4/25/15

The Fog is Rising


"Any truth is better than indefinite doubt."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Yellow Face," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1893)
I've been cranking out reviews and filler posts on a semi-regular basis for over four years and received around a dozen offers over that period to accept review copies, which I all turned down. The kind gestures from these publishers were appreciated, but you'll need a smooth talking conman to even make me consider touching a contemporary thriller or something reeking of neo-noir.

Last week, a new and independent publisher, Dean Street Press, was kind enough to send me two e-books that fitted this niche corner perfectly, The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930) by Ianthe Jerrold, which feature an introduction by Curt Evans – who's still far ahead of me on this trail of obscurity.  

The synopsis and introduction for The Studio Crime is what grabbed my attention and immediately tossed it on the top of the pile. I did "see certain resemblances to Golden Age murder master John Dickson Carr" in the plot summery. How could I resist? 

The Studio Crime begins on "a foggy night," as a small party is gathering in the lower floor, studio apartment of Laurence Newtree, where the thick fog inspires the guests to discuss murder and the psychology of its perpetrators. One of them remarks, "it's a bad night for most things," but "a good night for crime." Someone agreed.

Gordon Frew is the upstairs neighbor of Newtree, a collector of oriental rugs and bronze statues, who expected the party to drop by later that evening, but doesn't respond to their knocking. The tightly closed front door is partially demolished to discover Frew slumped over his writing table, garbed in a dressing gown, with a brass knife-handle protruding from between his shoulder blades. There is a back window, wide open, with a drop of several feet on top of a sloping roof of an outhouse, which throws the concept of a locked room mystery out of the window. However, I'll get back to this point in a moment.

Detective-Inspector Hembrow of Scotland Yard is put on the case and finds among the party guests an old friend and ally, John Christmas, who assisted him on several previous investigations such as "the extraordinary affair known as the Museum murder" – in which a journalist was found murdered in the reading room of British Museum. The names of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are evoked more than once, but I found Christmas and Hembrow very reminiscent of the good natured, woolgathering amateur and the more fact-based, Man of the Yard from the Anthony Berkeley mold. But Christmas said it better:
"I am afraid my methods are not what Hembrow would call sound. The sound detective collects facts and deduces his theory from them. I prefer to create a theory out of the broad characteristics of the case, and then test the facts to see if they support my theory. If they don't, of course the theory falls to ground; and if no other rises from the ruins to take its place, I have to give the affair up as hopeless."
Well, there's an abundance of odd characteristics and seemingly conflicting facts to build multiple theories around, which should keep any armchair detective as occupied as Christmas. First of all, there were the peculiar encounters in the fog with a mysterious man in a fez. You have to wonder if this aspect of the plot influenced John Dickson Carr when he wrote The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) and The Punch and Judy Murders (1937). Secondly, there's a large network of hidden, cross-relationship between the victim and many of the suspects, from a ghost writer to the owners of a rundown antique shop, surrounded with a smorgasbord of 1920s tropes: wills, pieces of papers, lost handkerchief, etc.

However, Jerrold's writing and characterization lifted The Studio Crime well above the average detective yarn from that period, but I just have one problem with the solution – which has to do with the locked front door. Mild spoilers ahead!

The final twist implies the murder of Gordon Frew was an impossible crime, but it was never explained how one of the people involved was able to walk out of the studio and leave the door locked from the inside. I read the book over several days and thought I might have missed or forgotten something, went back and forth. Searched for keywords and reread some parts, but I can’t find it. The door was definitely locked from the inside and it was Christmas who opened it: "...Christmas who, with his arm through the door, turned the key in the lock with a sharp click." So how did that one person manage to leave the room and leave the key on the inside of the door in lock-position?  

I encountered a similar problem with Kay Cleaver Strahan's Footprints (1929), which was well written and characterized with an intriguing problem, but the final revelation lacked an explanation for the impossible component of the plot. And they were both published in the same year! 

Well, let's end this lukewarm review here, but I'll get back Dead Man's Quarry before long and that one doesn't include an impossible crime for me to get disappointed over, if it isn't properly handled.

4/17/15

The Man from Taured


"Someone had only to ask them how a man might be murdered inside a locked room, or how many words could be anagrammed from PEORIA, or whatever, and they had to find out the answer. They were possessed, if you like, by demons of problem-solving. The majority could only shake their heads at the time-wasting foolishness of it all."
- John Sladek (author of Black Aura, 1974) 
There's a string of filler-posts in the archived section, The Muniment Room, collecting instances of that much-maligned plot-device, The Locked Room, invading our normal, everyday world with its insanity. I managed to churn out five parts, before running out of examples. You can read them here: I, II, III, IV and V.

Well, I recently stumbled across a gem of a story, involving an apparent traveler from a parallel universe and an impossible disappearance from a locked-and guarded hotel room, but everything seems to indicate it's just another urban legend – which was reportedly written down as an anecdote in Into Thin Air: People Who Disappear (1979) by Paul Begg. The premise was also too good to be true, because it read as a plot outline for a hitherto unknown, lost manuscript of a third Thackeray Phin novel.

The account of the incident may vary from one telling to another and the background details are vague, but here's the main gist of the story.

Somewhere in the hot, sweltering summer of 1954, a bearded businessman from Europe arrived at Haneda Airport, Tokyo, which was a common commute for the man as he spoke fluent Japanese – among other languages. There was nothing uncommon about the man, but that changed the moment custom officials took a peek at his documents. The man was from a non-existent country named Taured, situated on the border between France and Spain, but the man's passport looked legit and "normal" – as it showed visa stamps proving he had traveled to various countries across the globe. However, the company he was having a meeting with had never heard of him and neither had the hotel he had booked a room at.

Naturally, the man was convinced he was being the subject of an elaborate hoax and claimed Taured had existed for a thousand years, but our maps only showed the tiny Principality of Andorra where the man's home country was supposed to be.

The custom officials detained the man in a nearby hotel in a top floor room and stationed a pair of immigration officers in front of the door, but when they enter the room on the following morning the man has vanished – alongside his personal documents from police custody! There were only two possible exists in the room: a window with a hundred feet drop and a door that was locked from the outside and guarded.

There you have a potential premise for an impossible crime novel and I'm convinced it was started by a frequent flyer from the 1950s, who killed time on the plane by reading detective-and SF stories. However, that still doesn't give us a rational answer as to how an inter-dimensional traveler could've disappeared from a locked and guarded hotel room. So I came up with two possible solutions for you to pick from, but they have one weakness: they depend on a conspiracy with a small gang of accomplishes to pull it off, which might even be a government agency. Who knows. It was the Cold War. That would be the only explanation I could offer for the disappearance of the Taured documents from police custody.

First of all, the explanation for the country of Taured and the official-looking documents remains the same in either scenario. The preposterous story in combination with properly stamped papers from an alternative time-line was meant to throw custom officials of their routine, which prevented the man from being properly processed. Technically, the man hadn't broken any laws, because all of his travel documents seemed in order. Just not for this particular strand of reality.

Now there are two possible ways the escape from the hotel room could've worked, but they aren't exactly elegant and lean heavily on accomplishes buzzing around in-and outside of the hotel. But that's because I only have some sketchy, surface details to work with.


Scenario 1: the man was locked in a hotel room on the top floor with a hundred feet drop beneath the windowsill. There were (apparently) no balconies on that side of the hotel and bare of any narrow side-ledges. However, a platform for window cleaners can move freely, up and down, without attracting any suspicion. One or two accomplishes lower the platform to the window of the occupied room and whisk away the traveler. They take the service elevator to the garage, while the man is probably hiding inside a laundry basket or donned the window cleaners uniform with sunglasses – never to be seen or heard from again as they sped away in an unmarked van.

I don't know if the window was found latched from the inside, but a piece of strong, thin thread could do the trick. Or another (sinister) accomplish, such as one of the immigration officers, could've locked the window when he was pretending to inspect it – after discovering the hotel room empty.

Scenario 2: this scenario takes some gross liberties with the story and presumes a lot, but, again, I have very little to work with here. The first presumption is that the staff of the hotel is involved in the conspiracy to get that man out of custody. The second presumption is that there is a change of the guards halfway through the night. The third presumption is that the first two guards were tired and a little careless in handing over the guard.

Let's assume the hotel manager (imagine a Japanese version of Basil Fawlty) has been breaking his head how to get that man out of the hotel, before the proper authorities get involved, when halfway through the night a fresh pair of officers appear to relieve the first two and, before he knows it, blurs out they're guarding room E-11 – instead of E-12. The manager accompanies them to the floor, while chatting with them to keep their attention occupied, and when the elevator door opens one of the guards immediately comes towards them. It was the guard standing on the right side of the door of E-12, left side of room E-13, while the one the right side of E-12 remained in his position. The fresh guards didn't notice the original position of the guard and simply assumed stood guard on the left side of E-11. The second pair of officers was now guarding an empty hotel room.

After the change of guards, the manager immediately called room E-12 to explain the situation to the traveler and that he would come up presently with an early breakfast. The guards wouldn't be suspicious about a guest having an early breakfast and they hear the voice from E-12 speaking fluent Japanese, while they were guarding some crazy European. The breakfast is brought to the room by the manager on a covered trolley, which would serve as a temporary hiding place for the traveler – while being wheeled pass the guards next door. Guards would hear the knock of the manager being answered in Japanese and the manager humbly apologizing for the delay. While they hear this typical, mundane hotel scene, the manager serves a dirty plate and used cup of coffee as the traveler worms himself inside the trolley. So in case they checked that room, they found traces of a one-night guest who probably had an early flight.

This way the phantom guest who never checked in and the phantom guest who never checked out are actually one and the same person.

Well, that's the best I could muster. Hopefully, I have made the ghosts of John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie proud. Anyhow, I've rambled on long enough. I'll be back before long with a regular review.

P.S.: You can find many versions of this story by searching for "the man from Taured."

4/16/15

Gasping for Breath


"They're queer-looking things... some of 'em look like sea-monsters that haven't grown up."
 - Sgt. Heath (S.S. van Dine's The Dragon Murder Case, 1934) 
The Case of the Gold-digger's Purse (1942) is the twenty-sixth entry in Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason series and the opening of the story enmeshed the cunning defense-attorney in a tangle of extortion, theft and murder – which began with a seemingly uninteresting and innocent consultation on gold fish.

Harrington Faulkner is in the real-estate business, where he amassed a king's ransom, but only cultivated a single passion to spend his dollars on: breeding gold fish.

Faulkner raised a particular strain of Veiltail Moor Telescopes, a gold fish completely cloaked in funeral black and often referred to as the "Fish of Death," but this school of rare fish are suffering from a deadly decease known as gill fever. A young, poor chemist and pet shop employee, Tom Gridley, developed a formula that cures gill fever. However, Gridley is suffering from tuberculoses and should take a break from work to recover, but he can't afford to leave his job and now his beautiful girlfriend, Sally Madison, is extorting thousands of dollars from Faulkner – in exchange for the formula.

A gold-digging extortionist and a bout of gill fever aren't the only plagues pestering the aquarist. Faulkner has had a fall-out with his business partner, Elmer Carson, who slapped a restraining order on Faulkner, which forbids him from removing the aquarium and its content from their shared office.

Mason is reluctant to get involved, but curiosity keeps getting the best of him until he and Della Street are in legitimate danger of becoming accessories after the fact in the murder of Harrington Faulkner. It begins when the office is burgled and the aquarium looted, which gives Mason an opportunity to make some astute deduction about the soup ladle, the pole it was mounted on and the size of the room. By the way, the theft was briefly teased as a locked room mystery. 

The gold fish are eventually found, alongside Faulkner's body, on the bloodstained bathroom floor of his home and Mason's typical, almost routine manipulation in murder cases has now dug him a hole for two. 

One of the most attractive aspects of the Perry Mason series, as an unabashed neo-classicist, is how densely plotted each novel is. There's barely any fat on the bone, so to speak. The multitude of cross-and hidden relationships and the motives that drives those relationships are often complex, which is exactly the case here, but there's also the physical evidence and how you can play around with that. There's a missing bullet from a previous murder attempt on Faulkner, a half dead gold fish that could indicate the time of death, fooling around with fingerprints and cheque stubs – and the titular purse stuffed with damning evidence.

Mason has to play a tight game of bluff poker and live up to his name as a courtroom magician in a preliminary hearing to prevent a murder trial for the wrong person. The courtroom chapters tended to drag on a bit, but you can't blame craftsmen, Gardner and Mason, for taking the time to work their magic.

In short: a good mystery from a solid series. Hopefully, the next review/blog-post will be substantially better written than this one.

The previous Perry Mason novels I have reviewed:

The Case of the Gold-digger's Purse (1942)
The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (1943)
The Case of the Lonely Heiress (1948)

3/18/15

Fishing for Answers


"A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime."
-
Mark Twain
The 51st volume of Case Closed, known to most as Detective Conan, starts off with the concluding chapter of a story that began in the previous volume, in which Conan and Harley were reminiscing over the telephone about one of their first murder cases.

Over a period of several years, two men apparently took their own lives while riding alone on a ski lift. They were shot through the head and a bag filled with snow was found next to them, which could be interpreted as a calling card of the malevolent snow spirit – whom reputedly haunts the white-topped mountain peaks of the region. I mentioned in my review of the previous volume I had a rough idea how the murderer pulled off this trick. Well, I was partially right, but nice to see how Aoyama took a different approach to create this illusion, because I was expecting something along the lines of the no-footprints trick from volume 20.

However, the amount of familiar (side) characters and detectives crawling the slopes of that resort made Aoyama's bustling, ever-expending universe look like a small world after all.

The second story can be filed away under filler material and consists of two chapters. Conan, Rachel and Richard Moore are enjoying some refreshments at Café Poirot when they are launched into a search operation for a missing child. The only clues they have to go one are a some cryptic text messages of which this was the last one, "I'm scared of dying like a fish in a net." It's short. It's simple. It's filler. But passable filler.

In the third story, Doc Agasa takes Conan and the Junior Detective League along to the beach to dig around for clams. At the beach, they meet a group of college students and lovers of delicious shellfish, but they become very gloomy when a recent hit-and-run accident is mentioned. The one who appeared to have been constantly depressed is found not long after in what looks like a suicide, but Conan figures there's more to it than that and figures out how someone managed to poison a bottle of green tea without being observed – which makes this an impossible crime story and a pretty clever one at that.

However, the best poisoning story (IMHO) from this series still comes from the 15th volume, in which a moneylender is administrated cyanide in his locked office building. The explanation is given in a chapter aptly titled, "The Devil's Summons." 

The next story is another short one, spanning only two chapters, which spoofs "Tortoiseshell Holmes," a cat-detective created by Jiro Akagawa, but being aware of the cozy cat detectives would be enough for us (Western readers) to appreciate this story. Moore has to baby-sit his wife's new kitten, Ricky, who's giving subtle hints that are helping him deciphering a coded text message for a client. These code-cracking stories are next to impossible to solve, but I managed to solve this one instinctively. Or, as I like to call it, "educated guesswork."

Finally, the last three chapters form the last story of this volume and returns to one of the locations from volume 5, but the story turned out to be a bit of a disappointment – in spite of two different locked room mysteries. The first one concerns a window that was nailed shut from the inside, but can still be opened by a demon to peek out and this has been witnessed. This is followed by a hanging in a room of which the doors and windows were locked from the inside, but the tricks were as old as the house they were staged and there was a simple, elegant explanation for the second impossible situation.

The hanging victim had a special key chain on her belt that attached the keys to a tape measure that stretches for three feet and springs back when you let go of it. It was suggested that the murderer pulled the key under the crack of the door, locked it, and let go of it – so it would spring back to her waist. However, the key wasn't found on the chain, but inside the room on top of a keyboard. It couldn't have been tossed under the crack of the door into the room. So how should it have been done? The key should've been replaced with a duplicate on the chain that looked different from the original key of the door. Maybe with a plastic cover over its head. Or a label reading, "office," or something. The original key was right there in the room, which would make it unnecessary to try if any of the other keys fitted the lock in the door. Especially if they appear to be for locks outside of the house. I know it sounds disappointingly simple, but not as disappointingly simple as the actual solution.

Anyhow, this was a decent collection of stories with a dud at the end, but these collections are always fun to read and good stories to pick up your reading pace again after a short break. Yes, I'm still steady on schedule with being behind on all my reading.

3/5/15

Uncage the Black Lizard, Part VII: Closing the Book


"If you drink much from a bottle marked poison it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later."
- Alice (Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)
A few days later than anticipated, but finally was able to turn over the final page of Otto Penzler's mammoth-like anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), which packs nearly a thousand pages worth of impossible crime fiction in one book – from Edgar Allan Poe and John Dickson Carr to Edward D. Hoch and Bill Pronzini. 

But, first of all, the reviews up till now of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:

- Uncage the Black Lizard, Part 7: Closing the Book.

The final four stories that round out this collection are, thinly, spread over the remaining two categories, One Man's Poison, Signor, is Another's Meat and Our Final Hope is Flat Despair, which borrowed from another locked room anthology to fill them. That I found to be slightly disappointing. 

"The Poisoned Dow '08" by Dorothy L. Sayers was originally published in the February 25, 1933, issue of The Passing Show and first collected in Hangman's Holiday (1933). Sayers is primarily known today for her creation of a well-bred, aristocratic amateur sleuth, named Lord Peter Wimsey, but not as well known is her creation of Montague Egg – a traveling salesman who lives by rules and wisdoms contained within the Salesman's Handbook. There are eleven stories featuring Montague Egg, which were collected in Hangman's Holiday and In the Teeth of the Evidence (1939), and the opening of this story is (as far as I remember) fairly standard for the series: Egg arrives at the home of a customer, Lord Borrodale, only to be greeted by a uniformed policeman. Lord Borrodale was discovered in his study, door locked from the inside and windows protected with burglarproof locks, succumbed to nicotine poisoning from a doctored bottle of wine. However, the sealed bottle was opened in front of Borrodale and, except for the victim, nobody seems to have had the opportunity to administrate the poison. Egg finds an explanation that would've received the nodding approval of John Rhode, but the clues left for the reader to reconstruct a complete picture were rather sparse. It's a pity Egg and Wimsey never collaborated together on a case.

"A Traveller's Tale" by Margaret Frazer originally appeared in The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000), edited by Mike Ashley, which places an impossible situation in medieval England. A wine merchant, William Shellaston, his wife and young son are found dead inside a carriage, but none of their servants heard any outcry nor saw someone approaching the wagon – so how could someone have administrated poison to them? I think the situation in combination with its solution makes it closer related to an "How-Dun-It," such as Sayers' Unnatural Death (1927), but close enough to qualify as a locked room mystery. Fairly good, but not very memorable. I didn't remember anything from this story from my first reading, years ago.

"Death at the Excelsior" by P.G. Wodehouse, of Wooster and Jeeves fame, was first published in the December 1914 issue of Pearson's Magazine, which I reviewed early last year – alongside some other uncollected short stories. You can read the review here.

The final story is collected under Our Final Hope is Flat Despair and is accompanied by the following description, "some stories simply can't be categorized," which in this case isn't entirely true. I would file this story away under a good example of a Hoist On Their Own Petard and it came from the pen of a fellow mystery blogger, Connoisseur in Murder and successful crime novelist.

"Waiting for Godstow" by Martin Edwards was first published in The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, which gives the reader a front-row seat to the unraveling of a common, garden-variety murder case from a local news item. Claire Doherty has convinced her hunky toy boy to bump off her cheating husband, Karl, in a hit-and-run "accident," but Karl turns up alive after the job was supposed to be done. What's more: Karl accidentally killed his old mistress! So how could her husband murder someone at one end of town when there were people who swore he was somewhere else, while yet another person is convinced he just ran him over with a stolen car. The only thing Claire can eventually do is waiting for Sgt. Godstow, who's never even aware that's handling an impossible crime. I think this story would've made a great template for an episode of Columbo or Monk.

This was a good, solid round of stories to end a good, if uneven, collection of locked room mysteries, impossible crimes and miraculous thefts on.

So in summation:

The pros of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:

- The most frequently, over anthologized-and collected stories (e.g. Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue") are, by and large, contained to the opening column of stories.
- The inclusion of some truly obscure, rarely reprinted stories that are hard to find (e.g. James Yaffe's "The Department of Impossible Crimes," J.E. Gurdon's "The Monkey Trick" and Nicholas Olde's "The Invisible Weapon.")
- The anthology patched-up some obvious gaps in my reading (e.g. Lord Dunsany's "The Two Bottles of Relish" and Jepson & Eustace's "The Tea Leaf.")
- The anthology contained a few great new discoveries (e.g. Manly Wade Wellman's "A Knife Between Brothers," Fredric Brown's "The Laughing Butcher," Stephan Barr's "The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms," Meade & Eustace's "The Mystery of the Strong Room" and Erle Stanley Gardner's "The Bird in the Hand.")
- Good introductions by the editor, Otto Penzler.

The cons of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:

- There were too many stories that repeated the same kind of tricks (e.g. icicle weapons, suicides disguised as murders and the same variations with time-and space manipulation), which can give new readers the impression the locked room is a one-trick pony.
- Reprinted a number of stories originally written for The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, which is an anthology fans more than likely have already read.
- There were, altogether, too many stories I had already read in this anthology.
- Allowing John Sladek's "By An Unknown Hand," at the moment only available in Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2003), to escape, to be anthologized, yet again. I know there are a lot of mystery fans who'd love to read it, but don't want to buy a SF-collection for one detective story.
 
Results may vary from reader-to-reader. I'll be back soon with a regular review.

2/28/15

Uncage the Black Lizard, Part VI: Breaking and Entering


"A thief is a creative artist, devising brilliant ways to steal his prize, and a detective following in his footsteps, hunting for faults, is no better than a mere critic."
- Kaito Kid (Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, a.k.a. Detective Conan, vol. 16) 
I should begin this sixth post in my ongoing reviews of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), edited by Otto Penzler, with listing the links to the previous reviews, which I forgot the last few times.

The reviews up till now of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries:


Stolen Sweets Are Best is the seventh category of stories posing more than one answer to a simple question: "How does a thief remove valuables from a closely guarded room?"

"The Bird in the Hand" by Erle Stanley Gardner was first published in the April 9, 1932 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and first collected in The Amazing Adventures of Lester Leith (1980), which might end up as one of my favorite stories from this anthology. An international jewel thief is found murdered in his hotel room, bound to a chair with a knife driven through his heart, but the trunk of the victim seems to have "evaporated into thin air" – as it could not have been smuggled out of the hotel without it being noticed. The case is brought to the attention of Gardner's anti-hero, a crook named Lester Leith, who doesn't only figure out how the trunk disappeared, but also were the stones were hidden. It's a cubbyhole I have seen used before in these kinds of stories, but the plan Leith's devises to pilfer some of the diamonds for himself is what gave the story its punch and a second impossible situation.

"The Gulverbury Diamonds" by David Durham was first published in The Exploits of Fidelity Dove (1924), which Penzler notes is "one of the rarest mystery books published in the twentieth century" and stars an angelic-looking woman, Fidelity Dove, running a crooked gang of lawyers, scientists and businessmen. In this story, Dove is attempting to pry the titular stones from a stage actress, Lola Marron, in order to give them back to an old, but kind, nineteenth-century style aristocrat – which his late son gave to her before committing suicide. The theft of the diamonds is partly inverted and partly a genuine locked room mystery, because the reader is aware where Dove put them. However, when Detective-Inspector Rason, from The Department of Dead Ends (1947; written as if by Roy Vickers), bursts in on her scheme, they vanish again from under their noses. A good and fun story, but it doesn't break any new ground in the plotting department.

"The Fifth Tube" by Frederick Irving Anderson was collected for the first time in The Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914), which is a character that I always perceived as the nefarious counterpart to Jacques Futrelle's The Thinking Machine. Penzler even describes Godahl in the introduction as having a "computer-like mind" that "assesses every possibility in terms of logic and probabilities," but now I think Anderson and Godahl are closer to Vincent Cornier and Dr. Barnabas Hildreth – e.g. The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011). The problem here is that of the disappearance of forty gallons of gold from a high-tech and secured company, but, somehow, this story just didn't do it for me.

"The Mystery of the Strong Room" by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace was first published in The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings (1899) and I begin to admire this writing tandem for their contribution to the locked room genre, which I seem to have really under appreciated. They produced the first collection of impossible crime stories, A Master of Mysteries (1899), "The Tea Leaf," from a 1925 issue of The Strand Magazine, cemented a now clichéd explanation and "The Mystery of the Strong Room" plays around with the kind of ideas that were more common during the Golden Age. A valuable diamond is swiped for a replica, while it was safely put away in a custom-made strong room. The room is even outfitted with an electric alarm system that'll go off the moment the key is inserted into the keyhole. But, on the eve of the nineteenth century, Meade and Eustace gave two delightfully simplistic examples of how a twentieth century-style security system can by-passed with a little misdirection. Good stuff!

"No Way Out" by Dennis Lyds, better known as Micheal Collins, originally appeared in the February 1964 issue of the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, which combines the hardboiled voice of the American private eye with some great Carter Dickson-effects. "Slot-Machine" Kelly is one of two one-armed private detectives created by Collins, but I believe Dan Fortune eventually became the character that stuck around. However, it's the former who handles this case as Kelly is hired to beef up the security around five, highly priced rubies, but the end result is a dead guard, stolen gems and a murderous thief who, for all intents and purposes, doesn't seem to have existed. I figured out pretty fast how the murderer remained unseen, but should've caught on quicker how the rubies were made to disappear. This is the kind of story that makes me want to pick up a Bill Pronzini novel again.

By the way, the story opens with Kelly discussing impossible crimes and gives an example from a rather well known mystery writer, which provoked to the following response: "the guy who wrote that one drinks cheaper booze than you do." You know, if this wasn't Renaissance Era of our genre, I would've acted like an indignant fanboy and mentioned Raymond "Drinking is My Hobby" Chandler.

A good round of fun, clever stories about scheming crooks, gentleman thieves and conmen in what are essentially "How'll They Get Away With Its," which are overlooked at times by mystery fans, but they're immensely fun to be burn through – especially when they're of the impossible variety. These stories were, mostly, no exception.

The stories I skipped in this category: "The Strange Case of Streinkelwintz" by MacKinlay Kantor, which is great, but I already reviewed it as part of the short story collection It's About Crime (1960). Maurice Leblanc's "Arsène Lupin in Prison," from The Exploits of Arsène Lupin (1907), and C. Daly King's "The Episode of the Codex' Curse" from The Curious Mr. Tarrent (1935).  

Two categories, four stories and one more post left to go.

2/22/15

And This Little Piggy...


"The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892) 
Margery Allingham is often grouped together with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Dame Ngaio Marsh as one of the four "Queens of Crime" of their time, whose work garnered renewed attention during the renaissance era of the past fifteen years – resulting in numerous reprints.

The praise lobbed at Allingham's legacy is usually reserved for the series literary style, characterization and a variety of styles within the series, which ranges from 1920s thrillers and psychological studies to proper detective stories. It's a combination that charmed readers back then as well as a modern horde of mystery readers, but I had to give up on Allingham somewhere around 2006. I remember slugging through Death of a Ghost (1934), More Work for the Undertaker (1949) and abandoning Flowers for the Judge (1936) halfway through, which (mind you) was centered on an impossible disappearance. They didn't do it for me and simply never bothered with Allingham again.

Earlier this month, I read one of Allingham's short stories, "The Border-Line Case" from Mr. Campion: Criminologist (1937), in Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014) and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Had the time come to give Allingham, Campion and Lugg a second change? There's one book in particular that has always been recommended, The Case of the Late Pig (1937), if I ever wanted to take another shot at the series. And, I have to say, it's definitely the best one I have read from her thus far!

The narrator of The Case of the Late Pig is Mr. Albert Campion himself, who learns from the obituaries in The Times, read out loud by Lugg, about the untimely passing of an old acquaintance – a sadistic school bully, "Pig Peters," from Campion's schooldays. Campion remembers how Pig Peters "took three square inches of skin off" his chest with a penknife and held him "over an unlighted gas jet" until he passed out, which made Campion promise to go to his funeral one day. However, the case doesn't kick off until several months later when a murder happens at the village where the funeral took place and the victim is none other than Pig Peters!

Surprisingly, Robert Adey neglected to mention The Case of the Late Pig in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), but one of the three seemingly impossible situations that occur in this story actually has a solution that qualifies it as a (open space) locked room mystery.

Pig Peters was dozing in a deckchair when a heavy, stone flowerpot, which must have been pushed from its parapet, crushed his head but everyone is in possession of a sturdy alibi. It's such an impossible situation that official police momentarily considered it possible they're all in it together. Plot-wise, the best and most satisfying portion of the story. The way in which everyone is placed and observed different aspects of the crime, from watching the victim in his chair to seeing the flower pot sail pass an upper floor window, gives you the idea the characters are moving around in an actual three-dimensional environment and love this approach with locked room mysteries (e.g. Herbert Resnicow). The gist of the trick is old, but I never saw it used like this. So points for that.

Unfortunately, the questions surrounding the disappearance of a corpse from a secured shed and the double death of Pig Peters are given less consideration, which is a pity, but what (perhaps) initially put me off Allingham was her apparent willingness to sacrifice logical plot advancement in favor of telling a story. The example I can give from The Case of the Late Pig is how the exhumation of Pig Peters, who was supposedly buried six months before he was murdered, wasn't brought up until towards the end and it was to lure out the killer. Wouldn't that be the first thing you would do in this case? And couldn't an early exhumation have prevented the second murder? Why would the murderer take the risk to prop the second victim up like a scarecrow in a cornfield?

Otherwise, The Case of the Late Pig was a pleasantly written, passably plotted detective story that read like an episode of the Midsomer Murders. Not bad... for an Allingham.

So, my fellow Connoisseurs in Crime, are there any Allingham novels that might actually change my position on this much lauded Queen of Crime? I have Police At the Funeral (1931) and The Tiger in the Smoke (1952).