2/26/12

A Knife for a Knave

Playing detective isn’t all fun. Somebody’s going to suffer. And it’ll be a nice somebody; all our prime suspects are good people and the victim was a bastard.”
- Lolly (Murder at City Hall, 1995)
Edward I. Koch is a former attorney at law and retired politician, who exchanged the court room for a seat in the United States House of Representatives, where he served as a Congressman from 1969 to 1977, and presided over New York City as its 105th mayor from 1978 to 1989 – and this last political tenure formed the basis for a handful of detective novels "penned" in collaboration with subsequently Herbert Resnicow and Wendy Corsi Staub.

In his foreword, Koch notes that he loves to write and "decided to create a fictional Ed Koch who could be mayor of New York forever in a series of mysteries" and that he "joined forces with Herb Resnicow, whose fertile mind can conjure up the plots of the criminals as mine moves to undercover those plots and catch the crooks." I found it hard to gauge how much ink Koch himself contributed to this novel, but the construction of the plot, as he pointed out himself, definitely bore a number of the architectural features that are telling of Resnicow's style and it wouldn't surprise me if he also did most, if not all, of the writing – as a literary subcontractor, of sorts, for the ex-mayor. But more on that later.

Murder at City Hall (1995) has Ed Koch exercising one of his mayoral authorities that is rarely, if ever, wielded by a governing head of a city: the authority to perform marriages. Koch has granted a friend permission to use City Hall chapel for her daughter's wedding and even consents to perform the ceremony himself, but as he legally ties the enamored couple together someone else is cutting the lifeline of Karl Krieg short – a dishonest and despised property developer. He was found in an alcove in the chapel, after most of the attendees where heading for the gala reception at the Plaza Hotel, stabbed to death with a homemade knife wrapped in a paper napkin that functioned as a makeshift handle.

The fact that the wedding chapel has one entrance, no windows and that nearly everyone who was in attendance had to pass through a metal detector makes it somewhat of a puzzle how the knife was brought into the chapel – unless it was carried inside by someone who didn't had to pass through the metal detector at all. And guess who that person was? The mayor himself! This leaves Koch in a tight situation, one that could cost him City Hall, and decides to take it upon himself to figure out the identity of the person responsible for the murder of one of his city's most hated citizens – which he does with the ardor of an enthusiastic amateur detective and with the helping hands of his friends.

Gumshoes who operate as an equal team, like the tandem of Mayor Koch and his friend Lolly in this novel, can be seen as a staple of Resnicow's detective fiction, although, I think he glutted on this when Koch's parents flew-in to help him solve this murder and save his job. But then again, this was probably done as a request from Koch as a surprise for his folks.

Anyway, there are also other aspects of the plot that are covered with Resnicow's fingerprints, such as the personality of the victim (who are seldom possessors of a sympathetic personality in his stories), the modus operandi (stabbing is his preferred method) and the comedy, but, unfortunately, it lacked one of his clever trademark solutions that would've explained the presence of the knife by exploiting the layout and architectural features of the chapel to by pass the metal detector. The actual solution was pretty mundane and uninspired, although, there was a somewhat clever, but false, solution proposed right before the real killer was unmasked and that makes me wonder if the final explanation was dreamed up by Koch and Resnicow included his own answer to the questions proposed in this book as a false solution – which showed more foresight and ingenuity than the one they eventually went for.

Before wrapping this review up, I have to make one more observation and that is how much Koch struck me as a P-G incarnation of Sir Henry Merrivale (including an associate nicknamed Lolly!) – bouncing snappy comments off his secretary and the press hounds. I have no idea how much this fictionalized Koch resembled the real man, but I love the idea that Koch came to Resnicow with a Carter Dickson novel and asked him if he could make him a bit like H.M. Hey, it would mean that he has taste.

All in all, this was a nice, lighthearted detective story from a mystery writer who revived the classic Golden Age Detective novel during the 1980s, but was, alas, unable to do that same trick in this story – which ranks a lot closer to Murder, She Wrote than any of the past masters he paid such a beautiful tribute to in the Gold and Bear series. It's still a nice read, but I think you have to be fan of Herbert Resnicow to really enjoy it. 

By the way, does anyone want to hazard a guess how many times I wanted to type Edward D. Hoch instead of Edward I. Koch? 

Edward I. Koch
The Koch Mysteries: 

Murder at City Hall (1995; with Herbert Resnicow)
Murder on Broadway (1996; with Wendy Cori Staub)
Murder on 34th Street (1997; with Resnicow and Staub)
The Senator Must Die (1998; with Wendy Cori Staub)

The Alexander and Norma Gold series:


The Ed and Warren Bear series:

The Hot Place (1990)

And I wrote a short overview of Herbert Resnicow's life and work:

2/23/12

Letting Sleeping Gods Lie

"It was now that the scene became suddenly of another world, a place of visions and chimeras, hideous because unexpected, terrifying because unexplained. Wide awake and in full possession of my faculties as I knew myself to be, I was at that moment the central figure of a nightmare."
- John Marriott (The Sleeping Bacchus, 1951).
Over the past few weeks, there have been brief periods of clarity in which I questioned the veracity of my hastily and overenthusiastically drawn decision that put a copy of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) in my covetous claws. It's tantamount to supplying an anxious pyromaniac with a box of matches, a can of lighter fluid and a derelict building to frolic around in and then act surprise when you notice the fiery tongues licking at its structure – after the first fire engines pulls up on the curb. Not to mention that this niche of the blogosphere has been doing an excellent job in itself, especially as of late, in forcing me to continuously rearrange my wish list. I mean, how can you ignore a review like this?

Hilary St. George Saunders, perhaps better known under the penname he shared with John Palmer, “Francis Beeding,” took a rather unconventional approach when he laid the groundwork for his novel The Sleeping Bacchus (1951) – which was originally a French mystery by Pierre Boileau. Saunders stumbled across a copy of Le Repos Bacchus (1938) in a Parisian bookshop and cheekily asked its author permission to emend and rewrite the book in English, which, needless to say, he got and from this arose a classic tale of a debonair gentleman thief portrayed on the canvas of a grand detective story.

The purloining of an invaluable objet d'art commonly fills the pages of a short story or relegated to the grade of a sub-plot and when such a theft takes top priority in a novel, it's usually in a caper. But this book is not an off-shoot of the Rogue School of Fiction, in which we tread on the heels of a gentleman about town as the charming fellow relieves overstuffed bankers and icy widows, dripping with diamonds, of their hoarded wealth, but one that has its roots firmly planted in the grounds of that nightmarish wonderland, "with all the mad logic of a dream," that writers like John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot used to frequent.

Ex-war veteran John Marriott receives a pressing message from his uncle Walter Thresby, a famous art collector, asking him to go on his behalf to Montreal to supervise the purchase of a painting after Thresby received a distressing message (i.e. blackmail note) from an old acquaintance – a thief nicknamed "Zed" who once before intervened in one of Thresby's attempts at obtaining a picture.

But before Marriott could lift his heels, Thresby is robbed of the showpiece of his collection, Leonardo da Vinci's "The Sleeping Bacchus," which was spirited away from his locked and secured gallery under baffling circumstances and despite catching one of the thieves they are unable to find a trace of the picture. More miracles are afoot in this story: one of the thieves returns to the estate, retrieving a cylinder from the grounds encompassing the gallery, has a run in with Marriott, who ends up tied to a fence (see the cover), and proceeds over the moors towards an "unclimbable" fence and conquers it in a matter of seconds – which could only have happened if he phased through it like a ghost. A third impossibility involves the vanishing of a Black Maria (a police van) with its occupants.

I think this story perfectly demonstrates the fallacy of Van Dine's Rulebook that states that there must be a corpse, none to be found between the covers of this book, and shows the allurement of the impossible (crime) that can turn, if properly handled, even a simple domestic problem into a genuine puzzler. But as much as I dote on these locked room mysteries, I loved the second half of the story, in which "Zed" reveals himself in a wonderful scene to John Marriott and his uncle, even more and enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game that ensued – as the former tries to relieve them of a King's Ransom in exchange for the sleeping deity while the latter attempt to retrieve the painting from its unlawful owner. Pierre and Raoul, two veteran buddies of Marriott, who eventually solve the theft and explain the string of seemingly unexplainable events that have plagued them, are assisting them in this endeavor.

The disappearance of Da Vinci's painting and the ghostly intruder, who braved an impregnable fence the way a phantom would've done, are satisfyingly explained – even though I feel a bit iffy about the fairness of them. But then again, my reading of this book has been very fragmented and perhaps missed out on one or two of the finer details that were given.

On a whole, this is an excellent, but atypical, detective story that deserves a spot in the gallery next to the masterpieces crafted by John Dickson Carr and Joseph Commings – acknowledged grandmasters of this form. But it also deserves praise for introducing a wonderful and striking villain. I know the person behind the "Zed" persona is not suppose to garner sympathy from the reader and should even be considered annoying, but I found myself unable to feel any aversion and even cheered this bandit on. It might be misplaced sympathy, but who's complaining when the fun keeps piling on? 

Recommended without hesitation! 

2/19/12

Just Like a Shadow

"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes."
- Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)
Glancing back at the previous reviews, penned in this series, I noticed that I prefaced each of them with a mournful remonstrance against the publishing schedule of Viz Media or lamenting the fact that older detective fans are finding it difficult to warm up to this splendid series – which is a repetitive cycle that needs to be broken. There's just one problem: the spark of inspiration was engaged elsewhere and left me here with nothing more than a vast expanse of blankness (i.e. nothing) to lead into the review.

So this left me with only one recourse: shout outs! When you have finished reading my commentary on the stories collected in the forty-first volume of Case Closed/Detective Conan you might also want to check out The Study Lamp and The Ingenious Game of Murder.

Darrel, who also takes a look at little known mystery writers who were expunged from popular view, maintains the first blog and managed to dredge up a name, from the genre's murky past, that even John Norris and Curt Evans never met before – which is no mean feat! Arun is the game master of the other blog and the mysteries that wander into his crosshairs are of the short story variety. Short stories are often overlook, but on his blog they get an opportunity to bask in the same spotlight as their novel-length companions.

And now, on to the review!

Sidelined

This brand new volume opens with a story that picks up the thread that was dropped at the end of the previous collection, in which the famous Sleeping Moore flubbed a ten-million-yen case and burned through most of the dough before he had actually earned it – leaving him and his daughter in a world of trouble. Luckily, for them, his ex-wife, ace-attorney Eva Kaden, takes it upon herself to solve this case for them, but she has to compete with an old high-school alumni, Vivian Kudo, who also happened to be Conan's mom. Unfortunately, for the reader, they come across as a bunch of Mary Sues and the only surprising aspect of this story was how uninspired and unconvincing the plot was. A poor start of an otherwise interesting volume.

"Darkness there, and nothing more"

After the mess that Richard Moore left is cleaned up, Vivian Kudo decides to treat her son and the brats from the Junior Detective League on a special pre-screening of Samurai Kid II, but, once again, murder intervenes and leaves the pint-size detective with a baffling conundrum: how could a murderer silently navigate through a darkened and cluttered room? The solution is a variation on a timeworn trick, but it perfectly fits in with the background of the story and was well clued.  

The Body in the Porsche

The police have closed off the Touto Department Store after the body of a murdered man was discovered, inside a parked Porsche, in the underground car park and Conan has to piece together this puzzle in order to lift the cordon. It's a tricky and a somewhat farfetched solution, but it shows that gimmicky tricks a la The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) work a lot better in comic format than in prose. However, the main attraction of this story is the reemergence of the Black Organization, who seem to have been on their tails like a shadow from the start of this volume, and they may have finally stumbled to their secret!

This also sets-up the next story arc, in which Conan and Anita visit her sisters old residence, serving now as an illustrators studio, in order to retrieve a message she may have hidden there, but that is something that will be revealed in the next volume. Oh, but before they can pick up the hidden message they have to solve another murder case. One of the current residents, believe it or not, was poisoned around the same time those two dropped in on them.

All in all, this was a good volume, especially for fans of the ongoing storyline, involving the Men in Black, but Aoyama seemed a bit off with most of the stories here. The motives, for example, seemed as if they were introduced as an after thought and the tricks impressed me as complex for the sake of being complex – without even as much as a touch of his usual genius (his quality/output ratio is amazing). Only the excellent second story formed an exception to this pattern. It's still a decent volume for the fans, but not one that was a good as usual, however, every once in a while you come across a volume that performs a bit below par. Oh well, the main story in the next volume promises to be a blast (murder on a ghostship during a dress party)!

FYI, it's still my one-year anniversary in the blogosphere today and the next review will, hopefully, be up within the next few days and it probably won't surprise you if I tell you I will take a look at another impossible crime novel.

Hooray for Homicide: One Year Anniversary!

Statler: "I loved it!"
Waldorf: "So what? You also loved World War II."
- The Muppet Show.

Life of the party
One year ago, today, I was launched into the blogosphere with a brief and flimsy review of Pat McGerr's Pick Your Victim (1946) and gathered momentum in the weeks and months that followed – mainly due to the people who took the time to read and comment on my vague ramblings.

It is, therefore, with a great deal of embarrassment that I have nothing to mark the occasion, like a cross-blog examination of a writer or a slew of themed reviews, which makes me feel like a clueless host who finds a throng of partygoers on his doorstep and has to inform them that there isn't a party today. I wish there was one, but time has only permitted me to post regular reviews, however, once I have unpinned myself from underneath its pointed handles I will vary my output again.

So, once again, I would like to thank everyone who has turned this blog into one of their regular haunts on the web and hopefully you will continue to patronize this blog in the future. And if you want to know how this blog came about, you should read this post.

2/16/12

A Series of Unfortunate Events

"In my twelve years on this spinning ball we call Earth, I've seen a lot things normal people never see. I've seen lunch boxes stripped of everything except fruit. I've seen counterfeit homework networks that operated in five counties, and I've seen truckloads of candy taken from babies."
- Fletcher Moon (Half-Moon Investigations, 2006).
When Curt Evans, under the moniker of The Passing Tramp, set off on his solitary expedition to roam the derelict legacies of the neglected mystery writer of the past one of the first dilapidated careers he wandered pass was that of J. Jefferson Farjeon – a copious writer from the Golden Era who fell by the wayside. I will refrain from summarizing his excellent introduction to Farjeon, but suffice to say, I felt compelled to check out these remnants for myself.

One title in particular caught my perusing eye, Holiday Express (1935), which Evans provided with this capsule synopsis:
In this train mystery thriller the protagonist is a wonderfully-characterized child, an ingenuous young boy, and the book is written as if he himself had written it.
And (later on in the comment section):
Holiday Express is really cute, by the way. It comes complete with misspellings! Farjeon does a brilliant job of assuming the mindset of his young protagonist.
If you've been keeping tabs on this blog, you might have bumped into the high opinion I have of Gosho Aoyama’s Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) series or picked up a few lines from a soliloquy praising Craig Rice's Home Sweet Homicide (1944) in the comment sections, which makes it, hopefully, unnecessary to explain why this book ended up with a train ticked with the bookshelves of yours truly printed on it as its destination.

The Holiday Express, whose compartments are as jam-packed with gargoyles as the famed Orient Express that stranded in the pages of one of Agatha Christie's most famous whodunits, departs for Tom, a fair-haired boy no older than twelve, as the start of an uneventful seaside holiday with his parents and sister, but the characters he meets aboard the train toppled any plans he might have had for sand castles or reading the latest Edgar Wallace thriller after swimming. First of all, there's a girl, named Joan, whom Tom refers to in his narrative as The Love Interest, who seems to have garnered the unwanted attention of her strange assortment of fellow travelers – which comprises of a fat man, a guy with a scar across his face and a chap with a monkey.

Tom and Joan's adventure begins innocently enough, as the former tramps up and down the train, slipping in and out of compartments and bumping into the key players along the way, but when he tries to return a bag that Joan dropped on the platform it gets pinched from him and its rightful owner kidnapped! So what does a boy of barely twelve do in such a situation? Tell his parents or inform the ticket collector? Nope. Tom bails from a moving train into a dark tunnel and begins chasing the kidnappers with only his D.I. (Detective Instinct) to go on.

It would be criminal to spoil his experiences and endurances, as he treks through the countryside, but it's an exciting and wonderful journey fraught with dangers and peculiar characters as he's determined to save Joan from the clutches of her captors – and this makes for a captivating read. Yeah. That was a horrible, forced and cringe-worthy pun. My well-meant apologies.

Anyway, what really makes this book a fun read is not necessarily that it's a dangerous joyride, full of thrills and action, but the narrative voice of the young protagonist – which is not only cute, as Curt Evans mentioned, but engaging as well. Tom tells more than just his story; he involves the reader by talking directly to them and explains, for example, why he withheld certain information or events in order to enhance the dramatic effect of the story. You almost feel like Bastian who reads about Atreyu's journey in The Never-Ending Story (1979), except there aren't any Luck Dragons or Rock Eaters to be found roaming around the tracks of the Holiday Express.

When I picked up this book, I expected to find a predecessor of Eoin Colfer's Half-Moon Investigations (2006), but found, instead, something that amounts to a missing link to many of the detective stories, adventure yarns and cartoons with teenage protagonists that I enjoyed – or at least it felt like that to me.

I love Aoyama's Detective Conan, Colfer's Fletcher Moon, Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Rice's Home Sweet Homicide, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and Mitchell's The Rising of the Moon (1945) and this novel felt like the link that connected them all together. But then again, that may be a hallucinatory by effect from the nostalgia rush I had when reading this book and penning this review. Hey, I'm a suffering chronophobiac. These nostalgic mood swings can hit you like a sledgehammer!

All in all, Farjeon did an admirable job in capturing and assuming the mindset of his boy protagonist and marooning him on a world inhabited with trouble. The ensuing game of hide-and-seek between Tom and the gang will not fail to get your undivided attention from the moment the story departs until it comes to a stop at the final terminal. In short, this book is just fun.

This review and the one preceding it were rather short and compendious, but you can put that down to the whims of that tyrant on the wall known as a clock, however, I hope to babble on endlessly again in my next review. So let the reader be warned!

2/12/12

Now You See Him, Now You Don't

"Are you watching closely?"
- Alfred Borden (The Prestige, 2006)
Appointment With the Hangman (1935), penned by T.C.H. Jacobs, a prolific British writer of tall tales of thrills and deductions, commences with a prologue, in which Michael O'Conner is sentenced to seven years of penal servitude for his share in the heist of a parcel of the finest diamonds that were ever delved out of the African mines – and their value is estimated at eight hundred thousand pounds. He was offered a reduced sentenced in exchange for the name of his partner in crime, but O'Connor has different plans in mind for the man who betrayed him and one of the police officers reflects that if he ever saw the inside of a prison again it was to keep an appointment with the hangman.

The locality for the first chapter changes from a gloomy prison cell to a Cornish hotel, situated at the seaward end of a cove, where the owner, David Lock, is an underling of Kaspar Khron – a theurgist who can perform supernatural feats such as traveling to the fourth dimension. When this part of the story opens up for business, the hotel begins to slowly fill itself with guests who want to attend one of Khrone's séances. There's a Miss Tingle, who's as devoted to Khrone as Lock, Jimmy Buller, an undercover journalist, Sir Manfred, a retired judge and believer in the occult, Reginald Ruffles, a hare-toothed young man who doesn't seem to be too bright, and Dr. Hamilton – who's a skeptic and determined to find a rational explanation for the miracles that he's about to witness.

This part of the story, counting a hundred pages or so, has the tendency to come off confusing and slightly erratic due to the introduction of the aforementioned characters – some of who turn out to play a role in two separate storylines involving the purloined stones and those who enwreathe the miracle worker. Sorry to say, this is also turned out to be the only interesting part of the book.

Jabocs captives his readers for a short duration with a slew of apparently supernatural phenomenon: Khrone's white Chinese cat, Chan, appears, for a brief moment, to be endowed with the ability to speak with a human tongue while his master levitates in front of an awestruck audience before slowly disintegrating in front of their eyes and eventually completely dissipates from a locked room. He also walks on air and subdues a malevolent elemental spirit. Unfortunately, these are mainly unconvincing, second-rate parlor tricks that you might expect from a third-rate conjurer who tries to impress a bunch of uninterested kids at a birthday party. The only exception is how Khrone disintegrated himself. That was actually a clever and original trick, but then again, every hack magician with some loose change in his pockets can purchase a good trick and I have nothing but scorn for the manner in which he explained the levitation part.  

SPOILER (select text to reveal spoiler):  mirrors and wires were eliminated early on in the story, which left Jacobs limited imagination with only one option: Khrone actually levitated. Yup, everything else was fake except for the part he was unable to explain. Ugh. What a hack!

The Detection Club should've dispatched an envoy to his home to discuss that part of the solution with him, and with that I mean that Dorothy L. Sayers wags a disapproving finger at him while John Dickson Carr and John Rhode are smashing his typewriter to pieces.

Anyway, not much else of interest is happening at the hotel. O'Connor's storyline fizzles out after passing the halfway mark and the diamonds are relegated to the status of a McGuffin. There's also a poisoning plot hovering inconspicuously in the background, but nothing is done with that until its time to send some of the characters off to the gallows to meet their appointment with the hangman. 


I have the feeling that Jacobs attempted with this novel to play the role of Victor Frankenstein. He cut and sewn together a number of different parts of the genre, hoping to create a monster of a mystery, but ended up with a hump of in-animated, decaying meat and shame should hang like a hangman's noose on him for submitting this botched experiment to his publisher. A very early contender for worst detective story read in 2012!

If you carefully read between the lines of this review, you'll notice a lack of enthusiasm for this novel and I was seriously tempted to turn this review into a mock guest post, in which I let Jafar, from Disney's Aladdin, review this book by posting a clip of him singing You're Only Second Rate. The lyrics really fit the theme of the book and perfectly sums up my opinion of it.

And once again, a dissapointing read has translated itself in a shoddily written review. Oh well. And let me know what you think of the increased font size!

2/9/12

Murder in Any Language

"It's an imperfect world; always will be, as long as human beings are around. And only a fool thinks there's such a thing as a perfect crime."
- Gil Grissom (Max Allan Collin's The Killing Game, 2005)
The Boekenweek (book week), held each year in March, ever since its inception in 1932, is an annual "week" of ten days that is dedicated to Dutch literature. A well-known writer, who earned his or her place on the printed page, usually Dutch or Flemish, is asked to write a book, as a rule these are novella-length stories, that is presented as a Boekenweekgeschenk (book week gift) to everyone who purchases a book or becomes a member of a library – and in 1973 this honor was bestowed on Bertus Aafjes.

Bertus Aafjes (1914-1993) was a famed poet, novelist and world traveler, but, thanks to that peculiar sense known as hobby deformation, I always associate him with a wonderful series of historical mysteries featuring the venerable and sapient Judge Ooka – an 18th century magistrate who presided over Edo.

Before Aafjes sat down to write the book week gift, he had produced four volumes of Judge Ooka stories and was now commissioned to pen a fifth, however, there was one stipulation: it had to be adaptable for television. This left the poet of crime in somewhat of a quandary, since there were few Asian actors in the Netherlands at the time and therefore the focus of the story had to be somehow on his compatriots. Luckily, there was a stretch of time in Japanese history, known as Rangaku (Dutch learning), when the borders were as tightly closed as the door to Dr. Grimaud's study and the only Europeans who were allowed passage were Dutch traders. During those years, the Dutch enclave of Dejima was there umbilical cord to the outside world and through this contact they kept taps on the Western progress in science and technology – as well as art and literature.

Well, that takes care of one problem and resulted in Een lampion voor een blinde (A Lantern for the Blind, 1973), in which Judge Ooka is en route to Dejima to escort an envoy, De Hofstoet, from the Dutch enclave back to Edo – where they will give their homage to the Shogun. Judge Ooka is a student of Rangaku and this enabled him to communicate with the people in charge of the Dutch factory, however, his studies were not enough to fully prepare him for this meeting. Big portions of the first half of this novella concern themselves with contrasting Dutch with Japanese culture and they are engrossing if you enjoy history, but this is, after all, a detective story and soon the first problem arrives at the horizon – and it's not Commadore Perry's ship.

The last ship that arrived from Amsterdam, De Liefde, brought two heelmeesters (surgeons), the experienced Bading and the young Oranje, and one of them will be appointed as surgeon in Japan – while the other will be shipped off to a settlement in Siam. However, they both want to stay in Japan and each claimed that the other stole a letter, during their voyage, which confirmed their position as surgeon on Dejima and destroyed it. This makes it impossible to establish who's telling the truth and the decision is now up to the Opperhoofd, Captain Simon Slingeland, nicknamed The Red Oni from Holland, when they reach Edo, but the silent rivalry between the surgeons has set the tone for their journey – and during one of their first dinners Ooka makes a terrible mistake that will result in the death of one of them.

One night, Ooka tells them how he hanged two murderers on the eye-witness testimony of a blind woman and this immediately prompted an observation from the surgeons how they could've committed the perfect murder – if only they had known that the woman was blind. The judge realizes that he has made a horrible mistake, but is unable to prevent a murder. Nevertheless, when it happens even he's surprised at the devilish ingenuity on the part of the killer. It's not Oranje or Bading who was felled with a bullet, but the Opperhoofd, Slingeland, and Bading accuse Oranje of the foul deed backed up with the testimony of a blind maid. 

The girl was unable to understand what was said before the shot was fired, since they spoke Dutch, but she recognized the voice and mannerism of Oranje. You can probably guess what scheme Bading had in mind, but the best part is that nobody was really fooled and knew, or suspects, what really happened. But it's impossible to proof. The perfect crime! And the only disappointing part of the story is, perhaps, that Ooka resorted to a bluff to ensnarl the murderer instead of hatching one his Machiavellian traps, but let's not split hairs over a minor imperfection in an otherwise engrossing and charming story. 

Een lampion voor een blinde is not only one of my favorite Dutch detective stories, but also one of the best inverted mysteries, set during a very interesting period in history, I read and deserves to be translated – along side all those wonderful short stories.

This is the second book reviewed for the 2012 Vintage Mystery Challenge: Dutch Delinquencies:

My VMC2012 list: 

Een lampion voor een blinde (A Lantern for the Blind, 1973) by Bertus Aafjes
De moord op Anna Bentveld (The Murder of Anna Bentveld, 1967) by Appie Baantjer
De onbekende medespeler (The Unknown Player, 1931) by Willy Corsari
Voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937) by Willy Corsari
Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935) by F.R. Eckmar
Spoken te koop (Spooks for Sale, 1936) by F.R. Eckmar
Dood in schemer (Death at Twilight, 1954) by W.H. van Eemlandt
Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959) by Robert van Gulik
Het mysterie van St. Eustache (The Mystery of St. Eustache, 1935) by Havank
Klavertje moord (Four-Leaf Murder, 1986) by Theo Joekes
Het geheim van de tempelruïne (The Secret of the Temple Ruins, 1946) by Boekan Saja

I also reviewed one of the short story collections in this series, which you can read here.

2/6/12

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

"Better a good neighbor than a distant friend."
- Dutch proverb. 
As an ardent collector of detective stories, I have to confess to an appalling trait that the preponderance of books, in my collection, has to endure after the postman drops them off. I have no problem investing time and money in order to acquire a particular novel or collection of short stories, but I have to begin flipping through its pages, as soon as it has shed its cardboard package, or it will languish on the snow capped tops of my to-be-read pile for weeks, months or even years! This was also a fate suffered by Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X (2005), which reached the shores of the English language last year and I immediately pounced on the hardcover edition, however, it took me until now to actually read it – and only after being nudged. Not to mention that the paperback release is just around the corner!

In Japan, The Devotion of Suspect X is part of an ongoing and acclaimed detective series, in which an assistant professor of physics, Manabu Yukawa, nicknamed "Detective Galileo," abets one of his old friends, Detective Kusanagi of the Tokyo Police, in his investigations. At first glance, this structure suggests a platitudinous take on the classic amateur detective, who has to solve the cases for an unimaginative policeman, but this is not entirely the case with this book – which feels more as an upgrade than as a throwback.

The story begins, as so many do, with a man and woman, Yasuko Hanaoka and Shinji Togashi, but in this tale they separated long before the readers meets them in the opening chapters. And for good reason, too! Characters like Togashi are to the modern crime novel what the tyrannical patriarch, who had a stranglehold on the purse strings of his relative and altered his will on a whim, was to the traditional whodunit. He was a bum and a drunk, who abused and leeched off his ex-wife and stepdaughter, Misato, which, needless to say, put a strain on their marriage – and eventually Yasuko and Misato left him. However, Togashi proved to be as persistent as a tick and it took some effort to shake him off their backs, but, in the end, they were able to settle down and began reshaping their lives.

Unfortunately, for them, it takes Togashi only a year to track them down and the confrontation escalades in a scuffle, in which Yasuko and Misato kill their tormentor. Still dazed and confused over what they just did, their next-door neighbor, Ishigami, a first-rate mathematician whose heart secretly beats for Yasuko, appears, like a deus ex machina, to expel their demon once and for all. He removes the body from their apartment and constructs an alibi for them. It's a clever scheme calculated to have the delusory appearance of a common place crime, but there's an unfathomable depth to it and it would have gone without a hitch where it not that Kusanagi mentioned Ishigami's name in passing to Yukawa – one of his old friends from University.

One of the most interesting part of this novel is that Yukawa and Ishigami, from the viewpoint of the inhabitants of this story, act as (im)partial observers – while it's their minds that drive the events that everyone is a part of. Yasuko and Misato function as a proxy for Ishigami, who, in turn, has to adjust his plans when Yukawa is beginning to see through them. This makes The Devotion of Suspect X a very character-driven crime novel, but one that managed to impress me from start to finish and found myself rooting for Yasuko, Misato and Ishigami! If there ever was a bunch of conniving, but endearing, murderers who deserved to get away with murder, literarily, it's them and you almost get annoyed at Yukawa's persistent deconstruction of Ishigami's plan – which felt tantamount to destroying a beautiful piece of art work.

I guess I also have to address the controversy this book whipped up back in 2006, when it swiped the Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize for best orthodox mystery novel. Some well-known mystery critics drew question marks around this decision and wondered aloud about the veracity and fairness of the clues, which, I think, is an apparent qualification to win the prize – and I have to admit that they do have a point.

This story is an inverted mystery and the issue of fair play clueing here is a bit different than in your standard whodunit. It's not about whether the reader has been furnished with all the necessary clues and hints to have a shot at solving the case themselves, but how the detective arrived at that point. This is were you bump into the only flaw I could find in this novel: Yukawa arrives at his conclusions, which he admits to at one point in the book, intuitive rather than deductively and what's more damning is that his guesses were mostly based on 20-year-old memories of Ishigami – which I found, to be completely honest, rather ridiculous.

For example, Yukawa became suspicious of Ishigami after his old school chum made a casual remark that he was losing his hair, which prompted a memory that the Ishigami he knew, from over 20 years ago, never cared about his physical appearance and began drawing conclusions from this. Well, people change, especially after two decades, and the fact that he assisted in a murder, no matter how good his intentions are, proves that he was no longer the Ishigami that Yukawa once knew – and this is were the critics have a point. On the other hand, the final twist that was uncovered in Ishigami's plan oozed with brilliance and completely took me by surprised. It was also reasonable clued.

As a whole, The Devotion of Suspect X is worthy of the praise and recognition it has received as well as being an excellent example that a capable and clever mystery writer can construct a classically-styled, multi-layered plot in a modern-day setting – which makes this a book that can be enjoyed by both detective and thriller fans.

Fellow mystery enthusiastic, Ho-Ling, has more on Keigo Higashino on his blog – including reviews of his, as of yet, untranslated novels and adaptations. I recommend you check it out.

2/3/12

Treasure Island

"When the mainsail's set and the anchor's weighed
There's no turning back from any course that's laid
And when greed and villainy sail the sea,
You can bet your boots there'll be treachery."
- Shiver My Timbers (Muppet Treasure Island, 1996).
Well, this pass week, which was, to say the least, draining, did not left me with a lot of moments needed to read through Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet's The Feather Cloak Murders (1936) at my usual pace, but I persevered and managed to squeeze this review out before the official kick-off of the weekend!

After his first adventure in the "barbaric Northern states" of America, recorded in The Ticking Terror Murders (1935), the brave Baron von Kaz embarks on an impetuous detour to his native Vienna – where he's expected to realign himself with the once trampled monarchists. But the Baron is drenched in thoughts of Caryl Miquet, a mere plebeian who played on the heartstrings of the exiled aristocrat, and when a certain Mr. Hiroshita offers him a $1000 fee to accompany him on his voyage aboard on ocean liner bound for Honolulu, Hawaii, which also has Caryl Miquet's name on its passenger list, the plan to help an emperor climb back on the throne of Austria is bumped down a few places on his lists of priorities.

At first, Von Kaz assumes that he's simply escorting a wealthy importer in possession of an expensive piece of merchandise, a jade coin emblazoned with the image of a lion, but ends up spending the crossing confined to their cabins – drinking and playing cards. The reason for their seclusion is Carl Kohler, a Hawaiian from Germanic extraction, who's eager to speak with the importer privately. However, when the Baron stumbles across Kohler's body on a deserted section of the deck, a tufted and feathered steel dart, quietly discharged from the barrel of an air pistol, stuck in his chest, it becomes apparent that there's more at stake than just a decorated gobbet of jade – which his client confirms after docking in Honolulu.

However, the first hurdle presents itself when the Baron simply wants to report his discovery of the body to the proper authority, the ships captain, but finds a skeptic who knows that he spend a considerable stretch of the voyage intoxicated – and presumes that he stumbled out of his cabin in an alcohol fuelled trance and now imagines tripping over corpses, killers and air guns at every turn. It doesn't help, either, that the body has disappeared, probably chucked overboard, when they finally decide to take a peek and only two facts speak in favor of the Baron's story: the presence of blood on the scene and the fact that Mr. Hiroshita is also silenced with a dart from an air gun shortly after their arrival in Hawaii.

But before he was shot, Mr. Hiroshita told the Baron a fabulous tale of a map that marked the location of a lost Inca city in Mexico, buried with its treasures, and later he hears of a rare red diamond that any collector would empty his bank account for as well as stories of the titular feather cloak of Prince Puakini – one of the ancient chieftains of the island. The feathers for those cloaks were plucked from birds that are now extinct and assembling them took up to two generations, which resulted in only one set of cloaks every one hundred years and an original one would fetch a small fortune on the private market.

These stories give the place a touch of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), but, unfortunately, most of these treasured artifacts turn out to be McGuffin's that are disregarded and forgotten about when the final chapters come into view – and this gives the conclusion an incomplete feeling. Notwithstanding this deficiency, The Feather Cloak Murders does not end on an entirely unsatisfactory note, since most of the important plot threads are neatly tied up in the final chapters, but the solution wasn't as impressive as the setting that the Teilhet's so evocatively brought to life.

The Hawaiian islands, on which the Baron tramps about over the course of his investigation, almost became a character in themselves and function splendidly as a backdrop for this story – providing even an ancient and concealed lava tunnel for an exciting dénouement. I feel that the book, as a whole, and then in particular its somewhat fragmented plot, benefited from this evocative surrounding and the history that came with it. It's what made the story, for the most part anyway, stick together.

I also enjoyed the character of the brave Baron Franz Maximilian Karakôz von Kaz a lot more than I did in his previous outing, The Ticking Terror Murders, in which he struck me as a capricious assortment of oddities – even though he was at his best there when he was at his worst. But here he felt a lot more approachable and human, as he was not just occupied with breaking and entering or braining an innocent shopkeeper with his loaded green umbrella/sword stick, and showed more than one side of his personality – like his genuine infatuation with Caryl Miquet or how disturbed he was when her nephew was savaged with a spade by the murderer. What emerges is a far more believable character than merely a figure of fun that's only there for laughs and to provide a solution when the time has come to wrap things up.

While this was not one of the best detective stories I have read, The Feather Cloak Murders was still a very likable and pleasant companion that could not be accused of that one unpardonable sin: namely that of being dull. It's a story that's simply in motion and this makes it disappointing that the plot wasn't any better or that it didn't follow up on all of its tall tales of treasures and lost cities. There was something worthwhile buried in this narrative, but its authors failed to bring it completely to the surface of its pages.

The Case Book of the Brave Baron von Kaz: 

The Ticking Terror Murders (1935)
The Feather Cloak Murders (1936)
The Crimson Hair Murders (1936)
The Broken Face Murders (1940)