The Stars Grow Dimmer

"I look at tomorrow with one eye,
while keeping my other eye on yesterday."
- The Real Folks Blues (OST Cowboy Bebop)
The last time I perused the pages of a Patrick Quentin novel, a solo effort from Richard Webb entitled Murder at Cambridge (1933), I was confronted with a fiasco and began to wonder if this tangle of pennames had another detective novel to their credit that reflected the same ingenuity showcased in Death and the Maiden (1939) and Black Widow (1952) – with the former being one of my dozen favorite mysteries. 

I sort of ended up abandoning Patrick Quentin for a while until reading a review of Cottage Sinister (1931), a combined project from the tandem of Richard Webb and Martha Kelley, published under the byline "Q. Patrick," on MysteryFile.Com and immediately spotted a recommendation in the comment section from John Norris for two of Hugh Wheeler's unaccompanied outings under their shared penname. One of the titles was Black Widow, praised on here for flaunting a plot that moves with the same meticulous precession as the innards of a Swiss watch, while the other, Suspicious Circumstances (1957), was an unfamiliar title for me, however, there was a copy buried somewhere in the caverns of my to-be-read pile – so guess what I dug out for today's review?

Suspicious Circumstances opens with our narrator, Nicholas "Nickie" Rood, teenage son of the world famous actress Anny Rood and aspiring novelist living in Paris, receiving a telegram from his mother with an urgent plea to return home post-haste. Nickie feels very little for a trip back home, but does manage to struggle himself free from the loving embrace of his Monique and flies home for what turns out to be a funeral – and it appears as if his mother had more of a hand in it than just lending one to help with the preparations of the service. The legend that is Anny Rood, "of the Great Swooping Eyes and the Bone Structure," is a strong and well characterized woman, whose almost revoltingly nice and would go to the limit to help others, but the subtle imperfections that stud her personality humanizes her and successfully prevented the birth of another Mary Sue.

One of her schemes that could be filed away under "Acts of Neighborly Love," are her indefatigable attempts to mend the broken marriage between two of her friends, famous independent producer-director and her not-so-secretly admirer Ronald Light and his washed-up actress-wife Norma Delanay, even using her charms to maneuver Ronald into giving Norma the leading role in a sex-million-dollar Cinematic-scope spectacle based on the life of Ninon de Lenclos. It's one of those roles women would kill for and Anny's convinced that the newfound success that will stalk Norma upon the release of this new picture will get her off the booze and back with Ronald, but her friendly intrusions are resented and everything explodes in her face – especially when Norma's fading star turns into a falling one as she plummets down a flight of stairs. Oh, and Anny had just agreed to take over the role of Ninon.

Serial Mom: the skeleton in her own closet
It's impossible to describe any further events in the book without revealing too much because the plots is an accumulation of problems for Anny Rood and her entourage, which is the story's biggest selling point for the simple reason that you are never quite sure what kind of detective story you are reading until you have reached the solution. Is it an inverted-mystery, of sorts, in which sweet, innocent Anny Rood is a predecessor of Serial Mom (1994) or a diabolical parody revealing the unfortunate deaths to be nothing more than mere accidents and the suspicion of murder nothing more than the product over an overactive imagination of a teenage boy – encouraged by rivalries one should expect in a industry like Hollywood films. By the way, I thought Nickie was a very likeable narrator and used a line from Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven” and a scene from James' Lost Horizon (1933) to describe two of the characters after certain events. Never thought I would come across a reference to that novel in a mystery. Loved it!

Anyway, eventually, I did stumble to the correct solution, although it was more instinctively rather than deductively, but it was good one even if it was not in the same league as Death and the Maiden or Black Widow. The revelation of the murderers identity comes through a signed confession, which is never a satisfying device, but somewhat acceptable here because the story lacked a detective figure. All in all, not bad, not bad at all. But not as a good as some of their other work.

Something ironic occurred to me while reading this book. It dawned on me that this is the kind of story that Ellery Queen tried to write during their Wrightsville/Hollywood period, when they were aiming for more realism in their novels, but even a greater emphasis on character could, IMHO, not reveal that they were as detach from reality as their first period books – and ditching reversed rooms, cut-off mountain top mansions and decapitated corpses nailed to road signs does not necessarily make a story any more realistic. However, for all the claims made against Ellery Queen for their lack of realism it's their name that's still (somewhat) being remembered and their books are still being read while only a few of us possess eyes that won't glaze over when they check the pennames Patrick Quentin, Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge at us.

It really makes you wonder how aware some of the genre's detractors are of its history as it's really easy to point to a few of Christie's village mysteries/closed-circle of suspects novels and some of her fellow Crime Queens to conjure up a stereotypical image of a 1930s whodunit. Why always point to the usual suspects when there are so many wonderful examples of good detective fiction that should get a stamp of approval from modern critics if characterization and innovation actually means as much as they say it does. 

GAD never explored sexual relationships in-depth? What about Peter and Iris Duluth? Their relation is very explicitly depicted over a number of books and they even met at a sanatorium when they were complete wrecks. For Carr's sake, how modern do you want it to get? GAD emphasizes plot over characters? Pick up a Pat McGerr novel and marvel at how the characters dictate every twist and turn the plot takes. GAD had no eye for the lower/working classes? Go talk with Curt Evans and he will tell you about a man who penned a staggering amount of detective novels named John Rhode. You probably never heard of him let alone read one of his books, which is why we take you as serious as an Alzheimer patient lecturing on the nonverbal communication in silent films. Or better yet, read "The Adventure of the Lost Men," a radio play penned during the 1940s for The Adventures of Ellery Queen, in which the setting is a community of homeless people.

Well, that’s enough ranting and raving against windmills for one day. Thanks for suffering, once again, through one of my vague rambles. :)


A Sniff of Crime

"(...) When we parted she was a free woman, but I could never again be a free man."
- Captain Crocker ("The Adventure of the Abbey Grange").
Back in March of 2010, "Mousoukyoku" began to record his explorations of the traditional detective story and his reports still appear at semi-regular intervals On the Threshold of Chaos. He has been focusing his attention mainly on Japanese detective fiction, but, as of late, began drifting towards the works of Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr – which this JDC fanboy encouraged from the comment section.

Interestingly, my fellow John Dickson Carr fan-to-be prefers the more mature novels from the post-1930s period to the earlier ones, in which a Skull-shaped castle, situated on the Rhine, provides an atmospheric backdrop for a Gothic tale of revenge or a spate of hat thefts that turn out to be a prelude to a peculiar murder at the Tower of London (and involves a lost manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe). Instead, the preference is for the more sober and serious novels from the post-WWII era, in which there's more emphasis on characterization and the impossible situations tend to be a result from the actions of the characters rather then creating the illusion that it was the fulfillment of a curse or a temper tantrum of a malevolent spirit. You will therefore find more praise on his blog for She Died a Lady (1943) and Till Death Do Us Part (1944) than for the more popular novels such as The Plague Court Murders (1934) and The Hollow Man (1935).

Having just thumbed my way through The Emperor's Snuff-Box (1942), often praised as John Dickson Carr’s most mature and character-driven novels, I can honestly state that I lack such a preference. I simply derive pleasure from his writing and can enjoy an atmospheric, borderline ghost story, in which an army of rats have taken custody of a disused and haunted prison, as much as a "cozy, comfortable, hearth-rug murder of the sort which almost always originates at home," however, I do think that "Mousoukyoku" underrates Carr as a writer of the macabre. Some of his books may impress readers as a tad-bit artificial, but, as Dorothy L. Sayers noted, "he can create atmosphere with an adjective, alarm with an allusion or delight with a rollicking absurdity," which is not a stock-in-trade talent among mystery writers – not even during that golden period. Like it or hate it, but only a few could compete with him when it came to conjuring up demon-haunted worlds with a few simple lines. 

Anyway, I have babbled on long enough and barely mentioned the book under review today, The Emperor's Snuff-Box, which opens with the attractive Eve Neill severing her marriage ties with her charming, but lousy, husband Ned Atwood and settled down at La Bandelette – a French seaside resort where her life took an unexpected turn when she bumped into Toby Lawes.

At first, Eve and Toby have a relationship based on friendship, but before long, they hear the promise of wedding bells and their pealing sent Ned Atwood in a "flying rage" back to France – vowing in his heart to take Eve back from Toby. Eve and Ned have a tense reunion in her bedroom and from her window, overlooking the Lawes' residence, they witness how a brown-gloved hand closes a door on the battered body of Sir Maurice Lawes!

Sir Maurice Lawes was a collector and before death crossed the threshold of his study, he was immersed in his examination of a valuable snuff-box, curiously shaped like a pocket watch, which was also smashed to pieces by the murderer (note how, once again, the imagery of a clock is closely associated with death). But the shock at having been a witness to the brutal murder of her prospective father-in-law soon spirals into an out-and-out nightmare as condemning testimonies mark her as a murderess in the notebooks of the local police and the only person who can establish her innocence ended up in a deep coma.

This makes for an engrossing psychological suspense story that neatly plays a tune on one of Agatha Christie's most well-used themes, the eternal triangle, which also boasts a clever, but ultimately simple, plot – whose crafty misdirection lead me away from the murderer. I think every well-read and clued-up mystery fan will guess the murderer instinctively, but a talented mystery writer can fling the solution in your face and laugh at you as you reject it and settle on a different suspect. That's exactly what Carr did here. I also loved how Murphy's Law ran amok on the perfectly thought-out plans of the murderer, which, I think, always helps in giving a detective story a suggestion of realism. I'm not a fan of murderers who possess an almost supernatural streak of luck in timing their schemes to the second.

However, there's one thing that bothered me about the solution and this may be the books sole flaw: the murderer should've been drenched in blood after having delivered eight or nine blows to the head of Sir Maurice. You can't strike in a frenzy at someone's head and not land one or two blows in an open wound inflicted after a previous blow, which causes the splattering of blood. You have to be very calm and have a very, very willing victim to have a spatter-less battering. I would've bought it with one or two blows but not with eight or nine.

I also think Carr made a mistake when he assigned the job of detective to Dr. Dermot Kinross, a rather bland and uninteresting character, if you ask me, since this book would've been, IMHO, a perfect vehicle to reintroduce his reading audience to either M. Henri Bencolin (as he appeared in The Four False Weapons, 1937) or the alcoholic John Gaunt – whose only recorded case was in The Bowstring Murders (1933).

But those are minor imperfections in an otherwise well-written, sharply characterized and cleverly plotted detective story showing that its author was not depended on hermitically sealed environments or un-trodden fields of snow to baffle his readers.


A Character Assessment of Characterization

"I have to create an entire solar system which is astronomically feasible, provide climates and geologies in keeping with the mass and position of a dozen planets and a star, populate one or more planets with hundreds of species which are biologically possible, chart their interactions, build a civilization with a history, a technology, a social structure and an engaging plot - all this and you want CHARACTERS too?!"
- Or words to that effect reputedly spoken (or written) by Isaac Asimov.
The Golden Age-Model of the Grand Detective Story is often (and unjustly) disparaged by its detractors for being overpopulated with cardboard characters that can be cut in the shape needed to fit the twists, turns and blind spots of outrageously contrived plots – which always struck me as the pot calling the kettle black. 
Looks pretty three-dimensional to me...
After all, contemporary crime novelists (if that is still the literary correct term to use) tend to over characterize their books so much that the mundane biographies of their characters have largely replaced clever plotting and digging through the pages of a fictionalized psychology textbook is not exactly the idea I have of a fun book. I know it's lowbrow to admit, but when I pick up a mystery I don't want to dog the footsteps of a policeman who constantly complains about his drunken wife, lousy kids and bitterness over dreams that never amounted to anything. Just shut up about your blather problem and DVD-collection and tell me what you think of that colored shard of glass underneath the body! This is why I gave up on writers like Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin and Henning Mankell.

It's not merely a matter of taste that keep the Literary Pearls, which adorn the bestseller lists of today, starved for my attention; I think I can put forward two fresh arguments against over characterization in mysteries. I know the first argument may impress some of you as a trifle weak, but the second one supports it – or at least, I hope so.

1) Extensive and detailed biographies of characters in modern crime novels are as unrealistic as the reputed characters with the personality of a piece of plywood that populate the classic whodunit. Be honest, when was the last time you met a complete stranger who began to tell you about his life, from the first time his uncle touched him as a kid to the moment his wife left him and took the kids with her three hours ago, except for that one time you sat next to a drunk mess in the bar who felt sorry for himself...

Usually, you will learn this gradually, over a period of time, as you get to know someone and strike up a friendship, which makes it, IMHO, unnecessary to waste as much as a single page on a detailed expose that explains one of the female characters fear for blood as emotional baggage when she was an unprepared and uninformed teenage girl who panicked after her first menstruation. Ah, I hear you say, but fiction is a vehicle to explore these nooks of the human psyche, which may be true, but for an answer I refer you to my second argument.

2) People have the ability to surprise one another, filled with either delight or reverberating with shock, when you unexpectedly trip over a new aspect in the personality of a person you thought you knew – which offers possibilities for this genre but are usually nullified when an author decides to write down every gnawing memory and half-assed musings that might pass through the head of his characters.

Yes, I know, this has been a short and generalizing piece, which was not was written as a putdown of every single detective story that rolled off the presses after 1959, of course not, but simply as an attempt at constructing an originally sounding sneer to fling at the realist movement.

I share Sherlock Holmes' opinion, expressed in the opening of "The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans," that "this great and sombre stage is set for something more worthy" than the petty problems of an unhappy and dull housewife seeking happiness in the bed of a bum of a neighbor, however, as I have often noted here, plot and characterization are not always mutually exclusive.

It's easy to drum up a list of contemporary mystery writers who proved my point, but to show that this is not something understood by only post-GAD writers or Crime Queens not named Agatha Christie I have compiled the following list of examples from writers who were topnotch in (nearly) every department but are now all but forgotten (and they were often better than the more well-known counterparts):

Pat McGerr (e.g. Pick Your Victim, 1946; The Seven Deadly Sisters, 1948), Christianna Brand (e.g. Green for Danger, 1944; London Particular, 1952) and Gladys Mitchell (e.g. Come Away, Death, 1937; St. Peter's Finger, 1938).

Note: Gladys Mitchell made somewhat of a comeback in the past decade thanks to the independent publishing industry.


There's Evil Under the Sun

 "Look! That's France you can see over there, twenty minutes away by boat, an I'm as lost as if I were in the heart of Africa or South America."
- Inspector Maigret (My Friend Maigret, 1949).
Last Tuesday, fellow mystery enthusiast and scholar Curt Evans, who's still tramping past the musty covers and brittle pages of detective stories that were abandoned a long time ago to accumulate dust particles, pulled out a novel that not only looked pretty good for its age but also had managed to clung to the public's collective memory. "The Passing Tramp" had hitched a ride with Georges Simenon to review Un Crime en Holland (Maigret in Holland, 1931), which infused me with pure, undiluted nostalgia as I always associate Georges Simenon with the late Appie Baantjer – whose politieromans ignited my love for the detective story.

As might be expected, from a chronophobiac on a nostalgia rush, I wanted to read one of their novels next, but picking between both men and deciding on a specific title proved to be more difficult than it should've been. I was initially inclined to go with Appie Baantjer's De broeders van de zachte dood (The Brothers of a Merciful Death, 1979), but decided to make an offensive gesture at that mocking demon in the clock and went with Georges Simenon's Mon ami Maigret (My Friend Maigret, 1949).

The scenery of Mon ami Maigret moves from the rain swept streets of Paris to the perfidious tranquility of a Mediterranean island, Porquerolles, where a two-bit criminal was brutally murdered after he boasted in a crowded bar about his friendship with a policeman named Maigret. He can even show a signed letter as proof. Maigret is dispatched by train and ferry to delve into the matter, but even though the island is as rich in suspicious character as in sunshine, from a wealthy old English lady with her much younger French secretary to a Painter from Holland with anarchistic tendencies and his Belgium mistress, nobody of them seems to be equipped with a motive good enough to empty a gun on a bragging crook.

You'd think the story would have an urban setting instead of a sunsoaked island.
But Maigret also has another matter that plagues him like a Big Brother: The presence of Mr. Pyke who follows him around like a discreet shadow. Mr. Pyke is an inspector from Scotland Yard and was invited to study Maigret while he's working on a case – and this worries the inspector to no end. Maigret is very pre-occupied what a colleague from such a prestige's institute might think of their simple methods, like roughing up a suspect to loosen up their tongues, difference in cuisine, clothes (etc.) and the inevitable discovery that there's no order or method to how handles a murder case.

At one point in the story, the reader becomes privy of Maigret's thoughts and how he would've preferred to roam the island and soak up the atmosphere as oppose to interviewing people in order to keep up an appearance of professionalism to Mr. Pyke. Unfortunately, the opportunity to pit Maigret's intuitive method against the sound police work of a Scotland Yard tech was left unexploited.

Statue of Maigret in Delfzijl (Holland)
Statue of Maigret in Delfzijl (Holland)
All in all, Mon ami Maigret was a nice, quiet read for the most part, but the pace became so slow that I began to loose interest and the only encouragement for going on was that I was only two chapters removed from the back cover. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad story but very little happens and that goes on for far too long. And unlike the book Curt Evans reviewed, this was not a pure detective story. The case got solved by a few very late discoveries, but then again, I knew beforehand that Simenons was, for the most part anyway, not that kind of writer, however, the solution and motive were interesting – especially the motive, which was later reused and improved upon in one of Baantjer's best efforts at penning a genuine whodunit. 

So even though this was not a thoroughly bad book, au contraire, I do think I prefer Appie Baantjer over Georges Simenon any day.  

After thought: the French cover gives off the impression that the book takes place on the dirty backstreets instead of a sun soaked island.


The Unsealed Room

"I tell you, Miss Sloane, the doings in this house are enough to make a monkey blush. And that was the really strange part of it, in a way. The monkey did blush..." 
As a major consumer of detective stories, I must have unwittingly cultivated a deeper appreciation for stories possessing a modicum of originality, as the years that now lie behind us has filled me with the memories of the familiar tricks and tropes of the genre, which brings us without further ado to Roman McDougald's The Blushing Monkey (1953) – a somewhat unconventional locked room mystery that was nonetheless build on the fundaments of the convention country-house mystery.  

The reason for picking up a copy of this book was the unconventional locked room problem that its synopsis teasingly described as a murder in an unlocked room, and it worked better than you might think!

Everett Lowell is a well-heeled geezer who's getting on in years, but a persistent and infamous reputation from a tumultuous past, as an incorrigible Casanova, keeps dogging his footsteps until one day they have caught up with him. But the circumstances under which this happened are unusual, to say the least. The murderer attacked Lowell in the study, but botches a first attempt at planting a dagger between his shoulder blades (only wounding him), however, he did not grab this opportunity to escape from the room or call out for help. Even though traces of blood show that he went near the unlocked door. But why then didn’t he threw it opens and prolonged the inevitable?  A private investigator named Philip Cabot tries to ensnarl what he calls "the riddle of the unsealed room."

The gallery of possible rogues, closely scrutinized by Cabot and the police, refer several times to two men who could be aptly described as the Founding Fathers of the Detective Story, Edgar Allan Poe and Conan Doyle, but I found the central problem, concerning a door that wasn’t locked, to be much more reminiscent of the works of two of their successors, G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr. On one hand you have the maddening paradox of the unsealed room and on the other a solution that cleverly reworked a timeworn trick to fit a completely new situation. I think this approach to the problem that a locked (or unlocked) door could pose alone makes it worth to the time and money spend in tracking down a copy. Well, that is, if you are a fan of these kind of seemingly impossible puzzles.

Anyway, it's not just the enigma of the room that was generously supplied with exits that's asking for a solution, but also the question asking who it was that kept piling up inches of steel in Everett Lowell's back and the house is also liberally stocked with suspects. There’s his estranged wife, Enid Lowell, and his adopted son, Mark Lowell, who seems to have began searching for his spirit at the bottom of a glass of liquor the moment his father died. Alberta Sloane is a niece from an impoverished, but respectable, branch of the family and responded to a summons from her uncle. She expected that her uncle wanted to make her his mistress, but found that he wanted to make her his sole heir. Out of protection, he claimed. He also provided a home to the novelist Lucien Cowart and his secretary Wanda Day, who reputedly slept in the beds of the father and son of the house. Lowell also employs a secretary of his own, Alex Towner, and a bodyguard named Letour. And then there's Geva, a fairly large mandrill, who was seen blushing by the housekeeper, Mrs. Critchlow, and only arouses suspicion with people who've read Edgar Allan Poe.
"Your insinuations are abject and vile."
Not exactly a deck of cards from a game of Clue, eh? However, McDougald used the slightly twisted relationships of these gargoyles to pen a story that felt remarkable modern, even though it would be considered as pretty tame in this day and age, but it could easily pass as a modern take on the classic whodunit and the only thing that would betray its vintage is that the characters never update their Facebook status. And what's a phone with a landline anyway?

Towards the end of the book, Philip Cabot and William Kroll (of homicide) are confronted with a bone-fide murder inside a thoroughly locked and sealed bathroom. One of their main suspects is found in an overflowing bathtub with a throat-cut and a razor at the bottom of the tub. The solid door that was bolted from the inside would not budge for the better part of an hour, while blood diluted by bath water seeped from under the locked door into the hallway and the only window had a sill covered with a film of undisturbed dust. The dust naturally suggests that the Mrs. Critchlow is a sloppy housekeeper and the door that it was suicide, however, this is not a theory that is entertained very long. Unfortunately, this promising set-up missed finesse when it throws a solution at the reader that lacked inspiration. It wasn't exactly a bad explanation, but not one that blows you away or leaves you fully satisfied. The clueing with this one was also a bit iffy. I mean, how fair are unidentified smells as a clue?

Anyway, The Blushing Monkey is an interesting book, not only because it attempted and succeeded in finding a new use for one of the oldest props of the detective story, but also because it can be considered as a transitional fossil that symbolizes the passing of one era into another. The book was published in the waning years of the Golden Age and its tone, style and characters all bore the signs of a new time, but the situations that confronted this new world were the legacies from the previous one.

I hope that I have not overstated the merits of this book, but I liked what it did with the locked room problem and it managed to keep me entertained – which should perhaps be its biggest selling point.


The Death of a Newshound

If you watch the news and don't like it, then this is your counter program to the news.
- Jon Stewart.
Last week, I came across a small market and took a brief detour to roam pass its stands, and before long, I was perusing the contents of a stall crammed with boxes that were stuffed with old secondhand books. I began to dig through the boxes, but only found skepticism mocking the hope I had of stumbling upon a serendipitous discovery and was ready to give up when I noticed that the last boxes were brimming with English-language pockets – and moments later I walked away with Herbert Adams' The Writing on the Wall (1946) and Josephine Tey's The Singing Sands (1952). A buck each! O frabjous day!

I was quite content with my purchases, two paperback editions of vintage detective stories in excellent condition for a mere pittance, but it got better when Mike Blake, a fellow member of the GADetection Group, congratulated me on finding this edition of The Writing on the Wall, as it's a pretty rare one, which isn't even offered up for sale on the internet – and hardcover editions range from about $25 to $70. Of course, this made it unthinkable to let this book languish on my to-be-read pile and even put a little-known, but promising, locked room mystery back on the shelves to take a closer look at this collector's item.

The Writing on the Wall has a premise that appears to confirm the stereotypical image a lot of contemporary readers have of British detective stories from the first half of the previous century: a newspaper mogul, Sir James Norland, invites the editors of his newspapers to his country home, The Brambles, to discuss how their periodicals can influence the shaping of a Brave New World after the last devastating war. The exchange of ideas between the newspapermen, on how this world will take shape, is one of the highlights of this book and some of their sentiments still ring through today. If you are interested in history, this portion alone makes it worth tracking down a copy.

It's not just business talk, at least, not every conversation centers on the newspaper industry as the magnate has also invited Lady Diana and her mother, Lady Mellowfont – an impoverished marchioness. Sir James has found a loophole that could resurrect their dried-up bloodline of nobles and in exchange he wants Lady Diana to marry his son, Peter, and produce a son, his grandson, who will be a marquis. Unfortunately, for Sir James and Lady Mellowfont, their children have given their hearts to someone else and Peter manages to upset his father when he turns up with his love, a dancer named Ambrosine, but the reason for being upset, according to Sir James, is that Ambrosine is his illegitimate daughter and thus his half-sister.

Well, if that does not set the stage for an old-fashioned homicide I don't know what will and the murderer does not let the reader down: the crumpled remains of Sir James are found the next morning at the bottom of the stairs, but it was not a fall that killed him but a whack over the head and not with the proverbial blunt instrument. I want to toot my own horn here for identifying the unusual murder weapon as soon as the doctor gave a description of the wound and couldn't believe how on the stop my observation was when the item was mentioned a few chapters later in a descriptive passage. Anyway, the home was also burgled, the butler drugged and Peter Norland was nowhere to be found on the premises. Enter Inspector Farnell, who does a swift and competent job in clearing up the burglary, based on a cupboard with a key on the inside of the door and a floor littered with biscuit crumbs, but the murderer of Sir James Norland remains as elusive as ever until Roger Bennion arrives on the scene.

Major Roger Bennion brings more answers than questions with him and makes a few astute deductions when examining that fateful collection of stairs, but this has one drawback that always annoyed me: it made the police appear as incompetent idiots, which is the last thing you could accuse them of in this book. But that's how it came across. Inspector Farnell may have done his part and nipped the burglars in the bud, but they weren't even half as sharp as their own tools and when Bennion crossed the thresh hold to wrap up the case with only a quarter of the book left to go, well, that simply does not reflect well on the good inspector. However, the only real complaint, plot-wise, is that Bennion resorted to a bluff to draw out the murderer. It was a clever and logical bluff, but I prefer to watch the detective trap a killer in what I have seen referred to as “A Prison of Logic.”

Anyway, that's a minor quibble in what was an intelligently written, if at times ordinary, detective story with a clever, but ultimately, simple plot, subtly placed clues and more than one eager attempt at confusing the reader by dangling a red herring in front of them – which made for a rewarding and satisfying read. From logically explaining how it came that a bunch of thieves and a murderer marked the same house on the same night for their nefarious activities to the effective motive that was fitting for their Brave New World. Granded, The Writing on the Wall may not be a classic of the genre, but anyone giving it less than four stars has no regard for antiquated craftsmanship. 

John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books reviewed two of his books earlier this year: The Secret of Bogey House (1924) and The Crime in the Dutch Garden (1931). Herbert Adams seems to have been a very competent and prolific mystery writer and I want to read more of him!


Last Rides

"I would not tell them too much," said Holmes. "Women are never to be entirely trusted,--not the best of them."
- Sherlock Holmes (The Sign of Four, 1890)
Normally, when opening a Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin novel or novelette, I am greeted by the familiar clatter of a verbal sparring match emerging from the office and imaginary flavors of Fritz's latest culinary masterpiece drifting from the kitchen that makes that famous brownstone, on West 35th Street, one of those fictitious places I would like to find a Never-Ending Story-like entrance to. But this time I was met on the doorstep by a chill that ran through the house to answer the door.

Rex Stout's Too Many Women (1947) begins with a confession from Archie that he had more of Wolfe than was good for either of them and reopens a line of communication with a client who was brushed aside by the lack of subtlety from the brains of their snooping outfit. Mr. Jasper Pine is the president of Naylor-Kerr, Inc. (an engineering supply company) and wants Wolfe, under an assumed name, to take a job in the stock department to look if there's any validity in the rumor that one of his employees, Waldo Moore, was accidentally or intentionally run down with a car.

It's out of the question that Wolfe will expose himself to any fieldwork, but Archie is more than up for the job and finds a newfound appreciation for his work as he fishes in the secretary pool of Naylor-Kerr for information and clues. I think watching Archie interact with the women of the work floor, even trading blows with the estranged husband of one of them in the street in front of the brownstone, made up for the story's lack of pace.

The first quarter of the book is very, very slow moving and Archie even admits this himself. Waldo Moore's death is officially written-off as an unsolved and unintentionally hit-and-run and with a trail that has gone cold months before they were pulled into the case lowered their changes considerably of pulling a quick one – especially if you have to sift through offices jam packed with potential suspects and witnesses. This took the urgency completely out of the book and it never made any serious attempts at a comeback.

I thought the plot was finally brought into motion after the murderer ran over Kerr Naylor, son of one of the company's founders and named after the other, but the case jams again after Wolfe's best operatives come up empty handed and the only thing the police was able to establish is that their lab guys confirmed the suspicion of murder. Moore and Naylor were either stunned or killed before being moved to the scene of the crime and ran over with a car (hence the botched attempt at a clever and witty pun in the post title). Wolfe finally deigns it worthy to take action, after having done next to nothing for the entire book, and leads everyone to a very unsatisfactory conclusion.

However, I was not disappointed at all. I knew before tackling the book that it was not going to be one of his greatest achievements and as I have said many times before, this is one of the few detective series I read for their characters rather than their plots. Good plots are an extra with Rex Stout, but not a necessity and this book had more than enough to offer as far as the characters are concerned. It was also nice to see Archie as the main protagonist and the only complaint I have is that Stout didn't go all the way and let him solve this case, if only just for once.

Anyway, plot-wise, Too Many Women is far below average with its lack of clues and fair play, but I very much doubt that will deter any dedicated Rex Stout fan from enjoying it.

I also reviewed:

And tried answering that age-old question: why do Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin never age in the stories.


When September Ends

"War doesn't mature men; it merely pickles them in the brine of disgust and dread."
- Nero Wolfe (Over My Dead Body, 1940). 
Jan de Hartog (1914-2002) was a Dutch novelist remembered on his native soil for the 1940 novel Hollands Glorie (Dutch Glory; translated in English under the title Captain Jan), which was often demonstratively put down on checkout counters or displayed in shop windows as a protest to the German occupation, but also attracted international acclaim with novels such as The Captain (1967) and The Peaceable Kingdom: An American Saga (1972) – one of 'em enabled him to chalk up a nomination for the Nobel Prize to his name.

What's a little-less known, is that De Hartog began his ascendance as a man of letters with a series of detective stories, published in the 1930s, under the penname "F.R. Eckmar" – which sounds as "verrek maar." This play-on-words, literarily meaning "drop dead," was directed at the publishers who had rejected his previous manuscripts. But when success and a respectable reputation began dogging his footsteps, he distanced himself from these early endeavors: labeling them as a youthful lapse of judgment and expressing relief that his global audience was never exposed to them.

Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935) introduces the reader to the trinity of Commissioner Wiebe Poesiat, Inspector Gregor Boyarski and Yvonne Delpêche – a combination almost as combustible as the triad of protagonists trudging around in the mysteries dreamed up by Craig Rice. Admittedly, it's not as surrealistic or humorous as some of the more memorable efforts from the Queen of Screwball Mysteries, but the crimes are peculiar, to say the least, and the (sometimes dark) comedic patches were, at times, genuinely funny. At one point in the story, Poesiat wants to arrest Yvonne as an accomplish and turns his back to her for dramatic effect, but when his theatrical pause begins to drag on he turns around – only to find himself alone in the room with front door locked from the outside! I can definitely imagine Helene pulling a stunt like that on an unsuspecting homicide detective.

But what's this book about? And why would anyone be looking for a left leg?

This narrative opens on a rapidly darkening evening, gravid with the threat of piercing wind and lashing rain, when we find Inspector Boyarski and Brigadier Stuntvoet at the end of a game of chess – when a phone call summons the inspector to the heart of Amsterdam for a murder at the concert hall. Officially, the inspector is attached to the Harbor Police, but after sinking a gang of dope peddlers his superiors often consult him on Big City cases. But getting to the scene of the crime turns out to be as much a trial as figuring out the problems thrown at him.

On his first attempt at doing his job, the inspector boarded a taxicab only to be confronted with an unresponsive driver, but then again, you can hardly expect an animated conversation from a man who was shot moments before flopping down on the backseat of his car. Back to square one, except that Brigadier Stuntvoet is not there to take this second murder off his hands. The brigadier has disappeared and everything points to an unfortunate drowning. His second attempt was delayed when Yvonne slammed her car into his cab. Oh, and we're 10 pages into a 187 page book at this point!  

After having finally joined Commissioner Poesiat, they begin to examine the death of Jan van den Speyaert, a hapless writer, who was shot through the head after the intermission and the only thing they have to go on is an extra bullet and a crumpled newspaper with the titular ad asking for a left leg. 

These opening chapters show a lot of imagination and their explanation were, for the most part anyway, reasonable (sometimes even cleverly) explained away, but their effect were diluted when the book began to morph into a pulpy spy-thriller after the murdered cab driver was exposed as a secret service agent whose assignment consisted of locating an undercover factory – producing new kind of poisonous gas. 

One of the suspects is poisoned while locked up in prison and with his dying breath identifies his murderer as the brain behind this new weapon,“Dokter September.” The hunt for this James Bondesque-villain turns Amsterdam into a battleground: Boyarski is kidnapped and the police have to smoke a dangerous gunman from the belly of a ship.

All in all, this was an amusing, but unchallenging, read that left me wondering how this book would have turned out if the story were told in a more straightforward manner – without the trappings of spy and thriller stories. It really watered down the detective-elements and left precious little to figure out once the search for the chemical factory and Dokter September commenced. Nevertheless, it was De Hartog’s first steps in this particular field of fiction and I always try to be lenient when judging a first stab at penning a detective story. This was neither a perfect detective story nor a very original thriller, but there were enough clever ideas planted in the first half to make me curious to see what else he did with the genre and feel tempted to pick up his second book straight away, but we’ll see what I take from the shelves when I put this one back up there. 

F.R. Eckmar bibliography:

Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935)
Spoken te koop (Spooks for Sale, 1936)
Ratten op de trap (Rats on the Stairs, 1937)
Drie dode dwergen (Three Dead Dwarfs, 1937)
De maagd en de moordenaar (The Virgin and the Killer, 1938)

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


A Can Full of Criminal Intent

"If there were no bad people there would be no good lawyers."
- Charles Dickens. 
Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Case of the Empty Tin (1941) opens with a peek behind the curtains of Mrs. Gentrie's home life. The household is homey, domestic and cozy. A tea-kettle whistles a familiar tune on the stove, mending work is loitering in a basket and her family gives the place the buzz of life. A charming and tranquil domestic scene, which takes a turn for the worst when Mrs. Gentrie finds an empty, unlabeled preserve tin in the cellar with a coded message scratched on the inside and this opens the proverbial can of worms: disturbances in the night-time and shots fired next door – and that's just for starters.

Their next door neighbor and ex-gunrunner, the wheelchair bound Elston A. Karr, enlists Perry Mason to keep him out of this mess and clean up the shooting incident in the apartment, one floor, beneath him before it becomes a nuisance that interferes with his business – willing to sign his name on the dotted line of a fat, but reasonable, paycheck if he succeeds. But there's one snag: no body! The tenant who lived on the first floor, one Red Hocksley, went missing and only left a few puddle of dried-up blood behind as silent witnesses, but their testimony becomes muddled when the name of his housekeeper, Mrs. Perlin, also finds its way onto the list of missing persons.

It's been so long since I read a Perry Mason novel, that I had completely forgot how fun and sharp they could be.

Mason acts here more as a detective-cum-lawbreaker than as an attorney, which was of assistance in piling up the fun as he diligently exposed hidden relationships, concealed clues and compounds one felony after another as he, for example, neglects to call the police to inform them that he has just stumbled over a body – an unwanted chore he leaves for his private-eye buddy, Paul Drake. There's also a good and amusing scene, in which Mason and his secretary, Della Street, are caught during a not so very legal sneak-and-peek operation (read: housebreaking) and brush the cop off after winning a one-sided game of bluff. However, this has one downside: the case never enters a courtroom and deprives Mason of an opportunity to showcase his legal sleight-of-hand, but hey, you can't have it all.

You could make an argument that its actual weakness is a somewhat contrived plot, but with the recent memories of more than just one dud, ricocheting around in my head, I found myself able to appreciate its intricacies. As convoluted as the plot may be, the clues were all on display and should enable you to catch on to the truth before turning over the final page.

I know this post has more of a resemblance to a brief synopsis than to one of my usual rambles, presented as an in-depth review, but I did not want to ruin any of the plot twists you would encounter for yourself if you ever decide to pick this one up – and I think this demonstrates how variegated the plot really is and how much fun I had reading this story. On the other hand, it  made writing this review somewhat of trial. I really had to drag out the right words for this short piece.  

The Case of the Empty Tin is an engaging mystery with a busy plot that plays absolutely fair with everyone willing to take a shot at whodunit. Because of that, a pretty solid effort from one of the most prolific mystery writers from the previous century.

On a final and not entirely unrelated note: Jeffrey Marks has set-up yet another mystery blog entitled The Corpse Steps Out. Marks wrote several autobiographies of some well-known mystery writer from the Golden Era and at the moment he’s working on a book that tells the story of Erle Stanley Gardner. 

You can also watch and hear Gardner in this black-and-white video clip of the game show What's My Line?


And Between the Wasteland and the Sky...

"One more of us acquitted - too late!"
- Mr. Justice Wargrave (And Then There Were None, 1939)
The only biographical information the internet spat out after feeding it the name of W. Shepard Pleasants was identifying it as the author of a little-known mystery novel, The Stingaree Murders (1932), which goes to show that immortality is not always achieved with a name emblazoned on the front cover of a book – even if the story is streaked with imagination and novel ideas.

When reviewing a detective story, I often namedrop or draw comparisons with other mystery writers to no purpose other than lazy writing. It's just so much easier to mention John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie and mumble, “it's a bit of both but not enough of either,” but it's something that can be said about this book. The cast of stock characters combined with the setting of their marooned situation gives you a feeling of revisiting Mr. U.N. Owen years before the invites were mailed and the impossible crimes are among the most original ones I have encountered in a long time.

So what kept this winning combination from being remembered? I think the pushy writing style with its excessive use of exclamation marks can be tag for part of the blame. Because everything gets a dramatic note or is loaded with sinister meaning when sentences are followed around by exclamation marks! Like this! But the lion's share of the blame has to be deposited on the plate of the authors uncouth racial attitude, which was one of the worst I have ever bumped into in a detective story from the Golden Age and goes much, much further than merely embarrassing speech patterns and a plethora of outdated terminology – as the two non-white servants take the brunt of suspicion and open aired, racial-fuelled insults. I think a lot of contemporary readers would bail on this book before having reached the halfway mark.

Now that we got that out of the way, lets take a look at the plot of The Stingaree Murders.

The game's afoot when Mr. Leonard Reade invites a part of his well-to-do friends and acquaintances aboard the Terrapin, a houseboat, scudding across the Louisiana marsh country – while throwing out fishing lines to capture some of its native inhabitants. The impressive guest list consists of Harvey and Marie Reade (son and daughter of the host), Wayne Whitsell (their young friend and dense narrator), Mr. Pierre Lacroix (Governor of Louisiana), Paul Green (his bodyguard), J.D. Henderson (a friend and noted lawyer of the host), General Pitt and his wife, Mr. Archibald Hurley (Louisiana's Commissioner of Conservation) and O'Niel Henry (city editor of Mr. Reade's New Orleans Herald) – as well as the servant Needle and the engineer Si Ling.

Governor Lacroix is a character who caught my interest because his description, as a ruler rather than a servant of the public, which reminded me of Huey "Kingfish" Long – who was Louisiana's governor when this book was penned and assassinated in 1935 when he was a U.S. senator. The governor in this book is on the verge of introducing a controversial piece of legislation that will break the back of the illegal rum runners in his state and as a result he's been receiving death-threats from a gang leader known only as The Stingaree! See how that well-positioned exclamation mark silently screamed out the many untold horrors awaiting the people aboard the houseboat in the pages ahead?

The Governor anticipates a quiet week of fishing aboard the houseboat of his friend, whose rooms and decks are filled with familiar and trustworthy faces, but this unsuspicious attitude has fatal consequences when he's stabbed to death while fishing alone in a skiff without anyone near him – and when they investigate the body they also find the bard of a stingaree in his chest! And the motor has been dismantled; marooning them in the wastelands of marshy Louisiana! Bam! Beating a dead horse! (Ok, I'll stop now).

I have to admit that the method for murdering the governor is a bit far-fetched, but hey, you have to admire the originality here and any weaknesses in this first murder was made-up when I was confronted with two more baffling problems of the impossible. The unusual knife retrieved after the first murder is considered an important clue that could help identify the murderer, but nobody trusts one another to keep custody of the blade (afraid of putting it in the killers hands) and decide to drive the knife in the hardwood deck – sinking it as tight into the woodwork as Excalibur in a stone. It could only be pried loose with either supernatural strength or with the rousing noise of a chopping axe, but after a second murder they discover that the murder weapon was smoothly and silently relieved from its plight.

The solution to this one was far more believable, if somewhat predictable, but the last miraculous occurrence is an absolute gem – whether you end up loving or hating it. One of the last victims is dragged from his chair into the water and drowned by forces unseen and if you know how this trick was pulled off you either want to burst out in applause or throw the book across the room. Either way, it's undeniably original in spite of working with a lot of themes, settings and characters now deemed as cliché and outdated and after the last few lackluster Golden Age mysteries a much needed refreshment.

I also appreciated the sometimes tongue-in-cheek approach Pleasants took to his plot, turning nearly every character into a detective after one of them remarked that they forgot to bring a detective along for the trip and showcasing an understanding of proper clueing and fair play – which made the revelation of the murderer a bizarre surprise. Pleasants showed a lot of creativity with now overly familiar themes that I did not expect him to pin the murders on a standard character for this role, but that's exactly what happened and one has to wonder whether that was bad writing or clever misdirection in retrospect? Oh, and I loved how almost nothing went according to the killers plan and that made that one bit of luck this person had in pulling off one the tricks more acceptable.

If you have read in-between the lines, you probably have picked up that I found this an interesting curio with a fresh look on an old theme and plenty of good ideas, but its unashamed airing of 1930s racial opinion makes this a problematic book to recommend to a modern audience. If you can put it down as a product of its time and think you have come across every trick in the book than you simply have to pick this one up.