1/24/23

The Hanging Captain (1932) by Henry Wade

So it must be admitted that January has been pretty average so far, quality-wise, having discussed two of Paul Doherty's e-novellas of differing grades, a trio of so-called transitional mysteries from the late 1950s and a compilation of six uncollected short impossible crime stories – of which only two were of good quality. Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed vol. 84 mainly occupied itself with setting up the payoff to several character-arcs in the ongoing storyline in vol. 85. I decided to return to the genre's Golden Age with one of its great, early luminaries.

Major Sir Henry Lancelot Aubrey-Fletcher, English baronet and writer, served in two World

Wars and held the positions of High Sheriff and Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire during peacetime. The 6th baronet made his greatest contribution to his country when he began writing detective novels and short stories under the name "Henry Wade." Between 1926 and 1957, Wade penned twenty-three novels and short story collection with half of them featuring his series-character, Inspector John Poole. Wade's work is generally highly regarded, "varied in plot and situation" with "a wide, first-hand knowledge of police procedure," which No Friendly Drop (1931), Constable, Guard Thyself! (1934) and Heir Presumptive (1935) can attest to. So why not pick up this month's slack with a novel that was recommended to me as a superb example of Wade's detective fiction? Sure enough, Wade delivered the best detective story (so far) of the month.

The Hanging Captain (1932) is Wade's sixth detective novel and largely takes place at the ancestral home of Captain Herbert Sterron, Ferris Court, which "had been in the family for no fewer than four hundred years." Captain Sterron inherited the estate when he was a young, dashing and rich Dragoon captain whose successful military career allowed him to capture "beautiful Griselda Hewth in the height of her first, victorious London season" – "sweeping her away from under the guns of rival dukes and diamond merchants." So the future was looking bright for the Sterrons, but then he suddenly resigned his commission and buried himself with his wife at his remote country home. There were plenty of rumors ranging from ill-health, money problem and domestic quarrels. Whatever the reason, Griselda stayed put, "on principle rather than by inclination," even throughout the war when Captain Sterron was deemed unfit for active service and spent the war at remount depot on the French coast.

Gerald Sterron, a retired Shanghai merchant, returned to the England, he found his older brother "utterly changed from the care-free, high-spirited dragoon" and "the Tudor home of twelve generations of Sterrons" in a neglected state. Captain Sterron has made "a complete mess of things financially" with everything tied-up in mortgages and "there's no money to keep things up."

The lingering memory of the First World War (Constable, Guard Thyself!) and the decline of the British upper classes (No Friendly Drop) appear to be recurring themes in Wade's detective fiction. Both are present in the The Hanging Captain, but the war is only a background murmur here with the emphasis being on the decline of estates like Ferris Court ("...what with death duties and the cost of keeping the place up"). Not exactly in a nostalgic way that you might expect from a baronet in the 1930s. To quote Martin Edwards from his 2013 review of The Hanging Captain, Wade was "an aristocrat himself, but although his writing often had a touch of nostalgia, plus a strong respect for tradition, he had no time for people who squandered the advantages life gave them" at "a time when things were tough for millions." So the subject is handled in an unvarnished, matter-of-factually way and provides a double-edged motive when Captain Sterron is found hanging from a curtain rod in his study. Suicide looks obvious, but Superintendent Dawle, of the Hylam Police, keeps an open mind as he observes plenty of possible clues and potential motives suggesting he might have a murder on his hands. Firstly, their next door neighbor and High Sheriff of the county, Sir Carle Venning, has been very intimate with Griselda and that angered her husband – swearing to his brother he'll "break him without touching him." Secondly, Gerald Sterron inherits the family estate, which even in 1932 still counted as a pretty solid motive. However, it's another house guest, Sir James Hamsted, who definitively proves his host had been cleverly murdered during a very well written inquest scene. That discovery poses a problem to the local authorities.

The Chief Constable, Major Threngood, does not relish the thought of having to interrogate the High Sheriff and prefers a hush-hush policy, before deciding to call in Scotland Yard to crack that hard, politically sensitive nut. So the story suddenly begins to indulge in a surprisingly rare, baffling under utilized trope, rivaling detectives, but it's not Inspector John Poole who arrives in Hylam. It's his slightly older rival, Detective-Inspector Lott, who previously appeared in The Dying Alderman (1930) and is expected to one day run neck-to-neck with Poole to the post of a Chief-Inspectorship. And the city detective proved to be a perfect foil for the provincial superintendent.

Detective-Inspector Lott "sedulously cultivated the appearance both of youth and clerkliness" and "with his well-cared-for clothes and the golden chain to his pince-nez would have passed anywhere for the holder of some well-paid clerical post in a Government office." Lott has an exceptional record at the Yard as one successfully closed case followed another. A striking contrast to the plodding and methodical Superintendent Dawle who embodies all the qualities of good, efficient British policing ("there was no brainwork in it, only care, thoroughness and method"). I really liked how they played off each other! Lott comes to Hylam with some preconceived notions as his "experience with county constabularies had led him to expect a fair amount of stupidity," but eventually has to admit to himself that Dawle is "an unselfish old cuss" and "not half such a fool as he looked." Wade deserves praise for giving them only two, equally likely suspects, namely Gerald Sterron and Sir Carle Venning, to investigate and they present a very similar problem – a pair of seemingly unbreakable, cast-iron alibis. Gerald Sterron was playing chess with Sir James Hamsted in the library and Sir Carle was in Birmingham attending a theatrical play, which made it impossible for him "to have been at Ferris at the time that the murder had been committed." So while Dawle goes to work on the chess alibi, Lott tackles the theatrical alibi.

And having only two suspects works better than some might assume. I instinctively jumped on one of them, which immediately made me pause to consider the second option and that's where the story got me. For some time, anyway, but eventually pieced most of it together except for some of the finer details. But what a fun, clever little detective story! Not an Agatha Christie-style rug-pull, of course, but a good how-was-it-done puzzle The only thing that could have made the story and plot even better is if Sir James Hamsted had played armchair detective by proposing a false-solution implicating a third, previously unsuspected person. It would have made for a much more engaging and interesting way to tackle the sub-plot concerning Father Speyd's secret as well as preventing the slackening of the story's pacing during its second-half.

But beside that minor point, The Hanging Captain is a good, solid piece of Golden Age detective fiction, plot-wise, ranking only slightly below Wade's excellent No Friendly Drop and Constable, Guard Thyself. The story earned some bonus points in my book as a superb example of what can be done with two very different, but equally skilled, rivaling detectives. Highly recommended!

1/21/23

More Than Zero: Case Closed, vol. 84 by Gosho Aoyama

Gosho Aoyama's 84th volume of Case Closed (Detective Conan) traditionally begins with the concluding chapters to the case that closed out the previous volume, a prequel story, which takes place before Jimmy Kudo became Conan Edogawa during a trip to the aquarium – where someone predictably got killed. A man is stabbed to death in the aquarium tunnel and some detective work, amateur and professional, whittles down the crowd of potential suspects down to three: the victim's current girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend and her current boyfriend. There's just one problem. All three suspects possess waterproof alibis as all three were shooting a video on their smartphones. 

Case Closed began serialization in 1994 and tried to keep pace with the changing times. Just think how much the world changed between 1994, 2004 and 2014, which is when this volume was originally published in Japan. So the series deserve applause for always trying to come up with ways to apply modern technology to the classically-styled detective stories and a really fine example is the elevator case from vol. 79. A story that uses modern-day technology to straight up warp people's perception of reality with the only drawback being that the execution of the trick was a little rough around the edges. Some can be said of this prequel story. The smartphone alibi is perfectly fine in theory, but strains credulity in practice as it requires very specific, even contrived circumstances to work. A second problem is that the presence of 2014 smartphones look really weird in a prequel story from a series that began in 1994. I know only about a year has passed, in-universe, but this story clashes with earlier stories featuring '90s fax machines and '00s flip phones.

This observation comes with the benefit of hindsight, but it might have been better had Aoyama frozen the series, culturally and technological, somewhere between '94 and '04. It would have come at the cost of most of these innovative, tech-based detective stories. However, placing the series in a clearly defined period of time would have improved continuity and the reader's perception of time passed, because it feels like nearly two decades past instead of merely a year. And, as the next few stories demonstrate, continuity is the foundation of Case Closed.

The second story has Conan and the Junior Detective League participating in a kite-flying competition, which becomes the scene of a nearly fatal accident when one of the kite-fliers nearly drowned in the river. Ryota Renno was holding his kite, while taking walking backwards, but the guard rope behind him was broken and tumbled backwards – suggesting nothing more than a simple accident. Conan astutely observes that the guard rope only looks like it had snapped a long time ago. Somebody lured him into the river and there are three potential suspects, but none of them was anywhere near him. So how could they have impelled him to walk into the river? The trick has all "the cleverness of a child" and the comic book format helped make the clueing a whole fairer than it would have been otherwise, but resolving the problem can also be filed away under "contrived circumstances." A fairly minor and average story.

Unfortunately, the third and weakest story of the collection can, plot-wise, also be described as contrived, but the plot plays second fiddle to the main, ongoing storyline that begins to take precedent as the build towards vol. 85 begins. More about that in a minute. Conan, Rachel and Richard Moore visit Eva Kaden, who had her appendix removed, in the hospital when someone gets poisoned under quasi-impossible circumstances. Three women were cheering up a hospitalized friend with an impromptu tea party, but one cup of tea contained poison and the obvious answer is that the murderer, in an unguarded moment, swapped the victim's teacup with a poisoned one. However, they were all drinking differently flavored and colored teas ("one's brown, one's blue and one's yellow") with the victim's "was drinking a red blend" with a slice of lemon in it. Normally, this series is quite good at poisonous puzzles, but this case is not one of them. However, Conan has something else on his mind as Toru Amuro turns up at the hospital to ask questions about events from the novel-length vol. 58.

The fourth and final case follows the pattern of the previous story, but with even more familiar faces turning up. A schoolteacher is viciously attacked and left for dead in a public park, clumsily disguised as an accident, but the victim had a direct connection to the two FBI agents, Jodie Sterling and Andre Camel – who had engaged Amuro as a private investigator "because she was being victimized by a stalker." So, while they try to figure out whether the culprit is a stalking colleague or a disgruntled parent, Conan also attempts to probe Amuro's true intentions. Sometimes even the best detectives can be surprised at the answers they get ("I think you're a bit mistaken about me"). The case of whom attacked the teacher is descent enough, but all of the interest here went to the ongoing storyline and setting up the next volume. Another long, volume spanning story tidying up several story-arcs that have fueled the series ever since vol. 58. I very much look forward to the pay-off!

Admittedly, I expected a little more from this volume with the individual cases turning out to be mostly average and without the red-threads, of the main story-arcs, it would have been a pretty poor volume overall. So all its strength is in building towards that big story and getting a taste of things to come. I eagerly look forward to the pay-off!

1/17/23

Death by Marriage (1959) by E.G. Cousins

There's not much to be found online about Edmund George Cousins except that he was born in Tientsin, China, but "moved to England at an early age" and likely had a brief stint as a scriptwriter as a "E.G. Cousins" is credited with writing the script for a TV movie, I Done a Murder (1951) – a comedy mystery in which a murderer tries to confess and nobody wants to hear it. A second and last writing credit is for a 1956 episode of the drama anthology series Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Presents, entitled "Welcome My Wife," but the biggest online footprint came from his two-decade career as a novelist. 

Between 1950 and 1967, E.G. Cousins wrote eleven, standalone war novels and six mysteries starring his series-detective, Colonel Richard Barne of the War Office. The series was published from 1959 to 1967. Cousins appears to have ended his writing career and disappeared from the public eye following the publication of the last Col. Barne novel, Death in a Quiet Place (1967). The last known fact about his life, or rather death, is that he passed away in 1996 at the venerable age of 103.

Cousins is practically forgotten today, as a mystery writer, even lacking his own author's page on websites like GADWiki and Fantastic Fiction. Nobody discusses or references his work, but, surprisingly, most of his novels are neither exceedingly rare or particularly expensive to acquire. Just completely forgotten and overlooked today. So how did I get wind of Cousins and the Col. Richard Barne series? Robert Adey listed one of his novels, Death by Marriage (1959), in Locked Room Murder (1991) and described a potential fascinating impossibility – death by drowning in a locked bathroom. It got added to the wishlist and recently came across a cheap copy. 

Death by Marriage was published at the tail-end of the Golden Age's twilight years and described in the synopsis as "not so much a who-dun-it (that is clear from the beginning) but a how-did-he-do-it." It's also the first of six novels featuring Col. Barne and Cousins introduces him under somewhat unusual circumstances, which recalled the unorthodox ways in which Gladys Mitchell (Speedy Death, 1929), Jonathan Latimer (Murder in the Madhouse, 1935) and Patrick Quentin (Puzzle for Fools, 1936) debuted their series-characters. Col. Barne is a soldier and "soldiers are supposed to be inured" to violent deaths, which is alright in wartime, but the colonel preferred people "to die tidily in their beds." So he was not entirely unaffected when reading in the newspaper that his ex-wife, Brenda, unexpectedly died at her home in, what appears to have been, a tragic accident. They had been married for six years when, one day, he returned from Malta to find "she'd hopped it with Jeremy Lammert." An "extraordinary good-looking chap" and proverbial lady killer.

Col. Barne and the Lammerts have two mutual friends, Dr. Horace "Horrors" Aveley ("specialized in D.T.s and alcoholism generally") and his wife Mollie ("indisputably one of the World's Sweetest"), who were at Great Monk when Brenda died. When they arrived, the Aveleys found Jeremy restlessly walking pacing up and down in agony. Brenda is in the bathroom and he had knocked, and called, but received no answer. They rattled the door the doorknob, but the door was obviously bolted on the inside and Horrors suggesting breaking a panel, which Jeremy turns down – offering instead to get a ladder to go through the bathroom window ("they always left the bathroom window a little open"). Jeremy climbed up the ladder first, found the window latched on the inside and put his elbow through it. Horrors followed behind and they found Brenda's body. She appeared to have slipped, bumped her head and drowned. Col. Barne decides to attend the inquest and Jeremy's performance on the witness stand convinces him there's more to Brenda's death than a mere accident.

These are the thoughts that run through his head and wanted to shout to the coroner, "your witness is a phoney and these whole proceedings are bogus. If that son-of-a-bitch wanted to stove the door in, why wouldn't he have done it with a few well-directed kicked at a lower panel" instead of leaving her to drown? And what about the so-called dizzy spells "even her doctor knew nothing about." Not to mention her lifelong habit of leaving the bathroom door unlocked. But he holds his tongue. A second, more detailed talk with Horrors shows just how impossible it would have been for Jeremy to have killed Brenda. The obvious and simplest solution suggesting itself is that Jeremy had simply walked into the bathroom, bolted the door behind and drowned a stunned Brenda. Jeremy then left through the bathroom window by climbing down a ladder placed there beforehand and later simply pretended the window was fastened on the inside, before smashing a pane and feigning to unfasten it. However, the situation is not as simple or straightforward as that. Jeremy suffered a shoulder wound during the war and could neither have gotten a hold nor carried the heavy ladder, which had been stowed away along the rafters of the garage. They had to stand on soapboxes to reach it and it brought "down a cloud of dust." So it hadn't been used in a very long time and took two people to "manhandle it round to the back." Jeremy was physically incapable of getting the heavy, dusty ladder and that left only a solidly bolted door ("a locked door is subject to skillful manipulation; a bolted one is not").

So the locked room-puzzle is build up perfectly, but Death by Marriage is not only about the how-did-he-do-it and not at all a continuation of similar, John Rhode-style howdunits. Just like the previously discussed Nigel FitzGerald, Cousins was a mystery writer caught in the middle of a transitional period as the genre (not completely natural) began to abandon the plot-driven detective stories in favor of character-driven crime, thriller and suspense novels. Death by Marriage gives the impression Cousins approach, to bridge that ever widening gap, was to take the bare essentials of both and tightly weave them together into a very lean, readable novel-length story. So you get a central puzzle (the locked room) with character-driven storytelling as the story takes place over a period of roughly a year. Col. Barne has serious doubts about Brenda's "death by misadventure," but without any strong evidence, he has plenty of other things requiring his attention. Such as going to Rome on a special assignment in connection with the distribution of NATO supplies, but, along the way, the reader gets more background details about Col. Barne, Brenda and Jeremy Lammert. Jeremy is slowly turning into a regular Bluebeard and his brides-in-the-bath routine.

What about the ending? Did it succeed in bridging the gap between the established, traditional detective story and the emerging, darker and character-driven crime fiction? Yes... and no. Firstly, the plot hinges entirely on the locked room murder and Cousins was smart enough to avoid the kind of sleight-of-hand trickery suggested in the story's opening stages, because how he build up the impossibility demanded an imaginative or original answer – which Cousins absolutely delivered on. Something straight out of Arthur Porges or John Russell Fearn, but good luck anticipating it as there's not a ghost of clue to the method employed. You can't really do that when billing your story as "a how-did-he-do-it." Secondly, the lack of fair play makes the misdirection after the halfway point baffling and pointless. Col. Barne is told by Horrors and Mollie that Jeremy's hobby is tinkering and repairing clocks. This immediately conjured up images of a mechanical, wind-up clock device shooting the bolt with a looped wire and then pulling itself into a small trash bin standing next to the washstand or something. The real solution is a little bit more sophisticated, but, once again, good luck figuring it out.

I'm left in two minds about Death by Marriage. If it had been a little fairer, Death by Marriage would have been an early, neo-GAD mystery trailing not all that far behind a Roger Ormerod (Time to Kill, 1974) or Douglas Clark (Golden Rain, 1980). But it was also his first stab at the detective story. I'm always very forgiving of debuts as some of our favorite mystery writers have shown what a little time to develop, hone their skills and build an audience can do. I'm curious to see if improved in novels like Death by Treble Chance (1959), Murder in the Top Drawer (1964) and Body Behind the Curtain (1966), but Death by Marriage can only be recommended to locked room completists or genre scholars interested in transition from the classic to modern style.

1/14/23

Locked and Loaded, Part 3: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories

A while ago, I cobbled together a pair of compilation posts, "Locked and Loaded, Part 1 and 2," which discussed a devil's dozen short locked room and impossible crime stories. All enticing sounding detective stories from my favorite subgenre, but somehow eluded being absorbed into the many, well-known locked room-themed anthologies published between Hans Santesson's The Locked Room Reader (1968) and Otto Penzler's Golden Age Locked Room Mysteries (2022). So, after nearly two years, it was time to do a third. 

Yeah, I'm well aware that after a nice period of some kind of variety, the locked rooms and impossible crimes have begun to dominate again, but the accumulated pile of locked room novels and short stories desperately needed trimming. So please be patient and you can at least look forward to a few reviews of some obscure items from Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).

 

Table of Content:

Charles G. Booth's "One Shot" (1925)

Margery Allingham's "The Unseen Door" (1945)

Margery Allingham's "Tall Story" (1954)

Morton Wolson's "The Glass Room" (1957)

Joseph Commings' "Nobody Loves a Fat Man" (1980)

L.A. Taylor's "Silly Putty" (1986)

 

Charles G. Booth's "One Shot" originally appeared in the June, 1925, issue of The Black Mask and reprinted in Otto Penzler's The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (2010). Peter Stoddard, "something of an authority on antiques," who received an offer from Nat Hammond to buy the Parsee Sunrise, "a jeweled symbol of the Parsee fire worshipers," which came with a twenty thousand dollar prize-tag. Curiously, the typewritten note had a pen-written postscript on the back reading, "don't buy the Parsee Sunrise—please." So, as a man of action, Stoddard is determined to keep the appointment, but, when he arrives at the house, he discovers Nat Hammond shot and killed inside his library – door and windows securely bolted from the inside. In fact, the whole house had been shuttered for the night. However, the solution is like a knife that cuts on both sides. It's a tremendous improvement on a very well-known, incredibly overrated, short story (ROT13: Zryivyyr Qnivffba Cbfg'f “Gur Qbbzqbes Zlfgrel”), but the solution also makes the story entirely irrelevant. You know what I mean when you read it. A curiosity instead of a genuine antique. 

Margery Allingham's short-short "The Unseen Door" was originally published in the August 5, 1945, edition of Sunday Empire News and recently reprinted in Martin Edward's anthology Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (2015). Superintendent Stanislaus Oates and Albert Campion are summoned to the Prinny's Club, Pall Mall, where the body of "the man who exposed William Merton," Robert Fenderson, was lying in the billiard room. Merton had ruined a thousand small speculators and had shouted threats, which made him an obvious suspect when he broke jail the previous night. Bowser, the doorkeeper, enjoys a perfect view from his box of the street door and swears "the only other living soul to cross the threshold was Chetty," the lame billiard marker. So how could the murderer have entered a club that had been largely closed and locked for cleaning with the only entrance under observation? The answer is as short and sweet as the story itself, befitting a detective story comprising of no more than three pages.  

In the next short story, Margery Allingham's "Tall Story," published in the April, 1954, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Divisional Detective Chief Inspector Charley Luke tells Albert Campion about the time he solved an impossible crime – which raised him from a humble constable to a member of the C.I.D. Many years ago, the police received information that 'Slacks' Washington had run out of money again and had been seen "taking sights round a little bookmaker's office in Ebury Court." So the police sets a trap that should corner Washington inside a cul-de-sac with "the stuff on him" to make "a nice clean open-and-shut case." But even the best-laid plans can go awry. A gunshot echoes from inside the trap and a dying man, who's not Washington, comes staggering out. Washington is found sitting on a packing case, casually smoking a cigarette, but not a penny of stolen money nor a smoking gun was found. Luke makes a staggering simple observation that solves the entire case and earned himself a promotion in the process. A good, simple and perfectly logical answer that fitted the circumstances. Allingham was a much better mystery writer in a short story form.  

Morton Wolson's "The Glass Room," originally appearing in the September, 1957, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, is a small and sparkling gem of the detective story parody! Deputy Inspector Anthony J. Quinn is sitting at his desk ranting and raving to a mystery writer ("cop haters") about all the nonsense he reads in detective stories. He has some choice words for our favorite mysteries. Such as his take on Ellery Queen, "as if I'd let my own son stick even the end joint of his pinky into a homicide without I'd chop it off" not "to mention it is absolutely impossible to beat trained cops." Quinn also dislikes locked room mysteries and sketches a scenario that actually sounds very enticing. A room that has been "empty and sealed for a hundred years, its windows warped shut, the bolted on the door rusted solid," but, when the room is broken open, they find "a freshly knifed corpse" – minus the knife and killer. Later they locate the knife with "traces of that guy's blood on its blade" inside "a locked museum case in a city a thousand miles away" where it had been laying "untouched for ten years." Quinn provides an answer to both locked room puzzles with the sealed museum case being actually pretty descent. A trick that would work even better today than in the 1950s. So, while venting his bile over detective stories, Quinn simultaneously directing a murder investigation from behind his desk. The victim had been shot and killed while all alone in a glass phone booth with the door shut. Quinn ends up doing exactly what he accuses all those fictitious sleuths of doing, sitting back on his ass and chessing out the case. A thoroughly entertaining parody that should be considered for future anthologies!  

Joseph Comming's short-short "Nobody Loves a Fat Man," originally published in the June, 1980, issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and has U.S. Senator Brooks U. Banner searching the home of a State Department official. Cicero Hill has a charge of espionage hanging over his head, but without tangible evidence to back up the accusations the case collapses. The evidence in question is "a strip of microfilm concealed inside a small plastic capsule about the size of a sleeping pill." However, the plastic pellet is nowhere to be found. Not anywhere in the house nor on (or inside) Cicero Hill. So where is it? A really short-short story and not the greatest or most challenging impossible problem Banner has been called on to explain, but the hiding place is admittedly very clever. Although one that's nigh impossible to anticipate.  

L.A. Taylor's "Silly Putty," first published in the May, 1986, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, attempts to modernize "the classic locked room of the mystery pulps." Inspector Percival Kalabash is investigating a burglary and theft of silverware from a house, but "every single door and window had been locked on the inside." Curiously, two days before the burglary, a kid had broken a window pane with a baseball and the owner called the Criminal Rehabilitation Center for a reformed handyman. But the handyman has an ironclad alibi. So how could he have done it? A well intended attempt at modernizing a classic, but the result is a very minor, half-decent and forgettable story.  

As to be expected from half a dozen, randomly picked short stories, the overall quality is a uneven, but not a truly bad one. Booth's "One Shot" is a curio, Taylor's "Silly Putty" is minor stuff and Allingham's "The Unseen Door" and Commings' "Nobody Loves a Fat Man" too short to stick with the reader, but Allingham's "Tall Story" and Worton's "The Glass Room" carried the day. A pair of excellent short stories with their own distinctly different takes on the locked room mystery. Now that I think about it, Worton's Inspector Quinn would probably like "Tall Story."

1/10/23

The Student Body (1958) by Nigel FitzGerald

In the previous blog-post, I looked at Nigel FitzGerald's second of only two impossible crime and locked room mystery novels, Suffer a Witch (1958), which confirmed my suspicion that his last novel, Affairs of Death (1967), constitutes the scraps left at the bottom of the barrel – ending his run as a mystery writer on a whimper. However, in spite of the book's shortcomings, it couldn't disguise FitzGerald was a polished writer with a verve for characterization and local color. Not to mention trace evidence suggesting FitzGerald might have been a pretty decent plotter during the earlier stages of his career. While the plot would have worked better as a short story or novella, Suffer a Witch confirmed all my suspicions. 

So wanted to take a closer look at FitzGerald's second locked room mystery, The Student Body (1958). The description of the impossibility in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) sounded absolutely intriguing and comments promising "an extremely lively" tale of murder and intrigue. Sure enough, The Student Body is an explosive mixture of the Cold War spy-thriller, college-set detective story and a quasi-inverted mystery with hints of the police procedural and comedy of errors. A very weird, but very well-done and strangely effective concoction. 

The Student Body largely takes place at Christchurch College, Dublin, which was founded in 1557 and "there is no record of murder having been committed within its precincts until the fourth centenary year of its existence." There are two students, Jer Milne and Don Carton, who had a hand in bringing murder to the respectable college.

Jer and Don go to a local restaurant to celebrate passing an exam with a few drinks and two young repertory actresses, Rona and Peggy. Some ten days previously, Rona and Peggy had been in London where they visited a famous church, but they arrived at the moment a Hungarian Baroness, "a political exile in Britain," was murdered right as the service was beginning – a knife-handle protruding from her back. Rona and Peggy witnessed a small, swarthy blue-eyed man hurrying from the church as he stripped dark gloves from his hands as he went. They now spotted that very same man sitting at the corner of the bar "placidly completing the crossword puzzle in the Irish Times and taking occasional sips from a glass of dry sherry." Don proposes to ask advice from Aidan "Radish" Roberts, literary editor of the Dublin Observer, who also happens to be at the bar. The long and short of the opening chapters is that they take the only logical and rational course of action anyone would take in their situation. They kidnap the man and take them to their college rooms to be questioned. 

The Student Body is a mystery-thriller of hot, young and alcohol fueled Irish blood operating under Murphy's Law. So everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Firstly, their room is entered by a small group of party crashers lead by the lecturer in English language and literature, Dermot Gray, who's accompanied by his sister, Mrs. Nuala Norden. George Kerry, inter-varsity heavyweight champion, who brought a keg of beer. Secondly, this distraction caused a cat-and-mouse game between the mysterious, possibly red assassin and the heroes in which they constantly turn the tables on each other. Thirdly, the scrap ends with the man being tied and is locked behind two doors with a bicycle padlock on it for good measure. As an extra precaution talcum powder is scattered thickly over the approaches to the door on the landing. When returning from having a good meal and drinks, they find the locks and talcum powder undisturbed, but their captive has the handle of knife sticking out of his back. So what to do, except cover everything up and dump the body. Something that proves easier said than done.

The trickiness with some locked room murders and impossible crimes is that the method can expose a murderer too soon, which is kind of the case here. The locked room-trick itself is sound enough, but everyone who has read a decent amount of detective fiction will figure it out in no time. Even if you happen to suck at figuring out these locked room puzzles, FitzGerald hammers down all the clues and hints to ensure the solution is impossible to miss. I suspect FitzGerald intended to have the locked room puzzle crystal clear and practically all tidied up when he returned to it in the last chapters, because the second-act shifts gears as it becomes somewhat of an inverted mystery. Nevertheless, easy to solve as the trick may be, the locked room functions as a fun little side distraction to the overall plot and interesting FitzGerald developed a sudden, short-lived fascination for impossible crime fiction in 1958. Going by these lines, "the impossible situation: murder in a locked room which no one could have entered or left" and "a weapon which for obvious reasons could neither have been fired through the keyhole nor thrown through a window," he probably read some locked room mysteries at the time – which found expression in Suffer a Witch and The Student Body. And looking at the first-act of The Student Body, I wouldn't be surprised if Carter Dickson's The Unicorn Murders (1935) and The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) were on his big book pile.

The second and final-act is a different story as Superintendent Patrick Duffy, of the Detective Branch of the Garda Siochana, enters the picture and the story becomes an undeclared inverted police procedural. The body had been dumped and fished out of a bay, which is why Superintendent Duffy is unaware he has an impossible murder on his hands and simply hopes to find the murderer by identifying and retracing the victim's steps. How very Freeman Wills Crofts of him! So, of course, Duffy pretty quickly uncovers a trail leading straight to Christchurch College and discovering the victim crossed paths with Radish and the college party numerous times. All the while, the reader is in the fortunate and rare position of knowing more than the detective and thus the second, last-minute murder is not very effective as a red herring. So, knowing more than Duffy, regrettably reinforces a dry, anti-climatic ending ("I can say now that there will almost certainly be further charges") to what's otherwise a lively and entertaining story. You have to tolerate the poor decisions making skills of the characters in order to enjoy it. 

The Student Body and Suffer a Witch show FitzGerald was a writer stuck between two distinctly different periods of the genre, a transitional period from the cerebral Golden Age detective stories to the darker, character-driven crime novels that came to dominate post-1950s, which tried to merge by picking and merging the best of both. So the murders, motives and subject material tend to be a little darker, grittier and uneasier than your average, 1930s detective novel, but there's always one or more puzzling components to the case. Such as the second murder from Affairs of Death, the impossible disappearance in Suffer a Witch and the locked room mystery here. FitzGerald can be clumsy, plot-wise, when it comes to ending a story, but he deserves to be acknowledged for an early writer who tried to adept the traditional detective story to the changing times. Not a perfect mystery writer or mystery series, but a valiant and much appreciated attempt to keep the detective story alive and relevant.

1/6/23

Suffer a Witch (1958) by Nigel FitzGerald

Last year, I reviewed Nigel FitzGerald's last mystery novel, Affairs of Death (1967), which struck me at the time as a cross between a character-driven drama and a modernized whodunit with a dash of comedy – mashing them together made for an unevenly-plotted, unsatisfying story and conclusion. Nick Fuller popped up in the comments to condemn it as "a second-rate Nicholas Blake imitation." So not exactly a glowing endorsement or particularly encouraging, but I didn't want to write off his earlier work solely based on a less than stellar final outing. There are two of those early detective novels that have been camping out on my wishlist for over a decade now. 

Robert Adey listed FitzGerald's The Student Body (1958) and Suffer a Witch (1958) in Locked Room Murders (1991) with intriguing descriptions of their impossible crimes. The Student Body concerns a stabbing in a locked room and the talcum powder, which had been sprinkled outside as an extra precaution, lay undisturbed. Suffer a Witch deals with a schoolgirl miraculously vanishing from a post office under constant observation. Curt Evans, of The Passing Tramp, praised the impossible disappearance in his 2014 review as "a genuine Carrian/Queenian miracle problem" and "impressive ratiocination concerning the identity of the murderer." So let's take a look at that one.

FitzGerald's Suffer a Witch takes place in Dun Moher, Ireland, which is a small, coastal town with wind-scarred hills or bogs as an inland backdrop and not much arable land. So for ages, the locals had to live off the Atlantic, which brought life and death to the inhabitants of Dun Moher as "in the last century three liners were driven up on the rocks" and "smashed to pieces" – bodies "washed up on their own doorsteps." So "almost every rock and cliff and inlet" is "named after a disaster." Recently, Dun Moher became a summer holiday resort, but reverts back to being a desolate outpost during the winter months. Dun Moher is also one of the few places that has a history with witchcraft. A novelist by the name of Benedict Carey came to Dun Moher to reconstruct and write about something terrible that had happened there years ago, "a suicide, so called, that was probably murder with a background of treachery and witchcraft," known as the Castlebawn Case.

Upon arriving in Dun Moher, Carey gets lost in the mist along the treacherous, serrated cliff above a rock formation locally referred to as the "Devil's Teeth" when overhearing scraps of a disembodied conversation, "you can't get rid of a man just by pushing him over a cliff." Another, distinctly different voice answered, "what you mean is, you can't get rid of the Devil." When the voices go quiet, Carey sees "a strange, vivid picture" that "he would not forget." A schoolgirl of about fifteen sitting in her school uniform on a stone bench next to her Great Dane, Hamlet. Her name is Vanessa Gale and alludes to Carey to probably being a witch. She even calls Hamlet her familiar. You can sum up the opening of Suffer a Witch as a bundle of allusions and innuendos. Everything raised in the opening chapters, from the Castlebawn Case and Vanessa muttering being a witch to the smutty photograph that "had been dropped either by a priest or by a schoolgirl," has to wait to take a tour of the setting. And meet some of the inhabitants and visitors. 

Suffer a Witch is a leisurely paced, unhurried and thrill-free detective story. Curt Evans wrote in his review Suffer a Witch is somewhat of a transitional novel "between the more anodyne detective fiction associated with the Golden Age" and "the more gloomy (i.e. realistic) stuff of P.D. James," which is true, but, based on this novel, FitzGerald can also be qualified as a regionalist mystery writer. Just like the works of S.H. Courtier, Elspeth Huxley and Arthur W. Upfield, Suffer a Witch is strong on local color and the dark crimes at the heart of the plot feel indigenous to the locality. A hallmark of the regional mystery novel. Some urgency returns to the story when Vanessa simply vanishes from the Post Office where there's no way out other than the main door or the gate, which were both under observation. And her dog had been standing guard at the main door. Vanessa impossibly could have slipped away without being spotted by someone, "unless she flew away on a broomstick." A short time later, Vanessa's body is discover under bizarre circumstances at the local haunted house Carey was planning to write about. Vanessa's body was found naked, on her knees and head bowed to the ground like "one prostrating herself to a deity" – a wire had been tightly fastened around her throat. FitzGerald's series-detective, Superintendent Duffy, is summoned to Dun Moher to hunt down a particular conniving, opportunistic killer.

This is where a small, but not unimportant smudge, on the overall story has to be pointed out. Suffer a Witch is a short story expanded to novel-length as only the impossible disappearance and murder of Vanessa Gale is relevant and everything else turns out to be irrelevant to the plot or simply glossed over. Such as the voices in the mist and the old Castlebawn Case. So credit to FitzGerald that the story barely feels padded. Well, not until you learn how much was actually padding once you reach the ending. That being said, the impossible disappearance and murder were both handled very well.

Firstly, the impossible disappearance has been likened to similar stories by John Dickson Carr and even Ellery Queen, but I found it to be more reminiscent of the vanishing tales by Edward D. Hoch. It's the kind baffling, but ultimately simplistic, disappearance-act that features in such Hoch short stories like "The Problem of the Bootlegger's Car" (1982), "The Problem of the Blue Bicycle" (1991) and "The Problem of the Vanishing Salesman' (1992). FitzGerald placed a very slippery, perhaps unintended red herring right on the doorstep of the Post Office that briefly put me on the wrong track. You see, (ROT13) gur punenpgre jub vzcbffvoyl inavfu bsgra pbyynobengr va gurve bja qvfnccrnenapr naq, evtug orsber Pnerl ragref gur Cbfg Bssvpr, gur qbbe vf “bcrarq sbe uvz naq fuhg oruvaq uvz ol n gryrtencu zrffratre.” V sbhaq vg rkgerzryl fhfcvpvbhf SvgmTrenyq hfrq “gryrtencu zrffratre” vafgrnq bs gur zber pbzzbayl hfrq gryrtencu obl be gryrtenz qryvirel obl. Pnerl unq abgrq ba gurve svefg zrrgvat Inarffn'f guva naq senvy obql. Fb pbhyq n guva, senvyyl ohvyq 15-lrne-byq fpubbytvey cnff nf n lbhat gryrtencu obl ba n cnffvat tynapr? Jryy, jul abg? V svtherq Inarffn unq hfrq bar bs gur gryrcubar obkrf gb punapr sebz bar havsbez vagb nabgure naq gur ernfba jul fur jnf sbhaq anxrq, orpnhfr vg jbhyq unir orra rnfvre gb erzbir gryrtencu havsbez guna gb erqerff ure. It made sense except for one small detail (Unzyrg jnvgvat bhgfvqr gur Cbfg Bssvpr) and the possibility was never even considered. But trying to piece together a coherent solution that fits the given information is half the fun, even if you have to eventually give up on it or gets proven wrong by the end. Secondly, the who-and why were superbly handled and agree with Curt that "there is impressive ratiocinating concerning the identity of the murderer" by Superintendent Duffy. It's another piece recalling some of Hoch's best and pure detective stories.

If you put the impossible disappearance and subsequent, closely-linked murder together, you would have an excellent short story, but some of that uneasy excellence got lost in a novel that needed to be trimmed down to have been truly effective. Nonetheless, Suffer a Witch is a marked improvement over Affairs of Death in every way imaginable and the ending still packs a punch as most readers will sympathize with Duffy "when he heard sentence of death being passed" and "realised that for the first time in his life he was listening to it without revulsion of feeling." A murderer who not only took a life, but tried to destroy a soul and deserved the kind of justice only a rope can deliver. So you can expect a review of The Student Body one of these days!

1/3/23

Judicium Dei: Paul Doherty's "The Peacock's Cry" (2016) and "The King's Writ" (2017)

After returning to Paul Doherty's dark, brooding historical mysteries with Hymn to Murder (2020), I turned my eye to a pair of exclusive e-novellas, "The Peacock's Cry" (2016) and "The King's Writ" (2017), published to mark the comeback Sir Hugh Corbett – who "has been absent from royal service for over six years." The Mysterium (2010) ended with Sir Hugh resigning as Keeper of the Secret Seal to spend time with his family and tend to his bees. Things have changed while he was away from the Secret Chancery. 

Edward I, "of blessed memory," died six months before the opening of "The Peacock's Cry" and "his beloved son Edward of Caernarvon succeeding to the throne," but Edward II has thrown the kingdom in turmoil over his "beloved brother," Piers Gaveston. The king loved him so much, he had created him Earl of Cornwall and "told the great earls of the kingdom, led by Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the king's own cousin, to go hang themselves, as he would never give up his Gascon favourite." This is the kind of court politics Sir Hugh tried to escape.

Six years after he resigned, Edward II, Gaveston and the entire royal entourage come to the home of Sir Hugh "to kiss hands and accept the seals of high office." And he's given good reason to return to his old position.

Sir Hugh's former protégé, Ranulf-atta-Newgate, is now a Senior Clerk in the Chancery and had been dispatched to a nunnery in Godstow, Oxfordshire, to investigate the disappearance of novice nun and royal ward, Margaret Beaumont – vanished along with all her belongings ("everything gone, from psalter to slipper"). A disappearance followed by a particularly nasty and brutal murder of Margaret Beaumont's only friend at the convent. Elizabeth Buchan was found "foully raped and barbarously slain" with a crossbow bolt through her forehead at the center of dark, dangerous hedge maze. It was one of Ranulf's crossbow quarrels that had smashed into her forehead.

So the situation is not enviable one for Ranulf. Or, as Sir Hugh sums it up, "in a word, you could become the scapegoat, an ideal one, a royal clerk who has failed his masters." "The Peacock's Cry" really is a character piece to reignite the series as the plot has less substance than the ghost who supposedly haunt the ancient hedge maze. You have to go out of your way to miss the murderer and reason behind both the disappearance and murder. Nothing special is done with the maze. The murder is presented as a quasi-impossible crime as the maze has to have its treacherous paths threaded, before anyone can enter or you could die there. That begs the question how Elizabeth could have found her way to the center of the maze in the dead of night ("a herculean task during the light of day, surely an impossible one when darkness had fallen"). A potentially good solution how the maze could be navigated suggested itself when a character explains to Sir Hugh that the hedge walls started out as hornbeams, but “other species were included” like whitehorn, privet, holly, sycamore and yew "to thicken and repair the walls." So my idea was that a specific species was planted only along "the correct path" from the one and only entrance to the center. Like camouflaged road signs that can only been seen when you know "the secret of the maze." But the solution to the maze-puzzle turned out to be (ROT13) n frperg, haqretebhaq cnffntrjnl.

As mentioned before, "The Peacock's Cry" is a character-piece to restart the series, but, as a historical detective story, it's one of Doherty's weakest stories. Honestly, if "The King's Writ" had not been a return to form, I probably would not have bothered with a review. 

"The King's Writ" is the second exclusive e-novella published as an appetizer to the Devil's Wolf (2017) and take place in the summer 1311 at the Tower of London during a jousting tournament. Sir Hugh Corbett had been sent to the Tower to supervise the tournament between the champions of two powerful Marcher lords, Roger Mortimer of Chirk and Hugh Despenser, who both came forward with identical writs from the late Edward I promising them the rights to the same, much desired, Welsh estate. The writs were "executed in the king's own hand" and "sealed with his personal signet ring," now destroyed, which could result in "a private war being waged along the Welsh March." There's the additional problem of a third, identical writ and claimant, Matthew Aldridge, who "has been placed under house arrest for his own safety in the Tower.'

Edward II persuaded Despenser and Mortimer to submit their quarrel to the judicium Dei, the judgment of God, which took the form of a jousting tournament between their handpicked champions, Robert Ufford and Edmund Pastonal – whoever wins "will have his claim to the valley of Eden upheld." Sir Hugh has to supervise the tournament, but, upon his arrival, Despenser and Mortimer dismissed him as "a mere clerk." So the amusing opening has Sir Hugh prove himself worthy by having a passage of arms with his good friend, Constable Giles Middleton. A grinning Ranulf stands at his side and assures his master he has not bet against him ("I am sure you have placed a wager that I will end up on my arse in the dust").

A jousting tournament under the summer sun is a fantastic setting for a historical mystery and deserves a novel-length treatment as more can be done with it. The tournament eventually takes a backseat when one of the champions is pulled from the bottom of a well, which appears to be an accident, but Sir Hugh is convinced he was foully murdered. Matthew Aldridge vanishes impossibly from his holding room that was "securely locked, the key held by a guard" and "no window, no secret passageway, no tunnel." The solution to this impossibility is period redressing of a trick locked room fanatics have seen before, but it fitted the story perfectly and the result is an interesting addition to that short list of impossible crime stories involving disappearing prisoners mentioned in my review of Edward D. Hoch's "Prisoner of Zerfall' (1985; collected in Funeral in the Fog, 2020). But the who-and why were also a vast improvement over the first novella. You can nitpick about the clueing consisting of hints and nods in the right direction, but Doherty played it fair enough and nothing to spoil my enjoyment. Quite the opposite. "The King's Writ" neutralized the sourness that "The Peacock's Cry" left behind. Very much recommended to fans of historical (locked room) mysteries! 

A note for the curious: Steve, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, wrote in his review of 'The Peacock's Cry" that the story is set between The Poison Maiden (2007) and The Darkening Glass (2009) from the Mathilde of Westminster series and wonders if Mathilde will appear in one of the upcoming new Sir Hugh Corbett mysteries. That crossover has yet to happen (I think), but there's evidence Doherty's detective novels take place in different periods of the same continuity or timeline. The Herald of Hell (2015), a Brother Athelstan mystery, refers to Satan in St. Mary (1986), Sir Hugh Corbett's debut, as something that happened a hundred years ago. The fictitious ruby from Hymn to Murder, the Lacrima Christi, previously appeared in A Maze of Murder (2002) from the Kathryn Swinbrooke series. So all of his characters apparently inhabit the same timeline with some close enough to do a crossover, of sorts. A very young Athelstan could have met Ranulf as an old man and told him stories about Sir Hugh Corbett.

12/31/22

Murder After Christmas (1944) by Rupert Latimer

"Rupert Latimer" was the pseudonym Algernon Victor Mills who came from a well to do, titled British family, "undoubtedly born with a silver spoon in his mouth," but during his childhood he ate wild, contaminated strawberries that killed his elder sister and their nurse – which left him lame and a lifelong epileptic. Mills died very young, aged 47 or 48, after doctors found a brain tumor. During his lifetime, Mills produced two obscure, long out-of-print detective novels, Death in Real Life (1943) and Murder After Christmas (1944), published under the name "Rupert Latimer."

Last year, the British Library reissued Latimer's Murder After Christmas and this "witty and entertaining story" seemed like a good, lighthearted and appropriately-titled mystery to close out the year. What I didn't expect to find was a gem-encrusted clump of golden age detective fiction! 

Murder After Christmas begins as a fairly typical, seasonal mystery in the fine old tradition of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) and Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca (1941). Frank and Rhoda Redpath discuss whether, or not, they should invite her "nearly ninety years of age" stepfather to stay with them over Christmas. Sir Willoughby Keene-Cotton, or simply Uncle Willie, never earned a penny in his life, but amassed several fortunes through inheritance and numerous profitable marriages. Quite a character and someone who's "difficult to manage."

Uncle Willie normally spends his Christmas holiday in Italy, but the present war and Mussolini taking sides made it impossible for him to cross the Channel to occupy his villa in San Remo. It should be noted that Murder After Christmas is also a World War II mystery in which European unpleasantness drifts over the story like wisps of dark clouds. There are the usual references to the blackouts, London refugees, petrol rationing and food wastage ("...almost as serious as murder nowadays"), but they also play a 1938 board game called Invasion – devised by thriller novelist Dennis Wheatley in anticipation of the next Great War in Europe. Martin Edwards writes in the introduction of the reprint that copies of Invasion "change hands on the second-hand market for high prices." Just one of those historical details that add so much to a vintage mystery. So much to Frans dismay, Uncle Willie accepted a previously extended invitation ("Didn't see that there could be any harm in asking. As an empty gesture of goodwill at Christmas. But there was one chance in a million that he would accept"), but Rhoda points out it may be his last Christmas. And if they give him a very special, lovely Christmas, he might remember them in his will ("Bread Upon the Waters").

Before he has even arrived, the Redpaths flippantly discuss the murder of Uncle Willie ("...could have been murdered in the best of taste") and how "he really did seem to be the easiest person in the world to murder." These ideas, jokingly as they are, do not subside with the arrival of the always difficult, obstinate Uncle Willie. Although they agree that the murder, any murder, should wait until after Christmas. That's exactly what happened.

On the wintry morning of Boxing Day, the body of Uncle Willie, "still in his Father Christmas make-up," is discovered lying a few feet away from a capsized snowman on the lawn clutching a piece of cardboard – a clue from the previous night's treasure hunt. A medical examination reveals he had died from an overdose of laudanum, which begs the question whether the old, absentmindedly man accidentally swallowed an overdose or was cleverly poisoned? He was in a habit of taking patent medicines, but murder comes into question when the Redpaths' son tries his hands at playing detective. There was a case of robbery at his office and John Redpath solved the mystery, which "rather interfering of him, because if he had left things alone probably no one would have guessed that there had been a robbery at all." Now he noticed that there had to be a second track of footprints leading to the body and snowman, because there simply had to be if the victim had made two trips to the snowman.

The problem of the tracks in the snow is one of three links Murder After Christmas has to the impossible crime tradition without going all in on them, which also include the problem of how the poison had been administrated. A third borderline impossibility is hidden in the tail of the plot, but can't comment on that without giving anything away. It's something I enjoyed very much.

Superintendent Culley has a pretty puzzle to sort out and piece together, complete with dodgy motives and clues as slippery as red herrings, which comes with cast of characters that makes him wonder, "are they all on the border-line" or "or is it me that's going balmy?" However, the gentle, humorous banter and eccentric characterization is not used as an excuse to go light on the plot. Murder After Christmas has an intricately designed, delightfully twisted plot under all the "damn silly nonsense" with some of best and most fascinating piece of clueing I've come across in a while. Not entirely on the same level of a John Dickson Carr or Agatha Christie, but the parcel of clues (i.e. the clue of the Christmas parcels) were wonderful and somewhat reminiscent to the Christmas presents from Ellery Queen's The Finishing Stroke (1958). But here they actually have meaning. You can correctly interpret some of the bizarre clues and follow them to the logical conclusion. Such as the parcel of mince-pies that was found sewn up in the upholstery of an armchair. It's the kind of seemingly incomprehensible clue that would have immediately elicited an enigmatic remark from Dr. Gideon Fell making Superintendent Hadley wish he was an American cop, so he had an excuse to lead some lead fly. Not necessarily at Dr. Fell. Just firing a couple of rounds in a wall or ceiling to let off a little bit of steam. What a fun and unexpectedly great Golden Age mystery novel!

So, all in all, Latimer's Murder After Christmas stands alongside Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas, Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death (1936) and James Yaffe's Mom Meets Her Makes (1990) as the best, strongest and above all most entertaining examples of the snowy, seasonal detective novel – distinguished by its fresh take on old themes and truly inspired plotting. A small, glittering gem from the genre's trail of obscurity that makes me hope Latimer's Death in Real Life will follow Murder After Christmas back to print in the not so distant future. Until then, I wish you all a happy and nuclear fallout free 2023!

12/28/22

Hymn to Murder (2020) by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty's Hymn to Murder (2020) is the twenty-first medieval detective novel starring Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal and Edward II's personal envoy, which has an intricate, many-stranded plot woven around the "strange journey" of the Lacrima Christi – a magnificent, lustrous ruby considered to be "the most beautiful jewel the world had ever seen." A royal gift from the Caliph of Egypt to Prince Edward of England that came with a gold, bejeweled casket and were locked away in the great crypt at Westminster Abbey.

A decade before the events in Hymn to Murder, the crypt was burglarized and looted of its treasures. A real-life heist that was the subject of Doherty's non-fiction book The Great Crown Jewels Robbery of 1303: The Extraordinary Story of the First Big Bank Raid in History (2005) and the historical figure behind the crime, Richard Puddlicot, previously appeared in Murder Wears a Cowl (1992). Richard Puddlicot forged an alliance with a corrupted order of Benedictine monks, the Blackrobes of Westminster, who were "firmly under the rule of a false shepherd, the powerful and resolute Adam Warfeld." The chief sacristan of the abbey directly responsible for its security. So the robbery was a howling success and the mob reveled as they openly ridiculed and taunted the King.

Sir Hugh Corbett, Ranulf-atte-Newgate and a retinue of mailed clerks were dispatched and "swept Westminster like God's own storm." Some thieves were beheaded, while others were hanged or turned king's evidence. Richard Puddlicot was captured, tried and sentenced to hang as close as possible "to where he had committed his outrageous crimes." Adam Warfeld and his monks pleaded benefit of clergy, under the protection of Holy Mother Church, which got them banished to the desolate, derelict priory of St Benet – hidden away "deep in the wilds of Dartmoor." However, the Lacrima Christi was not recovered and eventually turned in Rome as the coveted possession of Pope Boniface VIII. This was only short-lived as the ruby vanished again during the coronation of Pope Clement V. Lord Simon Malmaison was assigned to find and return the ruby, but it would take until 1312 before Lord Simon and the Secret Chancery received anonymous letters that "the casket and possibly the jewel could be acquired by the English Crown."

This is only the prologue! When Sir Hugh and Ranulf arrive at Malmaison Manor, high on Doone Moor, they find a nest of thievery, treason and wholesale murder.

Lord Simon and another former mailed clerk, John Wodeford, served with Sir Hugh in the Secret Chancery and they were tasked with finding the stolen pieces of jewelry that were never recovered. So when the anonymous letters arrived, Wodeford visited Sir Simon and retreated into a private chamber, which they securely locked and double-bolted. But neither came out. When the door is broken down, it opens onto the scene of a gruesome, double crossbow murder. Lord Simon's body is sprawled in a chair and "the stark black feathers of a crossbow quarrel made it look as if a small, angry bird had smashed into his temple." Wodeford was lying on the floor with a crossbow bolt embedded deep in his chest. So where did the murderer go? This is not the only, apparently impossible, murder committed within the walls of Malmaison Manor. Sir Ralph Hengham, principal tax collector in the shires of Devon and Cornwall, who had the right to investigate the murders as a servant of the Crown. He was given the murder room and also ended up with a crossbow bolt in his chest behind the locked, recently refurbished, door with the key still sticking in the lock on the inside. The murderer took the money the victims had on them in both cases.

Still this is only the beginning of Sir Hugh and Ranulf problems. On the night of the double murder, Lord Simon's two pet leopards were freed from their underground pens to roam the dark, misty moors. A place dangerous enough without "great cats roaming, roaring and seeking prey" as a band of outlaws, the Sagittarius and his Scarecrows, stalk those same moors and locals believe them responsible for the recent wrecking of ships along the coast – as well as the deaths of Lord Simon, Sir Ralph and Wodeford. And numerous people have disappeared on the moors. You could "hide a legion of corpses in the deep quagmires and marshes" where "the dead sink like stones." What about the mass disappearance of the twelve members of the Guild of Fleshers and Tanners who simply vanished into thin air on their way home from an evening of drinking and feasting. And, yet again, this is only the beginning as they merely constitute the problems confronting Sir Hugh upon his arrival in the region.

The murders and blood shedding go on unmercifully, of which two more occur inside a locked and bolted rooms. However, the more interesting of these crimes is the regrettably gruesome death of Grease-hair, spit-boy at the manor, who spotted something amiss when he peered into the first locked room without being able to put his finger on it and "he must have voiced his concerns, repeating them time and again, so he had to be silenced." Grease-hair was turned into "a living torch," but left behind a sort of dying message ("...drew a crude diagram of parallel lines"). The ship wrecking also continue unabated and has brief, but interesting, passage on 13th and 14th century English law (the First Statute of Westminster) that "tried to define what is a legitimate wreck as opposed to what could be defined as deliberate destruction and murder." The wording of the law basically handed any ethically challenged person a motive to dispose of any "hapless survivor" who crawls from the sea near a wreck. A pity Doherty didn't elaborate on that in his Author's Note at the end of the book.

So, as you can probably tell, Hymn to Murder has an extremely busy, complicated plot that keeps twisting and turning with every passing chapter, which can be tricky to pull-off. Doherty can pull it off. And he did, to a certain extend, in Hymn to Murder. This story is more about Sir Hugh "imposing order on the mysterious events swirling around them" and, as one review mentioned, exposing who-did-what-to-whom rather than creating a genuine who-and howdunit pull. Firstly, the culprits eventually stand out and not because only a few characters remain standing come the end of the story. Secondly, two of the locked rooms have extremely disappointing solutions (ROT13: svqqyvat jvgu snyfr xrlf), while the third murder in the locked larder showed a little more imagination in how it handled an otherwise routine trick. The double murder of Lord Simon and Wodeford is the center piece of the locked room elements, but the trick is, once again, nothing particularly worthy of note. Admittedly, I failed to spot how it was done because a bloodstained crossbow bolt had been driven into the inside of the locked door (the insignia of the Sagittariu). Simply assumed that very conveniently placed crossbow bolt was used to pull a string around to help drive home the bolts and turning the key. But how the double murder of the lord of the manor and his special guest relates to the other murders at the mansion was nicely tied together. Same can be said about the other, numerous plot-strands drawn across "the treacherous bogs, quagmires, morasses and marshes" of Dartmoor. 

Hymn to Murder reads like a historical suspense-thriller in the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and Seishi Yokomizo's Yatsuhakamura (The Village of Eight Graves, 1949/50) rather than a traditional, fair play locked room mystery. While the who-did-what-to-whom style plot might lack that genuine whodunit pull, the whole complicated tapestry is tightly woven together in a clear, logical and recognizable pattern enhanced by Doherty's haunting depiction of those lonely, isolated moors and an unforgiving sense of time-and place. Doherty never shielded his readers from the darker, grimier parts of history, but found the depiction of how power was wielded at a time when weak leadership was not respected and a recipe for disaster. So even just rulers and administrators had to govern with a strong arm. Sir Hugh has always been presented as typical agent of order who honestly cares about his fellow human beings and the suffering of the innocent. This is exemplified towards the end when he tells the Lord Sheriff not to weep for the culprits, who were about to receive justice, but weep for "the likes of my dear comrade and his crew on The Angel of the Dawn," their widows, children and their other poor victims. Not a single tear for those whose hands have been stained with the blood of good, innocent people. Sir Hugh takes no personal pleasure in handing out the often horrific, terrifying punishments that were the norm in his days, but, in order to prevent chaos and lawlessness, he does what he does best – "hunting murderers, trapping them and sending them to God." What he does at the end is not so much restoring law and order as it's cleansing the region of its festering evil and old, buried sins.

So, a long story short, Hymn to Murder is another great and engrossing read from the dark historian, Paul Doherty. And a reminder to return to his work more often in the future.