12/4/16

Crash Dive

"Yes... it's a puzzle to know just where to begin."
- Major Williams (Lynton Blow's The "Moth" Murder, 1931)
Originally, the plan for this blog-post was to be a cross-blog tag team review with "JJ," who blogs over at The Invisible Event, but he emailed me last Saturday saying he was bowing out, because he had never "hated every single aspect of a book" before - including the author. He simply refused to waste anymore time on the book.

So what was he reading, you ask? Death on the Mississippi (1989) by the late Richard Forrest, which is an impossible crime novel about a houseboat that vanishes from a closely watched stretch of river. And, as a contrast, I was going to review Death Through the Looking Glass (1978), which concerns the brief and inexplicable disappearance of the wreck of a crashed airplane.

Luckily, I fared better with my pick than the one JJ tried to battle through and it turned out to be surprisingly consistent. That's not something I can say about all of Forrest's locked room novels.

Death Through the Looking Glass is the third entry in a series of ten books about Lyon and Bea Wentworth, who first appeared in A Child's Garden of Death (1975) and were last seen in Death at King Arthur's Court (2005), but it was also the author's second impossible crime novel – even though that aspect of the plot was barely brought up. Surprising, I know. But the angle of the vanishing plane-wreck was barely given any consideration.

The story opens on Lyon's birthday, who's now in his mid-thirties and approaching an early midlife crisis, but at least he got some nifty birthday presents: the complete works of Dashiell Hammett, a six-foot doll based on one of the characters from his children's stories and a new wicker basket for his hot-air balloon. He got the last one from his wife and she also insisted he stopped getting them involved in dangerous murder cases, but during the first flight in the new balloon he personally witnesses the beginning of another one.

A low-flying aircraft, "a garishly painted Piper," approached from the east, "directly out of the sun," which Lyon recognizes as the plane of Tom Giles, a long-ago classmate and real-estate lawyer, but the rush of childhood memories are disturbed when he sees "a plume of black smoke curling" from the craft – after which it plunges in the waters below. However, a search of the supposed crash site, pointed out by Lyon, failed to find any sign of wreckage. Or even a simple oil slick.

The wreck of the airplane has simply disappeared, but the situation becomes even more inexplicable when Lyon receives a phone-call from Giles!

Giles tells Lyon he has good reasons to believe someone is attempting to kill him and asks his old friend to come and see him at his lakeside cottage, but when he arrives the place is completely deserted and there a signs of foul play: the phone line has been cut and there's a suspicious stain next to an overturned chair. On the following morning, Lyon awakes to the news that the plane-wreck has been found with Giles inside it! A bullet in the head and the purse of woman by his side, which belongs to a certain Carol Dodgson.

After this, the story "normalizes" and turns into a regular whodunit: the official police, Captain Norbert of the State Police, favor the wife of the victim, Karen, and her pilot-lover, Garry Middleton. Lyon sees more in the Giles' membership in a tontine, in which the last surviving member makes five million on a hundred thousand dollar investment. There are some colorful characters part of this tontine scheme such as Sal Esposito, an Italian-American, who owns a string of adult-movie shops and massage parlors but, privately, he's a complete weeb. He even has a Japanese houseman. An equally colorful personality is Reverend Dr. Toranga Blossom, leader of a doomsday cult, who believe "the world will die in 1982" in "a multitude of brilliant blossoms" - i.e. atomic warfare. So they can use every penny they can get to prepare by buying abandoned mines and provisions.

Luckily, any person storylines from the regular characters were kept at a bare minimum, because there was red flag in the first chapters of the book. Lyon was silently approaching his early midlife crisis when the eighteen-year-old daughter of a friend began to show interest in him, but that plot-thread mercifully fizzled out. It had the potential to become a total cringe-fest. So the characterization could have been far worse.

As far as the plot is concerned, it is (as I said before) the most consistent detective novel I've read by Forrest. Usually, he has a good (locked room) ideas buried in an uneven, sometimes padded narratives and this has me convinced he should've written his impossible crimes as short stories. It might not have made the same kind of money as a series of full-length novels, but a short story collection of locked room mysteries might have been better for his reputation within in genre in the long run.

How good was the impossible situation in this one? Well, I think the best aspect of this plot-thread was how well it tied-in with Lyon's hobby as a balloonist. His eye-witness account of the crash was a key element of the trick, but the problem is that the nature of the trick gives the entire game away. Once you know how it was done, you know by who it was done. Because the trick fits one of the characters like a glove. I guess that's why the clues were thinly spread around in this surprisingly short novel, but the method for the vanishing plane-wreck is very guessable and from that point out you can figure out everything else.

Yes, Death Through the Looking Glass is one of Forrest's most consistent detective novels, but also one that's very easily solved. Even without any significant clueing.

So, while my overall experience was somewhat better than JJ, I fully acknowledge Forrest was not one of the top-tier mystery novelists from the post-GAD era and some of his better (locked room) ideas were probably better served had they been written down as short stories or novellas. And this relatively short novel shows that in his case less was more and improved the overall quality of the story and plot.

Well, thus far this lukewarm blog-post.

12/2/16

A Fine Italian Hand

"Perfect murder, sir? Oh, I'm sorry. There's no such thing as a perfect murder. That's just an illusion."
- Lt. Columbo (Now You See Him, 1976)
I'm not the most qualified person to comment on the detective story in Italy, but I've always been amazed at the apparent quantity of classically-styled crime-fiction available in that Mediterranean country – ranging from the Titans of the Golden Era to translations of Detective Conan and Paul Halter. But where there any Italian mystery novelists who participated in the Grandest Game in the World? The answer to that question is yes and one of the most illuminating figures from their nook of the genre has recently made an appearance in English! 

Augusto de Angelis is known as "the father of the Italian detective novel," whose series-character was Commissario Carlo de Vincenzi of the Squadra Mobile (Flying Squad) of Milan, but as interesting as his literary legacy were the final weeks of his life. De Angelis wrote during the days of Fascist rule in Italy and Il Duce's regime took a dim view of detective fiction, which they saw as glorifying criminal behavior and preferred a public image of an idyllic, crime-free Italy.

As a result, the Nestor of Italian crime-fiction was banned from the national bookshelves and De Angelis was eventually imprisoned as an anti-fascist in 1943, but his tragic end came upon being released and had a physical altercation with a group of fascists – sustaining serious injuries he was unable to recover from in his weakened state. This is, literally, the worst the fascist have done during their reign in Europe! What? They murdered a mystery writers! Name one thing they did was worse than that. Just one thing!

Earlier this year, Pushkin Vertigo, published Il banchiere assassinato (The Murdered Banker, 1935), which marked the (genre) debut of both De Angelis and Commissario De Vincenzi. Since then, there have been two additional translations: L'albergo delle tre rose (The Hotel of the Three Roses, 1936) and Il mistero delle tre orchidee (The Mystery of the Three Orchids, 1942).

So readers have an opportunity to sample some of the non-English Golden Age mystery fiction from a truly obscure and overlooked corner of the genre.

The Murdered Banker opens on a cold, foggy night and De Vincenzi receives an unexpected visitor in his office at the police station: his old school friend, Giannetto Aurigi, who seems not to be himself. Coincidentally, the ringing of the phone, "like three desperate screams," interrupts their conversation and De Vincenzi is summoned to an apartment at 45 via Montforte – which happened to be the home address of his friend.

An anonymous phone-call, reporting a murder, had lured Inspector Maccari to the apartment and there he discovered the body of a man in the sitting room: stretched out on the floor, clad in evening dress, with "a bullet hole in his temple." The body belonged to a wealthy banker, named Garlini, who's worth millions and Aurigi was in debt to him to the tune of "exactly five hundred and forty-three thousand lire." So that's a cut-and-dry motive right there, but the case turns out to be more complex than it appears on the surface.

There are a number of physical clues that obscure the matter, which range from a phial of perfume containing prussic acid, a stick of lipstick, a brace of revolvers, letters, receipts, ticket stubs and a clock that is running an hour fast, but there are also interconnecting relationships and hidden motives – forming "a disturbing web of mysterious and hidden facts." At the center of this web is "the fatal triangle," which consists of Aurigi and his fiancé, Maria Giovanna, who has a past with the tragic young man living in the attic apartment above Aurigi. On the sideline is Maria's father, Count Marchionni, who engaged the services of a private-eye, Harrington.

Harrington is an obvious nod to the detective-characters from the English speaking world and he even remarks how De Vincenzi only has to get his "little grey cells" working in order to solve the case. He was briefly setup as a rival detective, but, sadly, was sidelined well before the end of the story. I absolutely love rival detectives (e.g. Patrick Quentin's Black Widow, 1952), but Harrington was, perhaps, out of place in this book, because The Murdered Banker was written in the traditional of the police novels (roman policier) of continental Europe, which includes the work of Georges Simenon, A.C. Baantjer and Herbert Reinecker. The problem solvers in these books and TV-series are sober-minded, sensible and philosophical-prone policemen who often reach a solution by common sense thinking rather dazzling feats of deduction. And the solution also reflects this style of crime-fiction.

The identity of the murderer is slightly underwhelming and the plot turns out to be a simple, grubby kind of murder, "an ugly crime," but the killer did a wonderful job at obfuscating the whole business – basically committed one crime to cover-up another. So that part of the explanation was pure Golden Age and encourages to return to his work before too long.

While The Murdered Banker was not entirely perfect, I still found the book to be an interesting and rewarding read with a decent enough plot. I've always been curious about the Golden Age detective stories from non-English speaking countries, but only recently were some of these traditionally-styled mystery novels from France and Japan translated into English. And now we can add Italy to that list. So we're finally getting somewhere!

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to my previous review, Koromu no satsujin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004) by Taku Ashibe, which offers a feast of locked room mysteries and seemingly impossible situations. There are about seven of them. So that should pique the curiosity of some of you!

12/1/16

Serpents in the Garden


"Stories rife with words inane,
Tears in hand, all shed in pain;
These, the author holds—a fool,
Who else can make their thread unspool?"
- Cao Xueqin
Recently, our resident tour guide in the world of shin honkaku, Ho-Ling, posted a review of Akechi Kogorou tai Kindaichi Kousuke (Akechi Kogorou vs. Kindaichi Kousuke, 2002) by Taku Ashibe, which is a collection of short stories from his Exhibition of Great Detectives series – a flattering "showcase of pastiches starring famous detectives from both East and West." Ho-Ling's enticing review was a helpful reminder that, not only, is there an English translation available of one of Ashibe's detective novels, but also that the book in question was residing on my TBR-pile. So I felt compelled to finally take a crack at this very strange and peculiar locked room mystery. Yes, I know, but what did you expect from me?

Ashibe is an award-winning novelist with close to forty books to his name, "spanning the gamut from horror to courtroom dramas," but seems to have a fondness for "highly detailed pastiches." And his sole work (thus far) appearing in English can definitely be described as a meticulously constructed homage.

Koromu no satsujin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004) takes place in the world Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber (1791), widely regarded as one of the four classic novels in Chinese literature, which received a thorough translation under the title The Story of the Stone and consists of more than two thousand pages – spread out over five volumes. I've not read this 18th century novel of manners and therefore every single reference flew pass me unnoticed, but Murder in the Red Chamber can perfectly be read as a standalone work. Some might even be inspired to pick up the book that inspired this imaginative, blood-soaked take-off.

There is, however, one drawback to the fact that the fundament of the plot stands on the premise of a two-hundred year old book of more than two thousand pages, which is that it comes with a large, sprawling cast of characters. Only recently, "JJ," mentioned in his review of Jan Ekström's Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) how he found the genealogy of the central family to be confusing, but the family tree from that book is dwarfed by the one printed in this one. It comprises of roughly thirty names, dead and alive, spanning several generations and the dramatis personae lists thirty-four active characters! Even Michael Innes' Hamlet, Revenge! (1937) has not as big a cast as that.

So this makes the book a bit of an ordeal to properly review, which is why the primary focus of this blog-post is on the plot and its profusion of impossible crime material. It's a farrago of impossibilities comparable to Paul Halter's Les sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997), but Ashibe, arguably, wrote a better story around those half a dozen locked room situations.

Murder in the Red Chamber opens with the return of Jia Yuan-chun to her ancestral home. She was once a maid of the Imperial Palace, but has since risen to the position of Imperial Consort and Jia clan erected a garden compound in her honor – a walled paradise christened Prospect Garden. The book also includes a beautifully illustrated and numbered map of Prospect Garden, which shows all of the locations within its walls. It's very similar to the maps found in the Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik.

Japanese edition
Anyway, the first of many tragedies also take place within those walls: one of the maidens of Prospect Garden, Ying-chun, who was seen across a lake, resting on a stool beneath the arched roof of a pavilion, when "a pair of arms sprouted from the darkness" – grasping her by the throat and eventually dragging the body "into the lifeless void behind her." The body of water between this horrifying scene and the onlookers on the opposite bank of the lake prevented immediate actions, but when everyone recovers from the first shock and comb the garden they find the body of Ying-chun in a stagnant pond not far from the lake. However, the shadowy killer seems to have escaped and "vanished from a heavily guarded garden." And this would not be the only inexplicable event haunting the characters of this story.

One of the woman from Jia clan, Wang Xi-feng, disappears from a locked and watched room, in which "a looming shadow" was flitting across the sliding door, but when the room was opened the only occupant was the chief maid, Patience – who was tightly bound and clasping the key of the room. But this is only the first act of a three-part (miracle) trick: outside they see "a swath of silk floating nearly seventy feet up in the air." It's a tailored garment that's recognized as Wang Xi-feng's robe and the body that was supposed to be inside this piece of clothing miraculously reappears inside "a courtyard locked from all sides."

Note that these are still only half of all the seemingly impossible situations in the story: the body of a third woman, Shi Xiang-yun, inexplicably appeared in a bed of petals and fourth, named Caltrop, vanished mere seconds after being seen inside a locked room and her body was later found on an outside field. Lastly, an apparition manifests itself by the lake and tries to drag a woman into the water, but this attempt is thwarted and the manifestation sinks back into the underworld.

Well, that's a hefty parcel of miracles and naturally not every single one of them is a classic example of the form: the impossibilities at the lake, the first and last one, where rather theatrical in nature and wonder if they would actually work or fool anyone, but they're good for what they are – especially the first one. The disappearance of Wang Xi-feng and the intruding shadow from the locked room was pretty routine, as was her reappearance inside the locked courtyard, but loved the bit about her ghostly garment floating in the air. It was wonderfully silly and a bit Scooby Doo-ish. I found the answer as to how Caltrop vanished from her locked and watched room a bit sketchy, but the explanation for how a body suddenly appeared in a bed of flowers was as clever as it was imaginative. A similar kind of trick was used in The Undying Butterflies (1997), from The Kindaichi Case Files, to create an alibi-trick and the idea might have been cribbed from that story. Regardless, Ashibe added some noticeable color to the idea. I loved it!

Dream of the Red Chamber
All of these apparent impossibilities are directly connected to the family history of the characters, inter-connecting relationships, past sins and the cultural mores of the time, which form an intricate maze of illusions and treachery – which is navigated by Lai Shang-Rong. A bright government official whose impressive casebook lifted him from the rank of lowly prefect to full-fledged Inspector of the Ministry of Justice. He's enjoyable and energetic investigator who sees mere trickery were others are blinded by the apparent supernatural, but his final conclusion has a blemish or two.

The first one is that the clueing is rather sparse and the second one is the revelation of what's behind this extraordinary chain of events, which is rather anticlimactic as it does not show any kind of grand design one expects from such a elaborate, twisted and complicated plot. However, this is partially made up when an intervening force is revealed to have meddled in the murders and the motive for the interference is what makes The Murder in the Red Chamber a genuine original piece of crime-fiction.

So, The Murder in the Red Chamber is far from being a classic in its own right, but the large scope of the story, the maze-like nature of the plot, the plethora of impossible situations and the final explanation definitely makes the book worth a shot. In particular if you're a fan of locked room conundrums, historical mysteries, foreign crime novels, pastiches or simply loved the source material that Ashibe drew upon for this book.

A note for the curious: some time ago, I took an enthusiastic shot at reading one of The Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, A Journey to the West (c. 1592) by Wu Cheng'en, which consists of two-thousand pages and the faithful, but terse, translation covered four volumes. Actually, the first volume, detailing Sun Wukong's rebellion against Heaven, was very readable, but got burned out in the second volume. It's a great and fantastic epic, but not the kind of literature that lends itself for binge reading. However, I still want to return to the third and fourth volume, because I still remember where I ended (the kidnapping of Tang Sanzang).

So far another one of my overlong, rambling reviews. I'll try and make an effort to ease off on the impossible crimes, but again, no promises.

11/29/16

An Invasive Species


"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools."
Napoléon Bonaparte
Back in October, "JJ," posted an open invitation on his blog, "John Dickson Carr is Going to Be 110 – Calling for Submissions," which gave everyone who wanted to participate a two-month notice and this was sufficient time to prepare – as even I managed to write and schedule this review well ahead of the deadline. Yes, I actually prepared a blog-post in advance! I'm that much of a fanboy for John Dickson Carr.

And picking my Carr-related subject was even easier than preparing this blog-post: the habitually overlooked and criminally underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955), which is a thunderous blend of ghostly murder, espionage and adventure set in Napoleonic France. Regardless, the book never managed to emerge from the shadow of Carr's better-known historical work (e.g. The Devil in Velvet, 1951), but (at least) deserves to have its existence acknowledged. So let's put some polish on its name recognition!  

Captain Cut-Throat takes place during the warm summer days of August 1805, when "the shadow of the new Emperor lay long across Europe," who has been amassing an invasion force, called the Armée d'Angleterre, "along the whole length of the Iron Coast" – restlessly awaiting the Imperial order to begin the invasion of England. Their stationary position made the soldiers bored, fidgety and restless, but their attention was soon to be occupied by a murderous, wraithlike creature sneaking around the military encampments at Boulogne.

On the night of the 13th August, this shadowy figure began to murder sentries "like a ghost," because he couldn't be seen "even when he walks in the light." It began as a series or relatively ordinary stabbing deaths, but, "step by step and murder by murder," the killer moved from "a point far outside the camp to its very center," which culminated in a seemingly impossible murder. Grenadier Émile Joyet, of the Marine Guard, was one of the sentries patrolling the lighted, oblong enclosure round the Emperor's cliff-top pavilion, but he suddenly shouted, doubled up and collapsed – stabbed through the heart. The other sentries, who could observe "the whole lighted space," both inside the fence and outside, swear they had not seen a soul anywhere near the spot where the stabbing took place. As if the murderer had been invisible!

After some of the killings, the weapon was left behind, namely bloodstained daggers, but in every single instance there was a scrap of paper: signed "Yours sincerely, Captain Cut-Throat." Since the night of the second murder, the Grand Army has talked of nothing else.

The murders came to the attention of the Emperor himself and he has two options: launch his invasion at once, "which would cure everything by curing inaction," or " he must crush Captain Cut-Throat before another murder can be committed." So the Emperor gives Joseph Fouché, the Minister of Police, an impossible task: he has less than a week to ensnarl the cut-throat with his talent for Machiavellian maneuvering. 

M. Fouché has a large, far-reaching network of agents and spies, which captured a foreign agent, named Alan Hepburn, who operated in France under the Lupinian nom de guerre of "Vicomte de Bergerac." He wants to use this British agent to trap a British agent and involves Hepburn secret wife, Madeleine, whom he deserted for unknown reason. But they're not the only ones send into the encampments by Fouché: Hepburn involved himself with another woman, Ida de Sainte-Elme, who's one of Fouché agents and helped to capture Hepburn and they're closely followed by a Prussian horse-rider – Lieutenant Schneider of the Hussars of Bercy. 

Admittedly, a good portion of the first half of the book is one or two paces slower than the rest of the story, because Carr takes the time to introduce the characters, explain their situations and giving the details about the "series of ghost-murders" of Napoleon's sentries. But after these opening chapters, the story becomes somewhat atypical for Carr. One of the most notable examples of this is how he treated the impossible crime element of the story, which does not take the center stage of the plot and is easily explained by Hepburn around the halfway mark of the book. I found this to be a minor mark against the book, but I can understand why it was done as Captain Cut-Throat is more a novel of adventure and intrigue than one of detection and ratiocination. And that may be a problem for even some of Carr's most loyal readers. 

However, purely as a historical novel of romance, intrigue and adventure, Captain Cut-Throat allowed the cavalier attitude of its author to roam freely and let his swashbuckling, adventure-hungry spirit off the chain. This resulted in what is, arguably, Carr's best action scene: Hepburn's night-time flight through the field of balloons. A scene that would, by itself, be justification enough to make an expensive period film out of the book. It's simply that great! 

Of course, even an unapologetic JDC-apologist, like myself, cannot deny all of this running around and adventuring did not came at the cost of the detection, which has some shaky reasoning and fair play, but these elements are still far stronger than your usual run-of-the-mill historical spy-thriller – because this is a Carr novel after all. And the final revelation of the omnipresent villain is perhaps one of the most original plays on the least-likely-suspect gambit. I actually figured out the identity of Captain Cut-Throat the first time I read the book, but (admittedly) arrived to that conclusion instinctively rather than deductively. 

Captain Cut-Throat is not a perfect piece of fiction, but it's tremendous fun with an intriguing premise and plenty of excitement with a dusting of mystery and romance. On top of that, the first half has a good, if simplistic, impossible crime. So Carr really threw everything he had at the plot and the most impressive accomplishment is how he managed to simultaneously use elements of the spy-thriller, adventure story and an impossible crime tale, inside a historical narrative, without reducing the impact or effectiveness of any of them. Therefore, the book really should be better known within the ranks of readers of both Carr and historical mysteries. 

In closing, I would like to wish the ghost of John Dickson Carr a grand 110th birthday. Long may he haunt us!

11/25/16

Scared a Lot in Camelot


"Don't you get any foolish ideas that magic will solve all your problems, because it won't."
- Merlin (The Sword in the Stone, 1963) 
Richard Hunt is the author of seven Detective-Inspector Sidney Walsh mysteries and a pair of standalone novels, but otherwise, precious little is known about him.

The back flap of Deadlocked (1994) briefly describes Hunt as "an accountant with a special interest in violin making" and lived at the time of publication in Norfolk, England, which is the only verified information I can share with you. However, I also found a Wikipedia page for a Richard Hunt, a magazine editor and green activist, who has several of his non-fiction books listed on the same GoodReads page as the Sidney Walsh series – which suggests they're one and the same person. One clue supporting this assumption are the animal rights activists who play a minor role in Deadlocked.

Even so, this could very well be an understandable mix-up, because there are likely more than just one Richard Hunt's traipsing around the British Isles. So, with Hunt's introductory out of the way, it's time to take a closer at one of his detective novels.

Deadlocked is Hunt's fourth piece of crime-fiction and the second case for Detective Chief Inspector Sidney J. Walsh of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary's CID, which is, as you probably guessed, an impossible crime novel, but the plot also has an Arthurian theme that can be found in two recently reviewed locked room novels – i.e. Paul Halter's Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996) and Richard Forrest's Death at King Arthur's Court (2005). So did I stumble across a forgotten sub-category of the locked room mystery? Anyway...

Dr. Arthur C. King was a research scientist for PZB Testing Ltd, where they test "the long-term effects of drugs, medicines, and pesticides," which once used live animals, but have since substituted their guinea pigs for body tissues. Regardless, King has received a number of death-threats pertaining to his research work and the police advised him to upgrade his home security. Well, the unpopular researcher has a "mania about King Arthur" and turned his house into a twentieth century fortress.

The house is "guarded by a highly sophisticated alarm system," originally designed to protect "big multi-room places with valuable contents," such as galleries and museums, which consists of special locks, cameras, floodlights and computer-operated motion sensors. And they know when a second or unauthorized person enters the premise. If the homeowner does not authorize the detected entry within several minutes, the system automatically rings the police station. So the house seems to be as safe as a small fortress and the security precautions reminded me of the locked room situation from M.P.O. Books' Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013). And in both cases these modern and sophisticated alarm systems utterly failed to offer any protection to their owners.

Dr. King is discovered by his neighbor, who peered through a window, with "a ruddy great bronze sword sticking in his chest," engraved with "EXCALIBUR" and "MADE IN INDIA," but the meat of the problem is that the body was found inside locked-and bolted room within a highly secured house surrounded by freshly fallen snow – which showed the paw prints of a dog and footprints going to the locked windows. They offer no explanation how the murdered managed to enter and leave the premise without triggering the alarms.

So the crime-scene is handed over to Detective Chief Inspector Sidney Walsh and the members of his Serious Crimes team, which are mainly represented by Detective Constable Brenda Phipps and Detective Sergeant Reginald Finch. I think their investigation constitutes the best aspect of Deadlocked.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Hunt's writing is not crippled by grand delusions of being a great novelist and simply attempted to merge a traditional (locked room) mystery with a modern police procedural. As a result, the plot is practically bare of any side distractions that usually emerge from the private lives of the series-characters and nearly all of their attention is focused on solving the murder by talking to the family members, colleagues and enemies of King – as well as giving considerable thought to the impossible aspect of the case.

Obviously, Hunt did try to give the book a touch of realism by observing rudimentary police procedure and pointing out some of the unpleasant aspects of real police work, such as attending autopsies, but the structure of the plot is that of a detective story. So you would assume I made a great discovery here. Unfortunately, I have to report that the plot fell apart in the final chapters.

First of all, the elaborate, multi-layered premise of the locked room problem was far better than the given solutions: the answer to the strange footprints in the snow was ridiculous. The explanation for the locked and bolted room within the house was routine and not very original, but made for a proper locked room. Finally, I was profoundly disappointed when I learned how the security system was bypassed and how this method was connected to the murderer. A murderer whose revelation (and motive) was somewhat of a cheat and the complicated scheme this person executed had far more success than is believable.

So, while I was not expecting a modern classic from Hunt, I began to expect something more from him by the time the final chapters rolled around. Unfortunately, this was not the case and came away disappointed, but that's the gamble one takes with these little-known mystery writers. Hopefully, I'll be more lucky the next time.

11/20/16

Passio Christi


"Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no men has even been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it."
- Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton's "The Flying Stars," from The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911)
Bloodstone (2011) is the eleventh entry in Paul Doherty's "the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan," originally published as by "Paul Harding," which appeared after the series went dormant for nearly a decade, but the ever-prolific Doherty penned six more novels since he pulled his creation from literary limbo – all of them work towards The Great Revolt (2016). I thought this second period in the series seemed like a good place to get reacquainted with Brother Athelstan.

The story takes place during the dark December days of 1380 and opens on the eve of the Feast of St. Damasus I, which takes place during the second week of Advent. So you can chalk Bloodstone down as a Christmas-time mystery, but the spirit of festivities garbed itself in the robes of the proverbial specter at the feast.

Sir Robert Kilverby is comfortably ensconced "in his warm, snug chancery chamber," pine logs were crackling in the mantled hearth and the door bolted from the inside, but even the safe, fortified nature of the room was no security from dark thoughts clouding his mind. The rich merchant was in a lamentable mood: reflecting on the passing of his first wife and regretting his second marriage, which are merely domestic trifles compared to his past sins of a far more serious nature – a grave wrong that made him the custodian of a holy relic.

As a man of wealth, Sir Robert had financed "those depredations in France," which were part of a seemingly never-ending conflict, known now as the Hundred Years' War, but this made him "partly to blame for the theft of that sacred bloodstone." A precious, blood-red ruby, "The Passio Christi," which is said to have miraculously formed out of the blood and sweat of Jesus Christ when he was dying on the cross. The gemstone was the crown jewel of the Abbey of St. Calliste, near Poitiers in France, where it was taken by a notorious band of marauding soldiers.

The Wyvern Company has "a fearsome reputation" as "a deadly, hostile horde from the havens of hells." They were ruthless men of war who had shown "no respect for anything under the sun." During their glory days, these men were the scourge of the French countryside and took everything they desired, "be it a flagon of wine or some plump French wench," but even Holy Mother Church was not spared from their greedy claws – as they scaled the walls and plundered the Abbey of St. Calliste. One of their grand prizes was the sacred bloodstone, the Passio Christi. Officially, they claimed to have found the relic in an abandoned cart, but the crown disputed their claim and ordered the stone to be placed in trust with one its bankers, Sir Richard Kilverby. In exchange, the men of the Wyvern Company would receive a pension out of the coffers of the Royal Exchequer.

So that's how Sir Richard came to be the legal custodian of a stolen relic, but, as of late, he has been repentant about his old sins and bad decisions. The new French Sub-Prior at St. Fulcher, Richer, has warned him about the dangers the possession of the ruby posed to his immortal soul and similar warnings were written down in the Liber Passionis Christi – i.e. The Book of the Passion of Christ. Sir Richard has began making reparations and is determined to deliver the Passio Christie to St. Fulcher, after which he wants to go on a "pilgrimage of reparations" to Rome and Jerusalem, but "some stealthy night-shape" penetrated the secure chamber and delivered earthly revenge. As well as taking the stone from a triple-locked casket.

The death of Sir Richard brings Sir John Cranston, Coroner of London, to the scene of the crime and alongside him is his secretary, Brother Athelstan, who's a Dominican friar and parish priest of St. Erconwald's in Southwark. Athelstan is also the Holmes to Cranston's Watson and usually is the one who finds a path to the solution. One of the many problems facing the friar is having to figure out how poison was introduced into a securely locked and bolted room, which was found to be bare of any traces of toxin. Or how the assassin managed to take the Passio Christi from that same room.

The Nightingale Gallery (1991)
However, this particular locked room was not as difficult to solve as may seem at first. I immediately figured out how the poisoning trick was pulled off, which was practically given away, but also because Doherty recycled this particular artifice from one of his novels from the early 1990s. Luckily, there were more plot-threads and this included one of Doherty's most ingenious locked room murders, but one that was surprisingly underused. It's a trick that should have been used as one of the main plot-threads.

Back at St. Fulcher's, a cowled figure, "cloaked all in black," is targeting the last remaining members of the Wyvern Company: one of them is cut down in the cemetery and another one is gutted along a quayside, but the third one perished in a blazing inferno inside a locked room. The trick for starting this fire was surprisingly clever and deserved more prominence, whether in this book or another, which has its only weakness that Athelstan and Cranston needed outside help to explain the technical nature of the trick. Namely that of an eccentric-looking man, Bartholomew Shoreditch, commonly known as a firedrake "for his skill, knowledge and expertise with all forms of fire," i.e. a pyromaniac with a license! So something fun could have been done with a character like that if this plot-thread had been better utilized.

I should also mention another sub-plot about a gifted painter and talented hangman, a local anchorite, who is haunted by "the ghost of a wicked woman he hanged." The explanation for these ghostly apparitions are, again, fairly easy, but this storyline provided the book with a couple of nicely written, atmospheric and even Carrian set pieces – which added to the overall readability of the book.

Plot-wise, Bloodstone does not rank as one Doherty's absolute bests, but the plot is competent enough to overlook some of its minor shortcomings and the story itself is engagingly written, which showed the author's background as a historian. I think the historical details and the revolt brewing in the background helped a lot in masking some of the plot's shortcomings. So, to cut a long story short, while I have read better from Doherty, I was certainly not left disappointed and kind of want to continue with this insurgence story-arc. But that's something for next year.  

11/17/16

The Stone and the Moth


"One man's flower is another man's weed."
- Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout's Over My Dead Body, 1940) 
Frederick "Fred" M. White was a multifaceted author who reputedly was a pioneering presence in the espionage genre and an early practitioner of disaster fiction (e.g. The Doom of London, 1903), but also labored in the field of detective fiction when the genre was between two epochs – transitioning from the Gaslight Era into the Golden Age. Regardless, these achievements have not resulted in ever-lasting name recognition and I would not have been aware of White if it weren't for a special mention in Locked Room Murders (1991).

Robert Adey mentioned in his introduction, when discussion The Victorians (1890-1901), "a strange sense of precognition" about White's Who Killed James Trent? (1901), serialized in Pearson's Weekly, which has a rising young novelist as its protagonist – named Jasper Carr! A wonderful coincidence and "an unconscious pointer to an author yet to come," but copies of this locked room tale are hard to come by. So I decided to take a gander at his other impossible crime novel.


The Cardinal Moth (1905) originally appeared in a London evening newspaper, The Star, which ran the story as a serial from December 1903 to January 1904. A year later, the story was republished in book form, under the same title, but was given a subtitle, The Accused Orchid, which is redundant as both titles refer to the same thing. Namely a very rare, legendary and absolutely unique flower. One that has come to be closely associated with death.

The legendary orchid, known as the Cardinal or Crimson Moth, is described as "a flower on a flower" with "a large cluster of whitey-pink blossoms with little red blooms hovering over like a cloud of scarlet moths." Once upon a time, the flower guarded the roof of the Temple of Ghan, situated in the fictional Kingdom of Koordstan, but the shrine was also used as an execution place for (political) criminals. All of those who were condemned were given the Herculean task of climbing to the roof and pick a flower from the Moth, which they had to after being locked inside the temple and when the priests outside finished their prayer the door was opened – only to find the condemned man on the floor with "the marks of great hairy hands about him."

Sometimes it was the neck that was broken or they had died from strangulation, but there were also cases of men who had their chest crushed in "as if a great giant had done it." It sounds like the premise of a Paul Doherty novel or the back story for one of Paul Halter's fanciful plots! And the flower seems to have lost nothing of its power when a specimen of the long-lost flower turns up in England.

Sir Clement Frobisher was "that rare bird amongst high-born species," a man who made his own fortune, but was reputedly booted out of the diplomatic service after being involved in an affair concerning Turkish Bonds. Simply put, Sir Clement was a bit of a rogue. A rogue who knew how to be charming and appreciate a good opponent, but a rogue nonetheless and one who sees his love for flowers as "the only weakness that Providence had vouchsafed to him" – which resulted in a hundred-thousand pound investment in a treasure filled orchid-house.

The glass house is a small paradise of bright, vivid colors and a sea of floral fragrances, located smack dab in the middle of Piccadilly, but one evening, a genuine treasure is practically given to Sir Clement.

Paul Lopez is a high-class a scoundrel, "a star of the first magnitude," who Sir Clement deems worthy enough to be his rival and Lopez brings him the coveted Cardinal Moth. A flower assumed to be extinct and consigned to the myths of a far-away land, but Lopez brought the orchid collector a living specimen. And what does the scoundrel want in return? He merely wants an alibi. So, a very small price in exchange for such a rare specimen, but his Armenian servant, Hafid, implores his master to “take it and burn it at once.”  

Of course, The Cardinal Moth delivers on its reputation when a dead man is found in the orchid-house, "strangled by a coarse cloth twisted about his throat," but nobody seems to have been able to commit the murder. The house was securely locked from the inside and everyone who was present could be accounted for. It makes for a tantalizing situation, but one that's shoved to the background in favor of a second plot-thread that involves a royal gemstone.

The Shan is the Westernized monarch of Koordstan, home of the fabled flower, but the Kingdom also has the Blue Stone of Ghan: a precious ruby and "a talisman that every Shan of Koordstan is never supposed to be without," because one side of the stone is engraved and used as for sealing state documents. But the most importantly is that the stone is a symbol of the Shan’s claim to the throne to the tribes of his land. There is, however, one problem: the Shan is prone to the vices of the West and is generally hard up. So he pledged the stone to a notorious money-lender, Aaron Benstein, who allows his wife, Isa Benstein, to wear the jewels polite society pawned with him to social gatherings.

Well, the work done by various characters, most of them tied "the orchid mystery," to ensure the Shan can produce the royal stone and safeguard his throne makes for an unusual alliance, but also makes The Cardinal Moth hard to pigeonhole. You can hardly describe the book as a traditionally-structured detective story. Even by the standards of the early 1900s, but neither can it be described as a thriller or an espionage story. I guess the final chapters can be described as courtroom fiction, when the orchid-deaths are explained during an inquest on the bodies, but the plot is largely about two problems that a number of people try to resolve – without conforming to any of the patterns or sub-categories of crime-and detective fiction. It almost sounds dull, but the cast of colorful characters and exotic plot ingredients took care of that. So, yeah, a very unusual, but interesting, read that fans of early twentieth century popular fiction will probably enjoy the most.  

Finally, I should mention the locked room elements: White showed he possessed a fertile imagination and this was reflected in the impossible situations, which moved away from the secret passages, unknown poisons and deadly animals that had dominated such impossible crime stories during the nineteenth century. A path that was abandoned by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace in A Master of Mysteries (1898), which contains one or two short stories that can be considered literary relatives of The Cardinal Moth

My sole complaint is that I don’t find it believable that the method would work (successfully) more than once. Let alone having a success rate dating back more than a thousand years.