Death Notes

"Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home."
- Sherlock Holmes.
Over the past week, I made several attempts at sprinting to the concluding chapters of Willy Corsari's De weddenschap van Inspecteur Lund (Inspector Lund Makes a Bet, 1941), in which the titular policeman has to tell several stories from his own experience that are as interesting as a detective story, but I kept stumbling before finally deciding to abandon it altogether – which is as rare a occasion as a solar eclipse. It was not a bad book as a poor book, which is arguably worst because a bad book can still be readable (hey, we all have our guilty pleasures in this genre) while a poor book has nothing to offer except dull mediocrity.

Though the book was obviously meant as a send-up of her British and American contemporaries, it completely failed to capture their spirit, plotting technique or ingenuity. Take, for example, the second story, "Sporen in de sneeuw" ("Tracks in the Snow"), in which a broken leg and the story of an elderly woman of a long forgotten, unsolved and impossible murder turns Lund into an armchair detective, but the solution was pedestrian and listless. This left me, of course, with the problem of what I was going to do once I decided to put this book aside. I had a deficiency of time to read to begin with and this place hadn't seen an update for nearly a week, so I needed a nimble read in order to put something up here before the end of the weekend and that sounded like a perfect excuse to revisit the man who introduced me to the detective story: the late Appie Baantjer. The fact that this is also my 200th blog post is nothing more than a lucky timed coincidence.

A Deadly Threat, 1988
The book I excavated from my congested shelves was Een dodelijke dreiging (1988; translated as DeKok and the Deadly Warning), which also happened to be one of the first detective novels I touched and vividly remember that delightful feeling of surprise when I learned its solution, but, in my defense, I was new to the game back then. So how did the book stand-up to being read after all these years? Well, it's definitely a worthwhile read in spite of one notable flaw.

Een dodelijke dreiging takes place between the darksome, cold, but often cozy, days between Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) and Christmas, and DeKok cynically asks himself if the peaceful holiday ahead of them has any influence on the influx of baffling crimes in December. DeKok's ruminations appear to be answered in the affirmative when the body of a man, clad in shirtsleeves and a vest, is found slumped against the bark of a tree on the Keizersgracht (Emperor's Canal). His head is turned towards the water and three bullet holes tore holes in his chest. The name that belongs to the stiff is Emile van den Aerdenburg, a designer, who, earlier in the day, came to Vledder with a threatening letter – asking in an almost illegible handwriting how much his life was worth to him and to place an ad with that amount in the newspaper mentioned in the note.

A journalist, attached to that newspaper, has been receiving similar scribbles and narrowly survived an attempt on his life as ex-wives, silent partners, estranged wives, white-collar crime, newly-wed wives and blackmail bob up and down in this case without taking the old veteran bloodhound off his game. Throughout the book, DeKok's reasoning is logical and sound as is the characterization of the man himself and the murderer is a perfect foil to the good inspector. A very memorable and even a sympathetic character, who was exposed to the reader in a very unconventional manner. Well, for this series anyway. No theatrical denouements or a cleverly set-up trap, but DeKok reading a poem by Guido Gezelle – encapsulating the basic truth of the case. Deliberately understated and very effective. Also the aftermath of this murder case was done very well and you can't help but feel that the murderer should've gotten away with it, where it not for a third and unnecessary murder, clumsily disguised as a suicide, which was the only thing that weighed on the murderer's concience and provides the book with a tragic ending.

Unfortunately, there's one blemish concerning the motive, which was not fairly clued at all and made it impossible to anticipate the full solution – and that's what robbed this book of its status as a minor classic. Even the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia could not turn that into an easily ignored blind spot, but, aside from that one complaint, this is still one of my favorite entries in the DeKok and Vledder series and definitely worth picking up if you can get your hands on the translation.

On a side note, I'm compiling a new list of favorite mysteries because the last one I posted left me dissatisfied (i.e. too many glaring omissions).


Carnival of Corpses

"It doesn't matter whether this world is crazy or not. It doesn’t matter if this absurdity is real. It doesn't matter how messed up this place may be… I want to survive!"
- Ganta Igarashi (Deadman Wonderland).
Fredric Brown's The Dead Ringer (1948) is the second chapter in the casebook of the nephew-and-uncle detective team of Ed and Ambrose Hunter, which followed in the wake of the Edgar Award winning novel The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947). I have, unfortunately, not read that particular book, but I know it has an 18-year-old Ed Hunter roaming the mean streets of Chicago for the man who mugged and killed his father. It was very well received at the time and Bill Pronzini labeled it as "unquestionable more than just another hard-boiled detective tale," but that’s a book for another day and the only reason I bring it up is to provide myself with a springboard into this review.

When his father was slugged and rolled into a grubby alley, Ed also brings his father's only other living relative back into the picture, a carnival barker and one-time private investigator named Ambrose "Am" Hunter, eventually becoming business partners when they set themselves up as licensed investigators, but at the opening of The Dead Ringer they run a ball game stand together – as part of a traveling carnival. The carnival life appears to agree with Ed Hunter, even though Brown's depiction of backstage gambling and drinking blew the stardust of the place, but hey, when a gorgeous woman from the posing show is making eyes at the now 19-year-old man romanticism has pretty much become a moot thing. Well, the fun has to stop at some point – even at the carnival! 

A body of a naked midget becomes, briefly, the unwanted star attraction of the fair, but it's not their own midget, who's in a terrible funk and eventually flees for his life, followed up by the drowning and resurrection of a terminally ill monkey. This provides the story with two excellent and evocative scenes, in which the earth-caked face of an undead monkey stares with glassy eyes through a window at Ed and the exhumation of its grave in a dark forest at the dead of night. Excellent stuff! The last murder is that of a kid who tap-danced under the stage name "Jigaboo" and was found naked at the side of a road. Run over by a car. Yeah. Brown was not a mystery writer who attended classes at The Realist School of Detective Fiction.

It's admirable how Brown turned this patchwork of unusual incidents and bizarre murders into a logical, coherent sequence of events and it could've been a minor masterpiece if it had been written more as a detective story. There was only one real clue (and an obscure one at that) that could give you an inkling of the truth, if you're lucky enough to catch it, but, other wise, you're groping around in the dark until the final chapter – and that bothered me to no end with this book because the solution was both original and imaginative. If this had been better handled, it would've easily conquered a spot on my list of favorite detective stories, but, as things are as they are, I could only really recommend The Dead Ringer for it's "wonderful 'carnie' atmosphere" – as the late "Grobius Shortling" described it.

I have to bring one more thing up about this book and that's its reverse take-on the meddling of amateur detectives in murder cases. After the third murder, Ed and Am have an argument over whether or not they should've acted sooner as they may've prevented more murders from happening. Uncle Am gives a few arguments in favor of the letting the police handle the case themselves, while a slightly guilty Ed prefers to take matters into his own hand. I found this interesting because (additional) deaths are usually caused by the amateurs interference and not by them sitting on their hands (e.g. Ellery Queen's guilt-trip in Cat of Many Tails, 1949).

Oh, just one more thing! Fellow locked room aficionado Mousoukyoku, who blogs On the Threshold of Chaos, has reviewed two Herbert Resnicow novels, The Gold Solution (1983) and The Gold Deadline (1984), and our opinions align and I feel confident that I have made a convert! You can read all my scribbles on Resnicow by clicking here. He also posted a favorable review of Paul Halter's The Fourth Door (1987). You can read all my scribbles on Halter by clicking here


Martians, Go Home!

We have your satellite if you want it back send 20 billion in Martian money. No funny business or you will never see it again.”
- Reportedly seen on a wall in a hall at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, after losing contact with the Mars Polar Lander, 1999.
Malevolent ghosts emerging from their molding mausoleums, rooms which kills those left alone in them, vampires who dead awaken from their day-time slumber and vindictive curses hacking away at the branches of an ancient family tree had their respective turns as stage props for the locked room mystery in order to provide a backdrop harking back to the ink induced nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe and M.R. James. Some of them have since become tropes, but in the hands of a skillful writer they are still effective embellishments for the impossible crime story. Not so familiar are the, unfortunately, rare occasions when a visitor from the outer regions (read: SF-genre) wrote a locked room story festooned with the unknown horrors from the uncharted regions of outer space. Well, that's not quite true. The ones I have read were light-hearted and almost playful. 

Mack Reynold's The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) is an oddball private eye novel, in which an even odder group of SF-fans hire a run-down, failed detective to investigate the presence of alien life forms on Earth, who are taking shots at them with ray guns or throwing them from their flying saucers – one of them taking a hit while at a costumed science-fiction and fantasy convention. I thought this was far more engaging, funnier and better plotted than Anthony Boucher's Rocket to the Morgue (1942), which had one of the most disappointing locked room tricks and it's only redeeming quality as a novel was its depiction of the 1940s SF-community, and even that was done better by Reynolds. All the same, I did grin at one of the characters take on the genre, stating that the fourth dimension takes the problem out of a locked room for science fiction writers, but, as a detective story, it never really left the launching pad. Yes, The Case of the Little Green Men should be added to my list of favorite impossible crime stories.

The American science-fiction writer Fredric Brown, who regularly descended back into the atmosphere for his second profession as a mystery novelist, gave us another specimen in Death Has Many Doors (1951) – in which his nephew-uncle team of private detectives, Ed and Ambrose Hunter, attempt to help a weak-hearted woman who's being menaced by Martians!

It's an unlikely story, to say the least, but Ed is determined to restore Sally Doerr's disturbed peace of mind, convincing her to spend the money she had scrapped together to hire a detective on a psychiatrist instead and plants himself on her couch for the night to stand guard against any threats – terrestrial, extraterrestrial or imagined. Unfortunately, being a good detective does not necessarily mean that you are a reliable bodyguard or an alert watch dog (c.f. Martin Méroy) and at the dawning of a new day he finds Sally dead in her bed. Her heart had simply stopped beating. 

Everything indicates a natural death: a medical history and the fact nobody could've gotten to her. The apartment door was locked from the inside, the windows were fastened and the dust of the day lay undisturbed on the windowsill, Ed was flat on the couch standing guard and the roof was recently tarred – leaving it soft and unmarked by any footprints. But an unknown voice on the phone, claiming to be a Martian, retains the services of the Hunters to investigate her death and spirits a crisp $1000 note into their office as a retainer. Sally's sister, Dorothy, also turns up with premonitions of her own impending doom and Ed decides to take her out town and sticks to her like a shadow, but is unable to prevent another death. You could consider this second murder an impossible one, but the solution is a flat-out cheat and Ed's moronic behavior only made it worst.

Death Has Many Doors has a lot of the elements in common with the marvelous Night of the Jabberwock (1951), in which a small town newspaper editor tumbles down the rabbit's hole, and the short locked mortuary story "The Spherical Ghoul," combining the intelligence of the ratiocinative detective school with the exterior of the hardboiled private eyes – except not as good. Sally's idée fixe isn’t developed into anything more than the delusions of a confused young woman and that their source of her fancies is obviously from fairly early on they hold no horrors whatsoever. If this book had been written by John Dickson Carr, we would’ve at least got a terrifying account of an encounter with these Martians and their possible involvement in the death of Sally would’ve been played up a lot more.

The idea of the first locked room trick was not bad, but it's not terrific, either, as you can easily guess the raw method of the solution (have seem them too many times) and the finer details require a bit of technical knowledge. Death Has Many Doors comes up a bit short as a detective story, but I would lie if I said I did not enjoy the ride in spite of its imperfections. Still, I would not recommend this book to readers who are new to Fredric Brown and advice to start out with Night of the Jabberwock.

Isn't funny that my biggest exposure to science-fiction comes from detective stories?


One of Those Weeks

"But what you see isn't always what's happening."
- Jonathan Creek (The Problem at Gallows Gate, 1998)
After posting the review of Marco Books' De dood van Callista de Vries (The Death of Callista de Vries, 2012), I exchanged emails and swapped opinions with Books on, inter alia, the deviations in clueing and the incorrect solution I came up with while reading the book, which was, nonetheless, endorsed and imprinted with the authors rubber stamp of approval. Of course, the one time I come across scholarly and make a few astute observations, it’s only read by one other person. But, yes, there's a point to this palaver. The conversation gave me an insatiable appetite for another slice of neo-orthodox detective fiction, but the next installment in Books' series is still in the works and thus I turned to one of his contemporaries, Bill Pronzini, whose work is well represented on my bookshelves and to-be-read pile, and the latter had one of his books that embellishes its plot with no less than three impossible scenarios – so it was easy pickings.

Scattershot (1982) follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, Hoodwink (1981), in which The Nameless Detective solves a pair of murders, perpetrated under seemingly impossible circumstances, tied to a group of pulp writers who were all the rage back in the 1940s. He also meets Kerry Wade, who becomes his love interest. You'd think that solving a baffling murder case and getting the girl would turn over a new leaf in the life of this lonely wolf, but Scattershot offers up a picture of one of the worst weeks in his life and only Tsutomu Yamaguchi could’ve claimed to have had a worst week.

The problems opposing Nameless in this novel can be categorized into two kinds: personal problems and professional problems. The personal ones come mainly from the uncertainties of the status of his relationship with Kerry and the interference from her father, who's not a fan that his daughter is seeing an older man with an unsavory, low-paying job. Professionally, the problems may acquire a personal note when an unsatisfied and somewhat unbalanced client starts a media campaign to get his license revoked and take away his livelihood.

I have to note beforehand that the three impossible situations in this book had previous lives as short stories and they were sewn together with bridging material. Just an FYI.

Edna Hornback hires Nameless to shadow her husband, Lewis, and gather evidence of his infidelity and find the money he pilfered from their company, which is a routine job for a private detective. Nameless follows Lewis around like a cat chasing its own tail, but the man actually manages to shake off his own shadow when he vanishes from his locked car, which Nameless was constantly watching from his own car, leaving only a smears of blood on the front seat as a reminder that there was actually someone in the car. Nameless does a good job at figuring out how the stunt was pulled off, but not before his reputation takes a beating it might not recover from when his client decides to file a suit for criminal negligence and riles up the media against him. It's also one of Pronzini's cleverest and most satisfying ploys involving an impossible disappearance (an honorable mention to the (overly?) ingenious "The Arrowmont Prison Riddle," collected in All But Impossible!, 1981, edited by Edward D. Hoch) and I wonder if this plot strand was a conscious nod to John Dickson Carr's (writing as Carter Dickson) She Died a Lady (1943). The solutions have a few points in common and the setting of the crime-scenes (cliff/slope) were also a bit similar.

Anyway, Nameless is advised to stop frequenting his usual spot of trouble, at least, until this blows over and he has another assignment waiting, which consists of tracking down a reckless socialite and serve her with a subpoena. What can possibly go wrong? It's not like she too is going dissipate into thin air, however, he does find her in a locked cabin in the company of her secretary, shot to death, and she seems to have been the only person who could’ve pulled the trigger. This was sort of a short story within a novel, covering two chapters, but it's nonetheless admirable how many clues were crammed into this short intermezzo.

I loved how this book played on theme of the story book detective (read: murder magnate) who always happens to be mooning around when the criminal elements are abound, and this, uhm, talent is at the root of his more pressing problems and it's not something you can turn off like a light switch. Take, for example, the last assignment of his disastrous week: guarding wedding gifts that are locked away in a secured room and he has to plant his ass in front of the door with a pulp magazine. What can possibly go wrong this time? Well, the sound of broken glass and stumbling in the room drags Nameless away from his fictional colleagues, and kicks down the door to discover that a valuable ring has been stolen, however, the broken pieces of glass were found outside – indicating that thief somehow materialized out of nowhere in a locked room and that completely threw me off. I identified the thief before it happened and even spotted the method before the room was locked-up, but I began to second guess my deductions when the theft appeared to be far more complex than I anticipated. Well played, well played.

Scattershot shows Bill Pronzini in one of his unapologetic moods, balancing a cunningly plotted and fairly clued narrative with excellent character development, which, admittedly, was not a big focus of this review, but it was done well enough that I couldn't help feel sorry for that poor gumshoe – and that made the depressing ending perhaps the only downside of this book. A very complex, but satisfying, detective story and one that I recommend unreservedly, but you might want to take a look at Hoodwink first.

On a final, somewhat related, note: Robert van Gulik once made the following challenge, "I think it might be an interesting experiment if one of our modern writers of detective stories would try his hand at composing an ancient Chinese detective story himself." Scattershot is not set in ancient China, but the three separate cases with an overlapping theme definitely follows the structure of an ancient Chinese detective story. Just something my brain pricked upon. 

All the books I reviewd by Bill Pronzini: 

Twospot (1978; with Collin Wilcox)
Hoodwink (1981)
Scattershot (1982)
Casefile (1983)

Double (1984; with Marcia Muller)
Bones (1985)
Nightcrawlers (2005)
Savages (2006) - co-reviewed with Patrick


What Lies Beneath the Surface

"Exactly! It is absurd — improbable — it cannot be. So I myself have said. And yet, my friend, there it is! one cannot escape from the facts."
- Hercule Poirot (Murder on the Orient Express, 1934).
If there's one thing we have enough of here, it's water. We have so much of the stuff that we could drown in it. Literarily! To prevent this from happening, a campaign was waged against the rising water by engineering and building dikes to provide a sturdy resistance against the pounding waves of a brimming ocean, but our arsenal also includes levees, canals, estuaries and nature reserves – giving the water the space it needs to flow and drain away without washing away half of the country. One of these spots is De Blauwe Kamer (The Blue Room), a riverside reserve, affixed to the Utrechtse Heuvelrug (Utrecht Hill Ridge), which also happens to be the natural habitat and hunting ground of the furrowed-faced Inspector Petersen, where he, and his colleagues, have to roam the slopes and hills after a scavenger of a different breed left a body in the waters of the reserve. 

De dood van Callista de Vries (The Death of Callista de Vries, 2012) is the sixth full-length novel in the District Heuvelrug series and begins when a diving team probe the waters of The Blue Room for unexploded ammunition from World War II, but what they drag up is a ripped sack containing the bloated and gnawed body of a woman – weighted down with heavy boulders. Murder, plain and simple, which is not something that can be said of the circumstances in which the crime was discovered as it conflicts with the statements given by the silent witnesses. The body was wrapped up and weighted down, indicating that the murderer wanted to delay the discovery as long as possible, allowing the murky waters and animals to erode the evidence, but, why then, dump the body in a place where it was bound to be discovered? It was widely publicized that the area would be cleared for leftover ammunition from the war and the path to the scene of the crime took the murderer pass a house and three house boats! A considerable and unnecessary risk when you consider that the region was fertile with watery graves where a body could sink into Leth. 

Usually, these cases are solved once the police learns the name their John or Jane Doe listened to in their daily lives, but this is a detective story and the victim turns out to have been somewhat of a cherchez la femme named Callista de Vries – a beautiful young woman from Utrecht who was reported missing two days previously. Callista openly broke off her relationship with Iwan van Schijndel, who declares that they were back together, but he had to promise her to keep everything under wraps for a while and this secrecy may overlap with her having moved around in the criminal layers of society. Even more baffling is that Iwan van Schijndel was one of the divers who found the body! There you have it, just a few of the winding pathways leading through the maze that Petersen has to navigate his team through.

Last year, I wrote a laudatory review of Marco Books' De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), which I praises as a "lavishly plotted detective story" and the clueing and misdirection was straight out of a classic detective story. One clue in particular was an absolute gem! Ever since finding a home at his new publisher, De Leeskamer (The Reading Room), he has been improving leaps and bounds as a writer, finding a better balance between plot and character with each passing book, and has become  much more comfortable with the form.

In a recent YouTube video, Books explained the difference between "lazy police novels" and whodunits. You can read one without having to burden your brain, sit back and let the words of the author lead you to solution, while the latter gives you a fair shot at beating the detective to the solution. That is, if you are clever and observant enough.

Books gave this format a modern interpretation similar to a number of post-GAD writers discussed on the blog. Over the course of these books, the reader has learned almost as much about the policemen who investigate crimes as the crimes they investigate and snippets of their personal lives show them to be more than a mere collection of theatrical puppets, dressed up as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, waiting in the wings to thwart the killer in the final act. And this without dumbing down the plot. 

The plot of De dood van Callista de Vries is also scattered with clues, but they were a trifle weaker and missed the brilliant radiance of the ones that were tucked away between the covers of the previous book, however, they were still there and that made for stimulating read. Books has pulled off a hat trick with this book, delivering three engagingly written, well-paced and deftly plotted detective stories in the same number of years, and the well of ideas he draws from seems to be far from being dried up. 

Last, but not least, I have to compliment Books' publisher, Hans van den Boom, who said that Books "shows that he's a grand master of the whodunit.” What? A publisher who openly admits that one of his writers does something as vulgar as writing whodunits? Well, I guess I was right when I thought I saw a Silver Age of Detection dawning at the horizon the other day. :)

Destrict Heuvelrug series: 

Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia, 2004)
De bloedzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005)
Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006)
De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)
De dood van Callista de Vries (The Death of Callista de Vries, 2012)


Strategy Above the Depths

"I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton")
I value the opinion of my fellow brethrens exploring the detective story more than any other and hang onto their recommendations, observations and conclusions like a pile of freshly mined, rough diamonds – before giving them a sharp appraising look myself. That's why you regularly see books emerge here that were mentioned or discuss elsewhere, but even with a positive impression from a fellow devotee and a personal self-control that only exists as a spark of perpetual enthusiasm you have no signed guarantee that the opaque pieces of drift-glass will actually yield a sparkling gem. But what to do when opinions differ?

The internet has not been kind in its appraisal of Rufus King's The Case of the Constant God (1938), not as a detective story anyway, noting that it was "unusual downbeat" and "moderately amusing" but also "not quite fair play" and "not much fun to read," while Robert Adey deigned the book worthy of extra praise in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible crimes (1991) – saying that King appears here as "a writer of the first rank" and expresses his surprise "that he is so comparatively little known." Needless to say, this propelled the book to the upper echelons of my Most Wanted list and I have to admit that having identified the book as a locked room mystery helped in shelling out the bounty for its capture. Besides, would a book with the title Locked Room Murders tell a lie to me? (said he, with the conviction of a raving lunatic).

But enough of this palaver, let's get this show on the road and that's where this unusual case begins for King's series detective, Lieutenant Valcour, where a Mr. Blodgett witnesses a corpse being driven around the city by two men. A routine check on the vehicle, combined with the description of the suspects, identifies them as Artemus Todd and Jonathan Alder, crumbs of the upper crust of the Long Island society, which makes it also an unlikely story. After all, people like that are not in the habit of picking up hitchhikers, let alone ones that need to be dropped off at the morgue, and that's when King puts the plot in reverse and backs up into a flashback.

We learn that the name of the stiff in the backseat was Sigurd Repellen, a nasty blackmailer who dipped his pen in the same venomous inkwell as Charles Augustus Milverton and James Chigwell, morally responsible for the tragic suicide of Jenny Alder – Jonathan’s loving wife and Todd's darling daughter. They accidentally killed him when they threw him against a bust of Emperor Nero and slumped down to the floor. Justifiably homicide? Morally, perhaps, but the family had made plans, conspired and that gives a prosecutor an opening to argue that the outcome would’ve been the same. Ergo, a murder charge. They decide to expunge the evidence, dump the body and lay down until the trails grows cold, but, as we learned from the opening chapter, it's a bust from almost the get go. The first half of the story can be summed up as an inverted mystery, in which we follow both Valcour and the Alder-Todd household as each is taking their measures against one another, but this was the least interesting portion of the book.

The pace was picked up when Repellen's remains were discovered and the medical examiner extracted not only a bullet from the blackguard's heart but also a completely different story. As a final act in this drama we see Alder and Todd taking flight to sea aboard their yacht, while Valcour soared above them in a seaplane before coming down from the sky like a bird of prey. This is my favorite part of the book and offers a nifty, fairly clued impossible problem of a stowaway, whom Valcour believes to be the murderer, but is not found when the boat was turned inside out. As a matter of fact, it was this impossible disappearance from an ocean-bound yacht that saved me from having to put this book away with a lingering sense of disappointment. Plot wise, it was the only part that was done right. The murderer could've been a nice surprise, which, admittedly, was a clever play on the least-likely-suspect gambit, but not enough clues were stowawayed on its pages to pull it off in a satisfactory manner.

All in all, The Case of the Constant God is a readable, offbeat crime novel, but not one that's particular memorable, challenging or engaging.

This was only my second Lieutenant Valcour book, the first being the unconventional Murder by the Clock (1929), but from these I have gotten the impression that Rufus King was sort of a poor man's Ellery Queen – which may explain his neglect. I know there are mystery fans who have an high opinion of King, but I don't see in those two titles. 

Note: the post title is a reference to one of the Detective Conan movies, Strategy Above the Depths (2005). 


The Labyrinthine-Shaped Enigma

"What we need is some fearless iconoclast who will come out boldly against this damnable tyranny, saying Fiction is stranger than truth.’"
- Henri Bencolin (The Lost Gallows, 1931)
When the 20th century dawned, there was hope that science and reason would usher in an age of reason. It was to be an era in which logic and education would expel the hobgoblins from the dark nooks and crannies of our minds, like a nightmare after turning on a bedside lamp, but humans are a stubborn breed and dragging them from a hansom cab to shove them into a space shuttle was not enough to make them stop believing in ghosts and miracles.

An example of such a miracle in modern times can be found in the belly of Monte Verita (Hill of Truth), situated in the Swiss town Ascona, where a mystic proclaiming to be the reincarnation of Christian Rosenkreutz, the founder of the Rosicrucian Order, settled down in the mountain during the early 1900s, however, the locals were anything but hospitable towards them and their leader decided to lock himself up in a grotto – in order to reflect, meditate and pray. The entrance of the grotto was sealed with rocks, nobody was able to get in or out, but when they returned, after four days, to release their leader from his self-imposed imprisonment, all they found was an empty cavern! His disappearance was left unexplained, but even greater mysteries lay ahead when the town, in 1938, hosted a worldwide convention on the detective story and thus begins Jean-Paul Török's L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007) – a well-written homage to John Dickson Carr with a plot that twists and turns like an insomniac snake.

Török is a French movie historian, critic, scenarist, director and apparently has a professorship in narratology and wrote this gem with malice aforethought as a traditional whodunit – drawing heavily on the works of the grandmaster of the locked room mystery. In fact, Török skillfully weaved the plot in such a way that it finished with the same sentence as (the French translation of) The Burning Court (1937), but you could also find vestiges of other Carr novels in the plot.

Solange is a woman who could've easily substituted for Fey Seton or Lesley Grant, who, at the opening of this book, accompanies her newly wed husband, Pierre Garnier, to the mystery conference in Ascona – where she becomes the heroine in something that eerily resembles one of the novels that her Uncle Arthur pens for a living. Pierre is a man who has done his homework on the detective story and is looking forward to spending time among kindred spirits, but even the crisp, clean air of the Swiss countryside is eventually polluted with the toxic fumes emanating from Nazi Germany. A German psychiatrist, police consultant and card-carrying member of the Nazi Party, Dr. Hoenig, turns up and challenges one of the lectures, who claims that impossible crimes are only perpetrated by fictional criminals, stating that he will prove him wrong in a lecture, of his own, that will expose a secret –  and makes his sinister purpose clear beforehand in a conversation with Pierre. Dr. Hoenig claims that he has, in his capacity as a police consultant, knowledge of the fact that his wife has buried three husbands, which were most likely murders disguised as suicides and a natural death, two of them discovered inside a locked room, but can Pierre believe that his wife is multiple murderess – even though he has to admit that he knows very little about her past.

Naturally, Dr. Hoenig never had a ghost of a chance to deliver on his promise as a woman, wearing a headscarf, stabs him in front of two policemen and seals up the house from within before disappearing as if in a puff of smoke. The body of Dr. Hoenig also disappears from the locked premise after it was discovered and was even seen walking the streets with a knife sticking in his back, before he ended up in the grotto with the solid bars, covering the only entrance, still in tact. The efficient Brenner of the Swiss police is put on the case, but the expertise of the mystery writer and impossible crime expert, Sir Arthur Carter Gilbert, is needed to successfully fiddle with the lock of this sealed room and he goes about it in a way that immediately recalls H.M. and Dr. Gideon Fell.

The patterns that emerge from this plot are pleasant to watch and fans of John Dickson Carr will recognize a lot of similarities between this book and the work of the master himself, some of them are pointed out in the back of the book, but I also have to admit that the locked room scenarios weren't very original. I immediately spotted and worked out the false solution, which was nonetheless an admirably done reworking of a trick that I have seen more than once, and the correct one was literarily a redressing of one of the oldest tricks in the book. It was done well and fitted the story, but it plays too much like the original and this familiarity tends to make this a predicable story for readers who know their classics.

But rest assured, this took, for me anyway, nothing away from the book, not only because it was written by someone who knew what he was writing about, but also enjoyed writing it, and for a "mere" pastiche this is an absolute first rate effort! Predictability aside, The Riddle of Monte Verita wonderfully captures and evokes the glory days of the detective story, when plots were allowed to roam unshackled and free to explore even the ridiculous. However, we will vehemently deny to our last breath that Harry Stephen Keeler is part of the mystery genre. See? His name doesn't even link to a GADwiki profile page. I told you, not one of our writers.

And last but not least, I have to commend John Pugmire for delivering another fine translation and you can support him to continue investing his time in translating these wonderful books by simply buying them. Hey, if you're going to buy detectives, anyway, why not pick this one up as well, right?


Go Gadget Go

"Nothing's impossible, Hadj. There are only possibilities waiting to be discovered."
- Jonny Quest (Assault on Questworld)
The primary purpose of this nook is to provide me with an outlet for my observations, musings and conjecture on the detective story, after having rooted around in its murky past, but today's review is composed from notes dating back nearly two years.

In my last post, I referred to a collection of short stories, Arthur Porges' The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009), which I read and reviewed on the John Dickson Carr forum in my pre-blogging days. It was one of my first, tentative steps to become the Fredric Dannay of the 21st century (Patrick has dibs on Anthony Boucher's mantle) and while it's not a terribly good review, it isn't a bad one either – and decided to revise rewrite it a bit and repost it here. Please remember that I wrote this two years ago, and it's therefore very summary.

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey is a collection of (mostly) short-short stories, in which a paralyzed research scientist, whose wheelchair is studded with neat little gadgets, lends his analytical mind to one of his former pupils, Lt. Trask, when a case is starting to become an impossible one. Grey's 14-year-old son Edgar, a child prodigy who possesses an IQ of 180, playing the Archie Goodwin to his father's Nero Wolfe, rounds out the team. He's also very fond of Trask and this usually results in some fun, lighthearted banter between the police lieutenant and the pint-sized genius. Yes, it's basically Rex Stout, Detective Conan, Ellery Queen and a dash of the impossible meshed together and poured into one slender volume. 

The stories themselves are very readable, fun and well written, but also very uneven in quality, although, there were only two real duds in this book – which is not a bad ratio for a collection of fourteen stories. It should be mentioned, however, that half of the stories have solutions that are variations on two basic ideas. You can read them (if you're curious) in my original post where they are hidden behind proper spoiler tags. But now, on to the stories!

The Scientist and the Bagful of Water

The book opens with a monumental dud and one that can almost be heard when a bag of water, plunging from a multi-story building, becomes a deadly projectile and squashes a man's skull. Grey's evidence to hang the murderer has a glimmer of cleverness, but the only real impossibility in this story is being able to anticipate the solution.

The Scientist and the Wife Killer

The stand-out story of this collection, in which a man, under grave suspicion of having buried his previous wives a tad bit prematurely, electrocutes his latest spouse inside a locked bathroom, which was bare of any electric appliances, and her husband was miles away at the time of her sudden demise! A good example of how to retain the puzzle element in an inverted mystery.

The Scientist and the Vanished Weapon

A minor tale in which a delinquent teenager kills a cop, and than miraculously makes the gun disappear. A competent story with an unusual premise, but that's about it.

The Scientist and the Obscene Crime 

Grey finds a clever method to trace an apparent untraceable pervert who terrorizes a young woman with lewd phone calls. A mildly amusing, but not very memorable, story.

The Scientist and the Multiple Murders

This entry in the casebook of the wheelchair bound detective is the longest in the collection, running for fourteen pages, and concerns a congregation of eight directors who are found floating in a pool on the top of an office building – electrocuted without apparent means or a way the murderer could've gained access to the roof. The method to kill an entire group of people in one stroke, on top of an inaccessible building, managed to be both inventive and deadly simple, and thus very satisfying.

The Scientist and the Invisible Safe

The police suspects a notorious jewel thief of having stashed the spoils of his nefarious activities, a precious stone, in his hotel room, but they turn up empty handed after thoroughly going over the room and ask Grey to help them locate the thief's invisible cubbyhole. A fun little story similar to Queen's "Diamonds in Paradise" and Dickson's "Hot Money."

The Scientist and the Two Thieves

Once again, a jewel thief performs a vanishing trick with a valuable gem as a stage prop and Grey has to find it, which he does, only to discover that another thief beat him to it. 

The Scientist and the Time Bomb

This utterly bizarre story opens with a threatening letter from a dead man, in which the dearly departed reveals that he has placed an untraceable time bomb in his former ancestral home with a fifteen year fuse (!) – and that was well over fourteen years ago. The solution is one like you've never seen before and I'm still not entirely sure what to think of it. It's original; I'll give him that!

The Scientist and the Platinum Chain

Grey has to figure out what happened to a platinum chain after it disappeared from a crime scene. Not very interesting.

The Scientist and the Exterminator

A notorious and vicious man is killed when a whiff of cyanide gas drifts into his securely locked and guarded apartment that even has its windows covered with chicken wire. It has a fairly interesting method to introduce a cloud of noxious fumes into a tightly secured, top floor apartment. However, it should be mentioned that's also a bit farfetched and we've seen the general idea behind this trick before in this collection.

The Scientist and the Stolen Rembrandt

This story also follows the formula of the previous story with Trask asking Grey's help in locating another hidden object. This time a top fence made a newly discovered sketch by Rembrandt disappear from a ship moments before he was apprehended. It's a new wrinkle on the concept of Poe's "The Purloined Letter."

The Scientist and the Poisoner

A man is poisoned in a restaurant and only the waiter was near enough to add an extra, poisonous ingredient to the meal, but, naturally, this person is innocent – which gives Trask, Grey and the reader another impossible situation to digest. One of the better stories in this collection, but, again, we've seen this type of solution before.

The Scientist and the Heavenly Alibi

Grey rips what appeared to be a perfect photographic alibi to shreds. Not as interesting as it could've been.

The Scientist and the One-Word Clue

This collection opened and ended with a dud, and this story can only be described as an unnecessarily afterthought to the series, in which Trask asks Grey's assistance in making sense out of the final scribbles of a murdered man.

The stories in this collection were culled from the pages of The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, where they appeared from 1965 through 1975, and three more were dug from the authors personal archives and were published in this volume for the very first time. The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey is still in print and recommend it not only to the enthusiasts of the locked room mystery, but also to everyone who reads detective stories for the same reason as they were read during the Golden Age... because they are fun!