7/14/18

The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) by Christopher Bush

Earlier this month, Dean Street Press released the third batch of ten titles in Christopher Bush's outstanding Ludovic Travers series, originally published between 1939 and 1946, covering the entire period of World War II.

During these years, Bush penned a trilogy of wartime detective novels, "drawing directly on his own recent experience in British military service," described by our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, as arguably "the most notable series of wartime detective fiction" published in Britain during WWII – seeming more informed by "martial experience" than other, more well-known, wartime mysteries (e.g. Christianna Brand's Green for Danger, 1944).

The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942) form this thematic trilogy and decided to read all three of them back-to-back. So let's get started!

Bush served in an administrative capacity during the Great War and briefly returned to active duty in 1939 when he helped administer prisoner of war and alien internment camps, which earned him a promotion from 2nd Lieutenant to Captain, before being granted indefinite release from service on medical grounds – retiring with the rank of Major in August, 1940. This allowed him to return full-time to writing detective fiction and drew on his personal experience of running internment camps for the first of his three lauded wartime mysteries.

The Case of the Murdered Major is the twenty-third novel in the Ludovic Travers series and broke with the previous novels by dispensing with the third person narration.

The story is related by "an anonymous individual serving in the British Army," who resembles the author, after which all of the books are narrated in the first person and Travers begins his conversion from an inquisitive amateur to a genteel private-investigator in the mold of American hardboiled detective (e.g. The Case of the Amateur Actor, 1955). However, here we see Travers in a position that differs very much from his past and future incarnations.

Captain Travers has been appointed Adjutant Quartermaster of No. 54 Prisoner of War Camp in the city of Shoreleigh, "a grim sort of place," where a huge, out-of-date Victorian hospital has been turned into a POW camp with huts, movable barriers and piles of sandbags – surrounded by "a double apron of barbed wire." There are a couple of helpful diagrams and floor plans of the camp to help the reader get a good mental image of the place.

The senior official placed in charge of this POW camp is the unlikable, woolly-minded and short-tempered Major Stirrop.

Major Stirrop leadership, or lack thereof, was like sand in what would otherwise have been a well-oiled, efficient machine and never took any personal responsibility. Consequently, Major Stirrop had not only lost the respect of his own man, who called him "a twerp of the first water," but was dangerously close to losing their loyalty. Travers way of dealing with his superior is composing "a queer sort of document," entitled The Case of the Murdered Major, in which he worked out a way to murder Major Stirrop and crafted a perfect alibi. A piece of paper that would come back to haunt him later on in the story. However, it goes to show how much of a pain Major Stirrop really is when even the series-character took great pleasure in imagining his murder.

The problems really begin to stir at the camp when the first group of German prisoners arrive, "a mixed collection of planters, Nazi agents and wandering Gestapo men," who were aboard a captured ship on the West Coast of Africa and number seventy-three in total – only problem is that there appears to be a phantom prisoner among them. Every day, there's a headcount of the prisoners and on several occasions there appeared to be one additional prisoner. When they recounted the prisoners, the number was back to normal. Someone is moving around the camp unseen and unimpeded.

I mentioned in my review of Dead Man Twice (1930) how Bush's plots often include borderline or quasi-impossibilities and the way the problem of the spare prisoner is presented is another example of this. After all, the problem is not just the inexplicable appearance and disappearance of an unaccounted prisoner, but that this person managed to "lay doggo somewhere during the day" without being detected. Only to appear when the prisoners were being counted, which is sheer madness.

A second quasi-impossibility occurs when the body of Major Stirrop is found in the snow outside of the main building, beyond the body was deep depression, but the snow surrounding both the body and depression lacked the expected footprints. This is, however, not seen as an impossibility or treated as an obstacle the murderer had to overcome to get to the victim, but it goes to show how closely related Bush was to the locked room sub-genre. Bush could have been remembered as a notable contributor to the impossible crime story had he retooled all of his borderline impossibilities into full-blown miracle crimes, but, even just as plot-driven howdunits, they're a treat to read – especially if your personal taste runs in the direction of plot-driven, jigsaw puzzle detective stories.

The story takes an interesting turn when Superintendent George "The General" Wharton appears on the scene and has his "finest hour" as he slowly, but surely, eclipses Travers.

A reader who's introduced to this series through The Case of the Murdered Major might mistake Wharton as the series-detective, because he not only ferreted the murderer from the closed circle of suspects, but also knocked down this person's carefully staged alibi. An alibi directly linked to the murder method. Meanwhile, Travers emerges from this story as a Dr. Watson or Captain Hastings rather than an Albert Campion or Lord Wimsey.

There is, however, no shame in playing second fiddle to the General of Scotland Yard and Travers had a lot on his plate here. He had to readjust to army life, after being out of the game for more than twenty years, after which he had to take over the camp when Major Stirrop was murdered. I also think that's part of the charm of this wartime detective story. Travers had his duty to fulfill and this prevented him from fully playing amateur detective, which is an approach I have never seen from detective novels or short stories from this period. The upside of Travers being too occupied to properly play detective is that I finally got my Superintendent Wharton novel!

On a whole, The Case of the Murdered Major is a well-written, tightly plotted detective novel with an intriguing backdrop, inspired by Bush's own experiences, which only had one real drawback – namely its shorter than usual length. The story impressed me as a good deal shorter than the previous entries in the series and can probably be blamed on paper rationing. This is also the reason why this review has been rather summary when it comes to plot-details and characters, because one half of the short novel looked at how the camp is run and sets up the plot. And the second half has the murder and solution. So you can't really go into the finer details without giving away vital information. Nevertheless, the end result is a clever and compact mystery novel that comes highly recommended. Particularly to readers interested in (crime) fiction from the Second World War.

My next stop in this trio of wartime detective novels is going to be The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel and from what I gleaned the plot pays homage to the first spy movie/play of the war (Cottage to Let, 1941). So stay tuned!

7/11/18

The Argosy Library: Four Corners, vol. 1 (2015) by Theodore Roscoe

Last year, Bold Venture Press reissued a pair of obscure, long-forgotten and out-of-print locked room mysteries by Theodore Roscoe, Murder on the Way! (1935) and I'll Grind Their Bones (1936), which were specifically mentioned and praised by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) – who lauded the books for their pace, plots and "diabolically clever" impossible crimes. Originally, these locked room novels were published as serials in a now long-defunct pulp magazine, Argosy, who regularly printed short stories, novelettes and serials by Roscoe. Some of those stories and series are now being reprinted by Altus Press in their Argosy Library series.

One of the series Roscoe penned for Argosy was about Four Corners, a small town about a 100 miles from New York, which may have inspired Ellery Queen's Wrightsville (Calamity Town, 1942) and Shinn Corners (The Glass Village, 1954). There's one story in particular that reminded me of The Glass Village, but more on that later.

Altus Press collected the first five novelettes in this series as Four Corners, vol. 1 (2015), originally published between June 5, 1937 and January 8, 1938, including a very alluring story, titled "I Was the Kid With the Drum," which Adey listed in Locked Room Murders and described the story as having two impossibilities – a drum beating on its own accord and a disappearance from a watched house.

Yes, it was this story that lured me to this volume, but all of the stories turned out to be really good. Roscoe was an excellent story-teller and here he spun a couple of fascinating yarns about small-town life in America spliced with crime material.

This makes Four Corners difficult to pigeon-hole, because it has everything, hardboiled gangsters, small-town intrigue and even impossible crimes, which also makes them a little hard to review. Regardless of the genre they belong to, they're fantastic reads and I'll definitely pick up the second volume when it gets published. But let's take a look at these five stories first.

The first story is "He Took Richmond" and the protagonist is a ninety-year-old man, Anecdote Jones, who prattles endlessly about a particular incident during the American Civil War when General Grant had personally commanded to take piney hilltop and "hang onter it like a bulldog to a rott" – boasting how he single handedly held the piney knoll when encircled by a platoon of Johnny Rebs. Whenever he's asked how he was able to hold the piney knoll in the face of overwhelming odds, Old Anecdote can only answer with a puzzled expression on his face as he mutters to himself, "how did I hold the hill?"

A question Old Anecdote is finally able to answer when Joe Gravatti, a notorious and wanted kidnapper, comes to Four Corner when most of the town is in Brockton for the Armistice Day celebration. Gravatti has brought his gang along. They capture Old Anecdote and a garage mechanic, but the old man escapes and reappears as "the ghost of a Civil War veteran in tarnished brass buttons and moth-eaten blue." A portrait of one of the Boys in Blue "painted in moonbeams and cobweb" or "a mirage from the dust blown off a history book." There's definitely a touch of John Dickson Carr in Roscoe's writing. 

Theodore Roscoe
Anyway, Old Anecdote takes on the gangsters, single handedly, which shows how he could have held the piney knoll and the explanation turned out to have been lovely foreshadowed in the early part of the story – giving this pulp story a fun little historical sub-plot. An excellent, well-written story with a satisfying conclusion.

The second story, "Frivolous Sal," is the story that reminded of The Glass Village and concerns the spotted history of "a woman hermit," Clariselle "Sal" Alders, who had come to age in the Gay Nineties (i.e. 1890s) "when people were humming waltzes, looking at Gibson Girls and whispering of suffragettes." So she become an modern, independent-minded woman, but this came with a price and she was held (morally) responsible for the suicide of her father when she refused to marry. This was followed by a string of scandals and even deaths. One of these deaths was that of her business partner in a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Sal is now an elderly woman who has withdrawn from the world in a shanty, rundown shack in the woods, but certain members of the community are anguish to get hold of her diary and they're prepared to pay good money for it – only to be turned down. However, a little girl dies of scarlet fever and people begin to talk about witchcraft.

So the sheriff has to face down his own neighbors to prevent a lynching in Four Corners, but the whole situation is turned on its head when they break down the door. They find something behind the locked door they did not expect. I genuinely want to know if Dannay and Lee were aware of this story when they wrote The Glass Village.

The next story, "Barber, Barber, Shave a Pig," takes place in the barbershop of a Dutch immigrant, Anton Grunner, which he had took over from a failing and ever-frightened local, Willie Updyke, but kept him around as a barber. A day before the story opened, Updyke witnessed the murder of a personal friend, Henry Applegate, at the hands of a bank robber, but lacked the courage to intervene and the murderer got away – much to the disapproval of the community. They even refuse his services as a barber. So the story really is about Updyke rehabilitating himself by ousting the (obvious) murderer and this results in a bloodbath in the barbershop.

This was not a bad story at all, but was slightly annoyed by Grunner's thick, German accent. Why can't Americans differentiate between Dutch and German? We were there when the United States was being settled and your first American-born president, Martin van Buren, was a Dutchman whose first language was Dutch! The difference should have been obvious by 1937. I did smile, though, when Grunner purred "like a tomcat.

The penultimate novelette, "I Was the Kid With the Drum," is the gem of this collection and the story is narrated by the twelve-year-old son of the sheriff, Bud Whittier, which is why I tagged this blog-post with the "juvenile mysteries" label.

The house of Joe Sleeper is a dark, rambling place with weed-grown side yards where a spiritualist circle held seances in the parlor and listened to the voices of the departed, which is irresistible to a boy, but Sheriff Whittier had received complaints from Mrs. Sleeper about certain boys climbing on the woodshed at the back of the house to get a better look at what's happening inside – instructing his son to stop it. An order that was destined to be ignored. 

One dark, clammy evening in August, Bud climbs the woodshed to peer into a window of an upstairs bedroom and sees Joe Sleeper's bass drum standing in the corner. The drum, unattended, was booming in its corner and there was no sign in the room of Joe or his "masterful drumstick." The bass drum was beating by itself! On the following morning, Mrs. Sleeper disappears from the house. Not once. But twice. The second time a ghostly face is seen behind one of the windows of the somber mansion, but when people go inside to investigate nobody is found.

Back in May, I reviewed a multi-part episode from the Detective Conan animated series, entitled The Case of the Seance's Double Locked Room, which has a beautiful synergy between the two impossibilities of the plot and you can say the same, although to a lesser extent, of "I Was the Kid With the Drum." The ghostly drummer and the disappearance of Mrs. Sleeper are tightly intertwined. You can't have one without the other, but also appreciated how the actions of the culprit are dictated by circumstances. Or how Bud essentially acts as the unknown quantity in the plans of this person.

The result is a beautiful, logical and coherent plot that combines elements of the inverted detective story, juvenile fiction and the locked room mystery. And it worked! I think this story should be included in one of the future impossible crime anthologies.

On a semi-related side note, another detective story with great synergy between two impossible situations is Agatha Christie's 1937 short story "The Dream" (collected in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, 1960).

Finally, we arrive at the fifth and final story of this collection, "Daisies Won't Tell," which is a hoist-on-their-own petard yarn and it brings a wolf to Four Corners in black sheep's clothing. The story largely takes place in the past, 1903, which makes this somewhat of a historical mystery and concerns a black sheep of the community, Andy Curlew, who was disowned by his grandfather after robbing the village tavern and fled to Australia, but his grandmother grew lonely after her husband passed away and notices began to appear in newspapers asking him to return to Four Corners – only someone else turned up. The result is thievery, murder and a thirty year stretch in prison. However, the murderer gets a nasty surprise when he returns to Four Corners with the intention to retrieve his long-buried nest egg. A very proper punishment for this individual and perfect closer to great collection of stories.

So, on a whole, Four Corners is as close as you can possibly get to a perfectly balanced selection of short stories and I'm very tempted to say that there isn't a dud among them, but that's a personal value judgment that may vary from reader to reader. I only picked this volume on the strength of one specific story and did not really know what to expect from the rest of the collection, but this made it a pleasant and welcome surprise to discover that they all had something to offer. And I have always loved these slices of small-town Americana. Highly recommended!

7/7/18

The 8 Mansion Murders (1989) by Takemaru Abiko

Takemaru Abiko is a founding member of the shin honkaku movement in Japan and one of the mystery writers who emerged from the ranks of the Kyoto University Mystery Club.

During the 1980s, members of the Mystery Club would gather in the living room of the man who would later launch the neo-orthodox movement in Japan with Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), Yukito Ayatsuji, to discuss plot-ideas for honkaku-style detective stories and have "lively discussions about the mystery genre in general" – one of the members who almost always there was Abiko. So it was only a matter of time before John Pugmire of Locked Room International peddled one of his impossible crime novels across the language barrier.

Shinsoban 8 no satsujin (The 8 Mansion Murders, 1989) marked Akibo's debut and the book was, as usually, translated by our very own Ho-Ling Wong and introduced by the doyen of shin honkaku, Soji Shimada. Shimada noted in his introduction that, if you listened to them back in the days, you could have mistaken the bantering members of the Mystery Club for aspiring comedy writers, but "comedy is a trademark of Abiko" and debuted with a humorous, lighthearted homage to John Dickson Carr that even comes with the obligatory locked room lecture concentrating on quasi-locked rooms – which is "a space which might not be physically sealed." Such as rooms under observation or an unbroken field of snow.

The 8 Mansion Murders takes place in the home of Kikuo Hachisuka, President of Hachisuka Construction, which is a three-story mansion with an inner courtyard on the ground floor. The first and second floor have covered galleries connecting the east and west hallways. When viewed from the sky, the mansion looks exactly like the number eight and this is why the place is commonly referred to as the 8 Mansion.

This bizarre mansion was "designed without any consideration for efficient use of space or ease of living," but "the layout of this very mansion" provided the murderer with a fully prepared stage for a deadly magic trick. We see the unknown murderer pouring over the diagram of 8 Mansion in the prologue.

The 8 Mansion Murders begins one early, sleepless morning in the room of Hachisuka's granddaughter, Yukie Hachisuka, who has company from her sign language teacher, Mitsuka Kawamura, when they hear someone in the gallery and looking out of the window they're surprised to see Yukie's father, Kikuichirō Hachisuka – who's the Vice-President of Hachisuka Construction. Suddenly, an arrow cuts through the air and strikes Kikuichirō down. Yukie and Mitsuka are knocked unconscious when they run out to help Kikuichirō. When they regained consciousness, Yukie and Mitsuka discover that the body has been moved.

A baffling and dastardly murder, but where, you ask, is the impossibility? Well, Yukie and Mitsuka saw the room from which the murderer loosened the deadly arrow, but the problem is that the room in question belongs to the son of the family caretaker, Yūsaku Yano, who claims to have been asleep at the time of the murder with the door locked on the inside – immediately making him the number one suspect. Yūsaku's situation does not improve when the police learns he owns a crossbow that has gone missing.

Enter Inspector Hayami Kyōzō of the Metropolitan Police Department, Criminal Investigation Division 1 (Homicide), accompanied by his subordinate, Kinoshita, who provide some of the comedy in this story. Sometimes their comedic bits bordered on old-fashioned slapstick. Hayami takes pleasure in placing his subordinate in harm's way and Kinoshita emerges from this whole ordeal resembling a battered, battle-scarred warhorse ("obviously immortal"), but Hayami does not escape unscathed himself. Hayami has a younger brother and sister, Shinji and Ichio, who love detective stories and teasing their older brother. Ho-Ling said in his 2012 review of The 8 Mansion Murders that "Abiko really likes teasing his characters" and placing them in "awkward situations" to "see them suffer." This is definitely true when it comes to poor Kinoshita. He had his human rights violated here. I still smiled though.

However, it's not Hayami who solves the crossbow murders at the 8 Mansion, but his younger brother, Shinji, who normally runs a coffee shop and even delivers a solid locked room lecture, but not before one of the witnesses is murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances – nailed to a locked door with an arrow. There's an open window in the room. Only problem with this scenario is that the window could only serve as an entrance, or exit, if the murderer has the ability to "fly around freely anywhere in the house." I actually liked this second impossibility, minor as it is, much more than the central murder. A simple, believable and original play on the Merrivalean cussedness of things in general. As if "John Dickson Carr’s ghost himself had been behind it all." I do think this locked room trick would have been better suited for a short story, but appreciated its inclusion here nonetheless.

On the other hand, the central puzzle of the impossible murder in the gallery and the arrow shot from a locked and occupied room was a mixed bag of tricks.

I immediately understood how the locked room trick was worked, but only because the principle behind the illusion is as old as Rome. I have come across countless variations on this trick. So the impossibility itself can hardly be called original, but this age-old trick was very well handled by Abiko. I found it very inventive that the problem here is not how a man could have vanished from a locked room, but how two witnesses could have seen "a person inside a room he couldn't have entered" or why the murderer had to move the body around in the gallery – showing a young mystery novelist full of promise. Abiko also has an impeccable taste in detective stories going by the references to other mystery writers and detective characters. Particularly Carr!

I think The 8 Mansion Murders goes hand-in-glove with the impossible crime novels of other admirers and followers of the master of the locked room problem, such as John Russell Fearn, Paul Halter, Derek Smith and David Renwick, but you have to be a little familiar with Carr's work to fully appreciate Abiko's homage. Just like Jean-Paul Török's tribute to Carr, L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007), which has also been translated and published by Pugmire. Nevertheless, in spite of these obvious ties to Carr's work, I thought The 8 Mansion Murders was much closer, in spirit, to Leo Bruce's locked room parody Case for Three Detectives (1936). The 8 Mansion Murders is not a parody of Carr, but the humorous tone of the story and the interaction between the detectives struck me as closer to Bruce than anything Carr wrote. Yes, Carr wrote mysteries with slapstick comedy (e.g. The Skeleton in the Clock, 1948), but even they felt very different from what Abiko did here. But that's only an observation.

So, in closing, The 8 Mansion Murders is a fast, fun read with two impossible crimes and an amusing cast of detectives, which comes especially recommended to locked room enthusiasts and fans of Carr. They'll get the most enjoyment out of the plot and story.

Oh, just one more thing. I hope you don't have any personal plans this summer, Ho-Ling. The Hungry Goblins demand more of this! :)

7/3/18

Brought to Light (1954) by E.R. Punshon

Brought to Light (1954) is the thirty-second detective novel in the estimable Bobby Owen series, published when E.R. Punshon was an octogenarian and had only two years left to live, but the characters, plot and story-telling still bristled with the vitality and inventiveness of the early novels – barely any wear or tear. I think Nick Fuller described the story perfectly when he called it the work of a man half Punshon's age.

Punshon not only retained his vitality as a story-teller, but also remembered how to design a maze-like plot out of numerous, intertwined plot-threads and manipulated those strands like a nimble-fingered puppeteer. This is what makes even late-period Punshon a treat to read.

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
Brought to Light brings Bobby Owen, Deputy Commander of the Metropolitan Police, to the pleasant country town of Penton, "once upon a time the capitol of the Kingdom of Mercia," where he had been given a course of three lectures to the West Mercian Police. The West Mercian Chief Constable, Major Rowley, had offered modest prizes to his men for the three best essays on these lectures and Owen was tasked with picking the winners, but his attention is drawn away to the lingering residue of a tragic, long-buried love story in a nearby village – involving grave robbing, lost poems and murder.

Hillings-under-Moor is "a scattered, lonely sort of place" laying on "the fringe of the Great Mercian Moor." The only claim to fame this tiny village has is a lonely grave in the churchyard.

Janet Merton was the lover of a celebrated poet, Stephen Asprey, who placed his love-letters and unpublished poems in her coffin when she passed away, because one day, he wanted the world to know what it owed the woman who had rekindled his Muse. So the grave began to attract coach parties, American tourists and passing motorists, who often "try to chip off bits of the tombstone for what they call souvenirs," but there has also been much talk about opening the grave to retrieve the letters and poems. A proponent of opening the grave is Edward Pyle, of the Morning Daily, who has a lot of back-room pull and even got a question asked about it in Parliament – prompting the Home Secretary to promise a request for opening the grave would receive "favourable consideration." However, Pyle faces stiff opposition.

The grave is a freehold of the Merton family and is now in name of Miss Christabel Merton, a niece of Janet Merton, who says she will never agree to its opening.

The Duke of Blegborough also has his personal reasons why he would prefer the Merton grave to remain undisturbed. His wife had died from taking an overdose of sleeping pills and, locally, there were whispers the Duchess was poisoned by the Duke, because he believed she had cheated on him with the famous poet, Asprey. The Duke is afraid that the love-letters mentions his late wife and fan the flames.

However, if you think this is the whole premise of Brought to Light, you're sorely mistaken and need to read more Punshon. This is only the beginning.

Several years ago, the previous rector, Mr. Thorne, left the rectory one night for an evening stroll and has never been seen or heard of since. There were gossip that Thorn was heavily in debt or got himself involved with a woman who had disappeared around the same time, but other simply assumed he has lost his way on the lonely, desolate moor when he was caught in one of the moor mists that can come up out of nowhere – simply walked circles until he died from cold and exposure. The present curate-in-charge, Mr. Day-Bell, wants Owen to take charge of the Thorn case in the hope that it will smother the rumormongers. Mr. Day-Bell also worries the Merton grave might be opened without permission.

The widow of the poet, Mrs. Asprey, lives nearby the churchyard in "an old, half-ruined house" and is "a formidable old lady." She had chased Pyle from her home with a revolver and she has been making the victory sign above the grave of Janet Merton. There's a Samuel Chrines, a "petty scribbler," who claims to be the love child of Asprey and Pyle has brought a hard-bitten, unsavory character, named Item Sims, with him from London.

Reprinted by Ramble House
So, there you have, as I remember them, all of the plot pieces and, towards the halfway mark of the story, a burned-out caravan with a body inside is found on the Great Mercian Moor.

Deputy Commander Owen takes charge of the investigation and calmly, but competently, traces down the murder weapon and talks to everyone involved with grave, which actually reminded me of Ngaio Marsh. However, Brought to Light is not guilty of, what Brad of Aw, Sweet Mystery calls, "dragging-the-marsh." The characters he talks to are interesting or unusual. Such as John Hagen, church sexton and a passionate, self-taught classical scholar, who only lives for his books. Combine this with a pleasantly tangled plot, rich writing and an equally rich backdrop brimming with ancient history – which has always been one of Punshon's strong points. Death Comes to Cambers (1935) and Ten Star Clues (1941) are good examples of Punshon's sense of time-and place.

I mentioned in my opening that there was barely any wear and tear, but the keyword there is barely and there a little bit of wear in these very late-period Bobby Owen stories that should not go unmentioned. At this late hour, Punshon evidently had become less adept at hiding the murderer from his readers. I spotted the murderer here even sooner than the one in Punshon's swan song, Six Were Present (1956), but hardly something to complain about in this case. Brought to Light is an impressive and imaginative piece of detective-fiction from a 82-year-old man. So I can forgive Punshon here for having failed to pull the wool over my eyes.

However, I do prefer early-period Bobby Owen to the high-ranking, battle-tested Commander of the Metropolitan Police. Owen was at his best when he was young, fresh-faced policeman, slowly climbing the ranks, while traveling the countryside on his motor cycle to go from one murder to the other. Or the period when he was working for the Wychshire County Police (e.g. Diabolic Candelabra, 1942). But that is a personal preference. Not a complaint. 
 
So, all in all, Brought to Light turned out to be a worthy addition to this excellent series. It was perhaps not entirely flawless, but Punshon had barely lost a step in nearly half a century of writing, beginning with The Mystery of Lady Isobel (1907), which is a welcome change from the dramatic decline in quality that usually befalls prolific writers towards the end of their careers – which unfortunately happened to my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr. So it was nice to see that one of my other favorites had remained (nearly) at the top of his game towards the end.

7/1/18

The Rokubu Demon: Q.E.D, vol. 2 by Motohiro Katou

Back in March, I reviewed the first volume from the once long-running Q.E.D. series, a detective manga written and drawn by Motohiro Katou, originally serialized between 1997 and 2014 in Magazine GREAT, Magazine E-no and Magazine Plus – selling over 3 million copies of the 50 volumes that make up the entire series. The main-character of Q.E.D. is Sou Touma, a teenage genius, who's an MIT graduate and moved back to Japan to be a normal high-school student. Once he's back in school, Touma becomes friends with a classmate, Kana Mizuhara, who's a social and athletic sixteen year old. She plays the Archie Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe.

The second volume, as every volume in this series, is divided into two separate, longish stories. So the cases are usually longer than those found in Detective Conan, but shorter than the novel-length detective stories from the Kindaichi series.

The first of these two stories, "Rokubu's Treasure," checks all of the boxes of a conventional, shopworn detective story regularly found in anime-and manga mysteries: a small, secluded village with a dark back-story and a curse laid upon it. A murderer who walks around dressed like a Scooby Doo villain, long buried family secrets and bizarre murders, which usually links the family skeletons with the village history – which could be a rough outline of the recently reviewed The Headless Samurai. Touma even observes that "these kind of myths are often found" throughout Japan However, I did very much appreciated what Katou ended up doing with the plot. Something that was slightly different.

Touma and Mizuhara are sitting at the edge of his swimming pool when the former receives a package from the United States.

Diane Butler is the archaeology speaker whose lectures Touma attended in America and she send him sheaves of old, crumbling and bug-eaten documents written in Japanese. The package also includes a small bottle with a shiban mushi (death bug) in it and a letter with a request to translate the ancient documents. Butler contacted him on behalf of a friend, Shizuna Kotohira, who comes from a rich family with "a wide expanse of land with hotsprings" and accepting the request comes with a holiday trip to the Kotohira family estate. This was enough of an argument for Mizuhara to pressure Touma into accepting.

When they arrive in the village, Touma and Mizuhara wanted to ask directions at the police station, but they find the place deserted and learn from one of the locals that the village policeman has been called away on a case – a university student had been attacked by someone dressed as the Rokubu Demon.

The victim was part of a group of university students who were looking for the treasure from the legend Rokubu goroshi (Rokubu murder). As they resume their foot-trip to the estate, Touma and Mizuhara recall the legend of the pilgrim visiting all of the holy grounds throughout Japan, but the pilgrim was ambushed and murdered when he passed through this village. They took the treasure he was carrying, a golden Buddha, but, with his last breath, "the pilgrim condemned the villagers with a terrible curse." An old and familiar tale. The difference here is that the locals are convinced that the ancestors of the Kotohira family murdered the pilgrim and had drawn their wealth from stolen treasure.

Touma working on his social skills

When they finally arrive at the estate, they are (eventually) let in by the family caretaker, Hyoe Kariya, who brings them inside where they meet the group of university students. Toshio Hiraki (post-graduate student), Kiyoko Mejiro (third year university student) and Jin Takano (fourth year university student) – who has a bruised cheek and a black eye from the attack. This group is accompanied by the history lecturer of University Y, Akihiko Nezu. One more student, Yamashiro, has gone missing since the attack happened and the village policeman, Ryosuke Kizaki, is organizing a search.

A search that ends when the group arrives at a shrine, where they find Yamashiro's body, "stabbed with a staff" and "positioned like a sitting Buddha." A mocking message had been scrawled on the wall, "a fitting punishment for a treasure hunter." Another student is murdered not long thereafter with a screwdriver. So we have violent attacks, murders, hidden treasure and a cryptic map showing where the treasure is hidden, which is why Shizuna Kotohira needed help. This is also the point where I began to have my doubts about the story.

There's more than enough plot here, but the whole structure seemed to very loosely put together. Nothing seemed to hang together or fitted like it should. We have a murderer, who plays dress up, attacking some and killing others. The murders also widely differ in modus operandi: one of the victims was impaled with incomprehensible strength and the body was put on public display, while the second victim was stabbed in the back of the neck with a screwdriver. Why evoke a legend for one murder and resort to a common stabbing for the other? And why did the murderer not go after the person who was cursed, Kotohira? Obviously, the plot-strands were tied together, somehow, but the knots that held these strands together didn't appear to be tightly fixed.

Luckily, Mizuhara relighted my hope with by asking the key question: "don't you think his actions are too inconsistent?" Touma's answer: Yes. Yes, it is. The solution already shows an improvement in Touma's plotting.

Touma gives the reader a perfectly logical, completely acceptable answer for the inconsistencies in the crimes and they're heavily influenced by previous events, circumstances and simply what's possible at that moment – which is an unusual, but pleasant, way to tell a detective story. The murders are a good example of this plotting technique. Why did the murderer impale the first victim? The answer is a practical one and, when you read Touma's reconstruction of this murder, you'll immediately get a tell-tale clue to the murderer's identity. Because only one person could have committed the murder that way. Why, then, did the murderer stabbed the second victim with a screwdriver? An event from earlier on in the story is the reason why this murder happened the way it did.

It all forms a nice, coherent picture and the crimes fit the character of the tragic murderer. On top of that, the first murder has a nifty alibi-trick and Touma performs his duty as detective by logically eliminating all of the innocent suspects until only the murderer remains.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to discover this story had been playing possum the whole time, only to spring back to life to deliver a solid ending, but have a minor gripe about the second murder. In the murderer's situation, it was a far too risky murder and, as this person should have learned by now, not everyone acts as a willing lamb to the slaughter. Otherwise, this story is a notable improvement over the stories from the first volume.

I hope this means that this series is, quality-wise, will follow a similar evolution as Detective Conan. A splendid series that had began weakly, but improved with each passing volume.

The second story in this volume is "Lost Royale" and is much shorter than "Rokubu's Treasure," which begins in a kendo dojo, where Mizuhara is practicing. A fellow kendo student, Iwasaki, is going to visit her grandfather in the hospital after the lesson and Mizahara decides to go along with her – grabbing Touma with them who happened to be loitering outside. However, when they arrive at the hospital, they find a man in the hospital room who's screaming at Iwasaki's grandfather, Oji.

According to the man, Oji claimed to have found "the legendary seventh royale car," a Bugatti Royale Type 41, which was designed by Ettore Bugatti as the biggest, most luxurious and expensive automobiles money could buy in the 1930s. Bugatti intended to sell these luxurious cars to the royalty of Europe, but only six cars were produced and three sold before production stopped. So the Royale became a legendary car and collectors, as well as museums, "try their hardest to obtain them" and a persistent rumor tells of a seventh, unaccounted Royale – a rumor rooted in the many shenanigans of Adolf Hitler. Oji apparently found the fabled Royale, but now refuses to talk about it. After the angry man takes his leave, Oji confides in the three that the car was stolen from him by an old friend, Yasuhiko Tomizawa.

Tomizawa is an incredibly rich man and owns a number of buildings in town, which is where this story takes an interesting turn. Touma, Mizuhara and Iwasaki try to find the car by studying the floor plans of the buildings owned by Tomizawa and sneaking into these places to inspect the possible hiding places. Mizuhara is becoming a regular Carmen Sandiego!

The hiding place of the car turned out to better than expected, because assumed the 6.7 meter long car would be found inside a large trailer van. I had not expected a piece of old-fashioned stage magic to mislead everyone. Unfortunately, the story does not play particular fair with the reader. There's not a single clue to the hiding place and this is a missed opportunity, because in Detective Conan this trick would have come with a strong visual clue in the background of the panels. The reader should have gotten the whole back-story of the car or that last, important part a whole lot sooner.

All in all, this was a passable story with a good premise and great use for our beloved floor plans, but the plot is marred by a lack of fair play. So this volume ends on a slightly weak note. However, I'm still very hopeful about this series. The stories are not stellar, but this second volume already shows improvement and hope this will continue in the third volume. I'll try to get to that third volume sooner rather than later.