2/21/20

Diplomatic Death (1961) by Charles Forsyte

Gordon Philo was a British diplomat and magic aficionado with a background in the secret intelligence services who, reportedly, was "instrumental in the processing and circulation of the material revealed by Russian double agent Oleg Penkovsky," which revealed the presence of Russian missiles in Cuba – a move that prevented "a catastrophic third World War." More importantly, Philo co-authored a handful of classically-styled detective novels with his wife, Vicky Galsworthy Philo.

Diplomatic Death (1961) was the first novel to be published under their shared pseudonym, "Charles Forsyte," but the introduction revealed that the period between the first draft and publication was a long, arduous journey.

During the 1950s, Philo worked at the British Consulate-General in Istanbul, Turkey, where whiled away the winter evenings reading detective stories and decided to would be more entertaining "to write one myself." So he began to work on a plot and had drafted several chapters, but abandoned the fledgling manuscript when his wife returned to Istanbul. Some years later, the manuscript was "resurrected from a drawer," completed and they entered it in a competition, but the judges commented that the ending, while original, was wrong – back "the manuscript went into the drawer." Very likely, the drawer is where the manuscript would have stayed had it not been for a chance meeting with a member of the Detection Club.

Vicky was standing at a bus stop in Maida Vale, London, when "a passing taxi was hailed by another lady in the queue" who "asked if anyone else would like to share it with her." Vicky accepted the offer and discovered that her companion was "the well-known mystery writer," Christianna Brand!

When Brand heard Vicky had co-written an unpublished mystery novel, she advised her to contact her literary agent, but the agent returned exactly the same answer as the judges. So they re-wrote the whole book, which was finally accepted and published in Britain and the United States. A great "prologue" to a wonderful detective story that even challenges the reader to spot "the original ending." I think I may have spotted the original solution and agree with the experts that it would been the wrong kind of solution for the story, but ditching it robbed the story of a murderer with an iron-clad alibi dipped in solid concrete. However, it was a necessary sacrifice.

Diplomatic Death begins with the arrival of Inspector Richard Left, of Special Branch, in Turkey on a quasi-secretive mission concerning a murder and disappearance at the British Consulate in Istanbul.

Two days before Left arrived, the Consul-General had been working late when the sound of a gunshot emanated from his office and two Vice-Consuls in the opposite room immediately investigated and found the Consul-General slumped in his chair – an automatic lay on the desk and "the unmistakable smell of powder" in the air. Hardcastle and Westers, the Vice-Consuls, checked for a pulse, but the Consul-General was "stone dead." So a senior official is called, Mr. Bretherton-Fosgill, but when they returned to the office, the body of the Consul-General had disappeared!

They combed through the garden, searched the vehicles in the courtyard and turned the whole building inside out, which even turned up "an endless grimy brick tunnel" between floors nobody knew existed, but without any result. So they decided to lock the office and sealed the door in two places with sealing wax, stamped with signet rings, until "a proper investigation can take place." Diplomatic Death has an entry in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but the impossibility listed is the closing of a safe-door and the presence of an item in the office at the time it had been securely locked and sealed. And not the quasi-impossible disappearance of the body. However, these aspects of the case are never treated as actual impossibilities, but as smaller pieces of a bigger puzzle and my advise is not to the read book solely for its locked room elements.

A knotted, tangled headache of a case that Left is tasked with unsnarling and you can't help but sympathize with the long-suffering, underdog policeman who's frustrated in every way imaginable, which began with "the purgatory" of a long, uncomfortable plane ride to Turkey and continued even at his hotel. A dirty, rundown place where noisy cabaret artists returned at all hours of the night and the shattering sound of the aged, under-lubricated laboring of the automatic pump of the large cistern on the roof filled Left's hotel room – keeping him awake until the early hours of the morning. And then there are all the dead-ends, red herrings and lack of tangible evidence.

Nevertheless, you should not assume Left is one of those modern, bungling detectives who accidentally stumbles to the correct solution by sheer luck. Left constructs a clever and logical false-solution based on an office chair, a sound recording, a key and a limb arm. This false-solution cracked, what could have been, a cast-iron alibi like an eggshell! A perfect use of the false-solution.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, wrote in a 2014 blog-post, "The Detective Novels of Charles Forsyte," that when Diplomatic Death was first published Forsyte was compared to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen, but John thought "a more apt comparison would be Clayton Rawson" whose "impossible crime mysteries are inspired by stage illusionist's bag of tricks." Something you can definitely see reflected in the both the false and correct solution in this novel, but the plot, setting and the detective also reminded me of the impossible crime stories of Peter Godfrey. I wonder if Godfrey's Death Under the Table (1954) is one of the books Philo had been reading during the mid-1950s. I know Death Under the Table wasn't widely circulated outside South Africa and is somewhat of a rarity, but therefore not unlikely to turn up in the library of the British Consulate in Turkey. Diplomats who read detective stories would have easier access at the books not published in the Britain or the United States.

I was able to work out the correct solution based on exactly the same clues that Left used to get there, but this takes nothing away from how clever and fairly the whole plot was handled. A plot that could have been disappointing, or unconvincing, were it not for the excellent way in which setting was utilized, which created the time and space needed to make the trick work. A setting not merely limited to the British Consulate, but ventures out into the then still young Turkish republic of Atatürk where the ancient and modern world came together on the streets of Istanbul. The dual setting of the British Consulate and Istanbul where absolutely instrumental in making both the plot work and give the story a distinct personality of its own, which would have even made the story standout had it been published two or three decades earlier.

Sadly, this means you can count Forsyte, like Kip Chase and John Sladek, among the Lost Generation of Golden Age-style mystery writers who had the misfortune to arrive on the scene too late to be fully appreciated. What's even sadder is that their work is now perhaps a little too recent to be revived in our current Renaissance Age.

So, on a whole, Diplomatic Death is not only a very well-written, fairly clued mystery novel with a plot hearkening back to the golden days of the detective story, but a strong debut without any of the real flaws often found in such works. A highly recommendable first that has made me even more curious about the other Forsyte novels listed in Locked Room Murders and in particular Dive into Danger (1962), which apparently deals with the impossible (underwater) murder of a treasure hunter and a circle of suspects comprising of marine archaeologists. How can anyone resist such a premise?

To be continued...

2/19/20

The Nameless Detective: "The Hills of Homicide" (1949) by Louis L'Amour

Louis L'Amour was a consummate story-teller with close to a hundred novels and numerous short story collections to his name, primarily tales of the frontier, whose work was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom – making him the only novelist in American history to receive both medals. During the 1940s and 50s, L'Amour contributed short pieces of hardboiled crime-fiction to such pulp magazines as Black Mask, Popular Detective and Thrilling Detective. One of his detective stories is of the impossible variety!

"The Hills of Homicide" was originally published in the May, 1949, issue of Detective Tales and was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) with an unusual lengthy comment tacked to it.

Adey described "The Hills of Homicide" as an "interesting and worthwhile story," but added that the publishing history of the eponymous short story collection, The Hills of Homicide (1983), is even more interesting. Apparently, there was an unauthorized edition with fewer stories published by Carroll & Graf, which actually preceded the complete, fully authorized Bantam edition! Adey's comment on the collection's back-story drew my attention to the fact that an "unnamed private eye" is the detective in this hardboiled, Western-tinged impossible crime tale. A literary ancestor of Bill Pronzini's Nameless Detective and John Quincannon? Let's find out!

"The Hills of Homicide" opens with the arrival of a private-detective from Los Angeles in a small, out-of-the-way mining town, Ranagat, which lay in "the cupped hand of the hills like a cluster of black seeds," where the other night Jack Bitner was murdered at his cliff-top home – a "cantankerous old cuss" who owned the Bitner Gold Mine. Sheriff Jerry Loftus only has three suspects to consider. The victim's niece and sole heir, Karen Bitner. A tough-guy gambler and an alumnus of "the Chicago underworld of the late Capone era," Blacky Caronna, who had a dispute with Old Bitner. Caronna had visited him on the night of the murder. Lastly, there's Johnny Holben, "a suspicious old coot," who had been at daggers drawn with the victim. Only reason why the sheriff focuses on these three suspects is the scene of the crime.

A three-room stone house was built on the edge of a cliff and "the wall of sheer, burnt-red sandstone looked impossible to climb." So the only way to get to the top is a narrow trail going through a cut in the rock. At a wide spot in the cut, Holben had built his cabin to annoy to Bitner and "nobody could ever get up that trail without being seen." This makes it appear to be a who-of-the-three type of detective story.

Caronna hired a big city detective to find evidence exonerating him of any suspicion and his proclamation of innocence is oddly compelling ("I ain't had a hand in a killin' in—in years"). So our nameless detective tackles the case in the typical, hardboiled manner and, more than once, has to use his fists to get out of a tight corner, but they were some of the best fistfights ever seen inside the squared circle of a pulp magazine and this should not come as a surprise – considering L'Amour competed as a professional boxer. However, the highlight of the story was the solution to the impossible murder. A solution I detested on first sight, a weird menace-type of explanation, but quickly grew incredibly fond of it.

Yes, "The Hills of Homicide" turned out to be an actual locked room mystery, of sorts, in spite of the foundation for such a story looking as leaky as the haul of the Titanic. One of the suspects found another way to reach the house, qualifying it as an impossible crime story, but the bizarre solution struck me as preposterous. Something only a pulp writer would dare to offer as a solution. However, the nameless detective mentioned that this method is used in some parts of the world by criminals "to gain access to locked houses." So looked around the web and what do you know? Apparently, this method was even used on the battlefield with a notable example dating back to the 17th century (historical spoiler, click at your own risk). This made me do 180 on my initial reaction to the solution.

"The Hills of Homicide" is a cracking example of the more plot-driven, hardboiled locked room mysteries with a plot that has time to spare to settle a score in the "best scrap" the town has ever witnessed. Quality pulp! And highly recommended!

A note for the curious: the story briefly mentions miners are smuggling small amounts of gold ore out of the mine, which should be practically impossible to do, because Sheriff Loftus explains they have "a change room where the miners take off their diggin' clothes" and "walk naked for their shower" – coming out on "the other side for their street clothes." But they always find a way to get out with some gold. Obviously, a solution is never given for this quasi-impossible crime, but I gave it some thought and came up with a more dignified way to smuggle the gold pass the change-and shower rooms. All a smuggler has to do is grow a decently sized beard and use it to tie a small, oilskin pouch under his chin that will be hidden from view by the rest of the beard. A miner's curtain! 

2/16/20

The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) by Norman Berrow

Norman Berrow was, like Fergus Hume and Arthur W. Upfield, a British-born Antipodean mystery novelist whose parents settled down in Ngaio Marsh's hometown, Christchurch, New Zealand, where he became one of the country's foremost craftsman of the locked room mystery – only Max Afford nipped close at his heels. You can find an entire page worth filled with alluring descriptions of Berrow's original-sounding impossible crime fiction in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).

The Bishop's Sword (1948) has no less than three impossible appearances and disappearances, which includes astral-projection and the theft of a sword from a hermetically sealed cabinet. A giant, disembodied thumb crushes a man to death in The Spaniard's Thumb (1949) and Don't Jump, Mr. Boland! (1954) has a body inexplicably vanishing from the bottom of a steep cliff, but my sole exposure to Berrow had been his ambitious take on the 1855 Devil's Hoof-marks of Devon, The Footprints of Satan (1950). An impossible crime novel that turned the footprints-in-the-snow gimmick into a wintry obstacle course.

So what has kept me from exploring Berrow's work further? Honestly, I've no idea. Somehow, Berrow simply slipped through the cracks, but my fellow blogger and locked room fanboy, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, has been praising his work for years and served as a reminder to, one of the days, return to Berrow – which brings us to the subject of today's review. Another one of Berrow's detective novels listed in Locked Room Murders with several fantastic-sounding impossibilities.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947) is the first title in the Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith series and has a plot comprising of three isolated, seemingly unconnected disappearance cases defying the laws of space and time.

Winchingham is "a pleasant, peaceful spot" with "an old-world, unhurried atmosphere" populated by "industrious, unassuming and law-abiding" people. A small, quiet town with "no vices," but the Winchingham became the stage of "a triple mystery" that disturbed "the cosmic calm of esoteric circles" in Great Britain and was eventually solved by "a prosaic police officer." An eerie, fantastic case of The Man Who Had No Existence, the Phantom Room and The Stolen Street!

The first fantastic tier begins with a woman, Miss Janet Soames, who lives with her "selfish, domineering old humbug" of a brother and golf was her only escape from the house. Miss Soames was on the verge of becoming a middle-aged spinster when, one day, out of nowhere, Prince Charming appears.

Philip Strong claims to have been in love with her for a long time and they begin each other, in secret, until they decide to elope under the cover of night. Philip brings her to the house of an old friend, Jimmy Melrose, who has become an ardent spiritualist in his old age and even his very own séance room, but Janet has an eerie, unsettling feeling before entering the house – like "a forerunner of the nightmare" that was about to engulf her. Janet witnesses how Philip cheerfully mounting a staircase and waited for the top board to utter its "protesting creak," but she only caught a very deep sigh and, just like that, Philip ceased to exist. Not only had he had vanished, like a popped soap bubble, but everyone denied he was ever there! A cabdriver and Mr. Melrose's butler, Porter, swear up and down Janet had arrived at the house alone. And the Philip Strong they knew had been dead for the past seven years!

The "invisible companion" had been brilliantly used by John Dickson Carr in his well-known radio-play, "Cabin B-13," which later received a highly original treatment at the hands of Edward D. Hoch with "The Problem of the Leather Man" (collected in All But Impossible: The Impossible Files of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 2017), but the solution was underwhelming and the premise clumsily handled. Giving too much away about the overarching scheme to the suspicious-minded armchair detective. There is, however, still so much to come!

In the Second Tier, the reader is introduced to an astute businessman and embezzler, Sherman Stokes, who's in the process of absconding with a modest fortune. But he's interrupted by his private-secretary, Miss Lana Booth. She knows what he has been up to and want to share in the spoils, which comes with an offer to become his "wife" and already has made arrangements. So without much of choice, Stokes agrees and they set-off for South America, but their car breaks down in Winchingham and are forced to stay the night at a haunted roadhouse, The Welcome Inn – which was once the property of an eccentric recluse whose hobby was dabbling in mysticism. Since he died at the turn of the century, the place has been haunted by a mischievous entity that has steadily chased away paying customers. So the place is closing down the following day. Stokes and Miss Booth can only get a room with no service, but what a room!

An old-looking, but royally furnished room, with a fireplace, french-windows, tapestry and huge, Queen-like bed with red, gold-flecked bedspread and "a Tibetan devil-mask" hanging on the wall – located on the second-floor. Only problem is that there's no such room at the inn. The place doesn't even have a second-floor! The phantom room has disappeared together with a valise full of embezzled money!

This second impossibility of a phantom room and a non-existent, second-floor is easily the best of the three with a more carefully handled presentation and a satisfying solution, which is not entirely original at its core. But the idea was very well executed. Coincidentally, the earlier mentioned Hoch collection, All But Impossible, has a short story, entitled "The Problem of the Phantom Parlor," working with the same idea and plot-elements. So did Hoch read The Three Tiers of Fantasy and thought he could improve on the first two impossibilities, because I can see how he saw possibilities for alternative, more original, solutions in the answers to the tier one and two.

Funnily enough, you can find a third story in All But Impossible, "The Problem of the Missing Roadhouse," which has an impossible disappearance that's a mixture of tier two and three. But not nearly as good as the other two stories or this novel.

The third and final tier is a direct ancestor of Paul Halter's La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005) with an alleyway, haunted by visions of the long-ago past, which has recently began to disappear and reappear again. Mrs. Josephine Prattley has decided to spend the weekend at the house of a local artist, Darcy Cherrington, but, when they arrive at his home, he tells Mrs. Prattley to wait outside as he puts the car away and simply vanishes without a sound – prompting her to enter the garage. She walks straight into "an medieval drinking den" with "medieval-looking people," speaking Shakespearean English, where she sees two of those people being put to the sword. A horrendous crime that took place there in 1597! Mrs. Prattley flies the scene, but, when she returns with a policeman in tow, the whole passageway has vanished. Only to reappear a short while later!

The problem of the stolen street is, sadly, the least impressive, or imaginative, of the three miraculous vanishings and even Detective-Inspector Smith admits the explanation is "disappointingly simple." But, in the defense of the author, there's only so much you can do to make a street disappear and the solution provided an entirely new answer to the problem. So there's that.

Detective-Inspector Smith makes short appearances in each tier to discuss and comment on these fantastic problems, but finally stirs to life in the fourth act, "The Toppling of the Tiers," in which he methodically reconstructs and demolishes the supernatural events that have plagued Winchingham. And there were more than those three apparently supernatural disappearances. The locked séance room of Mr. Melrose is ransacked by an evil, otherworldly, entity and a road barricade proved to have an illusory quality. Framed pictures were flying off the wall and a lift was operated by invisible hands at the inn. A man who left no fingerprints and a hat and coat go missing without anyone having been near them before they disappeared.

One by one, Smith strips them of their unearthly quality to reveal "the underlying sordid, mercenary motive" and, as an impossible crime, fanboy it was joy to read these chapters. You can figure out pretty much everything before you get to these explanatory chapters, but loved how these plot-strands were intertwined and knotted together at the end. Some other, non-impossible aspects of the solution were a bit cliché, but, honestly, I have never seen them put to better use than here.

The Three Tiers of Fantasy has a plot brimming with ghostly activities, supernatural occurrences and inexplicable disappearances, which makes it tempting to draw a comparison with Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), but story was not packed a dark, doom-laden atmosphere – more in the spirit of a spirited, pulp-style caper (c.f. Hilary St. George Saunders' The Sleeping Bacchus, 1951). Or perhaps a better comparison would be some of the later "Carter Dickson" titles in which Carr experimented with murderless detective novels about impossible disappearances, such as Lord of the Sorcerers (1945) and A Graveyard to Let (1949), but written with the vigor of Herbert Brean (e.g. Hardly a Man is Now Alive, 1950).

So, to cut a long, rambling review short, The Three Tiers of Fantasy only failed to tax the brains of the armchair detective, but, in every other aspect, it was a thoroughly entertaining mystery caper crammed with impossible situations and locked room puzzles! Highly recommended, if your taste runs in that direction.

2/13/20

The Helm of Hades (2019) by Paul Halter

I've reviewed a sundry of short (locked room) stories over the past two years, ranging from the anonymously published "The Grosvenor Square Mystery" (1909) to Anne van Doorn's ghostly "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018), but my last review of a short story collection was D.L. Champion's The Complete Cases of Inspector Allhoff, vol. 1 (2014) – posted back in April of last year. So it was about time I tackled another compendium and John Pugmire's Locked Room International recently published something that fitted the bill.

The Helm of Hades (2019) is Paul Halter's second collection of short stories to appear in English, preceded by the appetizingly The Night of the Wolf (2006), which formally introduced non-French speaking readers to Halter's imaginative brand of detective fiction. This second volume comprises entirely of translated stories that were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine between 2007 and 2019. And celebrated French locked room anthologist, Roland Lacourbe, penned an introduction promising "the wildest impossibilities." Well, that enough to lure me into the back of your van!

"Le gong hanté" ("The Gong of Doom") is the fist of ten stories and takes place at "the meeting-place of a select circle of prosperous Londoners" devoted to "the discussion of puzzling mysteries," The Hades Club, where Dr. Alan Twist tells Superintendent Charles Cullen the story of "a senseless and inexplicable murder" – committed at the end Great War. Colonel Henry Strange has an argument with the prospective husband of his niece, Philip, inside his locked study. During their argument, the haunted gong in the study sounded without being struck and Colonel Strange sank to the floor with an arrow piercing his neck. However, the door of the study was locked on in the inside and the ground overlooking the open window was covered with virgin snow. So there was nowhere any mysterious archer could have hidden to fire the fatal arrow.

A solid and tantalizing premise reminiscent of the locked room situation from Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938), but the solution is a coincidence-laden farce and an absolute cheat! I suppose the farcical slant could, sort of, have worked has the ultimate fate of Philip not cast a bleak shadow over the story. However, I did like the false-solution that made use of the kandjar (a dagger) hanging on the wall. Otherwise, a very poor story that should not have opened this collection.

"L'échelle de Jacob" ("The Ladder of Jacob") is an excellently done short story about a man who fell to his death from a great height without any tall buildings or cliffs at the scene, but have already discussed the story in my review of the massive locked room anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017). The third story is "L'homme au visage d'argile" ("The Man with the Face of Clay"), but read it before and disliked the solution to the locked room shooting. One of my big no-noes.

The next story in line is "La vengeance de l'épouvantail" ("The Scarecrow's Revenge") and succeeded where "The Gong of Doom" failed so miserably.

Dr. Alan Twist is in France where Commissaire Pierre Legrand tells him about an abominable crime that took place in Gondeville, a small village not far from Cognac, which involved a dead, but vengeful, husband and a premonitory dream that came to pass only a few hours later – in "the form of an impossible crime." Janine is haunted by the memory of her late, unlamented husband and has a terrifying nightmare that he came back in the guise of their scarecrow. And killed her father with a pitchfork. This nightmare became a reality when her father is found the following morning lying on the muddy ground beneath the scarecrow with only one set of footprints going from the front door to the scarecrow.

A very well-done, properly motivated impossible crime story with a better and more original solution than the answer to the homicidal snowman from "L'abominable homme de neige" ("The Abominable Snowman," collected in The Night of the Wolf). A solution that both worked and was genuinely tragic without the grim bleakness.

"Les feux de l'Enfer" ("The Fires of Hell") is, plot-wise, one of the weakest story in the collection and revolves around a man who can see visions of the future, which he used to predict a series of "inexplicable fires" that even a police cordon was unable to prevent. However, the firebug is easily spotted and the method was more underwhelming than disappointing. You can find better treatments of the impossible fire-starter gimmick in John Russell Fearn's Flashpoint (1950) and Arthur Porges' "To Barbecue a White Elephant" and "Fire for Peace" (collected in These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie, 2018).

Last year, I reviewed "Le loup de Fenrir" ("The Wolf of Fenrir") together with "Le livre jaune" ("The Yellow Book") and three other, non-English detective stories in a post entitled "Murder Around the World: A Review of Five Short Detective Stories" – which, like this review, turned out to be a mixed bag of tricks. On the one hand, "The Yellow Book" was a wonderfully crafted story with an excellent variation on a locked room-trick from one of Halter's earlier novels. In comparison, "The Wolf of Fenrir" was only so-so.

"La balle de Nausicaa" ("Nausicaa's Ball") is the only non-impossible crime story to be found in this collection and seems to be modeled after such Agatha Christie stories as Evil Under the Sun (1941), Towards Zero (1944) and "Triangle at Rhodes" (collected in Murder in the Mews and Other Stories, 1937). Dr. Alan Twist is on a much deserve holiday in Corfu, Greece, where he hopes to have a break from all the inexplicable, seemingly unsolvable murders dogging his every step, but, on his first day, bumped into a holidaying Superintendent Cullen. Soon their attention is drawn to the cast and film crew staying at their hotel. And, in particular, the eternal triangle of the group.

Rachel Syms is a gorgeous actress who was the female-lead in a movie that was shot in the same location a year ago, but she fell in love with her young, unknown screen partner, Anthony Shamp, who, according to the critics, played "a marvelous Ulysses" – returning a year later to shoot the sequel. She brought along her husband, George Portman. A perfect recipe for murder! This comes to pass when George's falls to his death from "a series of steps cut into the rock which zig-zag down a hundred feet to the beach," but the lonely, isolated location of the lagoon severely reduces the number of suspects. The solution hinges on pulling apart a carefully-planned alibi, but there's one technical detail that raised an eyebrow. Nonetheless, this story still stands as a nicely done homage to the Queen of Crime from a modern craftsman of the locked room puzzle.

"La tombe de David Jones" ("The Robber's Grave") is a good example of Halter's fertile imagination when it comes to dreaming up new seemingly impossible situations and reviewed it last year, under the title  "Devil's Soil: Halter, Hoch and Hoodwinks," together with a story from the King of the Short Story, Edward D. Hoch.

Lastly, the collection closes out with the most recently translated short story, "Le casque d'Hadès" ("The Helm of Hades"), published in the March/April, 2019, issue of EQMM. This time the detective is the Edwardian-era aesthete and amateur reasoner, Owen Burns, who acts as an armchair oracle as he listens to the tale of a murder that appears "to have been inspired by the prince of darkness himself." A well-known archaeologist, Conrad Berry, who threw a party to celebrate his greatest discovery, the Helm of Hades. A legendary bronze helmet that makes everyone who wears it "as transparent as the air that you breathe." During the party, Berry is savagely attached inside his archaeological room while people were sitting outside.

According to their evidence, they heard the footsteps of "an invisible creature" walking across the creaky floorboards of the room, open and close the door of the archaeological room, carry out a brutal and noisy assault – after which it retraced its footsteps and knocked over a Chinese vase on the way. As if an invisible entity had entered and left the scene of the crime! A very original and grandly staged premise for a locked room mystery, but the solution, while acceptable enough, has a weakness I've come to associate with Jonathan Creek (e.g. Angel Hair, 2003). A type of involved solution that can only work when it's really, really involved.

I used to believe the short story format brought out the best in Halter, because it allowed him to play on his major strengths (plot and imagination), while downplaying his weaknesses, but have only read a selection of (mostly) his better short stories since his first collection was published in 2006. This colored my perception over the years. The Helm of Hades shows he was very hit-and-miss and needs the length of a novel to give his plethora of ideas some breathing space. Halter still produced a some classic short locked room stories, but, in general, I think he's better when writing novel-length impossible crime stories. Just read L'homme qui aimait les nuages (The Man Who Loved Clouds, 1999) or Le montre en or (The Gold Watch, 2019).

So, yeah, The Helm of Hades is, as so often is the case with these collection, a mixed bag of tricks, but the better specimens, such as "The Scarecrow's Revenge," "The Robber's Grave" and "The Yellow Book," still makes it a welcome addition to my locked room library.

2/10/20

The Second Shot (1930) by Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley's The Second Shot (1930) is the sixth title in the Roger Sheringham series and was first published at the dawn of the Golden Decade when the traditional, plot-oriented detective story burst into energetic adolescence, but Berkeley was already looking decades ahead with The Second Shot – asking the question "what is the future of the detective story?" Berkeley prophesied in his dedication that "the puzzle element" will become "a puzzle of character" rather than "a puzzle of time, place, motive, and opportunity."

A type of detective story exploring "what remarkable combination of circumstances did bring X" to "the decision that nothing short of murder would meet the case," which is sadly the direction the genre went with by the time the 1960s rolled around.

So you might be worried to learn Berkeley endeavored to write "the story of a murder" rather than "the story of the detection of a murder" with The Second Shot, but Berkeley was more than a visionary. He was a talented plotter who understood that even the most detailed character portrait needs a frame to be truly complete. This is done here by not disclosing the murderer's identity and telling "the reader-detective" to "use his own wits a little more," because not all of his thinking is done for him here and showcases that valuable mystery writer's asset – namely the ability to lie through your teeth by strictly speaking the truth. You have to remember Berkeley was playing with these ideas when the pure, Golden Age detective story still had to produce most of its monumental classics. But did it work? Let's find out!

The Second Shot opens with a grabbed-from-the-headlines prologue reporting on "a shocking accident" that occurred at the residence of the scientific farmer and celebrated mystery novelist, John Hillyard. A small house party had staged an outdoors murder mystery at Minton Deeps Farm, but the pseudo-victim was found at the end of the day with a very real gunshot wound. And the police have their reasons to believe this was not an unfortunate accident with a carelessly-handled rifle.

The story then shifts to first-person narration with the manuscript of Cyril "Pinkie" Pinkerton, who comes across as, what I believe the British call, a bit of a posh twat.

Pinkerton had often thought of writing a detective story from the point-of-view of the murderer, "showing his hopes and terrors as the process of detection progresses," but now had an opportunity to put "academic theory" into "grim practice" – because he's primary suspect in a murder case. Pinkerton is a childhood friend of Mrs. Ethel Hillyard and was invited under a neutral flag to a house party given under false colors and an ulterior motive.

Mrs. Hillyard acts as the self-appointed guardian of the young daughter of a late friend of hers, Elsa Verity, who's "innocent in the ways of the world" and has fallen under the spell of a popular, well-known man-about-town and all-around cad. Eric Scott-Davies is a womanizer, mired in scandals, who's rapidly squandering the family fortunes. So, Mrs. Hillyard not being born yesterday, pretended to go along with Elsa's fancies and made her believe the party had been solely arranged for their benefit. But in reality, she mixed together a social party guaranteed to explode and consume Eric. Eric's name has been coupled with Sylvia de Ravel in the gossip columns and only her husband, Paul, gives the impression of being unaware of the affair, but Sylvia's not the kind of woman "who can be picked up, toyed with for a time, and then dropped," which is why Ethel invited them both. She also asked Eric's cousin, Armorel, to balance out the numbers, but she has her own reasons to prefer her unruly cousin dead rather than alive. Pinkerton is simply there to distract Elsa from Eric.

A potentially hazardous social gathering and, through Pinkerton's narrative, the reader sees the wheels of murder slowly grinding into motion, but the human element also begins to intrude as not everyone is what they appeared to be on first glance – in particular our narrator, Pinkerton, who becomes more likable as the story progresses. Berkeley delivered on his promise to craft a puzzle of characters and what makes them tick. But not to the deep, murky depths of the contemporary crime novel. Because the story still has a plot.

Once the mock-detective investigated the scene of the staged murder, the party returned to the farm and on their way back two shots, five minutes apart, where heard. When Eric failed to return, two of them went looking for him in the woods and found his lifeless body a short distance away from the scene of the staged murder. Since our narrator becomes the prime suspect, he dispatches a telegram to Roger Sheringham telling him he's stuck in "a perilous position" and urgently needs his help.

My confrere, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, complained in his 2016 review of The Second Shot that A Challenge to the Reader around the halfway mark, "the reader should now, at this stage in the story, be fully aware whose finger pulled the fatal trigger," rendered Sheringham subsequent investigation useless to the reader. But this is not entirely true. Firstly, Sheringham always brings a story to life with his energetic detective work and fanciful theories, which had its effect on the other (main) characters who become more human-like in his presence. And, noticeable, a comedic element slipped into the story (e.g. Armorel at the inquest). Secondly, Sheringham is the best of the so-called fallible detectives and his multiple, false-solution, particularly the last one, were needed to make the ending work – which is where Berkeley showed his brilliance. Although one aspect of the solution hasn't aged very well over the past ninety years.

The central idea behind the solution had already been experimented with in the 1920s, but The Second Shot would probably still have surprised readers in 1930. Readers who read Golden Age mysteries in 2020 are more genre-savvy than those in 1930 and this allows us to spot Berkeley telegraphing the final twist very early on in the story. Something that couldn't be more obvious, if he was semaphoring the murderer's name in your living-room. So, plot-technically, the story is a clever piece of work, but where the solution acquired a timeless quality is how it subverted its own premise.

Berkeley told in the dedication that "the days of the old crime puzzle pure and simple" where, if not numbered, at any rate in "the hands of the auditors" with "psychological ties" slowly replacing the hard puzzle pieces. This he said when the plot-driven detective story was only just beginning to bloom, but Berkeley wanted to write a character-driven tale of murder and basically an anti-detective story with Sheringham miserably failing at deducing the truth. Only to turn around and show the crime was executed with all the grandeur of a Golden Age detective story. Something you would expect from a writer like Ngaio Marsh! Yes, Berkeley was playing with the conventions of a type of crime fiction that would not fully emerge until two or three decades later! What a guy!

Some aspects of The Second Shot don't work as well in 2020 as they did in 1930, but the story, as a whole, is an excellent showcase of Berkeley's originality and talent as a plotter, which shined even when he was shining the spotlight on the characters – complimented with a superb use of the multiple twists and false solutions. So definitely recommended (sorry, JJ!).