7/20/16

Haunted House Hang-Up


"You know, we do make a pretty good team... especially when the chips are down."
- Jonny Quest (The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest) 
Robert Arthur was the literary father of those three young lads, Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews, who together form The Three Investigators and they were formerly introduced to the world in The Secret of Terror Castle (1964).

The Secret of Terror Castle was the point of departure for a successful, long-running series of juvenile mysteries that covered a large chunk of the second half of the previous century and would finally comprise of forty some volumes written by five different authors – such as William Arden, M.V. Carey, Nick West and Marc Brandel. Additionally, there were two, short-lived spin-off series, published as Find-Your-Fate Books and Crimebusters, several audio-plays, puzzle books and even some recent TV-movies from 2007 and 2009.

All of that began with Robert Arthur and his very Scooby Doo-like mystery-and adventure novel, which, after this clunky, rickety written introduction, is going to be the subject of this blog-post.

The Secret of Terror Castle opens, like most of the stories from this series, with an introduction from that famous film director, Alfred Hitchcock, who is a recurring side character in these books. There is, however, an obvious difference in their first outing: the reader is told how this unlikely partnership exactly came about and according to Hitchcock it was accomplished "by nothing less than sheer skullduggery." He sort of has a point.

Jupe, Pete and Bob were probably not the first boys to try their hands at the detective business, but very few kids had the starter-kit they had: a damaged, thirty-foot mobile home trailer hidden among the piles of junk in the Jones Salvage Yard. The boys have converted the trailer in a headquarters and equipped the place with "an office, laboratory and photographic darkroom" with "several hidden entrances." On top of that, they've stack of professional looking, evocatively worded business cards in their pockets and an unrecorded case to their credit – which involved the recovery of a lost diamond ring. There was only one thing missing: a client. Luckily, they've a plan!

A local car rental company held a contest: a big jar full of beans stood in their window and offered the use of a luxurious Rolls-Royce and a chauffeur for thirty days to whoever guessed the nearest to the right number of beans. Jupe spent several days "calculating how much space was in the jar" and "how many beans it would take to fill that space." Suffice to say, he won the thirty day use of the gold-plated Rolls-Royce and the services of an English chauffeur, named Worthington, which are used as a respectable front to get pass the gates of World Studios. It also helped that Jupe drew on his background as a child actor and pretended to be Hitchcock's nephew.

Hitchcock is searching for "an authentic haunted house," which he wants to use as a setting in his suspense movie, but location scouts are scattered across various states and the boys offer to help find a haunted much closer to the film studios – in exchange Hitchcock has to introduce their first case. It takes some additional effort to convince the movie director, but they eventually leave the film studio with a genuine assignment in their pockets.

Well, not surprisingly, the boys already had a location in mind: Terrill's Castle. A strange, castle-like building located in a narrow gulch, called Black Canyon, which became known as Terror Castle in the wake of the owner’s disappearance.

Stephen Terrill was "a big star back in the silent-film days" and played in all kinds of horror pictures about ghosts, werewolves and vampires. He was basically the Vincent Price of his days and loved to frighten people, which is reflected in the construction of his home: Terrill imported construction materials from supposedly haunted buildings world-wide, which included Japanese timbers "of an ancient, ghost-ridden temple" and stones from a haunted castle on the Rhine – stuffing the place with ancient suits of armors, unsettling portraits and Egyptian mummy cases.

On a quick side note, one of the first chapters referenced Ellery Queen and the character of Terrill, in combination with his private "castle," recalled Drury Lane and his castle-like home on the Hudson. A sly nod to Ellery Queen? Anyway...

The dawn of the talkie spelled the end of Terrill's movie career and this devastated the Man of a Million Faces, which caused him to lock himself up in his castle and brood, before he completely vanishing from the face of the earth – leaving only an empty car at the bottom of a cliff and a threatening note behind.

In the note, Terrill placed a curse on the house and promised that nobody would be able to live there. His spirit seems to have made good on that promise, because everyone who tried to stay there ran out of there faster than a bat out of hell. And that scared off a lot of potential buyers.

Jupe, Pete and Bob make several assaults upon the haunting entities of Terror Castle, but they first have to overcome "a sensation of extreme terror" and "impending doom" that befalls everyone who crosses the threshold of the castle. The first time they experienced this they left cartoon smoke behind. Regardless, they slowly penetrate through "the fog of fear" and begin to gauge the truth behind the paranormal activity of the place, which includes a nifty spectral appearance in the projection room – namely "a shimmering blob of misty blue light" that conjured "ghostly wheezes and screeches" from a ruined pipe-organ. A large chunk of these apparently paranormal events can be labeled as semi-impossible problems, but their explanations were of the obvious, timeworn variety. Only how the sense of terror was achieved was somewhat fresh and original. But hardly enough to quality the book as an impossible crime story.

The first explanation offered for the identity of the ghosts and the motivation for creating a haunted house is obvious one, but then Arthur surprises both the boys and the readers by springing a surprise twist on them – which was not foreshadowed and very, very hackneyed. It showed Arthur had his roots in the pulps, but this was pretty bad and the only positive part was that it placed Jupe and Pete in very tight spot. And that always makes for a good scene or two in this series.

Luckily, the second twist rectified all that was wrong with the first twist and provided an overall satisfying explanation for the plot. There was, however, one obvious flaw in the overarching plot: why were Hitchcock's location scouts not aware of a haunted castle so close to the film studio?

The Secret of Terror Castle is, ultimately, a very simplistic story, but therefore not a bad one and for an opening salvo to a long-running series it was actually pretty good. I've read some pretty bad debuts from regular mystery authors and this was definitely not one of them. So this was an auspicious beginning of the series.

Other books reviewed in this series: The Secret of Terror Castle (1964), The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966), The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968), The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972), The Secret of Phantom Lake (1973) and The Mystery of the Invisible Dog (1975).

7/19/16

The Story of a Crime


"Oh, listen, just one more thing... it was not a suicide and they've officially assigned me to the case. That's my specialty, you know. Homicide."
- Lt. Columbo (Season 2, Episode 1: Étude to Black, 1972)
Sir Basil Thomson had a varied and storied career in the service of the British government, serving as prison governor, intelligence officer, assistant commissioner of police and assistant premier of Tonga, which gave him a rich background to draw from when he turned to fiction – penning a spate of short stories and early examples of the police procedurals. I've only read one of his short stories and three full-length novels, but they differed as much from one another as their authors various government gigs.

Richardson's First Case (1933) is a literary ancestor of the modern roman policiers and The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937) is an adventurous police-thriller with components of the chase story and the inverted mystery, in which policemen from two countries are crossing swords with the members of an international gang of dope peddlers. The third book from Thomson's series of police novels, The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934), conforms to this pattern of variation in both plotting and storytelling.

In his third outing, Thomson tried his hands at a genuine detective story and even has Richardson working in tandem with an amateur or two. But more on them later.

The Case of Naomi Clynes begins when a charwoman tries to enter an apartment, located above a milk shop, but she's immediately repelled by the gas fumes that has filled the rooms: the tenant of the room, Miss Noami Clynes, is found on the floor of the kitchen with her head in the gas-oven – all of the taps turned on. A typewritten note is found explaining she has come "to believe that life is not worth living" and "that it is no crime to put an end to it," but Malcolm Richardson, recently promoted to the rang of inspector, uncovers evidence that tells a different story.

Richardson learns that Miss Clynes was "a budding authoress," a mystery writer to be precise, who had succeeded in finding a publisher and they had accepted her first novel on very liberal terms, which is not exactly a reason to crawl into a gas-oven. On the contrary!

There is also a ton of physical evidence uncovered indicating the presence of an unknown person in the apartment at the time Miss Clynes allegedly took her own life: a gold-tipped cigarette is found near the fridge and cigarette-ash is found in the living room, but Miss Clynes was described as an anti-smoker – which she viewed as a dirty, messy habit for a woman to indulge in. In addition to that, Richardson plucked a strand of green wool that was stuck beneath a tack in the floor used to hold down the cork carpeting, which came from the back of the victim's dress and suggest she was dragged from the sitting-room into the kitchen. Throw in a coffee cup containing traces of poison and you’ve got yourself a murder case.  

The first half of the investigation is very reminiscent of the police procedural-style from Richardson’s First Case, in which Thomson gives more consideration to the proper and legal procedures of a police investigation than can be found in series of the time with a police inspector at the helm – e.g. Michael Innes' Inspector John Appleby and Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Roderick Alleyn. This investigation encompasses information that needs to be pried from some of the other tenants and delving into the past of the victim, which lays bare a trail leading straight to France and that's where the story really begins to get interesting.

In fact, there are a number of plot-threads stretching across the channel, but, in order to follow up on them, Richardson accepts the help of an old friend of the C.I.D. James Milson is a publisher of mystery and thriller novels, but he used to lend his remarkable brain to Scotland Yard "whenever they’re really up against it" and his firm was accepted Miss Clynes first book. So he feels compelled to help the police in bringing her murderer to justice and travels to France to get information from one of her former employers. However, this would not be his last trip across the channel.

Richardson takes a busman's holiday to France and is not only accompanied by James Milson, but the uncle of the latter, James Hudson, joins them and he turned out to be a fun character. Hudson is an American steel magnate from Pittsburgh and has a character "prone to exercise dictatorial powers," but he has a softer side and the ending shows a heart of gold was beating beneath his well-tailored clothes. Hudson has a nice, but short exchange, with Richardson about the differences between the political machines and judicial systems of the United States and England, which touches upon immigration, court systems, crime-rackets and State Rights.

What they find in France is that the murder back in London has a very unusual origin, which turns the final quarter of the book into, what Bill Pronzini calls, humanist crime-fiction and gave the book a strange, but warm, ending. I found the crime at the heart of the murder to be very original. That added to the overall effect of the revelation. I wish I could tell more about the nature of this original crime, but I would only be spoiling a good read for you.

It’s noted in the introduction of the book that "intricacy of plotting,' as judged by the standards of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, "was not Thomson's true specialty," which is true, but I thought The Case of Naomi Clynes excelled in its beautiful simplicity – which becomes very clear during the final leg of the story. On top of that, there are some very original touches to the explanation.

So, I would recommend starting with The Case of Naomi Clynes, if you have not yet sampled this series for yourself. It's by leaps and bound the best one thus far and the other entries from this series will have a hard time matching it.

7/17/16

Asteroid Blues


"You're not going to let him get away, are you?"
- Spike Spiegel (Cowboy Bebop, Episode 10: Ganymede Elegy) 
David V. Reed was an American author who primarily left his mark on comic books, such as writing for Batman during the 1950s and co-creating the villain Deadshot, but he also tinkered with fiction and his work was published in various popular magazines – which included such publications as Amazing Stories, Fantastic Adventures, Astounding Science Fiction and Argosy. He seems to have been fluttering between the pulps and the slicks.

Murder in Space (1944) was one of Reed's experiments in fiction and originally appeared between the covers of Amazing Stories, but this hybrid-tale was doomed to drift to the darkest, deepest regions of literary obscurity. Sadly, I can see how this story failed to make an impact or leave a visible impression on any of the genres Reed attempted to incorporate into his story.

The book attempts to transplant a semi-hardboiled crime story with touches of the legal thriller, courtroom drama and even the Western to the edge of our solar system.

Regrettably, this mish-mash of genres fails to take off and is as poorly handled as the bits of speculative science, which showed asteroids capable of hosting life, but even I know space rocks usually lack the delicate atmosphere of a place like Earth – coming on top of a strange blend of contemporary and futuristic technology. On the one hand, the reader is expected to believe the solar system has been colonized with a vast array of advanced spaceships, but, on the other one, courtroom photographers apparently still use flashbulbs. Anyhow, I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The backdrop for Murder in Space is a settlement on a planetoid, named Mirabello, which is a lush mining community, with "its twin golden suns" blazing "merrily from a sky of flawless blue," and the place has the tendency to be a prosperous, peaceful space colony – extracting all of its prosperity from orium deposits in the surrounding asteroid belt. One of Mirabello's most well-known prospectors is Scotty Purdon: who owns the Silver Spoon Mine, "the famous bonanza," which is a well-kept secret and only Purdon knows its exact location. But, one day, Purdon fails to return from one of his regular mining expeditions and the person who is held responsible is the owner of the Wylie Lode.

Before he came to Mirabello, Buck Wylie served a prison term of six months for "killing a man in a gunfight over a mine in Tyuio," but the old gunslinger settled down to honest life when he found riches in the Wylie Lode. However, when Purdon's spacecraft was found in free space, "empty and drifting," a demolition bomb with a time-fuse was recovered from the vessel, which had a score of identifying marks tracing the explosive back to Buck. The bomb is a good example of the discrepancy between certain bits of technology in this book: the explosive was found on a futuristic spacecraft that could traverse the asteroid belt, but the fuse of the bomb needs to be lighted like a stick of dynamite.

In any case, Buck is hauled in front of a judge to be indicted for murder and the shadow of public suspicion came with a powerful enemy: John Murchison is a personal fiend of Purdon and the publisher of the local newspaper, The Mirabello City Twin-Sun, which he has uses a platform to form public opinion against the accused. So Buck's beautiful sister, Sue Wylie, engages Mr. Terwilliger Ames, Attorney at Law, to defend her brother.

Terwilliger Ames came to the small mining planet from New York, but he soon comes to the realization that colonial space law is differs from regular law. One of them is that they don't "necessarily need the production of a dead body to indict and convict for murder." After all, the act of murder "is a simple crime when millions of miles of free space surrounds one" and a body can be disposed of "in any one of a dozen convenient hiding places in space" – which makes it hard to insist on a corpus delicti in every instance. Unfortunately, this interesting legal problem that space exploration and settlement brings with it is never fully explored and the body is exactly where it is expected to be. And this hidden location is eventually found by examining the fuel use and distance traveled by the spacecraft. I'm afraid that's all of the significant detective work done in this book. It's literary the furthest the plot got from moving beyond the set premise.

There is not much else of interest happening in this book: Ames runs into some snags, get shots at with a ray-gun, gets fired, faces possible legal repercussions and hears of a second murder, but everything slightly promising is dumped by wayside as soon as they're introduced into the story. Well, I guess Ames' excursion and adventure inside the asteroid belt resulted in one or two decent scenes, but was obviously done to give the story a Western flavor and show, once again, the hand of the painfully obvious murderer – who had already been confirmed guilty by the halfway mark.

The final portion of the book is an overlong, drawn-out courtroom scene, in which Ames, once again, goes over all the known facts in the case and lays a (simplistic) trap for the murderer based on a futuristic detection-device – which will provide the reader with a final groan. You'll know why when you read this one for yourself.

If I would put it nicely, I would say Murder in Space under performed in every possible way imaginable, but, to put it bluntly, the story is atrociously bad and poorly imagined. The plot is painfully obvious and drawn-out. Its vision of the future is poverty stricken and never went beyond the basics of rocket ships and ray-guns. Not a single reason is given to care about any of the characters. Honestly, the single genuine accomplishment of Murder in Space is that it can be mentioned in the same breath as Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942) and John Russell Fearn's The Master Must Die (1953) and The Lonely Astronomer (1954) as precursors to Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957). That and the fact that the book has made me want to revisit Cowboy Bebop. So that's positive, I guess.

Well, let's end this review on a semi-positive note by pointing out two recent reviews: the reason for lifting Murder in Space from my TBR-pile was a recent review by John Norris of The Bloody Moonlight (1949) by Fredric Brown – a much beloved writer of both detective stories and science-fiction. Secondly, I previously reviewed The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972), which I enjoyed vastly more than the subject of this blog-post.

Finally, I hope to uncover something better for the next review. So stay tuned.

7/15/16

A Picture Paints a Thousand Words



"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together."
- Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972) is numbered eighteen in a prolific series of juvenile mystery-and adventure stories about a "trio of lads," who refer to themselves as The Three Investigators, which was written by the late Dennis Lynds – a decorated crime-writer and pen-for-hire who operated for this series under the num-de-plume of "William Arden."

Arden entered a surprisingly cerebral and complex tale into this series, which employed such traditional plot-devices as a hidden object puzzle, a locked room mystery and even a dying message!

The story begins when Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews accompany Uncle Titus, of the Jones Salvage Yard, on a business related trip to the old, largely empty home of Professor Carswell in Remuda Canyon on the outskirts of Rocky Beach, California. Professor Carswell rented out the old caretaker's cottage to make ends meet, but the last tenant, Joshua Cameron, suddenly passed away and never fully settled the bill. So the professor hopes to recuperate a few dollars by selling Cameron's meager, earthly possessions to Uncle Titus.

What they find is a collection of trifling, nickel-and-dime items such as an old-fashioned dress suit, paint supplies, a stuffed owl, a small statue of Venus and a pile of twenty canvases – all of them depicting the cottage from various distances and this gives the illusion of a shrinking house. Or is it really shrinking? In any case, it is the work of an amateur and as worthless as most of the stuff the reclusive artist left behind, but Jupe, Pete and Bob quickly come to the conclusion that "everyone is interest in him" now "that he's dead." After all, they witnessed a shadowy figure fleeing from the home of the professor and tried to chase it, but, pretty soon, they find themselves a client who has a personal tie to the poor man's legacy of the dead artist.

One afternoon, the Jones Salvage Yard receives an important visitor: a Countess and her debonair-looking estate manager, Mr. Armand Marechal. She identifies herself as the sister of the dead painter and wishes to buy back the personal belongings of her brother, but the boys discover that most of his stuff has already been resold – even the pile of canvases. So the Countess and Mr. Marechal task the trio of young sleuths to help them find all of the buyers, which they first attempt to do with something they call a Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup.

The Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup is a system in which each of the boys call five (outside) friends and ask them to keep their eyes peeled for something or someone, but not before each of them called five of their friends with the same request – which could, potentially, mobilize every kid in Rocky Beach and some as far as Los Angeles. In theory, it's pretty similar to the way in which Sherlock Holmes employed his Baker Street Irregulars (e.g. The Sign of Four, 1890), but, as can be seen in this book, the system is prone to error and liable to attract unwanted attention.

First of all, a misunderstanding in the message that was send out resulted in the yard being swarmed with children, but a misunderstanding in the communiqué they send out swarmed the salvage yard with children. It also caught the attention of two dubious characters: the first one is their long-time nemesis, "Skinny" Norris, who appears to be in possession of one of old Joshua Cameron's last works and wants to know what all the fuzz is about. The second person is a compatriot of mine, Mr. De Groot, who introduces himself as an art dealer from the Netherlands and shows a great deal of interest in the paintings, but he evidently has an ulterior motive as he places Jupe, Pete and Bob in some very tight spots – consisting of an escape from a hotel room and a flight from a subterranean tunnel.

Regardless of these obligatory spots of danger, the primary interest of the book lays in the intellectual challenges facing the teenagers. The first of these challenges consist of identifying what Joshua Cameron possessed that was so valuable to everyone and finding the place where he has hidden this coveted treasure, which directly ties-in to the angle of the dying message. On his deathbed, Cameron rambled deliriously about "zig when zag" and "wrong to zigzag," which proofs to be the key to a large chunk of the mystery. But there's also a locked room mystery introduced at the halfway mark of the story.

Over the course of their investigation, Jupe, Pete and Bob come across a local artist, Mr. Maxwell James, who has a peculiar problem of his own: an apparently haunted studio!

During the last few days, James found, upon his return to his studio in the morning, that "paintings had moved during the night" and "other objects were out of place," but there's only one problem: at night the studio resembles an impenetrable fortress. The studio is "a stone building" with "heavily barred windows and a massive iron door," which is equipped with a modern, burglar-proof lock – one that takes "an expert an hour to pick" and "there are no marks on it." The skylight did not open and the floor itself was of solid stone. Shortly put, the place is "a simple, solid, fortress-like room" with a single door as an entrance and exit. So how's it possible things got moved around in a locked studio?

Well, in order to find an answer to this seemingly impossible question, one of them, namely Pete, stays behind in the studio, hidden away in a supply closet, while the others lay in wake outside of the building. And this makes for a very interesting scene for more than one reason. Pete is crammed inside the small, hot and stuffy cupboard and he realizes, too late, that the heat is filling his cubbyhole with fumes from the cans of paint thinners and solvents – which made his head feel very light and he could not stop himself from dozing off. When he regained consciousness, he was not even sure whether he was actually awake or still asleep. It was as if "his mind seemed to swim in a thick haze" and the intruder appeared to him as an eerie, floating shape in a moonlit glow. Like an actual ghost.

So, yeah, I guess you can say Pete was unintentionally enjoying one of the recreational sub-cultures of the 1970s.

Anyway, the explanation for the mystery of the movement in the locked studio is fairly easy, but, combined with the other plot-threads, it was pretty satisfying and added to the overall quality of the novel.

The Mystery of the Shrinking House provides a surprisingly rich and intricate tapestry of plot-threads, which range from the (hidden) secret of the dead painter and his cryptic last words to the driving motive of all the characters and a small locked room problem as the cherry on top – which results in a really involved and complicated plot. Once again, I was pleasantly surprise to find such a plot in a series of detective stories targeting younger readers. One of the three best I have read from this series thus far! 

On a final, semi-related note: as a huge fan of Detective Conan, I found this page with illustrations from the Japanese editions of The Three Investigators to be both interesting and funny. The ones from The Mystery of the Fiery Eyes (1967) makes it look as if the series was a combination of Detective Conan and The Kindaichi Case Files.

Other books reviewed in this series: The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966), The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), The Mystery of the Moaning Cave (1968), The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972), The Secret of Phantom Lake (1973) and The Mystery of the Invisible Dog (1975).

7/13/16

A Prevision of Evil


"...it was a dead face. There was a tap, tap, tap on the window. And then I saw a face, a dead face, ghastly and grinning against the pane. I screamed and screamed... and they said there wasn't anything there!"
-
Mrs. Louise Leidner (Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia, 1936)
Last week, I read and reviewed The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929), which impressed me favorable enough to warrant an early return to Annie Haynes' novels, but the problem lay in picking one from a hand of promising looking titles – such as The Abbey Court Murder (1923) and The Bungalow Mystery (1923). Fortunately, the comment-section came to the rescue and recommended one that, up until then, had only been hovering in my peripheral.

The House in Charlton Crescent (1926) was suggested by Kate, who can be found blogging over at Cross Examining Crime, calling it one of Haynes' stronger mysteries where the puzzle-plot element is concerned. Quality-wise, it can definitely stand up to The Crime at Tattenham Corner. So let's take a look at the second of three books about her first series character, Detective-Inspector Furnival of Scotland Yard, which began with The Abbey Court Murder and ended with The Crow's Inn Tragedy (1927).

Lady Anne Daventry is the main cog in the wheel of the plot of The House in Charlton Crescent and she's known as a difficult, cantankerous old woman, but "life had not been kind to Lady Anne." At a very young age, she lost both of her parents and was betrayed by her first fiancé, which lead to an uneasy marriage to Square Daventry and there were only two points of light in her life – the birth of her two sons. But then the First World War began to rage across Western Europe and they both perished "fighting for England and freedom."

On top of all that, Lady Anne's health began to deteriorate and chronic rheumatism made her home-bound, which turned her into "a distinctly cross and unpleasant old lady." However, the well drawn character-sketch of Lady Anne leaves room for some compassion and sympathy, because you can understand that someone with her back story would become "snappy and irritable" during the twilight years of her life.

If losing her only children and a permanent stiffness of the limbs was not enough to make her crabby and crotchety, she now has a good reason to believe someone has marked her down for extermination!

This unknown person doctored her pills, which her chemist found to contain enough hyoscine "to kill ten women," and poisoned her late-night milk, but Lady Anne wants to prevent a public scandal and engages the services of a private investigation firm – which brings Bruce Cardyn to her home. Cardyn is a junior partner in a respected firm and enters Lady Anne's household under the guise of her new secretary, but even he, as a complete outsider, appears to possess ulterior motives for being there.

On paper, there are more than enough suspects living or hovering about the place in Charlton Crescent: there are two nieces, Maureen and Dorothy Fyvert. The former is a mischievous, troublesome schoolgirl of twelve and the later is a young woman of twenty who was once dragged from a burning building by Cardyn. But now she is, sort of, engaged to John Daventry. He is the nephew of Lady Anne's late husband and succeeded to the estate when his two cousins died during the war. A recent addition to the household is Margaret Balmaine, the granddaughter from Lady Anne's husband’s first marriage, who recently turned up out of nowhere from Australia – which is a nice variation on the time-worn trope of the long-lost uncle from down under.

Well, this cast of potential suspects is further augmented by the servants: a loyal butler, named Soames, a pair of maids and the recently fired secretary, David Branksome, who still floats around in the background.

Cardyn took his place in Lady Anne's household, acting as her new secretary, while trying to figure out who tampered with the pill box and how to prevent this from happening again in the future, but he seems to be unable to keep the police out of the house – as a rope of pearls, worth several thousands of pounds, has disappeared from a hidden desk drawer. Detective-Inspector Furnival is called upon to investigate, but a crime of an entirely different nature requires his attention when he arrives at the place.

A large chunk of the household had gathered round the fire in the sitting-room for tea and hot cakes, but this cozy image is disturbed by two events: the first is that of an appearance of "a chalk-white face," outside of the window, "so close to the pane that it seemed to be pressing against it" with "a kind of vague, intangible mist round it." Secondly, one of the people who were present appears to have used this distraction to plunge a dagger in the chest of Lady Anne!

Detective-Inspector Furnival has his work cut-out for him and not only has he to figure out who used this very narrow window of opportunity to commit murder, but also who engineered the appearance of the ghostly face on the outside and this relates to a singular pair of footmarks – which were found in the flower border below the window. But there's also the theft of the pearls to consider and the witness testimony of a shopkeeper who swears it was Lady Anne who offered them up for sale. Or whether the person who wielded the dagger was the same as the person who attempted murder by poison. There are also additional complications when one of the family members goes missing, the secret of Cardyn and whispers of a mysterious Cat Burglar.

All of this makes The House in Charlton Crescent a busy, bubbling and brewing detective story, which has none of the pesky shortcomings that marred some of Hayes' other mystery novels. Such as loose, unexplained plot-threads (Who Killed Charmian Karslake, 1929), convenient, last minute confessions (The Crime at Tattenham Corner) or clues that were withheld or overlooked (The Crystal Beads Murder, 1930). It made for her most soundly plotted detective stories to date.

However, I have to nitpick about one thing: the ghostly face by the window and the manner in which the murder was committed has been compared to Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) and Cards on the Table (1936) by Agatha Christie, but Haynes did not deliver the Christie-like rug-puller of a revelation that the splendid premise deserved. As a matter of fact, the eventual revelation of the murderer's identity and motivation was actually pretty mundane and a bit of a let down, which is why I place The Crime at Tattenham Corner slightly above this (in spite of the convenient, last-minute confession), because it had an overall more original conclusion.

Otherwise, The House on Charlton Crescent is a well-written detective story with good characterization and a pleasantly busy plot, which only lacked that extra pinch of ingenuity that would have elevated the book to a different league.  

7/10/16

The Voice of Reason

"Our lives are drawing towards eventide and old faces and old scenes are gone forever. And yet, as I lean back in my chair and close my eyes, for a while the past rises up to obscure the present and I see before me the yellow fogs of Baker Street and I hear once more the voice of the best and wisest man whom I have ever known: 'Come, Watson, the game's afoot.'"
- Dr. John H. Watson (John Dickson Carr and Adrian Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Red Widow," from The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, 1954) 
The 1930-and 40s are generally considered to be the glory years of the detective story, but what's often overlooked is that the genre prospered around the same time as radio dramas experienced their golden age and detective stories thrived as much on the airwaves as they did on the printed page – reaching an audience of millions of listeners.

During that time, there was a wide variety of crime shows to be found across the radio dial. Radio shows such as Suspense, Murder by Experts, Cabin B-13 and The Inner Sanctum offered episodic, standalone stories, but there was also a whole slew of recognizable sleuths who got their own regular program. These shows included The Adventures of Ellery Queen, Philo Vance, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, Casey, Crime Photographer and The Adventures of Sam Spade.

You probably noticed I omitted one very well-known and recognizable name from that short overview, but rest assured, I had not forgotten about the immortal Sherlock Holmes and the indispensable Dr. Watson. Who could forget about them?

The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was one of the popular radio shows of the day, which ran from 1939 to 1947, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson – cementing a place for itself in the Holmes fandom. But enthusiasts of classic mysteries also remember the show, because the series was co-written by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green. Both men collaborated on another popular show, The Casebook of Gregory Hood, and Boucher himself was a very respected as both a mystery novelist and reviewer. 

During the late 1980s-and early 90s, the series experienced a brief resurgence when a whole slew episodes were released on cassette tape and these eventually numbered twenty-six volumes in total. However, the object of interest of this blog-post is the book spawned by this project, The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1989), which consists of about a dozen short stories adapted from the original radio-plays by Boucher and Green.

Ken Greenwald is the author of the book and the introduction goes over how this collection of short stories came into being, which stretched all the way back to when he was ten years old, "tucked safely in bed with the lights out," listening to the show on a small radio next to his bed and these childhood memories came back in the late 1980s – when, as one of the archivists for a radio museum, he "learned of a long run of missing Sherlock Holmes radio shows from 1945." This lead to the episodes being released and his colleagues came to him with the suggestion of writing a book based on radio-plays, which was grateful task and the end result is a charming homage to the work of Boucher, Green, Rathbone and Bruce.

As Greenwald stresses, The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is not a close imitation of the writing by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but instead tried "to be true to the writings of Green and Boucher" and utilize as much of their material as possible – which seems to have succeeded at. He also emphasizes that he adapted these stories with the original (voice) actors in mind and asks the reader to "think of Rathbone and Bruce in the roles of the great detective and his companion."

So now that we got that out of the way, lets take these stories down from the top and I'll try to keep it as brief as possible. I'm painfully aware that the size reviews of short story collection tend to resemble a bloated canal corpse.

The opening story, "The Adventure of the Second Generation," takes place after Sherlock Holmes retired to the countryside and dedicated all of his attention to tending his bees, but an extended visit from his old friend, Dr. Watson, coincided with a plea for help from the daughter of Irene Adler – who finds herself in the clutches of a blackmailer. She is being blackmailed by Holmes' awful neighbor, Mr. Litton-Stanley, who has "some rather indiscreet letters" in his possession and expects a small fortune for their return, but Holmes and Watson encounter a snag when they try to retrieve them. There's also a nifty twist towards the ending that I actually foresaw. A charming little story. 

The second story, "The Adventure of the April Fool's Adventure," occurred not long after the first meeting between Holmes and Watson, which makes the latter slightly uncomfortable when a friend, James Murphy, draws him in a conspiracy with the objective of pulling a prank on the promising detective. Lady Ann is going to call on Holmes and ask him to help her find the famous Elfenstone Emerald. Apparently, the stone was lifted from her wall safe and the joke is that all of the planted clues identify Holmes as the thief, but, after they all had a laugh at his expense, the stone vanishes for real – and he has to figure out who used the prank as a cover for the theft. You can probably guess the hiding place for the stone, but the real surprise is the secret identity of the thief.

I'm afraid I didn’t care for the third story, "The Case of the Amateur Mendicants," in which Watson is called upon by a woman, "dressed in rags and tatters," who, in a surprisingly cultured voice, assures she came on "a matter of life and death." So he allows her to bring him to a luxuriously furnished basement, strangely filled with dirty looking beggars, where he's shown a dead man with a broken neck. However, the people there are opposed to his presence and he quickly takes his leave, but, alongside Holmes, returns to that basement and uncovers a dark conspiracy that could endanger the whole of England. A story with an interesting premise, but I was impressed with the resolution of the plot.

Luckily, the fourth entry, "The Adventure of the Out-of-Date Murder," turned out to be one of my favorite stories from this collection. Holmes has been overworking himself and Watson senses "an attack of nerves and total breakdown approaching," which makes him decide to pull his friend out of his private laboratory for a holiday in Eastbourne. Both men decide to meet up with an old acquaintance, Professor Whitnell, who recently garnered fame with the discovery of a network of underground caverns – saturated with "a heavy deposit of lime" that have "the property of rapidly mummifying any flesh," human or animal, "deposited in them." What they find in them pertains to several men who went missing in the area over the past two-or three hundred years. I love archeological mysteries and this story should have been adapted for the Jeremy Brett TV-series.

The next story, "The Case of the Demon Barber," has a theatrical background and concerns a well-known actor, Mark Humphries, who is playing the lead role in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but now fears the personality of Sweeney Todd has taken possession of his subconscious. Several times, he has woken up to find that his boots were caked with mud and his razorblade stained with blood. A good and tantalizing premise, but the attraction of the plot is mainly derived from using the tale of Sweeney Todd as a template and Holmes taking over the role from Humphries – after he apparently committed suicide in his dressing room. 

In "Murder Beyond the Mountains," Holmes finally tells Watson about one of his many adventures in Tibet, which read like one of Glyn Carr's mountaineering mysteries as perceived by Robert van Gulik

Holmes is braving the harsh conditions of the Tibetan mountains, as Olaf Sigerson, in the hope of getting permission at the monastery of Puncha-Pushpah to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa, but his traveling party and equipment gets obliterated in an avalanche – wandering delirious in the white, desolate mountains of Tibet. Luckily, he's saved by an American missionary, Miss Farley, who travels with him to the monastery and they're joined by a Russian envoy, Borodin. All of them seek permission to enter the forbidden city, but the Chinese emissary, Wah-tzun, refuses to give permission. So, before long, Holmes has to investigate the murder of the emissary, which is a relatively simple affair. The main strength here definitely lies in the backdrop of the story.

The following story, "The Case of the Uneasy Easy Chair," provides the collection with its first or three (borderline) impossible crime stories, which is brought to Holmes and Watson by a young woman, Miss Harriet Irvin. Her father, Sir Edward Irvin, was stabbed to death in his study and "the only entrance to the study through an anteroom," but that room was occupied by his secretary, Robert Binyon, who "swore that no one had entered or left the study." The problem is that Sir Edward was strongly opposed to the blossoming love between his daughter and secretary, which provided the young man with both a motive and opportunity. So the police arrested him on suspicion of murder. Well, the how-aspect of the crime is easily solved, but whodunit-angle had a small surprise that showed even Holmes was prone to misjudging a situation.

Initially, I really wanted to like the next story, "The Case of the Baconian Cipher," but ended up not caring for it. Holmes is engaged in a discussion with a French colleague and friendly rival, Francois la Villard, who asserts that "the English criminal is a very dull dog" and in order to prove him wrong Holmes introduces him to The Agony Column – which is "liable to contain anything from a lover’s frantic appeal" to "a ransom note." Immediately, they find a coded message that could be a call for help and this lead them to a house where a wheel chair bound man might be in mortal danger. But the only interesting aspect of the plot is Mycroft Holmes' off-page cameo and how this affected the events in the story.

The next story, "The Case of the Headless Monk," is a very atmospheric, Carrian tale that offered a borderline impossible crime to Holmes and Watson. A restless Holmes and Watson are bound to their rooms in Baker Street by a thick, impenetrable mist that drowned the city of London for the better part of a week, but rescue came when they received a visit from Mortimer Harley – a specialist in the supernatural. Harley has been presented with a rare opportunity to investigate one of Cornwall's legendary ghosts, the Headless Monk of Trevenice Chapel, which has recently become very active again. The specialist of the supernatural wants to know whether the phenomena is genuine or driven by human agency, in which case it's a problem for someone like Holmes.

Holmes and Watson gratefully accept this unusual invitation to escape from foggy London and accompany him to Cornwall, but they are unable to prevent a deadly stabbing in the disused and closely watched chapel. However, the explanation for the semi-impossible circumstances of the murder will be considered a cheat by many readers, but, technically, the witness did not lie. I still kind of liked the story. But, yes, I recognize that these type of plots have been done better and far more competent than this. So keep that mind when you read it for yourself.

The plot of "The Case of the Camberwell Poisoners" began as a classic tontine-scheme: Edmund Lovelace comes to Baker Street to ask Holmes if wants to save four lives. Lovelace lives with four cousins in an old house in Camberwall, which was left to them by their grandfather, but the place and a sizable fortune came to them under the sole condition that they "live together and maintain the family unit" – everything will eventually go to the last surviving cousin. The problem arose with his cousin Gerald, administrator of the estate, who was found to be in possession of cyanide-filled syringe, but upon their arrival in Camberwall it becomes apparent that the story was going to be one of human interest. One with a rather obvious explanation. But not too bad of a story.

The next story, "The Adventure of the Iron Box," is a fine and fun yarn, which is definitely one of the highlights from this collection. An old friend, Sir Walter Dunbar, invites Dr. Watson to spend the New Year's Eve at Dunbar Castle in Scotland. Of course, Holmes accompanies him there. Sir Walter has a very special reason for inviting his friend and personal chronicler of Europe's most celebrated detective. The late father of the current lair of the castle, Sir Thomas Dunbar, returned severely wounded from the battle of Waterloo and left his unborn child an iron box filled with gold, but there was a condition attached to this legacy: the box was to be given to his son on New Year's Eve before his twenty-first birthday.

There is, however, one snag that Sir Thomas did not foresee on his deathbed: his son was born on February 29th, which made him a "leapling" and therefore had to wait for over eight decades before to finally come into his inheritance. Unfortunately, Holmes has to play the specter at the feast and informs everyone that, due to a technicality, 1900 is not going to be a leap year. So the old Lord has to wait another four years. As to be expected, this casts a shadow over the proceedings and leads to the unsettling discovery that Sir Walter has disappeared. It's a very Ellery Queen-ish story (c.f. "The Mad Tea Party" from The Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1933) and another example of a plot that would have lent itself perfectly for a television adaptation.

The next story, "The Case of the Girl with the Gazelle," is the last of the three locked room stories from this collection, which has the ominous presence of Moriarty hanging over the case of a stolen painting. In the opening of the story, the reader is informed that illustrious Napoleon of Crime has particular love for the paintings of Jean Baptiste Greuze and his hand is clearly at work when an authority on the work of that famous painter vanishes from his hotel room in London – which puts Holmes and Watson on the trail of recently purchased work by Greuze. Sir Henry Davenant paid a small fortune for the titular painting and has safely stored away in a small, steel-walled strong room equipped with a combination-and time lock, but, somehow, someone managed to switch the real painting for a fake.

The explanation for the theft from the secured strong room is almost disappointingly simple, but it is very workable and its simplicity nearly fooled Holmes. As a result, this nearly ended in a tie between Holmes and Moriarty, but I think round should go to Holmes – because he prevented the theft of the painting. All in all, a pretty nice and fun little story.

Finally, "The Adventure of the Notorious Canary Trainer" began as a messy story as Holmes and Watson, during a holiday, are confronted with a young woman who's being stalked by a man she is trying to escape from, but this man turns out to be attached to the Foreign Office and knows Mycroft Holmes. A second plot-strand involves Wilson, the notorious canary trainer, who Holmes had sent to prison in 1895, but he escaped and since then he has apparently assumed the identity of a Mr. Wilson. However, when he notices Holmes he confesses to a murder at the inn and commits suicide in front of Holmes and Watson, but nobody is aware anyone had died at the inn. Let alone murdered. Here the plot begins to become a bit clearer and the suicide of Wilson proves to be a cleverly disguised story. So a decent story to round out this collection.

I should also note that Watson meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this story and Holmes reveals he has collaborated with Dr. John Thorndyke in R. Austin Freeman's The Red Thumbmark (1907), which was a nice touch and nod.

So, all in all, a nice and pleasant collection of short stories, which may not be overflowing with stone-cold classics, but a fun bundle of stories nonetheless and that's coming from someone who usually hates (Holmesian) pastiches. I'm often annoyed at the liberties some writers take with someone else's creation, but this was an obvious labor of love and that makes every minor inconsistency in the characters or canon somewhat easier to forgive. Anyhow, recommended to everyone who loves Sherlock Holmes and Basil Rathbone's interpretation of the famous detective.

Well, I completely failed to keep this review as short as possible. Oh well. I just hope this blog-post was not too much of a mess and I'll try to keep somewhat shorter for the next post.