11/16/18

The Case of the Missing Men (1946) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's thirtieth detective novel, The Case of the Missing Men (1946), takes place in 1944 and Ludovic Travers, who was invalided out of the army the previous year, has become a consulting specialist for Scotland Yard, but here his prior work as a writer brings him to the home of a celebrated mystery novelist, Austin Chaice – a character who may have been modeled after Anthony Berkeley. Our in-house genre-historian, Curt Evans, noted in his introduction that this was not the first time Berkeley was "a satirical target" of Bush (c.f. The Case of the Monday Murders, 1936).

The Case of the Missing Men presents the reader with, as Anthony Boucher described it, "the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective story" and this helped the book secure a spot on my list of favorite Bush mysteries.

Travers is summoned to Lovelands, the Beechingford home of Chaice, by two separate invitations. One of these invitations came from his literary agent, Cuthbert Daine, who has found a publisher prepared to reprint two of his books as special editions and wants him to come down to work out a contract.

Daine had been bombed out of his office in London during the Blitz and Chaice had put a large, converted barn at Lovelands at his disposal. The second letter came from Chaice and he wants to use quotes from a book Travers wrote, Kensington Gore, to use in "a kind of manual for budding authors of detective novels" he's working on. But when he arrives at Lovelands, Travers discovers a household that is set up like a game of Clue.

Chaice is married to Constance, a cousin of Travers' wife, whom he remembers as a terribly spoiled, decidedly oversexed flapper and there are two children from his first marriage, Kitty and Richard. Kitty is "a spirited veteran" of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), while Richard is a neurotic Oxford student trying to hack it as a modern poet and his father hated it – referring to his poems as "mental abortions." Chaice also has an elder brother, Richard, who had been a rolling stone, but suffered from "fits of abstractions" ever since he lost his wife and was bombed in the Blitz. And now he spends a lot of time in his workshop at Lovelands. Orford Lang is Chaice's private secretary with a failed career behind him as a mystery novelist.

Chaice is a schemer, through and through, who loves to play games and toy with people as well as the public at large. A notorious example of this is when he purloined a typewriter from the headquarters of a small army unit stationed near Lovelands.

After a few days, Chaice wrote to local newspaper to reveal himself as the thief and slammed the authorities for their "scandalous laxity" in the care of government property, however, it turned it he had an ulterior motive for the theft – using the episode in a book he was writing. When the story opened, the town was in "the throes of a sensation" as some maniac used the combination of crowds pouring out of the local cinema and the blackout to squirt a filthy liquid over women's clothes. Some at Lovelands believe Chaice is up to his old tricks again. And there have been anonymous letters, signed "P," which outright accuses the mystery writer of being behind this outrage.

So the family ropes in Travers and Daine to put a tail on their host and the followed him to the house of his next door neighbor, G.H. Preston, but the whole campaign was a bust. But when they returned to Lovelands, they discover the body of Chaice in his study with a cord tightly pulled across his throat!

Initially, Travers works together with a local and much respected police inspector, named Goodman, but when a second murder is committed, disguised as a suicide, the Chief Constable, Colonel Marney-Hope, decides to call in Scotland Yard – reuniting Travers with his long-time partner in crime, Superintendent George "The General" Wharton. I have prattled enthusiastically in past reviews how perfect they are when they work together, playing off each others strength and weaknesses, and, as said in my review of The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944), nobody really nailed the relationship between the amateur and professional detective quite like Bush.

Wharton is the consummate professional with the patience of a fisherman and repertoire of a character-actor when it comes to interviewing suspects or witnesses, which made him one of the Big Five of the Yard. On the other hand, Travers has "a helterskelter, flibbertigibbet, crossword sort of brain" that "works quickly or not at all." So this makes him, as Wharton calls it, a prize theorist whose average is one theory right in every three. And this means that Wharton, every now and then, beats Travers to the solution (e.g. The Case of the Murdered Major, 1941).

However, they have genuinely respect for each others abilities and The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) perfectly describes their relationship as two opposites that make a perfect fit. I couldn't agree more!

The Case of the Missing Men has them neck-to-neck in the race to the solution, as they try to make sense of such clues and red herrings as an out-of-bounds summerhouse, a stick of grease paint, a block of wood and letters that were recovered from Preston's house – one of the missing men of the book-title. Wharton makes a shrewd deduction, identifying one of the red herrings revealing part of the truth, but the one who spots the elusory, well-hidden murderer is Travers. And completely demolishes a set of risky, closely-times alibis in the process. The alibi-tricks in Bush's mystery novels is something that will never fail to delight readers mostly concerned with the plot of a detective story.

On a side note, the second murder, or ideas used to commit that murder, bear an uncanny resemblance to the murder from Cat's Paw (1931) by Roger Scarlett, but with a somewhat different outcome. One of these differences is the inclusion of the murderer's daring alibi.

So, in summation, The Case of the Missing Men is a carefully put together detective story with a tight plot full of clues, red herrings, alibis and excellent detective work on the part of Travers and Wharton. My only gripe with The Case of the Missing Men is its book-title. There are two missing men in the story, but feel that the book-title is a bit of a misnomer. The Case of the Elusive Men or The Case of the Running Man (read the book) would have fitted the plot much better. Otherwise, this is a pure detective novel from the old school and comes highly recommended to all puzzle fiends.

11/13/18

Appleby and the Ospreys (1986) by Michael Innes

I recently returned to the detective novels of "Michael Innes," a nom-de-plume of Oxford don J.I.M. Stewart, by plucking Appleby's Other Story (1974) from my bookshelves and mentioned in my review that he penned the last published mystery novel by a big name from the genre's Golden Age – namely Appleby and the Ospreys (1986). A swansong that came fifty years after Death at the President's Lodging (1936) and has two years on Gladys Mitchell's posthumously published The Crozier Pharaohs (1984).

So this fairly minor work not only retired a well-known detective-character, Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard, but it closed the book on an entire era of the genre!

Appleby and the Ospreys was published in the year Innes turned eighty and laid down his pen for good, passing away eight years later in 1994, but he had lived a long life that covered one of the most turbulent centuries in human history and you can find some reflections in this book – like an attempt to link the past with the present. There are references to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter," C. Auguste Dupin and Mycroft Holmes, but the "properly developed" constabulary is armed with "wireless telephones, electric typewriters, cameras" and "the computers that have become so indispensable."

Despite these present-day intrusions, Appleby and the Ospreys has a plot deeply rooted in the genre's past and reads like a grandfatherly reminiscence ("I was a much better policeman... than I am the country gentleman"). But with more lucidity than Agatha Christie's doddering Postern of Fate (1973).

The book opens with the retired Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir John Appleby, lunching with his wife at the ancestral seat of the Ospreys, Clusters, where they attempt to consult him on a local problem pertaining a colony of bats – who made the church their roost and frighten the village children in the choir. Bats in the belfry!

Ten days later, Detective-Inspector Ringwood telephones Appleby on behalf of Lady Osprey to inform him that her husband, Lord Osprey, had been "stabbed in the throat" in the library of Clusters ("the venue must be said to be a little lacking in originality"). Lady Ospreys wants Appleby to consult with Ringwood on the matter and the retired Commissioner reluctantly agrees.

The key to the case lies in a set of very specific questions. What happened to the murder weapon? Where did Lord Osprey his elusive Osprey Collection of coins? Who was the lurking person spotted outside the manor house on the day preceding the murder? A murder mystery with all the trappings of a traditional country house mystery from a bygone era, but, as said before, there are occasional reminders that the book was written in the 1980s. One of these reminders is a rape accusation leveled against the victim's son, Adrian Osprey, who got mixed up with an "obstinately uncompliant" village girl and this is a rare crime to find in a traditionally-styled mystery novel of the old school. The only other examples I can think of are Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Bell Murders (1958), Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsunjinjinken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981) and John Bakkenhoven's Moord op de Keizersgracht (Murder on the Emperor's Channel, 2003).

However, my impression is that Innes was rather lost with these modern components and they either remained unused or were brushed aside. I fear many readers today will take exception to the way this plot-thread was disposed of without a second look.

Anyway, the plot logically sticks together and can be considered fairly clued, but the problem is that the whole scheme has the transparency of a plate of glass and everyone should be able to arrive at the same conclusions as Appleby and Ringwood – who reached it independently of one another. Nonetheless, the plot had some nice touches. Such as where Lord Osprey had hidden his coin collection, obvious as it may have been, or the fitting motive to murder a collector. Not to mention the amusingly false solution proffered by the butler that turned the murder into an unfortunate accident or how the bats were used as the Hand of God in the final chapter, but this is all I can say about the story without giving away anything really vital. You have to find it out for yourself.

Appleby and the Ospreys is a short, easy to solve detective novel and had it not been for the fact that it was the last in an illustrious line that stretched all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, it would have been a unremarkable country house mystery. Appleby and the Ospreys was the last of its kind. And with the reminiscent story-telling, it was a bit of a melancholic read. As if you're listening to your grandfather telling a story from his past for the umpteenth time, but you pretend to hear it for the first time, because it's probably the last time you'll hear him tell it.

I want to continue chipping away at my pile of Appleby novels and the next one might be Appleby and Honeybath (1983), which is a crossover with Innes' secondary series-detective, Charles Honeybath, who appeared in The Mysterious Commission (1974) and Honeybath's Haven (1977). Apparently, it also happens to be a locked room mystery!

11/11/18

Killing Time: "Persons or Things Unknown" (1938) by Carter Dickson

Back in 2012, I reviewed John Dickson Carr's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), published as by "Carter Dickson," but my Dell Mapback edition omitted three stories from the original publication, "The Other Hangman," "New Murders for Old" and "Persons or Things Unknown," that are generally regarded as some of his best short stories. Until now, these stories had completely eluded me.

"Persons or Things Unknown" was first published in The Sketch, Christmas Number, 1938, which was later collected in The Department of Queer Complaints and recently reprinted in an anthology of holiday mysteries – entitled Murder Under the Christmas Tree: Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season (2016). So this is going to be first holiday-themed review of 2018. However, the festivities only serves as an ambiance here for "a historical romance" from the distant days of Charles II.

The story opens during a house-warming party in a centuries old home, hidden behind a hill in Sussex, where a group of people have gathered around the fire in the drawing-room after Christmas dinner. When the conversation drifts towards the little room at the head of the stairs, the host tells them the chilling story attached to that room.

A grisly tale of a man who was hacked to death there, with thirteen stab wounds, by "a hand that wasn't there" and "a weapon that didn't exist." An impossible stabbing that occurred there in 1660. Just after the Restoration.

The story comes from a diary kept by Mr. Everard Poynter, which ran from the summer of '60 to the end of '64, who owned the neighboring Manfred Manor and was friends with the then owner of the house with the little room at the head of the stairs, Squire Radlow – which is how he became a witness of the inexplicable murder. Squire Radlow's only daughter, Mistress Mary Radlow, was engaged to be married to Richard Oakley of Rawdene. A serious-minded, studious, but genial, man several years her senior. Nevertheless, the match appears to be a good one and the only obstacle is the potential ruin of Oakley if the sale of his estate, purchased under the Commonwealth, is declared null and void. And then a young man appeared in a blaze of glory.

Gerald Vanning was one of those "confident young men" about "whom we hear so much complaint from old-style Cavaliers" in the early years of the Restoration. Over a period of weeks, it became a given that Vanning would eventually become the Squire's son-in-law. A plan Vanning had been working towards, but then the news broke that an act had passed to confirm all sales or leases of property since the Civil Wars and Oakley was "once more the well-to-do son-in-law" – finalizing his engagement to Mary. Vanning was out of the picture, but around the same time "curious rumors" began to swirl around the countryside about Oakley. Who was he really? Why did he need over a hundred books? Who was the figure that was seen following Oakley? A creature that appeared human, but the witness was not sure if it had been really alive!

On the night of Friday, the 26th November, Vanning returned to the house and appeared to be on "a wire of apprehension" as he kept looking over his shoulder. Vanning instructed the steward to fetch some servants with cudgels and they went to Oakley and Mary in the little room at the head of the stairs. Shortly after he went in, there was a thud and Mary screaming, but servants found it had been bolted and it was Mary who unbolted the door with blood on her dress – what was left of Oakley had fallen near a table. Vanning was immediately seized and justice threatened to be swift and ruthless, but he tells them he has not touched Oakley and had not been carrying a sword or dagger when he came into the house.

So they comb over every inch of the little room and didn't find so much as "a pin in crack or crevice." The question is if Vanning or Mary murdered Oakley, what happened to the murder weapon? If an outsider did the murder, how did this person enter or leave a bolted room with three armed servants at the door?

Here you have an inverted mystery with a historical backdrop and a challenge to the reader to piece together how the murder was done, which is a fairly clued challenge, but where Carr demonstrated his craftsmanship is the false solution that works like a psychological red herring. You rarely get to see a false solution so nicely positioned next to the actual explanation that it camouflages it.

Unfortunately, the locked room-trick failed to take me by surprise, because Carr reused the idea in a radio-play and the solution immediately occurred to me when the room was described. And if you know the trick, the clues are easily spotted. This was hardly enough to keep me from being an unabashed fanboy and marveled at how the plot stuck together with the clues. Or how a long-gone of passage in history was briefly opened through Carr's writing.

On a whole, "Persons or Things Unknown" can be summed up as an atmospheric historical mystery and an inverted detective story with a clever locked room-trick all rolled into one. A minor gem by the undisputed Grand Master of Detection. Highly recommended!

A note for the curious: this is an obscure, little-known fact, but John Dickson Carr is my favorite mystery novelist. Just wanted to state that for the record.

11/9/18

The Ballad of Sean and Wilko (2000) by Paul Charles

Paul Charles is a Northern Irish concert promoter, manager, talent agent and novelist who described himself as "a committed book reader" and collector of detective fiction, which inspired him to start writing police procedural-styled detective novels inspired by Colin Dexter and infused with his knowledge of the British music scene – resulting in the Detective-Inspector Christy Kennedy series. A series comprising of ten books that began with I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass (1997) and, as of this writing, ended with A Pleasure to Do Death with You (2012).

So this series would probably not have appeared on my radar had it not been for two very specific titles.

The Ballad of Sean and Wilko (2000) and The Hissing of the Silent Lonely Room (2001) are locked room mysteries that paired the protagonist with "the ghosts of such genre icons as Clayton Rawson and John Dickson Carr." Well, you know me. A promise of not one, but two, impossible crimes is like dangling a carrot in front of me. And, as usually, it worked like a charm.

Detective-Inspector Christy Kennedy is a character reminiscent of the policemen from the genre's golden era, like Roderick Alleyn, John Appleby and Gordon Knollis, who's refreshingly free of personal demons that dominate so many contemporary police procedurals and crime novels. Only personal intrusion upon the story is his relationship with a local journalist, Ann Rea, who annoyingly spells her name in lower-case ("just like k.d. lang"), but I refuse to go along with it – because lower-case names are pretentious and an eye-sore. Something that annoyed me to no end while reading the book.

Since this is a police procedural, Kennedy doesn't work alone or just with a subordinate next to him. There's an entire cast of police-characters with him working any given case and this team consists of Detective-Sergeant James Irvine, WPC Anne Coles, Sergeant Thomas Flynn, Superintendent Thomas Castle and the pathologist, Dr. Leonard Tylor. They mostly work round and about London's Camden Town and Primrose Hill.

The Ballad of Sean and Wilko is the fourth title in the series and opens with the arrival of Kennedy and Irvine at the crowded Dingwalls Dancehall in Camden Lock. Nearly six-hundred people had come to bop to the music of the Circles, "a blast from the past," who have been polishing their faded popularity during the seventies rival of the '90s and early 2000s. Circles is a creation of Sean Green and Wilko Robertson. Green had "the musicianship and an ability to write songs," while Wilko had "an amazing soul voice" that was "tuned and tainted by whiskey" and the decades-long back-story of the band is woven throughout the story – such as the failure to break in America and Wilko's departure from the band. Until they reunited and had a bestselling greatest hits package.

During their gig at the dance hall, there's a break in the set when the other band members get to showcase their skills and Wilko went to the basement dressing room to put on a change of clothes, but he never came back up. A roadie and former manager of the group, Kevin "KP" Paul, went to look for him and had to kick open the basement door, which had been locked from the inside. There he found Wilko's body sprawled on the concrete floor without an apparent mark on his body, but the post-mortem revealed he had been stabbed straight into the heart by something that was "thinner than an ice pick" and "stronger than a knitting needle." So they have their work cut out for them and the workload is divided between the previously mentioned team of police officers. This makes the series, or at least this book, closer to the kind of police procedurals M.P.O. Books (District Heuvelrug) and Ed McBain (87th Precinct) wrote than to the police novels with a lonely, demon-haunted cop as the protagonist or those who only have a sergeant as a sidekick.

The backdrop of the story and plot, a washed up band jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon, is what really makes The Balled of Sean and Wilko standout as a (locked room) mystery novel and the parts where they were collecting all of the pieces of the band's back-story constituted the best bits of the book – a better puzzle, in fact, than the impossible murders. But the portion between the two locked room killings has a few minor imperfections.

One of these is the annoying way in which some of the characters talk. KP is an old-school hippie who liberally peppers his speech with man and vibe ("a bit of a murder-mystery vibe, man, isn't it?"), which makes me want to strangle everyone who uses those two words in the same sentence. Another band member constantly utters lordy or lordy, lordy. Not the best way to distinguish your characters. The second is more a case of wasting perfectly good material when there was no reason to do so. A secondary plot-thread is introduced in the first half of the book and concerned the death of a nurse, Sinead Sullivan, who had been cleverly murdered by her secret-lover, Dr. Ranjesus – who used "natural causes" to get rid of his pregnant mistress. A perfect murder story that was completely out of place here and remained unresolved.

I'm not sure if this was meant as a setup of a continuing story-line, but I think this clever idea would have been better served as a standalone (short) story.

And then there are the locked room murders. Firstly, a second, seemingly impossible, murder is discovered late into the story when Kennedy's prime suspect is stabbed to death in a basement den, bolted from the inside, but this one had a routine solution and was explained in the next chapter when WCP Coles was closely scrutinizing the bolt of the lock. So a very simple, shopworn locked room trick. However, the murderer had a proper motive to continue with "all that locked-door stuff" other than being a creature of habit. So not too bad for a last-minute murder, but nothing special either.

The murder of Wilko was put together very differently and can see why it was compared to Rawson, but the problem is that the solution demonstrates the old axiom that when you know the how, you know the who. Charles has to be commended for playing it fair. Unfortunately, the central clue is so blatant and often pointed out that you have to be really dense not to spot the murderer long before the final chapter rolls around, because only this person could have done it. 
 
The Ballad of Sean and Wilko turned out to be an uneven, but interesting, mystery novel with sadly a less than perfect plot and locked room puzzles. Nonetheless, Charles gave the story a distinct voice of its own by combining features of the Golden Ages of the detective story and pop/rock music with a contemporary setting, which gave you the idea of a nostalgia act staged by a cover band – a very fitting feeling for this book. So I'll give The Hissing of the Silent Lonely Room a shot, but it has to show some improvement in the plotting department for me to move on to the non-impossible titles in the series.

11/5/18

The House of Strange Guests (1932) by Nicholas Brady

Last year, I came across the detective novels of "Nicholas Brady," a penname of John V. Turner, which was used for a short-lived series about a clerical detective-character, Rev. Ebenezer Buckle, who only has four appearances to his name with The Fair Murder (1933) as a high point in the series – a memorable detective story with a plot as dark as a nightmare. Rev. Buckle shined as a multi-faceted character in Ebenezer Investigates (1934) and Week-end Murder (1934) slightly underwhelmed as a detective novel. So, all things considered, a criminally underrated series and, sadly, had only one of them left to read.

The House of Strange Guests (1932) marked the debut of Rev. Buckle and was introduced to the reader under very irregular circumstances, but this is par for the course in a series with a tendency for the bizarre. Somehow this one turned out to be most orthodox of the four.

The story opens with a telephone call from Butler of The Gables to the Streatham Police Station to report that he has found his master, Maurice Mostyn, dead in his bath and it appears as if he had turned on the gas under the geyser, but Divisional Detective-Inspector Hallows is confronted with evidence that precludes the possibility of suicide – such as the lack of the tell-tale signs of gas poisoning and the peculiar sitting position of the body. However, these are relatively normal aspects compared to what Hallows learns from the butler, Summers, about the victim.

Maurice Mostyn was a bachelor of apparently independent means, but Summers never knew "a place where there were was so much entertaining." There have been guests at The Gables nearly every week for the past ten years. On the evening of his death, Mostyn had been entertaining five guests.

There is, however, a complication. Summers confides in Hallows that he has no idea who the guests really are, because he has often overheard his master address his guests by different names than the ones they gave to him. What follows is a difficult series of interviews between Hallows and the cast of characters populating the house.

Andrew Posten, Sonia Wether, Lois Welling, Alleyne Kimball and Raymond Simms are "an odd mixture" of house guests and their response to the death of their host is a spectrum of emotions, which range from glee to a mental breakdown, but Simms proved to be the oddest one of the bunch – aloofly chatting to Hallows about Pliny the Younger, Daniel Webster and William Shakespeare. Simms is no one less than Rev. Ebenezer Buckle and he summons his brother, Assistant Commissioner Stanley Buckle, to explain his position as an amateur detective. You can read that chapter as an origin story.

Rev. Buckle is "the rector of a tiny parish in Hampshire," a place called Dowerby, which only has a population of about two-hundred souls and there are only services on Sunday. So he has "a tremendous amount of spare time" that he filled with botany and criminology. Buckle began with studying criminal psychology, records and the criminal code, but eventually started to attend the Assize Courts and accosted prisoners as they left the goal. The last step in the process was pestering his brother and, one day, gave him his opinion about the Vallot murder, which proved to be correct and has since given Scotland Yard "considerable assistance" in a number of investigations – such as the Matson case, the Robbins case and the Wain murder. Sadly, these are all unrecorded cases.

John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books introduced me to this series and he accurately described Buckle as "a lively amateur sleuth" cut from the same cloth as John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell. I couldn't agree more with this observation.

Just like Dr. Fell, Buckle is a wool-gatherer who prefers "to theorize first and prove afterwards" and pepper his speech with enigmatic remarks that appear to make no sense whatsoever. A good example of this when Hallows called in the assistance of Bonny Curley, a safe-breaker known as "The Human Key," who's tasked with cracking a safe with a double number-and letter combination lock, but when the door swings open, the safe turns out to be entirely empty – which baffled the safe-breaker. Why waste time on opening an empty safe? Buckle enigmatically says that their time would have been wasted if the safe had actually contained something.

Buckle is at his most Fell-like in the final chapter, entitled "A Study of Clues," in which he not only goes over all of the clues and red herrings, but effectively demonstrates why the murderer was the only person in the house who could have killed Mostyn. A good piece of reasoning involves the position of the body and the water-taps of the bath. So this alone makes The House of Strange Guests a must read for fans of the pure detective story with logical reasoning. However, there's one aspect of the solution that will rub some readers the wrong way.

Honestly, I groaned when my deductions were proven to be correct and Brady likely knew this part of the plot was hackneyed, even in the early 1930s, but (IMO) he somehow managed to pull it off in the end without ruining the whole book. A wire-walking act as daring and risky as the stunt Carr pulled with the solution of The Plague Court Murders (1934), but Brady and Carr miraculously made them work when they really shouldn't have. The true mark of craftsmanship! Brady really did his best to make this aspect as acceptable as possible and, considering the overall plot, I'm more than willing to give it to him.

So, all in all, The House of Strange Guest is a fascinating, old-fashioned, but lively told, detective story with splendid clueing and a daring solution that could have potentially spoiled the entire book. That it worked makes this the second best entry in this too short a series. Although it has to share that spot with Ebenezer Investigates.

Well, this closes the chapter of Ebenezer Buckle on this blog, but you have not seen the last of Brady/Turner. Black Heath has reissued the extremely rare Coupons for Death (1944), a World War II black market thriller, as well as a handful of mystery novels published under his own name. Granted, Amos Petrie is not as good a series-character as Rev. Buckle, but Death Must Have Laughed (1932) was a perfectly passable detective story. Amos Petrie's Puzzle (1933), Death Joins the Party (1935) and Homicide Haven (1935) sound like potentially good detective novels. So I'll be taking a stab at some of them in the future.

11/1/18

Death of a Queen (1935) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Death of a Queen (1935) was Christopher St. John Sprigg's sixth detective novel and the last one to be published before his life was cut short in the Spanish Civil War, The Six Queer Things (1937) appeared posthumously, which probably accounts why this particular title has become such a rare, hard-to-find item – a scarcity further exacerbated by the fact that the book was never released in the U.S. Fortunately, Black Heath has recently reissued Crime in Kensington (1933) and Death of a Queen as inexpensive ebooks.

So you can now pick up this once rare and pricey collector's item for a mere pittance.

Death of a Queen marks the fourth and last appearance of Charles Venables, a detective-turned-journalist, who climbed the career-ladder in Crime in Kensington from gossip columnist to the star crime-reporter of the Mercury – demolishing a criminal plot and an impossible disappearance in the process. However, Venables has a very different role to play in his last recorded case.

Venables is summoned by Superintendent Manciple of Scotland Yard and finds him there in conference with three other men. Mr. Lancelot of the Foreign Office. A Mr. Shillingford and his right-hand man, Luigi, but Venables makes an educated guess and assumes "Mr. Shillingford" is a pseudonym. So he addresses Shillingford as Your Royal Highness. An obvious nod to the opening of Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892). Mr. Shillingford is His Royal Highness Augustus Crispin Maximilian, Crown Prince of Iconia, who has come to Britain to ask for help on behalf of his mother, Queen Hanna. Lately, Queen Hanna has turned from an elderly, strong-minded and bad-tempered lady into a "badly scared old woman."

Manciple has recommended Venables to the Foreign Office as someone "possessed of some experiences" in discreet investigations and is asked "to look into certain events which have occurred" at the palace. So Venables is bound to the capital of the tiny kingdom, Isorb.

I think most readers here will probably have the same reaction as Venables, "sounds dreadfully like Ruritania," but Sprigg makes it clear to the reader that Iconia is not Ruritania. One of the most impressive aspects of the story is the back-story of this fictitious Balkan kingdom, which has its own language, culture, history and historical figures who helped shape the country – a kind of world-building that reminded me of the imaginary micro-nations from Peter Dickinson's The Poison Oracle (1974) and James Powell's A Pocketful of Noses (2009). However, Sprigg took a more realistic approach with this fictional kingdom and depicted the place with one eye fixed on the real world.

Iconia is an isolated pocket of a land, "as big as Yorkshire," trapped between the Danube and Transylvanian Alps. The present ruling dynasty, the Herzvogins, are supposed to be "descendants of those original noble brigands" and the present monarch, Queen Hanna, has been on the throne for nearly thirty years. Queen Hanna came to power during "the agrarian troubles" resulting in the Distribution Act of 1904 when the Crown lands were broken up and given to the peasantry, which meant that the palace has been run ever since a shoe-string budget. Venables is given to understand that he expected to pay for his meals and drinks. They still have the revenue from oil royalties, but, entirely coincidental, it "exactly equals the interest and amortization" on the British loans to Iconia. You sure know how to cut a deal, you cheeky Brits.

Venables speaks with Queen Hanna a day before the thirtieth anniversary of her accession to the throne and she has received an anonymous letter warning her to give up her foolish plan. And reminding her of the "Doom of the Herzvogins." A family curse the Herzvogins inherited from the second King of Iconia, Augustus the Clerk. However, Queen Hanna is determined to reveal a great secret on her anniversary, but she never gets to make her proclamation.

Queen Hanna is strangled to death under seemingly impossible circumstances in her Royal bedchamber. There are three doors to the Royal suite and two sentries were posted at each door, who stood guard until midnight when they were relieved, but they claim nobody entered or left the room during that period – as if "the murderer was invisible." Unfortunately, the explanation to this locked room trick is unlikely to excite people who obsessively read impossible crime stories. And... I liked my solution to the problem of the guarded room slightly better.

When the circumstances of the impossible murder were presented, it immediately occurred to me that there were two weak links in the security revealing an unguarded path to the Queen: 1) a room with three doors 2) the young, inexperienced guards. Queen Hanna even demonstrates to Venables the unprofessionalism of her guards when she takes a potshot at a sleeping sentry in the courtyard and, when a minute later, frightened men storm the room, she coldly informs that she "should have been dead by now." So this gave me an idea.

The bedchamber has three doors and you have to assume those doors open in three different portions, rooms or corridors of the palace. So what if two assassins, dressed as sentries, come to relieve two of the guards 10-15 minutes earlier. We already established discipline is something to be desired in the palace guards and probably would not object to be being relieved earlier than planned. And that's if they even noticed the 10-15 minute time-gap. The murderers enter the bedchamber to do their dirty work and take their place as sentries when they come out again. At midnight, they're relieved by the actual guards and they simply walk away without a hint of suspicion – shedding their uniforms as they vanish inside the palace. I honestly think it's better than Sprigg's solution. Well, it would have made for a good false solution in any case.

Anyway, the murder in the Royal bedchamber is not the only inexplicable occurrence in the palace that night. Queen Hanna was seen in the State Office when by all "the laws of logic she ought to have been dead" and another frightened palace guard had opened fire on the ghost of Her Majesty walking down the stairs with either "the devil or St. Boron." A second quasi-impossible crime happens when an attempt is made to poison the newly crowned King of Iconia, Augustus X. The only person who could have poisoned the drinks is an important witness, Dr. Robor, whose loyalty to the queen extended beyond the grave, but these are not the only pieces of the puzzle and Venables has to dig deep to unearth all of the pieces of the puzzles – comprising of old rivalries, dead royals, long-kept secrets, remorse and an exhumation. Sprigg handled all of these intertwining plot-threads with great skill and the flick of the tail provided the story with a twist that slightly gutted my solution. And that's always a nice surprise.

So in terms of plotting, Death of a Queen is unquestionable the best one I have read to date, but equally good is the story-telling that wove the history of an imaginary kingdom together with the plot-strands of a good, old-fashioned detective story – which made for a thoroughly enjoyable read with an unforgettable setting. A detective story that makes you want to shout out, realism be damned! Absolutely recommended!

Hopefully, Black Heath will not let us wait too long for Fatality in Fleet Street (1933), The Perfect Alibi (1934) and The Corpse with the Sunburn Face (1935).

10/29/18

The Kindaichi Case Files: The Murder in the Phantom School Building

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R (The File of Young Kindaichi Returns) series was serialized in Weekly Shônen Magazine from 2012 to 2017 and reviewed a number of stories that were adapted for the animated series, such as The Alchemy Murder Case, The Prison Prep School Murder Case and The Rosenkrauz Mansion Murders, but not all of the cases were used for the anime – some have very alluring premises. I noticed one of these unused stories combined an abandoned island setting with a treasure hunt, urban exploration, bloody murder and a pack of minutely-timed alibis. So I simply had to read it.

Gunkon Island on the Izu Peninsula is the backdrop of The Murder in the Phantom School Building, but is locally known under another name, Kogane (Gold) Island, which once held rich gold deposits and the small island prospered.

The island used to be crowded and resembled a busy town rather than a mining village. After this brief, prosperous period, the gold suddenly ran out and over two-thousand people left – turning the island into a godforsaken ghost town of abandoned ruins. And these ruins have a story to tell. Legend has it that there's "an estimated amount of 200kg in gold bars" secreted on the island.

A treasure rumordly stowed away by the Vice-Principal of Kogane Junior High School, Yuuki Genshou, who had worked on the island for over thirty years and was the only person who remained behind. This fanned the flames of the rumored treasure of gold bars, but the gold was never found and when two men from the mining company returned to the island, to confront him, all they found was "the shriveled, mummy-like body of the Vice-Principal" sitting in a chair – which promptly disappeared when the police arrived. Since a year, every month a group of people are given access to the island to poke around the abandoned ruins for the gold.

Miyuki had a bit of good luck when she, out of nowhere, secured two slots on the next expedition to the island and this means that Hajime Kindaichi is coming with her!

On the island, they meet the rest of the expedition: Akaguma Takeshi (tour guide), Tomoe Soujuurou (treasure hunter) and Kubiki Tomorou (supernatural researcher). The rest of the group consists of students who are members of a college urban exploration club (Ruins Explorer Club): Yamori Yukio, Kijou Ayuma, Hanaizumi Kyouya, Tsuruno Fuyuka, Tooma Moegi and Muronoi Ran. However, there are two other unexpected visitors. Inspector Kenmoichi and Superintendent Akechi arrive on the island under the guise of civil servants inspecting the place, but Kindaichi is soon informed by them that they received evidence that the "Puppeteer of Hell," Yoichi Takato, is going to be at the bottom of what is about to unfold among the ruins of Kogane Island.

For those who missed my previous reviews, Takato is a magician of crime who designs perfect murder plots for those craving revenge or long for private justice. So the stage is properly set for murder!

Kogane Island
 
The group of treasure hunters uses the Kogane Junior High School building as a base and the place resembles an obstacle course for urban explorers. There are corridors blocked by rubble, stairways that have collapsed and rotting floors with holes in it. A feature that comes an integral part of the alibi-trick when the group hears over the wireless how one of the club members is murdered in the music-room, on the second floor, but the staircase has collapsed and they needed to take the long way round to reach the music-room, which takes a good six minutes – nobody within the group was out of sight for more than three minutes. Not enough time to take the long way round, commit the murder and return without being seen.

I think any astute mystery reader can piece together one part of this alibi-trick, but the second part is a lot trickier and borders on cheating, because it took more prep work than you can reasonable expect even from a fictitious murderer. And this probably why the Puppeteer was inserted into the background. It kind of justified this elaborate part of the trick. Still a good and even a somewhat original alibi-trick.

A letter was found inviting the victim to come to the music-room without telling anyone, signed "The Vice-Principal," which are followed by more letters asking the explorers to come to various locations in the school building – all of the letters came with a tiny piece of gold. But then the radio-transmitter vanishes, their boat is torched and two more names are added to the body-count. The last murder is a diabolical one with almost childish trickery to lure the victim into a deadly trap, but very well done and more believable than the first murder.

The Murder in the Phantom School Building has a solid premise with a great backdrop for a deadly treasure hunt and using urban explorers to pad out the cast of characters was interesting, but, besides the previously mentioned tricks, the plot was standard fare for the series. I easily spotted the murderer and the motive was the same old, same old. So, on a whole, the story is a not standout title in the series, but also a long-way from those at the bottom-rung. It's just very average.

So far this lukewarm review, but probably have something good again for my next post.