4/17/21

Murder at Monk's Barn (1931) by Cecil Waye

John Street was one of the more prolific mystery writers of the genre's heydays, producing nearly a 140 novels in two long-running series under two different pennames, "John Rhode" and "Miles Burton," but Tony Medawar discovered a third, previously unsuspected pseudonym, "Cecil Waye" – adding another four titles to his already impressive bibliography. Not that this revelation made copies any less scarce. 

Even during the current reprint renaissance, only a minuscule amount of Street's work has been reissued and honestly didn't expect the Cecil Waye novels to find their way back into print anytime soon. Dean Street Press decided differently and reprinted Murder at Monk's Barn (1931), The Figure of Eight (1931), The End of the Chase (1932) and The Prime Minister's Pencil (1933) back in February. Medawar provided these brand new editions with an informative introduction about this almost forgotten, short-lived series.

A noteworthy point of the Cecil Waye novels is that the detective duties are performed by a brother-and-sister team, Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, who Medawar described as private investigators in the tradition of the 1920s Young Adventurers – like Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. And, to my knowledge, there practically were no other sibling detectives during this period.

Anyway, three of the four novels are "metropolitan thrillers," but the first novel is a detective story "very much in the style of the John Rhode and Miles Burton books." What's more, the synopsis promised the unraveling of an impossible crime! There you have another title for that third, hypothetical supplement edition of Locked Room Murders. 

Murder at Monk's Barn opens on a cold, dark winter evening in the village of Fordington when Constable Burden returns to his cottage, but duty soon calls again as "a sharp report" brings him back out on the street. A parlor-maid comes running out of Monk's Barn yelling that the master's been shot in his dressing room. Upstairs, the constable finds the body of Gilbert Wynter, an electrical engineer, slumped in front of the dressing-table with a shaving mirror on it and "a bullet wound in the centre of his forehead." Someone had fired a shot from the garden through the window, which requires an "amazing accuracy of aim," but more on that angle in a moment.

The public opinion and local police, represented by Superintendent Swayne, have their sights on Wynter's second gardener, Walter Mintern, who was sacked on the Saturday before the murder. Walter took it very badly and loudly threatened in the public-house "he would get his own back," but Gilbert's younger brother and business partner, Austin, suspects "the whole damn gang" at Fordington of "a damned low-down plot" without exactly knowing why – determining him to find out who killed his brother. So he turns to two private investigators, Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, who have a knotty tangle to unsnarl.

One of the knots is that the murder is something of an impossibility. How did the murderer enter the garden, fired a shot from the shrubbery and escaped unseen with Constable Burden standing in the street within seconds of the shot being heard? How did the murderer knew where to aim? The shot was fired through a closed window with the thick, heavy curtains closely drawn and the bullet had left a small hole in it. So how could the murderer have shot Gilbert? You can't see "a shadow doesn't show through a thick curtain" much less "hit it with a rifle bullet."

You can always rely on Rhode to come up with a nifty trick, or gimmick, good enough to carry the plot and sustain the story, which is a bare necessity with Rhode as his murderers tend to be easily spotted. Murder at Monk's Barn is no exception to the rule. The murderer here is not difficult to find and a second murder removed any doubt, but, once again, you can rely on Rhode to make a second murder as distinctly interesting as the first murder. This time, Rhode used the second murder to show the reader how a plot-technician handles a box of poisoned chocolates and made a good attempt along the way to misdirect readers who had already caught on to the murderer's identity.

So the entire plot rests on how these murders were committed and they were designed to hold it up, but it should be noted that despite the strong how-was-it-done element, it's not a humdrum affair at all – much more lively than your average Rhode or Burton novel. You can ascribe that to having two 1920s-style Bright Young Things as detectives and they added another complication to the case. Austin and Vivienne began to fall in love the moment the police directed their attention at Austin's beautiful motive, ample opportunity and a non-existent alibi, which made her rush towards the solution ahead of her brother. She pieces together the solution from physical clues (e.g. pottery shards) helped by her understanding of human nature. A very well done combination of the intuitionists and realists approach and one of the many details that made this such a rich and rewarding read.

In many ways, Murder at Monk's Barn is a typical Dr. Priestley or Desmond Merrion novel with the how being more important than who-and why, but the detective-characters make all the difference here in both presentation and storytelling. So even with all the familiar touches and usual craftsmanship, Murder at Monk's Barn has something new to offer to readers already familiar with Rhode, but readers who'll be getting their first taste of Rhode can get an idea what to expect (plot-wise) from his other series. If you like what you read, I recommend you track down copies of The Bloody Tower (1938) and Invisible Weapons (1938).

4/15/21

Locked and Loaded, Part 2: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories

I cobbled together a hypothetical anthology in a 2019 blog-post, "The Locked Room Reader XI: Locked Out," which comprised of short impossible crime and locked room stories that were unjustly overlooked, or ignored, by editors and never appeared in any of the well-known, locked room-themed anthologies – published between 1968 and 2020. I ended the post with a personal wishlist filled with obscure, long out-of-print stories with intriguing and promising-sounding premises. Why wait for an anthologist to get the hint and get to work on a personalized anthology? 

Last year, I reviewed seven, relatively obscure, short stories under the title "Locked and Loaded: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories," which included an item listed from my original wishlist. Alexander, of The Detection Collection, deserves all the credit for helping me in my, uhm, scholarly pursuit. This time, he helped me cross even more titles from the big list. So let's get started!


Table of Content:

Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki" (1941)

James Yaffe's "Cul de Sac" (1945)

Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (1961)

Don Knowlton's "The Room at the End of the Hall" (1961)

Edward D. Hoch's "The Weapon Out of the Past" (1980)

John Hudson Tiner's "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" (1990)

 

Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki" was originally published in the February, 1941, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine of August, 1948. EQMM introduced the story as "one of the most ingenious variations" on "the always fascinating theme of the invisible man," but equally fascinating is the backdrop of the story. 

"Killer in Khaki" takes place in an army boot camp, located in the Canadian Rockies, where a man who should never have been a soldier has blended with the rest of his khaki-clad comrades and is now "moving with a quiet stealth" through the camp – knifing and bayoneting soldiers right and left. Someone who can "kill in the presence of a sentry" and "then vanish under everyone's nose." The bodies continue to litter the camp grounds until Private Enly realizes they've "gone about solving this case in the wrong way" and corners the elusive killer. I don't think the solution to the how, or who, is quite as ingenious as the introduction suggests, but the overall story is pretty solid and can only be compared to John Dickson Carr's massively underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955). 

James Yaffe's "Cul de Sac" appeared in the March, 1945, issue of EQMM and is one of half dozen short stories the then teenage prodigy wrote about Paul Dawn, of the NYPD, who's the head and sole member of "an obscure office of the Homicide Squad." An office known as the Department of Impossible Crimes.

Paul Dawn is "the foremost authority" on "murderers who disappeared as if by magic, corpses in impossible positions" and "all the headaches that surround the locked room." The problem brought to him in "Cul de Sac" concerns a spy who had been trapped by two policemen in a cul-de-sac with an incriminating document on him, but the man had been searched, X-rayed and practically turned inside out without result. Nor were there any places in the cul-de-sac where the document could have been secreted. Regrettably, the solution has a glaring flaw and Robert Adey mentioned in Locked Room Murders (1991) that in a subsequent issue of EQMM, the Yaffe and the editor apologized for not knowing the trick would never work. And that makes it the weakest story of the lot.

Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" was published in the April, 1961, issue of EQMM and combines the armchair detective story with the locked room mystery to craft an impossible crime tale in the tradition of Carr, G.K. Chesterton and Paul Halter – which were threatened with extinction in the sixties. The hedgehog and fox of the title are Inspector Ishikawa, of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, and a professor of Moral Philosophy, John Balfour. Inspector Ishikawa called upon Professor Balfour to sound him out on "how it is that an old man can be stabbed in full view of people," during a closed door conference, "without even one of then knowing he was dead." Let alone having seen the murderer plunging the knife into the victim.

Admittedly, the mechanics of the impossible murder can be considered as fairly routine and not very difficult to solve, but what makes it standout is the philosophical underpinnings (religious and political) of the crime, which governed the actions of both the murderer and victim. Professor Balfour understands these philosophical underpinnings are as important as the physical clues and dovetails them to reveal a beautifully reasoned, somewhat Chestertonian, solution to the murder. So very well-written short story with an excellently realized backdrop and should be considered for inclusion in a future locked room anthology.

Don Knowlton's "The Room at the End of the Hall" was published in the July, 1961, issue of EQMM and is a fine example how a changing world opened, not closed, new avenues to explore. You just have to know your way around a plot to find them. 

"The Room at the End of the Hall" was published EQMM as a Crime Story and right up until the solution it plays out like a serious crime drama with some psychological touches as the protagonist seems to be going mad – one way or another. One night, Gerald Cartright is stumbling home from a class reunion with more than one drink behind him when he comes across a house. The house is in complete darkness except for "a brilliantly lighted room at the far end of the house" and, peeking through the window, Gerald can look down into a room at the end of a hallway. And what he witnesses, sobers him up immediately.

Gerald sees a beautiful woman standing in the center of the room with a tall, sinister-looking man standing behind her and he plunges a knife, up to the hilt, between her shoulder blades. She sank to the floor and the lights went out! Gerald hastened to the local police station and they smelled alcohol on his breath, but, to be sure, a constable goes to the house to investigate and finds that everything is quiet and peaceful. There's neither a body to be found in the house or a room brilliantly lighted by a big chandelier. So what did he witnessed? The police is willing to dismiss the incident as a drunken mistake, but words get around the "overgrown village" and begins to have serious consequences for Gerald's personal and professional life. Because he's either crazy or a drunk.

I instinctively guessed the solution, but dismissed it very quickly as it didn't appear to fit the tone of the story. Nonetheless, it turned out to be correct and some might find it a touch to light as an answer as to what, exactly, caused the disintegration of Gerald's marriage and career. Still a good, well-written crime story that interestingly used the time-honored locked room trope as a framing device for a psychological crime/suspense story. 

Edward D. Hoch's "The Weapon Out of the Past" was published in the April, 1980, issue of EQMM and stars his reputedly 2000-year-old paranormal investigator, Simon Ark, who believes he's destined to do "battle with Satan himself." Until then, Ark brings light in all kinds of weird, or seemingly impossible, crimes and inexplicable occurrences. "The Weapon Out of the Past" brings one of those weird, long-forgotten incidents to the present when an old, recently discovered, diary gives an account of a raid on a farmhouse in 1755. A raid locally remembered as the Battle of Lonely Tree during which an Indian hunting knife, "hurled by a French colonel," vanished in thin air. There was a "hint of witches and dark doings" about the vanishing knife, which is exactly what attracted Ark's attention.

Two hundred and twenty-five years later, the farmhouse has become the scene of a lively pageant reenactment of the skirmish with one notable difference: someone, dressed as a Colonial officer, is struck down by an old hunting knife in the very spot where it had vanished mid-air all those years ago! A wonderful premise and Hoch nicely tied to the two problems together, but I preferred the treacherous, double-layered solution to the vanishing knife more than how it reappeared two centuries later. On a whole, it's a good and solid Hoch story with a clever historical clue and red herring. I also liked how Ark had to conduct his investigation while people dressed as soldiers and Indians were running around the place and rubber-tipped arrows showered from the sky.

John Hudson Tiner's "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" is a short-short purely focused on the locked room puzzle and has, to my knowledge, appeared only in the December, 1990, issue of EQMM. The titular, nameless preacher is "legally insane" and the ethical adviser of Freedholder Enterprise. During a weekly staff meeting, the preachers hears of their intention to sack the company's ground keeper as the person responsible for the equipment in the shed, which he closed and padlocked on Friday evening – only to discover on Monday that everything of value had been stolen. Even the garden tractor was gone! I think seasoned (locked room) mystery readers will immediately recognize the trick, as they'll probably read one or two stories with variations of the trick, but Tiner was the first one to use it... in the 1990s. Hoch has a superior version of the trick that predates this short-short by a good three decades.

Interestingly, "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" only explains how the equipment was stolen, but not who's behind it. The preacher tells the staff that he never promised "to catch a thief," but "merely show a set of circumstances" showing someone else could have looted the padlocked garden shed. So not too bad for a short-short.

4/12/21

Murder in the Oval Office (1989) by Elliott Roosevelt

Some years ago, "JJ," of The Invisible Event, started a sporadic series of blog-posts entitled "A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat," which turned out to be easier said than done and Jim kindly tied my name to a few abominations – like Andrew Mayne's Angel Killer (2014) and Chris McGeorge's Now You See Me (2019). A series that began promising enough with a review of Elliott Roosevelt's Murder in the Oval Office (1989) concluding that "you could do much worse for writing, plotting, enjoyment and general fun." So a decent locked room mystery novel with a historical hook and gimmick. 

I was recently reminded of JJ's first recommendation by William Harrington's The Grassy Knoll (1993) and decided it was time to take it off the big pile. You see, Murder in the Oval Office and The Grassy Knoll likely have more in common beyond their presidential theme.

Elliott Roosevelt was an American aviator and the son of the 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died on April 12, 1945, with Carter Dickson's The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) laying unfinished on his bedside table – ominously bookmarked at the chapter "Six Feet of Earth." Reportedly, President Roosevelt was in the habit of taking a detective novel to bed and the family library was likely stocked with all the luminaries of the detective story's Golden Age. So it's not surprising he paid tribute to his parents with a series of twenty detective novels starring his mother, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as the detective walking those mean streets of Washington, D.C. But did he write them himself or were they ghostwritten under his guidance?

The publisher always billed Elliott Roosevelt as the genuine author of the series and even when he passed away, 1990, the series continued with the explanation that the prolific Elliott had left behind a stack of completed, ready-to-publish manuscripts to pad out the decade. And that's exactly what happened. William Harrington committed suicide in 2000 and revealed in his self-written obituary that he had ghostwritten the presidential mystery novels credited to Elliott Roosevelt and Margaret Truman, which earned him credit on the last book in the Eleanor Roosevelt series (Murder at the President's Door, 2001). However, as noted in my review of The Grassy Knoll, Harrington's claims have not gone entirely undisputed.

So, now that we've got that out of the way, let's take a look at the detective novel that used the most famous room in the United States to stage an old-fashioned locked room mystery. 

Murder in the Oval Office is the sixth title in the series and takes place, in 1934, when Roosevelt was sixteen months into his first term and the White House hosted a dinner in honor of the Secretary-General of the French Foreign Ministry, but Alabama Congressman Winstead Colmer receives a message – excusing himself from the table. This is shortly followed by a gunshot coming from the Oval Office. The double doors between the Oval Office and the secretaries' office had to be broken open and inside they find the body of the congressman with a bullet in his head with the doors "bolted shut from the inside" and all the windows "securely latched." So what else could have been than suicide? There are some nagging details and a surfeit of motives.

Representative Winstead Colmer chaired the Auditing Standards Subcommittee of the House Banking and Currency Committee and "the evidence adduced by him had embarrassed bankers all across America," which allowed his "subcommittee was drafting legislation to tighten auditing standards on banks." But there also rumors swirling around that he impregnated a young girl. And why does his pregnant wife refuse to tell where she was on the night of the murder? Enter Eleanor Roosevelt who has to find a way to juggle her duties as First Lady with playing amateur detective as she assists Gerald Baines, Secret Service, in helping to find the killer. Something that becomes all the more difficult as a headline chasing J. Edgar Hoover tries to horn in on the case.

This is where Murder in the Oval Office becomes a mixed bag of tricks. Firstly, there's the historical content that's littered with cameos of historical characters and future presidents, but it tries to be too cute with its winking at the future. A young Lyndon B. Johnson appears, but Eleanor Roosevelt dismisses him as "an awkward fellow" who "would never amount to much." Louisiana Senator Huey Long also makes an appearance and the President remarks he could spare him, but "wouldn't want to lose him by murder." And that's the nicest thing the book had to say about Long. Honestly, the depiction of Long, while not wholly undeserved or even untrue, comes across as a little petty considering Roosevelt adopted many of his rivals proposals in the wake of Long's assassination and it came across as spiteful – especially with the name of the winner plastered all over the book. On the other hand, I enjoyed the scene in which Eleanor Roosevelt discusses the locked room problem with Major Eisenhower.

Major Eisenhower believes there has to be "some idiosyncrasy" in the locked room and therefore the murderer must be "someone with special, intimate knowledge of the Oval Office." Someone who knows that idiosyncrasy. The locked room puzzle here is not delegated to the background, but is thoroughly investigated and comes with a floorplan of the Oval Office, diagrams of the locks and bolts and the problem how the murderer though a bolted door is thought and talked about. Unfortunately, the locked room-trick is fairly routine. Not unacceptable or anything. Just not very original (particular in 1989) and it's actually the last diagram that gives the trick some weight as it showed the trick was custom-fitted for the Oval Office. You can say the same about the who-and why, which were fine, but nothing outstanding or special except for gathering all the suspects in the Oval Office for the traditional denouement.

So, yeah, my opinion pretty much aligns with JJ. Murder in the Oval Office is a fun, enjoyable mystery novel with decent enough plot and some historical interest, although a bit colored, but it's main attraction is staging an impossible crime in the titular room – a better trick would have made it something more than mere curiosity. Now I can only recommend it to fans of historical mysteries and locked room completists.

By the way, I don't know why, but while reading Murder in the Oval Office, I got a mental image of Joseph Commings' Senator Brooks U. Banner and Erle Stanley Gardner's Doug Selby as President and Vice-President of the U.S. in the GAD universe. What do you say, my American friends, would you have given your vote to a Banner/Selby ticket?

4/10/21

Pell-Mell in a Hotel (2021) by Eugenius Quak

A few years ago, E-Pulp published Gruwelijk is het huwelijk (Marriage is Gruesome, 2017) by the impalpable enfant terrible of oranje pulp (orange pulp), Eugenius Quak, who doubles as author and the slightly narcissistic, ethically-impaired anti-hero and narrator – an ex-convict turned detective. A change of occupation that came about when he discovered Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie in the prison library. 

Eugenius M. Quak opened an outlaw detective agency without any of the legal paperwork, ethics or a moral compass, but Marriage is Gruesome ended with Quak triumphantly solving his first murder. Quak's brilliant piece of detective work also ended his agency and another spell in prison. So a pretty good and intriguing start to a new, offbeat series of tongue-in-cheek, pulp-style mysteries with a second novel announced for 2018, but it got delayed until April 1, 2021. Probably due to him being behind bars or something. 

Hoteldebotel in een hotel (Pell-Mell in a Hotel, 2021) takes place nine years after Marriage is Gruesome and can be summed up as its long-delayed aftermath, but first have to talk about the presentation and packaging of the book. You see, the publisher of these two pulp mysteries, E-Pulp, is not canon/in-universe. Story-wise, Marriage is Gruesome was published by De Gele Kamer (The Yellow Room) and Pell-Mell in a Hotel appeared with The House of Nemesis, which comes with fake blurbs ("a disgusting attempt at literary whitewashing") and a fictitious fore-and afterwords defending and condemning the book – calling it either "a unique record of a unique man" or a "perverse fantasy." There's also a sly hint hidden somewhere in the presentation and packaging.

Eugenius Quak has some very good reasons to treat himself to an early release from prison, but the police disagreed and a nationwide manhunt is underway to apprehend "the dangerous criminal." So he decided to leave the Netherlands behind him. Only problem is that his getaway wasn't raising anchor for another three days and he needed place to hide from Commissioner Van Konijnenburg.

This brought him to his last-living relative, Aunt Phlox Leeflang, who runs a small beach side hotel, De Rode Haring (The Red Herring), where begins to work as her other nephew and "favorite houseslave," Urbanus Leeflang. However, the hotel has underwent some changes while he was away. Aunt Phlox had renevoted the hotel to cater to elderly, invalided guests and even had some permanent residents with a qualified nurse on staff and a fully stocked medicine cabinet. So the average age of guests and residents is 90, which doesn't make for the three-day holiday Quak had envisioned. Some of the guests turn out to be very troublesome and it doesn't take very long for a body to turn up.

I can't tell you anything about the victim or the precise circumstances of the murder, because Quak challenged the reader in the third chapter to see if they could guess who the victim was going to be – which he does throughout the story. Quak is an unreliable, dishonest and delusional narrator, but insists on playing the game fairly. Such as ending the second chapter with telling the reader he has already given them "the first and very important tip" and, "if you activate your frontal lobes and are a genius," you "can spot the culprit before I expose him." The clueing and misdirection here is as unusually good and interesting as it's uneven.

 

 

Two clues stand out in this regard. One of them can almost be described as a meta-clue and is, perhaps, a bit too fair as even the most casual mystery reader can pick up on it. If they're paying attention to what's happening in the story, that is. The second clue is a splendid demonstration how modern forensics can be used for piece of good, old-fashioned misdirection. It's one of those clues that moonlights as a red herring. Unfortunately, the motive is not as clearly clued as the who-and how, but not something that seriously detracts from the overall quality of the plot and story.

Just as interesting and fascinating as the clues and red herrings is how Quak has to grapple with a very precarious situation. After the murder, the police is all over the hotel and they're not only looking for a murderer, but, as told in the opening chapter, they know Quak has to be somewhere in the neighborhood – endangering both his freedom and his aunt's reputation. She asks him to solve the murder, but Urbanus can't go around "questioning the guests like the inspector does." Luckily, the hotel has a remnant from World War II. A secret passage/hiding place that he uses to eavesdrop on Inspector Den Hond as he questions the guests and staff of The Red Herring. I can't think of a better way to use a secret passage in an honest to god detective story. What a pleasure to read such a detective story in my own language! 

Pell-Mell in a Hotel ends as ambitiously as its predecessor with a solution as provocative, and potentially controversial, as the detective who solved it, but everything fitted and worked. The clueing, red herrings, false-solutions, atypical detective work and fourth-wall breaking challenges all did their part in making this strange, pulp-style homage to Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen a success. I don't know if a third novel is planned, but, if the ending here is anything to go by, it's going to be bonkers.

On a final, semi-related note: I suspect Marriage is Gruesome and Pell-Mell in a Hotel were written long before they were published. Something tells me they were stuck in a drawer or on a hard drive for the past twenty years, or so, before being revived, revised and printed. One of the reasons is the general attitude of the story, but there's also an elderly lady with a wartime trauma, which, in 2021, doesn't entirely add up. She has a personal assistance who's half a century her junior and she told she been active in the resistance during the war. But even if she had been 17 or 18 at the time, she would have been pushing 100 in 2021. I know the story mentioned that the average age of guests was 90, but that's something that could have been changed or added later. Note that guests acted more like sprightly 60 and 70 year old's than people closing in on their 100 birthday. So it wouldn't surprise me in the least of there was an early, unpublished version of the story that was written in the early 2000s. Maybe even as far back as the late '90s.

Sorry for leaving so little room between this review and the previous one. My backlog has grown during the lockdowns and didn't want to wait two months with posting it. And a fitting follow up. 

4/9/21

The Hotel of the Three Roses (1936) by Augusto de Angelis

Back in 2016, Pushkin Vertigo introduced the world to the father of the Italian detective story, Augusto de Angelis, who created a homegrown detective story from scratch in the mid-1930s and faced tough opposition from snobby critics and Benito Mussolini's regime – declaring it was either absurd or dangerous to depict Italy as anything less than "a harmonious idyll." Sadly, the regime failed to see the irony in opposing the detective story and murdering De Angelis in 1944. 

You can't suppress the detective story by saying it's slanderous to a sleepy, peaceful Mediterranean country and then kick a mystery writer to death in the streets. It only proves that amateur reasoner of some celebrity had a point when he stated that crime is common and logic rare. Anyway...

During that nine-year period between 1935 and 1944, De Angelis managed to produce twenty detective novels starring his series-character, Inspector Carlo de Vincenzi. A detective who's "more complex than the British 'thinking machine' typified by Sherlock Holmes" and "more sensitive than the tough-guy American private eye," which would become a fairly typical description of the continental policeman character during the post-WWII era. For example, you can find them all over Dutch politieromans and German krimis.

I read Il banchiere assassinato (The Murdered Banker, 1935) in 2016 and immediately proved that the Italian detective story can't catch a break by (sort of) forgetting all about him. De Angelis only resumed his climb to the top of Mt. To-Be-Read when learning Kazabo Publishing had released a translation of Sei donne e un libro (Death in a Bookstore, 1936) in 2019 and almost coincided with Locked Room International publishing a translation of Franco Vailati's Ill mistero dell'idrovolante (The Flying Boat Mystery, 1935) – one of Italy's most famous and iconic locked room mysteries. So it was about time I returned to Milan to watch De Vincenzi disentangle another knotty problem. 

L'albergo delle tre rose (The Hotel of the Three Roses, 1936) is the seventh title in the series and takes place in December, 1919, at a dodgy, third-rate hotel where the guests "gamble furiously all night" as "if it were forced labour." The group of people staying, or living, at the Hotel of the Three Roses is as diverse and strange as you'd expect.

There's Bardi, the hunchback, who's been living at the hotel for ten years and is a "perpetual busybody." Giorgio Novarreno is a self-styled necromancer who rashly caved to his desire to demonstrate his divinatory powers to the grounded Inspector De Vincenzi. Carlo da Como used to have money, but is now down on his luck and scraps a living together by gambling, which does not prevent him from refusing to sell his last remaining property to his elder sisters out of spite. Vilfredo Engel is another permanent resident of the hotel, a gambler and friend of Da Como. Nicola Al Righetti is an American of Italian origin and claims to come from New York, but how he deals with a police interrogation shows he normally lives in Chicago. Stella Essington is a drug addicted actress who soothed her "the feverish agitation of her nerves" with cello music. Carin Nolan is a Norwegian girl about 19-years-old and presumably "the threatened innocent" of the story. Signora Mary Alton Vendramini is the heavily veiled widow of Major Alton and it was his will that summoned her to the hotel, which is also why his lawyer, George Flemington, is present. A pretty odd assortment of characters!

Inspector De Vincenzi receives an anonymous letter that the Hotel of the Three Roses is "a gathering of addicts and degenerates" where now "a horrible drama is brewing," which will blow up if they don't intervene in time – a warning that comes too late. Shortly after reading the note, De Vincenzi is called to the hotel to investigate the death of a young Englishman, Douglas Layng, whose body is hanging from a ceiling beam on the landing. However, the doctor determines he had been killed hours before the body was found by a stab in the back and that makes it a quasi-impossible crime. Where did the murderer hide the body all the time? Why did the murderer redressed the body? How did the murderer get the body to the landing? Everything the murderer did increased "difficulty and risks a hundredfold" and it wouldn't be the last the time the murderer had more freedom of movement than circumstances should have allowed for.

Inspector De Vincenzi is not only frustrated by suspects and witnesses unwilling to talk, give half-truths or simply stall before getting to the point, but even his own subordinates were very slapdash in carrying out his simple orders. Several times, the murderer was handed an opportunity to strike because the policemen tasked with guarding the place were not at their post. A second victim is murdered behind a locked door with the wide open window overlooking a wet, unguarded garden and the excuse of his second-in-command is that he didn't have "the heart to send a man out to stand in the rain." A third attack happens and the murderer appears to have been able to enter a room, unseen, while an officer sat guard outside in the corridor, but not as diligently as instructed. So the result is that the reader is constantly teased with potential locked room mysteries before they're immediately dispelled and snatched away.

There is, however, so much more to give De Vincenzi a headache than just lying suspects, unwilling witnesses and cavalier subordinates. Why did some of the guests brought a flaxen-haired, porcelain doll to the hotel and can the dolls be connected to the murders or a long-forgotten, Doylean episode that took place in the Transvaal during the Boer War, which involves crocodiles, diamonds and a "ghostly avenger" – whom everyone feared could be behind the murders. So, yeah, a lively detective novel with an oddball collection of gargoyles who frustrate the investigation every step of the way while the attacks continue right under the nose of the police. This makes for a fun, fast-paced detective story, but the finer details of the plot leaves something to be desired.

De Angelis unfortunately gave more attention and care to the red herrings and misdirecting the reader than properly clueing and dressing the bare bones of the plot, which hid a decent, perfectly acceptable scheme. So you can't really arrive at the (full) solution with the clues, or lack thereof, you're given and that always detracts from the overall quality of a detective story. No matter how good the storytelling or characterization is. What you're left with is a fun and amusing, but unmistakably second-string, mystery novel standing in the shadow of its American and British contemporaries.

Nonetheless, while not entirely perfect, the historical and political baggage of the Italian detective story makes even a second-string mystery novel an interesting exploration. You can see how government censorship had a hand in shaping the Italian Golden Age detective story as it eventually became illegal to depict Italians as criminals. So mystery writers had to resort to non-Italian characters, or foreign-born Italians, who were likely tainted. I wonder how many hotel and transportation mysteries there are from this period of the Italian detective story, because it would be most convenient way to write a story around a cast of mostly foreign characters. Since there are two more of De Angelis' novels available in English, I'll try to get to one of them before the end of 2021.

4/6/21

The League of Matthias (1934) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn's The League of Matthias (1934) is the fourteenth entry in the once criminally overlooked and now justifiably revived Anthony Bathurst series, courtesy of Dean Street Press and Steve Barge, which is another shimmering example of Flynn's versatility as a writer and plotter – who tried to do something different with each novel. So what you get is the best of two worlds as the series offers the advantages of both the standalone and series novels. Flynn effortlessly moved from Victorian-era melodrama and pulp-style mysteries to courtroom drama, whodunits and impossible crimes while unapologetic fanboying all over Conan Doyle. 

You can easily see where Doyle and Sherlock Holmes might have influenced The League of Matthias. A thriller-like detective novel concerning "one of the biggest criminal organisations ever known" that had "entered the arena of Continental crime" screams Professor Moriarty, but Flynn might have been looking at two of his contemporaries, John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie. The League of Matthias struck me as Christie's The Big Four (1927) as perceived by Carr. However, the book anticipates most of Carr's more well-known chase mysteries like The Blind Barber (1934), The Unicorn Murders (1935) and The Punch and Judy Murders (1937). 

The League of Matthias begins with Lance Maturin touring the continent with two of his friends, Adrian Fawcett and Dennis Hilleary, to help him recover from a broken heart and spirit.

So, after a couple of months of touring, the trio arrive in Antwerp, Belgium, where they visit a dingy cabaret place, the Scarlet Flare, with a beautiful dancer, Philippa, whose frightened eyes seem to be sending "a message from her soul" to Lance – not just him imagining things. Lance is handed a folded note pleading him to come to her dressing room as she's in "deadly peril." Philippa asks Lance to pretend to be her husband as protection against the sinister intentions of Raoul de Verviac and, before he knows it, he accompanies her to a lodging-house in the Rue du Sacré Coeur. Where he wears the pyjama-suit of another man and sleeps next to strange woman, clutching a revolver, to protect her from the villainous De Verviac. It was quite a night. A night that ends with a deadly shootout at the lodging-house and Lance and Philippa fleeing from the Belgian police.

However, it's not De Verviac's body laying at the bottom of the staircase with a bullet in his head, but a Scotland Yard detective, Chief-Inspector Rawlinson, who had "journeyed to Antwerp to deal primarily with three matters."

Chief-Inspector Rawlinson and Anthony Bathurst, working in conjunction with Scotland Yard, were tasked with investigating two seemingly unconnected disappearances and "the sinister activities of the League of Matthias." Firstly, the activities of the league had left a trail of bizarre murders that littered Belgium with the bodies of a convicted abortionist, a discredited actors with a forgery charge hanging over his head and "the most audacious embezzlers of modern times" who "despoiled literally thousands of homes in the Netherlands." So he got what he was due! Stranger even is that all of the deaths took "rather fantastic routes to the Styx."

One victim had his veins opened with pieces of broken glass, while another was burned to a crisp inside a baker's oven. A later victim is "drugged and then tied to the railway lines," but never a gun, knife or poison. Only a tiny, tangible clue filtered through the murky, criminally cautious network and that's the number 13 – "nothing more—nothing less." Anthony Bathurst and Chief-Inspector Rawlinson have another problem on their hands of an entirely different magnitude, but with enough pull to throw the whole affair in complete disarray.

Two people of very different plumage have disappeared. Firstly, there's the daughter of the Bishop of Longbarrow, Miss Philippa Castleton, whose disappearance "excited a tremendous amount of interest throughout the entire country." But, eventually, the excitement died down without her being found. Secondly, there's the disappearance of a distinguished member of the Diplomatic Service, Lance Marutin, whose disappearance is difficult to date. But the authorities have every right to be concerned. Two months previously, a colleague of Maturin had vanished under similar circumstances until his body was fished from the Scheldt.

So, as you probably noticed, the narratives of Lance and Bathurst concern the same characters and locations, but the details either don't seem to fit or out of focus and it takes some work to dovetail everything into a fitting pattern. I can't give anymore details without giving away too much, but I can gush how brilliantly Flynn handled this highly fantastical, sometimes unbelievable, mystery novel.

You see, The League of Matthias can hardly be called credible as a detective, or thriller, which considerably stretches credulity with how all the characters are linked or how the lodging-house "became the centre of a circle with various radii reaching the circumference" – seriously testing readers who want some semblance of plausibility in their detective fiction. And yet... The League of Matthias has this dark, grim edge of realism that makes the whole story much more believable than it has any right to be. And it's not the gruesome nature of the murders, the untimely death of Rawlinson or the demented truth behind the league. It's how the romantic subplot between Lance and Philippa is resolved, which dodged all the usual cliches and beautifully fitted this grim, fairy tale-like detective story. How neatly everything else fell into place was just a bonus.

Just like Carr's The Hollow Man (1935), Flynn's The League of Matthias is the utterly bizarre and fantastic detective story done right while maintaining the integrity of detective story with a clues and clever piece of misdirection. It's also another demonstration why Flynn was to the false-identity what Christopher Bush was to the unbreakable alibi and Carr to the locked room mystery! Flynn comes highly recommended to everyone who loves pure, undiluted vintage detective fiction and has now came dangerous close to replacing Bush as my favorite DSP author.

4/2/21

The New Kindaichi Files (1994) by Seimaru Amagi

Two years ago, I reviewed Seimaru Amagi's Dennō sansō satsujin jiken (Murder On-Line, 1996), a so-called "light novel," which is the Japanese, manga-like equivalent of young adult fiction complete with illustrations and penned all nine light novels in The Kindaichi Case Files series – published between 1994 and 2001. Only four of the novels were translated as part of the Kodansha English Library, but copies have become scarce over the past two decades. 

Ho-Ling Wong commented on my review to explain that "these books were not really intended for the international market," but to help Japanese readers who were learning to speak English and the reason why there are English/Japanese vocabulary lists at the end of the books. So not that many copies journeyed to the West.

Nevertheless, when has the obscure, out-of-print status of a tantalizing-sounding detective novel ever stopped any of us? John Norris has obscurity serve him drinks while reading. I managed to get hold of a copy of the first novel in the series, Operazakan – aratanaru satsujin (Opera House, the New Murders, 1994), which appeared in English under the nondescript title of The New Kindaichi Files. But don't let the bland title fool you. The book is an important entry in the series mythos and a sterling performance of the theatrical mystery novel with a five-star locked room-trick! 

The New Kindaichi Files is a sequel to the very first Kindaichi (manga) story, Operazakan satsujin jiken (The Opera House Murder Case, 1993), published in English in 2003 by TokyoPop as The Opera House Murders, which brought Hajime Kindaichi to the Hotel Opera on Utashima Island – where he was confronted by a string of murders modeled on Gaston Leroux's Le fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1909). Kindaichi would return to Utashima Island a total of four times to solve Phantom of the Opera-themed murders. Ho-Ling reviewed the first three cases in 2012 in his blog-post "Three Act Tragedy" and discussed the fourth story in two-parts, which can be read here and here. But, for now, let's take a closer look at the second story that once again bathed the small island in blood.

Kazuma Kurosawa is one of the top five directors in Japan, reformer of modern drama and "the man behind the commercial success of theater" who had written and directed eight hit versions of The Phantom of the Opera. Ten years ago, Kurosawa had bought the island and spent six years restoring and converting the Georgian-style vacation home into a hotel with theater, which opened four years before The New Kindaichi Files. And what happened during its opening can be read in The Opera House Murders. Four years later, the old theater had been torn down and a new one built where Kurosawa plans to stage his ninth version of The Phantom of the Opera.

Hajime Kindaichi, Miyuki Nanase and Inspector Isamu Kenmochi all receive an invitation to the grand reopening of the Hotel Opera, because they were caught in the middle of "the serial murders at the Hotel Opera" and it was Kindaichi who unmasked the Phantom – although it was Kenmoichi who received the credit and the Metropolitan Police Superintendent's Medal. When they arrived on the island, Kindaichi experiences "a twinge of nostalgia" and "something less pleasant." A strong feeling that something bad is about the happen and the cast of characters for the impending tragedy have already taken their place on the stage.

The stars of the Genso theater group and play are an husband-and-wife acting duo, Kozaburo and Seiko Nojo, but they're not particular warm, or pleasant, people to be around. Yukio Midorikawa, Atsushi Takizawa and Rio Kanai are the other actors of the troupe who have one, or more, roles to play in the production. There's also a university student, Rokuro Eguchi, who works on the island every summer and a reclusive painter, Seiji Makube, whose features are obscured by a surgical mask. Dr. Eisaku Yuki rounds out the party and he was also present during the first series of murders on the island. Only eight hours pass before all hell breaks loose on the isolated island.

A small piece of paper with an ominous warning is found, saying "Carlotta sang farewell as the chandelier fell," signed "P," but when they investigate the theater with "an enormous chandelier" suspended over the stage, it's discovered completely empty. So they fastened the door from the outside with a padlock, but a short time later a crash shakes the house and rattles the windows, which unmistakably came from the theater. The door is opened in full view of everyone and what they discover is Seiko Nojo's body on the stage, "crushed beyond recognition," among the smashed and shattered remains of "that massive piece of intricate glasswork." More shockingly, Seiko had been strangled before the murderer dropped the chandelier on her. But how?

The whole auditorium had been "completely locked up," but somehow, "the murderer carried the body onto the stage" and "dropped the chandelier on it" before vanishing from a theater where "one set of doors was closed from the inside" and "the other entrance was shut with a padlock" – not a window to be found. Honestly, The New Kindaichi Files is the best and most original locked room mystery I've come across since Tokuya Higashigawa's Misshitsu no kagi kashimasu (Lending the Key to the Locked Room, 2002) and James Scott Byrnside's The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020). Amagi crafted a minor gem of a locked room mystery, while flexing his plotting skills, peeling away the layers as he added new ones. Such as giving away part of the trick early on in the story, but at the same time complicating the whole problem with pesky alibis, unclear motives, more murders and a false-solution to the padlocked entrance. Only to deliver a knockout punch in the end with a thoroughly satisfying and original solution the murder in the locked theater. A solution that even takes into account the illogicality of presenting the murder as an impossible crime and what gave the murder the idea to stage such a trick.

A multi-layered locked room-puzzle that clearly shows the difference between Amagi and the series co-creator, Yozaburo Kanari. Amagi understands what makes a detective-plot ticks and Kanari clearly doesn't. Something that's also reflected in how Amagi managed to cleverly subvert the series formula to (temporarily) hide the murderer. It's why it took me longer than usual with this series to catch on to the murderer, which gave me a pretty good idea about the real angle of the motive. But not the locked room-trick. The trick I envisioned was amateurishly stupid and clumsy in comparison. Amagi is the Soji Shimada of the anime-and manga detective story.

Only weak spots in the solution is that the story conveniently ignores how easily a padlock can be picked open, or refastened again, and long-time mystery readers unfamiliar with the series will likely have an easier time spotting the murderer – because they don't know what they're supposed to expect from the setup. Other than that, The New Kindaichi Files is not merely a good and solid entry in the long-running Kindaichi series, but an excellent and beautifully executed theatrical locked room mystery in its own right. I can't exactly tell you why, but this is the most fun I had reading/watching Kindaichi. Highly recommended, if you can find a copy!

So let me end this review with a plea to Kodansha to reprint those four light novels that were translated into English during the 1990s, which would now be a welcome addition to the steadily increasing stream of shin honkaku translations. Now there's an actual audience for them. A good alternative would be a four-in-one volume from Locked Room International with Ho-Ling, a huge fan of the series, writing the introduction to give new readers a crash course in all things Kindaichi. Even better would be brand new translations of all nine novels, but that's perhaps asking too much. Well, here's hoping something will materialize in the not so distant future.

On a truly last note, my edition is a thing of beauty: a paperback with dustjacket with the back and leaves covered in Japanese writing, but you can actually read the story inside with the detailed floor plan of the theater, diagram of part of the locked room-trick and illustrations of the characters/scenes as the cherry on top – giving you the best of all worlds.

3/31/21

The Grassy Knoll (1993) by William Harrington

William Harrington was an American writer who ended his own life in 2000 and left behind a self-written obituary in which he revealed to have ghostwritten the detective novels credited to the daughter of President Harry S. Truman, Margaret Truman, but his claim has been disputed – describing his role as that of a research collaborator. So, while not the celebrity ghostwriter he claimed to have been, Harrington had written many novels under his own name since the 1960s and penned six original Columbo TV tie-in novels during the 1990s. Now that's something he should have bragged about in his obituary! 

The Grassy Knoll (1993) is the first of Harrington's six Columbo TV tie-in novels and he took an interesting approach to translating the series format, or formula, to the printed page.

All of the usual stuff is there with Columbo and the reader knowing who committed the murder and how it was done, but not why and figuring out the motive gives Columbo an opportunity to act as a proper homicide cop. So it's not merely Columbo stalking to the killers and waging a war on their nerves. It's an inverted whydunit presented as a modern police procedural that unmistakably takes place in the early '90s. 

The Paul Drury Show is the most popular show on the KWLF Los Angeles television station, which is basically a televised radio talk show with call-ins, whose well-known host is obsessed with one of the most famous murder cases in the history of the United States – namely the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. Paul Drury had dedicated forty-eight episodes of his show to the JFK murder case, amusingly pitting dogged detectives and researchers against "some asshole who's read three books about it," which made those episodes the most popular of the show. The opening chapter shows that forty-eighth episode about the assassination that include some of the call-ins ("Have you ever heard of the Society of the Illuminati? Nothing happens those guys don't sanction").

So it was a good show and episode, but the would end very badly for Paul Drury. When he arrived home, there were two people waiting for him in his garage, Alicia Graham Drury and Peter Edmonds.

Peter is the producer of The Paul Drury Show and Alicia is his assistant producer, as well as his girlfriend and Paul's ex-wife, who have fabricated an alibi by leaving a time-stamped message with a recording Paul's voice on an telephone answering machine – using a cutting-edge piece of technology known as Sony Walkman. They also staged a burglary and finished the job by putting two bullets in the back of Paul's head. Alicia and Peter hardly can believe their luck when they meet the disheveled Lieutenant Columbo with his tousled head of hair, crumpled raincoat and wandering mind ("what a dolt!"), because, if they could have "picked a detective to investigate this case," they "couldn't have done better than him." But they pretty soon discover that Columbo is "not as dumb as he acts" as he inches towards a solution.

I was tempted to use the locked room and impossible crime tags for this review, because had the book been played as who-and howdunit, the murder Paul Drury would have looked like a quasi-impossible crime. The house is protected with burglar-alarms, hyper sensitive motion detectors and PIN card system that deactivates the system. There's not much of a mystery about it: Alicia simply held on to a spare card and Columbo knows it. The murderers were also a little to familiar with the layout of the house to have been an outsider, but there's another, somewhat dated, technological aspect to the plot.

Paul Drury was with the times and had compiled a "private electronic library" on his computer that contained "the world's largest collection of assassination minutiae," which has "the equivalent of thousands of volumes of information stored in it," but the harddisk had been wiped clean by "an outlaw instruction code" – i.e. a telephone transmitted computer virus. But did he make copies of his digital library? There's a collection of microdiskettes, or floppies, that will come to play an important role in the case. Naturally, Columbo needs some modern experts to help him make sense of these modern-day clues, which is really what sets this book apart from the TV-series.

Columbo is not depicted here as a lone wolf relentlessly stalking and pestering the murderers, like prey, but as a cog in the machine of a large police apparatus and even has an assistant, Detective Martha Zimmer. She proves very helpful in resolving another rather amusing plot-thread as Columbo has is ordered to report at the pistol range to requalify with his service revolver. Only problem is that never carries his revolver, lost it and can't shoot to save his life. More importantly, Columbo relies on the expertise of his colleagues to shed light on the various aspects of the case.

For example, the pathologist and an audio-technician proved very useful in helping breakdown the murderer's alibi, but the lack of a clear motive also forced Columbo to delve deeper into the background of his suspects and interviews several witnesses – which eventually brings him to a Las Vegas casino and Caesars Palace. What he comes across are the last remnants of the glory days of the Italian mafia, the legacy of right wing militias and newly discovered photographs that could shed new light on the Kennedy assassination. Those old, grainy photographs revealed their long-held, hidden details when they're "computer enhanced" and touched-up by an artist. So this may very well be one of the earliest examples of the zoom-and-enhance TV trope and it was used in a TV tie-in novel.

Anyway, you can see how The Grassy Knoll is a little bit different from your average Columbo episode, but Columbo is still Columbo, whose sharp mind is cloaked in a disheveled wardrobe, deceiving befuddlement, cheap cigars and homely anecdotes about Mrs. Columbo. Slowly, but surely, Columbo continues to chip away at the case and closes in on the murderers. Columbo is not able to close the whole case as the historical JFK plot-thread ended up raising more questions than it answered. But then again, I suppose that was kind of the point. I just wish Columbo actually came up with a clever solution to the mystery. Even if he couldn't officially solve it.

Nevertheless, the murder of President Kennedy had an interesting connection to the motive and story proposed an alternative motive that has to be turned into a detective or thriller novel. Columbo learns that the assassination has become "a multimillion-dollar industry" with books, documentaries, movies and television series, but those millions would dry up if Drury had "absolute evidence" proving who did kill Kennedy. It would kill a very lucrative industry, because people enjoy "some deep, dark conspiracy" more than the truth. 

So, on a whole, The Grassy Knoll is not exactly Columbo as seen on TV, but Harrington deserves praise for understanding that a few hundred pages can tell a more fully realized story than roughly 90-minutes of TV and decided to use it to flesh-out the other aspects of the police investigation – while remaining faithful to the original character. Columbo is still Columbo, but Harrington gave fans a little extra by showing more of Columbo as a homicide cop. I enjoyed it and can heartily recommended to other Columbo fans and mystery readers.

You can definitely expect more from Harrington's Columbo novels sometime in the future as I'm already eyeing The Helter Skelter Murders (1994), The Hoffa Connection (1995) and The Hoover Files (1998). But my next read is going to be an obscure, somewhat hard-to-get (locked room) mystery novel from the 1990s. I actually wanted to return to Christopher Bush or Brian Flynn, but that one arrived today and decided not to let it linger too long. So don't touch that dial!

3/29/21

Down On His Luck: "The Silver Curtain" (1939) by Carter Dickson

Mike Ashley's momentous anthology The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) introduced John Dickson Carr as the man whose name has become "indelibly linked with the impossible crime story," which is the indubitable truth, but comes with a caveat – since his short stories seldom reached the same heights as his novel-length locked room mysteries. But the keyword there is seldom. 

"The House in Goblin Wood" (1947) is the crown jewel of Carr's short fiction and together with Joseph Commings' "No Bones for Davy Jones" (1953), Robert Arthur's "The Glass Bridge" (1957) and Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings" (1960) among the best dozen short impossible crime stories ever written. "The Dead Sleep Lightly" (1943) presents the detective story as a ghost yarn and demonstrates Carr easily could have been the next M.R. James as well as having one of my favorite lines in all of detective fiction. "Blind Man's Hood" (1937), "Persons or Things Unknown" (1938) and "Cabin B-13" (1943) have similar qualities (ghostly crimes), but for today, I decided to reread one of his most well-known, often reprinted short stories. 

"The Silver Curtain" (published as by "Carter Dickson") was first printed in the August, 1939, issue of The Strand and reprinted in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), Merrivale, March and Murder (1991) and The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, which may have been its most important appearance to date – likely introducing the then long out-of-print Carr to many readers at the time. Our current reprint renaissance was still in its infancy in the early 2000s and it was not until recently Carr began to receive the renewed attention he so much deserves. 

"The Silver Curtain" differs from the stories mentioned above as it has none of the trappings of the ghost story, or even a hint of the supernatural, but an ordinary crime that's misunderstood. And the dark, rainy backdrop gives the crime an almost unearthly quality.

The story begins in a French casino where a young man, Jerry Winton, is having a run of bad luck at the tables, which left him practically cleaned out, but gets an unexpected offer from a man who won a pretty packet at the table. A sleek, oily-faced man, Ferdie Davos, asks if Jerry is interested in making ten thousand francs. Only thing Jerry has to do is go "see a doctor" to get a nerve tonic. Jerry gets an address and instructions to be there in about an hour. When Jerry sets out on his shady assignment, he suddenly notices Davos walking along the dim, rainy street and entering a cul-de-sac with two of its three sides being tall, blank brick walls and the third side formed a tall, flat house – "all of whose windows were closely shuttered." There was nowhere to go, or hide, but in "the second's space of time" it took for Jerry to glance back at "the figure of a policeman some distance away," someone killed Davos. A dying Davos is lying on the pavement with a heavy knife in the back of his neck and clutching a well-filled wallet. Even worse, Davos had been all alone in "an empty cul-de-sac as bare as a biscuit-box" and the position of the knife convinces the policeman Jerry killed the man during an attempt to rob him.

So the situation doesn't look very good for our young hero. Luckily, Colonel March, of Scotland Yard, happened to be in France to help investigate "a certain form of activity" that has "became intolerable both to the French and English authorities," which dovetailed with the impossible murder in the cul-de-sac. Colonel March more or less acts as deus ex machina as he doesn't enter the story until the last few pages. What he does is pulling out all of the relevant clues from his coat pockets, "with the air of a conjurer," which spells out a very clever and satisfying explanation to the seemingly impossible. A solution clearly showing just how much of an influence G.K. Chesterton was on Carr's work and perhaps it would have been better had Dr. Gideon Fell been the detective. But other than that, I've no complaints. 

"The Silver Curtain" is a vintage, snack-size impossible crime story and can be counted among Carr's half-dozen best short stories. Recommended!