8/29/16

In the Teeth of the Evidence


"It is really a most extraordinary case."
- Dr. Constantine (Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express, 1934)
Molly Thynne was born into nobility, a member of the English aristocracy, who was related, on her mother's side, to the painter James McNeil Whistler and as a young, impressionable girl met such literary luminaries as Rudyard Kipling and Henry James – which may have influenced her own literary endeavors later on in life. But, as Sherlock Holmes once famously observed, "art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms."

In the case of Thynne, this meant that she turned her back on the lofty heights of literature and descended into the dark bowels of popular-fiction. Over a period of six years, she penned half a dozen detective stories, of which three were standalone novels, but the remainder were part of a short-lived series about Dr. Constantine – a Greek "chess playing amateur detective" who was placed by the critics among "the Frenches and Fortunes" of the genre.

Lamentably, the relentless march of time was not very kind to Thynne and she eventually fell prey to obscurity. Even the fairly comprehensive Golden Age of Detection Wiki, a veritable who's who of who the hell are these folks, does not have single page on Thynne or any of her books. Now that's genuine obscurity! However, Thynne and Dr. Constantine are about to be rescued from the purgatory of biblioblivion.

Dean Street Press is going to reissue all six of her detective stories and our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, furnished these new editions with an introduction, which touched upon her family background and brief career as a mystery novelist. It adds some interesting background details to these long-forgotten mysteries and the person who wrote them.

So let's take a look at one of them: Death in the Dentist's Chair (1932) is the second book about Dr. Constantine and Detective-Inspector Arkwright, who made their first appearance in The Crime at Noah Ark: A Christmas Mystery (1931) and bowed out in He Dies and Makes No Sign (1933), which also happened to be Thynne's swan song – after which she vanished from the scene. She retired from authorship without a discernable reason. The critics were very positive about her books and she was "independently wealthy," which would have allowed her to continue to dabble in the genre, but, perhaps, she got bored in the end. Anyway...

The opening of Death in the Dentist's Chair takes place in the dental practice of Mr. Humphrey Davenport, society dentist, where several patients are congregating in the waiting room: Mr. Cattistock is taking a breather after having several of his front teeth removed, which he experiences as a terrible blow to his self-confidence. Mrs. Vallon, widow of a theatrical manager, had a bad toothache, but she found that the pain had subsided after a pleasant conversation with Dr. Constantine. Sir Richard Pomfrey was introduced as "a prey of unease" who, sincerely and devoutly, wished the morning was over. Finally, there's Lottie Miller, wife of a London jeweler, but she's described as an unpleasant, garish-looking woman with a bad-tempered mouth.

The most famous dentist mystery
Mrs. Miller is the first one to be ushered into Davenport's consulting room, but her appointment seems to drag on and on. Dr. Constantine decided to poke around and finds what, initially, appears to be an embarrassment: Davenport left Mrs. Miller behind in the consulting room to adjust her dentures, but, upon his return, he found the door to be locked from the inside. Mrs. Miller seems to be completely unresponsive.

So the dentist's mechanic is summoned from his workshop to remove the screws from the lock on the door and what they find is horrifying: Mrs. Miller is seated in the dentist's chair and underneath her chin was now "a larger and more gaping travesty of the toothless mouth above," which is an ugly, dark gash – in which "the blood that had now ceased to spurt still frothed and bubbled." On the floor, to the left of the chair, was a bloodstained knife. Someone had slipped in, cut her throat and escaped through the open window, which had traces of blood and soot on it. The key to the door was found outside.

I guess this premise proved I suffer from, what Edmund Crispin described as, "locked rooms on the brain," because I was convinced this was an impossible crime in disguise and Davenport was the murderer. After all, why slash someone's throat when she was having a dentist’s appointment? I reasoned this was the only opportunity Davenport had to get to the victim, but this, potentially, also made him a prime-suspect. So he needed to distract the attention away from himself by making it appear someone else entered the room and left through the window. This could simply be accomplished by cutting her throat, opening the window, creating the blood-and soot traces on the window sill and locking the door behind him. He could simply fling the key out of the window of another, nearby room in the building.

However, the whole affair revealed itself to be far more complicated and original than my own locked room fancies!

Dr. Constantine and D.I. Arkwright are immediately confronted with a whole slew of complications: Mr. Cattistock has vanished and Sir Richard briefly left the waiting room at the time of the murder, which looks very suspicious when the police suspects him of having a past with the victim. Mrs. Vallon seems above reproach: no apparent motive and her alibi is Dr. Constantine, but, of course, that means nothing in a detective story. Then there's the widowed husband, Mr. Charles Miller, who has a dark, murky past and did not get on well with his wife, but now he appears to be "badly frightened."

Murder in the Torture-Chair
The case truly becomes complicated when the body of a second woman is discovered on a doorstep of Eccleston Square, throat cut with a similar looking knife as was used on Mrs. Miller, which is entangled in a crisscross of international connections. The second victim is found to have Russian antecedents. Both of the murder weapons are of Chinese origin and Cattistock worked in that country as a missionary. Mr. Miller's shady past is rooted in South Africa and they extend all the way to Switzerland and eventually England.

Arkwright finds the whole case "too damned geographical" for his taste, but he forms an engaging duo with Dr. Constantine and they do an excellent job at following all of these globally scattered plot-threads back to the killer. One of Dr. Constantine's approach to uncover information clearly showed the influence Dorothy L. Sayers had on Thynne's detective fiction: Dr. Constantine used his valet, Manners, to do a spot of legwork – which I found to be very reminiscent of Mervyn Bunter's role in the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

However, as was pointed out in this review, the reader was sometimes kept in the dark about the finer details of Dr. Constantine's investigation, but that turned out to be a minor complaint when the explanation was unveiled – an explanation that was build around parts of what was then still fairly recent history. And those parts were used better than I expected. The plot could’ve easily dissolved into a third-rate thriller in the final leg of the book, but Thynne kept the story firmly grounded in the detective story territory and this made the ending all the more effective. So I definitely want to read the other two Dr. Constantine mysteries.

On a final, hastily scribbled note, I’ve to point something out: one of the first things that came to mind when I read about this series was Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express (1934), because one of the characters is a Greek physician, named Dr. Constantine, which could've been just a coincidence. 

However, I've a good reason to believe this may not be the case. Death in the Dentist’s Chair and The Murder on the Orient Express also have an interesting plot-thread in common: they both share an almost identical language-clue, but it gets better. These clues are not only based on the Russian language, but they also concern the except same letter in both novels! It's not exactly a stock-in-trade clue you'll find any other mystery novel from this era. So maybe the inclusion of a Dr. Constantine was a nod and wink at the book that helped Christie plot The Murder on the Orient Express. It’s possible, right?

8/27/16

The Devil's Trickery

"But what's puzzling you, is the nature of my game."
- The Rolling Stones (Sympathy for the Devil)
The 57th volume of Case Closed, originally published as Detective Conan, commences with a devil of a case and centers around several clever, but riskily, executed murders, which also concern the unraveling of Eisuke Hondo's back-story – one of the focal points of the previous volume.

In the first pages of the opening story, Conan is still digesting the information from the previous volume and tries to fit certain pieces of the puzzle together. But then an opportunity presented itself to gather further information about the background of their friend: Eisuke Hondo invites them to accompany him to the home of the former employers of his late mother. She had used to be employed there as a live-in maid and the family recently came across some of his mother's memento's, which included a photograph and a birth certificate. Coincidently, the same family also engaged the professional services of Richard Moore.

A year ago, the body of Tango, only son of the head of the Okudaira family, was found floating in the swimming pool outside of the house, but the circumstances ruled out an accident or suicide: the body was tied up and a piece of duct-tape was plastered across the mouth. The initial police investigation established that everyone in the home was in possession of an alibi and they assumed the murder was an outside job, but his father, Kakuzo, tells Moore that he believes his son "was murdered by a rotten sneak lurking in my own home." Kakuzo's suspicions are confirmed when he himself is murdered under strange circumstances.

When roaming the premise, they hear a crash coming from the study and Kakuzo screaming a warning, "don't open the door," but there's no other way to enter the room and when they open the door they find him hanging from the ceiling – bleeding from the mouth and gasping for breath. Kakuzo died en route to the hospital. Once again, the situation precludes suicide and a blood-dripped dying message claims the killer is from Hades itself, but I found this dying clue to be ridiculous, unconvincing and completely unsolvable for non-Japanese speaking readers. The actual gem of the plot is the rather ingenious method for the hanging and the role a shattered vase had in its setup. It also revealed itself to be, somewhat, of a locked room mystery.

There is, however, one weakness: Kakuzo probably would not have died, because there was no sheer drop to break the neck and only dangled shortly at the end of that rope. So he probably would not have died in real-life, but, nonetheless, a clever trick showing the hand of a particular cruel and vengeful murderer. By the way, the method for the drowning was much simpler, but equally cruel and "both murders were designed to prolong the victims' suffering." 

The second story is an inverted mystery: Satan Onizuka is the lead singer of "a visual rock band," Styx's III, who has a serious falling out with his personal agent and he goes to town on him with a sharp knife. Scene of the crime is a private-room at Nichiuri TV-station and the question this poses is how the rock singer managed to kill his agent without being seen in the corridors.

Satan Onizuka presents himself as a demonic singer, complete with Kiss-style makeup, which prevented him from moving around the studio complex without being recognized. It's unlikely he wiped his face clean and reapplied the face paint upon his return to his dressing room, because he happened to occupy the only dressing room that was stripped of its mirrors and his personal handler had not yet returned with a new hand mirror – which gave him precious little wiggle room to gut his agent.

Unfortunately, for the singer, Conan, Doc Agasa and the members of the Junior Detective League were on the studio's premise at the time of the murder. They were there to attend the taping of a Samurai Kid episode, but those plans got canned. So they had to settle on playing detective. Conan sharply observes the importance of such clues as Satan's lavish lunch, his dry eyes and origami animals on the dressing room table. This all makes for a nice little story and an interesting companion piece to the previous story. The motives are pretty much the same, but the murderer turned out to be surprisingly human in this story. Even though he presented himself as a demon from hell.

By the way, I only know of one other detective story that uses origami figures as a clue: Robert van Gulik's Nagels in Ning-tsjo (The Chinese Nail Murders, 1961).

The third story is a very short, mildly humorous chase tale, consisting of a single chapter, in which Richard Moore is very keen to shake an unknown person off his tail. But this unknown person seems to be able to find him everywhere he decides to go. There's not much else to say about this chapter except it was a quick, fun little intermezzo.

Finally, the last three chapters continue with the Eisuke Hondo story-line, which is laced with important revelations about his father, sister, Rena Mizunashi, Black Organization and the involvement of the CIA. It also contains a mini-puzzle at the hospital, in which Conan has to deduce the identity of a spy from three potential suspects. One of them posing as a patient. But this story will be included in the next volume. So I might have to lift that one from the pile sooner rather than later.

Overall, a good and clever, if not always a perfect, collection of detective stories with some significant progress in one of the ongoing story-lines as one of the high spots of the volume. The other highlight was the bit with the vase from the hanging case in the first story. I genuinely liked that bit.

Well, I hope to be back before too long with a long-forgotten detective story from the Golden Age. So stay tuned!

8/25/16

Disinter the Past


"Down at the bottom of that crack were bones, a jumble of old gray bones. The remains of a human skeleton, complete with grinning skull."
- The Nameless Detective (Bill Pronzini's Bones, 1985)
For some strange, indefinable reason, I acquired somewhat of a reputation as an unabashed fanboy of locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories, which I mentioned once or twice here, but I used to have a different fascination – stories about long-forgotten murders or recently unearthed skeletons.

During my early days, I was intrigued by the idea of old, unsolved crimes or a pile of earth-caked bones becoming the incarnate past to haunt the people who were involved in the case a lifetime ago. This is probably why I enjoyed Agatha Christie's Elephants Can Remember (1972) more than most.

So imagine my excitement when I discovered Bones (1985) by Bill Pronzini. The plot of the book dealt with the dodgy suicide of a pulp writer, who allegedly shot himself inside a locked room, which was followed by a local earthquake that uncovered a jumble of old bones. A brace of long-forgotten crimes stretching back decades into the past and one of them was a clever, well-executed impossible murder. It was an absolute treat!

The reason for bringing this up is that I found a locked room novel that, in many ways, is comparable to the plot of Pronzini's Bones.

A Child's Garden of Death (1975) is the first of ten novels about Lyon and Bea Wentworth, written by the late Richard Forrest over a thirty year period, of which five can be qualified as impossible crime stories and several seem to have very original premises – such as a vanishing airplane (Death Through the Looking Glass, 1978) and the disappearance of a houseboat (Death On the Mississippi, 1989). However, the locked room is only a minor part of the overall plot in this series opener and it is tucked away in the final quarter of the book.

What drives the plot is the uncovering of three buried skeletons, nestled together in a makeshift grave, who were evidently murdered: clobbered to death with something very heavy as "each skull is filled with fractures." Two of three skeletons were adults, a man and a woman, but the third one, a small skeleton, belonged to a child of about eight years of age – who was found clutching a "mottled and decomposed doll." Chief Rocco Herbert, of the Murphysville Police, is tasked with figuring out what happened at that desolate spot over thirty years ago, but small town politics immediately rears its ugly head. Rocco's brother-in-law, Captain Norbert of the State Police, wants take over the case from the local police, but Rocco sees this as an opportunity: he can retire from the force and run for town clerk "if this thing is handled properly." So he turns to his best friend, Lyon, to help him out with identifying the remains and finding their killer.

The first half of the book consists of two things: one of them is establishing the identity of the murdered family, which they accomplished when they drag a nearby lake and find an old house trailer. This makes for a nice diving-scene as Lyon peddles through the submerged vehicle and finds that, considering the circumstances, "the trailer's interior was in remarkable conditions." It's littered with silent witnesses whispering about the past lives of those three skeletons: a growth-covered dollhouse, rusted silverware, two sets of dishes, a water-corroded toolbox and a bookshelf filled with rotting books. I really the imagery of this particular scene and is what put Lyon on the trail of the murderer. A trail leading straight to a factory of airplane engines and their role in World War II.

Secondly, the story is very definitely an introduction to the primary characters: Lyon is presented to the reader as a "writer of children's fantasy," who created The Wobblies, which are described as "a cross between Gothic gargoyle and yeti," but were gentle and benign creatures. He uses the royalties of these books to slowly renovate the home. Bea is a local politician, a state senator, who was "becoming a political power in the state," but she also has hearing problem. She occasionally screams her lines in all caps. However, they have a genuine tragedy in the background of their life: their only child, a small girl, was killed in a hit-and-run and this fuels Lyon's investigation.

To cope with the lost of his daughter, Lyon picked up an interesting hobby that plays a minor part in the story: he has become a balloonist and often takes to the air.

Well, this part of the investigation and the fleshing out of the series characters is padded with some thriller-material, which comes in the guise of several attempts on the lives of both Lyon and Rocco. Some of these attempts were very close calls and one of them actually results in a casualty. These desperate attempts on the part of the murderer are not only because they're getting awfully close, but also the stubbornness of Lyon. On several occasions, everyone thought the whole matter was cleared up, but Lyon refused to settle for an easy answer. This eventually leads to a murder, disguised as a suicide, inside a locked office-room.

One of the people who came up during the investigation died shortly after a physical altercation, but every piece of evidence seems to indicate this person took his own life: the office-room was locked from the inside and the door had to be busted open after a shot was heard. The gun was found on the body and a message on the recording machine sounds like a suicide note. But, once again, Lyon refuses to settle for an easy answer and comes up with a rather clever explanation streaked with some original ideas, which, sadly, proved to be wrong. Granted, it was a bit gimmicky, but still good and even today came across as a novel idea. The part of the locked was a good idea and surprised the idea was not expended upon by other locked room specialists.

Anyway, the actual solution for the impossibility was pretty routine and unimpressive. I've seen variations of this shop-worn trick too often and the excellent, but false, solution should have been matched with an equally good and original explanation. Or they should have been switched around. I also wished the murderer had been less obvious.

In any case, I found A Child's Garden of Death as interesting as a mystery novel as it was delightfully unusual and admire the attempt at bridging the gap between the detective stories from the Golden Age and those from the post-World War II era. It slipped, here and there, but, overall, I was very pleased with the result. If more modern crime novelists had build upon the genre's rich history, instead of rejecting it, I probably would've been less of a fundamental classicist.

8/22/16

The Long Way Down


"You make it sound like something out of a dime novel."
- Shirley Taggert (Edward D. Hoch's "The Long Way Down," collected in Hans Stefan Stantesson's The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes, 1968)
Kel Richards is an Australian journalist, broadcaster and author whose bibliography is stuffed with crime-fiction, such as Sherlockian pastiches, thrillers and traditional detective stories, but what beckoned me to his work were a number of historical mysteries – which threw the mantle of Sherlock Holmes over such literary figures as G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis. Oh, there's also the fact that these novels are saturated with impossible crime material.

So I was compelled to take a gander and see how Richards handled everyone's favorite plot-device, because hey, any excuse to further bloat the locked room label. We're getting close to 250 blog-posts! But, for now, let’s take a look at one of these locked room novels.

The Floating Body (2015), originally published in Australia as The Floating Corpse, entered third in a series about the author of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-56), C.S. Lewis, who now has a penchant for getting involved in murder cases – usually of the impossible variety. The person responsible for drawing Lewis into these cases is one of his former pupils, Tom Morris, who seems to be the true murder magnet of the series.

Tom Morris is the Acting English Master at Nesfield Cathedral School, located in the fictional town of Nesfield, which Richards (admittedly) borrowed from Michael Innes' The Weight of Evidence (1944). The Author's Note at the end points out that Innes, the penname of Prof. J.I.M. Steward, was "a colleague of Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the English School at Oxford." So that's a nice touch to the story and the narrative has several of these literary Easter Eggs. For instance, Morris confiscated a lurid crime novel from one of the schoolboys, The Purple Gang, which is "a non-existent mystery novel referred to a number of times in the comic novels and short stories of P.G. Wodehouse."

I got the impression Richards tried to emulate the kindly, lighthearted tone of the Gervase Fen mysteries by Edmund Crispin. A tone that become particular audible in the plot-thread concerning the shenanigans of some of the schoolboys.

The Floating Body begins with the introduction of this particular plot-thread, which happens when Morris has to order the school bully to release his prey, "young Stanhope of the Fourth," from his stranglehold, but the Acting Master discovers the boy has a propensity for trouble – trying to use his father's standing and money to get one of his fellow students to steal next week's exam paper for him. However, not everyone appreciated how the School Toff approached them, nose high in the air and "an ingrained look of vast superiority to the world around him," which placed a pair of nasty bullies on his tail.

Regardless of his faults, Stanhope is only a small boy who still has some things to learn and Morris asks a group of friends, who refer to themselves as "The Famous Four," to play the role of guardian angels to the young boy. This storyline runs, like a red-thread, through the entire plot of the book and breaths some real life in the school setting. It's also a lovely throwback and homage to the long-gone era of school-and sporting stories from the boy's magazines of yore, which were, if I'm not mistaken, at their zenith during the 1920-and 30s – diminishing in popularity after the Second World War. You can also make a case that this plot-thread ties the book to juvenile crime-fiction.

However, not everything is fun and games at the school: Morris ensnared his former university tutor, C.S. Lewis, to come down to Nesfield and fill the spot of guest speaker, but eventually has to play detective when he witnesses a seemingly impossible murder.

The young Mathematics Master, Dave Fowler, is seen going to the roof of one of the school building, "well away from all noisy schoolboys," where he plans to enjoy the summer weather and a mystery novel – which happens to be the then recently published The Nine Tailors (1934) by Dorothy L. Sayers. By the way, the story takes place at the start of the summer of 1935. Anyway, Lewis and Morris witness how Fowler is arguing with an invisible person on the roof, who stabs him in the stomach, which is followed by the math teacher staggering unsteady across the roof. He then "seemed to lose his balance" and "disappeared from view as he plunged over the far side of the roof," but what they find where the body was supposed to be was "a bare, gravel road." The body seems to have vanished on the way down.

Fowler's corpse is eventually found where it was supposed to be, after it was seen tumbling from the rooftop, but not for another twenty-four hours. As if the body had been suspended in midair, completely invisible, before falling down to the ground on the following day.

The explanation was surprisingly simple, somewhat reminiscent of Leo Bruce's Nothing Like Blood (1962) and the rejected solution from a fairly well-known locked room short, but these ideas were used here to form a nice little impossible crime. My only grip about this part of the plot is the knifing of the victim, which unnecessarily complicated matters for the murderer. I think this person should have used a crook-handle cane, instead of a knife, to work Fowler over the edge of the rooftop. If you know how the murderer remained invisible to onlookers, you know how the crook of the cane could be employed and used as a clue that nodded in the direction of the murderer. Otherwise, I enjoyed trying to work out possible explanations for the invisible assailant and the midair disappearance of the body.

On the other hand, I was not as impressed with the who, why and the fair-play of the overall plot. One of the potential motives, linked to a hidden sub-plot and false solution, is simply thrown into the story and the actual explanation felt uninspired, which can be explained by all of the attention spend on the schoolboy-angle, the impossible crime and Lewis' exhortations on Christianity – which sometimes made the book feel like a sermon with detective interruptions.

So I feel very divided about The Floating Body: there's some things to like about the story, but, purely as a fair-play mystery, it has its fair share of flaws. However, I'll further investigate his work before giving my final judgment. After all, I read some positive responses to the second book in the series, The Corpse in the Cellar (2013), which is also a locked room mystery. I'll get back to him sooner rather than later.

Finally, allow me to apology for any sloppy mistakes in this blog-post, but I cranked this one out rather hurriedly and was foolishly attempting to multi-task. I promise better for my next blog-post. In the meantime, you might be interested in this interview with Kel Richards. The next book in the series sounds interesting as well: a beheading in a locked room? I'll take a dozen of those, please!

8/19/16

Song of Storms


"The more we dig in the surer we get. The picture, atmosphere, are the same. A killer who came and went and didn't even leave a shadow on a windowshade."
- Inspector Richard Queen (Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails, 1949)
Arthur W. Upfield's Winds of Evil (1937) is the fifth book about one of the genre's most unusual policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte of the Queensland Police, which tells an equally curious tale about "a mad strangler who strikes only in dust storms" and was deservedly praised by Anthony Boucher – extolling the clear-cut plot and "a new quality of horror" permeating the story. It definitely deserves the attention of genre historians and mystery scholars as an early incarnation of the modern serial killer novel.

The initial setup of the plot tailgates one of the series familiar patterns: in a far-flung corner or settlement of the Australian continent a murder is committed or a person vanished under mysterious circumstances, but the local police failed to find an explanation and the trail grew cold. So the authorities usually assign these cold, dead-end cases to Detective-Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. Bony is of mixed blood, a "half-caste," whose aborigine heritage endowed him with the tracking skills of his maternal ancestors, which he used to rise through the ranks of the police force and carving out a name for himself as a relentless man-hunter in Western attire.

His talent for tracking in the wild and uncanny ability to draw conclusions from observation about his immediate surrounding, plants, trees and animals has a prominent role in Winds of Evil – which adds an additional layer of interest to the plot. But more on that later.

The setting of the book is a small, wind-swept township in the dusty outback of New South Wales, called Carie, which is ruled over by the owner and licensee of the only hotel in town, Mrs. Nelson. She clinched her rule over the town by holding the mortgages on most of the property there, but it was a quiet, peaceful settlement. That is, until the murders started happening.

Two years prior to the story's opening, the body of a young, half-aborigine girl, Alice Tindell, was found on the bank of a watering hole: she had been strangled! A police sergeant from Broken Hill came down to investigate the case, but failed to uncover as much as a shadow of a motive for the murder. The story was repeated a year later when a recently arrived laborer, Frank Marsh, was found near a fence gate with strangulation marks on his throat. Only two facts could be asserted with certainty: they were both strangled to death and their killer struck when "the wind sang its menacing song" – assuring "the strangling brute" that the storm of dust and sand would wipe all of his tracks out of existence. So the case requires the attention of an expert tracker and Bony is dispatched to this "wind-created hell."

Bony takes on the identity of a fence-rider, named "Joe Fisher," who finds an ally in the local police officer, Mounted-Constable Lee, but also a common enemy in the Sergeant Simone from Broken Hill – whose uncouth personality and bully-boy tactics were completely useless in this bush case.

As Lee observed, "you can't get anything out of bush people by bullying them." Bony further notes that "the detection of criminals in a city is much easier than the detection of the rarer criminal in the bush," because the city criminal "operated against a static background," such as a house or a street, but the background of this case is "composed of ceaselessly moving sand" and "exposed to the constant action of sun and wind."

Bony gives an interesting demonstration on how the interpret the many hints left behind in open wild of the Australian outback, which consist of a series of observation about twisted tree branches, green tree bark and wisps of brittle grass that was left behind in abandoned nesting holes – all of them lineup to form a route along the creeks. These places are described with Upfield's accustomed vividness and given such unusual names as Nogga Creek, Catfish Hole and Wirragata Station. While roaming around these places, Bony meets an array of equally colorful and unusually named characters such as Hang-dog Jack, Bill the Cobbler and Dogger Smith.

This makes Winds of Evil as rich in character, setting and atmosphere as all of his other Australian-set mystery novels, but, what really deserves praise, is how the extremely simplistic plot was handled.

Despite the appearance of both murders and several attempted murders, the killer does not use the sand storms as a cover for his crimes, but is "periodically governed by his lust to kill" and this urge to kill seems to coincide with "the rising wind." So it is very obvious Bony is tangling with a mentally disturbed individual and this leaves no room for the clever serial-killer devices of the Golden Age. However, Upfield expertly avoided bitter disappointment with a clever bit of misdirection. Oh, the false solution that sprang from this was bitterly disappointing and was afraid I had to write another lukewarm review, but the twist, revealing the actual murderer, made more than up for this and the misdirection also made a part of the murderer's action easier to swallow – which drew on Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes (1912). But more acceptable and down to earth.

I would not place Winds of Evil among the very best of Upfield's work, which includes Venom House (1952) and Cake in the Hat Box (1954), but it's a very solid and remarkable entry in the series. And one that precedes the modern serial killer novel by several decades. So it's a very interesting read all around.

8/15/16

Scared to Death


"The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905) 
Dorothy Salisbury Davis was an American author of seventeen crime novels, several historical works and numerous short stories. She was one of the founding members of Sisters in Crime and served as President of the Mystery Writers of America in 1956, who declared her a Grand Master in 1985, which were followed by two additional lifetime achievement awards – dolled out by Bouchercon and Malice Domestic. So Davis left her mark on the genre and it all began with a crime/mystery novel that was released on the tail-end of the 1940s.

The Judas Cat (1949) takes place in a small town, called Hillside, which is situated in the Midwestern region of the United States and "the town's chief claim to renown was the annual visit of a famous inventor."

Once every year, the eminent inventor, Henry Addison, descends upon Hillside to spend a day with the town’s recluse, ninety-two year old Andy Mattson, but the inventor passed away several months before the story opened. It was prophesized Mattson "wouldn't live long after Addison went." However, even the speculators of the local rumor mill were unable to envisage the consequences Mattson's death would have on certain members of the community.

Mattson spent his days on his front porch, "rubbing the soft neck of his cat with his leathery fingers," but his nosey, gossipy neighbor, Mabel Turnsby, was the first one to notice that he "had not taken his customary place on the porch by moon" and saw the cat pacing the length of the window seat inside – looking at her pleadingly "like it was human." She notified the local Chief of Police, Fred Waterman, who broke his way into the home, but had to shoot the crazed, half starved cat in the process. What he finds in the living room makes it very apparent that the cat had some part to play in the tragic death of its owner.

The body of Mattson is found huddled on the sofa, scratches on his face and blood on his white shirt, but the most striking was the terror in the eyes that had been black and fierce when he was alive – as if he had been scared to death. A post-mortem shows his heart had given out. However, the circumstances seem to suggest that the heart attack was not a result of Mattson's advanced age.

Police Chief Waterman finds an ally in Alex Whiting, a young publisher, who took over the Whiting Press from his father, but was more interested, editorially, in the business of the Weekly Sentinel. As a team, they pry open the skeleton-filled cupboard of the old man and uncover many unusual and long-buried secrets: one of them is the surprising discovery of Mattson's furtive occupation as a gifted toy maker.

There were drawers full of hand-crafted, lifelike wooden wind-up figures of animals, people and vehicles. Mattson sold many of his wooden figures to Joe Hershel, owner of a nearby toy factory, but they came with the condition to not patent them and this is potentially of interest since Hershel and the opportunistic mayor, Altman, are talking about expanding the factory – which might give them a reason to get rid of the old man.

Waterman and Whiting also learn Mattson knew his way around a mathematical equation and was a skilled engineer, which made him an adept toy maker and had collaborated with the design of some hydraulic equipment, but problems arose with the filing of the patents. And then there was his unusual friendship with the dead inventor, a missing will and an intricate web of hidden (family) relationships. All of them cast an ever-darkening shadow over the tight-nit community of Hillside. Something that becomes very apparent when the carcass of the dead cat is stolen from the veterinary's office and the laboratory is smashed up.

At one point in the story, Whiting reflects how much their digging is resented by their neighbors, because the resulting "malice and confusion had made them more suspect than the murderer they were trying to find." This aspect of the plot comes to a head during a town council meeting, where Waterman and Whiting are pretty much ordered to drop the whole affair. I think this is by far the best and strongest point of The Judas Cat: the depiction of a small, close-knit town in the United States and the peculiar characters who dwell there. As well as the effect of suspicious death has on them and their response to the resurfacing of long-held secrets. This facet foreshadows the character-driven crime novels that would blitzkrieg across the genre's landscape in the succeeding decades.

Guess this also explains why I ended up disappointed with the detective element of the plot. The problems and mysteries attached to the peculiar circumstances of Mattson's death managed to held my attention throughout the book, but the explanations were very anti-climatic and under whelming. I had hoped on a better explanation for the how of the murder, but Davis stuck with the unsure, hare-brained method to put a notorious coffin dodger out of the way. So no. I was far from impressed with the final tally of the plot. Well, that surely dampened this review, didn't it?

So let me close-out this blog-post by demonstrating some of my amazing deductive reasoning skills: Davis never gives an exact location for Hillside and places the town somewhere in the Midwest of the United States, which is an area comprising of twelve states. Ohio is the only one that can be disregarded, because the story specifically mentioned that the original settlers came from there. So that leaves us with eleven potential candidates, but the (side) characters share an interesting commonality that narrows it down to just one state: a large number of them have Nordic surnames (e.g. Mattson, Thorson, Sorenson, Olson, etc). So there's a big chance Hillside was located in Minnesota, which is where Scandinavian immigrants clustered when they left Europe for the Americas. It could also be in the area where Wisconsin borders with Minnesota, but I think Minnesota is your best bet to find so many people in one spot with Nordic surnames. Especially in those days.  

Well, I better put this lackluster blog-post out of its misery here. Hopefully, I'll have something better for the next one. So keep checking back!

8/12/16

Sweets Are a Child's Poison


"It's a dirty business, my lad: poisoning kids."
- Superintendent Hadley (John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule, 1939)
Elizabeth Daly was an American novelist who, during the forties of the previous century, penned sixteen sophisticated mystery novels about a professional bibliophile and amateur snoop, Henry Gamadge, which earned her an Edgar statuette – awarded a decade after the publication of her last novel, The Book of the Crime (1951). Reportedly, one of Daly's most famous admirer was no less a figure than Agatha Christie.

So she had excellent credentials, but when I took a look at Daly, some time ago now, I was very disappointed with what I found. The book that turned me away from her work was Murders in Volume 2 (1941), which had an alluring premise, but the plot never delivered the goods and the story progressed excruciatingly slow – comparable to the pace of a morphine drip. There are parts of my brain that think they're still reading the damn book! But enough time has passed to warrant a second glance at Daly and Gamadge.

Deadly Nightshade (1940) was Daly's second mystery novel and finds Gamadge in his private library, "where he followed the occupation of consulting expert on old or pseudo-old books, manuscripts and autographs," but his attention is divided between a yellowed fragment of paper, war news rattling from the wireless and memories of State Detective Mitchell – whom he met in first recorded case, Unexpected Night (1940), when he was "inveigled by circumstances" to play amateur detective. Coincidently, the phone rings a few minutes later and it is a long distance call from Maine. Mitchell has a case on his hands that might interest Gamadge.

A rash of nightshade poisonings of small children plagued the vicinity between Oakport and Harper's Rock, which claimed at least three victims. A group of children got their hands on some poisonous berries and the resulting tragedies varied greatly: the youngest son of Albert Ormiston, a relatively well-known artist, fully recovered, but the daughter of Carroll Bartram, a manufacturer of artificial silk, was allergic to atropine and died. A third girl, Sarah Beasley, evidently had eaten some of the berries, but, in a poisonous stupor, "wandered off and got in the marsh" – she has not been found.

There are also suspicions of a fourth poisoning, involving one of the children from a gypsy camp, which is giving the locals a reason "to start pestering the gypsies," but Mitchell have reasons to believe that the affair is slightly more complicated then that. The boy who survived, Tommy, says "a lady in a car gave him the berries." Only problem is that the poison has a confusing effect on its victim and there can't be a value put on the boy's statement. These poisonings coincided with a fatal motorcycle accident of a young state trooper named Trainor. But was it really an accident?

Gamadge and Mitchell have to dig through a lot of back-stories and family history in order to unsnarl all of the links in the chain of tragedies that rocked the small Maine community. Rooting around in other people's past live can be an unpleasant occupation and this was touched upon when they visited the gypsy camp. Gamadge has his fortune told by an elderly lady, Mrs. Stuart, who told him he was "born under a dark star," the companion of Sirius, which is "so dark that no mortal eye has ever seen it" and is only known through "the perturbation of orbits" – condemning the bibliophile-detective "to perturb the orbits of others" while "remaining unsuspected and unseen." Perturbing is exactly what he does.

In one of the households, he finds the survivor of a forgotten tragedy, the wholesale poisoning of family with arsenic, which also concerned a lost child. He also gets on the trail of woman, a Miss Humphrey, who claimed to work for a magazine and went around snapping pictures of children for a competition to crown the finest child in Maine. However, some of the more interesting plot-threads were introduced to the story through the Bartram family.

Carroll's brother, George, sold his part in the silk mill to his brother and moved to the Netherlands, where married and had a little girl, but the European situation scared him and moved his family to the United States. Surprising his brother on a very short notice. Naturally, I perked up when the background of these characters were pointed out and the plot was littered with references to their past lives in the Netherlands, but their return also brought an additional complication to the plot: the late father of Carroll and George lost a "mythical nest egg" of at least four hundred thousand dollars and there's a mention of a collection of pictures he bought in 1927, which may have included a long-lost painting by Vermeer of Delft. Yes. There was one of those in the recently reviewed There's a Reason for Everything (1945) by E.R. Punshon.

Well, I guess it's time to make up the balance: Deadly Nightshade does not only setup a premise full of promise, but, on this occasion, delivered on it and the explanation for the plot was as original as its premise. I can easily see now why someone like Christie would be a fan of her work. Only drawbacks are Daly's feeble grasp on the concept of pacing (i.e. slow moving) and the sub-plot of the murdered state trooper was unnecessary. I think the story could have done without it, but Daly probably felt a detective story needed a clear-cut murder.

To make a long story short, I wish Deadly Nightshade had been my introduction to Daly's work instead of the seemingly never-ending and soul-deadening Murders in Volume 2.

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to the website of Les Blatt, Classic Mysteries, who is a fan of Daly and reviewed thirteen of her sixteen Henry Gamadge mysteries, which is how this series never left my peripheral field of view.