Impossible: An Extravaganza of Miraculous Murders, Fantastic Felonies and Incredible Criminals (1990), but I only mention this to proof I can be critical of Carr. The Judas Window stood more than up to re-reading.

Note for the curious: Chapter Fourteen, "Time-Table for Archers," mentions a locked room murder in tower looking out over the sea, but not the title of the story or the name of the writer. Well, it's one of the stories from Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014). SPOILER: ["The Badmoor Murder" by Melville Davisson Post].

2/5/15

Uncage the Black Lizard, Part V: Chambers and Cartridges


"Nothing is impossible... the word itself says I'm possible!"
- Aubrey Hepburn 
Shoot If You Must is the sixth column of stories from The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), edited by Otto Penzler, which gathered roughly two hundred pages worth of fiction under the motto, "it may not be terribly original, but shooting someone tends to be pretty effective."

Traditionally, I have skipped a handful of stories, because they had been read before and even reviewed: "Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?," collected in Casefile (1983), by Bill Pronzini, "In a Telephone Cabinet," collected in Superintendent Wilson's Holiday (1928), by G.D.H. and M. Cole and Georges Simenon's "The Little House at Croix-Rousse," which I read in the anthology All But Impossible! (1981) – edited by the Edward D. Hoch. I also passed over Clayton Rawson's "Nothing is Impossible," read in The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes (1968), but I don't have an old, archived review for that one handy.

Stuart Towne's "Death Out of Thin Air" was first published in the August 1940 issue of Red Star Mystery Magazine and has a plot jam-packed with impossible material, magic and illusions, which brought to mind Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938). Not surprisingly, seeing as "Stuart Towne" was the pseudonym Rawson adopted for a short-lived series of novelettes in a magazine that only spawned four issues. The protagonist in these stories is Don Diavolo, "The Scarlet Wizard," who (IIRC) made a brief cameo appearance in The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) when he performed a daring escape trick on stage – while The Great Merlini was intently watching him from the wings.

Sgt. Lester Healy was investigating a disappearance case when he's confronted with a man who fade away into thin air. In front of his eyes! However, the next impossibility is even more baffling. Healy is murdered in an office at Centre Street, headquarters of the New York Police Department, but when Inspector Church tries to enter the office the door is slammed in his face and the bolt was drawn. Naturally, nobody, except the body, was in the office when the door was shot open, however, it's again slammed shut behind Church – who hears a disembodied voice saying, "see you later, Inspector." None of the policeman in the hallway saw anyone leave the room. The solution for these (and more) impossible situations can be classified as "carny" and I tend to dislike them, but Rawson got a lot of mileage out of it. And I liked the friendly antagonism between Diavolo and Church ("I'm going to get the goods on him sooner or later! He can't fool me!"). So, a fun, pulpy story, but nothing more.

I re-read Agatha Christie's "The Dream," first published in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories (1939), because it's one of my favorite Hercule Poirot mysteries, period, which has a lot to do with it being one of her rare, full-blown locked room mysteries – and actually treading in John Dickson Carr territory. An eccentric millionaire, Benedict Farley, consults Hercule Poirot about a recurring dream, in which he shoots himself at exactly twenty-eight minutes past three. The dream becomes predictive when Farley kills himself in his office. At approximately the same time as in the dream! There were witnesses who swore nobody entered or left the office, which throws the option of murder out of the window. However, based on physical and psychological clues, Poirot constructs an alternative explanation that reveals a cold, premeditated murder. I’m surprised this story wasn't included in any of the previous locked room anthologies.

"The Border-Line Case" by Margery Allingham was first published in Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1937) and is a short-short story, in which Albert Campion assumes the role of armchair detective as he helps D.I. Oates to solve "The Coal Court Shooting Case." A man is being seen stumbling and falling to the pavement by a policeman walking his beat, but it wasn't the heat that got to the man, but a slug lodged between the shoulder blades. Death was almost instantaneously. However, the street was bare of any blind spots and the gunman appears to have been invisible. I gave up on Allingham, years ago, but this was a pretty good story with a simple, elegant and original explanation. I was pleasantly surprised by this story.

"The Bradmoor Murder" by Melville Davisson Post was originally published as a three-part serial in The Pictorial Review in 1922 and I think Post is another writer I can't seem to enjoy. The story is a textbook example of padding and, while the padding was well written, it made the dénouement a resounding disappointment. It revolves around the death of a former explorer found dead in his locked room with a hole in his chest and a fishing rod in his hands, but the only points of interests were the back story of the exploration in the Libyan Desert for traces of a forgotten, ancient civilization – roaming the borders between the mystery and Lost World genres. The solution, interestingly, was identical, if slightly elaborated on, to that of a Conan Doyle story from an early 1922 issue of The Strand Magazine and collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927).

"The Man Who Liked Toys" by Leslie Charteris was first published in the September 1933 issue of American Magazine and was rewritten for its first book publication, Boodle (1934), to include Simon Templar and Inspector Teal. My only exposure to The Saint was the 1997 Val Kilmer movie, but this was an agreeable introduction to the original. A financial speculator, Mr. Enstone, committed suicide by shooting himself in the eye in his bedroom. The only windows were both shut and fastened and the door was closed, but Templar figures out a clever and sneaky way to by pass them – even if it's impossible to figure out the exact trick before its explained. Otherwise, a good introduction to the series.

"The Ashcomb Poor Case" by Hulbert Footner was first published in Madame Storey (1926) and has a plot that ran for too long. The problem revolves around a clumsily disguised suicide: a man is shot in the back and the gun is deposited underneath the clenched, cold-dead hand of the victim. However, how could a murderer from the outside have by passed a (then) modern burglar alarm, which is a pretty crude system by today's standards, but it was interesting to see how easily mystery writers adapted to new technologies and scientific advances. In this case, an old, crude trick revamped to bypass early 20th century technology that was suppose to secure a home better than old-fashioned locks and bolts. There was also a nice scene, in which lovers are clawing and tearing away at each other's false confessions. So not bad, but not terrific either. Some good ideas though!

All in all, a good round of stories, except that I begin to get really annoyed at the number of stories treating (or ripping-off) ideas and tropes in such a similar fashion that this anthology makes the locked room genre look like a one-trick pony to new readers. Or as we call them here, the uninitiated ones. The number of suicides disguised as murder, icicle weapons and similar displacement in time-and space tricks are ridiculous!

Well, there are three sections and about two hundreds pages left to go in this anthology. I should be able to finish it before the end of the month. 

1/29/15

Out of Character


"Do you know my friend that each one of us is a dark mystery, a maze of conflicting passions and desire and aptitude?"
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Thirteen at Dinner, 1933)
While I have only read a handful of Helen McCloy's novels and short stories, I regard her as one of the uncrowned Queens of Crime, along with Christianna Brand and Gladys Mitchell, but I guess we can place the blame of this oversight solidly on the shoulders of General Washington's triumphant rebellion against the British.

The Goblin Market (1943), Through a Glass, Darkly (1950), Two-Thirds of a Ghost (1956) and Mr. Splitfoot (1968) were good-to-excellent detective stories, which were either laced with suspense, furnished with thriller-and spy material or covered with suggestive touches of the supernatural – and always outfitted with solid plots. However, it's been a while since I picked up one of McCloy's mysteries and some rummaging unearthed a copy of Alias Basil Willing (1951), which became irresistible after reading the dedication: "To Clarise and John Dickson Carr, with affection." 

Unfortunately, Alias Basil Willing bears very little resemblance to either the mystery or the adventurous thriller novels by Carr. The only, slight exception was the set-up of the plot, which was very reminiscent of the type of Carrian stories that plunges the hero in a series of ever-increasing bizarre events after a strange encounter in the opening chapter (e.g. The Unicorn Murders (1934) and The Arabian Nights Murder, 1936).

Dr. Basil Willing is McCloy's psychiatrist-detective and usually cases are brought to his attention by the District Attorney's office, but here it's a visit to a Manhattan tobacco shop. A ruffled little man, who bought the same cigarettes as the doctor, is overheard introducing himself to a cabdriver with a very familiar sounding name, "I am Dr. Basil Willing," and that's all the encouragement Willing needed to hop in the next cab in pursuit. What he finds is a strange dinner party thrown by an eminent German-born psychiatrist, Max Zimmer, for his patients and two Basil Willing's gives the party a thirteenth guest – which is considered a bad omen even by the rational host.

Willing manages to pry his imposter loose from the party, but soon comes to the discovery that he's dragging along a delirious and dying man, whose last words were the cryptic mutterings, "and – no – bird – sang..." The fake Basil Willing had died of codeine poisoning and the only place it could've been administrated was during the dinner party. A second death of a guest is discovered the following morning, also from codeine poisoning, but the plot and story-telling weren't able to deliver on its premise – as good as the attempt may’ve been. Yes, that's why I began with the praise.

The problem is that not much of sustainable interest happens between opening and closing chapters. There are some interviews, character-sketches and some nicely written observation about the times, but McCloy left two interesting points in the story underdeveloped. I thought there was something clever about the method for the poisonings, which makes the book a borderline impossible crime story, but more could've been done with it. And, secondly, if more attention (i.e. clueing) was paid to the place where birds don't sing, we could've had a classic of the "Dying Message" on our hands. The motive was good though, but the murderer belonged to a different type of crime story.

So, while Alias Basil Willing has its moments and interesting in showing how the genre had began to transition from plot-oriented mysteries to character-driven crime-and thriller novels, but as part of a series it will always be overshadowed by the previously mentioned titles. I'm glad, judging by the later books, McCloy abandoned this approach.

Sorry for this bad review and poorly written review. I was very distracted and multitasking isn't one of my strong suits.

1/24/15

The Bludgeoning Method


"One dumb-bell, Watson! Consider an athlete with one dumb-bell. Picture to yourself the unilateral development—the imminent danger of a spinal curvature. Shocking, Watson; shocking!"
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear, 1915)
From the very first paragraph, Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) plunges diligently in what readers have come to expect from Leo Bruce and Sgt. Beef: a high spirited, but intelligent, tongue-in-cheek treatment of the detective story, while obliterating the fourth wall.

"This isn't a love story... it's a detective novel," is one of the clues that Beef is more than aware of his status as a fictional character, but his long-suffering and under appreciated chronicler, Lionel Townsend, has become anxious about his job – as three months has passed since they had a case and Beef is starting to enquire about the book rights.

A headline in the Daily Dose finally spurs Beef into action. Lord Alan Foulkes, second son of the Marquess of Edenbridge, who was being educated at the prestigious Penhurst School, was found hanging from a beam in the gymnasium on the morning after having won the School Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Coincidently, Townsend has a brother, Vincent, who teaches at Penhurst, but they've never been particular close and Lionel has to absorb some backhanded abuse over the course of the investigation. Like when his brother suggested that Beef should've approached someone with a genuine gift for writing prose, such as Aldous Huxley, which gave Beef a swelled ego.

The first part of Case with Ropes and Rings follows Beef and Townsend around Penhurst, as the former (poorly) pretends to be the temporary School Porter, but the "bludgeoning method" of Beef doesn't make it easy on the formal-minded Townsend – and neither do the students give him a break. I particularly liked the scene with the boy asking "Ticks," which is his nickname for Townsend, if they are still on the old game and follows it up with:
"The detective racket... you're both nosing round after someone to pin a crime on, aren't you? God, how that sort of thing bores me! All these fearful women writers and people like you, working out dreary crimes for half-wits to read about. Doesn't it strike you as degrading?"
Well, I never! And as Townsend said, "one can scarcely expect schoolboys to appreciate the subtlety and depth of modern detective fiction" and one has "only to quite the name of Miss Sayers to remind you of what this genre has already produced." This all sounds perhaps more fun than it is, but there's a well thought out, expertly knotted plot at the heart of the story and an abundance of suspects that are being questioned – which gives room to the reader for a spot of theory building.

The second portion of the plot deals with an identical death in Camden Town gymnasium and the background stands in stark contrast with the supposed suicide of Alan in a prestigious bastion of knowledge and education. A young and professional boxer, Stanley Beecher, was found swinging from the rafters, but it has handled as a homicide as the case is surrounded with all the "paraphernalia of low life" – from criminal associates to ties to Spanish Nationalists and the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.

It's an unlikely combination of characters, events and background to produce two identical deaths, but Bruce, evidently, knew his way around a plot and brings everything together coherently. I'd place Case with Ropes and Rings alongside the best in this series, which includes Case for Three Detectives (1936) and Case for Sergeant Beef (1947). Needless to say, I quite enjoyed this one.

Bruce was a mystery reader's mystery writer and you'll probably enjoy the Sgt. Beef novels the most, if you have more than a passing acquaintance with the Golden Age detective story. Bruce is the kind of mystery writer you grab when you've come to the starling realization that you've gone through every Agatha Christie novel, while burning through the remaining Crime Queens like an inquisitor in a medieval witch hunt, and your supply of yet to be read mysteries by John Dickson Carr and Nicholas Blake are dwindling. That's the excuse moment, you can start adding Leo Bruce to your wish lists and TBR piles.

Finally, the opening was quote was the only sports-related mystery quote I could think of/find.