7/29/11

The Adventure of the Scarlet Blaze

"The one who gets the last laugh isn't the criminal, but the little guy with the big brain."
- Hattori Heiji (a.k.a. Harley Hartwell)
Ever since I began participating in the online mystery community, I triumphantly lured over a dozen fellow enthusiasts into reading Kelley Roos' The Frightened Stiff (1942) and John Sladek's Black Aura (1974) and unintentionally resurged an interest in the obscure, hard-to-get books by Anthony Wynne – who stands as one of the most fertile writers of impossible crime stories. But try as I might, I just can't seem to generate even half as much attention or buzz for Case Closed / Detective Conan as I did for an unremembered writer whose books have been out-of-print for nearly seven decades – even with the backing from Ho-Ling and Patrick. This makes me wonder if the lack of overlap, between readers of Conan and Golden Age Detectives, isn't due to mis-advertisement but simply an unbridgeable age and cultural gap. I mean, here we have a detective series that literarily has everything one hopes to finds in well-written, tightly plotted and fairly clued mysteries, ranging from classic locked room mysteries to character-driven suspense stories, but, for some reason or other, older readers seem to be unable to warm up to it.

I hope this is an misunderstanding on my part, but whatever the answer may be, we will continue to proselytize, indoctrinate and incorporate new members into the Cult of Conania, and here's my latest contribution:   

Blazing Horses and a Glowing Firebug

The first murder case of this volume covers just about half of the book, and has Conan and Harley hot on the trail of a serial arsonist – whose modus operandi varies case by case but are signed with the incendiaries unmistakable trademark signature: leaving a small statuette of a red blazing horse at the scene of each inferno. At heart, this is a blazing eulogy to the memory of Agatha Christie, which adeptly avoid the familiar pitfall filled with tired old clichés and misconceptions, but it's also a solid detective story in its own right. And it's always a pleasure to watch Conan and Harley team-up.  

Murder Among Friends

Professor Agasa chaperons another outdoors excursion for Conan and his buddies from The Detective Boys, when they bump into a group of friends from a college club touring around in a campervan and not unexpectedly one of them turns up dead after briefly disappearing from the party. On the surface, it has all the earmarks of an unfortunate accident, but a bike in perfect working order, tire tracks and a bloody picnic blanket are the silent witnesses that scream out foul play. The gist of the trick is easily deduced, but the clueing and use of the outside environment makes this a satisfying detective story.

The Mother Hunt

In the final story of this collection, Richard Moore is employed by a well-known child actor who was abandoned by his mother when he was only a baby, however, recently he has been receiving a slew of postcards which were evidently send by his mother – and he wants the famous Sleeping Moore to locate her. However, it's Conan who does a top-notch job at deducing her whereabouts from the tell-tale clues on the postcards. As a matter of course, their mother hunt turns into a murder investigation and they have to deduce who of three women strangled a freelance, hack mudracker – and who of them is the boys mother. Not one of the best stories in the series, but it has nifty visual clue that I really liked. The deadliness of the murder weapon is questionably, though.

7/28/11

Don't Look a Gift Corpse in the Mouth

"You give me nothing during your life, but you promise to provide for me at your death. If you are not a fool, you know what I wish for!"
- Marcus Valerius Martial
This is the first entry that is entirely dedicated to one of Rex Stout's novels, but ever since the inauguration of this blog I have occasionally peppered reviews with references to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – who are the protagonists of one of only two detective series in which I favor the characters over the plot. It's not that Rex Stout didn't know how to plot, it's just that his forte was dialogue and he mastered this aspect of his writing so well that it brought forth a set of characters as enduring and memorable as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Admittedly, this turned the series over time into stories about two detectives rather than actual detective stories.

Where There's a Will (1940) is often maligned as the worst volume in the Wolfe corpus, but plot-wise it's just as bad as some of the later entries – except for the fact that this story followed in the wake of a slew of very good stories. Too Many Cooks (1938) and Some Buried Caesar (1938) are admitted masterpieces and Over My Dead Body (1940) deserves its fair share of praise as well. The status of the book wasn't exactly elevated, either, with such follow-ups as Black Orchids (1942) and Note Quite Dead Enough (1944; a personal favorite of mine). This is merely a mediocre fare from a vintage period and therefore egged as the worst course in the corpus, but I have a slight problem with that general accepted consensus as this story, at least, showed fragments of creativity – which is not something that can be said in favor of the forgettable The Father Hunt (1968) or the unimaginative Please, Pass the Guilt (1973).

The millionaire Noel Hawthorne, who was killed during a tragic hunting accident, is the author of one of the most unconventional wills ever drawn up by an attorney, in which he bequeathed his three sisters, named April, May and June, respectively a peach, an apple and a pear and his widow a measly five hundred thousand grand – while the residue of his estate, estimated at a whopping seven million dollars, is bestowed upon his mistress. Needless to say, the family is not amused and they want to engage the services of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to convince this woman to relinquish a considerable part of her inheritance back to the Hawthorne family.

The hefty, chair-bound gumshoe thoroughly despises quarrels over a dead man's earthly possessions, but is strapped for cash and has to accept the job to rejuvenate the bank account. But he's soon back on familiar turf, when Inspector Cramer and DA Skinner burst into his office with the announcement that the routine inquiry into Noel Hawthorne's accidental demise yielded new evidence and has now officially turned into a homicide investigation.

I know this summary synopsis will probably solicit a response along the lines of "how could anyone mess up such an intriguing premise," but if you're familiar with Rex Stout's weaknesses as a plotter you know that sparse, uninspired clueing and a more or less random solution ruined better detective stories than this one – and evinces that these tales are best read without your thinking cap on. I constructed a clever, but simplistic, solution around the basic facts that half of Hawthorne's face was blown away by a shotgun blast – which bore a striking resemblance to an archery accident in which a rogue arrow horribly mutilated his wife's face.

But, as I said at the beginning of this review, I don't read these books in the hope of finding an ingeniously, multi-layered constructed plot or a rug-puller of a surprise solution. If I want plot complexity, I'll pick up a novel by John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. No, I read these books, and many with me, because I feel at home in that comfy brownstone on West 35th Street – where you can't help but smirk at the bickering emanating from the office and goggle at the kingly meals that are prepared and served by their live-in gourmet-chef. We read them because we enjoy the company of the curmudgeonly, but often misunderstood, Nero Wolfe, the wisecracking Archie Goodwin (whose narrative voice makes up for nearly every flaw you can uncover in the plots), their gourmet-chef and head of the household, Fritz Brenner, the consistently fuming Inspector Cramer, the regular troupe of private ops, Saul Penzer, Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin, who are hired as legmen to assist Archie in his investigations, the lovely Lily Rowan and all the other regulars who inhabit this vibrant universe brought to life by Stout's sparkling dialogue.

I'm aware this constitutes as a roughshod, unprovoked onrush on the gag reflexes of some of you, but I have to say that these stories are best described as cozies with an attitude, and I, for one, can't get enough of them. 

Overall, this is a nice compilation of Stout's strength and weaknesses, in which the familiar scenes of Archie mercilessly needling Wolfe with his sarcastic, teasing remarks are more interesting and fun than the actual plot itself – but devoted fans won't mind for the reasons stated above. If you're new to the series, however, skip this one until you've familiarized yourself with the characters in such books as Too Many Cooks (1938), Some Buried Caesar (1938), Not Quite Dead Enough (1944), And Be a Villain (1948), The Golden Spiders (1953) and Champagne for One (1958).

7/27/11

Why Nero Wolfe Never Ages

"I don't know how a brain that is never used passes the time."
- Nero Wolfe (The Final Deduction, 1961)
Maury Chaykin as the immortal Nero Wolfe
The attentive readers of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin stories are likely to be familiar with the apparent immortality of the characters, whose aging processes seems to be have been in suspended animation during the period between their first recorded appearance in Fer-de-Lace (1934) until their final bow in A Family Affair (1975). This is most notable in A Right to Die (1964), in which a character from Too Many Cooks (1938) reappears and has morphed from a young adult into a middle aged man with a grown son. There's also the advent of technology in the later books – so time does, in fact, move on outside of the brownstone, but does seems to have had a very weak grip, if any, on its inhabitants.

What's the secret of their perpetual robustness and everlasting good looks? To be honest, I don't have a clue, however, I do have one or two theories to offer on this matter – and they make so much sense that I want to consider them as part of the corpus. But hey, I am open to rivaling theories. ;)

Theory #1: if you're a habitual visitant of the brownstone on West 35th Street, then you probably have noticed that not everyone lived to tell about it. There's an impressive list of people who drew their last breath in (and around) Wolfe's abode, which could mean that the fundaments of the house rests on an ancient, sacrificial altar and needs a blood offer every now and then to appease some archaic God of Death – who resides on the greenhouse roof in the human guise of Wolfe's orchid nurse, Theodore.

Theory #2: taking Nero Wolfe's personality into consideration, it's also possible that he simply repudiates the idea that time is irretrievable and who couldn't envisage him looking up from a book to glare at a ticking clock and muttering, "pfui!" If the passage of time wants to encroach on Nero Wolfe's time it has to check with Archie Goodwin first to make an appointment – just like everyone else.

Theory #3: Wolfe's greenhouse roof is stuffed with plants and flowers imported from that mythical place high-up in Tibetan mountain region, Shangri-La, emanating fragrances that considerably slows down bodily decay and mental rot of the residents of that famous brownstone.

Yes, the next book in the queue just so happens to be an entry from the Wolfe and Goodwin series, which prompted me to post this. Now, if only I had a quiet moment to work my way through the first couple of chapters. Hm. I'm afraid I just wasted such a moment on this nonsense. Oh, well.

7/26/11

Another Patriarch Bites the Dust

"Unfortunately, murderers nowadays are very perspicacious. They sometimes even impress me as a bunch who set-up a murder in a locked room just to tease us."
- Martin Méroy (Du plomb pour la famille, 1959)
It was a brief, but nonetheless absorbing, exchange on the faults and merits of French detective stories that lead me to the works of Martin Méroy – a copious writer of soft-boiled fiction chronicling the adventures of a Parisian shamus living in New York, coincidently sharing the author's name, who has a penchant for coming across impossible crimes. The first book I took on, Meartre en Chambre Noir (Murder in a Darkened Room, 1965), was a fast-paced, breezily narrated tale that pulled off a sealed room routine with enough skill and aplomb to warrant a follow-up – which brings me to Du plomb pour la famille (Lead for the Family, 1959). 

In Du plomb pour la famille, Martin Méroy journeys back to his homeland at the request of Cornelius Capehardt, a wealthy and influential presence on the international stock market, who has been receiving a string of forbidding, type-written notes prophesizing the undesirable comforts of an early grave – and it's up to Méroy to deflect any attempts at prematurely closing the book on the life of his new employer. But shortly after arriving at the heavily guarded family estate, La Commanderie, he observes that the nebulous would-be killer could be lurking within the confines of Capehardt's own household – a conclusion strengthened when a sniper takes aim and one of the guards ends up eating a bullet that was supposed to be served to Méroy!

The plot construction here is interesting in that it's designed from a varied arrange of elements of the genre and it worked surprisingly well. There's the archetypical dysfunctional family, and assorted impaired characters, inhabiting an ancestral home ruled over by a patriarch, who evidently escaped from the pages of an obscure, 1920s British country house mystery, while the gumshoe and narrative voice represents the American style. But there also scenes of action and suspense intertwined with a reasonably fair play, puzzle orientated plot that involves collaring a killer and solving a bona fide locked room problem.

Yeah. Just like in the previous book I read, Méroy's best efforts proved to be futile in preventing the murder of another, high-paying client – in spite of the victim locking himself in a secret, windowless room, in which a valuable art collection is displayed for private viewing, and the only hidden entrance is located in a nearly impenetrable and tightly secured study. Martin Méroy may be one of the best detectives in the business, but he's a lousy bodyguard.

I have to say, though, that I have mixed feelings about the solution that explained the shooting in the private museum, which should've prompted me to mutter "cheater" under my breath as I put the book down with a bitterly disappointed look on my face, however, it was logical, fairly clued and presented in such a manner that I slowly started to like the idea after a while. The explanation is still workmanlike rather artistically inspired, but it says something in favor of the author's talent if he can propose such a solution and still leave a reasonable satisfied reader.  

A fast-paced writing style and an engagingly conceived plot is the tout ensemble of this novel and I have to stress the fact that it provided me with more entertainment than I expected from it. The prose may be a distant cry from the lines that were committed to paper by Raymond Chandler and missing the grandeur of a plot conceptualized by John Dickson Carr, but it's not the cheap, penny-a-liner pulp it masquerades as, either. It's actually a clever detective story, in a simplistic and straightforward manner, and one that I definitely recommend for a quick read, in between books, if you can get your hands on a copy. 

Foreign mysteries discussed on this blog spot: 
The Trampled Peony (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
The Last Chance (M.P.O. Books, 2011)
Death in Dream Time (S.H. Courtier, 1959)
Murder During the Final Exams (Tjalling Dix, 1957)
Elvire Climbs the Tower (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, 1956)
The Black-Box Murder (Maarten Maartens, 1898)  
Lead for the Family (Martin Méroy, 1959)
Murder in a Darkened Room (Martin Méroy, 1965)
The Sins of Father Knox (Josef Skvorecky, 1973)
What Mysteries Lie Under the Rising Sun (guest blog by Ho-Ling on the Japanese detective story)
Case Closed, volume 38: On the Ropes (review of Case Closed) 
The Melody of Logic Must Be Played Truthfully (discussing Spiral: The Bonds or Reasoning)
Kindaichi: The Good, The Bad and The Average (dicussing The Kindaichi Case Files)

7/24/11

Murder, Mystery and Mom

"Sometimes we go for a whole week without finding one single corpse."
- Gypsy Rose Lee (Mother Finds a Body, 1942)
The paternity of Gypsy Rose Lee's two detective stories, The G-String Murders (1941) and Mother Finds a Body (1942), has been speculated on from the moment the first copy rolled off the presses, and popular opinion at the time ascribed them to mystery novelist Craig Rice - who later fanned the fires of supposition by ghosting Crime on My Hands (1944) for actor George Sanders. This fallacy was considered to be a fact until recently evidence emerged that definitively proved Lee's authorship and the controversy was finally laid to rest. 

But having read Mother Finds a Body, I can understand why readers so easily gobbled up the surmise of Craig Rice's supposed role as Gypsy Rose Lee's ghostwriter. The plot is simply covered with what appears to be her paw prints. There is, first of all, a whiff of surrealism that lingers throughout the plot and the zaniness is vintage Ricean, but even more deceptive was perhaps the unity between Gypsy Rose Lee, her newly acquired comic-spouse Biff Branigan and her busybody mother Evangie. Rice's detective are with a single exception team players: John Malone, Jake and Helene Justus; Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak and the three kids who take center stage in Home Sweet Homicide (1944). So if Rice didn't indite this book than, at least, it can be assumed that Lee modeled her story on Rice's style and plotting technique.

Mother Finds a Body hits the ground running as Gypsy's mother, who was allowed to accompany them on their honeymoon, since she was unable to attend the wedding ceremony, finds the rapidly decomposing remains of a man in the bathtub of their trailer – whom they picked up at an earlier stage to act as their best man and ended up as a part of a tagalong party. The audacious and unconventional advice from mother is to bury the stiff and wipe the memory of him from their minds. There is, after all, no need for her daughter to expose herself to a police enquiry and negative publicity now that she's finally ascending the career ladder in the movie industry, but Gypsy and Biff insist on dropping-off the stinker at the next police station. Well, mom has her own plans and knows what's best for her daughter and son-in-law and does what every mother in her situation would've done: start a small-scale forest fire and dump the body in a shallow grave during the ensuing chaos.

Gypsy's mother is an endearing and memorable character who deserves top billing in this story just for being a world-class mom. It would've been very easy to slip up and mother an obnoxious personage, but here it was just done right and I think this passage says it all:

"Mother loves writing letters. She loves it almost as much as steaming open letters other people have written. Unfortunately, Mother's letters are what people call "poison pen." Mother doesn't call them that, of course. She thinks of her letter writing as a sacred duty. Too often I’ve heard her say, 'Someone should drop that woman a line and tell her just how she is – copying your song like that. It's my duty as your mother to do it. I will do it.' Then Mother would get that too-innocent look in her eye and she would say, 'Of course I won’t sign it. I’ll send it miscellaneously.'"

Unluckily, for her, the scheme she contrives to rid themselves of an odoriferous corpse misfires horribly, and the bodies slowly, but surely, begin to pile up at the border town where the trailing assemblage strands in a murder investigation – and the honeymooners have to figure out if the murderer is a member of their tagalong party, which includes two strippers and a hack comic, or one of the locals like the shady saloon owner.

Gypsy Rose Lee did a bang-up job at constructing a playful and clever enough detective story, inhabited with an odd assortment of slightly eccentric characters, with one or two interesting plot ideas revolving around the problem of dope peddling. Not every outsider, who visited the mystery genre, delivered as fully on the promise of writing a detective story as Lee has done here, and it replenishes my hope that her first novel, The G-String Murders, is not the insipid, disconnected mess of a story as some reviews suggested.  

Briefly put, this bright, humorously and fetchingly written story was exactly what I needed as a remedy after working my way through the automaton-like melodrama of Wynne's The Green Knife (1932) and the turgid prose of Markham's Death in the Dusk (1928).

Recommended without reservation, especially if you want to read something that could've been penned by Craig Rice. This is probably as close as you'll get to match the original.

As a bonus, here's an interesting video of Gypsy Rose Lee as a mystery guest on the 1950s game show, What's My Line? (they also have some really great episodes with Vincent Prince and Peter Lorre as mystery guests): 

7/21/11

The Grim Fairy-Tale of Parson Lolly

"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that,' said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
- Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
Before we plummet into today's review, I want to express my gratitude to everyone who turned this blog spot in one of his or her regular haunts on the web. Yesterday, I checked up on the statistics of this digital mausoleum and was aghast to find that the page-view counter had left the 10.000 mark behind it! I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I began posting these sketchy, rambling commentaries, a little over six months ago now, but none of mine previsions included garnering thousands of views and hundreds of comments over such a short period. So once again, thanks to everyone who has been reading these scribbles, posting responses or linked to this place.

But enough with these nauseating acknowledgements and lets zero in on the latest book that soared from the snow-covered mountain tops of my to-be-read pile, Virgil Markham's Death in the Dusk (1928) – which turned out to be a rival for Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) and Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock (1950) in the race for the title of most outlandish detective story ever contrived. This epic mystery story has a grim, fairytale-like flavor and its plot involves such phantasmagorical elements as an imperishable arm, a bone floating in mid-air, an enchanted duel between mediaeval sorcerers, a bleeding portrait and a cat that is impervious to gunfire.

The opening chapters, in which Alfred Bannerlee, antiquarian and narrator, roams a fog-enwrapped scenery, and the characters he encounters along the way, possesses all the dreamlike quality of a painting from the Romantic Era – effectively setting the mood for the rest of the story. It also conjures up a perfect atmosphere for his arrival at Highglen House, a hostelry whose master turns out to be an old acquaintance and he's subsequently absorbed into an engagement party, of sorts, but the incarnate form of a local fable has been casting a darkening shadow over the festivities.

Parson Lolly, The Arch-Lord of Disorder, has been making himself known at the old house, located near the spot where in ancient times he fought a magical duel with a rivaling necromancer, but, oddly enough, he leaves behind tangible evidence of his presence by dropping notes that bear dire warnings – which isn't the usual visiting card of otherworldly beings. Nevertheless, this sets tongues wagging with localized legends and superstitions, regarding the wind-born Parson, who, at times, can still be seen streaking through the sky with his ink-black cape bellowing behind him and the deathless arm of his antagonist, both of whom continue to plague the region, and consequently turn what began as a benevolent fable into a grim fairy-tale with a body count.

For the most part, the story is best described as a lucid account of the experiences one can have when you enter the state between wakefulness and sleep – placing this book in the same, but indefinable, category as The Red Right Hand and Night of the Jabberwock. The occurrences in these tales tend to give the impression of moving through a dream or nightmare and only you are aware that everything that is happening is just a figment of your imagination. This is an interesting and potentially satisfying approach to the detective story, but also one in which you can easily slip-up if you go full-out. I'm part of the crowd who doesn't think too highly of The Red Right Hand, but absolutely loved and adored Night of the Jabberwock – and it's somewhat fittingly that I place Death in the Dusk in between them.

I found this to be a fascinating and engrossing story, but I don't share the astonishment and disbelief, professed by another mystery fan, at how this book could've gone on so long without receiving numerous reprints or reviews. I think I understand why this book fell by the wayside.

First off, the solution is an early example of one of the classic ploys in the genre, but not one that started with this book nor is the execution as perfect or indelible as the archetype of this trick and thus has nothing really new to offer as a detective story. The second problem is the length of the narrative, which is ten pages shy of 400, and the antiquated writing style will probably make this a chore to go through for most contemporary readers who are used to short, clipped sentences and its plot is one that commends your full and undivided attention. As fascinating as it is, it's not a story that you read for the fun of it. I also understand now why nobody else took a stab at critiquing this story in the past few years or so... it's nearly impossible to coherently sum-up such a variegated plot as this one. 

This goes to show how bizarre this blood-soaked fairy-tale really is. Basically, it has everything that I like in a detective story, from a well-enough constructed plot to apparently supernatural incidents, often bordering on the impossible, but, somehow, I find it hard to warm up to the story as a whole.

In short, supply yourself with a copy and decide for yourself. Don't worry, despite the limited print-run of the book it's still easily available second-hand without triple-digit price-tags attached to them.

7/17/11

The Barricaded Room

"But no matter how I tried 
The other side was locked so tight
That door, it wouldn't open." 
- Gotta Knock a Little Harder 
"Anthony Wynne" (1882-1963)
Back in September of last year, Curt Evans wrote a number of book reviews (here, here and here) on the rare and hard-to-get locked room novels by Anthony Wynne, the nom-de-plume of Scottish-born physician Robert McNair Wilson, who still stands as one of the most fertile writers of miracle problems. But in spite of fathering sixteen impossible crime novels, more than one-half of his entire output, he never accumulated the prestige and credit that was bestowed on John Dickson Carr, Hake Talbot and Clayton Rawson – or even that of lesser known writers such as Joseph Commings and Arthur Porges.

The impediment to acquiring ever-lasting fame, within the confines of the genre, was not due to a lack of imagination to deliver on resplendently conceived premises, but that he was depraved of even particle traces of humor and populated his stories with pasteboard characters who act like stage actors in a Victorian melodrama – prompting John Norris to aptly label them as "Detective Operas," in which an overwrought, melodramatic dénouement ends with the murderer promptly committing suicide after an aria of a confession.

But in defiance of these dire forebodings, I found myself unable to ignore a writer who turned out over a dozen locked room stories, occasionally packing a plot with more than one or two seemingly impossible situations, which reputedly are, at times, worthy of John Dickson Carr himself. I'll take a humorless, baroque style of writing, littered with two-dimensional characters, for granted if the exchange includes miracle problems of a Carrian quality – and I felt vindicated in that attitude after finishing The Green Knife (1932).

The flaws attributed to Wynne all give actes de présence in The Green Knife, but the murder of Sir Dyce Chalfont, an opulent power player on the financial scene, who "with the stroke of" a pen could "hand over a million men to despair and ruin," proved to be sufficiently baffling to distract your attention away from them – and the circumstances in which he died had me grasping at straws until the final page.

Here are the facts as they are known: witnesses that rushed to the bedroom door, after a disturbing scream, heard someone moving furniture around, to barricade the entrance, but when they managed to break-down the barrier the only occupant of the room was the body of the dead millionaire and the windows were securely bolted from the inside – creating an almost perfectly sealed area. But more importantly, the fatal stab wound inflicted on him precludes the possibility that he was attacked somewhere else in the house and fled into the bedroom to escape a murderous assailant – as he died within seconds after the blade ruptured his heart. I usually have a theory to offer as to how someone could've fled from an inescapable environment, but the best I could muster in this case was that the murderer curled himself up in a hidden compartment of the sofa that barricaded the door – an idea inspired by Edogawa Rampo's short horror story, "The Human Chair."


Fortunately, for my bloated, but fragile, ego, Dr. Eustace Hailey, who has a non-commending presence and a bland personality, was completely confounded, as well, especially when the servants start turning up dead under similar, apparently unfeasible, conditions – and every time they assume to have unlocked the door to one of the barricaded rooms, evidence from one of the other impossible murders breaks their theoretical key in several pieces and forces them to rethink their entire case all over again. The eventual solution is as clever as it is simple, a hallmark of a grand locked room trick, although you could draw a question mark or two in the column concerning the fair play aspect of it.

These engrossing puzzles and subsequent theorizing will occupy most of your attention, and therefore tend not to be bothered too much about the hammy writing or flat characters, but, to be honest, there was one excellent scene in the book that definitely benefited from the overwrought prose – which was when Dr. Eustace Hailey was locked-up in the darkened murder room with the killer, who was obliterating evidence from a previous murder, while the doctor was stumbling around in the dark and expecting any moment to feel a sliver of cold steel burying itself in his back. 

However, at times, he was also sloppy where details are concerned and any editor worth his or her salt should've picked up on them. When Sir Dyce was discovered it was immediately pointed out that he was stabbed in the back but when they discuss a bizarre suicide/accident-combo they talked as if the titular knife entered through his chest – and when the first servant is murdered, under eerily similar circumstances, they talked about back stabbings again. Huh? There's another irregularity in the story, concerning the impossibility of the first murder, but I can't go into details without divulging the solution of the locked room trick.

The tragedy of Anthony Wynne is that he was, at heart, a writer who belonged to a different era and had the misfortune to arrive on the scene long after his time had come and gone. I'm convinced that had he published such a book as The Green Knife 30-40 years earlier he would've been placed alongside Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Gaston Leroux as one of the trail blazing pioneers of the genre – instead of being perceived as a curiosity.

It's a shame, since you really have to admire someone who was able to saturate a story with impossible situations and false solutions, but I am afraid that less dedicated readers will find themselves bogged down by the overwrought writing and a deficiency of characterization, not to mention the scarcity and price-tags attached to most of the books, making this more a series for hopeless devotees of the locked room story and zealous collectors of hard cover editions than for regular mystery readers.

Yes, I'm one of those incurable aficionados of the impossible crime story, which means that you can look forward to more reviews of books by this obscure and forgotten author in the not so distant future – even if it means burgling the private libraries of John and Curt! Wait, did I just type that out-loud?

7/14/11

"Never hate your enemies, it affects your judgement"

"You're new at lawbreaking, I gather, so maybe I should tell you how the game is played. It's actually a combination of musical chairs and blind man's buff."
- Friedman (Twospot, 1978)
Bill Pronzini has a well established reputation for experimenting with innovative ways in which he, as a writer with an aversion to the idea of becoming a series scribbler who continuously regurgitates the same books over and over again, could approach the private eye story and developed a penchant for concocting hybrid-like stories – in which he roams the boundaries of the genre. Hoodwink (1981), for example, is a classic locked room mystery, which pays homage to the ghost of John Dickson Carr, while Shackles (1988) is an exceedingly dark, character-driven thriller exploring the darkest nooks and niches in the psyche of his nameless investigator. 

The collaborative team effort by Bill Pronzini and Collin Wilcox, Twospot (1978), in which their series characters, The Nameless Detective and Lt. Frank Hastings, cooperate with one another on the same murder case, lets itself not as easily asserted as the aforementioned books. In the first place, it's a crossover, which is a sub-category of fiction all by itself, but also a convergence of two distinct branches of crime fiction in which both authors specialized themselves – consequently intertwining the private eye novel with a police procedural.

Twospot comprises of four alternating, novella-length chapters and a epilogue that shifts perspectives from nameless to the police lieutenant, in which they deal with the problems facing them on their own terms – making the book an interesting contrast between the writing styles of Pronzini and Wilcox.

Pronzini kicks off the story by sending his lone wolf op down to the winery of the Cappellani family to report on a background check he run on one of their employees – suspected by one of the sons, Alex Cappellani, to be an opportunistic gold digger who wants to usurp the distinguished distillery by trapping his widowed mother into a marriage. At this early stage in the story, I fully expected him to chance upon the body of one of the men at the winery and the plot turning into an old fashioned, but hardboiled, whodunit with a family business as a backdrop – but the crimes confronting him were limited to merely an attempted murder and a forced, midnight wrestling match in the shrubberies. He's had worse days.

The chapters, narrated by Nameless, are unmistakably Pronzini's – tough and hard-headed when the situation calls for it, but humane when he needs to be and this early incarnation of his personage, that of the solitudinarian investigator, shows how consistent his basic personality has been over the past four decades. Fundamentally, he has remained the same person, however, you only have to glance at the stories that came after this one to see how life continued building on that fundament – turning an einzelgänger into a family guy with a senior partnership in a successful private investigation firm. And his endearing fanboyism concerning his favorite pulp writers also makes him one of the most relatable characters in the genre, because you can connect with him on a basic level as one fan to another and his thoughts on the subject can be eerily recognizable. Heck, he even described a dream, in which he and a bunch of detectives, from the brittle pages of his treasured pulp magazines, joined forces to clean up a gang of Prohibition era rum-runners. Hey! I had dreams like that!

But let us return to the story, as Wilcox has taken over from Pronzini when the subject of Nameless' enquiry turned up dead and a note with an incomprehensible term, "twospot," scrawled across its surface is found near the body – and here the plot takes a definitive turn away from a possible crossbreed between the private eye and a conventional detective story and morphs into a police thriller. Honesty compels me to say that I was less then thrilled with Wilcox's contribution to the book. The narrative voice of his protagonist, Lt. Frank Hastings, also has a hardboiled edge to it, but, somehow, it didn't ring true with me and impressed me as artificial – nor did I find his character particular enthralling. As a matter of fact, I think his subordinate, Canelli, who acts like a walking good-luck-charm to his team and made a significant contribution to resolving the case and preventing more bloodshed, eclipsed his overall appearance. 

Needless to say, a modern police thriller will not entirely adhere to the orthodox rules of fair-play, nonetheless, there were still parts of the solution that were foreshadowed and could be anticipated – but don't expect to find clues that will help you fill in the finer details (e.g. the exact meaning of "twospot"). However, the problem the solution suffers from the most is that parts of it are a bit dated and haven't aged with same grace as a Cappellani vintage wine, but I can't say any more without spilling too much crucial information regarding the solution. 

In conclusion, this is not a prime candidate for a future short-list of favorite entries in this long-running series, which is mainly due to the chapters penned by Collin Wilcox, who simply failed to grab and hold my attention, and the plot was also sub-par. I've seen Pronzini do better than this, even in an out-and-out thriller like Shackles! Still, it's an interesting experiment that has its moments and perhaps I should've read a Lt. Frank Hastings novel before tackling this book (to get the overall and complete experience), which is a lesson I will take to heart before I start chippen away at the crossover novel, Double (1984) – co-written with his mystery writing wife, Marcia Muller. I'm sure there are one or two of her books I can easily obtain, even in these parts. To be continued.

By the way, why does even a somewhat disappointing book usually translate itself into a shoddily written review – even after a number of revisions this is the best I have to offer. I really do suck! Oh well, the next blog post will hopefully be a bit better as I run through the plot of a locked room mystery by an obscure, nearly forgotten mystery writer. 


Update: I received additional information on this book from Bill Pronzini:

"It's a fair review. Twospot was written a long, long ago and I've never much liked it myself. It was supposed to be Threespot -- a three-way collaboration with the third writer being Joe Gores. Gores backed out just as we were about ready to start plotting and writing the book, so Collin Wilcox and I had to rethink and rework it. Neither of us was satisfied with the finished book. The original Threespot story would have made for a much more effective novel."
It's a pity that the triple crossover never came to fruition and killed what could've been an excellent, and unique, crime book within the genre.
All the books I have reviewed in this series:

Twospot (1978)
Hoodwink (1981)
Bones (1985)
Shackles (1988)
Nightcrawlers (2005)

7/12/11

Death Can't Be Locked Out

"Death doesn't always leave his signature behind to be read infallible like your people profess to be able to read finger marks."
- Dr. Prescott (Death Leaves No Card, 1944)
One of the most prolific mystery writers, from those prosperous early decennia's of the previous century, was without a shadow of a doubt John Street – who primarily enjoyed a reputation as one of the champions of the so-called humdrum detective story under his pennames John Rhode and Miles Burton. He has a reputation for being a tediously dull writer whose books are the miracle cure for long-suffering insomniacs, but the few books I read under the John Rhode byline were anything but unimaginative, sleep inducing run-of-the-mill detective stories. The House on Tollard Ridge (1929) and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge (1943) were perhaps a bit dry in parts, but not tedious or dull – and it was actually interesting to see someone handle the haunted house setting in a sober and rational manner.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said about Death Leaves No Card (1944), published under the Miles Burton name, which has a solid enough plot and the locked room angle has its points of interests, but the uninspired story telling made this a real chore to plough through.

The story opens at the residence of Geoffrey Maplewood where one of his servants, Reuben Dukes, makes an attempt at breaking down a solid wooden bathroom door that separates them from Basil Maplewood – Geoffrey's entitled nephew who failed to resurface from his morning bath and has been unresponsive ever since. After the door finally yields, they extricated his stark naked body from the room, however, the only marks on his body coincide with the way he fell – and the cause of death is a complete mystery. A shock seems the most likely answer, but there were no electric appliances in the locked bathroom and it's one of the last households in neighborhood that isn't connected to the grid.

John Street was the mechanical engineer of the detective story, who was particular inventive when it came to constructing deadly contraptions, and the solution to the locked room is a fine example of that talent, but not one that will give the reader much trouble in figuring out how it was done. The question of the murderers identity and motivation suffer from the same transparency. However, it's not that the construction of the plot has any serious faults, but that it resembles the skeleton frame of a building before construction is completed. It's interesting from a technical point of view, but not very habitable and that pretty much sums up this book for me.

This impression of incompleteness was further strengthened by the nonappearance of Desmond Merrion, created for the Miles Burton penname, who simply dispatched a telegram informing Inspector Arnold that he is indisposed by the flu and that he won't be joining the investigation – which is the equivalent of Inspector Cramer tackling a murder case all by himself because Wolfe and Archie aren't around Inspector Japp tracking down the ABC murderer on his own because Hercule Poirot has indigestion. 

Plot wise, this book is still a fairly competent entry into the locked room sub-genre, but the ho-hum storytelling also makes it a decidedly unexciting one – and not a book that you'll likely finish in one sitting. I guess I should've gone with one of the John Rhode titles instead, which has been a source of considerable embarrassment to me for the better part of a year. A while ago, I accumulated several, hard-to-get, titles from the Dr. Priestley series whose pleas to be read have been falling on deaf ears ever since acquiring them. But rest assured, shame hangs like a noose on my conscience.

Well, this was a rather short and negative review, especially after such a long and exuberant book critique posted earlier today, but I finally wrapped up this story and had to put this out while I was still semi-conscience of the solution – because this, for me, is a very forgettable story. So check out the review of The Last Chance, if you haven't done so already! 


Update: Patrick's review of Death on Sunday (1939) pointed out that John Street hated the name Cecil. Sorry, John! It won't happen again.

7/11/11

The House in the Woods

"The people who live in places like this think that the rules don't apply to them."
- Inspector Morse
If you've been a regular visitant of this blog, you probably already bumped into Dutch crime-writer M.P.O. Books, who was kind enough to reiterate one of his reviews in English for this blogspot – and I prefaced it with a short, but to the point, introduction. But to safe you the inconvenience of clicking to another page, I will reproduce my prelude here and beef it up with some additional information. Hey, nothing but a five-star service for the customers of this dodgy supplier of red herrings!

Sentenced in Absentia
Marco Books is a struggling author of thriller-cum-detective stories, cut from the same mold as most of the other Euro-style police procedurals, who debuted in 2004 with the novel Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia), in which a murderous conspiracy goes awry and the co-conspirators have to dodge not only an unknown murderer, who wants to spear them on the receiving end of a pitchfork, but also have to deal with Books' series detective, Inspector Bram Petersen. The furrowed-faced Petersen is a veteran detectives on the force, approaching his retirement age at a steady pace, usually backed-up by his able, and younger, colleague, Ronald Bloem, both of whom are stationed at the police precinct that resides over the idyllic Utrechtse Heuvelrug – a setting that immediately conjures up images of Midsomer County and not entirely without reason.

Bij verstek veroordeeld was an auspicious first appearance by an enthusiastic and promising writer, but unfortunately the book didn't make much of an impact on the national scene and was unfairly labeled as a regional roman policier. Nevertheless, he labored on two more books, De bloedzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005) and Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006), which maintained a consistent quality of story telling, plotting and characterization – and the latter has a superb scene involving a rehearsal of a funeral, a busted-open casket and a severed head. The theatrical execution of that particular scene would've received the nodding approval of Ngaio Marsh!

The Eye-Catcher
But he really hit his stride last year, when he published his fourth novel, De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010). It's a beautiful paradigm of plot complexity, in which Books hit upon a grand opening gambit that guaranteed both readers of modern crime novels, who make up a considerable portion of his readership, and incorrigible classicists, like yours truly, had an equally enjoyable reading experience. This opening move basically consists of loading the first few chapters with mystifying, foreshadowing and seemingly unconnected episodes, like an out-of-focus kaleidoscopic photograph, and he spends the rest of the story turning the lens back into focus to create a complete, coherent picture of the incidents as they went down – which allows him to create elaborate, multi-layered plots in the classic tradition and still be a writer that is marketable to a contemporary reading audience.

This, however, also makes it difficult to describe De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), because where does one begin summarizing such a fractured, variegated plot without giving anything away? The first twenty pages alone contain enough material to pad out a number of books, from the unearthing of a skull, in a place miles away from where the actual story takes place, to a married couple finding a crib with an abandoned child in their drive way, and they all, somehow, tie in with the main problem of the story – a grotesque murder committed in a secluded house in Leersum.

The Last Chance
Jacques Vermin was somewhat of a miser, living mostly by his own and recently separated from his wife, who had few friends and accumulated a pile of money from a very nefarious avocation, for which he eventually has to pay with his life when someone sneaks into his abode and beats him over the head with a stoneware urn, encapsulating the ashes of his departed father, smashing to smithereens on impact – and blackening his body with parental residue.

This by-effect of the murder will turn out to be very symbolic and is merely one of the many fascinating patterns that emerge as the story progresses to the inevitable solution. It's not entirely unlike watching someone emanating perfect circles of smoke that seem to playfully interact with one another, but more importantly, he got the concept of fair play down to a T – which tightened the knottiness of the plot even more. The first couple of books had the tendency to withhold crucial information from the reader, but lately he's been making one of his literary heroes, Agatha Christie, very proud and it's a shame that the ethics of reviewing detective stories forbids me to point out a gem of a clue. The unabashed homage to Conan Doyle, concerning a collection of motley colored busts of Napoleon in the study of the victim, should also be mentioned in passing.

I know I have been summary in my description of the book, but its difficult, if not impossible, to discuss the plot without spoiling anything that was set-up in the opening chapters. But suffice to say that this is a lavishly plotted detective story, which looks respectfully over its shoulder to what came before it while marching proudly alongside its peers. Because Petersen and his colleagues become more than just instruments of justice as we learn to know them through a series short intermezzos that barely intrude on the actual story. In short, De laatste kans is a book that nips at heels of such modern grandmasters as William DeAndrea and Bill Pronzini and I, for one, can't wait for the next installment.

"Beware the Jabberwock Books, my son!"
If this was a perfect world, Books would've been recognized as the logical successor to the immense popular Appie Baantjer and this book would've adorned the top-spot of today's bestseller lists. But, alas, that's not the case and I hope that an American or British publisher, questing for a new Eurocrime writer, read this rambling review and decide to give him a shot. De blikvanger and De laatste kans have been the model for the marriage between the modern police procedure and the neo-classic detective novel, and just for that he deserves a broader, more appreciative, audience. 

Yes, Simon, I know... you're generally considered as Baantjer's literary heir, but really, what have you produced over the past few years that comes even close to competing with these staggering pieces of contemporary crime fiction? I haven't been impressed with the Bureau Raampoort series at all, and if you want to reclaim your spot I suggest you start penning another historical mystery with C.J. van Ledden-Hulsebosch at the helm... who solves an impossible crime. Hey, don't blame me for trying! ;-)