1/24/15

The Bludgeoning Method


"One dumb-bell, Watson! Consider an athlete with one dumb-bell. Picture to yourself the unilateral development—the imminent danger of a spinal curvature. Shocking, Watson; shocking!"
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear, 1915)
From the very first paragraph, Case with Ropes and Rings (1940) plunges diligently in what readers have come to expect from Leo Bruce and Sgt. Beef: a high spirited, but intelligent, tongue-in-cheek treatment of the detective story, while obliterating the fourth wall.

"This isn't a love story... it's a detective novel," is one of the clues that Beef is more than aware of his status as a fictional character, but his long-suffering and under appreciated chronicler, Lionel Townsend, has become anxious about his job – as three months has passed since they had a case and Beef is starting to enquire about the book rights.

A headline in the Daily Dose finally spurs Beef into action. Lord Alan Foulkes, second son of the Marquess of Edenbridge, who was being educated at the prestigious Penhurst School, was found hanging from a beam in the gymnasium on the morning after having won the School Heavyweight Boxing Championship. Coincidently, Townsend has a brother, Vincent, who teaches at Penhurst, but they've never been particular close and Lionel has to absorb some backhanded abuse over the course of the investigation. Like when his brother suggested that Beef should've approached someone with a genuine gift for writing prose, such as Aldous Huxley, which gave Beef a swelled ego.

The first part of Case with Ropes and Rings follows Beef and Townsend around Penhurst, as the former (poorly) pretends to be the temporary School Porter, but the "bludgeoning method" of Beef doesn't make it easy on the formal-minded Townsend – and neither do the students give him a break. I particularly liked the scene with the boy asking "Ticks," which is his nickname for Townsend, if they are still on the old game and follows it up with:
"The detective racket... you're both nosing round after someone to pin a crime on, aren't you? God, how that sort of thing bores me! All these fearful women writers and people like you, working out dreary crimes for half-wits to read about. Doesn't it strike you as degrading?"
Well, I never! And as Townsend said, "one can scarcely expect schoolboys to appreciate the subtlety and depth of modern detective fiction" and one has "only to quite the name of Miss Sayers to remind you of what this genre has already produced." This all sounds perhaps more fun than it is, but there's a well thought out, expertly knotted plot at the heart of the story and an abundance of suspects that are being questioned – which gives room to the reader for a spot of theory building.

The second portion of the plot deals with an identical death in Camden Town gymnasium and the background stands in stark contrast with the supposed suicide of Alan in a prestigious bastion of knowledge and education. A young and professional boxer, Stanley Beecher, was found swinging from the rafters, but it has handled as a homicide as the case is surrounded with all the "paraphernalia of low life" – from criminal associates to ties to Spanish Nationalists and the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.

It's an unlikely combination of characters, events and background to produce two identical deaths, but Bruce, evidently, knew his way around a plot and brings everything together coherently. I'd place Case with Ropes and Rings alongside the best in this series, which includes Case for Three Detectives (1936) and Case for Sergeant Beef (1947). Needless to say, I quite enjoyed this one.

Bruce was a mystery reader's mystery writer and you'll probably enjoy the Sgt. Beef novels the most, if you have more than a passing acquaintance with the Golden Age detective story. Bruce is the kind of mystery writer you grab when you've come to the starling realization that you've gone through every Agatha Christie novel, while burning through the remaining Crime Queens like an inquisitor in a medieval witch hunt, and your supply of yet to be read mysteries by John Dickson Carr and Nicholas Blake are dwindling. That's the excuse moment, you can start adding Leo Bruce to your wish lists and TBR piles.

Finally, the opening was quote was the only sports-related mystery quote I could think of/find.

1/21/15

Playing the Fool


"We have found that squirting water into a real clown's mouth until he drowns is more fun, and of benefit to society, but that's another story."
- Todd Robbins (The Modern Con Man: How to Get Something for Nothing, 2008) 
Stuart Palmer was a Golden Age luminary and arguably one of the brightest adherents of the American wing of the Intuitionist School, which included such mystery writers as S.S. van Dine, Ellery Queen, Kelley Roos and Rex Stout.

The Penguin Pool Murder (1931) introduced a beloved character among connoisseurs of murder, Miss Hildegarde Withers, who's a schoolteacher-turned-detective and assisted the police in piecing together The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937) – among other noteworthy endeavors in crime-detection by "that meddlesome old battleaxe." However, for this review, I will be looking at the first book from a short-lived series Palmer wrote in the 1950-and 60s.

Howie Rook is Palmer's second-string character and headlined only two novels, published more than a decade apart, of which Unhappy Hooligan (1956) was the first. The story opens when a large tomcat, named Satanas, enters the apartment of John MacFarley through the only open window, which is left slightly ajar and accessible by a narrow ledge only a cat or human fly can tip-toe on. MacFarley is curiously dressed in black-tie and dinner jacket, in combination with a face full of clown paint and a bullet hole in the chest.

"Locked room mysteries are usually for fiction and the pen of John Dickson Carr," Rook observes, but he could show Police Chief Parkman clippings from his news papers of genuine examples of impossible crimes escaping from the printed pages. Unfortunately, the reference to the "Pincus affair in New York City's Bronx," in which an inoffensive tailor "had died in a locked and bolted room from having a handkerchief jammed down his throat," appears to be fictional. Last year, I posted several, real-life examples of actual locked room mysteries: Part I, II, III, IV and V. Anyway, back to the review.

MacFarley was a circus enthusiast who had spend the last days of his life as an honorary clown, traveling around with the Big Top, but didn't make many friends among the regular performers when he began to fool around in earnest - which may have made him an enemy that left traces of elephant dung and sawdust in the apartment. Rook has to go undercover at the circus as a retired business man and don the grease paint as he pokes around the motley crew of performers. Palmer really did an excellent job at drawing an array of unusual, but real enough, characters from the cast of vaudeville personalities and depicting their life as traveling artists.

This shoves the locked room aspect of the story more to the background, but the circus material is really the best part of the book. It was very reminiscent of Case with Four Clown (1939) by Leo Bruce, in which Sgt. Beef has practically joined the circus. Rook takes his role as a professional rather than a dilettante, but it's quite enjoyable to have your detective lumbering around as a mute clown, having a close shave with a throwing-knife and duty-bound to distract the audience after a thrilling moment in the big top of the tent – while figuring out a way a murderer could've entered the locked and bolted apartment. The job is made all the more difficult when the widow and daughter keep throwing suspicion on each other.

Unhappy Hooligan is a lively written, reasonably plotted mystery novel, enhanced by a well-drawn circus background and characters, but the overall plot did not measure up to the best from the Miss Withers series (e.g. Nipped in the Bud, 1951). The explanation for the locked room was carnie, but to be expected, and I was glad to see that Poe's "monkey wrench" was used as an obvious red herring. I really should just stop whining about these disappointing locked room mysteries and just write one myself... you know... one of these days...

So, all in all, not the best of mystery novels, but also far from the worst. I've just read better detective stories by Palmer. If you're not familiar with his work yet, I can highly recommend People vs. Withers and Malone (1963; co-authored with Craig Rice) and Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles (2002). If you like short detective stories, you'll love these!

1/12/15

Uncage the Black Lizard, Part IV: How Keen Of You!


"It's hard to believe now that I ever thought a locked room could be a place of safety, what with the snakes, the daggers made of ice, the invisible ethers, or unseen electrical currents. A sealed room with four walls, a ceiling and a floor could be the place you meet your end..."
- Miles Jupp
I've passed the halfway mark in the Herculean task of reading The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), edited by Otto Penzler, which is partially due to ignoring the stories I had read before and there were quite a few of those!

Thankfully, the fifth column of stories, How Easily is Murder Discovered, in which "there are so many ways for the creative killer to accomplish the act," were really good. I've even re-read two of the stories to see if they held up and they did.

"The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke," by Lawrence Block and Lynne Wood Block, was first published in the Summer/Fall 1997 issue of Mary Higgins Clark's Mystery Magazine and stars Lawrence Block's series-character, Bernie Rhodenbarr – a secondhand bookshop owner and part-time burglar. Rhodenbarr is dropping in on an avaricious collector of mysteries to unload a rare edition of Rex Stout's first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934), which has been inscribed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the collector is found dead before the transaction can be completed. Of course, it happened in a library designed as an impenetrable, fireproof strong room with steel-lined walls and bullet resistant windows to keep the valuable collection as safe as if they were stored in a nuclear bunker. The solution opposing this problem is delightfully simple and more than stood up to re-reading. I think this was the story that put Rex Stout on my radar.

I can also heartily recommend Block's The Burglar Who Traded Ted Williams (1994), in which Rhodenbarr stumbles across a body in a locked bathroom during a burglary, but the entire story was a joy to read. It's another one of those series I should return to.

"The Kestar Diamond Case" by Augustus Muir was first published in Raphael, M.D. (1935) and I assume this is the first recorded case of Dr. Louis Raphael, who can be described as a peculiar cross between Dr. John Thorndyke and Hercule Poirot. I assume from the character introductions this is the first (recorded) case in the series and the first problem for the doctor arose during the robbery of a diamond merchant. A precious stone was lifted from a locked office room, guarded by a plainclothesman, while the only occupant of the office was the loyal, but dead, clerk of the firm. The robbery is set against the backdrop of an underworld rivalry between the Lucian gang and a clever jewel thief, known only as "The Baron," but the doctor's approach is that of calm, reasonable scientist – taking a blood-film of the victim and laying a trap in his laboratory. Not from the top drawer, but still a fun, old-fashioned crime story and glad to have had an opportunity to sample something from an obscure mystery writer like Muir.

"The Odour of Sanctity" by Kate Ellis was originally written for The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) and one of the two stories I re-read, in which a man is seen falling from a window of a locked tower room – to which the only key was in his possession. It becomes even more complicated when it's discovered that the man was stabbed and had been dead long before the fall. The trick to the locked tower room was more involved than I remembered, but it was nonetheless nice to see a modern crime writer successfully taking a swing at the sealed room.

"The Invisible Weapon" by Nicholas Olde was first published in The Incredible Adventures of Rowland Hern (1928) and it's a short-short story with Chestertonian tendencies, but that's an observation that has been made before. The gimmick Olde employed for the murder in the locked and watched ballroom of a castle has passed from a cliché into a joke, but that didn't diminished the quaint charm of the overall story.

Ray Cummings' "The Confession of Rosa Vitelli" was first published in the August 19, 1925 issue of The Sketch and features the Scientific Crime Club, whom came across to me as the precursors of Isaac Asimov's The Black Widowers – except where these guys far more involved. The problem they're dissecting is the inexplicable confession by Rosa Vitalli to the murder of her roommate, Angelina, but refuses to tell how she managed to turn the gas on-and off in their flat – while all the windows, the door and transom were closed from the inside. However, the main draw of the story is not the locked room, but the miracle the Scientific Crime Club perform to make Rosa tell the truth. The playful ideas about time and space. How it can be captured. And that great question: "Where does light go when it goes out?" It showed Cummings was a SciFi-writer and it may have diluted the detective-elements of the story, but I couldn't help but like the story.

"The Locked Room to End Locked Rooms" by Stephen Barr was first published in the August 1965 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and reprinted as "The Locked House" in Best Detective Stories of the Year (1966), but I prefer the title the story was reprinted under here – because it makes a good attempt to keep that promise. The story begins with a discussion about detective fiction and locked room mysteries at one the smallest, but most argumentative, clubs in London, The Regent's, and one point of contention is how locked room mysteries are seldom mysteries. Well, one of the members has an example of a genuine locked room murder without a discernible trace of the perpetrator left on the scene of the crime. The victim is an explorer, Petrus Dander, with ties to the British government and was brutally murdered at his home, which forced White Hall to start covering various tracks to prevent an embarrassing scandal. These include how an axe-wielding killer was able to decapitate Dander and than apparently disappear in a puff of smoke. I've seen a variation on this trick before in a detective series from decades later, but it's still a pretty clever method to escape from a completely sealed premise. Still not sure if this story can be regarded as the ultimate locked mystery, but the attempt has been duly noted.  

This was by far the best round of stories in the collection (thus far) and I'll probably be able to finish off this anthology within another four, five posts, but they'll be interspersed with the return of the regular reviews.

1/9/15

Uncage the Black Lizard, Part III: In a Puff of Smoke


"Things like this didn't happen in the twentieth century, except perhaps in unexplored parts of Tibet and India."
- Haila Troy (Kelley Roos' Ghost of a Chance, 1947) 
And We Missed It, Lost Forever is the fourth column in Otto Penzler's one-seventh of a ton looking anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), but only the third attempt at conquering it. I decided to give a pass to the opening salvo of familiar, over-anthologized stories in favor of the ones I hadn't read before and that's why I skipped on six of them here. This column of stories is the largest in the book and would've probably bloated this review pass the page-count of the first posts, which you can read here (I) and here (II).

Otto Penzler describes the stories collected And We Missed It, Lost Forever as thus: "It is a fantasy of many people to disappear from their present lives. Some people disappear because they want to; others disappear because someone else wants them to. And object—large objects—sometimes disappear in the same manner." 

Unfortunately, the best in this lot, "The Day the Children Vanished" by Hugh Pentecost, happened to be one of those gems I have read before, but I'll keep digging. I'll find one that I haven't gone over before. And to keep this post as short and tidy as possible... here's a rundown of the ones I hadn't already greedily consumed.    

"The Twelfth Statue" by Stanley Ellin was first published in the February 1967 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the impossibility surrounding the disappearance of an American producer of smutty B-movies, known as "quickies," is only incidental, but it's wrapped in a well-written, soundly plotted and character-driven crime story – which even throws a false solution at the observant reader. It's not the purest of impossible crime stories, but nonetheless a good example of what contemporary crime fiction could've been if "plotting" hadn't become such a dirty word.

"All At Once, No Alice" was penned by William Irish, who was better known under the penname of "Cornell Woolrich," and was published in the March 2, 1940 issue of Argosy. The plot is derived from the long-lingering legend of the vanishing hotel room: a newlywed couple have trouble finding a room on their spur-of-the-moment honeymoon and the only room they're able to find is small, narrow room with a cot in one of the more seedier establishments in the town. Mr. Cannon decides to take the room for his wife, but, when he returns the following morning, her room is being repainted and everyone at the place denies ever having seen them – even the registry seems to deny she ever signed her name in it. John Dickson Carr carried this premise to a better ending in his popular radio-play "Cabin B-13," collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980) and Heuvel & De Waal offered a classic treatment of this theme in Spelen met vuur (Playing with Fire, 2004).

William Irish wrote a fabulous impossible crime story, "The Room with Something Wrong," gathered in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987), in which a hotel room has apparently gained sentience and begins chugging guests out of the window in the middle of the night.

"The Locked Bathroom" by the late H.R.F. Keating was first published in the June 2, 1980 issue of EQMM and it's a short-short story about Keating's lesser-known series-character. Mrs. Craggs is a professional charwoman and had a cleaning job with Mrs. Marchpane when "one of the great mysteries of our time" occurred at her flat: John Marchpane was taking a shower, while his wife was at the basin, when he simply ceased to exist from one moment into the other. I suspected Mrs. Craggs was sweeping something under the rug, but was surprised to learn it was nothing more than one of those "Puzzles of Everyday Life." A nice and charming story.

The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) contains the best locked room story I have read from Keating, "The Legs That Walked," in which a set of severed legs were taken from a guarded tent.

Dashiell Hammett's "Mike, Alec, or Rufus" appeared in the January 25 issue of Black Mask, which has his nameless gumshoe, The Continental Op, investigating a stickup job in an apartment building and the perpetrator, somehow, escaped without being detected. It's a situation barely enough to be considered a locked room mystery. However, the writing, style and characters were what's been promised in the many glowing reviews read over the years. The plot wasn't bad either, but the explanation left me unimpressed. So good story, until the end, but that's just me judging it as a snooty locked room fanboy and should not rustle the fedora's of Hammett enthusiasts – considering it's in an anthology of locked room mysteries.

Julian Hawthorne's "Greaves' Disappearance" was published for the first time in Six Cent Sam's (1893). The titular disappearance of Greaves happens in a busy street, but the only distinguishing mark of the plot is that the solution, "thus gent became invisible, and has so remained," makes it an ancestor to G.K. Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" from The Innocence of Father Brown (1911).  

"The Monkey Trick" by J.E. Gurdon was first published in a 1936 collection of short stories of the same name and the impossible problem here shows Gurdon, and "The Monkey Trick,' belonged to the pages of aviation fiction, but still an interesting and obscure find. The story takes place in the tumultuous years preceding the Second World War and the idea is to give the enemy the idea that England possesses a wireless controlled aeroplane, which is being demonstrated in front of witnesses – as it seen landing and taking off again without a pilot. It doesn't sport a solution that will leave many seasoned mystery readers in shocked surprise, but I found it to be a surprisingly fun story.

Edward D. Hoch's "The Theft of the Bermuda Penny" was originally printed in the June 1975 issue of EQMM and has a professional thief, Nick Velvet, chasing a worthless penny at the tune of several grand. That's part of the mystery of every story in this series: why would a client pay thousands of dollars for something that's barely worth a dime, while the other part consists of how Velvet is going to get that item. A bonus has been added in this story when the owner of the coin, Alfred Cazar, vanishes from the backseat of a moving car and left the seat belt fastened – as well as flabbergasted Velvet in the front passenger seat. Hoch also threw in some semi-impossible plot material on how to manipulate a bet, a bit clueing and a twist ending within the confines of just one short story. It wasn't just the sheer size of Hoch's output that made him a staple of the detective anthologies!

"Room Number 23" by Philip Judson, better known as "Hugh Pentecost," was first published in Flynn's magazine in 1925 and has classic locked room problem pried open by two late Rivals of Sherlock Holmes – a reporter for the Republican, named Renshaw, and the idling James Bellamy. The problem begins when a scream emanates from behind the door of Twenty-Three, at the old Nathan Hotel, but when the door is battered down they are greeted by a serene, empty room. It isn't until the following day, they find the occupant of Twenty-Three: stuffed in the ash barrels of the basement where a bootlegger kept his illegal stash of booze. So how did the murderer, alongside with the victim, disappear from a room that was locked from the inside and watched from the outside? The solution is a good, early example of the technique writers like Carr and Hoch loved to fool around with.

So, all in all, a better round of stories than the previous column and the next one has some familiar, but good, faces and some promising looking unknown ones.

To be continued...

Stories skipped in this section:

"The Day the Children Vanished" by Hugh Pentecost
"Beware of the Trains" by Edmund Crispin
"The Episode of the Torment IV" by C. Daly King
"The House of Haunts" a.k.a. "The Lamp of God" by Ellery Queen
"The Ordinary Hairpins" by E.C. Bentley
"The Phantom Motor" by Jacques Futrelle

1/6/15

Pursue the Target!


"How hard I tried to live a normal life. Yet those thoughts would always return. I thought of all the strange adventures... I had been through, of the worlds they had revealed, worlds of murder that lay below the surface of our supposedly calm and ordered society. Could I ever capture them... for the moment I failed... What I could not yet know, was that some of the most horrifying rooms, were still to be revealed."
- Arthur Conan Doyle (Murder Rooms: The White Knight Stratagem, 2001) 
The 49th volume of Case Closed, better known as Detective Conan outside of North America, opens as a chase tale hidden within a pursuit story, which began in the previous volume when Conan's bugging device revealed a member of the Black Organization – and they're getting ready to bump-off a person referred to as "DJ."

Who's immediately identified: Yasuteru Domon. Domon is a military officer and aspiring politician, with a tough-on-crime attitude and a personal feud with the Japanese mafia, but it's Domon's aspirations for the national politics that puts him the crosshairs of the Men in Black.

Conan has to thwart several assassination attempts, moving from location to location, solving mini-puzzles in order to get there, which gives the plot almost the structure of a videogame. But then "Gin" finds Conan's bugging device and the visor of the B.O. moves from Domon to Richard Moore. Two of the four chapters in this story are titled "Men in Black vs. The FBI," because they were heavily involved in the thwarting business and blew the dust from the old dues ex machina to end the story with pinpoint precision. Overall, a couple of good chapters with some interesting progress in the series' ongoing storyline.  

In the second story, Conan has to retrace the steps of a girl from his school, who approached the Junior Detective League with a prospective case, but didn't show up for school the next day. Her parents are away to attend a funeral and they learn from a shopkeeper she bought a bottle of juice, carton of milk and a utility knife – which confirmed my suspicion of the direction the story would take. A simple, but nice, filler story.

The final story is a combination of an inverted mystery and an impossible crime story, in which a murderer tries to use Richard Moore as the perfect, cast-iron alibi. No. It didn't work.

Atsushi Misumi wants the great "Sleeping Moore" to find his missing girlfriend, but that turns out to be the easy part of the case. Ami is found. Quickly. However, what they find is a corpse in a snow-covered car, doors sealed shut from the inside with tape and a charcoal stove on the passenger seat. What surprised me is that Conan didn't figure out the trick by simply remembering one of his previous cases. Conan solved a similar murder, situated in a tape-sealed bathroom, in volume 20 and the explanation, here, is only a slight variation on that previous story – hence why I rejected it out of hand. The story also introduces Eisuke Hondo, a transfer student and new classmate of Rachel, who's a huge fan of Richard Moore and who may be smarter than the unlucky clutch he appears to be, but I can see how he can be annoying to reader. So, in terms of the developing, overarching storyline, this was an interesting volume, but, plot-wise, I have seen better from Gosho Aoyama.

My (crude) theory for the sealed car: Misumi was clobbering away with a baseball bat on the windshield and that made me very, very suspicious. I suspected the windshield may've been removed to provide an exit, once Ami, the tape and stove were put in place, and then simply replaced. The strange expression on Misumi's face, during the battering of the windshield, strengthened this suspicion, because I reasoned the cold had perfected his job – and he was surprise and slightly confused to see how many blows it took to destroy his own handy work. I admit that discounting emotions in favor of reason is often the weak link in my deductions. I mean, emotions... are they really necessary?

Finally, the reason this review appeared two days late, is because I got stuffed nose, blurry eyes and a head full of cotton over the past few days, which wasn't the best state of mind to read detective stories in. So no repeating patterns from last year.

1/3/15

The Locked Room Reader


"It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."
Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1891)
This isn't going to be a third review in as many days, I'm not that fast, but an update with some vague, weekend musings thrown in.

First of all, I finally put the finishing touch to the update of the largest post on this blog, "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries, Part I: The Novels," which is an 8-page counting list of what I consider to be some of the finest impossible crime novels in existence. This post will undoubtedly continue to expand further, but this thorough rewrite of the list will buy me a year or two of neglect – before another rigorous update is in order. Now it looks neat, tidy and ordered again.

I'll be redrafting, rewriting and updating the sequel to that list, "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries, Part II: Short Stories and Novellas," when I have reached the ending of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014). The first two reviews from that monster anthology can be found here and here. I'll probably squeeze in a review of Case Closed, before returning to the Black Lizard book. There will also be reviews of regular mystery novels interspersed with the ones tackling Otto Penzler's anthology.

The blog for crime-fiction reviews and news, Past Offenses, fills us in on the third series of the BBC's Father Brown and a rundown of the upcoming episodes reminded me why I passed on the previous seasons. Well, the post warns to expect "the occasional squeal of anguish from the G.K. Chesterton purists," but the original stories were set in the early decades of the previous century and their author died in 1936 – yet the series is (apparently) steeped in 1950s nostalgia!

I hear you say, "Oh, that’s just a change in setting," but a glance at the episode description proves the snooty purist correct. "The Invisible Man," from The Innocence of Father Brown (1911), is one of those over anthologized, but landmark, stories in the impossible crime genre and this is what they made of it,"the circus brings death to Kembleford when a clown is murdered." What? This is going to be The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries adaptation of The Rising of the Moon (1945) all over again, isn't it? Oh, well, there's at least one detective fanboy who'll be glad to see another clown dead, if only a fictional one.

On the death bed of 2014, I posted "The Renaissance Era of Detective Fiction," which was a response to crime writer and fellow mystery enthusiast, Martin Edwards, asking an important question on his blog – why are contemporary readers taking note of Golden Age detective stories again? I compiled a rather long, rambling answer, but something occurred to me later that should have been part of the post. Surely, I haven't been the only one who left a bookstore, within a minute of entering, because of the usual stock of contemporary crime novels – which gave since the early 2000s an expanding group of customers to independent publishers, secondhand book dealers and a growing interest for public domain work. We're now as far removed from the year 2000 as from 2030 and the clock is ticking on the expiration date of a lot of copyrighted works from the Golden Age. So why not, from a publishers point of view, make some bucks out of the best works and writers from the Golden Age, before Gutenberg starts making them available in the decades ahead.

Finally, I deleted the badly written, overlong introduction to the updated list of favorite locked room mysteries and will probably rewrite it as a filler post entitled, "Why I Love Impossible Crime Stories." Hey, I promised activity would (eventually) resume, which, by the way, has been going on since September, 2014, showing an ascending line in blog activity – one post at a time. Well, hopefully, I'll have a quick review up tomorrow.

To be continued...

1/2/15

Uncage the Black Lizard, Part II: A Foot in the Door


"The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible."
- Arthur C. Clarke.
Yesterday, I posted the first of a multi-part review of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), edited by Otto Penzler, going over the stories collected under the headers "Familiar As the Rose in Spring" and "This Was the Unkindest Cut of All." It was a nice, carefully selected jumble of established and familiar mystery writers as well as stories with a far less impressive print run than "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" by Edgar Allan Poe.

The second part of this review will cover the six stories gathered under the third portion of this anthology, Footprints in the Sands of Time, which rightfully states "is there a more baffling scenario than to find a body in smooth sand or snow with no footprints leading to or from the victim?" – 'cause the no-footprints situation seems to be as difficult to plot as they are to solve. I'm afraid the greater number of stories in this category made a case for that statement.

Follow that invisible man!
Luckily, you can always (always!) count on the late Edward D. Hoch to have a good story even in the worst of short story collections. "The Man from Nowhere" was originally printed in the June 1956 issue of Famous Detective Stories and has one of Hoch's earlies series-characters, Simon Ark, as the detective. However, Ark isn't any ordinary sleuthhound, but a 2000 year old Coptic priest who spent centuries tailing Satan to do battle with him – or so he claims.

Douglas Zadig is the man who came from nowhere, as he turned up one day without any recollection of his past life, but began to attract the attention of Simon Ark when Zadig began to preach a new philosophy. The teachings of Zadig philosophy were lifted from the works of a religious leader who lived in the 7th century BC. Of course, Zadig is knifed in front of several witnesses, including Ark, but the murderer refused to materialize before them – which is the same story with the killer's footprints in the snow. It's a good, simple story that's only marred by the fact that the solution is build around a trick that has many variations, of which I have already found two examples of in this anthology.

"The Laughing Butcher" by Fredric Brown was first published in the Fall 1948 issue of Mystery Book and snatches the prize for the most original solution to the "no-footprints" premise in this selection. Well, no footprints... There were two tracks of footprints leading to the body in an open field of snow, but they both stopped there. As if the second person simply ceased to exist where they both stood. The butcher of Corbyville, Illinois, was a known rival of the victim, a former circus illusionist and practitioner of the Dark Arts, which is why the townsmen dragged him out of his shop and strung him up to the lamppost outside – in what was the first lynching in a long time for the town. The explanation for the footprints tip-toed on a fine, thin tightrope that the other stories in this category slipped on. So well done, Mr. Brown!

I previously reviewed one of Brown's locked room mysteries, Death Has Many Doors (1951). I would also recommend "Little Apple Hard to Peel," collected in Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories (1998), which is a modern crime story I surprisingly enjoyed reading. Lastly, I find Brown's Sci-Fi comedy, Martians, Go Home (1954), a pleasant diversion from my mystery reading. I should make it a point to read some more of Fredric Brown in 2015.

"The Sands of Thyme" by Michael Innes originally appeared in a short story collection, Appleby Talking (1954), which begins when Appleby tells a story of how he found the remains of a supposed suicide victim on the beach of Thyme Bay – a single track of footprints showing the way to the scene like breadcrumbs. It was a nice, short-short story up to the point of the explanation. The whole design of the story is to give Appleby an opportunity to eruditely chirp, "a simple story about the footprints on the sands of Thyme." It doesn't make the way in which the murderer escaped from the crime-scene any less of a copout.

The worst offender of this is Phoebe Atwood Taylor with The Criminal C.O.D. (1940). Don't spend any time in figuring out who the killer is, but to guess what the pun at the end will be. An entire novel for a bad pun and you lot dare to cringe at my word jokes!

Samuel Hopkins Adams' "The Flying Death" was first published in the January and February 1903 issues of McClure's, which I would mark as interesting reading material for connoisseurs of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Spiritual Father of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Challenger. Adams and Doyle wrote casebook-style mysteries, popular around the late 1800s/early 1900s, and this story has elements of The Lost World (1912) creeping into the investigation. A man has been fatally assaulted on the beach, but there aren't any footprints near the body except for claw-like track that could belong to a prehistoric bird. This makes for a charming, old-fashioned story, but the explanation was way too carny for my taste.

I think I would've preferred it, if the strange, gash-like wound in the neck of the victim was caused when it was badly grazed by a projectile fired from a spear gun, because someone actually tried to save him from a prehistoric creature and kept quiet. Who would believe him and the spear/harpoon was still in the creature, which took off into the sky. Anyway, I'll probably toss Adams' much lauded collection of short stories, Average Jones (1911), on this years pile. I'd like to see what Adams could do with straight-up locked room scenario. John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the novel-length treatment of this story.

"The Flying Corpse" by A.E. Martin was first published in the September 1947 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and has one of those charming, mystery solving husband-and-wife teams, Mona and Rodney, tackling the problem of how a nude man could've ended up in field without any indentations in the ground – and a close-range bullet wound in the head. I've seen this solution before in a campy parody of the locked room/detective story and it worked there, because it was played for laughs and giggles. But here, well... never mind.

"The Flying Hat" was first published in the May 1929 issue of The Storyteller and deals with a murderous, but unsuccessful, attempt on a man life and as to be expected, there aren't any footprints. It's the worst story of this section and I would advice to skip it.

So, yeah, that's not a very positive, second round of reviews of The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries, but the "no-footprints" or "stopped tracks" are the most difficult of all the impossible situations to pull off. John Dickson Carr himself only delivered one classic novel in this category, She Died a Lady (1943), under the Carter Dickson byline. One of the best examples (IMHO) is still Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings," which can be found in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) and sports one of the all-time great solutions for this predicament. The Jonathan Creek TV Christmas special, The Black Canary (1998), attractively translates this problem to small screen and masterly wrangles out a completely new ending to this scenario. The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow deserves a mention for not just tackling the problem, but plotting an entire obstacle course with it.

I'll probably review something else for the next post and than continue slaying this giant. That final page shall be reached and (hey!) I managed to keep this post shorter than previous one! I'm on the right track again with this blog!