7/16/19

The Gates of Hell (2003) by Paul Doherty

Last year, I tackled the first two parts of Paul Doherty's historical "Telamon Triology," The House of Death (2001) and The Godless Man (2002), which takes place in 334 BC and follows the tribulations of a talented young physician, Telamon – who's the trusted confident of his boyhood friend, Alexander the Great. Alexander and Telamon were raised together, as boys, "in the Grove of Mieza at Aristotle's academy," but Alexander's god-like aspirations ensures an endless supply of challenges for the level-headed physician.

The red-thread running through this trilogy is the escalating war activities between Macedon and the sprawling Persian Empire of Darius III.

Alexander has captured or sacked city after city and has crossed into Asia, but Darius III and his menacing spy, Lord Mithra, have been plotting his downfall and even enlisted a Greek mercenary, Menno of Rhodes. One of the few generals to have defeated Macedonian troops in battle. Persian assassins and spies have been active in Macedonian army camps (The House of Death) and captured cities (The Godless Man), which resulted in a bloody trail of revenge, intrigue and miraculous murders dragged across Alexander's marching route "to the edge of the world" – solved by the agile mind of Telamon. Lion of Macedon was now poised to take "the great prize."

The Gates of Hell (2003) is the final book of the "Telamon Triology" and Alexander has set his sight on the city of Halicarnassus with its deep harbor on the Aegean. If the city falls, every sea port on the Aegean will be Alexander. Something that's easier said than done.

Halicarnassus is well fortified with "towers, walls and citadels" with its southern line "protected by the sea and the Persian navy." A moat has been dug around the city "twenty-five feet broad and very deep," which Alexander has to cross before he can attack the walls, but the conditions outside the walls are extremely unfavorable to an invading army and it's "almost impossible to mine underneath" – making the city practically unconquerable without an Archilles' Heel. Well, if a legend is to be believed, there's a weak spot in the city's defensive bulwark.

Pythias was a sour, embittered, but brilliant, mathematician who claimed King Pixadorus, of Halicarnassus, had "cheated him out of certain treasure," but Pixadorus dismissed these accusations as nonsense. After a while, the king grew tired of accusations and threatened to seize Pythias' wealth. So he fled the city, but left behind a cipher, known as the Pythian Manuscript, which revealed both where the treasure was hidden and "an intrinsic flaw" in one section of the city wall. A "terrible weakness" any besieger could exploit. Alexander is in possession of the cipher!

Pamenes is a skillful scribe "versed in translating secret codes and ciphers," who's one of scholars laboring on deciphering the Pythian Manuscripy, but he has not emerged from his room. A room known as the Ghost Chamber with creaking floorboards that has inspired ghost stories, but sadly, nothing is done with the room. Anyway, the creaking floorboards is how people in the room below heard the scribe pacing up and down. However, the door remained bolted and there's no answer to the knocking. So the door is battered down and the body of Pamenes is found on the pavement outside, under the open window, with bird seed scattered around him, which suggests an accidental fall, but Telamon suspects foul play – begging the question how a murderer was able to enter or leave a locked room. This is not the only (quasi) impossible situation in the story.

Alexander and Telamon believe there's a spy in their camp who, somehow, has found a way to dispatch incredibly detailed messages with "a richness of information" into the besieged city. The messages must have been incredibly detailed that it's very unlikely, if not impossible, someone shot an arrow with a message attached to it over the city wall.

Doherty has never been squeamish about padding the body count of his stories and The Gates of Hell is no exception.

A cook and his daughter are poisoned. A Cretan archer is murdered a mile from Alexander's camp and the murderer took his bow and arrows. A woman is found strangled to death in the Ghost Chamber, which appeared in the room after it had been searched. This all takes place against the bloody siege of Halicarnassus. Needlessly to say, this really pads the body count of the book and that's not even counting a number of executions.

So this makes for a very eventful and exciting story full with epic battles, spy activities, ciphers and bloodshed, but Doherty is at his best when seamlessly intertwines historical events with the detective story and The Gates of Hell fell a little short of the mark – because there was only one plot-thread that delivered. The method the spy used to dispatch detailed information to the besieged city was beautifully simple. And neatly linked to the cipher. I suppose the cipher could be a good second, if the average reader actually stood a chance at solving it.

However, the solution to the locked room murder of Pamenes was disappointing. I would have been happy with something half as clever as the impossible fall from the locked tower room in A Murder in Thebes (1998), but this locked room-trick was uninspired. It didn't help that the clueing was sparse and the main culprit stood out like a sore thumb.

The Gates of Hell is strong on historical content and a fine example of Doherty's talent to write mystery novels as historical epics, brimming with historical battles, events and figures, but this time with a very middling plot – ending the Telamon Triology on a weak note. So not one of Doherty's most successful historical mysteries.

7/13/19

The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951) by Christopher Bush

The Case of the Fourth Detective (1951) is the thirty-ninth mystery novel about Christopher Bush's intelligent and urbane series-detective, Ludovic Travers, who started out as a bespectacled meddler with amateur status, but has slowly transitioned into a genteel private-investigator with a license – a change influenced by the American school of hardboiled crime fiction. A change that began with a shift to first-person narration (The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel, 1942) and was completed with Travers becoming the owner of the Broad Street Detective Agency.

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
Travers came into his new position when the previous owner of the agency, Bill Ellice, unexpected died from a heart attack.

The Case of the Fourth Detective begins when a prospective client, Owen Ramplock, calls the agency and his call is taken by a former Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, Jack Norris. Ramplock is interrupted and Norris hears him say, "Prince... what the devil are you doing here?" Several months before, Travers had met Ramplock on the golf course and decides to go Warbeck Grove, a block of palatial flats, but when he arrives, he finds Ramplock lying on the floor of Flat 5 – "deader than last year's hit-song." A visiting card of Mr. A.W. Prince is found in the pocket of the body with a bold warning printed on the back, "You'll Be Sorry."

Owen Ramplock is the second generation chairman of Ramplocks, a chain of thirty-four provision shops, which he inherited from his late father, Old Sam Ramplock. However, his son proved to be a poor replacement.

Ramplock could be charming in his "own peculiar way," but being head of Ramplocks had inflated his ego and has become "impatient of advice" and "contemptuous of protests." And his personal life was not exactly spotless either. So they have to unsnarl a tangle of personal and private motives to get to the murderer. There's no shortage of suspects.

There's the evasive Mr. A.W. Prince and his equally elusive motive. A mysterious black-haired woman who appeared to have Ramplock's secret lover and regularly visited his private flat, but nobody seems to know who she is. There's his estranged wife, Jane Ramplock, who first refused to divorce him and than flat-out refused to take him back, because someone can hurt "a person even quite a lot" and "then they do just something else" – at once "everything's changed." She refuses to tell Travers what has changed. The last potential suspect on the home front is Jane's delightful uncle, Matthew Solversen, may well have been modeled on E.R. Punshon (see Curt Evans introduction).

On the "Big Business" side of the murder, there are the people working at Ramplocks: Henry Dale (manager director), Charles Downe (chief accountant), Miss Susan Haregood (secretary), Richard Winter (sales) and the company typist, Daisy Purkes. None of them were too happy with Owen Ramplock succeeding his father.

Essentially, The Case of the Fourth Detective is a relatively simple, uncomplicated and straightforward detective story. You have a body surrounded by a group of suspects with motives and those pesky alibis, which are either watertight, incomplete or non-existent. Answers to all the questions posed here perfectly demonstrates Bush had moved on from those elaborate, intricate Golden Age baroque-style plots of the thirties with precise, minutely-timed alibis (e.g. Cut Throat, 1932) and even the occasional impossible crime – e.g. The Perfect Murder Case (1929) and The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935). However, the solution here was uncomplicated simple and can even be called it slightly uninspired. Even the alibi-trick was child's play compared to the earlier titles in the series.

However, The Case of the Fourth Detective is, in spite of its simplistic plot, not too bad a mystery novel, but one that mainly draws its strength from its depiction and use of the post-war malaise in Britain. A country where food rationing continued until July, 1954!

Ramplocks is plagued by shortages, war damage claims, rising overheads, labor troubles and "the devil knows what." Not to mention "the ravishing inheritance tax" (a.k.a. death duties). Old Sam had "enough salted" to pay for the inheritance tax when he passed away, but, with the murder of Owen Ramplock, they once again have to cough up those death duties. And scramble to find a way to raise the money. Two solutions that are constantly mentioned is either selling out or selling shares publicly to cover the cost, which would turn the family company into a public one and is fate shared by many companies – such as the "remarkable newsstand and bookstall empire," W.H. Smith and Son. This casts a gloomy, somber and even depressing shadow over the story. Something you can find in other British mysteries from this period. Cyril Hare's When the Wind Blows (1949) and Leo Bruce's Cold Blood (1952) immediately come to mind.

So, all in all, the plot of The Case of the Fourth Detective is a little simple when compared to the earlier entries in the series, but the financial and social upheaval of post-WWII Britain offers a fascinating backdrop, to say the least. As was how these changes affected the murder of Owen Ramplock. However, if you're new to the series, I advice you to begin at an earlier point in the series, because this one will only be appreciated by seasoned Bush readers.

7/10/19

Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947) by E. and M.A. Radford

Back in March, the modern-day prospectors of Golden Age mysteries, Dean Street Press, reissued three classic, but obscure, detective novels by a forgotten husband-and-wife writing tandem, E. and M.A. Radford – who were big proponents of the fair play principle. As they demonstrated in their very early Murder Isn't Cricket (1946). A detective story littered with challenges to the reader, clues and a clue-finder.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947) is the Radfords sixth mystery novel and one of three titles Dean Street Press selected for reprinting, which were picked on the strength of their "strong plots, clever detection" and "evocative settings." Nigel Moss noted in his introduction that these three titles also present an attractive portrayal of their series-detective, Dr. Harry Mason.

A portrayal showing a combination of powerful intellect, reasoning and "creative scientific methods of investigation," but never “losing awareness” and "sensitivity concerning the human predicaments encountered." A scientific police detective for the modern age!

You can find all these qualities within the pages of Who Killed Dick Whittington? A fine example of the theatrical mystery, plotted around the popular Christmas pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat, which here provides a stage for a bewildering murder – one that initially appeared to be utterly impossible. However, this is not an impossible crime story in any shape or form.

Henri de Benyat theater company is performing the pantomime Dick Whittington at the Pavilion Theatre, Burlington-on-Sea, with Miss Norma de Grey as the Principle Boy playing Dick, but Miss De Grey is famously unpopular backstage. De Grey "resented applause" except when "it was directed towards her own performance" and went as far as having gags or verses cut which gave other members "more applause than she herself received." So there's more than one members of the theatrical company who daydreamed about wringing her neck.

Dick Whittington and His Cat has a well-known scene, known as the Highgate Hill scene, in which Dick and the Cat take a nap on a mossy bank by the milestone on Highgate Hill. And dreams of the Bow Bells "Turn Again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London."

During the performance, Miss de Grey misses her lines and doesn't stir from the mossy bank. Someone else shouts her lines, the curtain comes down and they rushed to the bank, but Miss De Grey has passed away and the doctor has some dire news – she died from "a dose of prussic acid." The post mortem reveals the poison had been injected with a hypodermic syringe and the only person who could have done it is the man who played the Cat, Jimmy Martin.

Vintage poster
However, the Cat is found poisoned and on the brink of death in his dressing room. This gave the murder the initial appearance of an impossible crime, but this is illusion dispelled before the halfway mark. Nevertheless, the local police are getting nowhere and decide to call in the Yard.

Detective-Inspector Harry Manson, head of the Forensic Research Laboratory, is called in, but, while looking into the murder, he also investigates a secondary case. A firebug who's setting fires to dress shops, warehouses and antique stores with stock of "a peculiarly inflammable nature." Resulting in a total loss of inventory and high insurance payouts. This fire-raising case features some of the most satisfying scientific detective work since R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke solved crimes through science in Victorian-era England! Which is not all that surprising. Edwin Radford was "a keen admirer of the popular Dr Thorndyke." I wonder if he had also read the early forensic mysteries by Eric Wood (c.f. Death of an Oddfellow, 1938).

Dr. Harry Manson visits the scenes of the fires to collect samples, such as portions of charred wood, soot and ash, which are analyzed and revealed that the fires were no accidents, but the key piece of evidence are traces of "a curious metal" – which is exceedingly rare in Britain. Showing in the end how only one person in the whole country could have had a hand in the fires. Dr. Manson also engages in some good, old-fashioned detective work in the Dick Whittington murder case.

Most notably, Dr. Manson deduces that two items were taken from a dressing room and the reader is challenged to figure out what these two missing items are. Naturally, he finds a link between the murder of Miss Norma de Grey and the fires. Nearly everything, except for the motive, fitted nicely together.

Who Killed Dick Whittington? is a fascinating, highly successful merger of the sophisticated theatrical mysteries of Ngaio Marsh with the scientific detection of the Dr. Thorndyke series. The result is a satisfying detective novel that was even better than Murder Isn't Cricket. So expect a review of the third reprinted title, Murder Jigsaw (1944), sometime in the future.

I hope Dean Street Press decides to reprint more by the Radfords, because they have written some intriguingly-titled detective novels with equally intriguing premises: Death of a Frightened Editor (1959), Murder of Three Ghosts (1963), Murder Magnified (1965) and Death of an Ancient Saxon (1969).

7/7/19

The Invisible Indian: "Murder by Scalping" (1973) by S.S. Rafferty

John J. Hurley was an American writer who worked as a newspaper reporter for the Bridgeport Post Telegram and as an advertising executive, but during the 1970s, he began to prolifically write short stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine – published under the name of "S.S. Rafferty." Over a ten year period, he produced more than fifty short stories and most of them starred either one of his two series-detectives, Chick Kelly or Captain Jeremy Cork.

Chick Kelly is a New York night-club comedian and amateur detective, who appeared in eighteen stories and one collection (Die Laughing and Other Murderous Schtick, 1985), but his most successful detective-character was Captain Jeremy Cork.

Captain Cork is an 18th century businessman in colonial America (1625-1775) who delights in picking apart so-called "social puzzles." An unproductive activity his yeoman and narrator, Wellman Oaks, labeled "non-lucrative excursions into the solution of murder, mayhem, and other forms of criminal skulduggery," which didn't stop him from writing down thirteen of Captain Cork's cases – each story taking place in one of the thirteen original colonies. All of the stories were collected in Fatal Flourishes (1979) and reissued five years later under the title Cork of the Colonies.

The series began ambitiously with "Murder by Scalping," originally published in July, 1973, issue of EQMM, which was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991). The story brings Captain Cork and Oaks to the Rhode Island ranch of Squire Norman Delaney.

On their third evening at the ranch, the Squire tells Captain Cork how crime is practically undetectable in the colonies, because many of the foul deeds committed along the frontier were "entered in life's ledger as accidents." People who were assumed to be lost on the trail or taken by Indians. So what stands in "the criminal's way in these rude climes?" Captain Cork's answer: "I do." And his words are immediately put to the test.

Goodman Stemple is the owner of a prosperous trading post, Stemple's Redoubt, who comes to the Squire with the startling news that his future son-in-law, Donald Greenspawn, was killed and scalped in his own home! Now there's talk among the frontier folk about raising "a punitive expedition" against the Tedodas.

Interestingly, the seemingly impossible murder of Greenspawn is constructed around the colonial custom of bundling.

Greenspawn had agreed to take Stemple's daughter, Faith, in marriage and during their period of courtship, they bundled by sharing a bed fully clothed and protected from temptation by a wide, wooden bundling board between them. This had quite a practical reason. During the day, the time of the couple is entirely consumed by work and chores, which only leaves the evening for a private conversations and this sleeping arrangement is preferred during the winter – because cabins on the frontier usually only have one fireplace. Rafferty astutely saw the possibilities for an impossible crime.

On that morning, Faith awakened to find Greenspawn dead in his side of the bed with his head caved in, his scalp gone and covered in gold dust. The room had been closed and a house guest, Vicar Johnson, was stricken with gumboils and had been unable to sleep. So, to pass the time, spent the night reading and he said nobody entered or left the room except for Donald and Faith. Only the persons who could have killed him were either Faith or "an Indian who could walk through walls."

The solution to the murder is a clever little variation on a locked room-trick from a rather well-known impossible crime novel and the basic idea even predates that story, but it has never been used with these, uhm, tools before – resulting in a darkly humorous locked room situation. Leo Bruce or Edmund Crispin could have spun comedic gold out of this idea!

Unfortunately, the who-and why or the murder are not as well handled as the how and disliked the sudden ending. After visiting the scene of the crime, Captain Cork picks the murderer from the crowd or people standing outside the cabin. You're never given a clue or even as much as a hint to the solution. Or how he reached that conclusion. And, no. Not even the gold dust on the body constituted a clue, which had an answer that completely came out of nowhere. This made Captain Cork come across as an oracle, rather than a detective, when delivering the solution.

"Murder by Scalping" marked the debut of both S.S. Rafferty and Captain Jeremy Cork, which comes with the imperfection one expects to find in an unpolished writer, but the story has a good historical setting with an original application of an old locked-room-trick – resulting in a memorable impossible crime. So readers of historical mysteries and impossible crime fiction are most likely to appreciate this short detective story.

7/4/19

Shed a Light On the Past: Q.E.D, vol. 3 by Motohiro Katou

Last year, I started reading the Q.E.D. series, a Japanese detective manga, created by Motohiro Katou, who produced 50 volumes between 1997 and 2014, which sold over 3 million copies and received a live-action TV drama adaptation – centering on the 16-year-old genius, Sou Touma. A former MIT graduate student who moved back to Japan, to experience life as normal high-school student, where he becomes friends with Kana Mizuhara. She's the antithesis to the lonely, withdrawn genius.

I've only read the first two volumes, reviewed here and here, but my review of the second volume dates back to a little over a year! So it was about time I returned to this series.

The third volume of Q.E.D. comprises of two stories, entitled "Breakthrough" and "The Fading of Star Map," covering three, somewhat longish, chapters each. I'm still very earlier in the series, but these two stories are my favorites as of now. And for vastly different reasons.

The first of these two stories, “Breakthrough,” is, technically speaking, not really a detective story of any kind, but fills in some background details of Touma's character and the time he spend in the US – drawing on his days as an MIT student. One day, two American MIT students turn up at Touma's school in Tokyo, Eva Scott and Syd “Loki” Green, who were friends of Touma. They were surprised and worried when he suddenly left college without a word. Everyone suspected it had something to do with the incident in the research lab.

Someone "threw Touma's thesis into the river." The thesis was supposed to be kept in the research lab, but it was taken nonetheless and "even the back-up data on the computer was erased." However, Touma doesn't want to talk about it and it's revealed that he took the blame. So was he shielding someone? The story also has a tiny sub-plot about the quasi-impossible disappearance and reappearance of a string of pearls, but these problems are only secondary to the story about the friendship between Touma and Loki. A story of two lonely geniuses who became friends and, when together, they actually act like normal teenagers and have a bit of fun. So this is really a slice-of-life story about friendship presented as a detective story. I liked it.

Sou Touma is not as popular a detective-character as Conan Edogawa or Hajime Kindaichi, but, after merely three volumes, his personality already has more depth to it than either of his more well-known counterparts – an opinion some of you will vehemently disagree with. However, Kindaichi has always been a two-dimensional character, while Conan's development slowly moves along with the red-thread running through the series.

The second and final story in this volume, "The Fading of Star Map," is a fine example of the Japanese shin honkaku detective story.

The story revolves around an abandoned, rundown star observatory, standing on a lonely, snow-capped mountain, but the place is now surrounded by a ski-resort. So the ramshackle observatory now poses a potential danger to curious skiers who might get injured as they wander around the place. Obviously, the place has to be demolished, but the observatory's founder, Fukutaro Tsukishima, disappeared twenty-five years ago and a district court investigator has gathered all his living relatives to decide "who the legal beneficiary is" – who will have to pay for the demolition. Someone accidentally opened the giant telescope and it revealed the charred remains of a long-dead person.

Murder by Starlight

Naturally, a snow storm delays the arrival of the police and, shortly after the discovery, Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara arrive at the observatory. They're on a school trip, to the ski resort, but they got lost and were brought to the observatory. Where they have to spend the night.

On the following morning, they find the body of Fukutaro's brother-in-law, Muneaki Miyabe, hanging outside the bathroom window. This turns out to be a cleverly contrived, quasi-locked room murder showing that the Japanese are not only the masters of the corpse-puzzle, but understand the endless possibilities of the architectural mystery like no one else. A wonderful trick that could have been fleshed out into a full-fledged locked room conundrum. However, even better than the trick is the identity of the murderer and the clues that were found in the stars, an old drawing of a dog and the cruel lies adults tell to children. The murderer is a truly tragic figure, but, even more tragic, is the death of this character.

If you're going to kill off the murderer at the end of the story, this is how it should be done with exactly right emotional punch to punctuate the ending. A highly recommendable story.

So, all in all, this was an excellent, well-balanced volume with a character-driven and plot-oriented detective story, which both showed improvement in characterization, plotting and story-telling. I might tackle the next two volumes in the coming weeks, because two volumes a years is simply not enough.

By the way, I know only a tiny segment of my regular readers actually read and watch anime-and manga detective series, but I like to know what you uninitiated think when you read these reviews. Are you intrigued? Tempted? Why don't you take the plunge? You'll find some of the cleverest detective stories you have ever read in these series. And they're banquet, if you're a locked room fanboy. For example, I think the Detective Conan episodes The Case of Séance Double Locked Room and The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly are modern classics of the impossible crime genre.

7/2/19

The Clue at Skeleton Rocks (1932) by Hugh Lloyd

Percy K. Fitzhugh was an American writer who published close to a hundred boy scout novels, comprising of a handful of distinctly different scouting series all set in the fictional town of Bridgeboro, New Jersey, which were very popular with both children and adults – contributing greatly to the growth and popularity of the Boy Scouts in the U.S. Reportedly, there were thousands of boys who joined the scouts "because of his writing."

During the early 1930s, Fitzhugh's popularity began to decline and decided to turn his hand to the juvenile detective story.

Between 1931 and 1934, he adopted the penname of "Hugh Lloyd" and produced ten volumes about Hal Keen. A tall, red-headed youth whose uncle, Denis Keen, is an agent for the Secret Service Department and functions as the plot-device that allows Keen to have adventures all over the world as the book-titles testify – e.g. Kidnapped in the Jungle (1931), The Lonesome Swamp Mystery (1932) and The Lost Mine of the Amazon (1933). However, the Hal Keen books are very different from most juvenile mystery series that have been discussed on this blog. Very differently.

A distinguishing characteristic of Fitzhugh's writing is realism. This is why so many of his scouting novels bore "the official seal of approval of the BSA" and regularly received fan mail addressed to his various Boy Scout characters.

Fitzhugh's adherence to realism resulted here in a more mature, but darker, series closer to Peter Drax and George Bellairs than William Arden or Bruce Campbell. As one reviewer noted, "people are not only killed," but they are murdered and have "a noir feel" without having urban settings. I agree. Another notable difference is the age of Hal Keen. I assumed Hal was somewhere in his late adolescence, between 17 and 19, but a late chapter revealed he was a "young man of twenty-one."

So this series promised to be something out of the ordinary and decided to sample it with the seventh title.

The Clue at Skeleton Rocks (1932) begins with a wrecked schooner, Sister Ann, which has struck the reef at Skeleton Rocks, Maine, where one of those "lonely, wave-swept lighthouses" stands and this immediately begs the question – why was the ship wrecked so close to the light? And what happened to the crew? Secret Service in Washington believes the wrecked schooner was none other than an old smuggling vessel, Isle of Tortuga, which carried opium. So this brings Denis Keen to Skeleton Rocks. And he brought along his nephew, Hal.

Captain Dell of the lighthouse tender, Cactus, tells them nothing thrilling has happened on Skeleton Rocks in more than forty years, but one of the two lighthouse keepers, Bill Hollins, had committed suicide on the night Sister Ann ran up the reef. These events turned the hair of the other keeper, Edgar Barrowe, white over night and his behavior became even more peculiar than usual. And than there's the man who Hal saved from drowning, Danny Sears, who vanishes at the first opportunity he got. This won't be the last time Sears made a sudden entrance and exit.

Denis Keen described his nephew as someone who "invites trouble" and, when it doesn't come, "he just goes looking for it." Hal decides to stay behind on Skeleton Rocks to spend his Easter holiday as a lighthouse keeper's apprentice, but he really wants to figure out what happened on that fateful night and befriends "the orphaned half-wit," Dillie Rawson – who was very close with Hollins. Hal also finds the time to fall in love with the daughter of the doctor from the nearby Porthmouth, Elissa.

Unfortunately, this is all I can tell you about the plot of The Clue at Skeleton Rocks, because the plot is paper-thin and has an infuriating explanation breaking one of the cardinal rules of detective-fiction.

I already mentioned how Lloyd's realism and writing-style reminded me of Bellairs and Drax, but have only read one novel by each of them, High Seas Murder (1939) and The Cursing Stones Murder (1954). Nonetheless, they have more than one thing in common with The Clue at Skeleton Rocks. All three are darker, moody crime stories with a shipping background, minimalistic plotting and a lack of any meaningful detective work. Sure, you have the titular clue, but, since the murderer's identity is draped in a layer you can never peel away, until it's revealed, the clue is rendered completely useless.

All things considered, The Clue at Skeleton Rocks is an interesting curiosity, to be sure, but failed hard as a genuine detective story and was perhaps a little bit too much on the darker and serious side to be considered a juvenile mystery – which makes this curiosity only recommendable to the curious. If you're one of those curious-minded, I have some good news. The previously mentioned The Lost Mine of the Amazon is available on Gutenberg, but I'll be giving the rest of the series a pass.

And if you want to try some genuinely good juvenile mysteries, you should track down one of these titles: J. Jefferson Farjeon's Holiday Express (1935), Martin Colt's Stranger at the Inlet (1946), Manly Wade Wellman's The Sleuth Patrol (1947), Enid Blyton's The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) Bruce Campbell's The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953), Robert Arthur's The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) and William Arden's The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972).

6/28/19

Sorcerer's House (1956) by Gerald Verner

In my previous post, I reviewed John R.S. Pringle's The Royal Flush Murders (1948), published as by "Gerald Verner," which ended with the promise to immediately return to the work of this obscure, pulp-like mystery writer with, reputedly, one of his best detective novels – namely the intriguing-sounding Sorcerer's House (1956). A detective story clearly intended as a homage to the great maestro, John Dickson Carr, but without leaning on an impossible crime. Nearly everything else is pure Carr!

One of the primary characters of Sorcerer's House is a young American, Alan Boyce, who's on holiday in England and is staying with a long-standing friend of his father, Henry Onslow-White, in the charming village of Ferncross. On the day of his arrival, Boyce learns of the abandoned, decaying and haunted Threshold House. A house long forgotten by the world, but the villagers remember the time when it was used as "a kind of wizard's den" by one of history's most peculiar characters, Count Alessandro di Cagliostro.

Cagliostro was a self-professed magician, occultist, alchemist and very likely a died-in-the-wool conman.

During his second and last time in England, Cagliostro had rented Threshold House where, if local legends are to believed, he attempted to replicate his famous Banquet of the Dead in the Long Room – which has been haunted every since by "a dim, bluish glow." A mysterious light that is seen as "a sign that somebody is going to die." Violently! In recent years, the bluish light in the window preceded a deadly motor cycle accident in the village and the discovery of dead, unidentified tramp underneath the window of the Long Room.

Boyce learns of this local legend in the garden of Bryony Cottage, home of Mr. and Mrs. Onslow-White, where a group of people are sitting around in deck-chairs on a hot, airless summer evening. These people are Avril Farrell and her brother, Dr. Farrell, who's accompanied by his daughter, Flake. She naturally becomes somewhat of a love-interest to Boyce. Paul Meriton rounds out the party. The plot begins to roll when Avril Farrell makes the disturbing remarks, "there was a light in the window last night" and "I wonder who is going to die this time?"

That night, Boyce looks out of his bedroom window, overlooking the old, ruined and ivy smothered house, and sees a light in the window of the Long Room. So he decides to investigate and makes a terrible discovery. The body of Meriton lies underneath the window of the Long Room, exactly like the dead tramp, with the back of his head caved in and turns out he had been killed with "a loose banister torn from the staircase" – after which he had been pitched out of the window. So this is murder. And this brings one of Verner's short-lived series-detective onto the scene.

Simon Gale is a flamboyant, beer guzzling artist-of-leisure and an incorrigible contrarian with an unruly shock of hair, aggressive beard and the dress sense of a Dutch flower field. He smokes vile, acrid smelling cigarettes rolled from black tobacco and booms such phrases as "by the orgies of Bacchus" or "by the cloven hoofs of Pan." Gale is unmistakable meant to be a Great Detective in the tradition of Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, but many readers will probably find his mannerisms tiresome. And this probably makes him more of brand-store version of Dr. Fell and H.M. Still, I didn't entirely dislike him, but he can be tedious at times. Lee Sheldon created a very similar, but more convincing, JDC-inspired detective in Impossible Bliss (2001). Anyway, the most obvious nod to Carr had yet to come.

A key-part of the overarching plot is finding out what exactly happened to Meriton's wife, Fay Meriton, who apparently absconded with a secretive lover, but nobody has ever been able to find a trace of her. Gale is convinced there's more to her sudden disappearance and believes he'll find the answer in the decaying house. This is the point where the story becomes tricky to discuss, but Fay's back-story is directly tied to the dark and hidden tragedies of the house. However, it's not exactly what you think it is. Gale was even surprised by two of their discoveries, but, slowly, Fay emerges as a tragic and wronged woman. You can say what you want, but this largely mirrors the story of Fay Seton from Carr's classic He Who Whispers (1946).

As I mentioned above, Sorcerer's House becomes tricky, if not impossible, to discuss once they begin to explore the house in earnest, because the story is almost structured like a magazine serial and the discoveries are excellently used here as cliffhangers – baffling everyone from reader to the detective. These are some of the best set-pieces of the story and the closes Verner came to matching Carr when it came to story-telling. Verner also deserves praise for showing the excitement and gossip in Ferncross when the police and press descended on the small village. A particular highlight was the character of the village gossip, Miss Flappit, who was in "a seventh heaven of excitement" and shot all over the village like "a noisy and virulent wasp."

Plot-wise, Sorcerer's House only suffers from ramshackle clueing and an otherwise excellent, well-hidden murderer who falls for an obvious trap set by Gale, but most readers will probably forgive that last point. Because you'll get one of those great, Carr-like scenes in return. A genuine surprise played to great effect, but again, the murderer was acting as an idiot here and should not have fallen for it.

Leaving aside these imperfections, Sorcerer's House is a superior and more original detective story than either The Beard of the Prophet (1937) or The Royal Flush Murders. The former borrowed a little too freely from Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), while the plot of the latter was pretty much a pastiche of S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928). Yes, Sorcerer's House evidently drew inspiration from He Who Whispers, but most of the plot is entirely original. In some ways, you can even say the plot of Sorcerer's House anticipates Paul Halter's La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990). So maybe Brad and JJ want to take note of this one.

Long story short, Sorcerer's House is a good, second-string mystery comparable to the more Carr-like mystery novels by John Russell Fearn (e.g. The Five Matchboxes, 1948), but, above all, it's a much appreciated homage to the master with patches of truly great story-telling. So this one has definitely given me a reason to return to Verner in the future.