3/22/17

A Thing of the Past

"Outside the window, so close to the pane that it seemed to be pressing against it, was a white face—a chalk-white face, whether man or woman none could tell."
- Annie Haynes (The House in Charlton Crescent, 1926)
In my previous blog-post, I reviewed an archaeologically-themed mystery novel, Arthur Rees' The Shrieking Pit (1919), which left me in the mood for a similar sort of detective story, but there were only two such titles on my shelves that had not been previously discussed on this blog – namely R. Austin Freeman's The Penrose Mystery (1936) and Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). Logically, I should've gone with the former, because it has been wasting away on my TBR-pile for ages, but settled for the latter. So, yes, this is the second re-read this month.

Murder in Mesopotamia is fourteenth novel about Christie's most popular and enduring creation, Hercule Poirot, which also happened to be part of a sub-category, called "Poirot Abroad," that includes some of the Belgian detective's most celebrated cases – such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937) and Evil Under the Sun (1941). The books and short stories from this sub-category take place between the countries of continental Europe (e.g. Murder on the Links, 1923) and the sun-drenched Middle East (e.g. Appointment with Death, 1938).

Christie's second husband, Max Mallowan, was a prominent British archaeologist and she spend many years helping her husband with pulling the remnants of past civilizations from the earth of the Middle East. So you can easily see how this region became the backdrop for so many of her stories, but there are only two that used an excavation site as the scene of a crime: an early short story, entitled "The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb," collected in Poirot Investigates (1924) and Murder in Mesopotamia. A pity, really, because archaeological settings are criminally underutilized in detective stories. Anyhow...

Murder in Mesopotamia takes place during an archaeological dig near Hassanieh, "a day and a half's journey from Baghdad," situated in present-day Iraq and was at the time of the story a young, independent kingdom – having been granted full independence from British rule in 1932. However, the presence of a British policeman, Captain Maitland, suggests the story took place when the region was still a protectorate of the British Empire.

The story at hand is narrated by a nurse, named Amy Leatheran, who has been engaged by a well-known archaeologist, Dr. Erich Leidner, to keep a weary eye on his wife. Louise Leidner is a beautiful, charming and intelligent woman, but Leatheran quickly comes to the conclusion that she's also "the sort of woman who could easily make enemies." Lately, she seems to be genuinely afraid of someone.

Dutch edition (pastel series)
During the Great War of 1914-18, Louise was married to a German, Frederick Bosner, who she discovered to be "a spy in German pay." She had a hand in the arrest and he was to be a shot as a spy, but escaped and was, reportedly, later killed in a train wreck. However, she started to receive threatening signed by her late husband. So did her husband escape death a second time? Or is his younger sibling, who idolized his older brother, plotting revenge? In any case, two days after her marriage to Dr. Leidner she received a death threat ("You have got to die"). Several additional letters arrived, recently they even had an Iraqi stamp, but the most disturbing ones announce "death is coming very soon" and "I have arrived." She even saw "a dead face," grinning against a window pane, which only she saw.

So not everyone takes her completely serious and Leatheran even suspects Louise might have been sending those threatening letters herself, but the situations becomes as serious as the grave when Dr. Leidner stumbles across Louise's body in her bedroom – struck down by "a terrific blow on the front of the head."

Coincidentally, the world-renowned private-detective, Hercule Poirot, is passing through the region after "disentangling some military scandal in Syria" and is basically given full control of the investigation by Captain Maitland. Something for the curious-minded: Poirot's experience in this case is what inspired the famous quote from Death on the Nile that compared detective work with an archaeological dig. Poirot does something like that here: removing all of the dirt and extraneous matter surrounding the problem, and small cast of characters, until the truth clearly emerges from all of the facts, questions and personality of the victim. As one of the characters observed at the end, Poirot has "the gift of recreating the past" and would have made a great archaeologist.

Interestingly, Poirot's explanation reveals that the book, all along, was an impossible crime story.

Scene of the Crime

One of the two reasons for re-reading Murder in Mesopotamia is the archaeological angle, but also for the fact that Robert Adey listed it in Locked Room Murders (1991). However, the claim of the book being a locked room mystery seems shaky at first, because the bedroom was neither locked from the inside nor under constant observation from the outside. It's established that nobody from outside of the large house could have committed the murder, but there was a window of ten minutes when nobody was in the courtyard to observe anyone entering, or leaving, the only door that opened into Louise's bedroom – which would make this a closed circle of suspects situation. There is, however, a very good reason why it would still qualify as an impossible crime novel.

I recently posted a comment on a blog-post on The Reader is Warned, titled "The Case of the Impossible Alibi," in which I gave my (poorly typed) opinion under what strenuous conditions an apparent cast-iron alibi can be considered an impossibility. I think Murder in Mesopotamia meets those qualifications and the explanation as to how the murderer pulled of the killing could've been used to create a full-fledged locked room scenario. So I filed this review under "locked room mysteries" and "impossible crimes."

However, I would recommend not to read my comment on that blog-post unless you've read the book.

I should point out something that's often overlooked or ignored: a second, gruesome murder occurs towards the end when a colleague of Dr. Leidner, one Anne Johnson, swallows "a quantity of corrosive acid" and burns to dead from the inside, but when she lies dying she gives, what's known as, a dying message – one that gives away a huge clue about the method of the first murder. And that gives a huge hint about the identity of the killer.

So, all in all, Murder in Mesopotamia has all the ingredients for a top-tier Agatha Christie novel, but the plot has one very black mark against it. You can only accept the solution, if you accept that Louise Leidner was a very dense, unobservant and low-conscience person. And there was an attempt to foreshadow the fact that she could have missed the keypoint of the plot. However, it's was confirmed that she was actually an intelligent woman. So this single point makes the solution, as a whole, hard to digest and condemns the book to the rank of mid-tier Christie.

I was actually reminded of Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933), which came inches from being a first-class detective story and a classic title from the early EQ period, but then came the mind-numbing explanation for the vanishing gun – which was impossible to swallow. The American Gun Mystery and Murder in Mesopotamia are actually the same in that regard, because that single point makes the whole explanation a tad-bit implausible.

Regardless, it was still a well written and interesting mystery novel, but simply not in the same league as Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun.

Well, that ended on a less than enthusiastic note. Anyway, not sure what I'll dig up next, but I'll continue my futile attempt to reduce the mass of my semi-sentient TBR-pile.

3/19/17

A Frame of Mind


"Commit a crime, and the earth is made of glass. Commit a crime, and it seems as if a coat of snow fell on the ground, such as reveals in the woods the track of every partridge and fox and squirrel and mole. You cannot recall the spoken words, you cannot wipe out the foot-track, you cannot draw up the ladder, so as to leave no inlet or clew." 
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
Back in 2012, I positively reviewed The Moon Rock (1922) by Arthur J. Rees and John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, suggested in the comment-section I take a look at Rees' The Shrieking Pit (1919) next, which he described as "one of the best detective novels written prior to 1920." 

Well, that was enough to secure it a spot on my elephantine TBR-pile, but then this long-forgotten mystery novelist began to slip from my mind and had not really given him a second thought until one of my fellow bloggers, "D for Doom," reviewed the book over at his excellent blog – called Vintage Pop Fiction. So I decided to finally excavate the book from the big pile and see what all the fuss is about.

The Shrieking Pit is set in Norfolk, England, in 1916, when the European continent was in the middle of the First World War and this global skirmish has a prominent presence in the story. In the first chapter, there are references to young army officers, war widows and a nearby zeppelin air-raid that had nearly emptied out the Grand Hotel. Something that may have affected the peculiar young man in the public room of the Grand Hotel.

David (or Grant) Colwyn is an American-born Englishman and a private-investigator of some celebrity, who is supposed to be taking a well deserved holiday, but he can't help observing the troubled man sitting in an alcove and assumes the poor soul is shell-shocked – until another guest takes a seat at his table. The man is Sir Henry Durwood, a Harley Street specialist, who recognizes the signs of furor epilepticus and asks Colwyn to help him intervene when the attack comes. Sure enough, they find themselves carrying a now unconscious man, who registered as James Ronald, to his room, but refuses any additional help once he regained consciousness. And that same day, he leaves the hotel without paying his bill of thirty pounds.

However, the memory of this incident comes back the following day when news reaches the hotel that a murder has been committed in a neighboring village and it looks as if the author of that crime is James Ronald!

The scene of the crime, called Flegne-next-sea, is a dying seaside village surrounded by "swamps and stagnant dykes." A place of outstretched marshlands, which encroached on the roads, dotted with often abandoned stone cottages, ruins of a priory and "a crumbling fragment of a Norman tower" - remnants of a long, sustained struggle against the hostile elements of the place. It was "a poor place at the best of times," but the war had made everything worse and everyone a whole lot poorer. So the arrival of an archaeologist to the village was seen as a godsend, because of the work and money this brought to the locals.

Roger Glenthorpe was an elderly archaeologist, who lodged at the Golden Anchor, which he used as the home base for his extensive research into the fossil remains that are common to that part of Norfolk. Unfortunately, for the archaeologist, the locals of this remote spot are scientifically illiterate. So he welcomed the arrival of Ronald at the inn, because the young man was obviously educated and knew a thing or two about science and history.

However, Ronald leaves the inn in the wee hours of the morning and Glenthorpe's bedroom is found empty, but the key is, uncharacteristically, sticking in the lock on the outside of the door. A track of boot-prints lead from the inn to the mouth of a pit, which is a part of "a number of so-called hut circles" that were "prehistoric shelters of the early Britons," where a workman was lowered into by rope and finds the murdered remains of Glenthorpe – stabbed in the chest. A sum of 300 pounds and a table-knife, used by Ronald at dinner, are missing. So things don't look very good for the missing Ronald.

One thing pointed out by "D" in his review is the fascinating treatment of circumstantial evidence and how this evidence can be interpreted, which runs like a red thread through the plot. According to Colwyn, there are two kinds of circumstantial evidence: in one of them the presumption of guilt depends on "a series of links forming a chain," while in the other "the circumstances are woven together like the strands of a rope." Colwyn thinks the latter is the strongest kind of circumstantial evidence of the two, but believes the case against Ronald hinges on the former and believes the strongest link in the chain of evidence are the boot-prints. And take that away and the evidence "snapped in the most vital link."

However, Colwyn's professional opinion does not prevent a devastating loss in the courtroom. The courtroom scenes were one of the highlights of the book. They were very well written and characterized, which makes you almost wish the entirety of the story had been penned as an old-fashioned courtroom drama. One of the very few genuine weaknesses of the plot is the repetition of the all facts and this would've been less of a problem in a courtroom setting, because the reiterations could be done by the lawyers, prosecution and a final summing up by the judge – as well as by witnesses on the stand. Nevertheless, I think plot-oriented readers can cope with some of the repetition here.

I suppose this sounds a bit weird, following that minor complaint, but The Shrieking Pit struck me as a predecessor of E.R. Punshon's work. There's more than a passing resemblance between Rees' The Shrieking Pit and Punshon's The Conqueror Inn (1943).

Rees also had a similar verbose, ornamental writing-style as Punshon, with a keen eye for historical detail, which might be off-putting to some readers, but, personally, I love this approach when it's wrapped around a strong, intelligently constructed and well imagined plot – which was definitely the case here. A story gets so much better when there's a strong sense of place, time and history.

The ghosts of past centuries, even millenniums, appear throughout the book, which range from the prehistoric, stone-age dwellings and the bullet tinted wall of the inn telling of a long-ago battle between a gang of smugglers and the King's troops to the sporting magazines from the 1860s at the inn's fireside bookshelf – all of them alluding to a different and sometimes better, more prosperous time. They make the impoverished state of the small, dying village even more tragic. If that's not gloomy enough, there's the encroaching marshlands, the dank swamps and the ghost of a cursed woman in white who haunts the region. But there are also whispers among the locals of a ghostly dog, "Ol Black Shuck," roaming the dense woods. So the book also has a touch of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

So, the atmospheric and historically rich backdrop, alongside the role of the First World War, undoubtedly counts as the book's strong point, but the very involved plot also proved to be noteworthy.

Granted, the explanation revealed that the crime-scene resembled a busy train-station, with characters popping in-and out of the bedroom, which caused many of the plot complexities, but Rees held a firm grasp on all of the plot-threads – which resulted in a pleasing, clear-cut explanation of all the events. You'd want to kick some of the characters for being so bone-headed, however, it made for a nice, complex and involved detective story. One that appeared, on the surface, to be a straightforward case for the police, but Corwyn uncovered many complications and contradictory evidence. All of which he managed to explain away by revealing that there was a simplistic, even sordid, truth behind the crime.

So, yes, The Shrieking Pit is a well-written, competently plotted and interesting detective novel from the transitional period between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. As such, I can particularly recommend it to readers whose personal taste veer towards the Victoria-style of mystery writing or to fans of Punshon's Golden Age mysteries.

Well, so far my hasty, sloppily written review and my next one will probably be of another archaeological-themed mystery novel, but I've not yet made up my mind. So we'll see.

P.S: see comment-section for an explanation on the confusing first name of the detective. 

3/16/17

John Sladek: Short Slayings

"A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools."
- Douglas Adams (Mostly Harmless, 1992)
John Sladek is perhaps best remembered as a satirist and an author of science-and speculative fiction, usually written with a humorous bend, but he also made a brief excursion into the realm of crime-fiction during the 1970s and penned two highly regarded locked room novels – alongside a few surprisingly obscure short stories.

During the early 70s, the Times of London held a short story competition for detective fiction and no less a figure than Agatha Christie served on the jury. Over a thousand short stories were submitted, but Sladek's "By an Unknown Hand" emerged victorious and became the centerpiece of The Times of London Anthology of Detective Stories (1973). However, the real prize for Sladek was an opportunity to write a full-length mystery novel and this resulted in a shimmering gem of the modern, post-World War II era. A genuine classic!

Black Aura (1974) is widely regarded as one of the best locked room novels the genre has ever produced and was followed by Invisible Green (1977), which is less popular, but still relatively well thought of by aficionados of impossible crime fiction – who usually acknowledge that the latter failed to live up to its predecessor. Regardless of the uneven quality between both titles, they cemented Sladek's reputation as a notable practitioner of the locked room mystery and we all mourned the fact that the he only wrote two of them. But as Sladek once remarked in jest, "one could starve very quickly writing locked room mysteries" in the modern era.

Nevertheless, most readers who loved his two novels seem to be unaware he penned nearly a dozen short detective stories, which were largely gathered in the posthumously published Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2002). The highlight of that compilation, for mystery readers, is the inclusion of two short stories about Thackeray Phin, who was also at the helm of Black Aura and Invisible Green, but these short pieces definitely measure up to the novels.

The first of these short stories is, of course, "By an Unknown Hand," which introduces Sladek's take on the Great Detective, Thackeray Phin, who's an American philosophy professor living in England and advertises himself as a "professional logician and amateur sleuth" - one who would welcome a challenge. Phin has always dreamed of being a detective and is elated when the owner of an art gallery, Anthony Moon, engages him as a bodyguard to protect an unpopular artist, Aaron Wallis. Someone has been sending him letters promising to end his life.

Wallis lives in an apartment on the 11th floor of a soulless apartment building and he had all the windows bricked up, because he has an aversion for natural light. So the windows offered no way in or out for the occupants would-be assassin. Before Phin began his watchman's duty, the apartment was searched by Wallis himself and the door was both locked and chain-locked from the inside, which was done with a very though chain. The door needed to be battered half a dozen times before the staple was torn from the wall and they could enter the apartment. Why did the door required battering, you ask? Somehow, someone managed to enter the sealed apartment and strangle the unpopular artist.

There are two points of interest that should be pointed out: once our detective realizes that "Sherlock Holmes wasn't going to be any help at all," Phin hurried home "to read some locked room mysteries," because, "if Dr. Fell could not cure this devil case," perhaps "Father Brown could exorcise it" - really showing where this story fits in the scheme of the overall genre. Secondly, the brother of the victim, Hector Wallis, is a clairvoyant, known as "Ozanam," who is seen giving a demonstration of the ability of his third eye. I think this particular scene, in combination with Phin's explanation, makes for a nice semi-impossible situation straight out of Clayton Rawson or Jonathan Creek. The solution to the locked room problem also somewhat resembled the work of that mystery writer and TV-series.

You can divide the crux of the impossible situation in two sections. The first part concerns the setup of the trick and plays out like an elaborate stage illusion, which is as risky as it's clever and lot's of fun. And there's something in the story that should set the seasoned armchair detective on the right track. However, the method for the sealed nature of the room was a lot more routine, but, overall, a very solid and promising debut for, what potentially could have been, John Dickson Carr's successor.

I'm also baffled why this story never found its way into one of the many locked room themed anthologies that have appeared since the early 1970s.

The second short story from this series, "It Takes Your Breath Away," was syndicated in 1974 in various London theater programs, which included A Streetcar Named Desire at the Piccadilly Theatre and is really just a short-short – covering only a scant three pages. Phin finds himself "far back at the discouraging end" of long cinema queue that twisted round a corner. One of the people waiting in line ends up with a knife in his chest, but that's all I really can say about the plot without giving anything away. But the plot is surprisingly rich and involved for a short-short of only three pages.

Well, most mystery readers are probably aware of the first short story discussed here and some known of the second, but very few are aware that Maps has a section, entitled "Sladek Incognito," which gathered eight virtually unknown crime story – originally published in the late 1960s and some were published as by "Dale Johns." Most of them are short-short inverted mysteries, usually no more than four pages, in which the plans of the culprit usually backfires on them. So you could call them A-Hoist-On-Their-Own-Petard stories.

My personal favorite is "You Have a Friend at Fengrove National," originally published in a 1968 issue of Tit-Bits, which has a clever money scheme with cheque deposits go horribly wrong when an unpolished specimen of the criminal classes intervene. A very short piece, but also very good. Loved as much the second time as when I first read it. Deserves to be better known!

"Just Another Victim" comes from the pages of the same publication and has a jealous woman plotting the murder of a friend, planning to make it look like the work of an active serial killer, but you can probably guess the twist in that story. "The Switch" was also published as "The Train," again in Tit-Bits, in which a husband is plotting the murder of his wife by creating a train disaster, but the disaster is not what he expected. A somewhat technical short-short that could have been more interesting had it been a little bit longer. "Timetable" is a murder for hire gone wrong for the person who paid for the professional assassins, because he forgot a small, silly detail. This one also came from Tit-Bits. "Now That I'm Free" is a very good take on the multi-sided love affair that end in murder. I would imagine Christie would have a good chuckle at this story. The last of the short-shorts, "Practical Joke," has a thoroughly unpleasant character getting his much deserved comeuppance.

The next short story, "Publish and Perish," came from a June 1968 issue of a publication known as If and comes highly recommended to fans of Edmund Crispin, Michael Innes and crime stories with an academic setting – because this one is almost a parody of such kind of crime stories. A young associate professor of physics, Gleason, has an opportunity to rise in the academic ranks when a professor passes away, but his university has a strange tradition to decide who fills a seat: murder! Gleason not only has to survive the attempts on his life, such as a bomb in the coffee maker, but also has get dispose of his rival. A fun and unusual type of crime story that some of you will no doubt be able to appreciate.

Finally, there's a rather unusual hybrid-type of story, "In the Oligocene," culled from the pages of the July 1968 issue of If and has a time-traveler from the 1978 return to 1939 to save the woman he loved as a young man. Unfortunately, he is now a man in his sixties and to ensure she only loves him he takes her to the Oligocene period. A "comparatively gentle era in the earth's history," when the great reptiles had gone the way of the dinosaurs and the largest mammals weren't numerous enough to pose a danger, but she not thrilled by the prospect of being stranded in ancient history – without any other living soul to communicate with. So the reunion is not going as envisioned and the way this situation gets resolved is a science-fiction imagining of a deus ex machina. Hands down one of the weirdest kidnap stories in all of detective fiction.

So, that's all of the detective fiction that can be found in Maps, which have been long overlooked, but these stories are well worth possessing the entire collection. And if you like humorous science-fiction (e.g. Douglas Adams), you'll probably enjoy the non-criminal content of this collection. But the main reason for me was the hidden treasure trove of excellent detective stories.

On a final note, Sladek also wrote a non-series short locked room mystery, titled "The Locked Room," which is collected in Keep the Giraffe Burning (1978) and a review of that story can be read here.

3/15/17

Two Shooter

"Locked rooms and mysterious disappearances smack of deliberate subterfuge."
- Sabina Carpenter (Bill Pronzini's "Gunpowder Alley," a 2012 uncollected short story)
Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's The Dangerous Ladies Affair (2017) is the fifth in their recent series of historical locked room mysteries about a pair of private-investigators, namely John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, who operate in the San Francisco of the late 1890s, but their first recorded case dates back more than thirty years – beginning with the eponymously titled Quincannon (1985). The characters would go on to appear in the splendid Beyond the Grave (1986) and a whole slew of short stories. Some of them were collected (e.g. Quincannon's Game, 2005), but the most recent ones are, as of now, uncollected.

Several years ago, the stories about Carpenter and Quincannon were, sort of, rebooted as a series of full-length detective novels and sometimes materials from the short stories were expanded upon. Such as "The Bughouse Caper," from Quincannon's Game, which was taken apart and used as the basis for ongoing story-line about a scattered-brain figure, who claimed to be Sherlock Holmes, that began with The Bughouse Affair (2013) – finally concluding two novels later in The Body Snatchers Affair (2015). That last title was also an expansion of a short story, "The Highbinders," which was originally published in Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services (1998).

I bring this up because The Dangerous Ladies Affair consists of two separate, non-overlapping investigations and Quincannon's case is an expansive rewrite of two short stories, but still managed to be my favorite part of the book.

Quincannon is engaged by the President of the Woolworth National Bank, Titus Wrixton, concerning "a matter of some delicacy that demands considerable discretion." Someone is trying to extort money from the bank president and the blackmail material is related to a personal indiscretion. And he already coughed up five thousand dollars! As to be expected, there's another demand for money and now Wrixton wants Quincannon to retrieve the indiscreet letters he wrote, which gave the latter an idea.

Wrixton handed over the money to "an emissary" of his blackmailer, a short, hooked nose person, who'll probably be at the bar of the Hotel Grant to receive the second payment and Quincannon is determined to follow him back to the person behind the blackmail scheme – except that what he finds is of those "seemingly impossible conundrums." The name of the emissary turns out to be Raymond Sonderberg and he owns a small cigar store in Gunpowder Alley, but when Quincannon arrives shots ring out from the locked store.

After two doors are broken down, Quincannon and a passing patrolman find the body of Sonderberg with two bullet holes in the chest, but how did the murderer manage to vanish from what is, essentially, a double locked room? Sonderberg's body was found in a bolted room with the only window latched from the inside and the front door of the shop was also locked from the inside. So how did the murderer enter and leave the premise?

The locked room part of Quincannon's case had an earlier life as "Gunpowder Alley," originally published in a 2012 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which made the explanation not as big a surprise as it could have been. However, this is still a nice little section that focuses on the how of the crime, because the murderer never makes an appearance in the first half of this case, but the observant reader can probably make an educated guess out of which direction the wind is blowing – as well as working out the locked room trick based on a thud and a description of something at the crime-scene.

Where it all began
Second half is basically a chase tale in which Quincannon is trying to bring the cheeky murderer to earth and the source material of this part is "Burgade's Crossing," which came from the pages of a 1993 issue Louis L'Amour Western Magazine and was collected in the aforementioned 1998 short story collection. So lot's of old material was reused for this case, but, as said above, it's still my favorite part of this novel.

Meanwhile, Sabina Carpenter is consumed by an entirely different kind of problem: she has been participating member of the Golden Gate Ladies' Bicycle Club for several weeks and she did so at the encouragement of her new friend, Amity Wellman – who's the head of an organization dedicated to getting women the right to vote in California. Lately, she has been getting religiously tinged letters that could be perceived as a threat and she has a fair share of potential enemies. Such as the leader of the anti-progressive Solidarity Party, named Nathaniel Dobbs, but there's also a man with whom she briefly had an extramarital affair, Fenton Egan. A married man with a very jealous wife, Prudence.

So there was more than enough plot-material for an interesting case, especially after an attempt on Wellman's life, but practically the entire story consists of Sabina poking a stick in Wellman's opposition. A murder is committed towards the end of this story-line, but one that's solved almost as quickly as it was presented and only seemed to be introduced to give the story a morally ambiguous ending when Sabine covers up the murderer's guilt.

I found it increasingly difficult to get into this part of the book and even became annoyed at times by Sabina's partisan behavior. Such as when she decided to play apologetics on behalf of her friend at the home of the Egans. Sure, Prudence is a vengeful woman with her own dirty linen, but saying that Wellman's work as a woman's activist makes her especially "entitled to understanding and forgiveness" is not an argument. She was basically asking Prudence why she was such a sour puss about Wellman sleeping with her husband when she was doing such a good job as suffragette. Hey, I borrowed your car for a week or two without you knowing, but don't be mad, I also feed the needy and homeless at the soup kitchen.

So, plot-and storywise, I feel very divided about The Dangerous Ladies Affair and would not rank it as high as, say, the first two entries in this series, but still very much enjoyed the case and chase handled by Quincannon. I always liked him as a character and consider him to be one of the great detective-characters who emerged in the modern era. So the ending of this novel is a much deserved one. And also showed that, perhaps, the series is winding down and drawing to a close.

Well, that was my rambling for this blog-post and not sure what will be next, but it might be a re-read. Because, you know, that TBR-pile does not really need any continued and sustained trimming or anything. ;)

3/12/17

Sting of Dead

"Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which digs for another."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892)
Henry Cauvin's L'Auguille qui tue (The Killing Needle, 1871), originally entitled Maxmilien Heller, appeared sixteen years before Sherlock Holmes took his first bow in Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887) and began to elevate the detective story as one of the most popular genres of literature, but in France it's claimed that the iconic detective was modeled after Maxmilien Heller – who shares some similarities with Holmes. However, I found the similarities between both characters to be somewhat superficial.

They also cheapened Cauvin's notable accomplishment of having created a genuine detective character during the decades that separated Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 famous short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and the birth of Sherlock Holmes. And such well-defined characters were pretty rare during that window of time.

Xavier Lechard, who used to blog At the Villa Rose, noted in his review of Charles Barbara's L'Assassinat du Pont-Rouge (The Assassin of Pont-Rouge, 1855) that a problem with most French genre-historians is that they're "less informative and rigorous" than their counterparts across the pond. I suppose their claim that Heller was a prototype for Holmes has something to do with their rather one-sided argument with the Anglo-Saxon world, in which they appear to take as much credit as possible for any innovation found in the genre post-1841 and sometimes they were right – such as Émile Gaboriau being "the father of the detective novel." But the claim that Heller was basically the original Sherlock Holmes is reaching.

On a side note, Poe's status as the Father of the Detective Story is disputed, but the claimants aren't French: Adolph Müllner's "Der kaliber" ("The Caliber," 1828), William E. Burton's "The Secret Cell," published in a 1837 issue of Gentleman's Magazine, and Otto Ludwig's novella "Der todte von St. Annas Kapelle" ("The Dead Man of St. Anne's Chapel," 1839). You can also make a case that Anne and Annabella Plumptre's "The Spectre of Presburg: A Hungarian Tale," collected in Tales of Wonder (1818) and Ye Old Book of Locked Room Conundrums (2016), is an early precursor of the detective-and impossible crime story.

So there's something to argue about, but that argument is between the Americans, English and Germans. Sorry France! Anyhow, I'm getting horribly off-topic here.

Back in 2014, John Pugmire of Locked Room International published an English translation of Cauvin's The Killing Needle, which finally gave readers outside of the Francophone world an opportunity to read and judge the merits of this 146 year old mystery novel for themselves. I think the book is particularly of value to readers with a special interest in the history of the genre. 
 
The Killing Needle opens with a visit by the unnamed narrator, a member of the Faculty of Medicine, to the room of Maximilien Heller, where the skeleton figure lived in isolation for the past two years and devoted those lonely days to study various subjects – writing treatises on politics, economics and philosophy. Heller refers to himself throughout the story as a philosopher, but "the hundreds of manuscripts" that filled his attic room failed to sooth his suffering mind.

It makes the narrator wonder if "the invisible cords" that tied him to his fellow human beings had been "irreparably damaged" and whether he could cure "the painful moral illness" consuming Heller's body and soul. Well, the cure came in the form of a policeman and the prime suspect in a poisoning case. Jean-Louis Guérin used to occupy the room next to Heller's room, but, for the last week, he had been in the employ of M. Bréhat-Lenoir. But his employed had been found poisoned in his locked bedroom, money had been taken and traces of arsenic were found in a cup, which is why the police dragged him back to his old lodgings and searched the place. They also hoped that his old neighbor, Heller, might give them a condemning statement about the suspect's character.

However, the incident inspires Heller to save Guérin from the scaffold and wants to see the daylight again, but, from here on out, the plot becomes a bit difficult to properly review, because the story is not really that of traditional detective story. It's still a very early incarnation. Pugmire said in his introduction that the English translation "is based on the 1930 Librarie Hachette edition L'Aiguille qui tue," which differs from the original Maximilien Heller "only in chapter structure." So I imagine the original incarnation of the book read even less as a straightforward, flowing narrative.

Let me give it a shot by, first, pointing out why the Holmesian comparisons are so very tempting to make: Heller has a talent for disguises and one scene has him fooling his narrator, which is something that happened to Watson. Heller also spends a large swath of the story under an alias, and in disguise, in the employ of the victim's brother, Bréhat-Kerguen, who whisks him away to his residence in Brittany – an ancient construction, dilapidated construction with "walls blackened by the centuries." There's also a dangerous, man-eating bear, named Jacquot, roaming the place. Heller is forbidden the leave the place by his suspicious employer, but manages to get his letters to his friend through a 12-year-old boy, Jean-Marie, who acts as his Wiggins of the Baker Street Irregulars. I can see why some people are so eager to draw comparisons with Holmes, but, as said before, I found them to be superficial at best.

One of my fellow bloggers, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, accurately observed in his review of The Killing Needle that Cauvin's writing "brings to mind that of Maurice Leblanc." I couldn't agree more. The tone of the story is very reminiscent of the slightly more detective-orientated adventures of Arsène Lupin and you can almost imagine Heller being one of his many pseudonyms/disguises adopted after one of his disappearances from the public stage. JJ also points out that the book would work remarkably well as "a tonal companion piece" to Les huit coups de l'horloge (The Eight Strokes of the Clock, 1923). Once again, I have to agree with this observation. 
 
But all these comparisons distract from Cauvin's accomplishment as somewhat of an originator, which came here in the form of the impossible crime elements of the story. They're very minor aspects of the plot, but, historically, far from unimportant. Basically, there are two (semi) impossible situations: one of them concerns the second medical examination of the victim. The first one failed to find any traces of arsenic in the body, but the second one, carried out by the villainous Dr. Wickson, did reveal an abundance of arsenic in the corpse. Secondly, the locked room angle of the bedroom where the murder took place.

These situations are either immediately solved or glossed over. However, the postscript, entitled "Clayton Rawson on Carr's Locked Room Lecture," noted how the solution behind the locked bedroom was mentioned by Rawson in his own lecture on impossible crimes in Death from a Top Hat (1938) – making Cauvin's novel "almost certainly the very first in the history of detective fiction" to use such kind of explanation for a locked room murder. It makes The Killing Needle an important entry in the annals of crime-fiction, because it's one of the first examples of the detective story exchanging the hoary plot-devices of secret passages and unknown poisons for real ingenuity.

Something that would become more prominent in such landmark works as Israel Zangwill's The Big Bow Mystery (1892) and Gaston Leroux's Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907), which was further developed by such early authors as Jacques Futrelle, G.K. Chesterton, Max Rittenberg and The Hanshews. Eventually, it would blossom during the Golden Age, but the germ, or one of the seedling, of that long, decades-long process can be found here. The trick behind the poisoning of the corpse also showed some cleverness, but the method was almost immediately explained instead of being played up to full effect.

So, historically, The Killing Needle comes recommended to everyone who's interested in the history and development of the genre. I'm very glad this one was finally peddled across the language barrier by Pugmire and sincerely hope many more of these obscure, but important, interesting or simply well plotted, mystery novels will follow in the hopefully not so distant future.