8/20/17

The Ghost of Athelstan

"School seems in a bit of a mess."
- Carolus Deene (Leo Bruce's Death at St. Asprey's School, 1967)
Last week, I posted a review of Gladys Mitchell's The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935) and was helped in the comment-section by the editor of Sleuth's Alchemy: Cases of Mrs. Bradley and Others (2005), Nick Fuller, with picking my next read in this series by going through the titles residing on my to-be-read pile – starting with a dozen possibilities and ended with two candidates. My choices had boiled down to either The Longer Bodies (1930) and Laurels Are Poison (1942).

I decided to go with the latter as it was a personal favorite of Mitchell, who drew on her own, "fondly evoked," memories of attending a teacher's trainer college for the story's setting. The result is a mystery novel "filled with high-spirited dialogue" and "camaraderie," written around an unusual plot, which was eerily bizarre and weirdly humorous. And the book introduced several characters who'll make regular appearances in subsequent novels (e.g. The Worsted Viper, 1943). One of them even becomes an occasional stand-in for Mrs. Bradley, but more about that later.

Laurels Are Poison is not an unimportant milepost in the series history and the plot, with some minor qualifications, delivers on the promise made by its reputation.

The story casts Mrs. Bradley, often referred here to as Mrs. Croc, in the role of Warden of Athelstan Hall, Cartaret College, where her presence had been requested by the Principal, Miss Du Mugne, who desired a discreet inquiry from the famous psycho-analyst and criminologist – concerning the disappearance of the previous Warden. Miss Munchan was taken ill at the College End of Term Dance, but not "the slightest trace" has "come to light" of her whereabouts in the ten weeks that have since passed. There's a reason to believe something serious might have happened to the previous Warden.

Miss Munchan had been a biology teacher at Cuddy Bay's County Secondary School for Girls and "a child was killed in the school gymnasium," briefly before she took her leave, but the death was officially ruled to be an accident and the school was exonerated from all blame – which the girl's grandfather refused to accept. And had to be temporarily hospitalized in a mental asylum. Only a month after the inquest the police received a letter, written in Miss Munchan's name, suggesting she wanted to come clean about the death of the girl. However, when the police questioned her she denied all knowledge of the letter and vacated her teaching position.

So Mrs. Bradley has a lead to work on when she arrives at the teacher's training college, but her attention is initially occupied by a rash of jokes, rags and some outright malicious pranks plaguing the college dorms.

During a math lesson, a cabinet in the classroom burst open and "a couple of assorted vipers" spilled out, which created quite a sensation, but the pranks got progressively worst. A bath was allowed to overflow and a thick piece of string had been dangerously stretched across the floor. The clothes of two poor sisters, whose family had sacrificed in order to get them to college, were torn to shreds and the hair of another girl was cut short as she slept. One night, the peace was disturbed by an chilling, unearthly noice, which was ascribed to "the ghost of Athelstan." All of this culminates in the violent death of the college cook, Mrs. Castle, whose lifeless body was dragged by the police from a nearby river.

Mrs. Bradley has a lot to deal with in this case and early on in the book took the new Sub-Warden of Athelstan Hall, Deborah Hall, took into her confidence. She looks favorably upon the young woman, like "a benevolent snake," and plays cupid by engineering a meeting between Deborah and her nephew, Jonathan, who are engaged by the end of the book – who return, as a married couple, in My Father Sleeps (1944), The Croaking Raven (1966) and Lovers, Make Moan (1981).

And then there are the three plucky students, Alice Boorman, Kitty Trevelyan and Laura Menzies, who refer to themselves as the Three Musketeers. They would appear together in the previously mentioned The Worsted Viper and Death and the Maiden (1947), but Laura became Mrs. Bradley secretary and reportedly took center-stage in some of the middle-period novels (when Mrs. Bradley became Dame Beatrice). Those three are primarily responsible for the high-spirited, energetic tone of the story and even do some (unintentional) detection (e.g. when they fished the victim's corset from the river). However, their presence also had two noticeable drawbacks.

One of them is that they were, partially, used as a vehicle for Mitchell to indulge in a stroll down memory lane. It's true that the rags and pranks were an important cog in the machine of the plot, but, until the cook was murdered halfway through, the story felt like Mitchell was taking the time to enjoy the setting of the teacher's college. Or to put it more accurately, the plot often felt like it was a pace or two behind the spirited story-telling. Secondly, I knew that Deborah, Laura, Alice and Kitty would become (semi) regular characters in the series and this practically dried up the entire pool of potential suspects. Those girls really usurped the character-department of the book.

So it's to Mitchell's credit that the revelation of the murderer's identity was both memorable and did not disappoint, but, out of necessity, this person had to be mentally unbalanced in order to explain some of the inexplicable actions that drove the plot – such as the whole rigmarole with the college skeleton or throwing the corset into the river. A slightly more sane murderer would probably have acted very differently.

Overall, Laurels Are Poison might not be the best entry in the Mrs. Bradley series, but the story is told with zest and gusto, which served perfectly as an introduction to a host of new characters and a new phase in the series. On top of that, the solution to the case, although not entirely perfect, is memorable and better put together than the explanations found in some of the subsequent novels (e.g. The Rising of the Moon, 1945). So the book did not leave me disappointed.

8/17/17

The Return to Terror Castle

"Frankly, I would prefer to have nothing to do with these three youths, but I
rashly promised to introduce them. And I am a man of my word—even though the promise was extorted from me by nothing less than sheer skulduggery, as you will see."
- Alfred Hitchcock (Robert Arthur's The Secret of Terror Castle, 1964)
Back in November of 2015, I took a chance on a series of juvenile mysteries, called The Three Investigators, which was created by a prolific writer and editor, Robert Arthur, who wrote ten of the forty-three books about the three boy-detectives and when he passed away, in 1969, the torch was passed to a small group of writers – consisting of William Arden, M.V. Carey, Nick West and Marc Brandel. All forty-three of the books were published between 1964 and 1987.

My first encounter with that "trio of lads," Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, came when I picked up their sixth case, The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), which I wanted to read simply to compare to Case Closed. However, I loved the book so much that, within a year, I had burned through nearly a dozen of them.

One of those books reviewed on here was the series-opener, The Secret of Terror Castle (1964), which proved to be a relatively decent debut with a plot that was prescient of the long-running Scooby Doo series. And as the first entry in the series, the book was picked for two adaptations. A German-South African made-for-TV was made in 2009, Das verfluchte schloss (The Cursed Castle), that aired in 2010 on Disney XD under its original book-title, but the plot and characters appear to have been modernized and modified.

So that makes a little-known dramatization from the 1980s the most interesting of the two adaptations, because it was as loyal as a dog to the source material.

The Secret of Terror Castle and The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot (1964) were dramatized by Rainbow Communications and released on cassette tapes in 1984, but barely anything is known about these productions – except that the audio-plays were adapted by Edward Kelsey and directed by Tony Bilbow. So I can't tell you the names of the voice-actors who played Jupe, Pete and Bob, but they played their roles admirably. Only have two minor caveats about their presentation in this adaptation.

In order to differentiate between the voices of the teenage boys, the ages of the characters varied in this audio-play. Jupe was obviously made the oldest of the bunch, pushing sixteen, while Pete must be around 12 or 13 years old. Bob sounded like he was in the same age-range as Pete, but with a huskier voice and his role had been reduced to a side-character. But that's the only point where the audio-play differed from the book.

Otherwise, the 50-minute audio-play delivers a faithful, but condensed, version of The Secret of Terror Castle and even retained the all-important role of Alfred Hitchcock, "teller of tales of terror," plays in the series and particularly in this story – which established the famous movie-director as their mentor (of sorts). A second, noteworthy, aspect demonstrating just how loyal this dramatization is to the original is that the plot was not transported to the 1980s. The audio-play opens with the announcement that "the story you're about to hear happened in the 1960s" before "any of you were born." So you can argue the play is a (modern) historical mystery.

The story opens, like the book, with Jupe and Pete surreptitiously gaining access to the private office of Alfred Hitchcock (see my book review for details). And in case you're wondering, Bob has been sidelined by "the after effects of a badly broken leg" and primarily does research at the library.

Anyhow, Jupe and Pete cheekily make an offer to the famous director of thriller movies: they want to help him find "an authentic haunted house" for his next picture and in exchange he'll introduce their first recorded case. Hitchcock is initially taken aback by their impertinence and cheek, but admires their initiative and promises that if they can "come up with an interesting story" he'll introduce it – which makes them rush back to the HQ where Bob was waiting with a report on Terril's Castle.

Ancient technology from a long-lost civilization

Terril's Castle stands in a narrow gulch, known as Black Canyon, which has acquired a haunted reputation and locals started to refer to the place as Terror Castle.

The castle was build by a famous horror movie-actor, Steven Terril, who was "a big star back in the silent film days" and known all over "the world as the man with a million faces," but when talkies replaced the silent film he was unable to hide his "squeaky, high-pitched voice" and "lisped" - making him a laughing stock of the industry. One day, Terril simply vanishes from the world stage, but left behind a note saying that his castle is forever cursed to be haunted. So it's exactly the kind of place they were hoping to find.

At this point in the play, Bob is pretty much sidelined as a participating character and the story primarily follows the other two boys, Jupe and Pete, as they investigate the haunted castle. Or dig around in the past of the silent movie actor and get themselves in a couple of tight situations, but what really makes these scenes a joy to listen to is the banter between the brainy Jupe and the smart-mouthed Pete, which was reminiscent of the ribbing between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

After they were scared away from Terror Castle, Pete suggests that they call Hitchcock to tell him that "they break out in lumps of goose flesh" whenever they go near the place. And that their "legs go all wobbly" and "start running on their own accord." Jupe's reaction to this suggestion is something Wolfe could've said in response to one of Archie's little quips, "I will ignore those remarks, Pete." Or when they get trapped inside a crevice, Jupe observes that their "exit appears to be effectively barricaded" and this makes Pete ask why "even at a time like this you use long words." Why not simply say that they're stuck there?

I think this interaction between Jupe and Pete helped carry this audio-play, because the condensation of the story made the plot even thinner than in the original and this really showed how much the plot resembled an episode from Scooby Doo, Where Are You! The story is as amusing as a Scooby Doo episode, but, plot-wise, is also about as challenging as one (i.e. not very) when read, or listened to, purely as a detective story. However, it was based on, what simply was, the first story in the series and it would come to include such gems as The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972; a rich plot) and The Mystery of the Headless Horse (1977).

So I really enjoyed the fifty minutes spent with, what is essentially, "Suspense for Kids." And it was fun to hear the characters I have been enjoying since 2015 come alive in this theater of the mind. It made want to listen to the second dramatization in this short-lived audio-series, but want to track down and read the book first. Not exactly sure when I'll get around to both versions of The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, but they'll eventually be reviewed (poorly) on here.

8/16/17

False Trails

"The first thing is to determine the murderer's motive. I don't mean his motive for murder, but for creating an impossible situation. That's very important, son, because it's the best kind of clue to the motive for murder."
- Sir Henry Merrivale (Carter Dickson's The White Priory Murder, 1934)
What never ceases to amaze me is the sheer volume of detective stories published during the first fifty years of the previous century. You can read all kinds of mysteries from this period for decades and still come across writers, or books, you have never heard about. Recently, I found another one of these obscure, long-since forgotten mystery novelists who was credited with writing a locked room novel and that, predictably, attracted my attention – like a moth to a flame.

J.C. Lenehan was an English mystery writer, who fought on the Somme during the First World War, but slipped into an ordinary, unassuming existence when he returned to civilian life. Lenehan married, resumed his career as a schoolteacher and started writing detective stories after school hours in the late 1920s. A simple life that ended when he passed away at the age of only 53, in 1943, leaving behind a wife and son who was serving in North Africa at the moment. I assume he was part of the desert scuffles with Erwin Rommel in the North African Campaign. Anyway...

Lenehan also left the world with thirteen, now all but forgotten, detective novels and probably have remained ignorant of their existence had one of them not been listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).

The Mansfield Mystery (1932) is Lenehan's fourth book and the opening chapters take place on the Fifth of November, Bonfire Night, when the sound of exploding firecrackers and the acrid smell of sulfur filled the air – while children, "like demented savages," danced around a bonfire with a home-made effigy of Guy Fawkes at the heart of the blaze. This the background of a Guy Fawkes Ball at the residence of Gregory Halewood, a senior partner of a solicitors firm, but the festivities are brought to an end by a telephone call from his business partner, James Mansfield.

Mansfield ruins everyone's day by announcing over the telephone that he's about "to blow out his brains" and several people immediately rush to his house, five minutes away from the ball, where they have to force the door of the study. On the floor, sprawled behind the desk, lay the body of the solicitor with a single bullet hole in his head and a gun clasped in his hand. The door of the study was locked from the inside and the window was fastened from within.

So the death is unmistakably a suicide, but a press representative, Norman Glen, who happened to be present at the ball noticed a tell-tale discrepancy in the time-table of events. And this proved to be the first crack in a murder that was "planned as carefully as an army strategist plans an engagement."

Detective-Inspector Kilby, of Scotland Yard, takes over the investigation from the local policeman, Superintendent Flint, who recedes into the background and leaves Kilby with the task of disentangling the murderer from the closely-knit circle of suspects – surrounded by a school of red herrings. On the surface, this makes The Mansfield Mystery appear as a stereotypical detective story of the period, about a man murdered in the confines of his private study, with relatives and associates dancing around his corpse. Unfortunately, Lenehan was about as subtle as a severed, gushing artery wound and practically gave away the entire game in the opening chapters of the book.

Consequently, the story began to slightly drag, because the murderer was staring you dead in the face, but Leneham persisted to play the game as a straight-up whodunit and kept introducing obviously false leads.

Such as the disreputable, drunk brother of Mansfield's foster-daughter, Helen. Or the snuff-addicted confidential clerk of the firm, George Tingley, who gave blackmail the good old college try, but disappeared without a trace and apparently destroyed several ledgers in his wake – which is all supposed to throw sand in the eyes of the readers. However, Lenehan spilled all of the pertinent information in the opening chapters and all these additional plot-threads, or red herrings, accomplish is confirming the obvious. And this leaves the reader with only a couple questions, which are either easily guessed at or were explained away long before the ending.

One of them is the alibi-trick. You can probably guess what happened there, but the final explanation was, admittedly, somewhat cleverer than expected. Secondly, there's the problem of the locked door of the study, which is explained long before the halfway mark as "an easy dodge" and "an ancient one" at that. So the reader is left with little else to do except following the detective as he slouches to the obvious and inevitable conclusion. This makes the book a decidedly mediocre one, but the real black mark against it is that, literally, all of its weaknesses could have been eliminated had Leneham simply written it as an inverted detective story.

The murderer's handiwork and modus operandi was not entirely without interest. A murderer whose idea of getting away with killing someone is providing the police with a ready-made answer. But in spite of the murderer's cleverness, this person is not an expert at killing people and keeps making fatal mistakes. Like shutting the eyelids on the accusatory eyes of Mansfield or throwing his last victim from a moving train followed by an empty bottle of whiskey. So the police found the body first and the bottle second, which is a fact that does not agree with the scenario of an accident.

Detective-Inspector Kilby also has some Columbo-like moments when he interacts with the murderer and one particular amusing scene is when Kilby remarked how a certain "trench would make a fine grave." Once again, this remark shows Lenehan had no idea how to be subtle, but that would not have mattered had the story been an inverted mystery. Now it simply is a blunt giveaway where a body had been hidden.

So, all in all, The Mansfield Mystery is not a badly, or unpleasantly, written detective story, but the mediocre, transparent plotting made the book somewhat of a drag to read once you passed the opening chapters. It's a pity Lenehan failed to realize he was working with all the tools that could have made for a good, solid inverted detective story in a somewhat similar vein as Richard Hull's Murder of My Aunt (1934) and Leo Bruce's Case for Sergeant Beef (1947), i.e. a blundering (amateur) murdering.

But that's enough complaining for now. So allow me to end this blog-post by direction your attention to my previous review, which discusses Theodore Roscoe's I'll Grind Their Bones (1936). A very obscure, but fascinating, pulpy locked room novel set in an alternative time-line on the brink of total war. And I'll probably have something light and more fun for my next post.

8/12/17

The Stumble to War

"Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum
I Smell the Blood of a War to Come
Legions Alive Will Soon be Dead
I'll Grind Their Bones to Make My Bread"
- Mother Goose (Song of the Armament Maker, 1936)
Theodore Roscoe wrote short stories and serials for the pulp magazines and periodicals of his day, such as Argosy, Wings and Far East Adventure Stories, who also signed his name to a brace of highly regarded, but rare, detective novels in the locked room sub-genre – both of them have garnered praise from the likes of Robert Adey and John Norris.

Several years ago, I favorably reviewed the most well-known of the two titles, Murder on the Way (1935), which is best described as Agatha Christie's And There Were None (1939) as perceived by Hake Talbot. The plot threw a grotesque cast of gargoyles into a decaying chateau on Haiti, a place rife with superstition and voodoo practices, where a fatal shooting occurred inside a locked room and a man vanishing, impossibly, from an underground passage. Murder on the Way is a marvelous flight of fancy and a first-grade pulp detective that secured a permanent spot on my list of all-time favorite (locked room) mysteries. And this made it all the more depressing that Roscoe's second impossible crime novel proved to be even more elusive. That is, until recently.

Back in March, "JJ," who blogs over at The Invisible Event, announced he had been collaborating behind the scenes with Bold Venture Press and Audrey Parente, author of Pulpmaster: The Theodore Roscoe Story (1992), in order to bring Roscoe's impossible crime novels back in print – having prepared the text for publication and written an introduction for both editions. So nothing but praise for everyone who worked on getting these once rare, long-neglected titles back on our shelves!

I really can't recommend Murder on the Way enough, but what about that second, elusive locked room novel? Well, let say this, the book is practically incomparable to anything else that has been written in the detective genre. But let's start at the beginning.

I'll Grind Their Bones (1936) was originally published in Argosy as a seven-part serial, titled War Declared, which is set in an alternative universe where names, borders and historical events (slightly) differed from our time-line. The end result is best described as speculative war-fiction that uses a pulp-style detective-and thriller story as a vehicle and even flirted with the Ruritanian Romance towards the end. What impressed me the most is that the book, in some ways, can be read as a nightmarish premonition of the war to come, because some of Roscoe's depiction of the next war proved to be eerily close to what happened when the world stumbled into another global conflict at the end of the decade – making the book only comparable to Darwin L. Teilhet's The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934). One of the first works of fiction that addressed the political, and social, upheaval in Germany during Adolf Hitler's rise to power.

As prophetic as the book is in some regards, Roscoe also drew heavily on the Great War of 1914-18 for the aesthetics of the story and the political powder keg at the heart of the plot. One of these nods to the First World War can be found in the opening chapter.

The lead character of I'll Grind Their Bones is a "correspondent-at-large" for the Universe News Agency, John Keats, who visits a dark, gloomy castle in Transylvania, Rumania, which is the home of a reclusive munitions magnate, Count Vasil Garganoff – who's a poorly disguised version of the real-life merchant of death, Sir Basil Zarahoff. A man who, like his fictional portrayal, was known as "the so-styled Mystery Man of Europe." Some have even called him the living, flesh-and-blood embodiment of Sherlock Holmes' arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty. A salient detail of history that was surprisingly overlooked by a certain someone when writing the introduction.

Keats was on his way to report on the conference taking place between the Iron Premier of Teutony (Germany) and the Foreign Minister of Esperance (France), but Count Garganoff granted a rare interview to the American reporter.

Only news Count Garganoff has to tell Keats' readers is that he turned down the invitation to attend the closed door conference and asks to put in print that he would appreciate it if these "blundering statesmen" would omit him from their "proceedings in the future," but the munitions magnate also has a lucrative, off-the-record offer for the reporter – one that would allow him to walk out of their meeting with a hundred grand in cash. Count Garganoff wants Keats to cease his "literary attacks" on the Hertha Gun Works and accept the money to take "a two-year leave of absence" from his "strenuous literary activities." Keats is even promised to be the next recipient of the "the Godell Peace Prize," but turns down both and that's when the problems begin to pile up all around him.

A stray bullet penetrates the rear window of his car, as he and his cameraman, Crazy Hooper drove away from the castle, while, at the Hotel Metropole in the Teutonic capitol, someone threw a Russian knife at him. Someone was obviously out to get him, but then everything around him began to accelerate when shots were fired inside the sealed conference room at the hotel.

Apparently, Baron Sigismund von Speer (Iron Premier) and Victor Gatreau (Foreign Minister) had "shot each other to death" during a heated debate inside a locked, guarded and soundproof conference room at the hotel.

Gatreau was a well-known duelist in his country and had emptied his pistol on the Teutonic premier, who only needed two bullets from his Luger, which proved to be convenient excuse to start beating the drums of war. This is another aspect borrowed from the First World War when the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Countless Sophie acted as a prelude to, what is arguably, the stupidest thing we've ever done on the European continent.

Meanwhile, in the middle of people yelling "Heil Schnitzler" and "Gott strafe Esperance," Keats acts as a true pulp-protagonist by stumbling from one complicated situation into another: a young cub-reporter from the London Observer, Philip Shepler, was murdered in his hotel room and the hotel is subsequently torched to the ground. A beautiful press representative of the Soviet Tass, named Alexandra Frantsovna, tells Keats she witnessed the double shooting through the windows and swears shots had been fired by a third person she was unable to observe. But that would make the shooting a double murder of the impossible variety!

All of this, and more, is what Keats finds on his path when he travels from the Teutonic capital to the European headquarters of Universe News in Esperance, but then a war exploded "in the heart of the puzzle" and blew "the fragments a thousand ways." And, as a consequence, the detective-and thriller elements of the book (briefly) take a backseat to the war, which consist of several well-written, fascinating and even prophetic chapters.

Der Meister of Teutony, August Schnitzler, had declared there was a "danger-of-war" followed by an apocalyptic attack on Esperance's capital city from the air with "aerial torpedoes" (rockets) and marked the "first time in history they've been used to reduce a city" - providing the book with prophetic image of the German V-1 and V-2 rockets that would rain down in London in World War II. Roscoe was reportedly a naval historian, who had been commissioned by the US Naval Institute to write several books about Navy operations, which likely gave him some insight in the military capabilities of future wars.

Keats stumbling through the smoking, corpse-littered rubble of the city makes for a haunting and powerful scene. One that sadly would become a stark reality only a few short years later.

A second prophetic, but very brief, scene is when the Teutonic army occupies the fictitious Kingdom of Helvania and mentions squadrons of parachutes that made it look as if "the sky was raining men." Paratroopers were first used, on a massive scale, during the World War II. There were, however, other things that were less prophetic or grounded in reality. One of them was the ridiculous easy invasion of Switzerland and the other was the premature end of the three-way war between Teutony, Espererance and Helvania, which bordered on the ludicrous and hopelessly naive to boot. You would not have beaten the real Nazis as easily as that.

So the rapid deterioration of the political ties between two countries and the subsequent war makes for fascinating reading, especially when you realize it was written several years before the actual war took place, but what about that double murder in Hotel Metropole, you ask – which appeared to have all the earmarks of an impossible crime. Well, the explanation as to who engineered the murders, and how, was both foreshadowed and sometimes bluntly clued. But the hints and clues were all there.

What might prove be a problem for some readers is that the who and how, completely depended upon one another here, strongly reminds one of the pulpier miracle crimes imagined by the likes of Fredric Brown and Clayton Rawson. I found this to be slightly disappointing, because I had hoped that the plot, or detective-elements, would emerge from the turmoil of the war story-line as something along the lines of the bloody tour-de-force that was Murder on the Way. I wanted this book to be an all-round masterpiece, but lacked that spark of innovation in the solution to launch the book to the godly heights of the Mount Olympus of Detective-Fiction.

Nevertheless, I don't want to sell I'll Grind Their Bones short and end this blog-post on sour note, because, as a whole, this really is an excellent, but pulpy, detective novel with a prophetic eye on the then coming war. Only problem is that its predecessor cast a shadow of expectation over the plot. So maybe I only have myself to blame for that slight twinge of disappointment, because both books are incomparable.

In closing, Murder on the Way remains my favorite of Roscoe's two locked room novels, but I'll Grind Their Bones has conquered a spot on my list of favorite war-time mysteries, which includes Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1944), Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940), Michael Gilbert's The Danger Within (1952) and Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill (1946; better setting than plot).

So, that's another review I botched in the end. Anway, I'll probably have a lesser-known, but equally, obscure locked room mystery for the next blog-post.

8/9/17

It Takes a Thief

"You are right. I am not a detective, but a thief. And stealing is what thieves do best, even if it's a persons heart."
- Kaito KID (Gosho Aoyama's Detective Conan a.k.a. Case Closed)
Last week, I posted a review of The Iron Angel and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth (2003) by Edward D. Hoch, a giant of the short story form, but sadly, this particular collection of detective stories proved to be underwhelming as a whole and completely under-performed compared to the author's other, more well-known, detective-series – like the ones featuring Simon Ark or Dr. Sam Hawthorne. A sentiment that was shared in the comment-section.

There were, however, two nuggets of gold in the collection reflecting Hoch's monumental reputation as a craftsman of short tales of mystery and detection. Stories that showcased his expertise in twisting together clever, well-clued puzzle plots and simply wanted to read more of them.

So I decided to return early to Hoch's massive contribution to the pantheon of detective-fiction, close to a thousand short stories, which brought me to a volume about his most popular creation, Nick Velvet, who's a thief-for-hire specialized in pilfering unusual or even bizarre things – often without any apparent monetary value.

Nick Velvet was born in the once Italian dominated neighborhood of Greenwich Village, New York, as Nicholas Velvetta, but shortened it on account of his name sounding like a cheese. He lives together with his long-time girlfriend, Gloria Merchant, who has "only a vague notion of his profession" and believes he's an industrial consultant, which meant regularly trips abroad. During those days away from home, Velvet carries out some of the most singular thefts and burglaries the police forces of the world must have on record.

Velvet charges a flat fee of $20,000 for his odd thefts with "an extra $10,000 for especially hazardous tasks" (e.g. stealing a ferocious tiger from a city zoo in broad daylight). As a result, the stories tend to be multifaceted as one part of the plot deals with how Velvet is going to complete his task, while the other part concerns itself with the question why anyone would plunk down twenty grand, or more, in cash to get their hands on a toy mouse or an old circus poster. Something that provides these rogue stories with an interesting detective-angle.

The professional thief debuted on the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1966 and would go on to appear in 85 additional short stories, a crime-spree lasting over forty years, with the last one being published in 2007 – a year before Hoch passed away. Velvet was not only one of Hoch's most popular series-characters, but also proved to be the "most financially successful" one and probably the reason why some of his exploits were collected as early as the 1970s.

One of these collections is The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1978) and is a selection of stories from the first ten years of the series. Mostly, they're excellent and entertaining crime stories demonstrating why, not only, Nick Velvet is Hoch's most popular series-character, but also showing his creation was a worthy addition to the Rogue's Gallery of gentleman thieves – which includes Arsène Lupin and A.J. Raffles. So let's take a closer look at the thirteen short stories that make up The Thefts of Nick Velvet.

The opening story, "The Theft of the Clouded Tiger," also kicked off this long-running series and was originally printed in the September 1966 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM), which has a plot that's still rough around the edges and can even be considered hardboiled. Velvet is hired by the representative of "a Middle Eastern prince with a private zoo" to steal a clouded tiger, a very rare specimen, that had been captured near the Sino-Indian border and donated to the Glen Park Zoo.

Velvet's plan to take the tiger from his cage is pretty much a crude smash-and-grab job, but the crux of the plot turns out to be a double-cross forcing the thief to bloody his hands in order to even the score. It is, however, noted in the introduction that, after this first story, he "rarely killed anyone."

"The Theft from the Onyx Pool" appeared in the June 1967 issue of EQMM and is easily my favorite entry in this collection. Velvet is hired by a young girl, Asher Dumont, who wants to pay him the twenty grand to steal the water from a swimming pool belonging to a writer and producer of mystery plays, Samuel Fitzpatrick. A task requiring theatrics and some grease money, but the best aspect of the plot is the reason why the pool had to be drained and Hoch does not underestimate the intelligence of his readers, because two of the three likely explanations were quickly disposed of – which leaves the reader with a possibility that doesn't really answer why the water had to be stolen. But that is explained through a marvelous bluff by the client. As Velvet said, "I'd hate to be your enemy."

Note for the curious: Velvet is introduced to Fitzpatrick under the guise of having an idea for a stage-play, which happened to be "a locked room sort of thing" and gives a brief rundown how the trick works. A gimmick used elsewhere, in a much later work, to ignite a deadly fire inside a locked apartment.

"The Theft of the Toy Mouse" was first published in the June 1968 publication of EQMM and his latest assignment brings him to a sound stage in Paris, France, where an American motion picture is being shot. Velvet is paid his flat fee to steal "a little wind-up metal mouse," with a retail value of 98 cents, from the prop department. There's an amusing, well-written scene in which Velvet burglarizes the prop room from atop the roof's skylight, but the reason why his client wanted the mechanical mouse stolen was a little obvious. Still, the story was a good and fun read.

"The Theft of the Meager Beaver" originally appeared in December 1969 in EQMM and is the first of three stories from this collection that involves a fictitious country.

Asignar is the Minister of Information for the island Republic of Jabali, "not far beyond Cuba," where the reigning president, General Tras, is an enormous baseball fan who has personally trained a national team – except that they have nobody to play against. Velvet is hired by the Jabali government to steal a major league baseball team from America and bring them to the tiny island nation. So this is really more kidnap story, and a crude one at that, than a proper theft, but a secret (political) plot is tied to the arrival of the American baseball team. Velvet has to turn against his clients in order to prevent a political assassination cleverly disguised as a legal execution. Somewhat of an unusual entry, but not a bad one and reminded me of an updated version of Arsène Lupin.

The next story, "The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent," was published in the January 1970 publication of Argosy and is the most outlandish of all the stories gathered in this collection! Velvet is asked by the desperate owner of a lake resort, Earl Crowder, to steal "a sea serpent" from the lake of a neighboring competitor, which has been draining his place of all its guests – because people are flocking next door in hopes of seeing a real-life Loch Ness Monster. What's fascinating is that the eyewitnesses appear to have really seen a legendary sea serpent with a small head on "a fairly long neck" with "two coils or spines or lumps" breaking the water behind the head.

It's not the easiest of jobs, considering people have been hunting lake monsters for ages without any success, but Velvet persevered where others have failed and solved an unaccountable death along the way. However, the explanation for the true nature of the serpent makes you want to hug and strangle Hoch at the same time. One of those solutions that's as original as it's almost unacceptable. And, no, it's not a mini-submarine disguised as a lake monster.

"The Theft of the Seven Ravens" was published in the January 1972 issue of EQMM and is the second story about a fictitious country, which is represented here by "the newly independent nation of Gola" where the image of a raven is an important symbol. So during the first official state visit, the President of Gola is going to represent the Queen of England with seven Golaen ravens and Velvet is hired by the British government to prevent the animals from being stolen. Around the same time, Velvet is asked by an Irish nationalist to steal the ravens before they can be presented to the Queen. A situation that quickly turns into a quagmire.

There's an excellent set-piece when a room is filled with black birds, but otherwise, the (core) plot came across as somewhat repetitive read so shortly after "The Theft of the Meager Beaver." But not a bad read by itself.

"The Theft of the Mafia Cat" is lifted from the pages of the May 1971 edition of EQMM and is easily the most amusing yarn contained in this volume of stories.

Velvet is engaged by a childhood friend, named Paul Matalena, with whom he grew up in the Italian section of Greenwich Village and is reputedly "a big man in Mafia these days." Matalena wants Velvet to steal a cat, which seems an easy enough job, but the snag is that the animal is owned by "a big man in the Syndicate," Mike Pirrone, who absolutely adores the one-of-a-kind cat – which could turn this job in a suicide mission when gets caught. Or at least gets taught a lesson by Pirrone's personal security. The way in which Velvet manages to snatch the cat from under the nose of the gangster is fun enough, but the cherry on top is the very clever and original reason why Matalena needed to "borrow" the animal for a short while. Loved it!

"The Theft from the Empty Room" was originally published in the 1972 issue of EQMM and has been tagged everywhere as a locked room, or impossible crime, story, which is technically correct, but an outside-of-the-box kind of mystery would be more accurate.

Roger Surman is hospitalized with a serious liver problem and hires Velvet from his hospital bed, which he solemnly promises to be "one of the most unusual jobs" he has ever worked on. A statement that proved to be somewhat prophetic. Surman wants Velvet to burglarize the storeroom of his brother's summerhouse, currently closed down for the winter, but when he gains entrance to the place he finds a bare, empty storeroom – a layer of dust covering the floor from wall to wall. So what could have been in the room and how could it have been removed from the room without disturbing the film of dust on the floor? Velvet actually has to do some proper detective work in order to solve the mystery and complete his task. A good, pleasant and clever detective/rogue story with an original problem.

"The Theft of the Crystal Crown" was published in the January 1973 issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and is the third, and last, story in this collection about fictitious country. The Kingdom of New Ionia is "a very old and very small island in the Mediterranean," situated between the southern tips of Italy and Greece, where the national symbol is a glass crown. A relic shown only once a year during a masked ball at the palace and Velvet was paid to snatch it during this yearly ball, but the smash-and-grab job is the only good set-piece in this story. Otherwise, I really didn't care about this story.

"The Theft of the Clouded Tiger," EQMM, 1966
"The Theft of the Circus Poster" originally appeared in the May 1973 issue of EQMM and a man, dressed as a clown, commissions Velvet to a steal a 1916 circus poster from the private collection of retired clown, Herbie Benson. However, the protective granddaughter of the old man, Judy, proves to be great foil to the professional house-burglar. She's a professional snake-charmer and every night she lets loose "a sackful of rattlesnakes" in house, as a precaution against burglars, but Velvet now also wants to know why his client wants to steal a poster from such a kind, old man. A good, solid and fun story unless you really hate clown and/or snakes.

"The Theft of Nick Velvet" was published in the February 1974 issue of EQMM and has a potentially interesting premise: Velvet is kidnapped in order to prevent him from being hired to do a job, but manages to convince his captors to allow him to the job for them (i.e. stealing a ship's manifest). Unfortunately, I found this story to be completely underwhelming and simply did not care about it. So moving on.

“The Theft of the General's Trash” appeared in the May 1974 issue of EQMM and Velvet takes his long-time girlfriend, Gloria, to Washington to see the cherry blossoms, but shortly after they arrived in the political nerve-center of the United States the telephone in their hotel-room rings – with an offer for a high-paying job. Sam Simon is a columnist and investigative journalist who wants Velvet to steal "a bag of garbage" belonging to the President's adviser on foreign affairs, General Norman Spengler. Simon swears the garbage bags contains nothing but refuge and their content is only of interest to him, as a reporter, which turns the illustrious thief into a glorified garbage collector. However, he receives his normal fee several times over, because he has to net more than one bag for his client. Of course, the much desired item in one of those bags is directly related to the political swamps of Washington, but the best part of this story is Velvet trying to get his hands on these bags.

On a side note, this is the story that convinced Gloria that Velvet is not an industrial consultant, but a agent, or spy, working for the United States government. Something he allowed her to believe, because it "helped cover his awkward absences." Who knew Edogawa Conan took relationship advice from Nick Velvet?

Finally, we have the last story from this collection, "The Theft of the Bermuda Penny," originally published in the June 1975 edition of EQMM and is a full-blown impossible crime story!

Velvet is hired by Jeanne Kraft to steal the titular penny from an inveterate gambler, Alfred Cazar, who is approached by Velvet in the guise of a magazine writer doing an article on the Saratoga racing season. So he accompanies the Cazar on a car-ride to the race tracks and the gambler cleans out the pockets of the thief during several impromptu bets, but during the ride Cazar miraculously vanished from the back seat of a closed car going nearly 70 miles an hour – leaving his seat-belts still fastened!

This is one of those rich, multi-layered stories Hoch was more than capable of putting together. First of all, there's the secret attached to a modern-day penny without any apparent value. The small-time cons Cazar played on Velvet during their joined car-ride and his impossible disappearance from a moving car. Lastly, there's a, sort of, whodunit-angle, which are nicely twisted together with some clues and foreshadowing thrown into the mix. Not one of his absolute masterpieces, but it's a perfect example of why Hoch will remain a staple of mystery anthologies for many, many decades to come.

So, all in all, The Thefts of Nick Velvet is an excellent collection of short stories. There were only two stories that failed to grasp my interest, but the remainder of the stories were pretty consistent in quality with some truly excellent specimens. Some even managed to surprise (one with the sea serpent!). I can perfectly understand why Nick Velvet emerged as a fan favorite and will probably return to his exploits before too long, because there's another volume of Nick Velvet stories on my pile with some potentially interesting (locked room) stories.

However, the next review is going to be of a once rare impossible crime novel with an excellent reputation and a fascinating backdrop. So keep your eyes out for that one.