9/23/20

A Wreath for the Bride (1957) by Maria Lang

Earlier this year, Kate and Laurie reviewed two of the three available translated detective novels by one "Maria Lang," a nom du plume of Dagmar Lange, who's considered "to be Sweden's answer to Agatha Christie" and "one of the big four of Swedish fair play mystery writers" – together with Stieg Trenter, H.K. Rönblom and Vic Suneson. Swedes who wrote well-crafted, traditionally-styled detective novels instead of padded out suicide notes (i.e. Scandinoir)? You sure don't see that anymore today!

Lang wrote forty-two detective novels in as many years and was one of the founding members of the Swedish Crime Writers' Academy, but only three of her novels received an English translation in the 1960s. All three were reissued, as ebooks, in 2014. But both times, the English releases largely flew under the radar of Golden Age mystery readers. An oversight that needed to be remedied!

So I decided to take a closer look at what exactly Lang had to offer and discovered that there were not only three English translations at my disposal, but four of her novels had been translated into Dutch with old, secondhand copies still floating about the web – broadening my scope with three more titles. However, the one that beckoned my attention happened to be present on both the Dutch and English list. Easy pickings!

Kung liljekonvalie av dungen (King Lily-of-the-Valley, 1957) was translated in Dutch as De verdwenen bruid (The Vanished Bride) and the English translation gave it the most fitting book-title, A Wreath for the Bride. What attracted my attention is that the synopsis promised an impossible disappearance of the titular bride. Well, you know me!

A Wreath for the Bride takes one of her leading detective characters, Chief Inspector Christer Wick, to the fictitious village of Skoga, which is apparently Lang's St. Mary Mead. Wick is traveling to Skoga to attend the wedding of his mother's goddaughter, Anneli Hammar. A slim, quiet and self-absorbed girl who "nabbed the richest bachelor in the whole district," Joakim Cruse, an eccentric, monocle-wearing multi-millionaire who settled down in the district. Cruse is the dictionary definition of an outsider. Someone who's seen by the villagers as incomprehensible and suspicious, but his wealth and standing made his wedding the event of the year.

So when the story opens, the preparations for the wedding are in full swing when a nervous Anneli bumps into her life-long friend, Dina Richardson, at a street corner where she tells Dina she's on her way to the florist, Fanny Falkman, to inspect her bridal bouquet – a giant spray of lilies-in-the-valley. Dina watched Anneli disappear into the floral shop and talked with two elderly ladies on the doorstep during a brief, but important, shower of rain. Nobody could have entered, or exited, the floral shop unobserved, but Anneli never came back out again. Astonishingly, Fanny swears Anneli didn't set a foot inside her shop or that she heard the doorbell tinkle when she was seen shutting the door behind her. Even if she managed to sneak in without being seen, or heard, she could not have escaped through the backdoor without definitely being noticed by Fanny!
Yeah, it's a classic and promising setup of a person impossibly vanishing "as if swallowed up by the earth" and Wick notes that "one is almost tempted to turn to the occult for an explanation," but the explanation to this piece of the puzzle thoroughly demolishes it as a proper locked room mystery (Goddamn Swedes!) – an explanation used to shine a light on two of suspects. So that was a little disappointing.

Dutch edition
Nevertheless, the strange disappearance of the bride on the eve of her wedding proves the beginning of a murky mystery, "which was to perplex and agitate Skoga more than anything else in its hundreds of years of history" and telephone lines reverberated with gossip. The fourth chapter opens with a brief and humorous scene with everyone in Skoga calling each other until the youngest, overworked and stressed out telephonist "finally collapsed and began to weep over the switchboard." But the chatter went on. Anyway...

Chief Inspector Christer Wick, of the Stockholm Crime Squad, is there as a visitor and therefore acts as a quasi-official assistant to the local policeman in charge, Superintendent Leo Berggren. This makes it difficult not to see him as an amateur sleuth rather than as a police detective. Wick even finds Anneli's body at the edge of a lake with her hands "peacefully clasped round a bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley" and a terrible stab wound to the chest. Another thing placing the book squarely in the Intuitionist School of the amateur detective is the lack of physical clues.

Lang hides her clue in the things her characters say, or do, which usually turn out to have an alternative explanation. Such as why Anneli was coming out of the office of her ex-employer, Sebastian Petren, with tears in her eyes or why Petren had to sneak out of the floral shop on the day Anneli vanished. Nothing is really what it seems and this subtle ambiguity opens the door to multi interpretations. This makes the movement of everyone involved as important to the plot as the verbal clues, which Lang cleverly used to camouflage the murderer and misdirect the reader.

So I can see the comparison with Christie and not one that's entirely undeserved, which is usually the case, but the comparison is not particular fair and places the bar, as well as expectations, way too high – which can ruin the fun for some. A Wreath for the Bride is a finely crafted, old-fashioned village mystery, but compared to Christie's body of work, it would only rank with her lesser-known, mid-tier novels. Such as The Sittaford Mystery (1931), Peril at End House (1932) and The Moving Finger (1943).

My recommendation is not to approach Lang as the Swedish incarnation of the Queen of Crime, but as a Swedish mystery writer a fan of Christie can warm to and enjoy. That's why you can expect more reviews of Maria Lang's other detective novels sometime in the future. So stay tuned!

9/19/20

The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) by Peter Shaffer

Anthony and Peter Shaffer were twin brothers, celebrated playwrights, screenwriters and novelists with three revered, frustratingly rare and highly sought after detective novels to their name that have gained an almost mythical reputation over the decades – ensuring a small circulation among collectors. Two of the three novels have vainly topped the wishlists of impossible crime fans for nearly seven decades.

During those seven decades, The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951) and Withered Murder (1955) enchanted mystery readers with their oracular reputation of unheralded, long-lost classics. Regrettably, the Shaffers "resisted numerous offers to republish them" and the hefty, triple-digit price tags (plus shipping) on the limited number of secondhand copies kept them elusive collector's items. And when a copy turns up, it's usually gone within a blink of an eye.

So you can imagine how much locked room readers rejoiced when the British Library announced they were reissuing The Woman in the Wardrobe!

The Woman in the Wardrobe not only lived up to its near-mythical reputation, but is guaranteed to win this year's Reprint of the Year Award. A comedic take on the classic detective story that at first seemed to take the lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek approach of Leo Bruce, R.T. Campbell and Edmund Crispin, but the writing, characterization and even the plotting have a biting, sardonic sense of humor – a tone you would expect from a mean-spirited deconstruction rather than an homage. But it worked! And the ending delivered "a brilliant new solution" to the locked room problem.

Mr. Verity is an unflattering, acerbic parody of the Great Detective and very likely modeled on John Dickson Carr's famous detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale.

Verity is "an immense man" with startling brilliant eyes, a chestnut Van Dyke and a winter cloak who has been "a noted figure in the world of detection" and enjoys the respect of the Yard, but he was "almost as much respected as disliked." He was actually very much disliked, because he was so often right and solved murders, "between tea and supper," with "a mixed display of condescension and incivility" towards the regular police – who were dead and spent with fatigue. A loud, highly opinionated man with questionable ethics (having "more archaeological thefts to his credit than the governing body of any museum in Europe") and prone to giving elaborate lunchtime lectures who annoying made himself indispensable by always being right. And he knows it! Mr. Verity is also abnormally curious and when he sees a man climbing furtively out of a first-floor window, of the Charter Hotel, he decides to ask the manager, Miss Framer, whether it's hotel custom to use windows as an exit.

They're interrupted by one of the guests, Mr. Paxton, flying down the stairs screaming blue murder. Paxton found the body of another hotel guest, Mr. Maxwell, but when they go up to investigate, they discover that the door of Maxwell's room was now locked on the inside. And at that same moment, a police constable enters the hotel with yet another guest, Mr. Cunningham, who caught coming out of one of the first-floor windows.

So the door is forced open and discovered a ransacked, blood-soaked room with Maxwell's body laying among the debris on the floor and the hotel waitress, Alice Burton, tied up in the wardrobe. A wonderfully intricate, neatly posed locked room problem that was succinctly summarized as follow:

"A murder is committed in a room. Two men are immediate suspects. Suspect A enters by the window and leaves by the door. Suspect B enters by the door and leaves by the window. Suspect A can lock the window but not the door. Suspect B can lock the door but not the window. Neither can lock both—yet both are locked: and from the inside. And all the while a body, which medical evidence proves could not have done the locking itself before it expired, leaks blood over the carpet of an empty room."

Detective Inspector Rambler enters the fray and perhaps the only man who stands on equal footing with the Great Detective. Only difference between them is that Verity has a temper and a beard, while Rambler is a professional who could afford neither, but Verity "respected the tamed logic in Rambler" and "Rambler the explosive vision in Verity" – together they pour over this pretty puzzle. They review possibility, suggest solutions and pry clues from the various suspects and witnesses, which include the amusing character of Richard Tudor. A pretender to the throne of England who claims to be a direct descendant of King Edward the Sixth, son of King Henry the Eighth, who died unmarried at the age of fifteen.

There's not much else that can be said about the plot, or investigation, because The Woman in the Wardrobe is a very short, tautly written story with the page-count padded out with some nice sketches of the main characters by Nicolas Bentley (son of E.C. Bentley). So it really had no right to be anything more than a comedic curiosity, but the explanation to the locked room, in combination with the identity to the murderer, turned it into an unmitigated classic. A superb and truly original locked room mystery!

The Woman in the Wardrobe is the novel Ulf Durling tried to write with Gammel ost (Hard Cheese, 1971), which could have worked had Durling not occupied himself with gutting the plot of everything that made it a detective story. Shaffer succeeded in both sardonically poking fun at the genre and doing a bit of deconstruction on the side without comprising the essence of a detective story. Chuck in a startling original solution and you have something special and memorable that cemented a top spot on my list of favorite locked room mysteries. Highly recommended!

9/16/20

The Elberg Collection (1985) by Anthony Oliver

I've noticed over the years there was a short-lived revival of the traditional, Golden Age-style detective story in the 1980s that began to sputter a decade earlier with William L. DeAndrea, Bill Pronzini and John Sladek, but quickly assumed an identity of its own – complete with identifiable characteristics. An identity best described as a hybrid of the American and British detective story.

Generally, the detectives tend to be either professionals (non-detectives) acting as amateur sleuths or hold some kind of quasi-official position with their cases taking place against specialized backgrounds. Such as the theater, commerce and museums or private collectors. This neon-illuminated age of the traditional detective story even his its own sub-category of pop-culture inspired mysteries that take place at conventions or among fandoms, which began with Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981) and Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982) added modern fandoms and pop-cult references. Good examples are Patrick A. Kelley's little-known Sleightly Lethal (1986) and Sharyn McCrumb's award winning Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987).

More interestingly, these writers showed a healthy interest in the locked room mystery and often brought new innovative ideas to the fore.

Herbert Resnicow was a former civil engineer who brought his drafting pencil to the detective story and turned the locked room puzzle on its head by turning wide open, three-dimensional and multi-floored spaces into tightly sealed rooms – making him one of the leading lights of this brief revival. Resnicow penned about half a dozen of these innovative locked room puzzles, all with specialized backgrounds, but his best two are The Gold Deadline (1984) and The Dead Room (1987). Marcia Muller is not as closely associated with the impossible crime story as her husband, but she engineered one of her own large-scale, museum-set locked room conundrums in The Tree of Death (1983). Ellen Godfrey cleverly made use of the locked computer room of a software company in Murder Behind Locked Doors (1988) and Kate Wilhelm's experimental Smart House (1989) takes place in a fully automated, computerized house. There are also some British specimens, such as Roger Ormerod's More Dead Than Alive (1980) and Douglas Clark's Plain Sailing (1987), but they have the tendency to stand closer to the European police procedural rather than the American Van Dine-Queen style detective story. But they fit the mold.

So I may be completely wrong here with my narrow, specialized reading creating a pattern, where there isn't any, because similar type of mystery novels were published in the 1970s (Lionel Black's The Penny Murders, 1979) and 1990s (Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds, 1996). Nonetheless, they obviously proliferated during the eighties and gives the impression of a resurgence, short-lived as it may have been, of the traditional detective story. And it coincided with the rise of the shin honkaku movement in Japan! But in the West it petered out after merely a decade.

Why this long-winded introduction? The subject of today's review made me think of all these authors, novels and the possibility of an unrecognized Neon Age (can't think of a better name).
Anthony Oliver's The Elberg Collection (1985) is the third novel in a short-lived series about a retired policeman, John Webber, and his Welsh housekeeper, widowed Mrs. Lizzie Thomas, who appeared together in only four detective novels – published between 1980 and 1987. These four novels appear to have a unifying theme: shenanigans and skulduggery in the world of antique dealers and collectors.

The Elberg Collection begins on the beach of a small, French seaside resort, Le Bosquet, where David and Jane Walton walked, arm in arm, when Jane caught fire and turned into "a flaming torch within seconds." David must have tried to smother the flames, because "their arms were still round each other when the first people got to them." French police believes the wind blew glowing tobacco from David's pipe and "slammed the shower of blazing sparks" into her "highly inflammable" dress. Since the incident was witnessed by a maid and no other footprints to show someone had "approached them on that fatal walk," the French authorities filed it away as a bizarre accident. However, the daughter of the Waltons, Jessica Elberg, refuses to accept the verdict.

A friendly conspiracy between Detective Inspector Snow and Lizzie to put their recently divorced and retired friend, ex-Detective Inspector John Webber, back in the game by landing him his first assignment as a private investigator. Hans Elberg has agreed to foot the bill to help his wife come to terms with the death of her parents.

Webber warns Jessica that he has "never yet inquired deeply into the circumstances of sudden death without upsetting some," but, once all the formalities are settled, they begin a two-pronged investigation with the slightly eccentric, French-speaking Lizzie crossing the channel – snooping around the scene of the crime. Webber stays behind in England to look into the professional side of the case. Walton was a talented potter and part-owner of a pottery firm, which allowed him to help his father-in-law accumulate an impressive collection of antique pottery. What they uncover is a dead witness who left behind a dying message. A rotting corpse of a another murder victim and a disturbingly fresh suicide. A missing, or stolen, manuscript that could throw "a spanner into the international market for English pottery" and a mysterious figure who's willing to spend both money and bullets to get them off the case. And all of this comes with an odd assortment of suspects, motives and clues.

One clue, in particular, deserves to be highlighted. Snow has a young bright son, Alan, who likes computers and dates the story by saying he writes his own programs on a computer with 48 K RAM and "a data transfer rate of 16 bytes a second." Snow gives his son a purely hypothetical situation, two people impossibly burned to death on a lonely beach, to test his analyzing program. It came back with eight possibilities that ranged from flamethrowers, incendiary bombs and missiles to meteors, satellite debris and an Act of God – along with the more plausible murder/suicide or a suicide pact. You won't find the correct solution on Alan's list, but when you learn how it was done, you realize how cleverly it hinted in the right direction.

I think it could have been one of the best and most original clues of the decade had Oliver played the game fairly across the board.

I could have easily forgiven the obvious murderer, who stood out like a billboard, but the sudden, anti-climatic ending revealed that Webber and Lizzie had been investigating only one side of the case. The case has an entirely different angle that throws an entirely new light on the charred bodies, the dying message and the messy suicide, but they were left in the dark until it was time to wrap things up. They're also told that the murderer will never be brought in front of judge, which makes for an unexciting and disappointing payoff to what could have been a first-class detective novel.

Webber at least got the satisfaction of explaining to the big bugs how the Waltons were burned to death and the fire-trick, in theory, is excellent and a perfect example of the impossible crime story moving along with the times. Something fresh and original. Practically, the fire-trick has a glaring weakness that can be partially blamed for the weak ending.

The Elberg Collection is the proverbial mixed bag of tricks. A leisurely paced, thoroughly British detective novel with some good and original ideas, but the weak and botched ending only makes it worth your time if your interested in plot-mechanics or obscure impossible crime novels.

9/14/20

Sweet Poison: Case Closed, vol. 74 by Gosho Aoyama

The 74th of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, published in Japan as Detective Conan, begins with the conclusion to the case that closed out vol. 73 in which an armed man with explosives strapped to his chest takes Richard Moore, Rachel, Sera and three aspiring female mystery novelists hostage – demanding that the famous "Sleeping Moore" identifies the murderer of his sister. Miku Sawaguri had become one of the youngest, bestselling novelists of Japan when she was found dead, in a locked room, at a hot spring resort. She apparently committed suicide, but her brother refused that explanation.

Just before she died, Miku posted several messages online indicating she had three visitors to her hotel room, whom she referred to as the elephant, fox and mouse, to ask for an autograph. So one of these three visitors must be the killer, but who and how?

Conan has to assume his original identity and reason with the hostage taker over the phone to both solve a murder, in record time, as well as preventing a small bloodbath, which is done with an excellent use of the false solution – based on the victim's superbly titled novel, The Grim Reaper's Funeral Procession. Conan even gives a brief description of the plot and it's a psychological thriller about a homicide cop investigating his own murders. Anyway, the locked room-trick is nothing special and a slight variation on an age-old trick, but the vital clue pointing straight to the murderer was beautifully hidden in plain sight. So, technically, a good and solid story, but nothing to make it standout in the series.

The second story is going to be hard to properly describe, because the plot appears to be all over the place with recurring characters turning up or being mentioned. A trend that runs, like a red-thread, through the entire volume.

Doc Agasa found an old pot in his shed that he once bought at a flea market and posted a video online asking for an appraisal, but Anita accidentally appeared in the video. Conan is afraid that the video might lead members of the Black Organization to their doorstep, which is exactly what seems to happen when Amy, not Anita, is kidnapped. But the case takes a bizarre turn when they find a cellphone with a note saying, "read the text and follow the orders." Whatever they expected the ransom demand to be, it certainly wasn't that!

I've said several times before that kidnapping stories are my least favorite kind of detective story, because they're rarely any good, but, every now and then, a truly good one turns up and it's usually in this series – such as the excellent second story from vol. 72. This one is even better! I thought it was very clever to (ROT13) pbire-hc bar pevzr (gursg) jvgu nabgure (xvqanccvat) giving gur xvqanccref na rkphfr gb hfr gur eht gb jenc naq pneel Nzl va jvgubhg nggenpgvat fhfcvpvba. Normally, this would be good, if minor, entry in the series, but then there are all the recurring characters suspiciously sneaking around in the background or mysteriously being referred to. Masumi Sera is asking pesky questions and obviously is up to something. Subaru Okiya is spying and eavesdropping on Conan. A lost cat features in the story and has a coincidental link to another familiar face in the series. Black Organization is ominously referred to as "Them."

Somehow, Aoyama got more out of the plot than was originally in out with the result being an excellent and memorable story. A story that comes highly recommended to fans of Edward D. Hoch. You'll know why when you learn the solution. Only disturbing thing is how effortlessly Amy shrugged off her harrowing kidnapping experience. Have the Junior Detective League really become this callous and jaded?

The third story brings Harley Hartwell (Heji Hattori) back to Tokyo, but, before he can tell Conan why, Kazuha calls him to tell that she's detained at a restaurant where a man had died in the bathroom – apparently after eating poisoned candy. A foreign guy had found the body and ordered nobody to leave. And that guy is the FBI agent, André Camel, who previously appeared in vol. 58. Camel overheard the victim talking on his phone to someone he called his childhood friend and admitting to have murdered a man ("I'm the one who poisoned Abe"). Then he heard a groan, broke down the door and found the body. But did Camel correctly understood what he heard? Masumi Sera proposes to use the case to settle the friendly rivalry between the Great Detectives of the East and West, Jimmy Kudo (Conan) and Harley Hartwell.

I imagine Ho-Ling must have loved this story with its linguistic clues and plot balanced on the differences, and nuances, between regional dialects. And how it can even fool native Japanese speakers. A good and decent enough story that, once again, elevated by everything playing out in the background.

The last story tells why Harley traveled to Tokyo, "a letter from a dead man," who expressed his wish to meet the young detective to confess a sin and told him he'll be waiting at "the house of he murdered man" on "the night of the next full moon" – enclosed is a key and an address in Osaka. The writer is the president of design company, Wakamatsu, who was suspected to have been killed by a burglar at his summer villa. But when the appointment was held, they found someone in the bathroom who inexplicably "vanished into thin air." A message had been carved into the wall, "E-Y-E."

Harley arranged a meeting with the victim's family to discuss the case, but they couldn't been inside for more than 30-minutes when one of the family members is impossibly poisoned with a slice of cake. A single slice of poisoned cake that could not have been poisoned or have been forced upon the victim to take. These kind of mysterious poisonings have become a staple of Case Closed and often have solutions that are simultaneously very simple and devilish ingenious (e.g. "The Loan Shark Murder Case" from vol. 15), but this one was a little too simplistic and dangerously careless with cyanide! There's also an obliterated dying message that has to be found at the first crime scene, which is in the hands of two other characters who had previous appearances. Very fitting that they had to be the ones to handle that side of the case. Finally, a second poisoning adds a third victim to the bodycount and ends this volume on a cliffhanger.

On a whole, this was not a bad volume at all, but all of the stories, including the splendid and original second story, used the appearances, cameos and references to all those recurring characters to bolster their plots. For example, the third story would have been a very minor, forgettable case without Agent Camel, Masumi Sera and the battle-of-wits between Conan and Harley. But that's one of the perks of a long-running series that put in the effort to setup an entire fictional universe. So, yeah, an enjoyable volume for fans.

On a last, somewhat related note: three months ago, I posted my fan theory, "Detective Conan: Who's the Boss?," speculating on the true identity of the B.O. leader. Ho-Ling and 8bitorne shot the poor thing to pieces in the comments, but still like the idea of him being Conan's Moriarty.

9/12/20

Set in Stone: "The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha" (1999) by MORI Hiroshi

Hiroshi Mori is a Japanese engineer who reportedly started writing detective stories when he was an associate professor, at Nagoya University, to impress his mystery-reading daughter and his debut, Subete ga F ni naru (The Perfect Insider, 1996), netted the first-ever Mephisto Prize – a Sherlock Holmes statuette awarded to unpublished genre fiction. Some of its recipients formed a publishing group in 2012, The BBB: The Breakthrough Bandwagon, to make their work available in English.

One of the members of The BBB is the subject of today's review, Hiroshi Mori, who insists his name to be written "MORI Hiroshi," family name first and in uppercase, regardless of the language. So I will refer to him as MORI from here on out.

The BBB translated and published seven of MORI's detective stories, collected in the appropriately titled Seven Stories (2016), which comprises of five standalone stories and two from the "Professor Saikawa and his student Moe" (S&M) series. But you can also buy the stories separately. So I decided to sample MORI's writing with a short story combining the armchair detective story with an architectural conundrum from 7th century India!

"Sekitō no yane kazan" ("The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha," 1999) is one of two S&M stories currently available in English and MORI obviously wrote it as an homage to the Black Widower series by Isaac Asimov.

The premise of "The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha" is the monthly gathering of young detectives belonging to the First Investigation Division, of the Aichi Prefectural Police, at Moe Nishinosomo's residence to discuss their cases – which came to be called "The Banquet of the Black Windows." A reference to both the "huge black windows" in the living room of the apartment and Asimov's The Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984). However, the monthly gatherings were becoming repetitive and Professor Saikawa is asked to come to the next meeting with an interesting topic. What he brings is "a case that is not a usual case," which is "a mystery that is not a usual mystery."

Forty years ago, Moe's father, Dr. Nishinosomo, took part in large-scale surveys of Indian temples and focused his attention on "the so-called rock-cut cave temples." A type of monolithic architectural structures cut, carved and chiseled from "a single slab of rock" that left "completely independent, free-standing structures." A peculiarity of these ancient, rock-cut structures is that they were carved out of the rock top to bottom. During one of these surveys, Dr. Nishinosomo stumbled across an architectural anomaly.

Usually, these rock-cut structures are found in the deep mountains or sheer seashore cliffs, but a group of five stone pagodas, called Five Ratha, were found relatively close to a town and they were all made from a "giant, single rock" – all were connected to the same rock on the ground. So the location of these stone pagodas alone is enough to raise some eyebrows, but what's truly inexplicable is that the carpenters carved the finials, which is supposed to adorn the top of pagodas, some two meters away. As if they were "out of the ground like a plant."

These rock-cut structures were made top-to-bottom, meaning that the carpenters should have started with the finials, but why they were carved is a complete mystery.

A neat little historical puzzle with a simple, logical and, admittedly, a pretty mundane explanation, but the strength of the story is not in the answer. It's in the procession of incorrect answers, or false solutions, preceding it. Everyone in attendance gets to take a crack at the problem and their proposed solutions vary from the logical, or practical, to being drenched in the romanticized intrigues of history – which should delight fans of Anthony Berkeley and Ellery Queen alike.

So, all in all, I found "The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha" to be a fascinating blend of the armchair detective story and historical mystery, but it's a fairly minor detective story that will not satisfy everyone. Personally speaking, I wish there were more armchair detective stories pondering over these obscure, mysterious passages from history. You can definitely expect MORI to return to this blog sometime in the future.

9/10/20

The Hand of Mary Constable (1964) by Paul Gallico

Paul Gallico was an American writer and self-described storyteller, perhaps best remembered today as the author of The Snow Goose (1941) and The Poseidon Adventure (1969), who made a brief excursion into the detective genre with Too Many Ghosts (1959) and The Hand of Mary Constable (1964). A pair of unconventional impossible crime novels with a more contemporary take on the turn-of-the-century "ghostbusters" stories by William Hope Hodgson (Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder, 1913) and L.T. Meade (A Master of Mysteries, 1898). 
 
The detective, or ghost-breaker, in these novels is the chief investigator for the British Society of
Psychical Research, Alexander Hero, who nevertheless operates as "an independent private detective of the occult." Hero believes the occult can be defined as a compound of "wishful thinking, sleight-of-hand, music-hall tricks, the evidence of idiots, coincidences, unreliable reports, greed, human gullibility" and, to a certain extent, the unexplainable. And, in his opinion, there has "not been a single case proven of the dead returned" or "the existence of a spirit world” up to now. Hero remains open-minded and the next case always remains open until he "can shut the door." 
 
So, while Hero remained eager for genuine proof of the paranormal, he actively destroyed "the charlatans of spiritualism" who "preyed upon the misfortunes of the bereaved and ignorant." 
 
Too Many Ghosts brings Hero to Paradine Hall, filled to capacity with ghosts, where furniture moves around on its own accord, candles extinguish themselves and the ghostly figure of nun can materialize out of nowhere – not to mention the phantom harp player in the locked music-room. The solution to the ghostly fingers, plucking at the harp strings in the music-room, makes Too Many Ghosts a notable locked room mystery of the period. And not just the locked music-room. Hero "de-haunts" every single, seemingly supernatural, occurrence and manifestation.
 
I was glad to learn at the time Gallico penned a sequel, The Hand of Mary Constable, but some lukewarm reviews and comments over the years had condemned it to the Purgatory Zone of my TBR-list. I was in the mood for one of those séance mysteries and wanted to save Patrick Kelley's Sleightly Invisible (1986) for later this year. So here we are.

The Hand of Mary Constable finds Alexander Hero en route to New York City in the wake of an alarming letter from Dr. Frank Ferguson, President of the American branch of the Society for Psychical Research, who tells them there "a number of occurrences" with potentially dangerous, earth-shattering consequences – which involves the U.S. government at its highest level. Ferguson refuses to give any details in his letter, but, when Hero arrives, he's ushered to a private meeting with some mighty important, highly ranked officials. General Walter Augstadt, in charge of a special project, Saul Wiener, the Regional Director of FBI, and an FBI expert specialized in fingerprints, Mr. Ferris. What they tell him could affect the Cold War in a most unexpected way. 
 
Professor Samuel Constable is the head of the Department of Cybernetics, at Columbia University, who has been working with the Department of Defense on the secretive Project Foxglove.
 
The objective of Project Foxglove is to develop a way to intrude upon "the commands taped into a missile" and "persuading it to disobey these commands and in some cases to reverse them," which effectively turns them into homing pigeons. A device that will, one way or another, reshuffle the cards on the world stage. If every nation had the device, computerized technology would be rendered ineffective on the battlefield and fighting would have to be done with field armies or dropping bombs from airplanes, but, if the Soviets gets it first, they're all "dead ducks" – nations around the world have been working hard on similar projects. Professor Constable got it and they were only months away from a breakthrough. But a personal tragedy in his life would end placing the whole world on "the horns of a nasty dilemma." 
 
A year ago, Professor Constable lost his 10-year-old daughter, Mary, who was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away shortly after. Mary's illness and death left her father "a markedly changed man," which made him easy prey for two so-called spiritual mediums, Arnold and Sarah Bessmer. 
 
Professor Constable was told that the Bessmers had receives a message from Mary and he began to attend their weekly séances, during which he heard "a voice purporting to be that of his daughter" and had physical contact with "a figure which he believes to be a materialization of her." Amazingly, they were able to produce physical evidence of Mary's ghostly presence! During a séance, the ghost of Mary had thrust a hand in a bowl of liquid wax and thereafter in cold water, which left behind "the transparent hand and wrist of a child" – an empty glove of wax! It would be impossible for any living flesh or bone to have been withdrawn from it without shattering it. Even more astonishing is that the wax glove has fingerprints belonging to Mary! An impossible-to-fake detail since Mary's body had been cremated.
 
So having one of your most important scientists, who's working on a top secret project, in the clutches of two greedy vultures is bad enough, but things become fishy when Mary begins to talk world politics. Someone is dictating Mary's messages with the intention to make him either defect or voluntarily part with his knowledge. Considering how sensitive the whole situation is, they can't simply cut the professor from the mediums and prevent him from “communicating” with his daughter. A course of action he would most definitely resent intensely. 
 
Ferguson asks Alexander Hero to go undercover at the Church of the Holy Ozone as Peter
Fairweather, a lecturer at Cambridge, who recently lost an entirely fictitious fiancee and gives him the unenviable task of carefully weaning the professor from the mediums without damaging him or force him to defect – which is easier said than done. The only way to go about it is smashing the illusion of the solid, one piece wax glove. And to do that, he has to figure out how "to make a wax glove with the fingerprints of a person who is dead and buried" and duplicate it. An already difficult task made even harder when he also has to content with the personality of his assumed personality, the flesh-and-blood ghost of his dead, nonexistent fiancee, a Russian assassin and skeptical government officials. 
 
The Hand of Mary Constable is a weird kind of crime novel that's not easy to pigeon-hole. The impossibility of the wax glove is the peg on which the plot hangs, recalling the bloodless impossible crime stories by Carter Dickson and David Renwick, but, around the halfway mark, the cold war thriller elements began to intrude on the story without being a hybrid of either. The Hand of Mary Constable is a (crime) novel that happens to have elements of both the impossible crime story and cold war thriller, which is an interesting and unusual blend. But one that began to lose its flavor once the story passed its halfway mark. Gallico also decided to tip his hand to the reader here and it didn't do the plot any favors. 
 
Thankfully, the solution to the impossibility of Mary Constable's hand was better than some reviews suggested and the explanation of how the cast was made certainly was original. Something to be expected from the writer who dreamed up the trick of the phantom harp player in a locked music-room. However, the trick would probably have been better served in tighter, more focused, detective story that would allowed the finer details (i.e. fingerprints) to be tidied up. More importantly, The Hand of Mary Constable is a very well written, imaginative and engrossing novel in spite of its flaws and the only that actually bothered me is that the story undersold how dark and revolting the plot against Professor Constable truly is – occult brainwashing of a grieving father with the memory of his dead child as bait! And it's not just him who's being tortured. Mrs. Constable makes a brief appearance, but that's enough to take pity on that poor, long-suffering woman who first lost her only child and now has to watch her husband slipping from her fingers. 
 
So, with everything told, The Hand of Mary Constable is not an unsung classic of the locked room mystery novel, but it still has a lot to recommend with an intriguingly posed impossibility, the early, eerie atmosphere surrounding the ghostly visitations and the well intended attempt at blending different genres. Gallico betrayed here that he was a better storyteller than plotter, but Too Many Ghosts and The Hand of Mary Constable stand as noteworthy and original contributions from an outside visitor to the impossible crime and detective story. I don't think anything like these two (locked room) mysteries were published until John Sladek wrote Black Aura (1974) and Invisible Green (1977) a decade later.