9/16/19

Beware of the Dog: Case Closed, vol. 70 by Gosho Aoyama

The 70th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, originally titled Detective Conan in Japan, is composed of two grand stories, involving Harley Hartwell and Kaito KID, but the opening chapter concludes the story that began in the last two chapters of the previous volume – in which the Junior Detective League uncover a dark crime in an empty house haunted by piano music. A very minor and forgettable story.

However, the next two stories are wonderfully done homages to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and Maurice Leblanc.

One of my favorite recurring side-characters returns in the first story, Jirokichi Sebastian, whose foil is that elusive master magician of thievery, Kaito KID, but this time, the game is played a little bit different without the grand traps and counter plots of their previous encounters – e.g. volumes 61, 65 and 68. Aoyama came up with good reason that makes this such an interesting and unusual story.

The story is set against a revival of public interest in a historical figure, Ryōma Sakamoto, who was revolutionary reformer instrumental in setting the stage for the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Jirokichi Sebastian has opened an exhibition devoted to him at the Great Sebastian Museum and the centerpiece is "the jeweled gun belt" that was gifted to Ryōma, which has "a huge ruby embedded in the buckle." Shishihiko Tarumi is the sleazy owner of the belt and had the item authenticated by a shady appraiser, Masanosuke Hanamura, but refused to sell it to Jirokichi. Only agreeing to loan it to him for exhibition.

Normally, the gun belt would be used as bait in an attempt to trap Kaito KID, however, the thief has announced that he'll be visiting the Ryōma exhibition soon, not to steal the gun belt, but "to return three items" that were stolen twenty years ago – namely a half-finished letter, a drinking cup and a Smith & Wesson model 1 revolver. A gift from America that went with the bejeweled belt. These historical items were stolen by "a famous thief and mistress of disguise from the Showa Era," The Phantom Lady, who employed "theatrical tactics straight out of horror movies" to steal from "corrupt companies and crooked millionaires." And the story suggests she's related to KID.

So here the problem is not how KID is going to take a valuable object from the museum, which Jirokichi turned into "a high-tech rat trap," but how he's going to return the stolen loot from twenty years ago. This involves a minor, quasi-impossible problem: how did KID get the revolver pass the metal detector and three security gates.

On a whole, this was a fun little caper with clever bits, such as why KID's scheme required a rainy day, but the inverted take on the traditional heist stories in this series is what made it a truly memorable meeting between Conan, Jirokichi and KID.

The second story is Aoyama's homage to Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles with a dash of Seishi Yokomizo's Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951), which found a completely new way to explain the presence of a spectral beast hounding members of a cursed family to their deaths. A story that begins when Harley Hartwell and Kazuha visit Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan to entice them to join them on a real-life counterpart of the Baskerville case.

Five years ago, the chairman of the Inbushi Group, Tsunechika Inubushi, died of terminal cancer, but, after his death, "tons of people showed up at his family's doorstep" claiming to be his love-children – claims backed up by photos of their mothers with the chairman. However, while the claims could not be fully proved, his widow adopted no less than eight of them! More importantly, the vast family fortune will be divided between them when the now sickly widow dies. And this makes it very suspicious that two of them have died under peculiar circumstances.

One of the victim's fell off a cliff, but lived long enough to tell he had been chased by "a demon dog with a body of blazin' fire." Reputedly, one of the heirs is an impostor with a grudge against the family and is trying to eradicate the bloodline by "summoning a spectral hound."

Hartwell became involved with the case and traveled to Tokyo to talk with one of the heirs, who left the family estate and renounced his inheritance, but they arrived too late. The man is found dead, besides a charcoal stove, with the door and windows sealed with duct tape. A classic locked room mystery, but Conan and Hartwell immediately solve the problem, which I suspected (considering the situation) would borrow its solution from a relatively well-known impossible crime novel by a famous mystery writer – which was not the case. The trick used here is pretty daring and dangerous, but could have been improved by adding a single detail to the murderer's plan.

By the way, the name of the victim happens to be Shinichi Kudo, which is Jimmy Kudo's (Conan) name in the original Japanese manga. There is, however, no deeper meaning to them sharing the same name.

What does deepen the mystery is the explanation to the problem of the sealed room and they decide to go down to the Inubushi estate to tackle the demonic dog head on. But what they got is another murder, a trail of blazing paw-prints and they even witnessed the flaming dog on two separate occasions. On the second time, it attacked one of the heirs before vanishing as if by magic in the dark night.

After a while, the murderer is relatively easily spotted and the explanation for the flaming paw-prints is not entirely convincing, although the clue of the smell of rotten onions was clever, but the trick behind the spectral dog with a body of fire was brilliant – a trick demonstrating that modern innovations hasn't made clever plotting obsolete. This story is basically a retelling of Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles with a modern interpretation of the ghost-trick from Jacques Futrelle's "The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom" (1907). A great story to close out this milestone volume.

So, all in all, this is a solid volume with two great stories featuring some of the series most popular recurring side-characters, which made the weak story that opened it more than forgivable. And now, onwards to volume 80!

On a final note, I compiled a list back in April of my five favorite locked room mysteries and impossible crimes from this series, which you can read here, if you're interested or missed it.

9/12/19

The Gold Watch (2019) by Paul Halter

La montre en or (The Gold Watch, 2019) is the latest mystery novel by that fabricator of miracles, Paul Halter, which is a unique title in his body of work as it was not originally published in French, but preceded by publications in English, Japanese and Chinese – giving non-French readers an exclusive. Halter dedicated the book to Chinese author, translator and publisher, Fei Wu, who had "subtly persuaded" him to write this story. So my assumption is that it was Fei Wu's idea to give the book this uncommon publishing route.

The Gold Watch is certainly worthy of special treatment, because it's one of Halter's most intricately plotted detective novels, intertwining two parallel stories, playing out on opposite ends of the previous century.

The story opens with a prologue set in October, 1901, in which an elderly woman loses her precious gold fob watch in a rainy street and is then pursued by "a furtive figure" into a dark passageway. A strange, lonely scene witnessed through a rain-streaked window by a ten-year-old boy who later said the woman had looked at her own house as if it had "turned into a pumpkin." There are two, thickly woven strands that make up the remainder of the plot, a past and a contemporary narrative, which respectively take place in 1911 and 1991.

In the past narrative, the principle players are Andrew and Alice Johnson. Andrew Johnson began his career as a Bohemian artist, but one of his colorful paintings caught the artistic, sensitive eye of the director a fabric importing company, Mrs. Victoria Sanders – who made him "a very attractive offer of employment." He accepted and rapidly climbed to the position of deputy director the London-based company. Mrs. Sanders invited André and Alice to stay with her at Raven Lodge for a long weekend.

Raven Lodge is an imposing, old-fashioned country house standing at the wooded edge of the tiny village of Broomfield and a comfortable spot to spend a long weekend during the "glacial beginning," but the Johnsons aren't too thrilled about the other invitees. Daren Bellamy is an arrogant, good-for-nothing parasite who leeches off his sister, Mrs. Sanders, but she can't bring herself to disown him or side against him. And warns Andrew to understand her position. Cheryl Chapman is Andrew's secretary and a former model who has posed nude for him, which Alice discovers when she sees the painting in Mrs. Sander's bedroom that landed Andrew his lucrative job opportunity.

Cheryl and Daren get on swimmingly, but, when they decide go for a walk in the snow, they come across the body of Mrs. Sanders. She appeared to have tripped and cracked her skull on a stone, which is corroborated by the single line of footprints in the snow leading up to the body, but Inspector Wedekind is aware that the victim's unsavory brother is about "to inherit quite a packet" – which makes him think this accident is "a perfect crime in the snow." So he dispatches a telegram to that dandy aesthete, Owen Burns, who appreciates murder as a fine art. And he attaches great importance to the missing copy of Robert W. Chamber's The King in Yellow (1895).

The plot-threads that form the 1911 story-line is interspersed with the narrative from 1991, in which a promising playwright, André Lévêque, is obsessed with finding an obscure suspense movie he only remembers seeing fragments of as a child and college student. A clutter of fragmentary memories of scenes of a house in the rain, a roving figure, a door-knob slowly turning, a close-up of a terrified old woman and there was "a strange, macabre detail on the ground" – a shiny, precious object. Now these fragmentary memories seem to be causing a serious case of writer's block.

Japanese edition
So with the full support of his wife, Célia, he consults with a local psychoanalyst, Dr. Ambroise Moreau, who agrees to help him bring his distant memories back to the surface, identify the long-lost film and track down a copy. Dr. Moreau warns André that these vivid images from the film may be connected to other, more painful, memories that he has buried deep in his subconscious. There's an impossible crime here as well. One that was committed in 1966.

André saw the trailer of the film at the home of his childhood friend, Guy Lamblin, who was the only one of his friends whose family owned a television set. Janine was Guy's mother, but she unexpectedly died when accidentally falling from the top of an old quarry. She had been walking with her husband and some friends, but when she was standing apart from them, near the edge, they suddenly heard her cry. And they had to watch as she plunged fifty feet to her death. It had to be an accident, because nobody was standing near her.

This is the point where the plot becomes a little bit tricky to discuss, but I can say that the impossible crimes occupy opposite ends of the quality scale.

I think Halter imagined a clever and creative variation to explain away the no-footprints scenario in the murder in the snow, which is quite intricate and involved, but avoided becoming too convoluted and incomprehensible. Admittedly, the maps helped enormously in building a crystal clear imagine in my mind how the trick in the snow was worked. On the other hand, the solution to the impossible push from the top of the old quarry is relatively simplistic, but also utterly banal and disappointing – something you would expect from the pulps. However, the who, why or even how of these crimes is not the best and most fascinating aspects of The Gold Watch. It's the firm, ice-cold grasp time appears to have on the characters and events in the story.

Halter stretched the plot of The Gold Watch across nearly a whole century with the continues presence of gold fob watches as the only mysterious constant in an ever-chancing landscape, which appeared to drag and trap the characters in a weird time-well or ripple. What I liked even more is how time seemed to accelerate as the overall story progressed. The Gold Watch started out as a normally paced detective story, but slowly, the clock hands began to tick faster, and faster, until it dramatically exploded in full melodrama. I was reminded of a tightly wound-up, aggressively ticking cartoon clock that explodes and spits out its mechanical innards. I found the effect to be very pleasing.

But then again, I'm a sucker for these sadly rare detective stories distorting or shattering the perception of time. This is why I loved Christopher Bush's Cut Throat (1932), Halter's L'image trouble (The Picture from the Past, 1995) and the criminally underrated Jonathan Creek episode Time Waits for Norman (1998). Hopefully, I haven't jinxed The Gold Watch by saying that, because I hold a minority opinion on all of them. Seriously, there are only two or three other people who like Time Waits for Norman.

Obviously, The Gold Watch is now one of my favorite Halter mysteries, which is a fascinating, time-shattering detective story with an excellently positioned and executed impossible crime, but even more impressive is how beautiful all the plot-strands, decades apart, interacted and were pulled together – proving that murder can be a fine art. Highly recommended!

A note for the curious: celebrated French anthologist and impossible crime enthusiast, Roland Lacourbe, has an off-page cameo in the 1991 story-line.

9/10/19

The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn was a government accountant, lecturer and author of more than fifty detective novels, most of them starring his dilettante, Anthony Bathurst, but they had fallen into complete obscurity – until The Puzzle Doctor began reviewing a good chunk of his often rare, hard-to-get mysteries on his blog in early 2018. Nearly two years later, Dean Street Press announced they're going to reprint Flynn's first ten mystery novel.

Curiosity got the better of me and decided to dip into the series ahead of the reprints in October, which brought me to a cleverly crafted, Christmas-themed detective story, The Murders Near Mapleton (1929). A criminally overlooked mystery novel that whetted my appetite, but we're still a good month removed from the republication of Flynn's tantalizing, long-lost gems such as The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) and The Orange Axe (1931). Luckily, the first book in the series is relatively easy to get hold of nowadays.

The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927) is a fairly typical, 1920s country house mystery presented by the narrator, Bill Cunningham, as one of the cause célèbre of its day.

The stage of the crime is Sir Charles Considine's ancestral home, Considine Manor in Sussex, where he holds an annual Cricket Week. Cunningham is the bosom companion of Sir Charles' eldest son, Jack, which is why he comes down every year to take part in the Cricket Week, but also present are Jack's two sisters, Helen and Mary. Helen is married to "a big, bluff Dragoon," Captain Arkwright, while Sir Charles invited a newly-minted friend of Mary, Gerry Prescott – who took Cunningham's place on the cricket team. There are two service men and friends of Arkwright, Major Hornby and Lieutenant Barker. And the latter lost a chunk of money in a card game to Prescott on the eve of the murder.

Lastly, there's another, old school chum of Cunningham, Anthony Bathurst, who has been with at Uppingham and Oxford. Bathurst is described by his friend as "the kind that distinguishes whatever he sets his hand to" and the discussion on detective stories, in the first chapter, can be read as a brief prologue to his impending career as an amateur detective.

One of Bathurst favorite topics is "The Detective in Modern Fiction" and, like everything that aroused his interest, he knew it "backwards, forwards, and inside out."

Bathurst states that, like the immortal Sherlock Holmes, he has the greatest contempt for Emilé Gaboriau's M. Lecoq, but Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin "wasn't so bad." So who are, in his opinion, who can stand with Holmes? Bathurst thinks "Mason's M. Hanaud, Bentley's Trent, Milne's Mr. Gillingham, and to a lesser degree perhaps, Agatha Christie's M. Poirot are all excellent in their way" – dismissing Father Brown as being too Chestertonian. You can definitely see the influence of some those writers had on the characters, plot and writing of The Billiard-Room Mystery.

Bathurst is asked, in the event of finding himself on the spot of a murder, if he could solve the case quicker than a trained policeman? His answer: absolutely!

Everyone wakes up the next morning to the screams of the maid yelling blue murder. She found the body of Gerry Prescott lying on the billiard-table, face down, with the Venetial dagger from the curio table driven down the base of his neck, but the police doctor determines he had been strangled to death with a boot-lace – which is missing from the body. There were chairs overturned and window was standing open with footprints beneath it. If things weren't complicated enough, the discovery is made that Lady Considine's pearl necklace had been stolen on the night of the murder.

In the first chapter, Cunningham mentioned he had attended a private theatrical performance in which Bathurst was playing the lead. I thought this is very fitting pastime for Bathurst, because he strikes me as a character-actor who plays the role of Great Detective. A similar observation was made in my review of The Murders Near Mapleton.

Bathurst utters such phrases "an elementary piece of reasoning" and "I'm beginning to see a little more light" as he makes deductions or adds a new item to the "maze of clues." There's even a scene in which he examines the floor-covering of the billiard-room, on all fours, with a magnifying glass. So he's very much a late addition to the Rivals of Sherlock Holmes that bridged the gap between the Gaslight Era and Golden Age. Nonetheless, as theatrical as his performance may be, Bathurst tackles the problems of the billiard-room murder with enthusiastic vigor and works hard to separate "the faked clues from the true ones" with Cunningham playing the role of baffled Dr. Watson – which gives the story some period charm. Hey, there's something affectional about two friends interfering in an official murder investigation.

The Puzzle Doctor touched in his own review of The Billiard-Room Mystery on "one aspect of the story resembling something else in another Golden Age title," but assured that the books were developed independently with Flynn's manuscript doing "the rounds of publishers for over a year." 

However, the characters, story-telling and central-trick of the plot were definitely inspired by two mystery novels that were published earlier in the decade. And these two books probably also inspired the novel this one resembles. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a drawback, because Flynn was clearly imitating what others had done before him and this strangely makes The Billiard-Room Mystery feel like a modern pastiche of a 1920s country house mystery.

On the other hand, I have to defend the book against the claims that it didn't play entirely fair with the reader. There were clues. However, the good clues were clumsily handled and showed Flynn's inexperience as a plotter, but the clue of the person who was seen spying on Prescott by Mary, more than once, could have been brilliant in the hands of someone like John Dickson Carr – same goes for the clues of the discovery of the missing I.O.U. and the torn letter found under a bed. The torn fragments of the letter poses a minor, quasi-impossible puzzle: the handwriting is easily identified, but this person claims not to remember ever having written it. A clue, of sorts, that could also been put to better use. So the solution didn't entirely came out of left field, but the clueing wasn't optimal.

Obviously, Flynn still had a lot improving to do in the plotting department, but the sub-plot of the stolen pearls was deftly handled and reads like a short story that got ensnared in the web of a bigger, more ambitious plot. Yes, this involves one of those unlikely coincidences of two criminals striking in the same place, at the same time, but Flynn handled it convincingly here. Showing some of that promise on full display in The Murders Near Mapleton.

So, while the plot has its imperfections, The Billiard-Room Mystery is still a cut above the average, 1920s drawing-room detective novel and played the Grandest Game with infectious enthusiasm. A promising debut from an unjustly forgotten mystery writer and look forward to the first ten reprints coming in October.

9/6/19

The Murders Near Mapleton (1929) by Brian Flynn

The Puzzle Doctor, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, has been beating the drum for an obscure, little-known mystery writer, Brian Flynn, ever since he received a rare, hard-to-get copy of The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) as a Christmas present – marking it as "a cleverly clued mystery" and one "the genuine long-lost classics" of the genre. Over the next year-and-a-half, he unearthed many more gems like Murder En Route (1930), The Orange Axe (1931) and Thread Softly (1937).

Unfortunately, the lion's share of Flynn's work has been out-of-print for decades and used copies tend to be scarce or expensive. I've seen copies floating around with asking price of more than 1500 dollars! That is about to change.

Dean Street Press is reprinting the first ten of Flynn's Anthony Bathurst detective novels in October, but this time, I couldn't even wait for a review copy and decided to preemptively dip into one of these long-lost classics – picking the highly praised The Murders Near Mapleton (1929). A cleverly done, old-fashioned Christmas mystery lauded by our resident genre historian, Curt Evans, as "a meritorious example of the pure puzzle type of detective novel." I couldn't agree more and would place the book in my top 5 of favorite seasonal mystery novels. Something I'll probably do in December.

The Murders Near Mapleton opens with the host of a Christmas party at Vernon House, Sir Eustace Vernon, asking his guests to charge their glasses and "drink to the empty chairs" of those dear ones "who once were with us," but who have now passed on. A bizarre toast that was the beginning of "one of the strangest cases that ever fell to an investigator's lot to unravel."

Towards the end of the dinner, Sir Eustace announced he had received some bad news and excused himself from the table, but he never returns to them. And what follows is a night of terror with shock following shock. One of the maids gets the scare of her live when she's surprised by an intruder. A suicide note is found in Sir Eustace's study and the door of a small safe in the wall stood wide open, but the second biggest shock of the night comes after the body of the butler, Purvis, is found poisoned in the butler's pantry – a red bonbon with a death threat is found in the victim's pocket. However, the biggest shocker of the evening comes when the doctor takes a closer look at the body.

I'm not going to reveal here what this early plot twist entails, but suffice to say, it would have raised some eyebrows ninety years ago. Interestingly, a similar surprise was used in another mystery novel published in the same year as The Murders Near Mapleton, but Flynn gave it a more practical explanation. Something that'll probably disappoint some modern readers.

Anthony Bathurst and Sir Austin Kemble, Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard, enter the picture when they accidentally stumble across an abandoned car and the body of the missing Sir Eustace on the line near Dyke's Crossing. There are traces of blood inside the car and the pathologist finds a bullet in the back of his head. So this was definitely not a suicide. This has only been about a quarter of the story!

Flynn's plotting in The Murders Near Mapleton reminded me of early Christopher Bush with its double murder, closely-linked and committed in short succession, muddling the waters of the investigation – a plot-device Bush often used during the first decade of his career. Some good examples are Dead Man Twice, (1930), Dancing Death (1931), The Case of the April Fools (1936) and The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938). There was another aspect of the solution that recalled Bush, but you have to spot that one yourself. However, where Flynn differs with Bush are his two detectives, Bathurst and Sir Austin, who are the polar opposites of Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George Wharton. Sir Austin is a colorless character and hardly contributed to the solution, while Bathurst very much plays the role of Great Detective. A detective who plays his cards close to the chest, without withholding any clues, as he mutters "I think I begin to see light at last" after asking apparently irrelevant questions about bonbons or "the colors of the dresses worn by the various ladies" during the Christmas dinner.

The line-up of suspects is not littered with the familial, stock-characters you normally expect to find in these type of Christmas-time detective stories (e.g. Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas, 1938).

Sir Eustace only relative is his niece, Helen Ashley, who's orphaned and lives with her uncle. She invited her friend and obligatory love interest, Terrence Desmond. Father Jewell, the ascetically priest in charge of the Roman Catholic Church in Mapleton. The mayor and mayoress of Mapleton, Alfred and Emily Venables, who felt snubbed when he was passed for baronetcy in favor of Sir Eustace, because he had heroically saved a dozen children from "a rapidly burning building." Major Prendergast and his wife, Diana, who was in a bidding war with Sir Eustace over a patch of land that may have a vain of tin under it. Doctor Lionel Carrington is the physician who makes a starling discovery. There are two London friends of Sir Eustace, Mr. and Mrs. Morris Trentham.

Finally, there are some local characters who play a role in the story: the coffee-stall keeper, Sam McLaren, who was attacked somewhere in the vicinity of Vernon House. One of the maids has a sailor boyfriend, Albert Fish, who may also have been near Vernon House on the night of the murders. However, the only truly good, well-rounded character turned out to be the victim, Sir Eustace, who was revealed by the end to be somewhat of a dualistic character. Someone with a great capacity for doing good and evil in equal measures.

As Flynn probes this group of suspects and considers such clues as red bonbons, cigar ashes, two suicide notes, stage-plays and a piece of slab-tobacco, as he works his was to a truly surprising solution – a surprise because I had briefly considered it and completely rejected it. So I was as astonished as Sir Austin when the murderer was revealed. Well played, Mr. Flynn. Well played.

There are, however, two minor points I have to nitpick about. Why didn't they immediately tracked down Cornelius van Hoyt to ask him what Sir Eustace kept in the wall safe? Sure, it would have resolved the plot-thread about the intruder, but this would not have been to the detriment of the overall story. The plot had more than enough to go on had the problem of the intruder been resolved by the halfway mark. Secondly, even with all the clues, you can only really guess at the motive. Or the story that lay behind it.

Other than those two, relatively minor complaints, The Murders Near Mapleton is a shrewdly plotted, fairly-clued detective novel and deserving to be marked as a long-lost classic of the seasonally-themed mystery novel. A fine addition to the ever-growing list of unjustly forgotten detective stories rescued from obscurity by DSP and look forward to October!

On a final, related note (or two): I asked in my recent review of Moray Dalton's The Night of Fear (1931) if the tradition of Christmas mystery novels started with The Night of Fear and Molly Thynne's The Crime at the Noah's Ark (1931), because I couldn't remember any example of one predating those two. Well, that question has now been properly answered. Secondly, a German translation of The Murders Near Mapleton, entitled Die morde von Mapleton: ein weihnachtkrimi, is slated for release on September 16, which is around the same time as the DSP reprints. So does this mean that even Germans are abandoning the drab, soulless post-modernish of contemporary crime-fiction? Huge, if true!

9/3/19

The Rilloby Fair Mystery (1950) by Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton's The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) earned a spot on my best-of list of 2018 as a textbook example of a perfectly plotted and fairly clued detective story. A children's mystery novel about a rash of burglaries in a small, quiet village and the seemingly impossible disappearance of the culprit, but my second excursion in The Five Find-Outers and Dog series, The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943), was more focused on introducing the characters than with the plot – as it was the first book in the series. So that was a little disappointing.

However, someone (anonymously) recommended a title from another one of Blyton's many series in the comment-section. A story tentatively described as a locked room mystery about "a series of mysterious thefts of various valuable documents from rooms that are hermetically sealed." Say no more!

The Rilloby Fair Mystery (1950) is the second title in The Barney "R" Mystery series and the only series from Blyton's hands "recommended solely for children over the age of eleven." The stories are reportedly "full of atmosphere" with "a haunting, wistful quality," sparkling humor, strong characterization, clever plots and sophisticated language – a perfect summation of the qualities of The Rilloby Fair Mystery. Honestly, the protagonists of this series, including the animals, are some of the liveliest and most convincingly drawn (child) characters I have come across in these juvenile mysteries. And that includes Roger and Bill Baxter from Martin Colt's Stranger at the Inlet (1946).

There are four main characters in this series: a brother and sister, Roger and Diana Lynton, who spend their school holidays with their orphaned cousin, Stubby, who's always accompanied by his energetic, overly enthusiastic black cocker spaniel, Looney. During their first adventure, in The Rockingdown Mystery (1949), they befriended a circus boy, Barney, whose only friend up until then was his pet monkey, Miranda.

Apparently, Barney is searching for his long-lost father and this is a plot-thread that runs through the entire series. I wonder if Barney was based on Rémi from Hector Malot's classic Sans famille (Nobody's Boy, 1878). Or, if you're Dutch, you probably know the book under the title Alleen op de wereld (Alone on the World).

The Rilloby Fair Mystery takes place during a four week Easter holiday and the Lynton's are preparing the home for the arrival of two house guests, Stubby and Great-uncle Robert, who have never met each other. So, when they have an unexpected meeting on the train, Stubby tells Great-uncle Robert a tall tale about being on the run from "an international gang," the so-called Green Hands – warning him to be wary of "anyone wearing green gloves." A story that startles the old, pompous man because he has just came from a place where historical documents where inexplicably stolen from a locked room.

A little tall tale that comes back to haunt Stubby when he discovers that the old, stuffy gentleman, whose leg he pulled on the train, is the Great-uncle of his cousins. So he spends a good portion of the story attempting to dodge Great-uncle Robert.

However, the story of a thief who "apparently passed through locked doors or barred windows" to take historical and valuable documents from various homes and museums is too good to ignore. Roger, Diana and Stubby study the newspaper and astutely observe that the string of thefts can be linked to a traveling fair, which means that either "the fair goes to places where there are rare papers to be stolen" or somebody in the fair is snooping around each place they go "to see if there are any in the neighborhood worth stealing." So, off they are to the fair, where they're reunited with their old friends, Barney and Miranda, but also meet a whole host of carnival characters.

There's the ginormous, thunder-voiced owner of the fair, Tonnerre, with his elephants. Vosta and his two chimpanzees, Hurly and Burly. Billy Tell, the "famous cracksman" in charge of the shooting gallery, his son, Young 'Un, and his sharp-tongued mother, Old Ma. All of whom could potentially be the mysterious burglar who can "go through locked doors and fastened windows."

As they roam around the fair and pry information from Great-uncle Robert, the children deduce the next target of thief, Marloes Castle, which has a room housing a modest collection of documents and stuffed animals protected behind three locked doors – of which the third has two locks and a burglar alarm. The windows are always fastened on the inside, protected by bars on the outside, while the chimney is too narrow to crawl through. A practically impenetrable muniment room! Nonetheless, this elusive burglar succeeds in entering and leaving the locked room without any trace, or triggering the alarm, but this time the burglar took something very different from the room. A huge clue to part of the locked room-trick.

Honestly, nearly every adult or seasoned mystery reader will have a pretty good idea how the locked room-trick was worked at this point and I sighed with disappointment. But my disappointment was short-lived.

A very old trick that I don't like to see in a locked room story, but I have to give it to Blyton, she added something very clever to it that made it acceptable again in 1950. Getting in-and out the locked rooms was only one part of the trick, but how the documents and papers were selected put a new spin on an age-old trick. My only real complaint is that the solution was presented as a one-size fits-all locked room-trick. There was an obvious reason why it worked in the private room, of Marloes Castle, but you're not getting that lucky with every single room storing a private collection of valuable papers. A brief, throw-away line in one of the last chapters betrayed that Blyton was aware of this.

So, plot-wise, The Rilloby Fair Mystery can largely stand toe-to-toe with The Mystery of the Invisible Thief. A mystery novel with a locked room problem as its central puzzle and a fairly clued solution, but lacked the clever switch-and-bait with the clues and red herrings – which elevated The Mystery of the Invisible Thief to the status of a minor (juvenile) classic. However, where The Rilloby Fair Mystery shoots pass The Mystery of the Invisible Thief is the more mature dialogue, lively characters, sparkling humor and the warm, homely scenes. Such as the opening scene at the breakfast table or the depiction of a normally quiet household invaded by children and animals. It makes you want to give the world another chance.

Everything considered, I think I like this series a lot more than The Five Find-Outers and continue my exploration of Blyton with The Barney "R" Mysteries, but don't expect those reads to be in chronological order. The Rat-a-Tat Mystery (1956) is penultimate title in the series and has an impossible problem of the footprints-in-the-snow variety, which is presented in a way very reminiscent of the impossibilities from Edward D. Hoch's "The Gypsy's Paw" (collected in The Iron Angel and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth, 2003) and Anne van Doorn's "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018). Now I want to know if Blyton had a third solution for this particular vanishing-trick.

So you know what to expect next!