The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries (2018) by Anne van Doorn

Last year, I reviewed De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017) by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of Dutch crime-writer M.P.O. Books, which is a collection comprising of a handful of short stories about two particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators), Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong – who specialize in unsolved cases that have long gone cold. Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover handles everything from long-standing missing person's cases to cold, unsolved homicides and regularly tackle problems too bizarre or unusual for the regular police.

Corbijn is the head investigator of this two-man agency and provides the brainpower that earns them a paycheck, while De Jong pulls triple duty as his pupil, assistant and narrator. They work from an apartment in a residential tower, called the Kolos van Cronesteyn, which stands in Leiden, South-Holland, but their work brings them to every nook and corner of the country. And even beyond.

The first collection of five stories brought Corbijn and De Jong from Den Haag and Groningen to one of the Wadden Sea Islands and the Belgian Ardennes. And they tackled a diverse range of cases and problems such as an inexplicable murder inside a sealed log cabin ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In"), a vanished hiker in the Ardennes ("The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog") and pulling apart a knot of human tragedies closely tied to the death of a child ("The Brat Who Went Too Far") - a modus operandi continued in the second collection of short stories. Nearly every story in this series is an example of how elements of the old-fashioned, traditional detective story can be merged with the modern-day crime genre.

This second volume of stories, titled De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen en andere mysteries (The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, 2018), consists, like its predecessor, of five short stories. All five of them had been previously published as separate ebooks. So let's take these stories down from the top.

"De boerin die niet wilde sterven" ("The Farmer's Wife Who Didn't Want to Die") is the opening story and presents Corbijn's young assistant with a case of her own.

Lowina de Jong graduated a course that made her an official, licensed private investigator and Corbijn offers her an internship with a friend and colleague in the east of the country – where she'll get an opportunity to gain practical knowledge. During her summer internship, De Jong is consulted by a nurse from Aruba, Liberty Pinho, who had been out of a job ever since the nursing home, where she worked, closed down. Recently, she was offered a position as a live-in nurse at a farmhouse, to take care of a terminally ill woman, but the conditions and circumstances proved to be reason of concern. One of these conditions practically turned her in a prisoner and there are vicious guard dogs prowling the grounds. And even more peculiar, some of the windows are covered with paint and obscure the view of a wooded area behind the farm!

This is not really a detective story, classic or modern, but a homage to the Victorian-era sensationalist fiction with a familial secret hidden away in "an old, dilapidated tower from the thirteenth century." However, the family secret here is a decidedly modern one. So not a bad story, but one that will probably be more appreciated by readers who love Joseph Sheridan Lafuna and Wilkie Collins.

The next story is "Het meisje dat bleef rondhangen" ("The Girl Who Stuck Around") and is easily the standout in this collection. A ghostly tale of murder and deception reminiscent of some of John Dickson Carr's eerily atmospheric detective stories.

Corbijn and De Jong are asked to look into a one-sided car accident on "a completely deserted country road," which is cursed with "a notorious bend," where people have often smashed into a row of trees and this latest accident was seen by two witnesses – who saw the car disappear around the corner. And this was followed by a loud crash. The driver was seriously wounded and, before losing consciousness, asked the paramedics how the little girl was doing. However, nobody else had been involved in this accident. Let alone a child. This was not the only unexplained accident that occurred on that stretch of deserted road.

Several years previously, an identical accident happened on exactly the same spot. Apparently, the driver had tried to avoid hitting someone who was standing in the middle of the road, but nobody was actually there. The driver had not survived the collision with one of the trees. Corbijn and De Jong learn that a child, Marion, had died on that road and her mother, who lives nearby, is convinced that the ghost of the child is haunting her home and the place where she died. The two detectives even get a glimpse of the ghostly girl, "a frightened face," looking at them between the thick, dark trees!

I already mentioned that the story reminded me of the work of my favorite mystery writer, Carr, but the plot really could have been used for one of his own short stories from The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), which is part of a lamentably short-lived series and a literary relative of this one – as both have a penchant for bizarre or even (borderline) impossible crimes. So an excellent story that stands with the best collected in the previous compendium and genuinely tragic on account of the psychological toll the ghostly apparitions had on the grieving parents of the dead girl.

The third story lends its title to this collection, "De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen" ("The Mountains That Do Not Forget"), which brings Corbijn to "the most isolated valley in northern Albania." He's asked by colleague to give a second opinion on an unsolved locked tower murder that happened there in May, 1933!

Corbijn tells the story to De Jong and gives a detailed account of the customs and traditions of the region, which lay at the heart of the plot. Apparently, a lot of the background was drawn from Edith Durham's High Albania (1909). Anyway, a long-lasting bloedvete (blood-vendetta) between two families that had begun the theft of sheep has culminated in dozens of deaths on both side of those cursed mountains. Only during the communist occupation did the weapons cease, because the regime was cracking down on the old customs. Everyone who participated were taken away and executed. And until the 1990s, the mountains were at peace. 

However, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union the old feuds have been resurrected and the murder of woman in 1933 is at the core of this long-standing vendetta, who was shot against the rules of the Code, when she was hiding in the locked attic of a kulla e ngujimit – a so-called "locked-in tower" where the men used to hit when a hit was called on one of them by their rivals. There was only a small, open window at the top of the tower, but it looked out on a sheer drop ending in a river, but could a shot have been fired through the window from the ground? There was no gun found inside the attic room, but there were scorch-marks on the body. Suggesting that she was shot at close range.

Unfortunately, the solution is not only very obvious, but borrowed from a well-known short detective story by an even more well-known mystery writer. And the explanation was used by another writer in an impossible crime story with a very similar setting (i.e. a locked tower room). However, the attraction of this story is its backdrop and the history of its people. And the (hilarious) consequences Corbijn's solution has for him and his colleague. Needless to say, they had to run. :)

The next story is "Het hoertje dat geen spoor achterliet" ("The Whore Who Left No Trace Behind") and, as modern as the title may sound, this was my return to Baker Street, but, in this case, it's De Warmoesstraat. A street where, once upon a time, stood a notorious police station where the man who formally introduced me to the detective story, the late A.C. Baantjer, worked for three decades as a policeman and homicide detective. Bureau Warmoesstraat also featured prominently in his many delightful police/mystery novels. I really miss Baantjer. Anyway...

In this story, "a dingy hotel on the Warmoesstraat" functions as the backdrop. A writer of erotic thrillers, Marlinde Vries a.k.a "Patricia Rooth," caught her husband, Gerhard von Krefeld, with a prostitute in a hotel room and stabbed him to death – or so the evidence suggests. However, her brother simply refuses to accept to the conclusion of the police and hires Corbijn and De Jong to exonerate his sister by finding out who really killed Von Krefeld. A search that begins with finding the prostitute who vanished without a trace after the murder and the police had been unable to find her. She's not only a witness, but a potential suspect as well.

Even without the clues, I anticipated the solution as soon as the murderer entered the picture. But the plot hang together nicely and, as said, there was some clues planted here and there. I really liked this brief return to the most famous street in Dutch detective and police history.

Finally, the last story in this collection, "De dame die niet om hulp had gevraagd" ("The Lady Who Had Not Asked for Help"), ends the collection on a high-note and functions as bridge to the second, full-length novel in this series. But more on that later.

Corbijn is impatiently waiting on a confirmation on whether or not the skeleton remains that were recently found belong to a student who has been missing since 1978. So, to kill the time, De Jong suggests he tells her story about the time he was a still a policeman and he tells him about the curious case of an elderly lady who had not asked them for help. Mrs. Olde Meierink is an old woman who lives in the middle of the woods and her lonely house can only be reached by "a long, dirt road, full of holes and bends, right through the forest," but the police and even the fire department regularly have to traverse that road after a frantic call to the emergency number – only to discover that nothing has happened. Mrs. Meierink claims she never called for help and she can even provide a cast-iron alibi for one of the time she supposedly called the police. So who was making the calls and what is the motive behind them?

Corbijn and De Jong have to root around the deep, dark past and family history of Mrs. Meierink, which reaches all the way back to Drenthe, South Africa and Rhodesia. The phone-calls turns out to be key elements of a delightful revenge plot with a great, motivational drive. I was reminded of Edward D. Hoch's "The Theft of the Onyx Pool," collected in The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1978), which had a character with a scheme that was similar in nature and with exactly the same motivation, but with a completely different approach. So a solid story to close out this collection.

On a whole, The Mountains That Do Not Forget is a nicely balanced collection of traditional-minded, plot-driven detective stories presented as short story forms of the contemporary misdaadroman (crime novel). They're a sad reminder what the crime genre could have looked like today had modern-day writers not abandoned logically constructed plots, clueing and such delightful tropes as impossible crimes and dying messages. We could have been like Japan!

I can't deny I feel a tinge of nationalistic pride that my country has produced a writer who, in this day and age, writes in the tradition of Doyle, Christie and Carr. It makes me feel all imperial inside. So, yes, I quite enjoyed these five stories.

On a final, related note, that second, full-length novel I mentioned is scheduled for release in May, titled De student die zou trouwen (The Student Who Was To Get Married, 2018), which takes place in my own backyard and naturally love the book-cover. However, I really should read the first novel, De ouders keerden niet terug (The Parents Did Not Return, 2017), before getting around to that second one. So I'll try to worm the first one in, sometime, next month or so. So you better stick around!


The Midsummer Ghost: "Chamber of Centuries" (1940) by John Russell Fearn

Previously, I looked at John Russell Fearn's Within That Room! (1946), a locked room novelette reminiscent of Jonathan Creek, published originally in the Toronto Star Weekly, but the bare-bones of the plot had an earlier incarnation as a short impossible crime story – which is under review today. Initially, I picked two other little-known locked room stories, in order to pad out this post, but I was unimpressed with both them. So I scrapped them.

Fearn's "Chamber of Centuries" was first printed in the September, 1940 issue of Thrilling Mysteries and the plot has all the same ingredients as its extended adaptation, but the story-telling here's a lot tighter. "Chamber of Centuries" is practically the same story as Within That Room!, but tells that story in less than a dozen pages. Only place where they really differ is in the finer details.

Thrilling Mysteries, Sep. 1940
One of these differences are the protagonists, Dick and Jane, who enter the picture here as a recently married couple traveling down to "the sprawling, ill-organized township of Calford."

Jane had no intention to return to the place of her ancestors, but Dick wanted to spend a holiday in the town to "lay the family ghost" who haunts one of the rooms in the dark, gloomy ancestral pile of his wife – a house that had been transported to the Americas stone by stone. Sir Jonathan Melrose was Jane's great-great-great grandfather and he was notorious in his days as a dangerous, irresponsible practical joker, which landed him in a spot of trouble in England. So he had to pack-up, including his home, and sailed across the ocean to the New World. However, he was followed by his enemies, who eventually killed him in his bedroom, but Sir Jonathan foretold that "his presence would forever haunt the room."

The ghost of Sir Jonathan returns to the room every June 22nd, at seven in the evening, until "the house should be demolished." There's also an evil, unsettling influence in the room that prevents everyone from staying there for longer than three minutes.

After the premise has been established, "Chamber of Centuries" largely follows the same sequence of events as Within That Room: Dick and Jane experience the evil influence when they entered the haunted room for the first time. The two servants, Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, are up to no good in the basement and a second inspection of the dusty, ghost-haunted room brings them face to face with the translucent figure of Sir Jonathan – a figure attired in old-fashioned clothes with one hand dramatically out-thrust.

Regrettably, this scene is not as good, or memorable, as the demonic manifestation in the novelette and suppose that has to do with the sort of being that appeared in that room. A trick that makes appear as if one of the devil's henchmen entered a sealed chamber is far more impressive than the ghostly manifestation of a long-dead practical joker.

Anyway, the last part of this short story, like its opening, differs in some regards from the novelette. There's no murder in this story and the culprits are not as harshly punished here as in the novelette. A second notable alteration can be found in the motive. Within That Room! takes place in England, while "Chamber of Centuries" is set in the United States, which required the motive to be slightly modified. A modification that turned the motive into something that some would describe as stereotypical American!

Finally, the mental attacks weren't as well handled, or explained, here and that has to with both a change in the methods and the shorter length of this story, but, besides those minor details, the stories are pretty much the same.

On a whole, "Chamber of Centuries" is a fun, pulp-style impossible crime yarn, but personally, I prefer the extended rendition of the plot, because it allowed the best aspects of the plot to shine – like the two main characters and the impossibilities in the haunted room. It's without doubt the better of the two versions. So if you plan to read one of these two stories, I highly recommend you go with Within That Room! Or read it before the short story.

On a final, unrelated note: I wanted to return to Christopher Bush for my next read, but another short story collection found its way into my hands. So that one is next on the list.


Within That Room! (1946) by John Russell Fearn

John Russell Fearn's Within That Room! (1946) is a novelette originally published in the Toronto Star Weekly and is an expansion of a short story, "Chamber of Centuries," which appeared in a 1940 issue of Thrilling Mystery and was reprinted in a modern anthology – titled More Whodunits: The Second Borgo Press Book of Crime and Mystery Stories (2011). I was not entirely sure what to expect from this story, as it concerns mental assaults, evil influences and demonic manifestations in a haunted room, but the plot turned out to be just fine. Somewhat reminiscent of the better, earlier episodes of Jonathan Creek with a nod to a well-known Sherlock Holmes story. 

Star Weekly, Jan. 19, 1946
One of the two protagonists of Within That Room! is a young woman, Vera Grantham, who had emerged from the A.T.S. (Auxiliary Territorial Service) full of hopes and plans. During the war, Vera had courageously "defied shells and bombs," but the post-war world had so far defeated her. She had dreams of becoming a commercial artist, but she's buried in debt and then, to make things worse, her landlady announces an unexpected visitor, Mr. Jonathan Thwaite – a solicitor from Manchester. Vera is afraid that Thwaite has come to see her on account of the pile of unpaid bills and bolts before he can serve her with a summons.

However, Thwaite eventually catches up with Vera and informs her that her eccentric uncle, Cyrus Merriforth, has passed away and left her an unusual inheritance.

Cyrus Merriforth was "a very famous entomologist and botanist," who had read of Vera's "gallantry in the A.T.S." during the war, which prompted him to add a codicil to his will leaving her a hundred pounds and his home, Sunny Acres, but the place is more than a mere residence. Sunny Acres was once a feudal castle and has a room in it haunted by "an emissary of the devil." The legend is well-known in the area and not a single person from the nearby village of Waylock Dean dares to go near the place. Vera experiences this first-hand when she decides to inspect her inheritance.

She's unable to find anyone in the village willing to drive her all the way to Sunny Acres and has to make the journey by foot, but, along the way, she's offered a ride from a young man, Dick Wilmott, a former R.A.F. guy – who currently runs a radio repair shop in Godalming. After spending the night at Sunny Acres, Vera calls Dick back to the place to help her figure out what's going on behind its walls.

The former servants, Mr. and Mrs. Falworth, are still present and Mrs. Falworth tries to convince her to never open "the horror-room," which has a door sealed shut with heavy screws. This is the room haunted by an evil entity, a member of the devil's retinue, who's "only visible once a year." But even when the room is empty, there's an overwhelming sense of evil that will blast your senses and reason. Something that has happened to her uncle. Cyrus had entered the room to lay the ghost and had emerged from the room on "the borderline of insanity," which may have landed him in an early grave.

A demon-haunted room that can rob you of your sanity recalls Paul Halter's La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990), but with a slight hint of John Dickson Carr's atmospheric radio-play, "The Devil's Saint," which can be read in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983). Or listen to it here.

However, a haunted room is not the only unsettling part of Sunny Acres. During her first night, Vera is roused by strange sounds and she did what so many heroines do in these kind of detective stories: get out of bed and investigate, which brought her to a locked door at the bottom of the basement stairs – where she hears clanking and swishing sounds. Not to mention the awful smell that is coming from behind the locked door. When she lays down on the floor, to look through the crack under the door, she sees the feet of a man and a woman moving about. Presumably of the two shifty servants.

I have to point out here that the story is not a traditional, Golden Age whodunit, but has a plot that moves along the lines of a Conan Doyle story with a couple of impossible crimes thrown in for good measure. Anyway...

Vera decides to ask Dick to help her figure out what's going on and installs him in the house as her fiance. So there you have your romantic sub-plot and Fearn's take on the snooping, bantering mystery solving couples of Kelley Roos, Frances Crane, Delano Ames and the Lockridges.

Dick and Vera discover that a floor-plan of the castle and a map of the district had been torn from a book in the library, The History of Sunny Acres, which makes them suspect that Uncle Cyrus had been cleverly murdered, but they also have a face-to-face encounter with the entity haunting the place – beginning with them getting mentally assaulted when they enter the room for the first time. They enter the room a second time, on the day the ghost is reputedly visible, which is when they see the following: 

"A strange, incredible caricature of a being hung in the dusty air, a haze of blurry light surrounding it from the back. There was the pointed tail, the simian ears, the long, needle-chinned face, bent arms flexed as though to pounce forward. He seemed to be grinning horribly. Yet he was in mid-air, and through him the ancient stone wall could be distinctly seen."
As a devout devotee of the impossible crime story, I appreciate these scenes, depicting the apparent disintegration of the fabric of reality, as much as a clever and original locked room trick. And if I have any complaints, it's how easy it was to figure out the ghost-trick. Not only did I figure out how the ghost "materialized into a locked room with solid walls, floor, and ceiling," but I did so based solely on the plot-description of the story. I actually emailed Philip Harbottle to tell him I was going to review Within That Room! and asked him how close my solution was to Fearn's explanation for the apparition, which he answered "you really are a perceptive and ingenious fellow."

Well, it's hard to deny the perceptive and ingenious part, but I have to admit that it helped that I have become somewhat familiar with Fearn's plotting technique. And who he was as a person. This ghost-trick has his personality written all over it and wish I could point it all out, but that would thoroughly spoil the solution.

So, all in all, Within That Room! is perhaps not the best detective story ever written in this sub-category of the locked room genre, namely haunted rooms that kill or do harm, but it's an amusing read harking back to the days of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and tremendously enjoyed reading it – demonstrating once again why Fearn is my favorite second-string mystery writer. I'll be taking a look at the short story that served as the bare-bones for this novelette, "Chamber of Centuries," along with two other little-known locked room short stories. So stay tuned.


Model for Murder (1952) by Derek Smith

On December 20, 1893, The Half-Penny Marvel published "The Missing Millionaire" by "Hal Meredeth," a penname of Harry Blythe, which marked the first appearance of the most prolific Sherlock Holmes imitators in all of popular fiction, Sexton Blake, whose bibliography comprises of an astonishing 4,000 stories – written by over 200 different writers. A prolific run of eight decades that ended up encompassing short stories, novels, stage plays, comic books, silent movies, talkies, radio serials and even a TV-series in the 1960s.

So the sheer size and volume of the Sexton Blake Library has earned the series its own separate wing in the crime-genre, but, as everyone knows, quantity is rarely a substitute for quality. And this series is no exception.

Sexton Blake is synonymous with tawdry, formulaic thrillers with run-of-the-mill action scenes, pulpy gangsters and super-human villains (i.e. Waldo the Wonderman). That may be why I was never compelled to explore this series. A chronic lack of interest that persisted even when I learned that one of the greatest authorities on the impossible crime story, Derek Smith, had tried his hands at one that faced Blake with "a sealed room murder," which is usually more than enough to get my full attention – except that this time even that didn't work. A Sexton Blake novel simply did not appeal to me. No matter who wrote it.

That is, until that infernal nuisance, "JJ," posted a review on his blog claiming Smith's wrote "a legitimate excellent" Blake story filled "lovely clues." Showing what could have been had the writers not turned Blake in bargain basement cross between Sherlock Holmes and James Bond.

So I decided to get myself a copy of Model for Murder (1952), which went unpublished during Smith's lifetime, but was finally printed in The Derek Smith Omnibus (2014) along with Whistle Up the Devil (1954), Come to Paddington Fair (1997) and a short story – titled "The Imperfect Crime." Admittedly, the story was better than I expected even after the positive review from JJ. Most notably the opening chapters and a conclusion that resembles a contortion act!

John Pugmire's Locked Room International published The Derek Smith Omnibus and speculated Model for Murder was probably "too cerebral for the audience," which would explain why it collected dust for sixty years. Anyway...

Model for Murder, or Model Murder, begins when an artist's model, Linda Martin, hurries to Baker Street on behalf of her employer, Leo Garvary, a once well-known sculptor who has been receiving anonymous letters of a threatening nature. That morning, Garvary received another threatening letter, but this he confided in Martin that he finally guessed who sent him and asked her to fetch Blake – who happens to be abroad on a case of national importance. So the task falls on the shoulders of his assistant, Tinker, whose role in this story genuinely surprised me.

Tinker is definitely not your regular Dr. Watson or Capt. Hastings, more of an Archie Goodwin-type of character, who actually solves the locked room problem before Blake officially enters the picture. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When Tinker and Martin arrive at the studio, they see the eccentric Garvary standing by the door of his soundproof studio. He looks at them, enters the studio, slams and locks the door behind him and that's the last time they see him alive, because when a spare key from the desk clerk opens the door they find an empty studio. All of the windows are "securely latched" from the inside. A transom was secured by a triple notched bar and a second door was locked and bolted on the studio side. After a brief search, they find Garvary's body in one of the cupboards lining the left and right hand wall, but not an atom of proof someone had been present in the room to fire the gun.

Firstly, the locked room trick is not as ingenious as the one from Whistle Up the Devil and basically reuses an age-old technique to leave behind a locked crime-scene. So you should not go into the book expecting a knock-out classic like his second impossible crime novel, but admittedly, Smith used this technique with the expertise of locked room expert. Smith mentioned two potential explanations, trick-windows that slide into the wall and a hollow statue, which gave me an idea for an alternative explanation.

When the possibility of a hollow statue was mentioned, my mind immediately conjured up the image of a Russian nesting doll. You see, there were three cupboards on each side of the room.

Just imagine the studio used to have two, large storage closets, but these closets were converted into six, separate cupboards and this would open the possibility that the walls separating the middle cupboard from the first and third cupboard is very thin, no more than wooden panels, which perhaps consists of two halves that can slide into one another – to make more room when needed. So the murderer could have been hidden in the second cupboard and, when this person heard Tinker close the door of the first cupboard, crawled into it through the sliding wall panel. Like a human shell game. And simply slip out of the room when everyone's attention was somewhere else (like inspecting the inner room).

However, the solution to the locked room murder turned out to be very different. Surprisingly, Tinker not only worked out the locked room trick, but demonstrated the trick to a baffled police constable, who demanded answers, which he refused to do until he had spoken to his employer – only to get shot and seriously wounded a short time later. A shooting briefly presented as a (semi) impossibility, but this aspect is quickly dispelled by a discovery in the hearth.

In any case, this murderous attempt effectively removed Tinker from the stage and left Blake with the daunting task to work out an explanation based on the breadcrumbs of information his assistant left behind. However, the pure detective elements from the opening chapters began to dilute in the middle section.

The reader knows by this point who shot Tinker and that this person has a connection with a shadowy underworld figure, but, more importantly, the gunman is determined to get his hands on a little black book filled with information of his criminal enterprise. So the seedy thriller elements really kick in here and this person even kidnaps and physically abuses Martin. This portion of the plot is the part that adheres to the formula of the series.

Luckily, Smith came back strong in the final stages of the story by serving a triple-layered solution to the reader. A solution that volleyed the guilt of the murder between two characters. This is likely the part that was too cerebral for its intended audience, because the conclusion is everything you'd expect from a legitimate expert on the traditional detective story. Model for Murder should have been a model for this series during its twilight years. It would be funny if this series had gone against the trend

In summation, Model for Murder is an interesting experiment of a traditional-minded mystery writer attempting to worm a puzzle-plot into the formula of a cheap, action-oriented series of pulp-thrillers and defied expectations by succeeding – better than he had any right to. I probably will never read another Sexton Blake story in my life, but glad I took a change on this one. I really like Smith and this world is a poorer place for the fact that he only wrote three (locked room) novels.

Finally, I referred to JJ's review earlier and in it he mentioned a confusing fact regarding the locked door of the studio. JJ said that the door was described as not having a keyhole, but was unlocked with a key a few pages later. I think JJ misunderstood this. The door didn't have an old-fashioned keyhole that you can look through, which were still common (indoors) in the fifties, but there was a modern lock on the door. A yale lock. So Smith didn't make a sloppy mistake there.


Jack-in-the-Box (1944) by J.J. Connington

Last year, I finally got around to reading a detective novel by J.J. Connington, namely Murder in the Maze (1927), who was one of the mystery novelist that was smeared as a humdrum writer and dismissed as a relic of the genre's past – a label that was also pasted on Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode. However, the test of time is slowly exculpating their reputation and legacy as they're finding their way back into print. Readers can now judge their stories without emptying their bank account to acquire an overpriced, second-hand copy.

Connington is one of the luckier humdrum writers whose work has been mostly reissued by now as either paperback editions or ebooks, which is why I recently decided to stock-up on his Sir Clinton Driffield series. And a couple of non-series titles. Connington still represents one of the biggest holes in my reading of the classic detective story. I think I have read more detective stories by obscure, long-forgotten writers than of the household names of the era and that's just being impious.

So I plucked Jack-in-the-Box (1944) from this freshly accumulated pile and have to say, as far as mysteries with a World War II background goes, this proved to be memorable example with depictions of the bombing raids by the Luftwaffe – which is used here to camouflage a murder victim as a casualty of war. An idea that only Rhode seems to have played around with in The Fourth Bomb (1942).

Jack-in-the-Box was published in 1944, but the story takes place in 1942 and begins when Sir Clinton Driffield and Squire Wendover are driving through the village of Ambledown and observe the wreckage left behind by the last swarm of Nazi bombers.

Ambledown took "a bit of a knock" in an attempt to destroy a nearby magneto factory, which left forty-three dead and quite some property damage, but the bombers missed their target. So everyone expects them to return and they come back early on in the novel. Connington also touches upon the effect the war has on the day to day lives of ordinary people, rationing, housing shortages and blackouts, which forced the people "to be content with the essentials" and "do without the frills" – one of the reasons why so many traditional mysteries from this period tend to be bleaker than those from previous decades. However, the initial reason Sir Clinton and Wendover drove to Ambledown is not related to the war.

A local archaeologist has unearthed a long-lost treasure trove at a digging site locally referred to as Caesar's Camp.

The place is an old Roman camp, on a tract of wasteland to the west of the village, but the spot probably has as much a connection with Caesar as "the Menai Bridge or Buckingham Palace." There was, however, a legend attached to the Roman camp about a cursed treasure promising death to the unlucky finder. Robert Deverell, President of the Natural History Society of Ambledown, brought "a collection of vessels and utensils" to light when digging for Roman-era coins. All of the objects were of gold and beaten and twisted out of shape, which made the collection easier to transport for the ancient looters who had buried their plunder there so many moons ago. A plunder that obviously came from an abbey.

This treasure belongs to the crown, but Deverell is granted permission to inspect and catalog the treasure, piece by piece, at his own home. But than the Luftwaffe pays a second visit to Ambledown and Deverell is killed by enemy action. Or so it looks like.

Apparently, an incendiary bomb had crashed through the skylight, hitting Deverell on the head, and setting fire to the house. An unlikely way to die, one in a million, but suspicion is aroused when pieces of the treasure turn out to have been taken from the scene – which included a battered crosier. Complications begin to pileup when the village is hit by an outbreak of inexplicable deaths. There are no less than five murders that have to be disentangled by Inspector Camlet, Squire Wendover and Sir Clinton (who's the Chief Constable). And, as if that wasn't enough, there's a super-normal plot-thread that places Jack-in-the-Box on the borders of the impossible crime sub-genre.

I decided to tag this post with the "locked room mysteries" and "impossible crimes" toe-tags, but this is really a borderline case rather than a full-blown impossible crime novel.

Jehudi Ashmun is a mulatto from Liberia and stands at the center of a group, in the village, who are interested in the occult and a technique, which had been lost in the mists of time, called New Force. Ashmun made an ordinary card-table talk and a loudspeaker was disregarded as a possible answer, because you can't hide a loudspeaker in "one of these slim-jim folding affairs" with "a top hardly thicker than plywood" – especially in the 1940s. The ancient powers of New Force is demonstrated by fiddling on a violin and this killed several animals.

Ashum killed an aquarium of minnows, but electricity was eliminated as the invisible killer. After this demonstration, a warren of dead rabbits were found outside. None of the rabbits had a mark on their body or even as much as a minute trace of poison in their system.

On a side note, Nick Fuller, of The Grandest Game in the World, pointed out in his review that similar figures appear in Carter Dickson's The Reader is Warned (1939) and Anthony Boucher's Nine Times Nine (1940). Interestingly, the character in The Reader is Warned claims to possess a power, called Teleforce, which can be used to kill people from a distance without leaving a mark on their body. Something very similar to Ashum's New Force.

So with stolen treasures, a murder epidemic and super-normal forces abound you need a logical, cool-headed detective to tackle these problems and Sir Clinton is more than up for the task. Sir Clinton pleasantly reviews all of the events and weighs the evidence against all of the possibilities, but doesn't neglect his duties to play the role of Great Detective and teases his friend with his knowledge of the truth. However, Wendover proved to be pretty useful Captain Hastings. He may not have grasped the solution, but his knowledge of local history and family relations helped frame the clutter of events, more specifically the murders, in a tight frame that will help readers who like a shot at beating the detective to the finish line.

Sadly, Connington inexplicably slipped in the final leg of the story when Jack-in-the-Box shifted from a tale of ratiocination into a thrilling shilling shocker with a sadistic murderer drugging and torturing a man, while trying to force another character to sign a piece of paper – a shift that happened from one chapter to the other. And it struck a decidedly false note. Despite this weird, pulpy revelation of the murderer, the plot was excellent and particularly the science behind the murders and borderline impossible events. I especially liked the explanation for the murder of the local drunk, who died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, which turned out to have an ingenious explanation that was tied to one of the bombing raids. Connington should have saved that method for another book instead of burying it in a series of murders.

Anyway, these science-based murders demonstrate that Connington was unquestionable a member of the Humdrum School of Detection.

So, on a whole, Jack-in-the-Box was an excellent mystery novel with a fascinating series of crimes, a well-drawn background and solid detective work, but the revelation of the murderer struck a false note in the story. It's a smudge on the plot, but not one that should deter you from enjoying a mostly well-written, cleverly plotted detective novel.


The Case of the Invisible College and Other Mysteries (2012) by Andrew May

Recently, I stumbled across a modern, little-known volume of short stories with a book-title that captured my imagination, The Case of the Invisible College and Other Mysteries (2012), which had an equally alluring sub-title – "Old Style Mysteries Set Amidst the Dreaming Spires of Oxford." This collection is comprised of seven (very) short stories, written by Andrew May, who published his own work under the banner of Post-Fortean Books.

So, naturally, I approached this self-published collection of detective stories with a great deal of trepidation, but an internet search brought some promising facts to light.

I found a rare review of The Case of the Invisible College, which was generally positive, but, more importantly, the reviewer noted that the lively stories were written by someone who evidently spent time learning how to write – rendering the customary criticism of self-published fiction irrelevant. The reviewer also suspected the stories were reprinted from “some periodical” and this turned out to be correct. All seven stories were originally published in the British Mensa Folio newsletters of 2009 and 2010. Mensa is the high IQ society. So I believe we can infer from this that May is probably a smart guy.

Secondly, I found May's blog, Retro-Forteana, which is dedicated to "the weirder fringes of history," but, to my delight, discovered he had also written about John Dickson Carr. I would really like to read his article about "the Fortean aspects of John Dickson Carr's 'Locked Room Mysteries'" in Fortean Times, 288.

So that was all I needed to know to take the plunge on these Fortean detective tales, but what I found was still different from what I was expecting.

The cases in this collection are tackled by SOLVED: the Secret Oxford League of Volunteer Extracurricular Detectives. A crime-fighting network lead by Pierce Stormson, Professor of Advanced Studies, who functions as "the central coordinating brain" of the league and "bore a close resemblance to the fiction character he admired so much," Sherlock Holmes – which is one of the many Holmesian charms of this series. For example, Stormson has the habit to deduce the name or occupations of clients who visit him from the first time and the stories are littered with references to previous cases (The Case of the Weeping Buddha, The Case of the Somerville Stripper, The Case of the Devil's Footprints, etc). And then there's the Watson-like narrator of the series.

Melvin Root is doing his Ph.D. on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and acts as both the chronicler of SOLVED and Stormson's right-hand man, but is prone to jump to the most outrageous conclusions imaginable. Stormson and Root draw on the specialized knowledge and talents of the various SOLVED members who are scattered throughout the university and beyond. SOLVED is pretty much the Baker Street Irregulars, the College Years.

"The Case of the Dangerous Book" is the first story and has Miss Higgs, a librarian of Old College, consulting Stormson on an 18th century book. A book bound in human-skin, belonging to a man who studied at the college in the early 1700, but the book was gifted to the college under the condition that it should never taken from its shelf as it was "a dangerous book" - only problem is that it had been taken of its shelf. The book was kept in the Lower Library, where book can only be read, which are then left at the table to be collected by the librarian. And this dangerous book was one of them. So who consulted this obscure book and why? Only three students were present at the time, but they appear to be innocent.

Stormson and Root discover a coded message inside the book and the decoding the message helps them to uncover a sordid attempt at an equally sordid crime. The culprit was a dunce, but, on a whole, this was a fun, little introductory story. Nothing outstanding, but fun.

The second tale is "The Case of the Invisible College" and, in spite of the promising title, it's not a grand-scale impossible crime story about an entire college building vanishing from our plane of existence. I'm not going to lie, I was mildly disappointed.

Stormson is called upon by Dr. John Philpott, a post-doctoral research assistant at the Department of Experimental Physics, who claims to be on the brink of a breakthrough in cold fusion, but "they" are out to suppress his work. Dr. Philpott has received a threatening letter from this nebulous group, telling him not to mess with the Invisible College, which is why he convinced the head of his department, Professor Carr, to move his equipment to a secure laboratory – a laboratory only four people had access to. However, this did not prevent the destruction of a valuable piece of research equipment. And, no, this problem isn't an impossible crime either.

The solution reveals that a respectable university, once again, served as a respectable front for a sordid criminal operation. So not a bad story, but again, nothing outstanding.

"The Case of the Shakespearaan Super-Chimp" is the shortest story in this collection, but also one of my two favorites. Bonzo, the experimental chimp of the university, is wired up to a machine and pictures appear on the screen that shows what the monkey is thinking. Like a picture of a banana. However, all of a sudden, passages from Shakespeare's Hamlet began to appear on screen. Root solves this case with the help of Sanyo Fujitsu, an "electronics wizard," but without Stormson. A nice story for something so short.

"The Case of the Abducted Astrobiologist" is next and begins when Stormson is visited by Anna Moletsky, the conference manager of Wolfsbane College, which has a profitable sideline conferences during the summer vacation when students are away. A conference is about to be held there on astrobiology and the keynote speaker is Dr. Haakon Asgrad from Oslo University, who was to give presentation on images from the Mars Rover, but Asgrad has gone missing – leaving behind an empty hotel room. Root immediately suggests that aliens come for him, but Stormson uncovered a more conventional answer rooted in academic backstabbery. Plot-wise, not a very interesting story, but ended amusingly when SOLVED dished out their own brand of justice to the culprit.

The next story, "The Case of the Ghost in the Machine," is only interesting to readers who are really fond of lurid pulp-thrillers from yesteryear, because the story reads like a tongue-in-cheek treatment of such stories.

A SOLVED member from a previous case, Sanyo Fujitsu, receives an unusual email, asking her to come to an address in North Oxford. A connection is quickly with Professor Maxwell Quain, a once eminent nuclear physicist, who went mad and began to obsess over alchemy and the occult – earning him the reputation of a mad scientist. Root is ready to tackle the case, but loses all interest in the case when he gets invited to a pagan orgy. Fortunately, for Fujitsu, he mixed up the addresses and ended up at the home of the mad scientist, who has sinister intentions and comic villain motive, but it's Stormson who comes to their rescue and saves the day.

A very pulpy story that had its moments, such as when Root broke into the locked house, because he assumed the screaming meant that the orgy had started without him, but nothing of interest for the amateur armchair detective.

However, the next story, "The Case of the Shocking Science Quarterly," is the standout title of this collection and is only story here with a truly inspired plot. I was pleasantly reminded of Charles Ardai's "The Last Story," collected in The Return of the Black Widowers (2003), which both fall in the same pulpy sub-category of the bibliomystery.

The plot concerns the extremely rare issue 23 of the Shocking Science Quarterly, a British pulp magazine, which was printed in the Summer of 1938, but, as soon as they were reprinted, the Home Office recalled all copies and had them destroyed – as it reputedly violated "one of the many obscenity laws of the time." There are, however, conspiracy theorists who claim to government wanted to suppress important scientific ideas in the back-up story, "The Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine" by Wilfred Barnes. So all 750,000 copies were recalled, but only 749,999 copies were destroyed. One copy was retained for legal reasons and stored in a sealed vault at the Bodleian Library.

This 1938 copy was finally released to the public, under the Freedom of Information Act, but the only surviving copy disappeared that same day. Or, rather, the original copy was replaced with a false copy. A switch that was discovered when Root, who studies gives him a natural interest early twenty century fiction, found a peculiar print-error on one of the pages, "Error! Reference source not found." Sure, it was a science-fiction magazine, but "a modern-day computer error" is unlikely to appear on the pages of even the most visionary science-fiction publication of the 1930s. So who made the switch and how was the person able to fabricate an almost perfect copy of a pulp magazine that had been sealed for seventy years?

A handful of people studied the magazine when it was released and all of them have potential motives.

A number of people studied the magazine and they all have agendas, and thus potential, motives to take or destroy it: Sam Rosenberg is a multimillionaire and well-known collector of 1930s ephemera. Ms. Arcadia Wolfe is a feminist writer and an anti-pornography crusader. Professor Harrison Carr is the nuclear physicist who previously appeared in "The Case of the Invisible College." Finally, Lancelot Austin, the elderly art-critic and political loudmouth.

All of them had the opportunity and motive turns out to be key that unlocks this case. This story is really a why-dun-it, but an excellent specimen of its kind with a beautiful answer as to why a false copy had to be supplied. Even more importantly, this is the only SOLVED story that actually has clues in them! So, yes, this is unquestionably the best one of the lot.

Finally, this volumes closes with "The Case of the Inverted Pyramid," which sounds interesting, but the story is a complete dud and the plot reworked Agatha Christie's "The Case of the Missing Lady," from Partners in Crime (1929), which is acknowledged by the end of the story – all that can be said about this story.

On a whole, these Fortean detective tales were entertaining, well written stories, but with exception of "The Case of the Shocking Science Quarterly," the plots tended to be unimpressive. Honestly, I was surprised that these stories, originally published in a Mensa newsletter, turned out to be relatively light-weight pastiches of Sherlock Holmes instead of Ellery Queen-like Puzzle Club stories. Nevertheless, despite their short comings, this collection stands head and shoulders above most self-published books. I think readers of Holmesian fiction will particular like this short series and anthologists should keep "Shocking Science Quarterly" and "The Shakespearean Super-Chimp" in mind. Those two stories deserve to be preserved.