4/24/18

Nocturne of Remembrance (2013) by Shichiri Nakayama

In my previous blog-post, I looked at Craig Rice's zany The Corpse Steps Out (1940), a madcap chase novel with method to its madness, but the plot only gave a minor role to one of my favorite characters from the American detective story, John J. Malone – a crumpled, hard-drinking Chicago lawyer with malleable ethics. So I was considering reading The Name is Malone (1960) or an Erle Stanley Gardner novel next, but then I remembered there was a shin honkaku mystery on my pile with an unscrupulous attorney as the protagonist.

And, as to be expected from the Japanese, they took the concept of an unethical criminal defense lawyer as the anti-hero to the next level. Perry Mason, Arthur Crook and even that villainous hypocrite, Joshua Clunk, look like saints compared to Reiji Mikoshiba!

A translation of Shichiri Nakayama Tsuioku no nocturn (Nocturne of Remembrance, 2013) was published in 2016 by Vertical and is a sequel to the untranslated Shokuzai no sonata (Sonata of Atonement, 2011), which is what made the opening chapters a little bit confusing and muddled – as they dealt with past events. Apparently, Mikoshiba was attacked and wounded in his first recorded case "by the family of the opposite side," because he had the body of "the victim that the accused had murdered removed from the crime scene." The opening chapter also revealed a dark childhood secret.

A fourteen-year-old Mikoshiba had murdered and dismembered a child, littering the neighborhood with body parts, which earned the then unknown murderer the nickname of the "Corpse Delivery Man."

Mikoshiba was apprehended by the police, before he could dump the torso, but the law in Japan prohibits the identification of juvenile offenders and rehabilitation is preferred over punishment. So, upon release, Mikoshiba was able to resume a normal life and even carve out a name for himself as a criminal defense lawyer. I assume Mikoshiba's back-story was partially inspired by the real-life murder case known as "The Sasebo Slashing." The murderer in that case was an 11-year-old student who had slashed a classmate to ribbons and was referred to in official police documents only as "Girl A," but the internet bestowed a nickname on her that stuck with the case – namely "Nevada-tan." So you can hardly call Mikoshiba your ordinary, shady neighborhood defense lawyer and after getting discharged from the hospital he immediately blackmails a colleague into handing over a case to him. A kind of case he would normally never touch, let alone demand.

An abused, downtrodden housewife, Akiko Tsuda, has been sentenced to sixteen years in prison for the murder of her husband, Shingo Tsuda, who was stabbed to death in the bathroom of their home. The marriage had begun as a happy one and they had two daughters together, but their family life began to deteriorate when Shingo was laid-off from his software company. Shingo became a shut-in and poured all of his severance pay into the stock market, but the only thing he accumulated was debt. And this ended with him becoming physically abusive.

Obviously, the Tsuda affair is an open-and-shut case: Akiko had practically been caught in the act by her father-in-law and she gave a full confession to the police. So why does Mikoshiba insist on representing Akiko during a hopeless appeal process with no prospect of a fat fee. He simply tells the family to pay him whatever they can afford. Something that's very out-of-character for the shady lawyer.

This not only makes Akiko very suspicious, who regards him as dangerous, but necessary, tool needed to reduce her sentence and return to her two children, but also arouses the suspicion of Deputy Chief Prosecutor Kyohei Misaki and he decides to take on the case himself – who proves to be a formidable adversary for Mikoshiba. Misaki even has the upper-hand in the courtroom right up until the end when Mikoshiba slowly unfurls the truth, which hits everyone in attendance like a proverbial bombshell. And has reporters shooting out of the courtroom with "a precious scoop cradled in their arms."

I think most seasoned mystery readers can probably make an educated guess about the solution and why our lawyer-detective picked this apparently hopeless case, but this only gives you a very rough outline of the plot. So pay close attention to the detective work done by Mikoshiba, which lays bare enough clues and hints to help you discern the finer details of the overall plot. One of these all important details is the dark, depressing motive of the murderer and the truth behind the stabbing places the story as close to the gritty crime novels of today as to the clever, plot-driven courtroom dramas of the past.

So, while it's not a entirely perfect, Nocturne of Remembrance is a perfect example of what the modern crime novel in the West could have looked like had coherent plotting and proper clueing still been a thing.

Ho-Ling Wong drew in his own review a comparison with the work of Keigo Higashino and certain aspects of the plot recalled Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), which also succeeded in taking a grimy, sordid and everyday crime and structure it like a traditionally detective story – complete with clues, twists and a memorable detective character. Nocturne of Remembrance accomplished doing the exact same thing and demonstrated, when you have writer who knows how to plot and clue, how well a traditional detective story can work in a contemporary setting with pitch-dark material.

Sadly, the West has a chronic shortage of such mystery writers at the moment, but we can console ourselves with these little gems that reaches our shores from Asia. I sincerely hope we'll see more of Nakayama and Mikoshiba in the future. Until then, I can highly recommend Nocturne of Remembrance as a dark take on the Perry Mason-like courtroom drama with an excellent, well clued plot that should especially delight readers of Gardner and Higashino.

4/21/18

The Corpse Steps Out (1940) by Craig Rice

Georgiana Ann Randolph is best remembered by her penname, "Craig Rice," which she adopted in the late 1930s when creating a triumvirate of hard-drinking, morally ambiguous, but comical, detective-characters as memorable as Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason and Rex Stout's Archie Goodwin – earning her the title of Queen of the Screwball Mystery. An honorary title nobody to date has disputed and with good reason.

Rice was one of those rare mystery novelists who could write genuinely funny detective stories and her second effort, The Corpse Steps Out (1940), is arguably her best screwball mystery.

The Corpse Steps Out takes place one and a half year after 8 Faces at 3 (1939) and John J. Malone, Jake Justus and Helene Brand have gone their separate ways. However, they have a knack for attracting copious amount of trouble and this destined them to meet again, which happens when a client of Justus becomes involved in a blackmail plot with multiple murders and bodies being lugged around the city of Chicago – which makes this a darkly comedic, madcap chase story in the spirit of Carter Dickson's The Punch and Judy Murders (1936) and Norbert Davis' The Mouse in the Mountain (1943). All of this running around begins with the lead star of the Nelle Brown Revue finding the body of the man who tried to blackmail her with a stack of embarrassing love letters.

Jake Justus appeared in 8 Faces at 3 as a newspaper reporter, but has since gone into business for himself as a press agent and manager. When the reader meets him again he wonders why, with untold billions of people in the world, "everything had to pick him to happen to." Nelle Brown is a client of Justus and he sees it as his duty to keep her out of trouble. Even if it turns out she shot her ex-sweetie to pieces.

There are, however, complication and they crop up at an ever-increasing pace: one of these complications concerns the removal of the body from the kitchen of the crime-scene and the person responsible left a note for the landlady – asking her to sent the belongings to Honolulu, Hawaii. So that took care of one problem, but the love letters are still out there and these letters pose a greater threat for Brown's radio career than a potential murder rap.

According to Justus, radio reaches every household in America and "you've to keep it clean," because their sponsor would cancel the contract in "a minute if this thing broke the wrong way."

As you would expect by this point in the story, a second blackmailer rears his head and wants Brown to sign a personal-management contract, which means that he collects all of her income and pays her a weekly salary. A nice, legal way to apply an inescapable vise-grip on a blackmail victim, but this is not the only thumb-screw this second blackmailer tries to apply on the radio star. Brown is forced to perform in a secret audition for a prospective buyer of her revue, an out-of-town soap manufacturer, but at the end of the show they discover his body in the private room where he was listening to the show – slumped in a chair with a bullet in his head. So they did the only sensible thing you can do in such a situation. No, no, no. They did not phone the police. That would be silly. They dragged the body out of the studio, drove it to Lincoln Park and dumped the body on a bench. But the various blackmail schemes and rising bodycount is not the only source of comedy in this story.

After Justus is reunited with Helene Brand, a famous beauty, socialite and heiress, they decide to get married, but getting to knot tied is easier said than done and every time they determined to go to Crown Point to get married a monkey wrench, or two, is thrown into the work – such as getting chased by a squad car full of police officers with a body in the backseat. She even has to go into hiding until Malone can get an arson charge off her neck. Not to mention a case of body snatching, obstruction of justice, falsifying evidence and resisting arrest.

Well, you get the idea. The Corpse Steps Out is a fast-paced, rip-roaringly funny detective story, but this does not mean that all of the outrageous plot develops are played merely for laughs. There's method to Rice's madness.

There are three, convincingly motivated, shooting deaths in the story and the second murder, one committed in the radio studio, comes with a nifty, unexpected twist in the tail and this makes the plot rewarding as well as funny. But even the more serious aspects of the story are not devoid of humor. Rice mercilessly pokes fun at the type of 1920s detective novel John Dickson Carr criticized in his famous essay, "The Grandest Game in the World," in which the author makes the scene of the crime resemble a bus terminal at rush-hour as characters wander in and out of the room – leaving behind cuff links, bus tickets, handkerchiefs and cigarette ends. Justus observed at one point in the story that the first murder "seems to have been one of the major social events of the year," because "everybody was there." Everybody was walking in and out of the apartment as the victim was bleeding out on the kitchen floor.

My only complaint is that my favorite shady lawyer-detective, the incomparable John J. Malone, only has a very small role in the book.

Malone is basically just there to provide a solution when the time comes to wrap up the show, which is why some editions bill The Corpse Steps Out as "A Jake Justus Mystery." However, this does nothing diminish the sheer joy and clever aspects of the story. I would actually recommend readers who are new to Rice to begin with The Corpse Steps Out instead of 8 Faces at 3, because it gives you a good idea what Rice was capable of doing when she was in top-form.

Anyway, in my case, I'm glad that for once I saved one of the better entries in a series for last, which is not something that happens very often. There are, however, two posthumously, ghostwritten novels, The Picked Poodles (1960) and But the Doctor Died (1968), but they're considered to be piss-poor in quality and the latter was reputedly written as an attempt to cash in on the spy craze – except that this last "official" title in the series is completely devoid of Rice's trademark sense of humor.

So this only leaves me with a collection of short stories (The Name is Malone, 1960) and the three mystery novels she wrote as "Michael Venning," but those are stories I'll get to another time.

4/18/18

The Theft and the Prophecy: Two Fictional Impossible Crimes

In my previous blog-post, "The Ghost and the Canary," I covered two real-life examples of the impossible crime story and decided it would be a nice touch to follow it up with a look at two fictional locked room problems. There happened to be two, relatively short, works lingering on my big pile. So let's dig in!

Barry Ergang is the former editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and received a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society for the best flash story of 2006, titled "Vigilante," but on the web Ergang is perhaps better known as a reviewer and member of various mystery-themed groups – such as the now sadly erstwhile JDCarr messageboard. You can find his reviews all over the web, like the GADWiki, which also hosts his parody of "Dr. Gideon Fell, Hardboiled Sawbones" (2003).

I think Ergang's hardboiled take on one of detective fiction's foremost experts on the locked room puzzle foreshadowed a short story he would come to write only a year later.

"The Play of Light and Shadows" was originally published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, vol. VII, Issue 35: Autumn 2004 and Patrick Ohl accurately described this short story as "a traditionally-told hardboiled story" in his 2011 review. The story is narrated by Dr. Alan Driscoll, a university professor, who's on a sabbatical to escape from department politics and "the hermetic insularity of academia" at the City University of Philadelphia. So to re-familiarize himself with the real world he takes job as a bartender and there he strikes up an acquaintance with a private-eye.

Darnell is a stern man who has no time for small talk, but "discussions about books pierced his reserve" and "evoked a veiled passion." When the story opens, Darnell is sitting at the bar reading The Sound and the Fury. This reminded me of Bill Pronzini's popular private-eye, "Nameless," whose undying love for pulp magazines has even driven the plots of some of his most well-known, highly praised cases – like Hoodwinked (1981) and Bones (1985). Interestingly, they're are perhaps two of the best known examples of the hardboiled locked room story.

However, this story is only indirectly influenced by Darnell's veiled passion for literature and comes about when Driscoll asks how business is going. Darnell simply taps his book and says that he has "lots of time to read."

Well, Driscoll got a phone-call from a colleague, Dr. Barton Gaines, who's the Chairman of the Art History Department and he could really use a detective.

Dr. Gaines is hosting a party the following Saturday afternoon to celebrate the acquisition of a painting by Charles Riveau, entitled Nomad, but the painting came with a back-story and concerns the criminal past of its creator – who once acted as a master forger to an Arséne Lupin-like thief, Paul Marchand. Riveau forged masterpieces, but, instead of selling the forgeries, Marchand "stole the originals from private collections or museums" and "substituted the fakes." However, the police eventually caught up with Riveau and did a spell in prison. After his release, Riveau continued to paint and his original work started to gain a reputation. So he turned down Marchand when he wanted to revive their old partnership, but this disagreement ended with Marchand promising he would destroy all of his original work "to prevent him from attaining the fame he desperately wanted."

Ever since, paintings have disappeared from galleries, museums and the homes of collectors. And this is exactly what happens during the party.

The gallery is a long, wide, white-walled and marble-floored room without windows and the door offered its only way in or out of the gallery, which can only be opened with a set of specially-made keys that can't be duplicated. After the gallery is searched, the door is locked from the outside and Darnell takes his place guarding the door, but when the gallery is unlocked and guests stream in they make a startling discovery – someone, somehow, spirited Nomad from a hermetically sealed and guarded room! But this is not their only problem.

A photographer who was present at the unveiling of the painting, Derek Trevor, is found with a camera-strap looped tightly around his throat and the murderer has taken a 3.5" disk from his photo camera. On a side-note, these diskettes were the predecessor of memory cards.

The writing and characterization clearly shows the influence the private-eye genre had on Ergang, who holds Raymond Chandler's The Long Good-bye (1953) in very high regard, but the plotting also betrays a weakness for cleverly clued, puzzle-oriented locked room mysteries. Ergang planted clues and hints throughout the story subtly nodding in the direction of the solution, which is always a pleasant discovery in a modern detective story, and the excellent writing and dialogue makes "The Play of Light and Shadow" anthology material.

There is, however, one (minor) problem I have with the premise and explanation for the impossible theft, which seems to be indebted to the Jonathan Creek episode The Scented Room (1998). An episode that had lifted its plot directly from Edgar Wallace's "The Stolen Romney," collected in Four-Square Jane (1929), which had been spoofed before by Robert Arthur in The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) – all four deal with a very similar impossible theft and the explanations play around with the same ideas. Only difference between the Jonathan Creek episode and the novel and short story by Arthur and Ergang is that they put their own spin on the ending of "The Stolen Romney."

So I was glad to discover Ergang took a different direction with his solution, but the close resemblance of the plot to those other impossible crime stories took some of the shine off the story. Regardless, "The Play of Light and Shadow" is a well-written, tightly plotted detective story and a welcome addition to that lamentably short list of hardboiled locked room mysteries.

The second story, or rather a novella, comes from the hands of an incredibly prolific British writer of detective and thriller novels, named Gerald Verner, who was frequently compared to the previously mentioned Edgar Wallace and was noted for his "exiting, fast-action plots" – some of them "recognized as classics of the locked room and impossible crime genres." I don't remember anyone ever hailing Verner as a long-overlooked locked room artisan, but any mention of an impossible crime arouses my curiosity. And one of his impossible crime stories just happened to be in print!

A warning to the reader: my review necessitated something that can be construed as a spoiler, because the plot warranted a comparison with a fairly well-known detective novel by a very famous mystery writer. So, if you have read that fairly well-known mystery, you can probably guess the central idea behind the impossible murder from this novella. The reader has been warned!

The Beard of the Prophet (1937) was originally printed in a November, 1937 issue of Detective Weekly No. 246, later collected in Mr. Budd Again (1939), but was curiously enough reprinted separately in 2011 by Borgo Press. I believe our friend, Philip Harbottle, had a hand in getting Verner's work back in print.

One of Verner's series-character is Robert Budd, an obsese Detective-Superintendent of Scotland Yard, who has deceptively sleepy-eyes, a plodding mind and a taste for beer. Budd is assisted by the melancholic, slow-witted Sergeant Leek and is often "the butt of Mr. Budd's biting sarcasm." These two unassuming, now long-forgotten detective-characters had a long shelf-live. Butt and Leek appeared in more than twenty novels and short stories between 1934 and 1966.

The Beard of the Prophet begins with a series of threatening letters addressed to a celebrated archaeologist, Reuben Hayles, who claimed to have discovered the tomb of Mohammed. One of the letters warned Hayles that his "sacrilege will bring violent death in its train," while another say that "every passing hour brings your doom nearer," but the last letter told the archaeologist "death will come to you on the night of the full moon" – signed The Prophet. After this very specific threat, Budd and Leek are installed in the household. A household filled the usual, and some very unusual, suspects, but their protection proved to be ineffective.

Budd stationed himself in front of the bedroom door and Lees was standing guard outside of the house, underneath the open bedroom window, but, shortly after Hayles wished Budd a good night, a scream and a thud is heard inside the room. Budd flung open the door and greeted by "a deafening crash of thunder," which is hoary, but nice, atmospheric touch. Hayles lay in the center of the room on ancient rug, a gaping wound on the front of his head, clenching a false beard in one of his hands!

Funnily enough, The Beard of the Prophet shares exactly the same strength and weaknesses as "The Play of Light and Shadow." After the opening chapters, it becomes patently obvious Verner had looked at Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) for inspiration and the locked room trick here mimics Christie's (semi) impossible alibi-trick. There's even an archaeological background in Verner's story.

So I doubt this was a mere coincidence, but Verner made the trick his own by tinkering with it and giving it a nifty twist. You can almost say this is the impossible crime version of the ingenious alibi-trick from Christopher Bush's Cut Throat (1932). And this alteration of the nature of the trick neatly tied-in with the identity of the murderer. So this definitely saved the novella from being nothing more than a shameless ripoff.

The Beard of the Prophet is perhaps not very original as a detective story, but Verner's treatment of the idea was transformative enough to make for an enjoyable read with a new variation on a trick we've seen before.

A note for the curious: the trick from Murder in Mesopotamia was also used in a 1950 short story by Charles B. Child, titled "All the Birds of the Air," which was collected in The Sleuth of Baghdad (2002). There you have a short story, a novella and a novel, which toy around with variations of the same (locked room) trick and have a Middle Eastern theme. I'm convinced Verner borrowed from Christie, but wonder how much of an influence she had on Child's short story. In any case, I find it fascinating that this particular trick turned up in stories with such similar backgrounds.

So, a short story and novella, written in two very different periods of time, but, when read back-to-back, turned out to strangely reflect one another. They both resembled more well-known impossible crime stories, which had preceded them, but the well-handled treatment of these older ideas pulled the stories away from being disappointing – especially the more original "The Play of Light of Shadow." Only thing you can hold against these two stories is that they failed to break new ground, but hey, I can easily forgive that.

4/16/18

The Ghost and the Canary: Two Real-Life Impossible Crimes

During 2013 and 2014, I put together a short series of blog-posts with examples locked room mysteries and impossible problems appearing in our seemingly normal, everyday world.

A short series consisting mostly of common, everyday miracles such as a notoriously drunk actor who was locked into his dressing room without a drop of liquor, but emerged an hour later absolutely hammered – leaving everyone baffled as to how he got his hands on enough booze to get properly drunk. Another impossibility deals with the inexplicable leakage of information from a sealed and soundproof betting room, while in another example a magician (unwisely) gives step-by-step instruction on how to create a disgustingly simple locked room trick. A locked room gag best played on unexpected hotel guests.

You can read all five blog-posts about these real-life impossibility by following these links: I, II, III, IV and V. I wanted to do further installments, but my backlog of good examples had dried up and the ones I missed were recently printed as part of John Pugmire's marvelous anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017).

So I probably would not have been able to do this post were it not that I recently came across two interesting examples, which allowed me to cobble together another one of these long anticipated filler-posts.

The Knocking Ghost of Boise

I came across this very unusual account of a faked poltergeist on a website dedicated to recording hoaxes throughout time, which covers hoaxes from the middle ages all the way up to the 21st century, but the story of the ghost that rapped messages to puzzled policemen caught my attention – because it read like a spoof of John Dickson Carr done by Anthony Boucher. You'll know why when you learn the solution.

"They're heeere..."
Peggy Zimmerman was a 53-year-old woman who lived with her 12-year-old daughter, Shelley, in Boise, Idaho, but in late September of 1973 she called in the police to investigate the rapping coming from underneath the floorboards. An intelligent knocking that could rap out answers and appeared to be attracted to Shelley, because he could only communicate when she was present in the room. However, the girl was "merely standing quietly in the room" and could not have produced the rapping.

So four policemen arrived at the house, headed by a police lieutenant, who set up traps “to make sure that no one was entering the crawl space” and began to ask questions to the knocking ghost.

How many people were in the room? Six raps! How many policemen? Four raps! And so on. The policemen observed that raps were felt as well as heard and "the sounds vibrated through the soles of their shoes," but the traps were empty and Shelley passed a clever test by the policemen. One of the policemen asked the ghost how many guns they were carrying and the question was answered with five raps, but only two of the officers were openly carrying a firearm and Shelley could not have known they also had three concealed weapons on them – which forced the police lieutenant to admit he had "no logical explanation for the phenomena." However, the mystery was solved the very next day when a news team dropped by the haunted house.

A newsman noticed that the ghost only rapped when Shelley was standing in "a certain, rather peculiar way" and passed this information on to the police. When confronted by the police, Shelley admitted she was the ghost and the answer to the knocking ghost lay in the abnormal condition of her ankles. It allowed her to make a loud knocking sound whenever she flexed her leg muscles, but this prank was reported to the juvenile court. What can I say? Little kids and poltergeists will always be a troublesome pairing.

You can read the full account here.

The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn't Fly

The second example I found of a (semi) impossible crime unexpectedly turned up in the ruthless, cut-throat world of American, prohibition-era gangsters and deals with the questionable death of a prominent mobster who became a stool-pigeon – an unhealthy life decision in the underworld.

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles was a well-known figure in the Jewish mafia of the New York underworld and a feared member of a group of contract killers, Murder Inc., who worked for the National Crime Syndicate, but by the early 1940s the authorities were closing a new around Reles. So he turned state evidence and became a witness whose testimonies sent a number of his former business partners to the electric chair. Reportedly, Albert “The High Executioner” Anastasia placed $100,000 bounty on Reles' head and Frank Costello reputedly raised another one-hundred grand to bribe guards to kill Reles in police custody. I think this piece of information could help explain his peculiar death.

The sixth floor plunge of Abe Reles
On the morning of November 12, 1941, Reles plunged to his death from the sixth floor window of Room 623 at the Half Moon Hotel. The evidence suggested Reles had tried to lower himself on to the window below by tying two bed sheets together, but the wire knot came undone and he fell to his death. However, this poses the interesting question why he tried to escape. Reles became a witness to escape the electric chair and the only one who could protect him from retaliation was the government, who had a vested interest in keeping him alive, because he was set to testify against Anastasia in a murder case. And it has been suggested that Reles didn't even wanted to be out of earshot of a policeman. So why voluntarily dangle out of a sixth floor window?

The door of the hotel room was guarded police officers and a possible answer could be that Reles overheard referencing his impending murder.

There could have been a bribe and this knowledge would have left the window as Reles only escape, but rumors claimed he was murdered by being pushed out of the window and the bed sheets were arranged to make it look an accidental fall during an escape attempt – which would make this somewhat of a locked room mystery. Unless the police officers were bribed, you have a murderer who entered a guarded hotel room on the sixth floor without being seen, committed a murder without being heard and threw the bed sheets after him to make it look like an accident, before vanishing into thin air.

There is, however, a possible explanation for the murder scenario and the method is exactly the same as the one used by G.K. Chesterton in "The Miracle of Moon Cresent" from The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926). This is the only way an outsider could have circumvented the police guards at the door and flung Reles out of his hotel room window.

So, in a nutshell, this is the story of a canary who could sing, but not fly, and whose death is full of questions, false solutions and was perhaps a cleverly disguised locked room killing. Surprisingly, this case took place against the genuinely hardboiled background of ruthless, trigger happy gangsters.

I wish I had more to pad out this post, but this was all that was left in the tank. If come across any other real-life locked rooms in the future, I'll do another one, but we might be living in the middle of the 2020s when that happens.

4/12/18

What Happened to Hammond? (1951) by John Russell Fearn

Robert Adey observed in Locked Room Murders (1991) that there were only two mystery writers, John Dickson Carr and John Russell Fearn, who regularly produced impossible crime novels during and after the Second World War. While Fearn was not as prolific as Carr, he was able to match the master when it came to the sheer ingenuity of his impossible situations and the answers he conjured up to explain all those criminal miracles – which is a contribution that deserves to be acknowledged. Fearn is a fun, pulpy second-stringer with a repertoire of (scientific) locked room stories that should delight fans of Arthur Porges, Paul Halter and Jonathan Creek.

A ghost and a demonic entity physically manifest themselves inside a cursed room in "Chamber of Centuries" (1940) and Within That Room! (1946). A house that kills appears in Account Settled (1949) and a whole laboratory vanishes from a watched room in Vision Sinister (1954). The Silvered Cage (1955) has a woman gradually fading into nothingness during a stage performance and Pattern of Murder (2006) uses the inverted mystery format to show how an impossible murder is engineered, which is unusual, but the method is brilliant. And there are a host of regular locked room mysteries such as Black Maria, M.A. (1944), the Halter-like The Five Matchboxes (1946) and Death in Silhouette (1950). 

What Happened to Hammond? (1951) plays with a rarity of the impossible crime genre, a possible case of teleportation, of which I only know one other example: the Kaito KID heist story from Case Closed, vol. 61.

Before taking a crack at this book, I have to point out that the splendid cover of the 2006 Borgo Press edition was commissioned by Philip Harbottle during the 1980s from Ron Turner, because he had done covers for Fearn in the 1950s and Harbottle envisioned new editions of Fearn's work with old-school Turner covers – placing the commissioned art work in cold storage for when he was able "to get the books reprinted in the future." Harbottle also provided me with a scan of the book cover of the original and rather rare edition of this book. Yes, I'm using the poor man as my personal, interactive encyclopedia on all things Fearn. Just try to stop me! :) 

What Happened to Hammond? was originally published as by "Hugo Blayn" and begins with a shipping-yard tycoon, Benson T. Hammond, consulting Chief Inspector Mortimer Garth of Scotland Yard on a string of weird notes he has received. The latest note read, "Any Moment Now," implying without being actually threatening, but Hammond has a good reason to fear "the lingering threat" of physical violence. Hammond suffers from fragilitas ossiumtarda, an abnormal brittleness of the bones, which makes him "a walking glass ornament" and a series of blows could make him a bedridden invalid for life – or end him permanently. So Garth decides that the strange complaint and his standing in the community entitles him to police protection. Hammond also has trouble brewing at home.

Harvey Dell works as a senior electronic engineer at the Noonhill Teleradio Combine and wants to formally ask Hammand permission to marry his daughter, Miss Claire Hammond, but as soon as he consented to the engagement Dell asked him for a business loan of two million pounds! A quarrel erupted and Claire caught snippets like "some high-flown notion," a chance "to beat the airlines at their own games" and "cuts in shipping rates." The quarrel ends with Hammond branding Dell as a fortune-hunter and kicks him out of the house. Later that evening, Dell sends a letter to Claire, asking her to come to 9 Stanton Street and to destroy the letter, but she only tears it up and throws it in the waste basket – where her father finds it and pastes it together. And, naturally, he goes after her.

When Claire arrives at the house in the dilapidated Stanton Street, the door is answered by a servant who tells him he has never heard of Harvey Dell and closes the door in her face. However, the next part of the plot took a sudden, unexpected turn into the Twilight Zone.

Hammond arrives at the home with two policemen on his tail and they, alongside with Hammond's chauffeur, witness how he entered the 9 Stanton Street, but he never came back out again. But when they enter the house, they found it completely empty. Not "a stick of furniture" and dirty, defaced walls. Even more astonishing is that the place is covered with "a thick, even layer of dust on the floor of the hall" and nowhere was it broken by the marks of where furniture might have stood – nor where there "a trace of a single footprint." Previously, lights have been seen in the house and the door had been answered twice by a servant. So how did a house that had been occupied only moments previously turned into a rundown, abandoned home with a thick carpet of unbroken dust on the floor?

This apparent miracle is compounded when the body of Hammond is found lying on a road between Shoreham and Worthing, sixty miles away from Stanton Street, but only ten minutes had passed since Hammond was seen entering the house and his remains being found on the road! A gruesome detail is that every bone appears not only to be broken, but shattered, which make the body like a partially deflated inner tube.

Chief Inspector Garth has his work cut out for him and the investigation by the police takes up three quarters of the story. This part of the book reads like an early police procedure and has Garth, alongside with his men, doing all of the legwork as they attempt to put together all of the pieces of this complicated puzzle. They figure out the dust-trick and find all of the bigger pieces of the puzzle, but the insurmountable wall they keep bumping into is the problem of a body traveling sixty miles in a mist-enshrouded winter night. So they call upon Dr. Hiram Carruthers, who looks like the bust of Beethoven, to help them figure out scientific end of the investigation.

I think the first three quarters make up the best parts of the story, because the last quarter exposes the same mistake that ruined Robbery Without Violence (1957). I like it when a pure, fair play detective story is placed in a science-fiction setting, but hate it when a science-fiction solution is used in a regular looking detective story. It's plain cheating!

There are, however, mitigating circumstances. Firstly, there's proper foreshadowing and even clueing that the plot is slowly inching towards science-fiction territory (e.g. the autopsy report). Secondly, the science-fiction element, weirdly enough, didn't feel like a cop-out explanation and this probably has to do that the method, like most new sciences, was in its infancy – therefore imperfect and unrefined. Something that needed fine-tuning. This treatment was very different from the way the science-fiction element was handled in Robbery Without Violence, which even had a bad, comic book-like villain who talked about getting delivering the world into the palm of his hand. However, this didn't diminish my disappointment that the teleportation problem didn't have really clever and original solution.

This makes the problem of the empty, dust-covered house bare of any footprints the only real impossible problem of the story. Interestingly, the idea behind this trick is not entirely new and have come across two variations on this trick, but Fearn applied it here to an entire house.

So, on a whole, I was not too let down by What Happened to Hammond? The first three solid quarters read like an early police procedural without the troubled cop trope and a good stand-in impossible crime, but hated that the second impossibility relied on pure science-fiction – which simply does not work for me. I'm too much of a purist to go along with it. Still, I appreciated Fearn clued his way to this U-turn and the book is a decent, middling effort in his body of work, but not one you'll find on my inevitable list of favorite Fearn mystery novels.

On a final note, you might also be interested in reading John Norris' take on this book, which he reviewed here.