Fade Away Lane

"Hm! Yes. Ruination Street. No, I don't believe I shall find it in my maps..."
- Dr. Pilgrim (John Dickson Carr's The Lost Gallows, 1931) 
In one of my recent blog-posts, I alluded to my intention to start looking at the locked room mysteries of both the silver and small screen. I found an enticing case in the comment-section in favor of Banacek, but I had an episode from another series, namely Blacke's Magic, queued since 2013 – when I reviewed Ten Tons of Trouble (1986). A very ambitiously written, if flawed, episode about the miraculous disappearance of an enormous marble statue from a closely guarded museum.

The Street That Doesn't Exist
This short-lived NBC series ran for only one season, comprising of a pilot and twelve 45-minute episodes, which starred Hal Linden as a famous stage magician, Alexander Blacke, who moonlights as an amateur sleuth. He was basically a 1980s prototype of Jonathan Creek. Harry Morgan played the Maddy Magellan to Blacke's Creek, which he did in the role of his father and as a semi-retired con artist of the old school. So they can be added to the short list of father-and-son detective teams I mentioned in my review of Clifford Orr's The Dartmouth Murders (1929).

The episode I had queued is the seventh entry in the series, entitled Address Unknown (1986), which has a plot revolving around one of the most alluring and rarest of all impossible problems: an entire street and a alleyway that inexplicably disappears from our plain of existence! From the top of my head, I know of only two examples of vanishing streets and added one of them only recently to my TBR-pile. So there you have another reason for my renewed interest in the episode.

During the first 15-minutes, the groundwork for the plot is laid down and concerns a potential government scandal, one with ties to the army, which runs straight to the high-placed and distinguished General Wersching – who has no compunction to (covertly) threaten Blacke when he comes to the aide of an old friend. Dale Richmond is the friend in question and hot on the trail of a corruption scandal, which he hopes to substantiate with certain documents and letters. He expects these documents from one Billy Maddox. The episode actually opens with a surreptitiously meeting between these two characters, inside a dark parking garage, but Maddox needs another day to get his hands on the incriminating papers.

However, the details about this particular plot-thread is somewhat muddled, but the first ten minutes show the brewing scandal plays havoc with Dale's personal and professional life – as his character is slandered in the media as mentally unstable. They also planted a federal marshal across the street of his home. So Dale is understandably on edge, but a telephone call from Maddox lightened his mood. This is followed by a short sequence (i.e. filler) which sees Blacke using the misdirection of the stage magic to help Dale escape the attentive eye of the marshal on his doorstep.

Dale is lead to a dark, empty street, called Republic Lane, where Maddox waves him towards a dark alleyway and into an abandoned storehouse, but before any papers can change hands a shot is fired and Dale has to run for his life – until he sees two cops in a coffee joint called The Donut Hole (of course!). But here's where the whole situation becomes an impossible one. The police officers have never heard of Republic Lane and Dale is unable to retrace his steps. Eventually, they managed to find his car, but the street where the car is parked is not the same as the street where he left it. As Dale said himself, "the whole damn street is gone."

So who killed Billy Maddox and what happened to his body, but, equally important, how did an entire street disappeared into the dark of the night? Simply wiped off the face of the earth! The answer is very simplistic and something to be expected from cheap 1980s television, but I managed to miss the obvious. My explanation was far too complex and involved for this kind of television. I assumed Republic Lane was one of those realistic "stage sets" used for military exercises, which was put together and taken apart by a platoon of soldiers. After all, the scandal was connected to a high-ranking general and the shooting scene was very reminiscent of the witnessed shooting from Carter Dickson's "The New Invisible Man," collected in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), which also involved a vanishing room. So I assumed the general had called upon a few of his man to put a mere civilian in his place. Well, I was very wrong.

The rest of the episode is either cluttered or not very engaging: the plot-threads about the shooting and scandal are merely ornamental, which seem to have been written around the problem of the vanishings street and meant to eat up those minutes – until Blacke can work his magic and explain how the trick was pulled off. Same can be said about the "comedic" sub-plot: Blacke's father, Leonard, enters the picture and is followed by a string of bills pertaining to their New York apartment. But the source of those costs is not revealed until the final scene, which ended the episode on a light note. Not overly hilarious, but Leonard is a fun and loveable crook. His best scene from the episode was reminiscing how he once made a banking company disappear after taking a large deposit from a bootlegger in the 1930s.

I should also note that Blacke performed the famous bullet-catch trick when he cornered the murderer and this person attempted to shoot a way to freedom.

So, as a mystery, Address Unknown is a fairly weak and messily told detective story, which perhaps showed why the series got canned, but, regardless, I did not experience watching it as a drag. I guess the vanishing street gimmick playing out in front of me, which was the one part of the episode that was reasonably well done, intrigued me and I had fun imagining my own explanation. You've to decide for yourself whether you want to give this one a go.

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to my previous blog-post from yesterday, which is a review of Paul Halter's Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996).


The Sword in the Stone

"Whoso Pulleth Out This Sword of This Stone and Anvil, is Rightwise King Born of All England."
- Inscription on the Sword in the Stone (T.H. White's The Once and Future King, 1958)
Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996) is Paul Halter's eighth detective novel to be translated into English by John Pugmire, a modern-day purveyor of miracles, whose independent publishing house, Locked Room International, introduced a host of non-English speaking authors to a world-wide audience – such as Jean-Paul Török, Yukito Ayatsuji, Noel Vindry and Alice Arisugawa. Pugmire also reissued the shamefully neglected locked room novels by Derek Smith (e.g. Whistle Up the Devil, 1954), but I'll return to this author sooner rather than later. So, for now, let's take a look at one of Halter's most fanciful impossible crime tales.

The Invisible Circle is a short, standalone mystery novel that's best described as a clash between the Legends of the Knights of the Round Table and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939), which made for a fun and amusing detective romp.

The story takes place eight decades ago, in the year 1936, inside "a sort of castle by the sea in Cornwall." A wooden bridge is the only structure tenuously connecting the castle to the mainland and without this reach-across the place is effectively an isolated island. So you can probably make an educated guess about the fate of the bridge. Gerry Pearson is the sole occupant and owner of the castle, rumored to have belonged to Uther Pendragon, "Arthur's father," which he decided to put to good use as the backdrop for "a grotesque comedy" steeped in Arthurian legends – a real-life drama staged for a small group of people.

One of Pearson's specially selected guests is his niece, Madge, who wisely decided to take along her friend, Bill Page, but they're not the only ones who received an invitation from wicked Uncle Gerry.

The guest list Pearson compiled consists of the following characters: a white-bearded historian, named Josiah Hallahan, who's "the acknowledged expert on all things Arthurian" and this earned him the nickname of Merlin the Enchanter. Gail Blake is a Cornish bard and with his black beard "he looked more like a pirate or a smuggler than a poet." So they make for a nice pair of characters, but there are also Frank Dunbar and Ursula Brown: the former is a disillusioned and heavy drinking journalist whose downward slope began when the moment he had met the latter. They're both invited to the party! Finally, Pearson requested the presence of Dr. Charles Jerrold, an imminent psychiatrist, who was asked to attend as "a trustworthy witness."

Upon their arrival, Pearson casts each of them in the role of an Arthurian character and explains they were invited to be "privileged witnesses." The privilege to witness a murder. His own murder. Pearson says he knows who will strike him down and "this person will have constructed a perfect alibi," which proves this person "could not physically have committed the murder" and even pointed out his potential murderer – as well as showing everyone the instrument of his destruction. On a rocky cliff, a sword is embedded in a huge rock. Originally, the rock had been hollow, but has now been filled with mortar that irretrievably trapped the blade.

It seems completely impossible for anyone, except the ghost of King Arthur, to pull the sword from the stone, but Pearson instructs everyone to make a unique mark on the grip of the weapon – so "it can be formally identified." That sets the stage for one part of the murderous melodrama that's about the unfold and the next step is voluntary locking their host inside a tower room: one with a door that can be bolted from the inside and is sealed from the outside with sealing wax, which they're instructed to mark with a personal object like a signet ring or a pendant. The room appears to be simply impenetrable, but a cry pierces the silence of the castle that same evening and when they finally manage to break down the door they find the body of their host: the famous sword of King Arthur planted between his shoulder blades.

So there are two intriguing, closely connected and seemingly impossible situations: one of them is the retrieval of the sword from the stone and the other is the locked room murder of Pearson. I first have to comment on the sword in the stone.

I know of only one other impossible crime novel that toyed with a similar problem: The Stingaree Murders (1932) by W. Shepard Pleasants. The book takes place aboard a luxurious houseboat, floating across the Louisiana marsh country, which becomes the scene of no less than three seemingly impossible situations. Firstly, there's a stabbing on a skiff without anyone being near the victim, but the unusual knife is considered to be an important piece of evidence and is safely driven into the hardwood deck of the boat – sinking it as tightly into the woodwork as the sword in the stone. Only an axe could've relieved the knife from the deck, but the second impossibility from that book is how someone, effortlessly, plucked the knife out of the wood.

As similar as both problems appear, Halter and Pleasants both imagined completely different explanations as to how these feats were pulled off. I rather enjoyed Halter's trickery here, which I foresaw, because (somehow) a childhood memory of The Pirates of Dark Water came bubbling to the surface. One of the iconic weapons from that show made me see how the trick could be accomplished. Anyway, I found the whole sword in the stone aspect of the overall locked room trick to be fairly clever and original.

However, the locked room trick that explains the murder of Pearson, while equally clever and novel, is bugged by some noticeable problems and legitimate objections: one of them is the requirement of a pretty dense accomplice. I won't give away any spoilers, but this is a problem I also recently found in John Dickson Carr's The Ghosts' High Noon (1969). The second objection is the murderer's movements and maneuvering, which not only seems very difficult, but a near physical impossibility and can be counted as one of those physically tasking schemes that makes murder look like an Olympic sport – e.g. Agatha Christie's Towards Zero (1944), John Russell Fearn's The Crimson Rambler (1946) and Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan (1950). So the locked room murder might not quite convince every single reader.

Luckily, Halter did not sink all of his creative juices for this novel into the impossible situation, but also tried to write a Christie-style whodunit with a least-likely-suspect revelation towards the end – which is preceded by a story stuffed with false identities, hints of madness, family secrets and several additional murders. Nearly every part of the plot seemed to have been properly clued or foreshadowed. Halter also seemed to have tried his best to provide an answer for some of the weaknesses of the plot and one of them remained rather obvious: one that involves the past relationships of certain characters. A flaw the book shares with Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936).

So, while the plot from The Invisible Circle is far from watertight and the flat characterization did not lend itself to describe the mountain terror and breakdown of civilization, which one has come to expect from such island-bound crime novels as Anthony Berkeley's Panic Party (1934) and Herbert Brean's The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954), I still found it an immensely enjoyable detective story. Halter delivered the kind of locked room mystery I expected from Richard Forrest's Death at King Arthur's Court (2005), but that one never fully delivered on its premise.

The Invisible Circle is as imperfect as Forrest's mystery novel, but it gave you everything it promised. Not always with the same grace and ingenuity as a top-drawer Carr or Christie, but Halter delivered on the promise of a locked room novel deeply steeped in Arthurian mythology with a dash of the Queen of Crime. So I was left far from dissatisfied.


The Locked Room Reader VI: The Hit List

"You have a dead body in a locked room, locked from the inside perhaps, and the question is how on earth could they be in that position with no one else available to have committed the crime. That's it, really, in a nutshell."
- Robert Adey (Miles Jupp in a Locked Room, BBC Radio 4, May 21, 2012) 
Only a few day ago, I posted a review of a short story by Herbert Resnicow, "The Christmas Bear," in which I linked to a list of locked room stories and this gave me the idea to compile an inventory of all the locked room lists posted across the internet – a list of lists. I know what you're thinking: this sounds like the blog-post equivalent of a landfill (i.e. filler-post). You'd be absolutely correct!

Well, I guess I'll start filling up this post with the lists that can be found on this very blog, which is a bit self-serving, but it's a convenient starting point.

I compiled two best-of lists, "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels" and "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries II: Short Stories and Novellas," which are two of the most popular blog-posts on this blog. They're due for an update, but I’ve been told they're excellent for expanding the wishlist of both the novice reader and full-blown locked room addicts. I also composed a list under the self-explanatory title of "The Reader is Warned: A List of My Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries."

There's an additional list I put together, "Dutch Impossible Crime Novels," but that one can be found on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, which has several overviews of non-English detective stories – including "Japanese Impossible Crime Novels." A number of locked room authors are also mentioned in the articles discussing "French Golden Age" and "Portuguese Golden Age." On the page "What Not To Do—A Guide for Murderers," the advice is given to aspiring murderers to "wait in a dark alley with a big stick" instead of going through all of the trouble of creating a risky locked room trick (e.g. John Russell Fearn's The Crimson Rambler, 1946).

The next entry on this list is "A Locked Room Library," strung together by John Pugmire of Locked Room International, which covers three different lists: a top 15 of locked room novels selected by a group of mystery writers and critics in 1981 – a group that included Robert Adey, Douglas G. Greene, Edward D. Hoch, William Link, Bill Pronzini and Donald A. Yates, et al. The second half of the list, "99 Novels for a Locked Room Library," was put together in 2007 by an alliance of English-and French speaking locked room enthusiasts and the project was headed by a French anthologist, Roland Lacourbe. Finally, there are fourteen additional titles added to the bottom of the list, which received four or more votes, but were not available in French. So they did not make the final cut.

On the page that hosts "A Locked Room Library," you can find several supplementary lists, "Locked Rooms and Other Improbable Crimes" and "More Locked Rooms and Improbable Crimes," which were respectively compiled by Steve Lewis and John Pugmire. You can also find an article by Pugmire on the MysteryFile website about "Paul Halter, A Master of Locked Rooms."

The Thrilling Detective Website is the home of aficionados of the hardboiled gumshoe, but one of their pages, "And Throw Away the Key: Locked Room P.I. Mysteries," gives ten examples of seemingly impossible crimes occurring on those mean streets of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Surprisingly, the Thackery Phin novels by John Sladek are mentioned, but they got publications dates for Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977) completely wrong. I also think the list could be appended with Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941), Manly Wade Wellman's Find My Killer (1947), Bill S. Ballinger's The Body Beautiful (1949), Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) and Roy Huggins' 77 Sunset Strip (1959).

One of the classics
I found the following list only recently, "IMBb: Locked Room Mysteries + Impossible Crimes," which is an enticing accumulation of movies and TV-series that played around with the locked room ploy. Obviously, this area of impossible crimes I have to take a closer look at. Literally! So I might give a movie like Grief Street (1931) or The Verdict (1946) a shot one of these days.

TV Tropes has a page dedicated to the "Locked Room Mystery" and is notable for some of unusual examples it found from a wide variety of mediums, which include anime, video games and even tabletop games.

I previously mentioned John Pugmire of Locked Room International and on his website, under 'Articles," there's a wealth of engrossing and genre-related material – such as "The Top 50 Locked Room Mysteries" (PDF) by Jonathan Scott and "Ten French Impossible Crime Stories Available in English" (DOC). And much, much more.

Hal White is a modern practitioner of the miracle crime and created a contemporary version of Father Brown, whose cases are chronicled in The Mysteries of Reverend Dean (2008), but you can find a wide selection of "Suggested Reading & Viewing" on his website – alongside a long page of interesting links. Oh, look, my blog is on it!

Back in 2014, an Irish crime writer, named Adrian McKinty, received some press when several websites published his "10 Favorite Locked Room Mysteries," which had some interesting and unusual picks. My fellow blogger, Les Blatt from Classic Mysteries, published his "Favorite Locked Door Mysteries" on Flash Light Worthy Books. Some of the usual suspects make an appearance, but Les also picked Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and Glyn Carr's Death on Milestone Buttress (1951). You won't find those two often on any kind of list, but they're great mystery novels (especially Pepper Tree).

You can find a fairly standard list of "Locked Room Mysteries" on GoodReads and the official Wikipedia article has a decent list of English, French and Japanese locked room novels, but not particular noteworthy compared to other lists in this blog-post.

Finally, The Locked Room Mystery website has several interesting list of impossible crime stories and novels, which include "A Locked Room Christmas," "Locked Room Anthologies: Recommended Reading" and "Locked Room 101: An Introduction to the Masters."

I think these were all of the noteworthy locked room lists and impossible crime related articles, but let me know in the comments if I missed one.


The Impossible Shot

"A minute examination of the circumstances served only to make the case more complex."
- Dr. John H. Watson (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Empty House," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1903)
John Russell Fearn was primarily an author of science-fiction and helped fill the popular magazines of his days, which included Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, but had to adopt a number of pennames to toil in the field of crime-fiction – such as "John Slate" and "Hugo Blayn."

A Toronto-based magazine, named Star Weekly, was one of the periodicals that printed his detective stories and his first (short) novel for the publication, Within That Room! (1946), was a locked room mystery! It was published under his own name, but Fearn experienced some success in the same magazine with one of his science-fiction series, "The Golden Amazon," which forced him to switch to pseudonyms for his subsequent detective novels. So the Star Weekly began to publish his mystery novels, such as Shattering Glass (1947) and The Fourth Door (1948), under pennames like "Thornton Ayre" and "Frank Russell." One of these enigmatically titled detective novels has always intrigued me.

The Crimson Rambler (1947) has been described as being "written in the vein of John Dickson Carr" and how "no discerning collector of locked room and impossible crime stories" can't afford to miss out on it, which worked like a dog whistle on me – drawing me to it with a lure that I can't ignore. So here we are!

The enigmatic book-title is the nickname of the main-character, Chief Inspector Douglas Gossage of Scotland Yard, whose brick-red complexion, "an efflorescence which wandered unchecked far beyond the normal confines to the roots of his close-cropped grey hair and the back of his neck," earned him the colorful moniker. Gossage apparently has a reputation at the Yard for cracking tough cases, because the book opens on a gloomy November morning in his office with a visit from a reluctant colleague.

Divisional Inspector Craddock is faced with an inexplicable murder case at Darnworth Manor, "a big, rambling place some hundreds of years old," where the owner, Werner Darnworth, was shot through the head inside his private study – which seems pretty straightforward and uncomplicated. But the door was locked from the inside and the key was still in the lock. It had to be wriggled out "on to a piece of newspaper under the door" and the sole window in the room was of "the non-opening variety." A solid frame of mullioned panes. On top of that, the divisional surgeon extracted a pellet from an air rifle from the victim's skull. A large and cumbersome weapon for an indoors killing!

After unceremoniously dumping Craddock ("I don't want you, or the local inspector, or even the Angel Gabriel"), the Chief Inspector takes his right-hand man, Sergeant Harry Blair, to the scene of the crime. There they are confronted with a fairly typical pool of suspects: the wife of the victim, Mrs. Jessica Darnworth, who’s an invalid and blamed her husband for the accident that bound her to a wheelchair. She relies on her companion-help, Louise. Sheila Darnworth is the youngest daughter and an aspiring mystery novelist, but, at the time of the shooting, she was heard playing the piano in the music room. Elaine Darnworth is the second and eldest child of the couple, who assists the local vet, but she away from home at the time her father was shot. Or so she claims. Both of the girls have a fiancé: Sheila is engaged to a radio engineer, Barry Crespin, who was sound asleep after a hard day of work when the deadly shot was fired. Elaine is engaged to Gregory Bride, a scientist and inventor, who received financial backing from his future father-in-law and was staying for the weekend at the manor house. Finally, there's the handyman-chauffeur, Preston. And he shows at one point in the story that he's fiercely loyal to Mrs. Darnworth.

The interaction between Gossage and the Darnworth clan, as he probes for potential motives and opportunities, makes for a pretty standard detective story, which swayed from clichéd (the part about to the wheelchair) to somewhat original (how the malicious will was handled), but the best and strongest part of the plot was the reconstruction of the seemingly impossible murder – which can only be described as a murderer's triathlon. It's an extremely complex scheme and the culprit made murder look like an Olympic sport.

First of all, there's a very understated alibi and the idea behind it was nice, but perhaps belonged on the pages of a parody of the detective story. The crux of the trick is a bit silly for serious and technical locked room mystery. Secondly, the murderer had to gain access to a certain spot in (or around) the home, which was properly foreshadowed. You only need to remember a certain thing by the time Gossage and Blair begin to examine this part of the murderer's plan. The third step is the locked room trick itself, but even with the given explanation the impossible shot still seems, well, impossible. Sure, the murderer made careful calculations and "trial shots," but it was still a blind shot in the dark. On paper, it's a novel locked room idea. But you never get that lucky outside of the printed page. Lastly, there's the disposal of the air rifle, which I actually liked slightly more than the locked room trick itself. It fitted snugly in with the rest of the webwork plot.

So, all in all, The Crimson Rambler is definitely a second-tier locked room novel, but one that shows a measure of ingenuity and has some fun detective work. Yes, the trick is perhaps overly complex and stretches credulity, here and there, but a good read if you love detective stories with a strong how-dun-it element (e.g. Miles Burton's Death in the Tunnel, 1936).

Well, that's another locked room novel I can scratch off the list. Only a few thousand of those wretched things left to go!


A Mere Child's Play of Deduction

"A part of childhood we'll always remember,
It is the summer of the soul in December."
- It Feels Like Christmas (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992)
My last blog-posts discussing the work of Herbert Resnicow stem from 2012 and consisted of reviews of two of his later period detective novels, The Gold Gamble (1989) and Murder at City Hall (1995), but after these posts he fell off my radar – presumably because I had exhausted all of his locked room mysteries. I simply used him to supplement my crippling impossible crime addiction and tossed him aside the moment he had served his purpose. It’s shameful, I know, but here we are again and for a good reason!

Recently, I found one of his short stories, "The Christmas Bear," which was listed by Steve Lewis on his list of "Locked Rooms and Other Improbable Crimes." So why not, I thought, add one more title to this year's naughty list of holiday-themed detective stories. A list that already includes J. Jefferson Farjeon's Mystery in White (1937) and Winifred Peck's Arrest the Bishop? (1949).

Originally, "The Christmas Bear" was published in the January 1990 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and anthologized by Cynthia Manson in Mystery for Christmas and Other Stories (1990), but also found its way into several other short story collections – such as Merry Murder (1994) and Murder Most Merry (2002). So not a bad print run at all, but the story can easily be added to the line-up of any Christmas-themed anthology, because it’s a bit more than just a detective story.

The first thing one has to note about this short story, comprising of fifteen pages, is its rich texture, which consist of clear-cut characterization and a plot as solid as the originality of its premise. Resnicow even included a false solution that doubles as a tell-tale clue for the actual explanation for the theft of the stuffed teddy bear. But let's begin at the beginning.

"The Christmas Bear" takes place in a small, poor town of only twelve hundred families and the scene of all the action is the local firehouse, which has organized a toy auction to raise funds for a four-year-old girl, Petrina Rozovski, who badly needs a liver transplant. There is, however, a hint of gloom here, because the town is very poor and the characters admit that there's enough "money in the whole county" to pay for the operation. So the toy auction will only get them so far.

Miz Sophie Slowinski, "the youngest great-grandmother in the county," takes her great-granddaughter, Deborah, to the firehouse to look around, but the girl immediately falls in love with a funny looking teddy bear on the top row of a rickety shelf. It's a black-furred, stuffed moon bear, "shinning blueish when the light hit it the right way," with a long snout and "a big crescent-shaped white patch on his chest," but the organizer refuses to take money upfront for the bear – on account of wanting to raise as much money as possible during the auction. But when they return to the firehouse, Miz Slowinski is practically accused of having taken the teddy bear regardless. Naturally, she did not snatched the bear and it seems not very likely anyone else did as well.

The shelves are improvised: boxes piled up with boards across them and these contraptions are liable to fall down if "you look at them crooked." There's "no way to get to the top row" until "you've taken off the other rows," but someone managed to snatch the bear from the top shelf without wrecking the whole construction. So Miz Slowinski set out to find answers and finds several of them in the store of Mr. Wong, who donated the bear to the auction, which is also where she the gets the idea for the false solution.

I actually imagined this false solution, before the theft was discovered, because it was very similar to how the high-hung prizes in game booths at the fun fair are taken down, but Resnicow showed here why he was a modern-day locked room artisan. This false solution would have been the most obvious answer to this small problem, but Resnicow found an equally acceptable answer that fitted the whole story like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle. As the cherry on top, the motivation gives the story an ending that was diabetic-inducing sweet. Just sickening sugary, but therefore perfect if you're in a jolly holiday mood.  

So, I would call "The Christmas Bear" an excellent example of, what they call in Japan, an "Every Day Life Mystery," which additionally is also a splendid Christmas story. It's also an interesting take on the impossible crime story, but this will no doubt result in JJ writing a blog-post questioning the story's legitimacy as a locked room mystery. You're an old humbug, JJ! 

Speaking about locked rooms, the next review might be of one, but some of you would argue that's hardly surprising. 


The Devil's Saint

"As long as Satan walks the earth, evil walks with him. Even here... someone held hands with the devil..."
- Simon Ark (Edward D. Hoch's "City of Brass," from City of Brass and Other Simon Ark Stories, 1971)
Lately, the Dean Street Press began resurrecting the literary legacy of Winifred Peck, which began with one of her mainstream works, Bewildering Cares (1940), together with both of her detective novels and I reviewed one of them earlier this month – a splendidly imagined mystery entitled The Warrielaw Jewel (1933). I alluded in that review to Peck's famous relatives and singled out her younger brother, Ronald A. Knox, who penned several highly regarded mystery novels. Knox was also a Catholic priest and a theologian of some renown, but he was not the only family member who served the church.

The father of Winifred and her five siblings, one sister and four brothers, was the Right Reverend Edmund A. Knox, fourth Bishop of Manchester, while another one of her brothers, Wilfred Knox, "earned distinction as an Anglican clergyman and theologian" – which likely resulted in a discussion or two between her Protestant and Catholic brothers.

Evidently, Peck drew on her family background when she briefly returned to our beloved genre with her second, and last, mystery novel, which was given the Episcopalian-sounding title of Arrest the Bishop? (1949). The story is set inside the walls of a Bishop's Palace and takes place in anticipation to both Ordination day and Christmas, but the arrival of an unpleasant and scandalous character casts a shadow over the proceedings. However, I should point one or two things before I begin poking the plot.

Peck dedicated Arrest the Bishop? to her husband, Sir James Wallace Peck, who helped her plotting the book and the dedication tells how he "horrified a guest" by announcing at breakfast they were going to make it "a fatal dose of morphia." Or terrified her housekeeper with a note asking to tell "Lady Peck we must have an inquest." This endeared them to me! Secondly, the book, similar to its predecessor, qualifies as a historical mystery, because the story takes place in the then recent past, which is two years after World War I – during a dark, snowy December in the year 1920. So the characters that fought in the trenches of the Western front add an extra layer to the depiction of ecclesiastical life at the Bishop's Palace. On top of that, the book can also be read as a Christmas mystery and all of this makes for an interesting detective story.

The villain of the piece is the wicked Rev. Thomas Ulder: a silver-tongued drunk and a scoundrel whose tenure as the head of the Theological College was dogged by "tales of bad management," financial discrepancies and muttered curses of his name by candidates who passed through the college – followed by "definite tales of drunkenness and dishonesty." He was finally persuaded to retire to a remote village, where the congregation was small and old, but he seems to have spent his time there gathering material.

Thomas Ulder's intention to return to the diocese coincides with the visit of several important guests, namely Canon Wye and Chancellor Chailly, but the Bishop is thoroughly appalled when he learns Ulder "is coming out to see him and his guests." On the eve of ordination, Ulder arrives at the Bishop's Palace, but his health has deteriorated in the intervening years and collapses as soon as he crossed the threshold. They placed Ulder in one of the bedrooms, but someone took advantage of this medical emergency and slipped him a fatal dose of morphine. And this is where the trouble really begins for the poor Bishop.

Initially, it is assumed Ulder took the poison himself, which would be bad enough, but a scrap of paper seems to indicate he had picked up blackmail as a side trade and every name on the list was present at the time of his death – which both strongly suggest murder. But as bad as a suicide or murder at the Bishop's Palace, is the person who'll be in charge of the investigation: Major Mack, the Chief Constable, who is "a violent Dissenter" and "a real enemy of the Church." Someone who sneers at the clerical tendency to sweep every hint of a scandal under the rug. However, I should note here that "the burly Chief Constable" is described as bursting with prejudices, against prelacy, pacifism and (modern) women, but his distaste for foreigners did not extend to the Dutch. So he probably has a point about those white feathers, harlots and fence crawlers. Personally, I found no reason to dislike the Major. He's a good guy!

Funnily enough, the Major, "who is no mere agnostic," is assisted by Dick Marlin, ex-military intelligence and now a Church deacon, who sees himself as a Church Militant. They make for a surprisingly well-matched pair of characters who ought to have had their own series of mystery novels. Sadly, they only appeared in this one-off. A large chunk of their work consists of drawing the past sins from all of the potential blackmail victims, which also involves one of the Bishop's daughter and this convinces the Major at one point that he has the "duty to arrest the Bishop." It was Marlin who convinced him to hold off the arrest for another day.

The introductory chapters, the subsequent investigation and the depiction of (family) life within the walls of the Bishop's Palace makes for an excellent and fascinating story, which came close to being superior to The Warrielaw Jewel, but the solution was prosaic and uninspired – which prevented the book from being a truly noteworthy detective novel. A genuine shame because I assumed, throughout the entire story, that the book was heading to my best-of list for 2016, but the final two or three chapters prevented that. It's really frustrating when you read a mystery that's consistently great and then fails you in the end. Anyway...

So Arrest the Bishop? is really well written and characterized, but as a detective story, the book stumbled and fell with the finish line in sight.


A Winter Wonderland

"I told you these were shadows of the things that have been... that they are what they are, do not blame me."
- Ghost of Christmas Past (Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843)
One of the most remarkable resurgence from obscurity has to be the small-scale renaissance of J. Jefferson Farjeon's fanciful crime-fiction (e.g. Holiday Express, 1935), which can be traced back to a 2012 blog-post from genre historian and critic, Curt Evans – who spoke warmly about Mystery in White (1937). A wondrous and wintry crime novel that became "a festive sleeper hit" when it was reprinted by the British Library in 2014. Everyone was astonished when the book, out of nowhere, sold over 60,000 copies!

So, I'm kind of late with my review of the book, but still well ahead of this years' festive season and you can expect two or three further reviews of Christmas mysteries in the coming months. But first things first!

Mystery in White is a rattling yarn of Mitchellian crime and wonder, which embarked on its fantastical journey when the "half a dozen inmates of a third-class compartment on the 11.37 from Euston" found themselves stranded on a snowbound train. The seemingly never-ending snowfall blocked the railway tracks, back and forth, turning the unofficial halt into a permanent one. However, this extreme Christmas Eve blizzard does not worry Mr. Hopkins, "the elderly bore," who experienced a month-long tempest in the Yukon town of Dawson, but he's the only one in the compartment who "pooh-poohed the whole thing as insignificant" – as most of them wished they were somewhere else.

The young woman next to the bore is a beautiful chorus girl, named Jessie Noyes, who is on her way to Manchester for an important audition. Robert Thomson is a tall, pale and unhealthy looking youth, which is "due partly to the atmosphere of the basement office in which he worked," but the clerk also has a rising temperature. David and Lydia are brother and sister en route to a Christmas party, which they probably have to miss due to the complete whiteout outside of their railway compartment.

Finally, there's the fascinating personality of Mr. Edward Maltby, of the Royal Psychical Society, who has an appointment to interview the ghostly residue of Charles I of England – reputedly stored inside the walls of an old house in Naseby. Maltby believes that "the past is ineradicable," stored away, which can be revealed and replayed like a gramophone record. And he proved to be an interesting detective-like character in the tradition of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1910) and John Bell from A Master of Mysteries (1898) by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace.  

Malty is also the one who set the train of events in motion when he out of the compartment, "into the all-embracing snow," in an attempt to reach a different line.

Not long after his departure, Jessie, Robert, David and Lydia decide to follow in the footsteps of the psychic investigator, but Mr. Hopkins, the eternal bore, frowns at the notion of venturing out in the snow. So he stays puts. But "the four adventures" are determined to track across "the motionless white scene" of the "strange fairyland" outside, which is fraught with more dangers than they initially anticipated. Luckily, they manage to survive a renewed blizzard, a small avalanche and a pitfall, but they manage to penetrate "the curtain of whirling white" and the reach the threshold of a lonesome house – where a welcoming log fire is roaring in the hearth, tea has been laid and a kettle of water is boiling. There is, however, one problem: nobody appears to be home! In fact, the place seems to be completely abandoned.

On a quick side note, the lonely house, in combination with the holiday theme, reminded me of Bill Pronzini's "No Room at the Inn," which can be found in the short story collection Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services (1998). It makes for an interesting comparison.

Anyway, the marooned party from the train slowly ease into their role as comfortable trespassers, because having two wounded (or sick) members is as good an excuse as any, but they begin to realize that something is not quite alright – such as noises and sounds coming from behind a locked door of an attic room. A room that is later found to be unlocked and empty! Soon, they find Maltby on the doorstep and a man, who calls himself "Smith," with a Cockney accent and a suspicious act, accompanies him. Smith claims he knows nothing about a snowbound train, but is in the possession of a train ticket.

An obvious lie that might be easily explained by news that’s brought to the stranded party by the half frozen bore, Mr. Hopkins: the body of a man, strangled to death, was found in an adjoining compartment not long after their departure. So is the murderer one of them and is there a possible connection between the murder and the empty house?

I could go on to describe the subsequent events, but, after a quarter or so of the book, it turns into the kind of story you really should read for yourself, because the overall plot is not easily pigeonholed. Mystery in White can hardly be described as a traditional whodunit with a logically constructed plot or a thriller with breathtaking scenes of suspense. The story is far too gentle to be a thriller and the explanation really disqualifies it from being a whodunit. However, the plot does borrow components from these types of stories: Maltby makes a series of deductions based on several items he found in the house and stages an excellent dénouement, in which he brings an old portrait to life to explain a long-forgotten murder that happened there on Christmas Eve of 1917.

There was also a nice touch about "the official version," described in the next to last chapter of the book, in which the reader is told about the police's official, but incorrect, view of the case and its explanation. So you can have a chuckle at their expense.

I really liked these particular scenes, however, they did not make for the sort of detective story that was typical of the 1930s. I labeled the book earlier as a Mitchellian crime fantasy, but I suppose a Poean tale of mystery and imagination would be a better description. One that only allows you to take it one chapter at a time, but even after eighty years, the book still feels like a breath of cold, fresh air in the genre. Something that's genuinely out of the ordinary, strange and original, but can still be enjoyed and appreciated by such fervent classicist as yours truly. I guess the best way to view the book is as our genre’s version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843).

But enough of my blabbering. Mystery in White is a good, likeable and imaginative Christmas tale, which happened to have a criminal element. It's good to know the book not only found its way back into print, but also enjoyed some success. Well, I guess I'll leave it that and try to find something more traditional for the next review. So stay tuned!