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.


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)


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


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) 


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!


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. 


My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels (Updated: Jan 3, 2015)

"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)

It's been almost three years since I posted the first version of this list and the first update stems from nearly two years ago, which made it about time for a thorough rewrite of the list. I've added some new titles, but omitted the links this time. You can find a good deal of my reviews, on a significant portion, of these titles on the page called "The Muniment Room," which is where every post on this blog is alphabetically listed.

I choose to drop the link to keep the post tidy after the next up, whenever that will be, because it became quite a mess after the previous update, but for now, lets take the list down from the top.

Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) by M.P.O. Books

A figurehead of the Dutch criminal underworld is brutally slaughtered in the comfort of his tightly secured, fortress-like home. The windows were covered with steel shutters and the grounds around the house are monitored with motion-and pressure sensors that trigger overhead lights, back and forth, and cameras – which only captured a man claiming to be innocent entering and leaving the premise at the time of murder. One of the best in this series!

The Case of the Solid Key (1948) by Anthony Boucher

The "Ellery Queen of the West Coast," Fergus O'Breen, is on an undercover assignment in a theater group when the unpleasant manager of the troupe is bumped off in his locked workshop. Boucher was known for his contribution to the impossible crime genre with novels such as Nine Times Nine (1940) and Rocket to the Morgue (1942), but I think Solid Key is the best – 'cause he kept it simple.

Death of Jezebel (1948) by Christianna Brand

A once rare, nearly impossible-to-find mystery novel, in which the reader is given a front row seat to a seemingly inexplicably murder at a medieval-like pageant. One of the actresses was struck down in full view of audience and Cockrill has to piece to puzzle together with such clues as shining armors, colored cloaks and coils of rope. You can accuse the solution of being overly complex, but that doesn't make it any less brilliant.

The Traces of Brillhart (1961) by Herbert Brean

This novel has a different take on the impossible problem: a famous song writer and biggest heel to hit New York City in four decades and suppose to be dead at the start of this story, but for a dead man he's very animated and enjoys the nightlife. A writer of magazine articles, Bill Deacon, looks into the apparently immortality of the composer.

Case for Three Detectives (1936) by Leo Bruce

Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Wimsey and Father Brown are mercilessly being parodied as their avatars try to solve one of those locked-door problems, which satirizes the personalities and the plotting technique of their creators. In the end, it's Sgt. Beef who explains the miracle away with a delightfully simple solution.

The Man With Bated Breath (1934) by Joseph B. Carr

Quality-wise, there are better locked room mysteries on this list, but this novel reads a John Dickson Carr mystery from an alternative reality, in which a megaverse version of Dr. Gideon Fell, Ocealo Archer, solves an impossible shooting incident at a Georgian plantation.

The Hollow Man (1935) by John Dickson Carr

A fabulous Chestertonian tale of the seemingly impossible murder of Professor Grimaud, shot in his locked and watched study, "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." A genuine classic worthy of the name.

He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr

Some would argue this is a better mystery novel that his much praised masterpiece, The Hollow Man. What's not to like about the slow building up of a dark, atmospheric persecution story of a young woman, Fey Seton, who may be a vampire and a deadly stabbing on top of a natural tower in France – under seemingly impossible circumstances. It has everything you'd hope to find when picking up one of Dr. Gideon Fell strange cases.

Captain Cut-Throat (1955) by John Dickson Carr

A strange and under appreciated hybrid sewing together elements from the historical novel, spy-and adventures yarns and wrapped in layers of mysterious events – set during the Napoleonic Wars. There's a murderer on the loose, referring to himself as Captain Cut-Throat, among the sentries and has apparently mastered the art of invisibility. The impossible crime elements are understated here, but the story as a whole deserves to be better known.

The Man from Tibet (1938) by Clyde B. Clason

An opulent collector of Tibetan artifacts, Adam Merriweather, succumbs in his locked Tibetan room of a heart attack, but the elderly and gentle Professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough believes there's more to the death of the collector than meets the eye. The locked room is not the most difficult to solve, but this book and Clason are at the top of the class of the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection.

Killed on the Rocks (1990) by William L. DeAndrea

A luxurious, snow-capped mountain retreat is the décor of negotiations between the Network and a billionaire, who wants to buy the TV station. However, the discovery of a mangled corpse in a field of unbroken field of snow unsettles the schedule. DeAndrea showed here that a classic never goes out of style and that there's always place on the printed page for the Great Detectives. 

The Plague Court Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson (a.k.a John Dickson Carr)

This is the book that turned me in a disciple of the Grand Master of the Locked Room Mystery, in which a fraudulent medium is stabbed to death on the premises of a haunted house. However, even better is how perfectly Carr balanced on the fine tightrope towards the ending without falling. The murderer is neatly tugged away from the reader, but all the clues are there hidden in the dark, brooding atmosphere with comedic bits – without reducing the impact of either. But, as the late "Grobius Shortling" noted, you have to take the solution to the locked room with a pinch of salt.

The Poison Oracle (1974) by Peter Dickinson

Now here's a tale that would've bought Sheherazade another reprieve from the executioner's sword. A tale of the imaginary sultanate of Q'Kut. A strip of land in cloud-cuckoo land where the Arab rulers share a special bond with the native Marshmen, an isolated tribe with their own unique language, reaffirmed every year in a verbal treaty, "The Bond," which is an epic song telling their history. Dickinson builds a completely new civilization with a history, language, social structure, political system and used as a framework for a first-rate detective story – involving a pre-verbal chimpanzee, a skyjacked airliner and an impossible poisoning in the Sultan's private zoo.

The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson

A book that seems to have become the classic locked room mystery for the locked room reader of this century and it's understandable why, because how can you not love Sir Henry Merrivale acting as a barrister and addressing the jury with: "Well, my dear fatheads." The solution to the locked room murder may also be one of Carr's best and most original trick.

Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) by Cor Docter

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 a pulp writer, but this is still one of the better Dutch-language locked room mystery I have read to date and it was the "weakest" in the Vissering-trilogy.

The Spies of Sobeck (2008) by Paul Doherty

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, Imothep, is murdered in Mansion of Silence and the explanation is incredible cheeky, but absolutely acceptable in a historical setting. 

The Mysterium (2010) by Paul Doherty

One of my favorite Doherty novels to date, because the atmosphere, themes and types of crimes gave the story a delightfully Carrian touch. A hooded assassin, who disappeared twenty years previously from a watched and guarded church, returns to extract revenge on the ex-Chief Justice and the man is soon found murdered – with the door barred from the inside and only a wafer-thin slit for a window. 

Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) by Jan Ekström 

I would say "the Swedish John Dickson Carr" was closer to Christianna Brand than to Carr, but the combination made for a darkly memorable, character-driven mystery of the impossible kind. The three warring branches of a family are brought to together and the reunion ends with a double murder/suicide (shooting and gassing in a locked bedroom), but things turn out to be slightly more complicated than that.

Too Many Ghosts (1961) by Paul Gallico

Alexander Hero has made name for himself by "de-haunting" houses, but his latest investigation at Paradine Hall may've him up against genuine, supernatural entities. Furniture moves around itself and invisible hands pluck at the strings of a harp in a locked music room, which has a clever and original solution. 

The Danger Within (1952) by Michael Gilbert

This is one of my all-time favorite mystery novel from the post-WWII era and of the best blends of the formal detective story, thriller elements and a semi-autobiographic at the same time. The setting is a POW camp in Italy and has a nifty impossible situation: a man has been found dead in a secret escape tunnel and the entrance was blocked with a furnace, which needed the combined strength of half a dozen men to budge as much as an inch.

What a Body! (1949) by Alan Green

A breezy, comically told story of a murdered health guru and was shot from this spinning globe by a bullet from an impossible angle and left the pajamas of the victim undamaged. You could say the solution was tailored to fit the situation of the crime. A one of a kind locked room mystery!

Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959) by Robert van Gulik

Chronologically, this is the first book in the series (not the first to be published) 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 a perfect backdrop for stories of the dead refusing to slumber in their graves – one of them being Dee's predecessor who died under mysterious circumstances in his locked library. One of the better impossible crime novels from my country.

La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987) by Paul Halter

A staggering complex detective story, in which a haunted attic room becomes the scene of murder all over again when a spiritualistic experiment goes horribly wrong. One of the suspects appears to have been in two different places at the same time. A second murder is committed in a house completely surrounded by a field of untouched snow. Halter has its fair share of faults, but it's hard to care about such things as a sense of time or characterization when these intricate plot patterns begin to appear.

La septième hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991)

A story enwrapped in a thick, Baghdad-on-the-Thames atmosphere of the long-gone London of John Dickson Carr and Christopher Fowler. Plague doctors from the 17th century are seen prowling the streets, a corpse is whisked away from under the nose of a police constable and a man dematerializes halfway down a corridor, but the main attraction is the battle-of-wits between a famous playwright and an actor. One of Halter's best performances.   

Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) by Gaston Leroux

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. 

Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey

The locked room mystery novel for the locked room reader and detective fans in general, because the characters in this book are fans and collectors of all kind of mysteries. They constantly being discussed and Inspector Diamond has to figure out how one of them gets himself murdered, while being in a locked houseboat.

Killer's Wedge (1959) by Ed McBain

The squad room of the 87th Precinct becomes the scene of a tense hostage situation, but the cop the hostage taker is after, Steve Carella, is looking into the supposed suicide of a business tycoon. It's snappy police-thriller with a tradition locked room mystery and it was just fun to have Carella playing detective, while his colleagues were in mortal danger.

Mr. Splitfoot (1968) by Helen McCloy

Two unruly, but likeable, teenagers pull a malicious prank on the neglectful adults by invoking a local legend, however, they seem to have gotten a response and reawakened the inhospitable guest room in the home – which has unsavory reputation of snuffing the life out of its lonely occupants. I really, really enjoyed this one.

The Blushing Monkey (1953) by Roman McDougald

A very unusual take on the problem of the locked room: the question here's not how someone managed to escape from a hermitically sealed environment, but why a mortally wounded man refused to escape from unlocked room and his attacker. A second murder gives a more traditional scenario for the locked room, when a man gets his throat cut in a sealed bathroom. 

The Tree of Death (1983) by Marcia Muller

The unlikable director and fundraiser for the Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara is crushed by garish, ceramic tree. The locks and alarm-system weren't tempered with and the solution puts this novel in the same league as the best from the hands of her late contemporary, Herbert Resnicow, who debuted in the same year with The Gold Solution (1983).

The Stingaree Murders (1932) by W. Shepard Pleasants

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. 

Dead Man's Gift (1941) by Zelda Popkin

A stock-in-trade galore of tropes, from a family gathering to a changed will, brilliantly tossed about by a freak flood forcing them slowly to the roof, but the finishing touch was revealing a clever, original impossible murder in the solution. You've to wait to end to even know what the impossibility was, but the ride towards its is more than worth it!

Hoodwink (1981) & Scattershot (1982) by Bill Pronzini

These novels really form one story and contain together no less than five (!) locked room mysteries, which begins at a pulp convention where an old friend becomes the main suspect in a shooting. A second body turns up with an ex wound to the head in a locked shed. The second novel deals with one of the worst weeks in the life of the Nameless Detective and were (originally) three separate short stories stitched together with bridging material. Nameless has to figure out how a man he was shadowing vanished from his locked car, a woman he served a subpoena to ends up dead in bolted cabin and an expensive wedding ring he was supposed to guard disappears from a secured room.  

The Bughouse Affair (2013) by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller

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.

Murdercon (1982) by Richard Purtill

A bizarre murder of a penal member at a Science-Fiction convention, presaged by an appearance of Darth Vader with a sparkle gun, but the second impossibility is even better presented – even though they aren't terribly difficult to solve. It was still a nice find!

Death from a Top Hat (1938) by Clayton Rawson

A magician gone mad would've been a good subtite. I remember Rawson pulling one impossibility trick after another from his top hat, but the effect is nothing to sneeze at for locked room enthusiasts.

The Gold Solution (1984) by Herbert Resnicow

Alexander and Norma Gold are invited by an influential billionaire to discuss business, under the cover of social engagement, during a performance of the Boguslav Ballet, but halfway through the show someone is murdered and only the billionaire's son could've done – who gives the Gold's three days to exonerate him in exchange for the biggest paycheck of their life. The solution is really intricate and it's perhaps stretches credulity, but Resnicow supplied a convincing motive/situation why anyone would go through such insane length to murder someone.

The Dead Room (1987) by Herbert Resnicow

The anechoic chamber at Hamilcar HI-FI reverberates with murder after someone managed to sneak in unseen and stabbed the inventor of a new sound speaker to death, which happened on the second, netted floor of the room. The solution is as original to the locked room as the scene of the crime.

The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) by Mack Reynolds

A comedic private-eye novel set against the backdrop of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy community of the mid-20th century, in which a group of SF fans ask a hapless private-eye to investigate if extraterrestrials are interfering in the affairs of Earth. Apparently, they are, because they're zap these fans with laser guns or tossed them out of a flying saucer. This is a fun read and the alien threat was a nice change from the family curses, haunted rooms and glowing dogs on the moor.

Murder on the Way! (1935) by Theodore Roscoe

Perhaps one of the wildest, fastest and most unapologetic flights of fancy in this sub genre, in which a dead patriarch turned a decaying mansion, situated in Haiti, into a savage playground for a bizarre cast of gargoyles to vie over his earthly possessions. This story has everything: a locked room murder, an impossible disappearance, zombies, voodoo rituals and more!

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

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

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) by Soji Shimada

A textbook example of how you can merge the contemporary thriller with the traditional detective, with a touch of the horror story, in which a gruesome, 40-year-old unsolved mystery is pried open, but also includes a locked room murder, a corpse-puzzle and two challenges to the reader. A bloody tour-de-force!

Black Aura (1974) by John Sladek

One of my favorite titles on this list! The plot centers on a fraudulent medium and an ill-assorted collection of live-in clients, but pretty soon things begin to happen to seem genuinely supernatural. A man disappears from a locked and watched lavatory, while another member of the household is impaled on a fence after being watched walking in mid-air! A masterpiece, plain and simple.

Whistle Up the Devil! (1954) by Derek Smith

A locked room mystery written by one of its biggest admirer, in which a vigil in a haunted, sealed and guarded room ends with the death of its sole occupant, but a second murder in a guarded prison cell poses an equal challenge to Algy Lawrence. The story is littered with references to other mystery writers of impossible crime tales and there's even a locked room lecture!  

Death Traps (1930) by Kay Cleaver Strahan

A story of a long, ongoing conversation between two elderly men about the respective incidents that took place in their home, which includes a dubious shooting in a sun room and two people being gassed in a completely sealed house – that wasn't piped for gas. It's not the best or strongest title on the list, but I liked it and the solution to sealed house was actually pretty good.

Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1949) by Akimitsu Takagi

This is another story that may not sport the strongest locked room mystery on this list, but the plot is intriguing as it draws on mythology, tattoo lore and dumping a pile of body parts in a locked bathroom. Japanese mystery writers love to play around with severed body parts!

The Hangman's Handyman (1942) by Hake Talbot

The first of two Rogan Kincaid mysteries and takes place on an isolated island, called "The Kraken," where Kincaid finds a body decomposing at a supernatural speed and is attacked in a locked room. You have no idea how much I wished Talbot had written more detective fiction!

Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot

Atmosphere-wise, this may be one of few Golden Age mysteries rivaling John Dickson Carr in conjuring up a demon haunted world, which comes here with a galore of seemingly supernatural manifestations. A bodily apparition is seen in the opening chapter of the book and the characters are being stalked by what could be the legendary Windigo.

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

An unabashed homage to John Dickson Carr and presents a complex and tightly woven affair by drawing on the work of the master himself.

Darkness at Pemberley (1932) by T.H. White

The author of the Arthurian fantasy, The Once and Future King (1958), once wrote a detective story and the first half, concerning a murder at St. Bernard's College, is a typical British, drawing room-style mystery – including maps, floor plans and an impossible crime! The second half is a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between the detective and murderer/master criminal, restricted to house, but presented here on the scale of the worldwide manhunt for Carmen Sandiego.

The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) by Anthony Wynne

The unofficial matriarch, sister of the laird, of an old Scottish clan, who reigned over her relatives with a poisonous and suffocating kindness, dies behind the locked door of her bedroom and the investigating officer is soon murdered under equally impossible circumstances. Enter Dr. Eustace Hailey. A specialist in these "locked door" affairs, but even he has to witness the invisible killer strike a third time before solving the case. A great locked room mystery, but more could've been done with the legend of "The Swimmers."