5/4/16

The Golden Link


"You will consider your verdict."
Mr. Justice Springfellow (Raymond Postgate's Verdict of Twelve, 1940)
As you can probably deduce from my 2013 review of The Benevent Treasure (1956), I was not overly impressed with Patricia Wentworth and have ignored her work ever since, but Rupert Heath from Dean Street Press ever so kindly provided me with a review copy of one of her standalone novels – which sounded more appealing than any of her Miss Silver stories.

Silence in Court (1945) is the book in question and this brand new edition is prefaced by our very own genre-historian, Curt Evans, whose brief introduction is packed with potential material for a biography about Wentworth's family.

Wentworth was born to an Angelo-Indian military family during the heyday of the British Raj. Both her father and uncle had distinguished careers in the army, but perhaps the most interesting snippets of her family history concerned the lives of one of her stepsons and a younger brother during World War I and II.

One of her stepsons, George Dillon, was mining in Colorado when war was declared and he "worked his passage from Galveston, Texas to Bristol, England as a shipboard muleteer" and died at the Somme in 1916 – when he was only 29. Her younger brother, Hugh Elles, rose to the rank of brigadier-general in the Great War and "he was tasked with leading the defense of southwestern England" during the Second World War, which would have been an important role if the Battle of Britain had been fought on land instead of in the air.

So I thought that was a genuinely interesting part of Wentworth's family life, but how did the book itself measure up to my previous experience? Well, it was without a question better than The Benevent Treasure.

The protagonist of Silence in Court is a young woman, named Carey Silence, who suffered from shock when the train she was traveling in was machine-gunned from the air by the Nazis. She was told to take several months of rest, but her employer had been killed in the attack and was effectively out of a job, which in her case meant she had "no more than three pounds to cover the three months during which she had been ordered not to work." Fortuitously, a cousin and childhood friend of Carey's late grandmother, a Mrs. Honoria Maquisten, saw her name in the papers and offered the penniless girl a room in her London home.

Carey is not the only relative who lives under Honoria's roof: she has two live-in nieces, Nora Hull and Honor King, and two nephews, but only Dennis Harland, a wounded RAF pilot, has a room there – a second nephew, Robert Maquisten, is merely a regular visitor to the place. Finally, there's a starchy nurse, called Magda Brayle, and Honoria's fiercely loyal maid, named Ellen.

What binds this household together, referred to by one of the characters as "the golden link," is Honoria's petulant game of musical chairs with the prospective inheritors of her small fortune.

Honoria summons about twice a month her solicitor, Mr. Aylwin, to do "a little juggling with her will," which she does for no other reason than her own amusement, but everyone is well aware that "some day the music will stop" and "somebody won't have anything to sit down on." Carey soon becomes a favorite in this game of Honoria and is written into her will. However, the situation changes as quickly as predicted, but this time there seems to have been a tangible reason for her change of mind, which came in the form of a hand delivered letter – a letter that made her bristle with anger. Only problem is that her solicitor is abroad and her will is locked away in his safe. So she summoned his managing clerk and "dictated provisions for bequests dividing her property into four," but her comes the kicker, there were "blanks left for the insertion of the names of the legatees." Someone was about to be disinherited, but they did not know who until the document was officially signed and witnessed.

Honoria gave a cryptic hint when "she quoted a proverb about going up with a rocket and coming down with a stick," but somebody refused to allow her to affix her signature to yet another will and tempered with her sleeping draught – making sure "she had about three times the number of tablets she ought to have taken." The person the police holds responsible for this is Carey.

The introduction of the characters, setting up Honoria's death and a short investigation by a rather annoying police-inspector gobbles up the first half of the book, which makes for a very character-driven detective story. Second half finds Carey in court and this portion of the book flip-flops between a good, well-written courtroom drama and a dry, repetitive courtroom procedure that kept going over the same events. Or wanted to assert how angry Honoria actually was upon receiving the letter.

However, the only real problem and weakness of this half of the story is the surprise witness, who popped-up like a jack-in-the-box, which was needed to free Carey and identify the guilty party. I thought that was blemish on the plot and overall story.

Otherwise, Silence in Court was a better story than I expected and feel compelled now to take a third shot at Wentworth. So recommendations are more than welcome.

5/2/16

Devilish Conspiracy


"The affair attracted enormous attention at the time, not only because of the arresting nature of the events, but even more for the absolute mystery in which they were shrouded."
- Freeman Wills Crofts' "The Mystery of the Sleeping Car-Express" (1921), collected in The Mystery of the Sleeping Car-Express and Other Stories (1956)
I have covered John Street, or "John Rhode," before on this blog, but not as often as I would have liked to.

Rhode had a technical mind and he could be described as a mechanic of detective fiction who engineered and constructed over a hundred tricky plots, which was not necessarily restricted to his own body of work – as he was credited by John Dickson Carr as the co-author of Fatal Descent (1939) for his relatively small, but very technical, contribution to the plot. But his reputation as a wholesaler of clever and ingenious contrived plots is best illustrated in an anecdote from Christianna Brand. She once suffered from a pesky case of writer's block and Rhode kindly offered the then young novelist to come down to his place, examine his bookshelves and help herself to one of his plots. Assuring her that she was "most welcome" to do so. What a gentleman!

Evidently, Rhode was a man who knew his way around a plot and his output was probably the closest you could get to an emporium of nefarious schemes, devilish plots and cleverly fabricated puzzles, but they tended to be technical in nature – which earned him an undeserved reputation in the post-World War II landscape of the genre as a boring, sleep inducing writer. You only have to read such titles as The House on Tollard Ridge (1929), Death on the Board (1937) and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge (1943) to know how wrong the detractors of the so-called humdrum writers were about Rhode. He was first and foremost a plotter, which meant characterization often took a backseat in favor of the plot.

One of the negative side effects of being reputedly dull was Rhode's name sliding into obscurity and a large swath of his work became rare or fairly hard to get, which naturally meant prize-tags with double, triple or even quadruple digits scrawled on them – effectively keeping them out of the hands of ordinary readers. So I have been carefully rationing the small stack of his books acquired over the years, but, recently, they appear to have reached the front of the line of Golden Age mysteries that were waiting to be reprinted. That brings us to the subject of today's review.

Death in the Tunnel (1936) originally appeared under Rhode's second byline, "Miles Burton," which has recently been republished by the Poisoned Pen Press as a British Library Crime Classic and is prefaced with an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards – who recently swooped up an Edgar statuette for The Golden Age of Murder (2015).

Sir Wilfred Saxonby is the president of an import company, Wigland & Bunthorne Ltd, who serves his community as the chairman of the local Bench of magistrates, but he "was a man of temperate" and "frugal habits." As a magistrate, his philosophy was that "the law was an excellent thing" and considered himself "a firm supporter of it," but it was made for a different class of people and did not always felt bound by it himself – which did not prevent him from being reluctant "to temper justice with mercy" when acting in the capacity of magistrate. So not exactly "the sort of character who inspires affection."

There seems to have been something very irregular on Sir Wilfred's mind when he boarded the train from London's Cannon Street to his home in Stourford for the very last time. He pressed a one-pound note in the hands of the train guard, Mr. Turner, to find him a first-class carriage to himself, which he was able to do and locked him into the compartment. Sir Wilfred is left to his own devices, but when Turner returns to the supposedly secure and impromptu private-compartment he discovers the body of his once generous passenger. Shot through the heart!

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard is assigned to the case and the problem confronting him is rife with contradictory evidence. The death of Sir Wilfred is either a case of suicide or murder. There are some points in favor of the former: a small, automatic pistol engraved with his initials is found near the body, the request for private carriage that was locked and he sent his children abroad – which could have been done to make sure that they would not be suspected if the authorities mistook his death for a murder. Only problem is that he lacked a clear and conceivable motive for taking his own life. Business was thriving and he was opposed to the idea of suicide, but the presence of a mysterious murderer seems, literarily, an impossibility.

So Arnold turns to his good friend, Desmond Merrion, who's "something of an amateur criminologist" and even he remarks how "there is at least as much evidence in support of the theory of suicide as there is against it," which makes for an engrossing and meticulous investigation – as they sift through the evidence and hypothesize about the various clues. The best part of their investigation is figuring out what exactly happened when the train went into the titular tunnel on that fateful journey. A situation that forms the meat of the impossible situation of the plot.

When the train entered the Blackdown Tunnel, the driver claims to have been "held up by a man waving a red lamp," assuming it was simply someone working on the line, and "clapped on the brakes," but then the light changed to green and the train rattled on without losing too much time. There is, however, one peculiarity about this seemingly unimportant incident: nobody was reported or scheduled to work in the tunnel at the time and "some unauthorized person" could not have entered the tunnel, because at each end there's a signal cabin and "nobody could possibly get in without being seen by the men on duty."

My favorite part of the book is probably the exploration of the tunnel as trains murderously roared past them and more than once they had to crawl into one of refuges in the wall for safety. Arnold and Merrion are well rewarded for braving these dangers, because they discover some important pieces of evidence, such as shattered fragments of glass, which seem to indicate Sir Wilfed was the victim of a vast, strange and sinister conspiracy. But even better is the explanation they work out for entering and leaving a sealed and watched train tunnel, which does not hinge upon a spare uniform from a railway worker.

The method is very involved and perhaps a bit too clever for its own good, but you have to admire Rhode for finding a hidden Judas window inside a train tunnel!

Anyway, Death in the Tunnel concerns itself almost entirely with the reconstruction of the shooting and the particulars found on the body, which is both a major strength and weakness of the book. If you love pure, unadulterated detective work this book is for you, but, as a consequence, even I found the characters to be cardboard-like. I can usually forgive shallow characterization, if the plot is good, but even I can't deny the characters here where nothing more than chessmen. Death in the Tunnel is also primarily a how-dun-it and this came at the cost of the who and why, which is what bars the book from a place in the top ranks of the genre because the plot-thread explaining the motivation for this admittedly devilish ingenious conspiracy was introduced in the final part of the story.

I believe that could've been handled a bit better by a professional plotter, which Rhode was, but, if you read the book purely as a how dun it, they become fairly minor complaints. Above all, it's simply a lot of old-fashioned fun to read how Arnold and Merrion take apart the mechanics of a very tricky criminal conspiracy. It makes for an engaging and involved reading experience.  

Finally, Death in the Tunnel also made me want to read more from the so-called school of humdrum detectives, which even include writers I have not even touched yet! Scandalous, I know. How dare I label myself as rabid and fanatical when it comes to vintage mysteries, but give me some time. I'll get there and, in the mean time, you can look forward to more of these reviews. Oh, you lucky, you!

4/30/16

Crooked House


"It's no use crying over spilt evils. It's better to mop them up laughing."
- Eleanor Farjeon
The family of Benjamin Farjeon, a prolific novelist from the Victorian period, came from humble stock, but all of the children from his household were able to carve a name for themselves in several cultural genres – such as literature, theatre and music.

Harry Farjeon was a magician, composer and teacher. Herbert Farjeon was an important figure in British theatre and a stage critic. Eleanor Farjeon was an author of children's author who has a book-prize named in her honor. But the one who is of interest to us is their brother and a once famous fiction writer, J. Jefferson Farjeon.

J. Jefferson Farjeon proved himself as fertile a writer as their father and reportedly a personal favorite of Dorothy L. Sayers, praising him as being "quite unsurpassed for creepy skill in mysterious writing," but his work and reputation has languished in obscurity for decades. Recently, there seems to have been a change, as he appears to be undergoing a personal renaissance, reminiscent of Gladys Mitchell's rise from literary oblivion during the previous decade – going from one of the most obscure names in the genre to having nearly all of her books reissued by various publishers. I think I can pinpoint where and when Farjeon's began to reemerge from the mists of time.

On November 22, 2011, Curt Evans published his first blog-post on "The Passing Tramp," which was a reference to "one of the era's unlikeliest series detectives," Ben the Tramp, who appeared in eight of Farjeon's roughly eighty novels. Evans also seems to have been the first person on the internet to have reviewed or simply talked about Farjeon. It might just have been a coincidence, but the Poisoned Pen Press reprinted Mystery in White (1937) in 2014 and the book sold over sixty thousand copies – making it a smash hit that surprised everyone.

As a result of this unexpected success, three additional titles were reissued, The House Opposite (1931), The Z Murders (1932) and Thirteen Guests (1936), with more of them on the way.

Personally, my only exposure to Farjeon's work came from reading the splendid, original and very amusing Holiday Express (1935), which deserves to be reprinted, but I sort of forgot about his books that were on my to-be-read pile after that – both of them old pocket editions from Collins White Circle. So I had to decide between The Third Victim (1941) and Prelude to Crime (1948), which was decided in favor of the former. I found the synopsis of the book to be very appealing.

The Third Victim tells of George Lyster's return to his ancestral home after having spend twenty-six years of his life in Australia, but what he finds is a place as faded as his quarter-of-a-century old memories of the place

When he walked out of the gates of Broadland Hall twenty-six years before, they "had been well kept and imposing," but now the rusty, corroded iron made "the two dignified cavaliers who had stood for centuries on the gate posts" look unimposing and the place impressed him as being "shockingly neglected." A once large staff that was needed to run the estate had been decimated and reduced to only three persons: a gloomy, fretful butler, named Dyke, who appears to be under the thumb of the antagonistic housekeeper, Mrs. Peto. And there is a gardener who "believes in skeletons and headless men and such nonsense."

Worryingly, this bunch of characters have been looking after Lyster's invalid mother, Dowager Lady Lyster, who suffered a crippling and paralyzing stroke, which left her unable to speak and can only communicate by the feeble movements of her hands – twitching her left or right hand to answer yes or no questions. Only normal person she got see in a long time is a now middle-aged woman from the neighborhood, Evelyn Eames, who Lyster remembers as "that long-legged kid" from all those years ago and wonders why she is not bringing up a family of her own. 

Sad state of the place reminds Lyster of a time "when there was less dust around" and "when the house was fuller," as well as friendlier, but from the family solicitor, Mr. William Lotham, he learns there's clinging more to the estate than simple neglect.

The reason for Lyster's return to England was the sudden death of his brother, who broke his neck in a fall from the high gallery into the hallway below, but Lotham informed him the tragedy occurred only an hour before Sir Maitland altered his will – which practically left everything to his brother who was still down under at the time. He was also surprised to learn there was a legacy for an adopted daughter, Ursula, which was to be held in trust for ten years and if she married a certain Ralph Murray her share would revert to Lyster.

Fourteen years ago, Sir Maitland had adopted foundling twins, a pair of eight-year-olds, named John and Ursula, but the boy tragically died two years later when he fell from the high gallery. It was "in precisely the same way" as his adopted father would perish twelve years later. Lyster concludes "there’s not only dust in this house," but poison as well and swears to clear it out – so one can breath again.

Lyster engages the services of Detective Kendall and Sergeant Wade, once attached to Scotland Yard and now operate as "the private detectives in the kingdom," who came to Broadland Hall in disguise for a discreet enquiry. Kendall plays the role of an history enthusiast, "Headley Swayne," who comes to Broadland Hall to gather material for his book, The Historic Homes of Britain. Wade has to be contend with playing a second butler to the place. It’s an arrangement described as a bit of a comedy, but, stylistically, it has an interesting affect on the story and characters: the infusion of a bunch of normal and sane people in the formerly dark, neglected and decaying home begins to have a similar effect on the place as airing a house that had been boarded up for years.

Past shadows are slowly being shooed away and slowly they are getting closer to identifying the murderous entity lurking in the home, which may be one of the books two sole weaknesses.

The first of these two weaknesses is the clueing, which is really nothing more than foreshadowing. It nods in the direction where the explanation can be found, but nothing more than that and you can only really guess the murderer's identity. Secondly, the identity of the murderer who serves here as a jack-in-the-box surprise, but I think the murderer belonged to both a different genre and period of time. I thought The Third Victim was not unlike one Annie Haynes' nineteenth century-style detective novels with an ending that could have been lifted from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story. It could make for a splendid and fun period story, but I was hoping the ending would have been a continuation of the first three quarters of the story, which constituted the best parts of the book – both story-and plot-wise. Stylistically, the ending struck a bit of a false note, because it moved along the lines of a British country house mystery before ending up in Poe country.

However, I can easily imagine this will be less of a problem to readers who are warned there's a sharp twist in the road towards the end of the story. So you can thank me for going ahead and warning you about it.

Finally, I have to note that The Third Victim struck me as an indoor version of Ivans' De bosgeest (The Forest Spirit, 1926). 

Well, I'll be back with something definitely classical for the next blog-post. I should probably also try to write a rambling blog-post again or finally re-write and update this list. But that's something for the future.

4/26/16

Magician's Bouquet


"The whole point and headache is this. Every microscopic opening in that room – the tiny little crack under the door, the keyhole, the joins of the two windows where the sashes meet – every place is sealed up as tight as a drum-head by glued paper fastened on the inside."
- Sir Henry Merrivale (Carter Dickson's He Wouldn't Kill Patience, 1944)
Clayton Rawson was an illusionist, mystery writer and editor who worked in editorial positions for various magazines, such as True Detective and Master Detective, which include having served as the Managing Editor for the famous Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but he's primarily remembered as one of the Golden Era's foremost practitioners of the locked room conundrum – which were hatched by drawing on his extensive knowledge of magic, illusions and stage-effects. He even employed stage-magicians as the detective characters for both of his series: namely The Great Merlini and Don Diavolo.

One of the detective story’s greatest champion, Frederic Dannay, better known as one half of "Ellery Queen," described Rawson as "one of the topflight mystifiers in the whole bloodhound business." It's an opinion that was shared by John Dickson Carr, undisputed master of the locked room mystery, who was a friend of Rawson and on several occasions they concocted a challenge for each other – resulting in some excellent and even classic examples of the impossible crime story.

Two of those stories were collected in The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective (1979), which gathered all of the short stories and short-shorts about his most well-known and best-remembered creations. You guessed it: this flimsy introduction serves as a rickety bridge to my review of that very collection.

There are a dozen tales in this collection and the first three were originally published as reader-contest stories in EQMM, which reportedly flooded their offices with "an overwhelming response that many more prizes were awarded than the original number offered." I found them to be fairly clever for a bunch of short-shorts and comparable in nature to the nuggets of challenging crime-fiction found in Ellery Queen's Minute Mysteries and H.A. Ripley's How Good a Detective Are You? (1934).

In the first story, "The Clue of the Tattooed Man," there's an apparent impossibility clinging to the strangling death of a snake-charmer, Zelda, who was found in a hotel room on the eight floor with the only window "locked on the inside." A game of craps was being played by a group of circus performer in the corridor and they observed the only door providing an entrance or exit to the crime-scene. It was an all right story for something that short.

Interestingly to note: this short-short was not jotted down by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).

The next one, "The Clue of the Broken Legs," concerns the shooting of a theatrical producer, Jorge Lasko, who was bound to a wheelchair with two broken legs, but his murderer "vanished into thin air like a soap bubble" from a locked and guarded room. Not exactly a classic of the form and the explanation to the impossible murder is a slight variation on an old trick, but nice enough for a short-short.

I thought the plot of the third story, "The Clue of the Missing Motive," had the potential for a longer story, which deals with a gunman who took "potshots at an unidentified man in New York City’s Washington Square Park" with fatal consequences. The shots came from the direction of a house where everyone had a motive to kill one another, but they all lacked a proper motive for the murder of the man who actually got felled by a bullet.

The first actual short story from this collection, "From Another World," was the result of a sporting challenge between Rawson and Carr, in which they tried to best each other by trying to come up with the cleverest possible explanation for a locked and airtight room – the "sealed room to end all sealed rooms." Rawson opened his story in Merlini's magic supply store, "undoubtedly one of the world's strangest rooms," where the magician-detective receives a visit from his friend and narrator, Ross Harte.

Harte is also a reporter and is researching an article about extrasensory perception (ESP), psycho-kinesis (PK) and clairvoyance, which is why he stopped by Merlini on his way to the home of a millionaire. Andrew Drake has grown obsessed with psychic phenomena and wants to sink several of his millions in researching the potential power of the human mind, but wants to convince himself by setting up a séance with a medium, Rosa Rhys – who is described as one of "the greatest apport medium" currently operating in the United States.

However, when Harte arrives at the home of the millionaire, he has to break down the door to the room where the séance was being conducted and what was found inside that room was bizarre: the bloodied remains of Drake, an unconscious, skimpily-clad Rosa and every crack or opening was covered with gummed paper. The room was literally sealed shut from the inside! Rawson constructed a splendid and original trick to explain the sealed room, which had a clever piece of misdirection that even managed to stump Merlini for a brief moment. On top of that, the sealed room trick was tagged to an equally motive and a very convincing murderer – which made for a genuine classic locked room story and short detective-fiction.

You can find Carr's explanation in the book that provided an opening quote to this blog-post.

I originally read the next story, "Off the Face of the Earth," in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987), which mentioned in the introduction how Carr posed the premise of the story as a challenge to his friend: a man walks into a telephone booth and vanishes – followed by "work that one out." Once again, the magician and mystery writer rose to meet the challenge.

Inspector Homer Gavigan drops by Merlini with a rather peculiar problem: a chorus girl, Helen Hope, has gone missing and a very strange individual accurately predicted her disappearance. Bela Zyyzk claims to be "a momentary visitor to this planet" and is "a mindreader to boot," but Gavigan is the eternal skeptic and drags the self-proclaimed alien in front of a judge – which is when he makes another prediction how "the Outer Darkness is going to swallow Judge Keeler" as well. That's a problem for Gavigan. Judge Keeler is as crooked as a politician with scoliosis and has been pocketing fix money from the local mobsters, but they are in the process of closing a tight net around the Keeler.

So the last thing Gavigan wants is for the judge to disappear from the face of the earth and sticks a tail on him. The policeman charged with following him around never let him out of their sight for even a second, but there was a moment when the judge slipped into a phone booth. A phone booth of which "the back wall is sheet metal backed by solid marble" and lacked any "sliding panels, hinged panels, removable sections" or "trapdoors," which made a secret and unseen escape all but impossible – which is nonetheless what Judge Keeler managed to pull off. He entered a phone booth with only a single entrance and exit, watched by the police, proceeded to vanish from it. Leaving only his smashed, horn-rimmed glasses behind and a dangling phone receiver from which a voice was heard saying, "this is the end of the trail, Lieutenant."

Overall, the story does not soar to the same heights as the previous one, but it's still excellent and loved how Merlini improved on the trick for his demonstration.

For the next story, "Merlini and the Lie Detector," we return to the second batch of short-shorts that were used to challenge the readers of EQMM, but the murder of a TV producer proved to be unmemorable and not particular fair to the reader. I honestly did not care for this one.

However, I did enjoy "Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds," which is of special interest to fans of Ellery Queen and his detective stories about extensive searches of persons and rooms for vanished objects.

In this particular short-short, Merlini provides assistance to Inspector Gavigan and the Customs Service by helping to find a stash of "top quality blue-white stones." The person suspected of having hid the stones is a known crook and cardsharp, Pierre Aldo, but they have done a complete search of his person and cabin – without any result. Luckily, Merlini has a pretty good hunch where the diamonds may have been hidden. A fair story on the surface, but the experienced Customs officer, who rattled a whole slew of examples of diamond smuggling, probably should have checked that place, but, regardless, I still liked it. But I like these kinds of stories. My favorite is probably Ellery Queen's "Diamonds in Paradise," which is a cute short-short collected in Queens Full (1965). There's also Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Invisible Safe," from The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009), and "The Problem of the Missing Necklace" by Jacques Futrelle, which I recently reviewed in my takedown of several of his locked room mysteries.

The last of these short-shorts, "Merlini and the Sound Effects Murder," deals with the shooting of a sound effects specialist and the sound of his murder has been recorded, but Merlini solved the murder by noticing something that was not on the recording. A simple and somewhat disappointing story.

The next story, "Nothing is Impossible," tackles a subject not often dealt with in this genre of ours: ufology. Albert North is an aviation pioneer who has become interested in the study of extra-terrestrial visitors and has become "an unofficial clearing house for saucer information," but the circumstances of his strange death seems to indicate the aliens found him too inquisitive. North is found dead in his locked office and the only other person present in the room, his son-in-law, was unconscious and completely naked – his clothes "appear to have passed through his body."

However, the impossibility is not the locked office door, but how the murder weapon is nowhere to be found and the presence of strange footprints of two-foot, three-toed alien on the dusty surface of the file cabinet. Not a mind-blowing classic of the locked room sub-genre, but interestingly enough for its ufology background X-Files vibe.

The next story has a great title, "Miracles – All in the Day's Work," in which Inspector Gavigan was looking forward to his first vacation in over three years, but dropped by a fishing friend on his way to the Maine woods and became a witness to his seemingly impossible murder – because his murderer vanished from a watched room on the top floor of a New York skyscraper. A fun and interesting enough, but fails to pose a true challenge to the reader. You should be able to identify the murderer and gauge the main idea behind the locked room trick.

I found the next story, "Merlini and the Photographic Clue," not to be very memorable, which revolved around the murder of a gossip columnist and a photograph that showed a person could be at two places at the same time. 

Clayton Rawson shows-off "The Headless Lady."

The final story from this collection, "The World's Smallest Locked Room," begins with a sincere apology from Ross Harte for having been "so remiss in keeping you up to date on The Great Merlini," which is followed by an update on his life and how his magic shop has become "the largest emporium of magicians’ supplies in the world" – even receiving orders "written in Swahili" from "witch doctors in the Congo." The impossible problem is an attempted poisoning at a place called Pancakes Unlimited, but the plot is fairly minor and I found the snippets of background information, characters and historical references far more interesting. There's a private-investigator, named Hammett Wilde, who's "no relation to either Dashiell or Oscar," and there was a reference to the moon landing to show some time has passed since the earlier stories, which is probably why the victim was given the name of Hassleblad.

So, all in all, a fair collection of short-shorts and short stories, but I had already read the best ones in the various, well-known locked room anthologies. However, I did not mind reacquainting myself with those excellent impossible crime stories. More importantly, this volume has whetted my appetite for the Don Diavolo novellas and The Headless Lady (1940), which is the last unread Merlini novel residing on the big pile. So you can probably expect more Rawson in the not so distant future.  

4/23/16

Crime On the Coast


"Oh, ah. Adventure... there's plenty of 'em chum."
- The Fat Man (John Dickson Carr's "The Fun Fair," collected in The Detection Club's Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request, 1953-54)

John Rowland hailed from Cornwell, England and over the course of his lifetime, he had worked as a publisher, journalist, civil servant and even as a Unitarian minister, but what is of interest to this blog was his prolific spell as a mystery novelist – which lasted from 1935 until 1950.

Rowland was one of those minor-league mystery writers who passed into obscurity at the dawn of the second half of the previous century. Thankfully, the Poisoned Pen Press has blown the dust from two of his novels, Murder in the Museum (1938) and Calamity in Kent (1950), which has since been reissued under their banner of British Library Crime Classics. All of them prefaced with an introduction by a familiar genre historian and crime novelist, Martin Edwards, who can be found blogging at "Do You Write Under Your Own Name?"

I picked Calamity in Kent as my formal introduction to the work of Rowland for an obvious and predictable reason: the book was catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991), but one would be wise to heed Edwards' cautious warning not to expect "the devilish ingenuity that one associates with, say, the Americans John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson" – because the locked room conundrum is very simplistic and only a minor part of the plot. However, I stubbornly refused to lower my expectations, which I based on a hunch. But more on that later.

Despite my refusal to take a hint, I enjoyed reading Calamity in Kent and took a particular liking to the narrator, Jimmy London, who is a newspaper reporter, but the first chapter of the book finds him recuperating from an operation. The place where he tries to regain his strength is a small, Kentish seaside town, called Broadgate, planted on the coast of South East England.

One morning, while taking an early stroll, London notices a man who acts "queerly" and "seemed to be drunk, or stunned, or shocked," which rekindled his journalistic instincts, but even London was surprise to learn the cause of the mans distress.

The name of the troubled-looking man turns out to be Aloysius Bender and he's the operator of the cliff railway, known locally as the Broadgate Lift, but when he wanted to open up for business that morning he found a dead man inside one of the locked carriages – a hilt of a nasty-looking knife sticking out of his back. London seizes on the opportunity presented to him and takes the first step in getting his name back into circulation by searching the scene of the crime, which he knew was, strictly speaking, not entirely legal. But he had to put his "own future as a journalist first." And if he to take a pocketbook he had fished from the victim's clothes, so be it.

Rowland has an airy, light-hearted sense of realism about the conventions of the detective story and the actions of his characters. As I said, London pounced on the chance to return to the pack of newshounds roaming Fleet Street and contacted the newspaper who seemed most likely to pay him "a sensible fee as a special correspondent," which he got with The Daily Wire and dictated "a cold-blooded piece of butchery" over the phone for the his first installment – excusing the adjectives that there was "the added spice of a genuine mystery story behind it."

However, London’s friend and insight man at Scotland Yard, Detective-Inspector Shelley, remarks how London seems to make "a habit of being in on the beginnings of murders" and advises him not to find "too many bodies," because they have suspicious minds at the force. On the other hand, Shelley is aware that the mighty machine of Scotland Yard is a slow-moving one, which prevents individual cogs to tail a hunch like a lone wolf. So he understands the potential use of a free agent and is not averse to pooling his information with London.

It's a collaboration that slowly exposes the criminal network surrounding the victim, John Tilsley, who is suspected of black market racketeering, but that's pretty much all I have to say about the plot. I loved the narrative voice of London, the setting and the characters that were found there, but the plot turned out to be as light-weight as the writing and began to move towards thriller territory after the halfway mark – which naturally came at the cost of it not being a (pure) detective story.

I was actually reminded of such smart-alecky type of mystery/thrillers like Maurice B. Dix's Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934).

Finally, I have to comment on the locked room angle, which was very minor part of the story. London and Shelley mentioned throughout the book about the impossibility of how a body was able to end up in a sealed carriage without the locks being tempered with, but the explanation given in the final pages of the book were extremely underwhelming.

I had been warned in the introduction about this, but the lock in question was described as "a massive padlock of an old-fashioned type" that "tied the two gates together," which convinced me I had found either the originator or an early example of a certain locked room trick I had only come across in a handful of post-GAD stories. But I was wrong. It turned it was only a nominally locked room mystery.

I've the sinking feeling I gutted Calamity in Kent with this lackluster review, but I genuinely liked the book and it says something for Rowland he was able to hold the attention of a reader like me – after moving away from a locked room mystery to a smart-aleck thriller. Well, guess I'll be dipping into an actual impossible crime story for my next read.

4/21/16

The Carpathian Hound


"Obviously his hiding place must be something not only normal... but a location utterly above suspicion—invisible, not literally, but one the police see right through, and don't dream of checking."
-
Cyriack Skinner Grey (Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Invisible Safe," from The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey, 2009)
Two weeks ago, I reviewed one of William Arden's contributions to The Three Investigators series, The Secret of Phantom Lake (1973), which mentioned my previous blog-posts about Robert Arthur's The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) and The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) – which caught the attention of a fellow blogger who left a couple of interesting comments on my review of Skeleton Island.

Mike West is a writer who blogs at Strange Tales: The On-Line Presence of Mark West and wrote an insightful overview of the series, "Nostalgic for My Childhood – The Three Investigators," and compiled an "All Time Top 10." In addition to a number of reviews of books from the series. As long-time readers of this blog know, I find enthusiasm about detective stories to be very contagious and Mark West's post about The Three Investigators compelled me to plot an early return to the series.

I settled down on the twenty-third entry in the series, The Mystery of the Invisible Dog (1975), which was penned by M.V. Carey and it was one of the sixteen titles she wrote for this long-running series – making her one of the most prolific contributors to The Three Investigators. My reason for picking The Mystery of the Invisible Dog is as simple as it banal: I knew a key point of the plot was based on a short story by my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr. The story in question is even mentioned and described, but the plot of this book does not feature any seemingly impossible problems. On the contrary, but more on that later.

The Mystery of the Invisible Dog largely takes place during the dark hours of a late and chilly December. Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews tightly wrap themselves in another case in order to avoid Jupe's Aunt Mathilda, because they do not want to spend their holiday doing odd jobs on The Jones Salvage Yard. So a client is very welcome.

Mr. Fenton Prentice of 402 Paseo Place is a patron of the arts, who gives "generously to museums and individual artists" and his apartment is "a luxurious showcase for an art collection," which is stuffed with paintings, statuettes and antiques. However, it makes his problem all the more peculiar. Someone has been entering his apartment and rummaging through his papers, reading his letters and left desk drawers partially open, but Prentice "had a special lock installed" and even the manager of the apartments, "that loathsome Bortz woman," had no way to enter his rooms – yet there's someone who can enter and leave them without his knowledge. Who's this intruder and why does this person left any of the valuable items in the apartment untouched? 

There's something else going on: Prentice is plagued by the unsettling feeling of being haunted and watched by an elusive, shadowy and ghost-like figure.

A shadowy figure who shows himself twice to Jupe! One of them occurred halfway through the book and could easily have been a promising setup to what could have been an intriguing impossible problem. Jupe experiences "a sensation of a darker darkness" in the corner of the apartment room, but when he jumped towards the corner "his hands groped at walls" – simply "plain plaster walls." I had the silent hope this would have been something along the lines of Joseph Commings' "The Black Friar Murders," collected in Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004), but that turned out not to be the case. Anyway, we have not even gotten to the meat of the plot.

During their first visit to Mr. Prentice's apartment, Jupe, Pete and Bob happened to witness a man fleeing from the police and it turns out this person burglarized the home of the late Edward Niedland – an artist and personal friend of Mr. Prentice. Niedland had made a crystal sculpture of a hound for Prentice, which was based on a two-hundred year old legend from the Carpathian Mountain: one of the half-starved hunting dogs of a Transylvanian nobleman killed a child from the village and his nonchalant response was answered by a stone being hurled at his head. The noble man was fatally injured, but used his last breath to curse the villagers and vowed he would return from the grave as a huge, demonic hound. He must have been a relative of Vigo the Carpathian.

The theft of the crystal statuette triggers a series of crimes in the neighborhood, which begins with the attack on the caretaker of the local church and an appearance of the ghost priest that reportedly haunts the place – holding a flickering candle. But after that the crimes really begin to pile up: a batch of poisoned chocolates gave someone a severe case of indigestion, a small car bomb forced a car to uproot a fire hydrant and there was a serious house fire.

One of the policeman remarks how "things have been really weird on this block the last couple of days," but the theft of the Carpathian Hound and the string of apparently erratic crimes following in its footsteps constitutes the best part of the plot. I really appreciated how they were all linked together and loved how cleverly the hiding place for the statue was used as a piece of (prominently displayed) background scenery.

I thought that part of the plot was very well, but the explanation for the ghostly apparitions was maddeningly disappointing. Apparently, the supernatural has a sway in Carey's rendition of The Three Investigators, which makes me very, very hesitant about her other contributions to the series. I do not want to see ghosts, astral projections or any kind of magic seriously being used as a potential explanation in detective fiction. There always has to be a natural answer to apparent supernatural phenomena in detective fiction.

So I really feel split on The Mystery of the Invisible Dog: on the one hand, I really liked the parts of the plot which dealt with the theft of the Carpathian Hound, but disliked the supernatural aspect of the story. Guess the next time I pick up a novel about The Three Investigators, it'll be one by either Robert Arthur or William Arden.

But for my next blog-post, I'll be returning to the Golden Age of Mysteries. So stay tuned!