5/26/16

An International Affair


"I have fought for the defense of order, in the name of justice, as soldiers fight for the defense of their country, beneath the flag of their regiment. I had no epaulettes, but I ran as many risks as they, and I exposed my life everyday as they do."
- Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857)
During World War II, a small group of British intelligence officers contrived a strategy with the objective of convincing the Axis Powers that an Allied invasion of the Nazi occupied territories of Greece and Sardinia was imminent, which was done to shift their attention and defenses away from the actual target of the Allies – the Italian-held island of Sicily. A daring piece of deception, which was codenamed "Operation Mincemeat," and the history books show it was a success.

The deception by the Allies was accomplished by simply planting false documents on a corpse, dressed as a downed airman, who had been given a new identity and dumped for this purpose on the Spanish coast. It was an outlandish plan that had been suggested by Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, but the idea was not original to him. He had gotten the idea from a detective story.

Fleming compiled an inter-departmental note, dubbed by his superior as the "Trout Memo," in which he brought up the following suggestion that was used in a book by Sir Basil Thomson: a body clad in the uniform of an airman, "with dispatches in his pocket," could be dropped on the coast and landed there as a result from "a parachute that failed" – ending on a note that "there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Navel Hospital." The book in question is The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937) and the plot of the story pits the police of two countries against a gang of international dope peddlers.

The Milliner’s Hat Mystery begins with the inquest on the body of a murdered man, shot through the head, who was found in a barn by a couple of innocent motorists seeking shelter from a thunderstorm. Documents, papers and business cards found on the slain man identify him as "John Whitaker," but the addresses and phone numbers proved to be all dead-end leads.

So the coroner decided "to adjourn the inquest until the police have had time to complete their enquiries" and the time is well used to probe deeper into the case.

A fractured car window is found at a garage, several miles down the road from the barn, which was obviously damaged by a pistol shot. It proves to be the first of a handful of tangible clues that help them to establish the dead man's real identity. A man who turns out to have lived a double life: one as a modest accountant of the Asiatic Bank and the other as an extravagant man of apparently "private means," but it becomes apparent his income did not sprang from a legal source and this appears to be connected to a couple of American gentlemen, a Mr. Blake and Mr. Lewis – every piece of evidence indicates that the dead man may have been "taken for a ride" by them.

However, the most important scrap of evidence is found in a coat pocket, "a milliner’s bill from the Maison Germaine in the rue Duphot," a Parisian hat shop, which states "a hundred thousand francs' worth of ladies' hats" was spent by the victim! It was a clue pointing straight across the channel.

This is the point where the book begins to change into a different kind of story, but, to be honest, The Milliner's Hat Mystery can be categorized under a number of different sub-genres: an early police procedural, a semi-inverted mystery, a mild adventure/thriller yarn and a chase tale, but, in the end, I think it can best be labeled as a story about detectives rather than a detective story. Something that's demonstrated in the policemen who populate the pages of this book. 

Thomson's series character, a policeman named Richardson, who was introduced in Richardson's First Case (1933), has climbed the ranks to the position of Chief Constable, but he’s merely a background character here and his contribution to the investigation is limited to rubberstamping Chief Inspector Vincent's trip abroad.

It is Chief Inspector Vincent who the reader follows on his journey, peddling between England and France, as he and his French colleagues attempt to find the two Americans, uncover a corrupt politician and assisted the French authorities in shutting down "another of these poison factories," which, surprisingly, made for the best part of the story. The murder is not as solidly attached to the drug trafficking business as it first appeared and the explanation was poorly handled.

But maybe I'm too harsh about that point, because the plot-threads regarding the drug smuggling business seem to indicate that Thomson did not set out to write a traditional murder mystery. The murder and opening chapters impressed me as a vehicle to explore the problem of drugs, dope pushers and their victims. Usually, these drug-related plot-threads hovered discretely in the background of classic detective stories, such as Agatha Christie's Peril at End House (1932), Ngaio Marsh's Swing, Brother, Swing (1949) and John Rowland's Calamity in Kent (1950), but here it was pushed to the foreground – even showing in one of the characters the devastating effects of a heroine habit.

So, while I would not call The Milliner's Hat Mystery a classic example of traditional crime-fiction, I would recommend the book on the strength of its historical importance. The Milliner's Hat Mystery not only provided an idea to an important mission from World War II, but genre-historians might also want to give it a glance as an early predecessor of the modern crime novel. On top of that, Thomson's writing is, even after eighty years, extremely readable. Martin Edwards noted in his introduction "there is a zest about the stories," which, surprisingly, came from "a man in his seventies." I agree. In this regard, Thomson seems to have been the equivalent of Rex Stout, whose stories from the 1980s were as crisp and readable as those from the first decades of his writing career.

Well, that’s the end of this review and the next one will probably be of something slightly more traditional than The Milliner's Hat Mystery.

5/24/16

The Fourth Alternative


"To every reasonable theory of the cause of his death they raised some technical objection."
- Inspector Arnold (Miles Burton's Death Leaves No Card, 1944)
Earlier this month, "Puzzle Doctor," who blogs over at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, announced he was embarking on a month-long Rhode-a-Thon, called #IReadRhode, which came shortly after my review of Death in the Tunnel (1936) and was swiftly followed by a blog-post about that book's immediate predecessor – namely the slightly disappointing The Milk-Churn Murder (1935).

Well, I had done my miles on the Rhode less traveled, but Death in the Tunnel and The Milk-Churn Murder both came from the Desmond Merrion series, published under the byline of "Miles Burton," and it had been a while since I read one of his Dr. Lancelot Priestley novels. So, I reasoned, why not use this convenient excuse of a Rhode-a-Thon to return to Rhode's work for a third time this month. The book I ended up with has been praised by the likes of Jacques Barzun for its clever, innovative and unique plot: Death in Harley Street (1946).

Death in Harley Street opens in the study of Dr. Lancelot Priestley, "an eminent if somewhat eccentric scientist" who "had adopted as his hobby the whole theory of criminal investigation," where a small clutch of his friends had assembled: a retired Superintendent Hanslet, Superintendent Waghorn and an elderly, successful general practitioner, Dr. Oldland – who found himself in a comfortable state of semi-retirement. It was not the first time they gathered in that study and it was tradition for Priestley to enthrone himself behind his desk, "apparently in a state of complete torpor," to listen to the problems of the police.

As the equal eminent Dr. Oldland remarks on this occasion, it's usually the pair of coppers "who take the floor and hardly let a chap get a word in edgeways," but on this particular evening he wants to hear Dr. Priestley's opinion on the strange death that befell one of his colleagues.

Dr. Richard Mawsley of Harley Street, "the leading authority on glandular diseases," was alone in his consulting-room when his butler, Phepson, heard a dull thud and the rattle of a door handle, which was followed by the faint, muffled sounds of movement from the adjoining dispensary. Suddenly, there was "a blood-curdling cry and a sickening crash." Dr. Mawsley was discovered on the floor of his dispensary, "writhing in agony," with the coat sleeve and cuff of his left forearm rolled up, which revealed a fresh puncture mark and near him lay the pieces of a broken hypodermic syringe – on the bench stood a phial, the rubber cap torn off, which bore a label identifying its content as strychnine.

Evidently, the gland specialist had been injected with a lethal dose of poison, but how this came about seems to be an unanswerable question.

Suicide appears to be out of the question: Dr. Mawsley was a reserved, self-centered man who loved to see his wealth accumulate and on the evening of his death he received incredible good news from a visiting lawyer. One of his first patients had remembered him in her will and he found himself the recipient of a generous, entirely unexpected legacy. A legacy to the tune of five thousand pounds. The lawyer, who was the doctor's last visitor, left him in the best of spirits, which is another strike against the possibility of suicide. Murder is equally improbable for a litany of reasons, but the most obvious ones are that there were no signs of a struggle or an opportunity for a nebulous murderer to enter (and leave) a room that was under constant observation.

So everyone, including the courts, settled for the easiest possible explanation, namely accidental death, but, as Oldland remarked, for "a medical man of his experience" to "make such a mistake was extraordinary" – even though it appears to be the only answer that made remotely sense.

Well, Dr. Priestley agrees that the case is exceptional and states that the circumstances exclude accident, suicide or murder and "a fourth alternative should be sought," which got him permission to reopen the case with Jimmy Waghorn as his legman. First the thing you’ll notice from the subsequent investigation is that Rhode gave more than his usual consideration to characterization and in particular the personality of the dead doctor.

At his best, Dr. Mawsley was considered as a man of "all head and no heart." A man widely respected in the medical world as one of the best gland specialist of his time, but this respect never extended to the person behind the reputation. At his absolute worst, he was considered to be "an inveterate fee-snatcher" and he had no interest in seeing people whose primary source of income was a weekly pay envelope, which resulted in the unnecessary death of several people.

So combine this piece of well-done characterization, especially by Rhode's own standard, with the baffling premise, as well as its clever and original explanation, and you got a potential classic on your hands, but what keeps the book from attaining a place in the first ranks of the genre is the conversational-style of the plot – which gave the story the pace of a dying snail. I do not believe the pace should take anything away from the shimmering brilliance of the plot, but there's no getting away from the fact that Death in Harley Street is an incredible slow moving story and you should keep that in mind.

As you probably gathered from this padded review, the conversational approach Rhode took to the plot and writing makes it kind of hard to make any pointed observation. Not without giving something of importance away. I mean, I noticed one part of the solution, which did not involve the fourth alternative, strongly resembled the plot of an Agatha Christie novel, but naming that specific book would probably give away the identity of the murderer and motive to a perceptive reader.

But rest assured, the book is well worth the attention of fans of vintage mysteries and if you happen to be one of those readers, like yours truly, who loves to play armchair detective than you'll enjoy trying to figure out what the fourth alternative is. In that case, the slow pace of the book might even be a positive attribute, because it gives you the time needed to consider all of the evidence.

For my next read, I have selected a detective story with a plot that reportedly contributed a piece of military strategy for the Allied invasion of Nazi occupied Europe.

5/20/16

Diablo's Domain


"And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!"
- Villain of the Week (Scooby Doo, Where Are You?)
The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968) is the tenth entry in a long-running series of juvenile detective stories, starring "those three lads who call themselves The Three Investigators," but it was the first one that came from the hands of Dennis Lynds – a decorated crime-writer and pen-for-hire who operated for these books under the penname of "William Arden." He would become one of the three most prolific contributors to the series and his stories appear to have been on par with those of his predecessor, Robert Arthur. So let's take a look at his first story about those three lads.

One of three investigators, Pete Crenshaw, is spending a two-week vacation with Mr. and Mrs. Dalton, the new owners of the Crooked-Y Ranch, which is situated in the Moaning Valley of sun-soaked California and the place has a history as rich as a prospector's dream! The place had "earned its strange name from ancient Indian legends" and "some violent events of old Spanish days," but one of the old legends, sounds of eerie moaning coming from El Diablo's Cave, seems to have stirred from its slumber – after "fifty years of silence." But that's not all.

A growing number of ranch hands sustained injuries in suspicious looking accidents and their misfortunes occurred simultaneously with the return of the spooky groans, grunts and moans emanating from the bowels of Devil Mountain. Pete soon came to realization that his hosts, the Daltons, were extremely worried about the situation: an extensive exploration of the cave "had revealed no explanation" and "the sheriff could not pursue ghosts or legends." So Pete called in the help of Jupe and Bob.

The opening chapter of the book has Jupe, Pete and Bob experiencing many of the strange occurrences first hand, which begins when they hear a long, drawn-out and chilling "Aaoooahhhhhh—ooooooooooooo—ooooo—oo" coming from the mouth of the cave, but they also stumble across another site of an accident. One of the ranchers was surprised by a rock fall and is found with his leg twisted beneath a pile of stones.

I thought the opening of the story was a trifle confusing, since it began smack in the middle of these events, but subsequent chapters filled in the blanks and told some of the legendary tales from the region – all of them related to the honeycomb of caves inside the belly of Devil Mountain.

There is an old Indian legend about "a black and shiny monster," called The Old One, living in a pool deep inside the cave, but the most famous story revolves around the short life of an illustrious and notorious young bandit from the late 19th century. Gaspar Delgado was the last of his family and the land that was granted to his ancestors by the Spanish Crown was, acre by acre, given away, lost or simply stolen by the English settlers from the East Coast – which made the eighteen year old long "to avenge his family and regain his land." He became a plague to the region, scaring away tax collectors and raiding government offices, which earned him the nickname of "El Diablo," but he was eventually caught, stood trial and was sentenced to hang.

However, the story did not end there: El Diablo made "a daring daylight escape" from the prison and was wounded in the process by the sheriff and his posse. He fled into the titular cave and the place was surrounded by the sheriff, but the only thing they ever caught of the young bandit were the sounds of his grunts and moans coming from the mouth of the cave. A body was never recovered from the honeycomb of caves.

So one of the questions the boys are facing is how these stories relate to the moaning cave, but there are some practical questions that require some thinking. Such as why the cave suddenly stops moaning every time they come near it and how they can slip inside without being observed by the invisible watchman.

Well, Jupe is the brain of the outfit and he has to give these problems some thought. He does his thinking in a scene evoking the image of Sherlock Holmes from "The Man with the Twisted Lip," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), in which a bathrobe-clad Holmes sits cross-legged on a mountain of pillows and drags on his clay-pipe – while giving full attention to the case in front of him. Pete and Bob wake up in the upstairs bedroom of the Crooked-Y to find Jupe sitting cross-legged on the floor, "looking like a small Buddha in his bathrobe," with a large sheet of paper spread out in front of him. The paper is covered with pencil lines. Bob explains to Pete that he had been sitting like that for an hour and when he stirs back to life, Jupe tells them he was "ascertaining the exact topographical arrangement of Moaning Valley" and how the key to the solution "lies in the physical pattern."

Well, the rest of the book has them roaming around the cave, collecting bits of information and talking with the people in the area, such as a visiting history professor and an old prospector, which also places them in several dangerous spots – dangers that were somewhat reminiscent of what they had to endure in The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966). Like having a scare while scuba-diving and being trapped in a cavern. They were trapped there by a true legend!

All I can say about these adventurous bits and pieces is that they were, as usual, fun to read and made for an engaging story, but the plotting and clueing was a bit iffy. Arden made good use of the motive and found a somewhat original angle to it, but you can hardly expect children/young teenagers to deduce the exact truth from "the rough, blackish stone" Jupe "had found in the mine-shaft passage." No. It's not entirely what you think it is. That's where the second problem comes into play: one of the plot-threads, regarding the explanation, is not shown until the ending and that makes it truly impossible to piece together the answer for yourself.

The Mystery of the Moaning Cave should really be read and enjoyed on cruise control, because it is not as fair as an adventure-filled mystery novel as some of the others, but, regardless of that, still a very enjoyable read. So you still haven't seen the last of The Three Investigators on this blog.

Other books reviewed in this series: The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966), The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968), The Secret of Phantom Lake (1973) and The Mystery of the Invisible Dog (1975).

5/18/16

The Policeman Cometh


"The true work, it is done from within. The little grey cells – remember always the little grey cells, mon ami."
-
Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links, 1923)
Previously, I reviewed a mystery novel set in colonial Kenya and a collection of holiday-themed detective stories, which seemed like a fun theme to explore further and there happened to be a sundry of mysteries on my pile of unread books that would lend themselves to that end – such as the fittingly titled subject of this blog-post.

Murder Abroad (1939) is the thirteenth novel from E.R. Punshon's series of detective stories about Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen and was hauled from the bowels of obscurity by the Dean Street Press. As to be expected, genre-historian and professional mystery addict, Curt Evans, wrote an insightful introduction in which he pointed out that the plot of the story was "partially based on a then notorious unsolved crime" – a case that became "a press sensation" with "accounts of the affair appearing in newspapers around the world." It added an extra layer of depth to an already compelling and involved detective story.

Bobby Owen is engaged to Olive Farrar, owner of a West End hat shop, but his modest police salary and her meager earnings are hardly sufficient to found a household upon. Providentially, one of Farrar's dependable, socially-connected customers, Lady Markham, has a proposal for them that would net them enough money to get married. What does the proposal entail?

Lady Markham had a sister, Miss Polthwaite, who was living the life of an artiste-peintre in Citry-sur-l'eau, a picturesque village in the French Auvergne, but her seemingly quiet, peaceful existence was cut short when her body was retrieved from the bottom of a nearby well – a paintbrush was clasped in her hand and a picture was found on her easel.

Local authorities washed their hands from the affair and shelved the matter as a tragic case of suicide. However, the family believes she was murdered and the police admitted as much in private, but refused to state their suspicions openly "for fear of harming the tourist trade." A fear supported by a potential motive that's applicably to nearly everyone in the district: Miss Polthwaite was an eccentric bird and believed a revolution was on the horizon, "with guillotines in Trafalgar Square and everyone with any money shot at dawn," which is why she began to convert her money into diamonds – mainly uncut stones. Only problem is the police were unable to find any of them in the refurbished mill she was living in and her family is convinced she has hidden them somewhere on the premise.

If Bobby can find the stones, he earns himself an eight thousand pound finder's fee and Lady Markham has promised to use her influence to get him appointed as the private secretary of their local chief constable. So he finds himself on a "sort of a threefold mission," as he's asked to find the diamonds, the murderer and the truth, which has to do in an unofficial capacity and in the guise of a sketch-artist of the amateurish kind. But he has to do so in order to secure his future with Olive and soon finds himself descending on the unsuspected citizenry of the French village.

The detective work in Murder Abroad consists largely of talking to the locals and fellow visitors to the region, but Punshon provided Bobby with a palette of truly colorful characters. They make for "a formidable list of possibles."

One of the first people Bobby exchanges opinions with is the local schoolmaster, Eudes, who's a rabid anti-clerical communist and very eager to secure funds "to establish a journal of liberty and enlightenment." Diametrically opposed to him is Abbé Granges, Curé of Citry-sur-l'eau, who has wild dreams of restoring both the church and the faith of the villagers to its former glory. But he's not the only man of the cloth residing in the area: the hill-tops of the village have become the home of Abbé Taylour and there are whispered rumors of him being an excommunicated priest, but his presence seems to have no bearing on the death that took place in the valley below. The person favored by the villagers to fulfill the role of murderer is young Charles Camion, son of the proprietor of the local hotel, rumored to have been the lover of the dead woman and "needed money to realize ambitions Miss Polthwaite had herself aroused," but they were also overhead having a violent exchange of words. She might have refused to give him the money and as an answer he might have shoved her down the well. There is another young man, Henry Volny, who is the son of a wealthy farmer, but his father keeps him on a short leash and refused to pay for his dream of becoming a professional boxer. Volny was also a rival of Camion for the affection of a local girl.

Further more, there are several of Bobby's compatriots in the vicinity: Basil Shields is an artist who acted as the dead woman's art teacher and her renovated mill-house has been let to a Mr. and Mrs. Williams – who seem to be everything but reputable folks.

Finally, there is, arguably, the best and finest drafted character from the cast: a blind beggar, named Père Trouché, who heard so well that people doubted his blindness. I think Punshon missed a golden opportunity here to introduce a secondary detective to his repertoire, because Trouché would have shined in the role of a blind, homeless and disreputable detective character roaming the French countryside. Sadly, we have to settle for his memorable performance in this story and the great, but sad, sendoff he got towards the end of the story.

Anyway, a significant portion of the story consists of Bobby having conversations with this motley bunch of characters, which slowly expose the "many currents and cross-currents at work" in the once quiet and peaceful village – many of them "resulted from the Polthwaite tragedy." Bobby also spends time sketching and when his tired brain refuses to work he took long, tiring walks across "the slopes of the Bornay Massif." He also observes in these moments that playing detective is a lot easier when done in an official capacity with a machine, like Scotland Yard, at your back.

So this is genuinely a detective story with a strong, well-conceived holiday atmosphere, but the conversational plot, the brief excursions across the French hillsides and Punshon's wordy, decorative writing-style also gave Murder Abroad a pace similar to that of quiet, slow-moving mountain stream – which suddenly begins to rush violently towards the end of the story and places Bobby in precarious position. I've no doubt that this part of the story will cause some confusion, because there's a hoard of characters who apparently wanted to be in on the action and there's a moment where it's not clear who's responsible for what. However, the confusion is quickly dispelled and it becomes clear as to what happened to whom, but the best part of these final chapters is a very unusual scene involving the final moments of one of the characters. It's something you would expect from the very unorthodox Gladys Mitchell (e.g. Tom Brown's Body, 1949).

Anyhow, I have prattled on long enough and I'll end this reviewing by saying that Murder Abroad is a perfect read for the summer holidays, because the plot and story requires the reader to have several hours of leisure to stroll (not race) across its many pages and chapters.

Well, I have one or two more of these foreign-set, holiday-themed mysteries on the pile, but the next one will be a much lighter (and probably faster) read than this one. So you can probably expect the next review before the end of this week. Stay tuned!  

5/14/16

Besieged in Paradise


"Look down the valley... I tell you that the cloud of murder hangs thicker and lower than that over the heads of the people. It is the Valley of Fear, the Valley of Death. The terror is in the hearts of the people from the dusk to the dawn."
- Brother Morris (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear, 1915)
M.M. Kaye was a writer of children's stories, historical fiction and tales of romance who was born in Simla, India, to a military family and her grandfather, brother and husband all served the British Raj, but as the wife of an army officer she also lived in places such as Egypt, Kenya and post-World War II Germany – which she drew upon for a handful of standalone mysteries that appeared from 1953 to 1960. This places the series in the twilight years of the genre's Golden Era.

The books are collectively called "The Death In..." series and they are known for their foreign, often exotic and sun-drenched, backdrops. So I figured my introduction to this series would make for a nice follow-up to my previous review of Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015).

For this purpose, I picked the fourth one, Death in Kenya (1958), which was originally published as Later Than You Think, because the plot description intrigued me.

Death in Kenya is set during a period when the Mau Mau Revolt, which the settlers of the day referred to as "The Emergency," was slowly ebbing into the history books, but the land was still rife with whispers of "remnants of Mau Mau gangs hiding in the swamps" and rumors how they were being fed by African farmhands – who fulfilled, by daylight, the role of "faithful and trusted servants of the settlers." One of those places, hemmed in by dark, perfidious swamps, is a small farming estate, simply called Flamingo, tucked away in the lushness of the Rift Valley.

The first chapter is dedicated to painting vivid, brightly colored pictures of the lush, sun-soaked habitat of the book, which are echoed throughout the entirety of the story. These descriptive passages evoke a sweltering atmosphere and give the reader a genuine sense of time and place. Kaye has been compared to Agatha Christie for simply being a female mystery novelist, but her apparent preference for sultry locations and talent to bring them to life places her nearer to writers such as Elspeth Huxley, Juanita Sheridan and Arthur W. Upfield than to any of the English Crime Queens.

Anyhow, the opening of the book also covers several generations worth of family history, which went over how the "acres and acres of virgin land" were turned into farmland and how Flamingo went from "a crude mud and wattle hut" to "a small stone-built house" and eventually the heap of stones were replaced by "a huge, sprawling single-storeyed house" with "wide verandahs and spacious rooms" – all done under the guiding spirit of the family matriarch, Lady Emily DeBrett. Who's known as Em DeBrett of Flamingo.

Opening of Death in Kenya also introduces the reader to the cast of characters who live, or have lived, on that farm in the Rift Valley. A number people who have died are mentioned, such as Em’s husband and son, but the persons of interest are the ones who were still alive when the story opened, which first and foremost consist of her grandson, Eden, and his wife, Alice – who sees Kenya as "a savage and uncivilized land full of brooding menace" and would love nothing more than to return to England. There's Gilly Markham, the farm manager, whose wife, Lisa, is in love with Eden. Alice also has a not-so-secret admirer: the adolescent son of their next-door neighbors, Ken Brandon, who has an "unsnubbable infatuation" for her and has threatened to shoot himself over her. There's also Zacharia, an old, grey-headed Kikuyu, who has served Em for four decades and Drew Stratton, a neighboring settler, who has seen action in the scuffles between the settlers and natives. Finally, there's Victoria Caryll, Em’s niece and formerly engaged to Eden, but she's still on her way to Kenya when a series of bizarre incidents culminate in a gruesome murder.

It appeared as if an "invisible vandal had been taken to haunting the house," an entity referred to throughout the story as "the Poltergeist," who had toppled over a K'ang Hsi vase, spilled a bottle of red ink on the carpet and one of Em's favorite long-playing records had been smashed into a dozen pieces. They were malicious acts of vandalism, but still fairly innocuous compared to the discovery of the stiffened cadaver of the housedog, Simba, contorted from the deadly effects of poison, which they fear is only a prelude to the murder of one of them and someone is butchered in the garden of the home with a panga – which is described as "a heavy knife that the Africans used for chopping wood and cutting grass."

Aftermath of the killing is largely observed through the eyes of Victoria, who arrives there several days after the murder. She provides an outside perspective to the events that taken place there, but her presence also functions as a complicating factor to the people at Flamingo and one of these factors is her lingering feelings for Eden. As well as the reason why he suddenly broke off their engagement.

However, this subplot of strained romanticism is only a small part of the overall story. Kaye takes her time to elaborately sketch out the characters and paint evocative pictures of their surroundings, but the same skill and amount of time is taken to plot and the result is satisfying enough – employing such clues the previously mentioned instances of vandalism, a blood-stained cushion, a missing piece of garment, fragments of piano music and bits of Shakespeare. A second death by poisoning occurred during a picnic and the murderer attempted to disguise the murder as an attack by a puff adder, which involved a clever piece of misdirection that could have potentially destroyed vital evidence. And the destruction of the evidence would have been done by a completely innocent, well-meaning person! Of course, for the sake of the story, that was not allowed to happen, but it's a very cunning trick that actually does warrant a comparison with Christie. Anyhow, the trick could have been elaborated on and used as the foundation for a completely different story. It's actually a pity the trick was buried in the other (admittedly rich) material of this book.

Kaye liberally smears a coating of suspicion on her characters and my interest was maintained throughout the story, which a beautiful and fairly well-balance of plot, character, setting and showing life in the colonies before they completely crumbled – which was done with such skill and talent that I wanted to go out and colonize some foreign, sun-drenched lands (who's with me?). I also loved that the solution showed Kaye as a poker player who was not afraid to bluff. Well played, Mrs. Kaye. Well played.

My only complaint is that the plot, more or less, uncoiled itself and the finer details of the motive can only be guessed at, but those are only small specks on an excellently written and competently plotted detective story. 

So you can definitely expect my return to this series in the not so distant future! 

5/11/16

Busman's Holiday


"It is peaceful. The sun shines. The sea is blue. But you forget, Miss Brewster, there is evil everywhere under the sun."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, 1941)
Recently, I have made several references to Martin Edwards, an award-winning crime writer and genre-historian, who has been providing the Poisoned Pen Press with introductions for their line of British Library Crime Classics, but Edwards also edited a number of themed anthologies for them – such as a collection of detective stories that take place in the countryside and one about crimes perpetrated in the city of London. 

So I thought, why not take a stab at one of those anthologies and Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015) seemed like a good place to start.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle opened this anthology with a story taken from His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (1917), "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," which was originally published in 1910 and is set on the Cornish coast. Holmes has been advised to "lay aside all his cases" and "surrender himself to complete rest if he wished to advert an absolute breakdown." So he finds himself on an holiday excursion to Cornwall where he roams through the "traces of some vanished race" that "left as its sole record strange monuments of stone" and "curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife" – which is something that seemed to appeal to his imagination. Nonetheless, Holmes and Dr. Watson are quickly drawn back to old, familiar territory when a devil of a case occurred in the neighborhood.

On his early morning walk, Mr. Mortimer Tregennis crossed paths with the local physician, Dr. Richards, who informs him he has received an urgent call to hurry to Mr. Tregennis' old family home, Tredannick Wartha, where they make an unsettling discovery: his two brothers, Owen and George, acted as madmen and gave the impression of having "the senses stricken clean out of them." His sister, Brenda, "lay back stone-dead in her chair," but there's nothing in the home that could explain who or what "dashed the light of reason from their minds." The explanation belonged to the pages of the sensational crime/horror stories from the nineteenth century and breaks one of the sacred tenants of the Golden Age, but the old-fashioned murder method seemed to fit the ancient atmosphere of the setting. So that's a minor complaint and the story, as a whole, is still a pretty solid entry in the canon.

The second story comes from Conan Doyle's brother-in-law, E.W. Hornung, who's best remembered for his rogue stories about a gentleman-burglar, named A.J. Raffles, but the characters he created to enforce the law appear to be all but forgotten today – such as the rather unique character who appeared in a collection of short stories entitled The Crime Doctor (1914).

Dr. John Dollar presents himself as a crime doctor and prefers curing criminals, "while they’re still worth saving," to traditional detective work and the story Edwards picked for this anthology, "A Schoolmaster Abroad," is an interesting example of the doctor's philosophy. Dr. Dollar is on holiday in Switzerland when he hears about a medical scandal: a local practitioner has been caught "prescribing strychnine pills warranted to kill in twenty minutes," but the practitioner is the same doctor who once saved Dollar's life. There's also the matter of a once promising young man who has become very sullen, downcast and apparently prone to near death experiences. Luckily, Dr. Dollar finds a commonality between the medical and criminal problem, which allows him to stave off the hand of a would-be murderer and this concentration on crime-prevention is what gives this story a rather unique angle – somewhat comparable to Agatha Christie's "Wasps' Nest" from Poirot's Early Cases (1974).

One of Arnold Bennett's short stories from 1927, simply called "Murder," is the third entry for this anthology and the story was far better written than it was thought out. The plot of the story revolves around two men, Lomax Harder and John Franting, who the reader meets in a gun store: one of them legally buys a firearm, while the other steals one. However, the stolen gun is used to commit, what is called is described in the story as a "justified murder as a social act," which leads the murderer to contemplate his act and flee from the possible consequences – helped by shoddy police work and Bennett's attempt at thumbing his nose at "the great amateur detective." I guess Anthony Berkeley, Leo Bruce and Ellery Queen have spoiled me when it comes to the fallible detective. Oh, and the story took place at seaside resort, which justified its inclusion.

M. McDonnell Bodkin was an Irish barrister, journalist, politician and writer of detective stories from the Doylean Era and his legacy consists of having created the first family of meddlesome snoops: the protagonists from Paul Beck, the Rule of Thumb Detective (1898) and Dora Myrl, the Lady Detective (1900) married and had a son – who followed in his parents footsteps in Young Beck, A Chip Off the Old Block (1911). The story from this anthology, "The Murder on the Golf Links," was lifted from the pages of The Quests of Paul Beck (1908) and largely takes place on the titular link of a seaside hotel. Miss Meg Hazel takes Paul Beck into confidence about her engagement to Mr. Samuel Hawkins, a diamond merchant, but she has second thoughts about her promise and a young electrical engineer, Ned Ryan, probably influenced this change of mind.

As to be expected, one of them is found battered to death "in the great, sandy bunker that guarded the seventeenth green" and Beck seems to have stumbled across the evidence needed to secure a conviction, but did that piece of evidence he found point to the real murderer? The story is well written and the plot passable for its time (a bit iffy on fair play), but what endeared this story to me was the fact the final act (surprisingly) was played out in my country!

Hey, I love it when fictional detectives visit my country and, one day, I’ll get around to reading Gladys Mitchell's Death of a Delft Blue (1964) and Patricia Moyes' Death and the Dutch Uncle (1968). Just you wait!

Anyhow, the next story, "The Finger of Stone," comes from G.K. Chesterton's The Poet and the Lunatics: Episodes in the Life of Gabriel Gale (1929), which takes place during a walking-tour in France as a group of three men arrive in the small town of Carillon – a place "famous for its fine old Byzantine monastery" and "having been the scene of the labours of Boyg." Professor Boyg is considered to be "a great discoverer," but recently has disappeared and some assume him to be dead. Murdered even! The explanation is typical of a Chesterton plot and the only that can be said against the story is that it was not Father Brown who came up with an answer for this conundrum.

Only two months ago, I reviewed Richardson's First Case (1933) by Sir Basil Thomson, who has recently been resurrected from the slumber of literary oblivion, but one snippet of his legacy has always lingered in the subconscious of popular culture and concerns the plot of one of his short stories – namely "The Vanishing of Mrs. Fraser" from Mr. Pepper, Investigator (1925). The story revolves around Mrs. Fraser and her daughter, Mary, who "had been passing the winter in Naples," but her mother fell ill on the way home and they stopped at a respectable looking Parisian hotel. Mary is asked by the local doctor to fetch medication, but when she returns her mother has disappeared and nobody seems to remember them. The hotel room in which she had left her mother has completely changed and their name does not appear in the hotel registry!

I already knew the explanation to these problems, but I was still glad to finally have had an opportunity to read this historically important and influential story that has inspired (or fine-tuned) a famous urban legend as well as providing a premise for several detective stories – ranging from John Dickson Carr's famous radio-play, "Cabin B-13," to Simon de Waal's Spelen met Vuur (Playing With Fire, 2004).

The next stop in this rapidly expanding post is R. Austin Freeman's "A Mystery of the Sand-Hills," which is originally included in The Puzzle Lock (1925), but the story is not representative of his best work. Dr. John Thorndyke is taking a stroll down the beach when he comes across several "impressions of bare feet in the sand" and "a heap of clothes." It's the beginning of a curious case and Dr. Thorndyke uncovers the truth by closely examining grains of sand, which helped him understand "the character of the cliffs, rocks and other large masses that occur in the locality," but that was more interesting than the eventual explanation – which was extremely disappointing and unsatisfying. So lets move on to the next story.

H.C. Bailey is represented here by a short story, entitled "The Hazel Ice," taken from Mr. Fortune Speaking (1929) and has a plot reminiscent of the mountaineering mysteries by Glyn Carr. You can consider the story as a literary ancestor of Carr. The story takes place in an Alpine resort in Switzerland, where Reggie Fortune is holidaying, but he ends up helping the local police, represented by Herr Stein, when an injured hotel guest returns without his climbing companion – who was lost in a sudden rockslide. Bailey's descriptions of the Swiss mountains, possible dangers mountain-climbers have to face and the nature of the crime is what brought the work of Glyn Carr to mind, but also has solid characterization and interaction between Bailey and Stein, which made this a fun and fairly clever story. Even if it lacked basic fair play. But still a well-written and excellently told story.

The next tale was a bit of a rarity: Anthony Berkeley's "Razor Edge" was published only once in a short story collection, The Roger Sheringham Stories (1994), which was "an edition limited to a mere 93 copies." So this is really the first time a wider audience got to read, what is essentially, a brand new story by Berkeley!

Roger Sheringham is spending a couple of days at the seaside resort of Penhampton, where bathing in the sea is "notoriously dangerous" and as a consequence the local mortuary is larger than usual, because "swimmers are obstinate people." It's no surprise to anyone when the police has remove a body from between the rocks of a sunny, seaside cove and everyone assumed the man had simply drowned, but Sheringham reminds his host, the chief constable of Penhampton, that people had been murdered by drowning before – even though the small district had never seen a murder in modern times. Sheringham is proved to be correct and his hunch was based on some astute deduction about victim's cut lip, chin stubble, scratches on his back and his bathing suit, which makes this one of his triumphs as an amateur detective. A nice change of pace from being one of those fallible detectives and glad the story was rescued from complete obscurity, even if it was not as grand as one of his full-length mystery novels. And, hey, it's basically a brand new Sheringham story, which is definitely a huge plus in favor of this story!

The next stop is a short-short by Leo Bruce, "Holiday Task," which came from Murder in Miniature and Other Stories (1992) and takes place on the coast of Normandy, France. Sgt. Beef is described as "deliberately enjoying his holiday" when he meets an old friend, Léotard of the Sûrété, who's investigating the apparently accidental death of reputedly "the most detested man in the French prison system," but when one assumes the prison governor was murdered the case becomes an impossible one – because the question has to be answered how the governor and his car vanished from a guarded prison complex. It has a simple, elegant explanation, but one locked room enthusiasts has seen before in a story that's well known to us.

Helen Simpson follows Leo Bruce with a short-short of her own, "A Posteriori," which takes a comedy-of-manners style of approach to the espionage genre and the ensuing result is a very funny, scandalous and original story. You have to read it for yourself, because it's very short and going into details would probably spoil it.

The following story from this collection, "Where is Mr. Manetot?," was penned by Phyllis Bentley and was salvaged by Edwards from the pages of a long-forgotten anthology, Missing from Their Home (1936), which is filled with missing person stories. I have no idea about the overall quality of that anthology, but Bentley's contribution proved itself to be a small, shimmering gem of crime-fiction. The story opens with a brief report on Mr. Manetot, who has gone missing from his home, before moving to an unknown man in the lounge of a seaside hotel who has been listening to the report on the radio and pulls several sheets of papers from an envelope and begins to read them.

It's a written account from an unknown person who tells a story of how favor to a friend placed him in a position "to hang a murderer" and story gets progressively unsettling from there on out. There's one particular evocative scene, when the narrator peeks through a window of a locked door at a train station, showing Bentley would have made a good scenarist and especially loved how the whole world around him seemed to snap back to normal when he stopped looking. Conclusion of the story is well done and the open-ended conclusion worked even better. One of my favorite stories from this anthology!

The next story, Gerald Findler's "The House of Screams," was extricated by Robert Adey from an issue of an extremely obscure, illustrated publication called Doidge's Western Counties Annual and included it in Murder Impossible: An Extravaganza of Miraculous Murders, Fantastic Felonies and Incredible Criminals (1990) – which he co-edited with Jack Adrian. Adey’s introduction to this story from that anthology noted Findler's tale showed "inventiveness and originality," combined with "a flair for the dramatic," which "leaves one wishing he had written more." I agree with the opinion of the late Adey. It's an excellent story that can be read as a ghost story with a logical explanation. The nameless narrator of the story finds a rundown, overgrown house that's "wrapped up in solitude" and has a "To Let" sign on it, which is exactly a place he has been looking for the escape from modern life. He only wants "to write, write, and write," but one night his peace of mind is disturbed by the ghostly screams of a woman echoing through the house. The answer for the disembodied screaming is found in a locked attic room and in the local cemetery, which makes for a nice, atmospheric story.

I was reminded of John Dickson Carr's "The Dead Sleep Lightly," from The Dead Sleep Lightly and Other Mysteries from Radio’s Golden Age (1983), and the plot bore some resemblances to the second murder from the first story in this collection, Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot."

Finally, this collection closes with a short-short by Michael Gilbert, which is entitled "Cousin Once Removed," which can be categorized as a Hoist-on-Their-Own-Petard tale and concerns a man who wants to remove his cousin to cash in on their grandfather's inheritance. However, his scheme to commit the perfect murder proves to be a double-edged sword and he cuts himself badly.

So, all in all, Resorting to Murder is an interesting selection of detective stories that have not often found their way in similar collections, but (it must be said) most of the stories here derive their interest mainly from their historical significance or rarity. Not all that many stone-cold classics (except for Phyllis Bentley). I also missed one of the best and most famous of all short holiday mysteries: Agatha Christie's "Triangle at Rhodes" from Murder in the Mews and Other Stories (1937). Not a very original pick, but it's one of the stories of its kind.

Anyhow, I'll end the review here, because this has already been four or five pages of me sloppily typing about only a dozen or so short stories. My review of short story collections always end up being my longest blog-posts. I will try to have something shorter for my next post. So stay tuned!