3/30/12

A Change of Scenery: A Co-Review of "Savages" by Bill Pronzini


Two minds know more than one.”
During the weeks we refer to as March, Patrick has been commemorating the one-year anniversary of his blog (At the Scene of the Crime) with a series of crossover book reviews and in-depth discussions of authors – which resulted in some stimulating reading material as well as giving me another luxury problem to deal with. Do I persist in pearl diving in the hopes of finding one or two of the genre's lost gems or take a break to finally take a look at Margaret Millar and Donald Westlake? Ah, choices, choices!

Anyway, I was also approached to contribute some ink for a collaboration piece and after a false start we delivered, what I believe, is a well-written and fair review of Bill Pronzini's Savages (2006) – one of the more recent entries in the on-going biography of his "Nameless Detective."

Hopefully, you’ll find the review an interesting one and this blog will return to its beloved Golden Era with the next post.

3/27/12

One Hell of a Job

"The surprises in life,
keep us on our toes.
Like a sock in the jaw.
Like a punch in the nose."
- The Tiger Prince (The Animaniacs).
During the past year and a half, I found myself gravitating towards neo-orthodox detective stories, cleverly constructed hardboiled narratives and other breeds of crime fiction I would've shunned, as if they were a stretch of quicksand, before I bumped into William DeAndrea – who kicked open my mind and haled it out of the pre-1960s period.

But more importantly than discovering genuine, fair-play detective stories in a familiar and contemporary setting, was, perhaps, learning how nonsensical labels, such as a "traditional whodunit" and "modern thriller," become when a talented and clued-up mystery writer takes the reigns. You can have a very modern crime novel with a social conscience and at the same time have it adhere to the basic requirements of a classically styled mystery: giving the story a plot that plays (reasonably) fair with its readers. I have discussed several of such works on here, but the one under examination today, Joe Gores' Dead Skip (1972), may be one of the best examples of the genres past catching up with the present.

I first became aware of Joe Gores when Bill Pronzini commented on my less-than-enthusiastic review of Twospot (1978), in which he and Collin Wilcox had pooled their series detectives, "The Nameless Detective" and Lt. Frank Hastings, explaining that the book was suppose to be a three-way collaboration – until Gores backed out at the last moment and forced the remaining collaborators to rethink-and rework the entire story. As Pronzini said, "Neither of us was satisfied with the finished book. The original Threespot story should have made for a much more effective novel."

Normally, ruining what could've been an epic crossover, would have landed Gores a spot on my personal blacklist, but somehow I was intrigued and the concourse of noted mystery critics who sang his praise was impressive to say the least. Ellery Queen provided him with a fantastic blurb for his books after stating that they were "as authentic as a fist in your face" and Allen J. Hubin said it was "a detective story close to the classic style, and a detective story of vigor and intelligence." As well as receiving kind words from Anthony Boucher.

My inquisitiveness was piqued, however, not enough to go out of my way to get a copy of one of his books in my hands, but when I was perusing the shelves of a secondhand book store, last week, I caught a glimpse of his name on a spine peeking from between a pile of thrillers – and after liberating it from its plight I was able to identify it was the first novel in the DKA series and had to fork over a mere two bucks to take it home with me.

As mentioned above, Dead Skip introduces the genre to the men and women of DKA (Dan Kearney & Associates), a crew of private investigators specialized in car repossessions (i.e. repo men) as well as tracing bail skippers and other dead beats, and have seen them being compared to Ed McBain's 87th Street Precinct novels and labeled as hardboiled procedurals – a sub-genre he may very well have invented.

The plot of Dead Skip spins mainly around three of its members: Dan Kearney, Larry Ballard and Bart Heslip. Kearney is a veteran in the field and founder of the agency, who gives the brash young Ballard three days to proof that his friend and fellow field operative, Bart Heslip, was attacked before he was stuffed in the front seat of a repossessed car and pushed over the edge of Twin Peaks – driving its unconscious chauffeur straight into a deep coma.

Kearney appears skeptical to Ballard's suspicions, but in reality, he shares his conviction that someone tried to murder Heslip and gives to one of his ops, Gisele Marc, a rundown of his deductions, as a true armchair detective, after letting the eager gumshoe loose on the criminal elements of the city. You can hardly mistake this series for a throwback to the traditional whodunit, but the plot unravels itself as such and there's more than enough detection to keep every smug classicist, who fancies himself as an amateur Philo Vance, occupied until the final chapter. Gores neatly summed up their approach to crime in a few lines.

Damned tough to stay out of the way of an agency like DKA if they really wanted you. You had to change your name, dye your hair, keep your kids out of school, quit your union or your profession, tear up your credit cards, abandon your wife, not show up at your mother’s funeral, run your car into a deep river, quit paying taxes, get off welfare. Because every habit pattern was a doorway into your life, a doorway that skip-tracers and field agents with the right key could open. The right clue, he supposed, in the detective-story sense.”
The fact that Gores, like one of his heroes, Dashiell Hammett, had first hand experience in the field lends a touch of authenticity to their proceedings, but for all its leaning on investigative procedurals and old-fashioned detective work this was still a very modern and hardboiled novel. The crimes they encounter are those you expect to find on those mean streets and the multi-ethnic cast of characters, fixed and one-offs, reflects today's society and their creator understood, like some of his contemporaries discussed on here, that using up three-quarters of your book to establish one or more characters is a bit excessive.

Instead, we get quick, but convincing, snapshots of the people Ballard comes across as he proceeds through the pile of case files that Heslip left on his desk and he even meets the master thief Parker along the way – the anti-hero from the novel Donald Westlake penned under the alias Richard Stark. This crossover-chapter is also included in the Parker novel Plunder Squad (1973). Coincidently, fellow blogger Patrick is on a Westlake reading binge and has reviewed several of his novels – including two featuring Parker.  

Dead Skip also honored a fine-old hardboiled custom when the murderer greeted Ballard with the warm kindness that only a loaded gun can provide, but how he's saved from that tight situation was less typical and put a smile on my face. It's always reassuring to see that an author is not above a wink at the field he's working in. The explanation was also good and the clueing reasonable fair, which left a thoroughly satisfied reader in its wake and the only annoyances were the many typos in my edition (e.g. care and skill instead of car and skull), but not nearly enough to spoil an excellent read.

The DKA series:

Dead Skip (1972)
Final Notice (1973)
Gone, No Forwarding (1978)
32 Cadillacs (1992)
Contract: Null and Void (1996)
Stakeout on Page Street (2000; short story collection)
Cons, Scams and Grifts (2001)

3/24/12

Quadruple Quandary

"My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Red-Headed League").
Theo Joekes
Theo Joekes (1923-1999) was a Dutch journalist, (mystery) writer and politician, who's remembered, if remembered at all, for his tenure as a member of parliament – where he took his seat on June 5, 1963 and left in 1989 after withdrawing his name from the list of candidates of his party (VVD).

Joekes departure from the political scene was the result of an internal skirmish that stemmed from a report of a committee of inquiry, of which he was the vice-chairman, that looked into a shipyard that received financial aid from the government before going under and found that one of Joekes' fellow party members had lied to parliament. Apparently, there was some pressure to revise their report, but Joekes stood firm and as a punishment for his "betrayal" he was delegated to an ineligible place on the party list during the next elections. This was, however, not enough to shut this parliamentarian up and began to campaign on his own and clung to his seat for another term after garnering 285.000 preference votes – which was also good for four additional seats for his party. But don't think this was appreciated. During the next elections, his name was again assigned to an ineligible place and this lead him to the conclusion that he had arrived at the last chapter of his political career.

Lies, intrigue and death bureaucratic bullying in the political sphere of the Low Lands! Well, it must have tickled the fancy of a man who was an out-of-the-closet Anglophile with a mind that was regular fed detective stories and that he knew his classics was demonstrated in the story opening the collection under review today, Klavertje moord (Four-Leaf Murder, 1986), when an examination of the victims book closet revealed hundreds of detective novels – from Conan Doyle and Edgar Wallace to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers

In 1980, Joekes published his first mystery novel, entitled Moord in de ridderzaal (Murder in the Knight's Hall), in which homicide detective Con Hendrix and Clerk of the House of Representatives Elizabeth Brederode are introduced – and the latter happens to have a relationship with the former and seems to be around whenever her partner is bending over a body at a crime-scene. This is somewhat justified by giving the cases a political background, angle or ties. Making her meddling more acceptable. And yes. This also forces me to revise my conclusion that the Dutch whodunit was bare of any amateur sleuths.

Unfortunately, this semi-professional snooping couple is treated with Dutch soberness instead of the contagious buoyancy of Kelley Roos and Delano Ames, but then again, this was his last book and I have the sneaking suspicion that the short story simply was not his forte. Klavertje moord contains three shorts and one novella and the latter was definitely the best of this bunch. The descriptions of his full-length novels also sound far more interesting and appear to be seeping at the spines with imagination. His first novel, for example, takes place in the titular Knight's Hall where several MPs are crushed under a falling chandelier during the troonrede (Queen's Speech = a State of the Union with a monarch instead of a president) and that's just to warm up the plot.

Joekes' full-length mysteries will definitely be the subject for discussion in the months ahead of us, but, for now, lets take a look at the four stories that make up Klavertje moord and because there are only a handful of them, I will discuss them from best-to-worst.

De moord in het Nonnen-Gasthuis (Murder in the Nuns-Guesthouse)

In the last and longest story of this collection, Hendrix and Brederode are confronted with a suspicious death at the Nuns-Guesthouse Hospital where a young man, named Paul Bradshaw, was found in the corridor to his room – collapsed in a dead faint after overstraining himself and having pulled out a life supplying infusion (drip). Bradshaw was dating the daughter of a well-known politician, Karen Valkenier, who is surrounded with scandalous whispers of a consensual incestuous relationship with her father, Sander Valkenier. This makes it a ticklish situation and the resolution does nothing to turn the grim shadow that hang over this case into a fleeting penumbra. It's a really dark and modern crime story, but the solution has some classical trimmings that can be compared to some of Bill Pronzini's fresh approaches to the detective story (e.g. Nightcrawlers, 2005 & Savages, 2007).

Brutus in bad (Brutus in Bath)

A phone-call summons Hendrix and Brederode from their familiar setting, The Hague, to the capital, Amsterdam, where Hans van der Meer, a celebrated Shakespearean actor, decided that his bathroom was as good a place as any to shoot himself through the roof of his mouth – or so a first glance would like you to belief. Hendrix goes over the apartment and what he finds (and doesn't find) helps him to point out a murderer before calling in his (local) colleagues. Admittedly, Hendrix relied a lot on guesswork and luck, but it made for a nice and interesting story. And it was Van der Meer's book closet that was stuffed with detective novels!

Moord in de Hofvijver (Murder in the Court Pond)

A colliding mass of protesters, compiled from members of the left and right fringes of the political spectrum, provided someone with a cover needed to throw a grenade into the Trèveszaal (the Room of Treaties) and in one deafening explosion years of painstaking and expensive restorations were nullified. It's a case that should require the full attention of Hendrix and Brederode, but there’s also the matter of a dead woman in the Court Pond and the missing landlord of an Italian ice-cream sales man. Is there a connection? Joekes came up with a potentially interesting premise, blending a formal mystery with thriller elements, but came up short on both ends of that stick.

Het raadsel van Vlucht WI 641 (The Riddle of Flight WI 641)

The powers above insert Hendrix and Brederode into a sensitive hi-jacking case of a plane with a delegation of diplomats onboard, but when the plane arrives and the ransom money is dropped off they find a mortally injured pilot and a baffled cargo of passengers who were unaware of their statuses as hostages – and the mysterious hijackers seems to have literarily disappeared into thin air. Joekes, once again, sketches an interesting premise without much of a pay-off.

Overall, this was the usual mixed bag of tricks you come to expect from these collections. Some good, some bad. But on a whole, I was not overly impressed, however, I will suspend my final judgment until I have worked my way through one or two of his novels. I really want to see what he was capable of when given enough room to unravel his plots.

On a final (somewhat related) note, there’s a wooden bench in London's Hyde Park that has the following epitaph engraved in its back: "in loving memory of Theo Joekes, 1923-1999." Just thought that was interesting to note. Well, I guess this was one of those rare instances, on this blog, when the author was of more interest than the stories under review.

This is the third 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

3/20/12

Lights, Camera, Murder!

"Seeing a murder on television can help work off one's antagonisms. And if you haven't any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some."
- Alfred Hitchcock.
This place was put up to commemorate the erstwhile stories of the mystery genre, not to dump them in a shallow grave and shuffling some dirt on them to fill-up the hole, but after discussing several duds, one after another, it sure began to feel as if I was conducting a series of makeshift funerals – and understood that for the next review I had to clamber out of that bone-filled pit and scrawl a few celebratory lines on a winner. So I turned to the late William L. DeAndrea, who has yet to disappoint me, and, as expected, found myself in the middle of another praise worthy effort from his hands.

Killed in the Act (1981) has a plot revolving around the preparations and rehearsals for the 50th anniversary show, entitled "Sight, Sound & Celebration," of The Network and their celebratory television extravaganza is jam-packed with their biggest stars from past and present – including the reunion of Ken Shelby and Larry Green (a comedy/magic act not entirely dissimilar to Penn & Teller), Alice Brockway (a former on-air personality currently married to Shelby) and the Hollywood sex-bomb Melanie Marliss.

As the Vice-President of Special Projects, Matt Cobb has little to nothing to do with the hustle and bustle of their jubilee because his job description consists of keeping inconveniences of The Networks back and smothering problems before they are big enough to tarnish the stations reputations. Or at the very least, keep the damage to a minimum. But when someone steals Melanie Marliss' bowling ball (a famous prop from the series that turned her into a star) together with a stack of old kinescopes from the 1950s, the corporate trouble shooter has to get involved and everything gets progressively worse from there.

One of his friends at The Network, Jerry de Loon, got a whack on the head during the theft and seemed to have shrugged it off, but aftertelling his story to Cobb he dies as a result of complications and he was not the first corpse in this case – nor would he be the last. Before the Shelby party arrived in New York, they had to explain to the Los Angeles police department how a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist ended up floating facedown in their pool and this so-called Network Phantom seems to have it in for Shelby & Green.

After the parade of duds I struggled through, it was refreshing to read a novel from a mystery writer who was able to divide his attention between a clever plot and interesting characters as well as topping it off with an exciting climax and surprise twist – which was also more than fairly clued. Heck, it was practically rubbed into the readers face, especially towards the end, but at that point in the story I had stopped being on the alert for the presence of any possible clues because I assumed the story had come to an end by then and only thing left was a proper rundown of the events. Well, he did and more and as a result he put one over me in spite of having solved the case, which made closing this book a lot more satisfying than any of the other books reviewed on here for nearly a month.

I have to keep this review brief (you know that stuff we call time?), but I have to point out that William DeAndrea gave us a glance of how the modern GAD novel would have turned out if it had continued to evolve – instead of being ditched by publishers in favor of gritty crime stories. Everything is there: the narrative voice of the hardboiled genre and the plot construction of the puzzle-orientated detective stories, but the characterization and his style were very up-to-date and that mixture made his stories more than just mere throwbacks – and the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at The Network only makes this series even more interesting.

As I have said before, DeAndrea not only picked up the threads of tradition but also weaved new patterns with them and this is one of his better works.

The Matt Cobb series:

Killed in the Ratings (1978)
Killed in the Act (1981)
Killed with a Passion (1983)
Killed on the Ice (1984)
Killed in Paradise (1988)
Killed on the Rocks (1990)
Killed in Fringe Time (1995)
Killed in the Fog (1996)
Murder – All Kinds (2003) 

3/15/12

Treacherous Crossing

"Hippocrates and criminals... in the annals of crime, they have filled many pages." 
- DeKok (A.C. Baantjer's Murder by Installments, 1985)
Late last month, I replenished that indoors hillside, modestly referred to in this home as my to-be-read pile, with one or two additional purchases, mostly with familiar names plastered across their front covers, but one of them sported a name that I had never heard of before: Walker Taylor. Apparently, I was not alone because even the GADWiki drew a blank when I consulted it.

So I began interrogating one or two search engines and this turned up a capsule biography of Walker Taylor, whose full name was Philip Neville Walker Taylor, describing an eventful life that began when he ran away from home as a teenager to become a cowboy and later on a Hollywood extra – as well as squeezing a living out of his pen as an advertising agent, radio scenarist and novelist. These brief lines that summed up his life mentioned that he wrote an abundance of detective stories under numerous variations of his name, like the generically titled Murder in the Game Reserve (1938) and Murder in the Taj Mahal (1948) under the P. Walker Taylor byline, which were well received according to mystery scholar and fellow blogger, Curt Evans.

Murder in the Suez Canal (1937) is another one of his blandly designated mysteries, however, behind its austere title I found a well written novel with a genuinely intriguing premise and a plot that was not devoid of merit – even though the solution was more than just a bit under whelming. But more on that blemish later.

The story embarks with the Ecusia sailing into the proverbial troubled waters as one of its passengers, Archibald "Archie" Farrel, requires immediate surgery to fix a ruptured ulcer and Charles Wrekin, honorary Surgeon at St. Luke, converts the children's playroom into an operating-theatre – and assembles a team from scratch to provide him with the necessary assistance. You could argue that the operation was a success, but the patient never awoke from his anesthetic-induced slumber and the final diagnosis of his surgeon is "death under anesthetic," which is immediately repudiated by a member of his scratch team.

Dr. Clame, whose work, as a medical woman, consists mainly of vaccinating poor children in India against cholera and typhoid, maintains that the death of their patients rests not on her conscience and insinuates that Wrekin's probably covering up one of his own mistakes. The verbal affaire d'honneur  and medical discussion between the quarreling doctors is perhaps my favorite portion of the book. 

But as a result of this blow-out, rumors begin to sweep the decks of the ship with swiftness of a tidal wave, which leaves the captain with no alternative but appointing two semi-official detectives to look into this suspicious death and the men he picks for the job are a Navy Commander, named Wraithlea, and a purple-faced magistrate from Calcutta named Judd – who greets cabin boys with a roaring flood of abuse in fluent Hindustani if they wake him before a quarter-past eight. I think this suggests family-ties to the Merrivales.

Anyway, the two men examine Archibald Farrel's entourage and sift through the events that made up the final days of his life, but they find that their location is preventing them from reaching the speedy conclusion that is desired. The local authorities of the region lack the technical expertise of institutions like Scotland Yard and the Sûreté, which forced Wraithlea and Judd to work with an incomplete toxicology report on a possible homicide without as much as a method to go on – and this gave the book a surprising touch of realism and shows how small our world has become in comparison to the 1930s. Relative distances were pretty much the same as absolute distances and in this "out-of-the-way" spot they had to be creative to overcome the hurdles placed in front of them, such as assembling a medical and investigative team from scratch. It's the lucky coincidence of the detective novels that people with a bit of experience in both fields were taking a trip aboard the Ecusia.

So what kept this book from a rank among the unjustly neglected masterpieces? Well, it has a mundane, unsatisfying and somewhat of a problematic conclusion that failed to live up to its intriguing premise and I think the motive was pulled from thin air. At least, I can't remember any hints that foreshadowed it. Anyhow, the scene of the successful operation in the children's playroom, which, nonetheless, ended with a white sheet being pulled over the patient's head, and the unknown cause of death coupled with the deceptive tranquility of the setting simply begged for something grand and ingenious. It's still a well-written novel that evocatively brings its environment alive and has one or two interesting characters trotting around its pages, but as a detective story this one fell short of the mark.

This is the third review in a row that ended on a disappointing note (a risk of randomly picking up unknown mystery writers) and therefore I will go with a guaranteed winner for my next read!

3/10/12

Murder is No Laughing Matter

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King's horses and all the King's men
couldn't put Humpty together again.
One of my favorite things about this place are the comments that follow in the wake of a newly posted review or a vaguely constructed ramble, especially when they form an appendix of additional information – as was the case with my post critiquing David Alexander's Murder Points a Finger (1953).

Xavier confessed that it was favorite of him and "one whose lack of reputation" always surprised him as well as noting that "its author was not usually associated with the traditional mystery genre," while Richard Moore revealed David Alexander as "one of the leading journalists covering thoroughbred racing as a racing editor for the New York Herald Tribune and columnist for important racing publications" – and his tenure as the managing editor for the New York Morning Telegraph was "clearly the basis" for the Bart Hardin stories.

All this did was whet my appetite for a Bart Hardin mystery and this time I had the foresight to order a copy of another book before having made my full acquaintance with its author, which is why I am now writing a review of The Death of Humpty Dumpty (1957) instead of impatiently marching back and forth in front of the letter box.

Bart Hardin is the hard drinking, two-fisted editor of a sporting and showbiz rag named The Broadway Times and has a penchant for flowered vests and lives above a flea circus in a Times Square tenement, which is perhaps a combination that gives off some sort of pheromone that attracts trouble to his doorstep.

The Death of Humpty Dumpty opens with a stone-cold sober Bart Hardin starring glazy-eyed at his television screen, broadcasting the New Years celebrations, but as a professional in such indoor sports as Irish drinking he considers New Year's Eve as Amateur Night and refuses to touch a single drop of liquor. The plans for the night is to retire early, but then he receives an invitation from a friend and part-time lover, Zita Janos – a Hungarian nightclub dancer who twisted her ankle and now has the night off.

Zita Janos invites him to come watch the famous New Year's Eve Ball descend from her apartment, but as all but one pair of eyes fixed themselves on the ball there's one pair, Bart Hardin's, distracted by a disturbing and surrealistic scene: Humpty Dumpty Hughes, a nightclub comedian, falls from a ninth-floor window of a hotel across the street and vanishes in mid-air! At least, he assumes that's what must have happened. The nightclub comedian could not have left a mess on the sidewalk (the people celebrating the new year beneath the window would definitely have responded to a falling man) and the police he called to investigate found no traces of a body on a balcony that was also located beneath the window.

The following morning, Bart Hardin finds a cab driver with the pallid countenance of a skeleton and his ancient hansom cab on his doorstep. Someone stuffed a c-note in the cabby's hand to deliver a drunk friend to Hardin, but the drunkard in the back turns out to be Humpty Dumpty Hughes – fully dressed (except for his shoes) and a bullet wound in his chest inflicted after death.

These opening chapters are evocatively written, wonderfully phantasmagorical in tone and simply dripping with imagination, but Alexander inexplicably began ditching these fantastic elements, one after another, before he took a turn into those mean streets – turning a detective story full of promise into an unexceptional hardboiled yawn yarn.

You can discern this plunge into mediocrity yourself when you have reached the page on which Hardin learns of Zita Janos' kidnapping and has to confront one of the most dangerous loan sharks in town, Moe Selig, who's complacent enough when he's fed but has no problem chewing your head off when he has to wait or finds you a bit annoying.

Hardin tries to both appease and vex the money-lending mob-boss, but everything he does simply cried incompetence, from setting up a false alibi for a bunch of murderers to verbally abusing an unwilling accomplish in such a way that the poor guy blows his brains out, but the worst thing of all is that the explanation to those imaginative events in the opening chapters shares the same lack of inspiration with the second half of the book. It was really, really disappointing to learn that there was nothing clever lurking behind its Alice-in-Wonderland façade.

And that leaves me in two minds: I loved the front décor of this story, but the illusion was ruined when David Alexander showed the plain woodwork behind it and this left me dissatisfied after turning over the final page. Well, I guess this one of those books you can only fully appreciate if you’re devoted fan of the series.

Hopefully, the next obscure mystery that has reached the top of the snow-capped peaks of Mt. To-Be-Read is a bit better as this is the second review in row that ended on a disappointed note. 

3/6/12

My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels (Updated: June 7, 2013)

The detectives who explain miracles, even more than their colleagues who clarify more secular matters, play the Promethean role of asserting man’s intellect and inventiveness even against the gods.”
- Anthony Boucher (introduction to Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, 1944)

My undying adoration for the traditional whodunit has been well-chronicled on this blog and my heart has taken a real fancy in the locked room mystery, which somehow seems appropriate for an organ that is composed of four chambers, but what I find particular alluring is that they (with assistance of some smoke and mirrors) show a reflection of our potential to turn fantasy into reality. Our modern, everyday world consists now of many things that people were dreaming about a hundred years ago: a borderless world known as the internet, satellites probing the unknown universe around us and planting eyes and ears on the surface of Mars.

I see a glimpse of this talent for dreaming in the best kind of impossible crime stories, in which enterprising minds devise ingenious schemes to defy every natural law known to man and conjure up demon-infested nightmares where a shadowy murderer can evaporate from a sealed room or trod over a field of virgin snow without leaving footprints in his wake. Even more unbelievable feats include a miraculous mid-air stroll, spiriting away an entire house and a homicidal snowman being magically endowed with life – among other supernatural creatures whose unnerving presence grace the pages of these stories.

But I also find them intellectually stimulating and provide a mystery novel with an extra layer or two for its plot. It's fun to deduce who laced Madame Willborough's cough syrup with cyanide or whose guilty hands plunged an ornamental dagger in the neck of Sir Linnaeus, but a well-conceived and executed impossible crime is the real challenge to the reader in this grand game of ours – which sometimes also gives you that child-like feeling that you are surreptitiously rummaging through the props of a stage magician for his trade secrets. I always try to come up with my own explanation to explain the apparent unexplainable and sometimes my incorrect, but nonetheless ingenious, answers resurface in my reviews.

Anyway, I thought it was finally time to compile a list of my favorite locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories and I apologize in advance: it's a long, long, long read.

So let’s take them down from the top:

M.P.O. Books' De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)

Right off the bat, I throw a curve ball that takes the form of a novel that, perhaps, does not qualify for a spot on this list, but it's a delightfully complex detective story (centering on the murder of a GP and an attempt on the life of a local alderman) and there's a genuine locked room mystery towards the end. To be fair, it's not a staggeringly knotted problem and Marco Books was very modest about it, but this little side puzzle, tucked away between the pages of an excellent mystery, gives me another excuse to drop his name to an international audience. His other book, De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), deserves, at least, a translation.

Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941)

The fiery haired shamus, Fergus O'Breen, drapes himself in the theatrical garb of a wishful actor as he attempt to pick the lock that keeps the murder of a theatrical manager, found in his workshop with the door and windows locked from the inside, a genuine mystery. A simple solution, but the inclusion of the solid key handle was a novel and original idea.

I know, I know, I should have gone for the more conventional Nine Times Nine (1940), but the method never entirely convinced me in that one. Still a good locked room, though!

Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948)

A fairly rare and hard-to-find impossible crime novel, in which Cockrill and Charlesworth have front row seats at a pageant where a vengeful killer took the stage and struck one of the players down without being seen – and the two policemen in attendance have to unsnarl this problem by untangling such clues as shining armors, colored cloaks and coils of rope. Overly complex, perhaps, but absolutely brilliant.

Herbert Brean's The Traces of Brillhart (1961)

This novel turns a fresh page on the impossible problem: a song writer who's known as the biggest heel to hit New York City in four decades and suppose to be dead at the opening of this book, but for a dead man he's very animated and enjoys the night life. A writer of magazine articles looks into the apparent immortality of the music composer. 

Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936)

Pasquinades of Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown all attempt to explain away another one of those locked door problems, which also wonderfully satirizes the detectives personality and the plotting techniques of their creators, but it’s Sgt. Beef who explains this miracle away in a delightfully simple manner. 

Lou Cameron's Behind the Scarlet Door (1971) 

A very, very pulpy potpourri of outlandish plot elements, twists and turns that includes bodies decomposing at a supernatural speed, voodoo priests, witches, zombies, Welsh legends and even an invisible cat-like creature that attacks one of the policeman inside his locked apartment. I had to include this title because how well Cameron handled this pile-up of apparent supernatural events and explained them without consulting the supernatural.

Joseph Baker Carr's The Man With Bated Breath (1934)

Quality-wise, perhaps not the best title on this list, however, this pot smoke induced rendering of a Dr. Gideon Fell novel simply fascinates me. Ocealo Archer is a gargantuan detective with the demeanor of a jolly Santa Claus and an insatiable appetite, who looks into a remarkable shooting incident at a Georgian plantation. Four members of the family were shot in the locked gable room of the house, leaving two dead and two wounded, but the gun is nowhere to be found and the police officer who stood in the garden below swore that nothing was thrown out of the open window.
 
John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935)

A fabulous Chestertonian tale about the seemingly impossible murder of Professor Grimaud, shot in his locked and watched study from which his murderer miraculously disappeared, "and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street," where the murderer "killed his second victim in the middle of an empty street, with watchers at either end; yet not a soul saw him, and no footprints appeared in the snow." You can argue against the fairness of certain components of the solution, but that takes, IMHO, very little away from the story and it will remain the standard bearer for the locked room mystery for many more decades to come. 

John Dickson Carr's He Who Whispers (1946)

This novel is arguably even better than his much-touted masterpiece, The Hollow Man, in which a dark and grim atmosphere slowly, but surely, builds up around a well-characterized woman, named Fey Seton, who may be a vampire and an extraordinary crime of the impossible variety on top of a natural tower in France. 

John Dickson Carr's The Bride of Newgate (1950)


The first of John Dickson Carr's swashbuckling, adventure filled historical mysteries and arguably the finest he wrote. The year is 1815 and fencing master Dick Darwent is counting away the final hours of his life in the condemned cell of the filthy and overpopulated New Gate prison, for the murder of Lord Francis Orford during a crooked duel, but Darwent's version tells a story of a murder room that aged with the dust of years over a single night. One of the highlights of Carr's writing career.

John Dickson Carr's Captain Cut-Throat (1955)

A strange hybrid sewn together from the elements of a historical romance, espionage thriller and a proper detective story set during the Napoleonic Wars – on the eve of the invasion of Britain. A murderer who refers to himself as the titular Captain Cut-Throat is dispatching sentries under seemingly impossible circumstances to their graves and the method is as clever as it's simple, however, they are not the main focus of the novel. But read the book for yourself. It deserves to be better known. 

Clyde Clason's The Man from Tibet (1938)

An opulent collector of Tibetan artifacts, Adam Merriweather, comes into possession of a rare and valuable eight-century manuscript and as a result he finds a monk, who comes to claim the bundle of paper on behalf of his people, on his doorstep, but refuses to relinquish it – and as a result a curse seems to have gotten an stranglehold on his heart when he was alone in his locked Tibetan room. Not very difficult to solve, though, but nonetheless a fascinating story and the opening chapters had one of the characters recounting his adventures in the Tibetan mountains that showed some shades of James Hilton’s wonderful Lost Horizon (1933).

Willy Corsari's De voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937)

Sir John Judge, a Dutchman born as Jan Rechter, left his native country behind him to amass a fortune in Britain, but when comes back home a demon from his past is waiting for him – and ends up eating a bullet behind the tightly locked door of his study. This book is a splendid homage to the English country house mystery and her overseas colleagues.

William DeAndrea's Killed on the Rocks (1990)

The televisions networks vice-president of Special Projects, which takes care of everything that’s too insecure for security and too private for Public Relations, Matt Cobb is assigned to oversee the negotiations between The Network and a billionaire who wants to buy the station, but the location is an ill-chosen mansion in the snowcapped mountains – and his detective curse immediately kicks in. On the morning after their first night they find a mangled corpse making a macabre composition in red and white smack in the middle of a field of unbroken snow. DeAndrea and Cobb prove here that a classic never goes out of style!

Carter Dickson's The Plague Court Murders (1934)

This is the book that turned me into one of the grandmasters disciples and the story is easily one of the best from this series, which concerns itself with the impossible stabbing of a fraudulent medium on the premise of a haunted house, but perhaps even better is how perfectly John Dickson Carr balanced himself on a fine tightrope and managed to reach the ending without stumbling. The murderer is neatly tucked away from the reader, but all the clues are there and note his superb combination of a dark, thick atmosphere with comedic bits without reducing the impact of either. However, as the late Grobius Shortling noted, you have to take the locked room solution with a grain of salt.

Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938)

An excellent courtroom drama set at the Old Bailey, in which the curmudgeonly Sir Henry Merrivale assumes the role of barrister in order to exonerate an innocent man of a murder only he could've committed. The solution to the locked room is as clever as it's simple.

Carter Dickson's She Died a Lady (1943)

An outstanding and interesting achievement from a mystery writer who was not particular well known for in-depth characterization, but here he takes a more serious approach to the detective story without abandoning it. The characters are far more believable as people and evokes that desolate feeling the war brought with it and the well worked out, underlying relationships that led to a double murder with the allurement of the impossible crime (of the no-footprints variety) and H.M. antics still being present.

Carter Dickson's The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (1945)

This is, IMHO, the last great performance of the Old Man and perhaps of his literary father, as well, as the unruly Merrivale dispels a curse that comes with the possession of an ancient bronze lamp that is held responsible for making two people disappear into thin air, "blown to dust as though they never existed," and he does so in a sane and rational manner – reasoning from such clues as a missing painting and a bowl of daffodils.

Note that the book was dedicated to Ellery Queen, "in memory of those times when far into the night we discussed detective stories."


Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) 
 
A topographical roman policier, situated in a neighborhood of Rotterdam, where the stabbing of a gardener, inspecting his greenhouses during a surging storm, leads Commissioner Vissering to a shadowy society known as Kostbaar Kralingen (Precious Kralingen). During one of their weekly gatherings, one of them dies under breathtaking circumstances in a sealed bedroom. The solution shows Docter was also pulp writer, but this is still one of the better Dutch-language locked room mystery I have read to date.
Note: this is still the "weakest" of the Vissering trilogy, but only because the others were even better.


Paul Doherty's The Spies of Sobeck (2008)


Upon her return from victories in the North, Egypt's Pharaoh-Queen Hatusu has to suppress a Nubian uprising in her sultry kingdom, but a sect of professional assassins, known as the Arites, begin to wage a very personal war against their Egyptian overlords – and the impossible is kind of their trademark. A former chief scout of the spies of Sobeck, Imothep, is found murdered in the Mansion of Silence and the explanation is incredible cheeky, but acceptable in a historical setting. Well played, Mr. Doherty!
 
Paul Doherty's The Mysterium (2010)
 
One of my favorite Doherty yarns to date, because the dark atmosphere and themes gave the story a delightfully Carrian touch. A hooded assassin reappears from the past, after vanishing from a secured and guarded church, twenty years previously, to extract revenge on the ex-Chief Justice who was found dead in his cell – the door barred from both sides and the only window a wafer-thin slit high in the wall. It's not as complex or ingenious as Carr, but there's a lot to like in this book if you love atmospheric detective stories with locked rooms, impossible disappearances, ciphers and clues.

Jan Ekström's Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) 
The label "the Swedish John Dickson Carr" is what attracted me to this book, but if you want to draw a classical comparison, I would say Christianna Brand who proved herself as aptly in handling double edged clues and impossible situation as the master himself. This is a dark, character-driven family drama involving the three warring branches of an old family ending in what appears to be a simple murder/suicide (shooting and gassing in a locked bedroom), but things turn out to be slightly more complicated.

Paul Gallico's Too Many Ghosts (1961)

Alexander Hero has made a career out of "de-haunting" houses and his latest investigation brings him the Paradine Hall, where furniture moves itself around and invisible hands pluck on strings of a harp in a locked music room, but everything seems to indicate that Hero is finally confronted with a genuine haunting – or is it? The trick of the locked music room is both clever and original.

Michael Gilbert's The Danger Within (1952)

This is one of my all-time favorite detective stories, especially from the post-WWII era, and perhaps one of the most successful blends of the formal detective story with thriller elements – as well as being semi-autobiographical. The setting is an Italian POW camp and has a neat impossible murder: a man is found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace that needs the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.

Alan Green's What a Body! (1949)

A breezily and comically told story of a murdered health guru, whose departure from this spinning globe was received with cheers that were heard around the world and the impossible situation is truly original. The victim was shot from an impossible angle with a bullet that left his pajamas undamaged and the solution was tailor-made to fit the circumstances. A one of a kind locked room mystery.

Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Gold Murders (1959)

Chronologically, this is the first book in the series and tells the story of Judge Dee's first post as magistrate of the district of Peng-lai, where the somber skies and mournful atmosphere makes for a perfect backdrop for tales of the dead who refuse to slumber in their graves – one of them being Dee's predecessor who died under mysterious circumstances in his locked library. More on this book either this or next month.

Paul Halter's La Quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987)

A staggering complex locked room novel, in which a haunted attic room becomes the scene of an impossible murder after a botched spiritualistic experiment and one of the suspects appears to have been in two places at the same time – as well as a second murder committed in a house whose surroundings were carpeted in a vast expanse of un-trodden snow! Halter has his fair share faults, but it's hard to care about such trifles as characterization when you watch the intricate patterns, that emanate from its plot, take shape.


Paul Halter's La Septième Hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991)

A story enwrapped in the Baghad-on-the-Thames atmosphere of the long-gone London of John Dickson Carr and Christopher Fowler, where seventeen century plague doctors are seen prowling the streets, a corpse is whisked away in front of a police constable and a man dematerializes halfway down a corridor. And that covers the impossibilities, but the main event is a battle-of-wits between a famous play writer and actor in what's the best Halter novel I have read to date.
 
Gaston Leroux's Le Mystère de la Chambre Jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907)

One of the earliest and perhaps most important of all locked room novels, whose problem of the brutal attack on Mrs. Stangerson in a locked room inspired future grandmasters of the grandest game in the world – like John Dickson Carr and G.K. Chesterton. 

Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996)

The focus of this book is on a recognizable group of ardent mystery lovers, but one of them appears to have gone against Milne's observation that "all really nice people" have a weakness for detective stories as one of turned up murdered in a locked houseboat. I have to admit that the trick in this one isn't entirely original, but it uses it perfectly and even derives a second possible answer from it that functions as a false solution.

Martin Méroy’s Meartre en Chambre Noir (Murder in a Darkened Room, 1965)

A successful attempt at unraveling an orthodox detective plot with the narrative voice of the Hardboiled School. In this case, the reader tags along with a private eye, also named Martin Méroy, doubling as a bodyguard for a well-known stage magician – who's nonetheless murdered, under inexplicable circumstances, during one of his famous escape tricks from a sealed bank vault. Not the best book on this list, but I remember being entertained.

Ed McBain's Killer's Wedge (1959)


The squad room of the 87th Precinct becomes the scene of a high-tense hostage situation, but the person the hostage taker is after, Steve Carella, is on a job somewhere else – looking into the supposed suicide of a business tycoon. It's a face-paced read interlacing suspense with a traditional locked room mystery. 
Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968)

Two unruly, but likeable, teenagers decide to pull a malicious prank on the neglectful adults by evoking a local legend, but the folkloric Mr. Splitfoot seems to have been genuinely responsive to their call and when a body turns up in an inhospitable guestroom that has history of murdering its occupants it's time for the gifted amateur to take the stage – who conveniently stranded in the snow with his wife the night before and took shelter at the home. I recommend you read my full review of this book to get an impression of how much I enjoyed this book.


Roman McDougald's The Blushing Monkey (1953)
 
An unusual take on the locked room mystery, in which the question is not a murderer managed to escape from a room or place that was hermitically locked from the inside or guarded on the outside, but why a mortally wounded victim remained at the unlock crime scene – instead of fleeing away from his attacker. A private investigator, named Philip Cabbot, also has to look into a more traditional locked room, when a victim is found dead inside a sealed bathroom.

Marcia Muller's The Tree of Death (1983)

The Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara becomes the stage of a murder when the unlikable director and fundraiser, Frank de Palma, is found crushed to death between the debris of (garish) ceramic tree. The locks and alarm system were not tempered with and the solution puts this locked room mystery in the same league as the best from Muller's late contemporary, Herbert Resnicow.

W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932)


Agatha Christie meets John Dickson Carr when an invisible killer strikes again, and again, among the well heeled guests aboard of the Terrapin, scudding across the Louisiana marsh land during a fishing trip, which added no less than three new and very original scenarios to the locked room story: 1) a man is stabbed to death while fishing alone in a skiff 2) a knife that was hammered into the woodwork of the deck like Excalibur was effortlessly retrieved with apparent supernatural strength 3) a force unseen pulls a man into the water and drowns him. 

Zelda Popkin's Dead Man's Gift (1941)


A group of strangers, whose only commonality is being a relative of the late and eccentric Michael Carmichael, are gathered at a mansion for a reading of the will, and as to be expected, there's a catch to accepting the will. A stock-in-trade scenario, true, but the freak flood that is slowly driving the party to roof puts an unusual spin on the story and the finishing touch is that solution reveals an ingeniously hidden murder of the impossible variety.  
 
Bill Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981)

When the “Nameless Detective” accepts an invitation for a pulp convention, he was not unaware that it included an investigation into two seemingly impossible murders, one of them ascribed to an ex-pulp writer, named Russell Dancer, who was found hovering over a bleeding corpse with a smoking gun in his hand – after the doors of his bolted hotel room came crashing down.

Bill Pronzini's Scattershot (1982) 
This book details a hellish week for the "Nameless Detective" and a direct follow up to the events in Hoodwink (1981), in which personal and professional problem may end up breaking the man and his business. And at the root of his problem are impossibilities. Sheer impossibilities! A man he had been shadowing disappears from a locked car and his client files a suit for criminal negligence. The woman he had serve a subpoena ends up murdered in a locked cabin with her secretary looking very guilty, and if that isn't enough, an expensive ring is stolen from a secured room full of wedding gifts that he was suppose to be guarding. Together with Hoodwink, my favorite chapters in this on-going biography of Pronzini's gumshoe. 


Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's The Bughouse Affair (2013)

The first in a new series of full-length historical mysteries about Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, and they've quite a workload piled up on their desks before the halfway mark of the book. Sabina has to roam the Cocktail Route to snuff out a pickpocket, while Quincannon is setting up a trap for a burglar and trying to shake off a character known as the bughouse Holmes. Naturally, someone ends up dead between the confines of four walls and a couple of locked doors and windows in what amount to a great new start to a series that was already well established as a series of short stories.


Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982)


A Science-Fiction and Fantasy convention at a respectable hotel turns murderous when a panel is disrupted by Darth Vader with a sparkle gun, which, somehow, resulted in the death of a panel member, but a second murder carried out in front of witnesses is even more daring. Not very difficult to solve to the seasoned locked room reader, but a nice read nonetheless. 

Clayton Rawson's Death from a Top Hat (1938)

A magician gone mad would be a good description of this book because I remember Rawson pulling one seemingly impossible trick after another from his top hat, but the inclusion for this list comes from the first locked room trick – which is perhaps the best thing I have read of him in a full-length novel. He was a much better and cleverer mystery writer when penning short stories (e.g. "From Another World").

Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Deadline (1984)

Alexander and Norma Gold receive an invitation from an influential billionaire to discuss business under the cover of a social engagement during a performance of the Boguslav Ballet, but halfway through the show the impresario of the company is stabbed to death in his theatre box and the only one who could've killed him is the son of their prospective client – who gives them three days to exonerate his son and cash in on the biggest paycheck of their life. It sports a clever and intricate solution, which is, perhaps, a bit over ambitious and stretches credulity, however, Resnicow supplied a motive why anyone would go through such insane lengths to commit murder.

Herbert Resnicow's The Dead Room (1987)

The anechoic chamber at Hamilcar HI-FI reverberates with murder after death sneaked into the watched and locked room unseen and knifed the seventy-year-old inventor of a revolutionary new sound speaker to death on the second, netted-floor partition of the room – and has a solution as original as the architecture of the room and custom-made to fit its conditions. Simply brilliant.


Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951)
 
A comedic private-eye novel set against the backdrop of the Science Fiction and Fantasy fan community of the mid 20th century, in which a hapless private detective is asked by a group of SF fans to investigate extraterrestrial interference in Earth affairs – who begin zapping at them with rays guns or chucking them from flying saucers. A very fun and unusual mystery novel and an alien threat was a nice chance from the usual ancient curses and vengeful ghosts in impossible crime stories.
   
Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935)

Perhaps one of the wildest, fastest and unapologetic flights of fancy in this sub-genre, in which a dead patriarch turns a decaying mansion, situated in Haiti, into a savage playground for a bizarre cast of gargoyles to vie over his earthly possessions. This book has everything: locked rooms, impossible disappearances, zombies and voodoo rituals!

Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus (1951)

This story plucks the gentleman thief, represented here in a person who refers to himself as "Zeb," from its familiar environment of the Rogue School and shoves him on the playing field of the Grandest Game in the World – and the result is a whole slew of miracle crimes.

Soji Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981)

A perfect example of a successful marriage between the contemporary thriller and the orthodox detective story, in which the focus is on a 40-year-old crime that continues to baffle the nations, gruesome dismemberments, a murder in a locked room and two challenges to the reader. To put it simply: a bloody tour-de-force!

John Sladek's Black Aura (1974)

This is arguably one of the grandest impossible crime novels I ever had the pleasure of reading with a plot that centers on a fraudulent medium and her odd-assortment of live-in clients, but soon things begin to happen in the house that can only be described as supernatural: a man disappears from a locked lavatory and another man is impaled on a fence after apparently strolling around in mid-air! A masterpiece, plain and simple! 

Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954)
This is a locked room enthusiasts' locked room mystery, and a fiendishly clever one at that, in which a vigil in a locked and haunted room ending with what could've been another chapter to an old family legend – where it not for the intervention of a dilettante detective named Algy Lawrence. There are many references to other mystery writers specializing in impossible crimes and there's even a locked room lecture. 


Kay Cleaver Strahan's Death Traps (1930)
 
A story told between two elderly, neighboring men and the remarkable crimes that took place in their respective homes, which consists of a dubious shooting incident in a sun room and two people found dead in their bed in a completely sealed house that was not piped for gas! 
Akimitsu Takagi's The Tattoo Murder Case (1949)

I have to admit that this book is not quite in same league as some of the other gems that reached the shores of the English language, but is nonetheless a very interesting detective story, drawing for its plot on mythology and tattoo art, with an off-the-wall impossible situations – in which a murderer dumped a severed head and limbs in a locked bathroom.

Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944)

A group of snowbound people are under siege from a mythical creature, commonly known as a Wendigo, who can pounce on its victim from the sky – not to mention that the story opens with a full body materialization of a ghost during a séance! One of the few books that can compete with John Dickson Carr when it comes to conjuring up a terrifying atmosphere and dragging the reader into a demon haunted world.

Jean-Paul Török's L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007)

An unabashed homage to the Master of the Locked Room Mystery, John Dickson Carr a.k.a. Carter Dickson, which is tightly woven and complex affair drawing on the work of the master himself. 
Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931)

An unofficial matriarch, sister of the laird, of an old Scottish clan, who reigned over her relatives with a suffocating and poisonous kindness, is found dead behind the bolted door of her bedroom and the investigation is made more difficult when two of the investigating officers are murdered under equally baffling circumstances – and silver fish scales found on the bodies suggests to the locals the involvement of the legendary fish-like creatures referred to as The Swimmers. The solutions are simple, but convincing, which is the hallmark of a good locked room mystery. More could've been done with the legend of the swimmers, though.