Lucifer's Pride

"I could murder that woman... she treats us like muck." 
- Amy Ford (Harriet Rutland's Knock, Murderer, Knock, 1938)
Alfred Meyers was, like Anthony Boucher, "a great opera buff" and snatched at any opportunity to sing "in every chorus that would use his talents," while working off and on in his father's bank, but Meyers also achieved modest success as a writer – publishing short stories, a stage play and a detective novel.

Murder Ends the Song (1941) was Meyers' sole contribution to the genre, but, despite his scanty resume, he was elected the first Treasurer of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. A chapter of which Lenore Glen Offord was Secretary and Boucher was its Vice President. Meyers would go on to write only a single chapter for an anthology of true crime stories, San Francisco Murders (1947), before fading from the public-eye and his work was hurled into obscurity.

There it was, after seven decades, found by one of the usual suspects, Curt Evans, who reviewed the book in early 2013 and in his two-part post (here and here) called it "a work worthy of the masters" that "merits reprinting" - which finally happened in 2015. A small, independent publisher, Coachwhip, reissued the book with an introduction by Evans, which is a compendium of his blog-posts on Meyers. It also, enticingly, points out that the book contains several illustrations, a floor plan and a tabulations of clues. Showing that Meyers was dedicated to playing the game fairly and resulted in "a most enjoyable classic mystery" composed "in the manner of the great Ellery Queen." And for the most part, I agree with this assessment.

Murder Ends the Song is told in the first person and the narrative voice is that of a promising young tenor, Anthony "Tony" Graine, who's a most amusing character and this is particularly shown in the opening chapter – when his business manager, "Nero," insistently rings his phone until he drags himself out of bed. The subsequent conversation was rife with verbal abuse, with one of them threatening to ram a telephone "down his yapping managerial gullet" and the other evoking "the curse of the Witch of Endor," but the manager won in the end. Graine collected himself and met with him ten minutes later to go to the airport to join the entourage of "La Grazie."

Marina Grazie was a star of the operatic stage, but, while her star had dimmed, her fame had not entirely faded. She was heard on the radio often and could still gather a crowd of newspaper reporters. However, to her dismay, she has been unable to set a toe on the big stage after prematurely retiring, hoping the famous managers would track her down with "a contract as fat as she was," which never happened – eventually giving and making a guest appearance on a radio program. Grazie wants more and joined the "one-horse outfit" of Nero in the hopes of making a West Coast comeback.

So, a typical spoiled diva with a high opinion of herself and was knocked down a peg, or two, by the world around her. However, the subsequent story "The Great Grazie" to be a truly villainous piece of work. A woman who has been described as "a grasping, egotistical, demanding slave-driver" and not adverse to abuse her authoritative position to physically assault the people around her. Graine quickly became aware that Grazie has "a gift for inspiring impulses to violence" and hears several references to her murder long before stumbling across her body. Someone even wrote a message in blood on her mirror! So someone has it out for her.

The entourage of the opera diva consists of the following people: Miss Elena Grazie (her niece), Miss Ambrosia Swisshome (companian-secretary), Dr. Beale Thorndyke (personal physician), Mr. Julian Porter (accompanist) and Mr. James Paris (chauffeur and pilot). They find themselves stranded, together with their tormentor, inside a grim, half-finished castle, called Lucifer's Pride, which was constructed by Grazie's dead fiance, Lucifer Bollman – an elderly Wheat King who, reputedly, died of a broken heart and now haunts the place.

Lucifer's Pride is "perched on a bluff some three hundred feet" above the Columbia River Gorge and a violent storm cuts the party off from the mainland for a full twenty-four hours, which is enough for the killer among them to dispatch a few people to Great Beyond. And this person begins with Marina Grazie.

After a confrontation between Grazie and her rebellious entourage, she takes possession of the library and repeatedly sings her favorite aria, Caro Nome, but when Graine goes to check on her he finds that the singing came from a phonograph in the corner – playing a ten-year-old recording. Grazie was slumped over the keys of the piano, her head resting in her arms, where she slumped to the floor when Graine touched her shoulders. A steel knitting needle protruded from the base of her skull!

Alfred Meyers
So there you have it: the premise of a classically-styled mystery novel with a closed-circle of suspects, cut-off from the outside world, which is a clichéd situation often associated with detective stories from this period. However, Murder Ends the Song is everything but cliché or an unoriginal imitation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). Meyers allowed his character to perform a different kind of detective story on this stage and this resulted in some very well imagined set pieces.

One of them is how nobody, except for Graine, is really concerned about the murder and they find it more important to search the library and padding down the corpse(s). What are they looking? Graine suspects it is Lucifer diamond. After all, Grazie's jewelry box has been looted, but, obviously, the party is searching for something completely different. There was also a very bizarre musical scene, in which everyone had gathered in the library and was singing Shall We Gather At the River at the piano, while the body of Grazie was laying on the couch and tucked around with an Indian robe. It ended with the question whether it would have pleased the old bird. I was reminded of a similar and equally bizarre singing-scene from Boucher's The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942). So the writing and story-telling were as inspired as the plot.

A plot further complicated with addition of two bodies. One of them belonging to an unknown man who broke his neck in a rather unpleasant fall and the third victim perished in a muddled shooting incident, but the main attraction of the story is the murder of Marina Grazie and the person responsible for her death.

Meyers did an exemplary job in plotting and writing a genuine whodunit. I was pleasantly surprised when it became apparent this person was the killer, because I had not seriously considered this option and experienced one of those rare, but pleasant, jolts of surprise that attracts readers to detective stories, but (admittedly) become rarer once you become well read in the genre. But this one did it. I also found the motive to be interesting and very original for the time. It may very well have been the first example of its kind.

So that aspect of the plot was definitely satisfying, but, like a tiresome nitpicker, I have to point out a strange, anomalous flaw in the solution. Meyers may have done too good a job at hiding the murderer, because the (main) clues do not, necessarily, point this person out as the only possible candidate to have committed the murders – which makes them more indicators than tell-tale clues. Well, there's the clue of the bottle, but that one veered closely to the territory of Dagmar Doubledick's tie. However, I guess the bottle clue can be seen as the connecting puzzle piece to the aforementioned indicators and together point towards the murderer.

I should also point out that the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Tait, withheld a key piece of information until the end. Granted, it was established early on in the story that they didn't always show the back of their tongue or "forgot" things, but still, it should have been divulged a whole lot sooner.

Anyhow, you should not allow this technical nitpicking to deter you from trying Murder Ends the Song, because it is a genuine and pleasantly surprising whodunit with an original background placed in a familiar setting. And it is a notable entry in the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection. I just found the effect of the clues on the overall plot to be a bit weird. But, again, that's just me nitpicking the finer details of a clever and enjoyable mystery novel.


A Plan of Attack

"You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organization, the full extent of which you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realize."
- Professor Moriarty (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894)
Yes, I know. I know. I allowed way too much time to pass between this blog-post and my last review of Case Closed, which dates back to late August of 2016, but here we are again with, perhaps, the most important volume in the series and the plot heavily involves the black-clad men from the crime syndicate – known as the Black Organization. A volume jam-packed with revelations and progress in the main story-line that runs like a red-thread through the entire series!

The 58th volume of Case Closed, known in some quarters as Detective Conan, is basically a novel-length story.

Traditionally, this volume begins where the previous one ended: Rena Mizunashi is still in the hospital, closely guarded, but an operative from the syndicate has infiltrated the hospital and is posing as a patient. So the last volume saw Conan assisting the FBI with ferreting the agent from a group of three patients, which he accomplished by tricking each of them in picking up his cell phone from the floor. However, Conan's discovery triggered a large-scale battle-of-wits between the FBI and the Black Organization. Both groups have some very familiar faces on their team.

In the corner of the FBI, there's the head of the operation against the syndicate, James Black, who is accompanied by Jodie Sterling and Shuichi Akai – considered by the Organization to be their most dangerous opponent and refer to him as the "Silver Bullet." Gin even mentions to Vodka and Vermouth that "he's got The Boss shaking." Akai's longstanding feud with the Organization yields some very interesting revelations, harking all the way back to a case from the second volume, but Eisuke Hondo also learns the truth about his father and sister. And how all of that relates to Rena Mizunashi. So this volume definitely provides some answers to the overarching story-line of the series.

On the opposing side are the aforementioned syndicate agents, Gin, Vodka and Vermouth, who are backed up by a pair motor-riding snipers, Chianti and Korn. They pose a tricky challenge to Conan and the FBI agents in the hospital, because they're effectively trapped there with no apparent way of getting Mizunashi out of there. James Black points out that one wrong move on their side might result in them having to effect an escape "through a hail of bullets."

So this quickly moves in an almost city-wide game of cat-and-mouse between the Black Organization and the FBI, in which the former seems to have the upper-hand over the latter – flooding the hospital with compact time-bombs and patients of several catastrophes they created in the city. I won't give further details about this dangerous mental tango between both parties, but the result is, what I dubbed, a "Strategic Detective." A series such as Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning is good example of a "Strategic Detective," but a better comparison, for the readers of this blog, would probably be the scheme Nero Wolfe cooked up in Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang (1965) to ensnare a bunch of corrupt FBI agents. It makes for a very good, fun and captivating read!

The last four chapters seems to ease the volume back in the normal pattern and rhythm of the series, which begins when Conan and the Junior Detective League bump into Police-Detective Takagi at a hotel where they were eating lunch – learning from him that a murder has just been discovered there. Apparently, the head of a foreign agency was murdered in his office, on the 39th floor, "shot several times in the chest" and evidence suggests the gunman is still in the vicinity.

Three foreigners, who speak perfectly Japanese, turn out to be the main suspects, but one of them was a character introduced in the previous chapters: Agent André Camel of the FBI! So this minor murder case is a convenient excuse to tell Camel's back-story, but the Black Organization also rears its head. One of their operatives, Kir, has received orders to kill Akai and a body cam/wire allow Gin and Vodka to watch the whole show. The volume ends with a cliffhanger when Akai is shot.

Oh, the murder case, in which Camel became a suspect, was typical for an Aoyama story that involved Western characters. The solution always hinges on language. Or a misunderstanding between two different languages (e.g. The Spider Mansion Murder Case from vol. 25).

While this was not a volume brimming with locked rooms, dying messages, code crackers and other kind of detective stories, this was still one of the more rewarding entries for long-time readers. You're finally getting some answers, but also because you finally got to see Conan getting involved in a serious tangle with the Black Organization. So this was welcome break from the regular pattern of the series and one that reminded why I love this series: it is, as another eloquent fan of the series so scholarly described it, a "superspecialawesome volume."

Well, since I'm already two volumes behind on the release schedule, I'll pick up the next volume from TBR-pile ASAP and then fetch those other two volumes. I might also do a blog-post about my favorite locked room mysteries from the series. But that's something for the coming weeks. Stay tuned!


To Wake the Dead

"You say you've known magicians and escape artists. Can you think of any trick that would explain how it was done?"
- Superintendent Hadley (John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man, 1935)
Several years ago, I posted a review of Gauntlet of Fear (2012) by David Cargill, which was self-published and came with the kind of flaws one expects from such a venture, but the book is part of a short and very intriguing series – namely a locked room trilogy! So, not surprisingly, I always intended to return to this series of impossible crime novels and give it an opportunity to redeem itself. But first things first.

Cargill is a retired school teacher from Dumfries, Scotland, who's in his eighties and began to translate his "lifelong interest in stage magic and the writings of John Dickson Carr" in 2010. According to this author's comment, left as a response to a negative review, Cargill revealed he hoped his writing aspirations might produce enough proceeds to repay the Alzheimer nurses who looked after his wife until her death in 2010. So this drove Cargill to write three locked room novels: The Statue of Three Lies (2011), Gauntlet of Fear and The Cinderella Murders (2015), but what fueled their plots was his obvious love for stage magic and detective stories.

The Statue of Three Lies is dedicated to the memory of the undisputed master of the locked room mystery, Carr, whose work was "the inspiration that triggered this piece of fiction" woven "around an incident of fact" - which, in "Notes for Curious Minds," is shown to have been a "spooky" anecdote from chapter 2. A domestic incident of the unexplained that should have been narrated by Warwick Moss on an episode of The Extraordinary. Anyhow...

Cargill showed with The Statue of Three Lies that he's closely aligned with two of Carr's modern-day followers, Paul Halter and David Renwick. The book really could have been plotted and written by those two.

The Statue of Three Lies takes place in 1966, making this a historical mystery, but the seemingly impossible murder, which is the central problem of the plot, happened fourteen years previously – during the early 1950s in a large, sprawling place called Maskelyne Hall. Jack Ramsden was "a craftsman," who loved cabinet making and magic as an art form, using "all of his ingenuity in the production of props for stage illusionists." Ramsden even began to perform as an amateur magician, but tragically died in a shooting accident when he was setting the stage for an elaborate trick in the library of his home on the eve of his wife's birthday.

Every year, on the 31th October, which is both the night of Isabella Ramsden's birthday and the anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini, Ramsden "entertained the household with his latest version of an old illusion." Jack worked tirelessly to improve upon the ideas of the great masters of illusions, past and present, such as a famous levitation act, but the last trick was supposed to be a recreation of "the Bullet Catching Trick of Chung Ling Soo" - using a different kind of rifle. However, when he returned from a trip to the United States, where he attended a convention for magicians, he had become wildly enthusiastic about an illusion he witnessed there. He compared it with The Substitution Trunk and wanted to recreate it with the entire library acting as the trunk. The trick would include "a transformation scene of earth shattering dimension" using R.L. Stevenson's characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but an invisible intruder turned this amateur performance into an impossible murder.

David Cargill
Ramsden insisted that every inch of the library was searched, to show nobody was being hidden, while the windows were being locked and the curtains drawn. The lodge-keeper, groom and gardener, Old George Gardner, was outside guarding to windows to make sure "there was no jiggery pokery." The large fire place was blocked and entirely filled by a solid steel, built-in safe. A room that was, for all intents and purposes, a sealed one!

So, finally, he was locked inside the empty library and the sole key was in constant possession of his wife, which set the stage for the bizarre sequence of events that happened next – such as a series of strange sentences of a one-sided conversation emanating from the library.

They heard him say "leave that alone," "put your mask on" and "no, no... don't touch that," which is followed by the report of a gunshot, but, when they enter the room, they only find a dying man. The shot apparently came from the mounted rifle on the stand. Since nobody was in the room, or could have entered it, the death was filed away as an accident.

So, here you have, what could be, the premise of Halter novel: a seemingly impossible murder that has occurred in the past and the resembled the premise of the locked room murder from Le brouillard rouge (The Crimson Fog, 1988), which also occurred on the makeshift stage made for the performance of magic tricks. However, the subsequent investigation resembled a (later-period) episode of Renwick's Jonathan Creek.

After fourteen years, Ramsden's daughter, Laura, contacts Professor Giles Dawson, who specialized himself in the history of stage illusions and is a member of The Magic Circle, but also stayed at Maskelyne Hall as a child. Dawson credited Ramsden's stories about Houdini's exploits as the root cause of his fascination with stage magic. Well, Laura wrote a letter to Dawson telling him that she has began to believe that her father's death was meant to happen and how "the past is closing in" on the family. So she wants him to attend her mother's seventieth birthday party and help prove that her father's fatal accident was murder.

What follows is largely a type of sedentary investigation, which I call "Mainly Conversation," since a considerable amount of time is spend sitting around and talking. And not always about subjects that are immediately relevant to the problem at hand. However, some of these conversations were interesting and covered a whole gamut of topics: such as the story of the brief, but impossible, disappearance of a diver from his old-fashioned diving suit, which is given a rather gruesome explanation. There's a talk about the scientific nature of coincidences and several famous events are brought up, which include the coincidences surrounding the Titanic disaster and two Presidential assassination. Ghosts are also brought up, followed by a rather useless séance, as is the locked room mystery itself. Of course, the Dr. Gideon Fell's famous and often cited Locked Room Lecture is discussed. So these parts are not entirely without interest, but neither are they of integral importance to the overall plot.

However, Dawson does some actual detective work. One of the first things he does, upon his arrival at Maskelyne Hall, is solving a Jonathan Creek-style riddle that gave him to the combination to the safe in the fireplace. The safe contains a clue that eventually brings him to Boston, in America, where learns of the illusion, witnessed by Ramsden, of "the disappearance of an individual" from "a room that was locked and had no windows" - a locked room filled with magicians as an audience! Dawson also gets an idea or two from the titular statue, which is a statue of John Harvard that earned its nickname for the many inconsistencies surrounding it. So he does not just sit around discussing esoteric subjects or ride his hobbyhorse.

My explanation for the locked room murder of Jack Ramsden was very, very close to the one provided by Cargill. I think my solution can be regarded as a simplified version of the actual explanation, but Cargill's overdressing of the trick prevented from it being a disappointment. Cargill took a similar approach to the impossible crime angle as Ramsden took to stage illusions: trying to improve on the old masters and taking a shot at adding "a new dimension to a classic." And he thoroughly refurbished one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Honestly, I appreciate the work Cargill put in reinvigorating this trick. It definitely was more inspired than the whodunit angle or the second murder this eventually provided.

So, The Statue of Three Lies has its fair share of problems, two of the most ones are the obvious absence of an editor and an annoying overuse of exclamation marks, but the book is rather grandfatherly in nature. It's as if your grandfather is telling you a story about bloody murder, family secrets and locked rooms, but the problem is that its told at an old man's pace with a liberal amount of side distractions and irrelevant stories. But there's something kind and benevolent about the whole book. Cargill's love for John Dickson Carr, impossible crime fiction and magic tricks is also very evident, which makes some of its flaws forgivable to a Carrian reader.

However, if you decide to give The Statue of Three Lies a shot, you should keep in mind that this is a self-published novel that missed out on some much needed editing and came with the expected flaws of a debuting novelist. So readers, purely looking for a brilliant locked room novel that can rival Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) or John Sladek's Black Aura (1974), should probably look elsewhere. I, on the other hand, will take a look at the third and final entry in this series purely for the sake of completion. So you have a review of The Cinderella Murders to look forward to somewhere in the not so distant future.


Scouting for Danger

"It is the unofficial force – the Baker Street Irregulars."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, 1890)
Manly Wade Wellman was an old-fashioned "fictioneer," known in some quarters as "the dean of fantasy writers," but he also wrote detective stories, science-fiction, westerns and juvenile fiction. A versatile writer whose bibliography encompasses a wide sweep of (sub) genres and this is reflected in the two books and short story reviewed on this blog, which comprises of a hybrid-mystery (Devil's Planet, 1942), a private-eye novel (Find My Killer, 1947) and an impossible crime story - "A Knife Between Brothers" collected in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014).

The subject of this blog-post is one of Wellman's lesser-known novels, which, once again, belongs to a completely different sub-genre than his previously reviewed work. One that can be placed in the category of juvenile mysteries, but also, very snugly, fits into the niche corner of boy scout fiction and scouting literature in general. A peculiar field of fiction now only of apparent interest to collectors.

Holmes "Sherlock" Hamilton is the sixteen-year-old protagonist of The Sleuth Patrol (1947) and the son of the police chief of Hillwood, who wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but for the moment he's still in the scouts and the opening of the book finds him in his basement den – one that resembles "an outlaw hide-out." The walls are decorated with crossed fencing foils, a couple of grim looking "Most Wanted" posters and tacked-up certificates of Scout achievements. A corner table functions as forensic laboratory were fingerprints can be taken with ink, ground pencil lead or white talcum.

Sherlock is eager to help his father, who's also the chairman of the Troop committee, by using his den as a gathering place for the formation of a new Troop. A handful of boys show up: Pete Criley, Harry McMurray and Chuck Schaefer (who reads Ellery Queen), but the three Scouts taking center-stage are Sherlock, "Doc" John Watson and the wisecracking Max Hinkel. So this makes the book really feel like a predecessor of Robert Arthur's The Three Investigators.

One thing this group of boys have in common, besides being Scouts, is that they love detective stories ("we're all Hawkshaws at heart"), which makes it a logical decision to become Scout Detectives. They call their newly formed patrol the (sleuth) Hounds. The second chapter, entitled "The Case of the Bean Burglar," provides Sherlock with his opportunity to shine and quickly solves the case, but his interference will come back to haunt the young detective. A month later, during a school holiday, their Scoutmaster takes them on an outdoors camping trip and this provides the Hound Patrol with a number of problems and challenges – from a friendly rival with the Eagle Patrol to a rundown, reputedly haunted, house in the middle of the woods.

First of all, the car of the Assistant Scoutmaster, Mr. Brimmer, disappears in the middle of the night and this provides the plot with a borderline impossible theft, because how was the (noisy) car started without anyone waking up? Why did they fail to find any of the tracks with the distinctive zigzag pattern? I should probably have tagged this blog-post as an impossible crime, but this was really a slight and easily solvable problem without any real emphasis on the apparent impossibility of the situation. To be honest, the entire plot, what they call, waver thin and relies heavily on the Scouts showcasing their physical-and mental prowess to solve problems and get out of tight situations. A part of the middle section tells of a competition between the Hounds and Eagles, which, for example, showed them using their wits to try and win a swimming race.

I was strangely reminded of Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, both the manga and animated series, which also had physical battle-of-wits and logical (survivor) games. Of course, they were a whole lot less deadly in The Sleuth Patrol, but they're definitely related. And, yes, the combination of the camping trip and the criminal angle of the abandoned house in the woods recalls some of the disastrous camping trips of the Junior Detective League from Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan).

The haunted house
But the plot-thread of the haunted house, tied to both the burglary from the second chapter and the car theft, is far from complex and only gives Sherlock an opportunity to showcase his skill set when he finds himself trap at the place – alongside a couple of gun-toting criminals. I got the impression this book was written with the idea of showing young teenagers the advances of taking their homework and physical exercises seriously. For example, when Sherlock finds himself trapped in the dark cellar he deduces, using math, that "the basement of the haunted house was a deep one," once inch short of ten feet, by simply counting the number of stairs and estimating their height. He also showed how his physical fitness allowed him to sneak around the criminals and escape from their clutches unscathed.

So the book really is closer to adventure stories and boy scout fiction than to the juvenile mysteries of The Three Investigators.

Finally, The Sleuth Patrol ends with an interesting and somewhat unique event, in which hundreds of Scouts, from different groups, are summoned to help the police comb the swamp for a wounded man. So you can also view the book as a recruitment tool for the Scouts, because Wellman painted an attractive and exciting picture of the life of Scouts. Even if you eliminated the presence of the criminals. It reminded me of the traditional school-camp droppings. So one can only imagine how attractive this must have looked to children and (young) teenagers from the pre-1950s (i.e. last generations before TV-and internet).

So, plot-wise, The Sleuth Patrol is a very thin detective story, but still a well-written and fun read, which told a boy scout story on top of the premise of a juvenile mystery. Admittedly, that was not entirely without interest. Probably not to everyone's taste, but worth a shot to readers of juvenile (mystery) fiction.


Trouble in Paradise

"Some of us, mon cher, see beauty in curious places."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs, 1943)
Last month, I reviewed In at the Death (1952) by "Francis Duncan," the penname of William Underhill, which was one of his last detective novels that was recently pulled from literary limbo by Random House – where it languished for over half a century. So far, under their Vintage label, five of Duncan's mysteries have been salvaged and were reissued beautifully illustrated book-covers.

Well, I found In at the Death good enough to warrant further investigation into Duncan's work and one title, in particular, beckoned my attention: So Pretty a Problem (1950). Surprisingly, the book revealed itself as a full-fledged impossible crime story that was completely overlooked by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991). I realize this may not sound very convincing to regular readers of this blog, but I was unaware of the books' status as a locked room mystery and it was not what initially attracted my attention – which was the pretty color-scheme of the front-cover, I swear! However, it did make me like this particular title and its author even more.

So Pretty a Problem finds Mordecai Tremaine holidaying in the coastal town of Falsporth, Cornwall. Tremaine is a retired tobacconist, a sentimental reader of Romantic Stories and an amateur criminologist with a tailing reputation as a murder-magnat, but he has promised his friend, Chief Inspector Jonathan Boyce, not "to become involved with yet another body." As to be expected, this promise was doomed to end in a bloody and violent death.

Tremaine was on the beach, taking a peaceful catnap in a deck-chair, when a woman approached him and uttered these startling words: "Please. Come quickly. Please. I've killed my husband."

The woman in question is Helen Carthallow, wife of the now late Adrian Carthallow, who was the enfant terrible of the artistic world and used his widely varied talents with the paintbrush to stir up controversy – earning him a number of enemies. But the one who ended up shooting him was his wife. However, she claimed "it was an accident." They were joking around and Adrian gave her his firearm, but she had no idea it was loaded and the gun went off. Or so she says.

Inspector Penross and Tremaine immediately notice several inconsistencies in her statement and the crime-scene poses a number of questions: who defaced an unfinished portrait by heavily smearing it with paint? Who moved the writing desk to the middle of the room and why? Why were medical forceps and sunglasses present at the scene of the crime? Why did Helen mutter, "there's no one here," when she and Tremaine reached the top of the stairs leading to the Carthallow house? On top of these questions, the medical evidence does not preclude suicide!

So, either the shooting was a premeditated murder or Helen tried to make a suicide look like an accident to secure his life insurance, which came with the usual suicide clause, because the involvement of a third party seems all but impossible.

The house where the shooting took place, called Paradise, stands "on a headland that's broken away from the main cliff" and "can only be reached by an iron bridge." It reminded Tremaine of a medieval stronghold and when the tide was full water swept under the bridge itself, which turned the whole place into an island and completed "the illusion of a moated caste" - even having a (sort of) watchful guard for the bridge. A sick, bedroom-bound woman, named Matilda Vickery, who has a clear view from her window ("my spyglass") of the cliffs, the winding path and the bridge.

Matilda can see everyone who goes across that bridge and she was having a painful episode on the day of the murder, which kept her awake, but the handful of people she saw could all be accounted for. So the death of the artist is either a domestic tragedy, whether it is murder or suicide, or they are faced with an impossible crime!

However, here's where Duncan made a stylistic mistake in the telling of the story. So Pretty a Problem is divided into three sections and the first part, "Quary: At the Time of the Corpse," tells how Tremaine was roused from his deck-chair and plunged into a murder investigation. It makes the reader genuinely curious about how this crime was accomplished. But, after roughly sixty pages, the second part, "Background: Before the Corpse," takes a lengthy detour into the past. A one-hundred page flashback detailing how Tremaine came into contact with the famous painter, fleshing out the character of the victim and showing some of his artistic shenanigans – like "the Christine Neale affair" and "the controversy over The Triumphal March of the Nations."

Duncan was a good writer with a pleasant, intelligent writing-style, which made the middle section not exactly a chore to read, but this portion should have preceded the discovery of the murder. After the opening chapters, you want to get on with the book as a detective story and not be thrown into a character study. So, not a mortal sin, but something you should keep in mind when you pick this one up.

In the last part of the book, "Exposition: Following the Corpse," the red herrings are separated from the genuine clues and questions from the opening chapters are being answered, which show that the crime was, indeed, a locked room murder. The explanation nicely fitted the scene of the crime and was, while relatively simple, a solid and not an entirely unoriginal example of the form. What I particular liked was the motive for this subterfuge: the murderer was aware of the fact that the sick woman, at the window, could see who was crossing the bridge. So this person had to do some trickery to remain unseen.

Somehow, I managed to overlook a prominent clue to the second-half of the trick. I had to thumb back into the book to see if it was actually mentioned. Yes, there it was for all to see. But I simply did not notice it. The locked room trick is not in the same league as the best by the likes of John Dickson Carr or Edward D. Hoch, but, as said before, not a bad one and rather liked it. And the fact that I did not expect a locked room added to the enjoyment.
Anyway, Duncan also did a fine job in explaining the other plot-threads, which revealed the events surrounding the murder were heavily influenced by the Merrivalean "blinkin' awful cussedness of things in general." A potentially perfect murder torn asunder by the unpredictable machinations of the heart. The solution is only marred by the somewhat vague motive of the killer, but that's only a minor complaint.

Regardless of some minor imperfections and smudges, I found So Pretty a Problem an enjoyable and fairly cleverly constructed detective novel, which had a genuinely interesting and baffling premise. But as good and enjoyable as this well-written mystery novel is its detective-character, Mordecai Tremaine. A gentle soul who loves romance stories, young lovers, criminology and has a heart that yearns for mystery and possesses a lovely imagination. Several times, he allows his over-active imagination to venture "into realms where fantastic things might happen." As he imagines the time when smugglers used the caves in the cliff or envisioned the crime-scene as a medieval castle. He also has a great taste in art, as is shown when he visits the National Gallery, where "he was genuinely stirred by the clear lines of the Dutch school." Tremaine is one of the most warm and likable detectives from the (late) Golden Age period.

So, I will definitely return to the other ones from this series in the (hopefully) not so distant future. Stay tuned!


Red Flash

"After all the risk and labour of cremating the body... there had still been left clear evidence that a man had been murdered."
- Dr. John Thorndyke (R. Austin Freeman's The Stoneware Monkey, 1939)
Margaret Armstrong was an American magazine illustrator, book designer and author of three standalone mysteries, which garnered praise from the eminent Howard Haycraft, but she also caught the attention of a present-day genre-historian, Curt Evans – who called her most famous detective novel "a worthy enrollee in the Mary Roberts Rinehart school of crime fiction." But the story, pleasingly, "emphasizes detection over the inducement of shudders and shivers."

The book in question was Armstrong's debut mystery, Murder in Stained Glass (1939), rapidly followed by The Man with No Face (1940) and The Blue Santo Murder Mystery (1941), for which she drew on her own family legacy. Armstrong's father and sister, David and Helen Armstrong, were well-known artists in the field of stained glass. So the plot has a whiff of authenticity.

Murder in Stained Glass begins with a traditional reflection that gave the "Had-I-But-Known" school of detection its name: the protagonist, Miss Harriet Trumbull, ponders how the weather "often made a lo of difference in people's lives" and if "the sun had not been shining on one particular Monday afternoon," last March, events would have taken a different course or not have happened at all – since she would have been present in Bassett's Bridge. A quaint, rural town in Connecticut, USA.

Miss Trumbull was invited to the home of an old friend, Charlotte Blair, who lives in the New England countryside, in a rather gloomy place, where she also has a cousin, Phyllis Blair, staying as a guest. She's also the one who drove Miss Trumbull to the family home and on their way they pass the glass shop of the famous stained glass artist, Frederick Ullathorne. The famous artist used to have his studio in New York, but moved shop to Bassett's Bridge, because he hates publicity and visitors kept walking on him after he secured a commission for a cathedral window – which threw the short-tempered artist into a rage.

A temperament that also manifested itself in a quarrel between the artist and the man in charge of firing the glass, Jake Murphy, who, according to Ullathorne, used some red flash, a sort of glass they rarely use, in the big cathedral window. It would be "ripped out as soon" as possible and Jake would be docked for what it cost, but Jake told his boss "he'd see him in hell first." We also learn that Ullathorne not only has a temper, but also petty, as he's jealous of his own son, Leo.

Ullathorne never wasted much money on educating his son and used the good-looking boy as a model, but recently, he began to see Phyllis. A woman his father is interested in. So these are exactly the kind of disturbing undercurrents one expects to find in a detective with a small village setting and not long after Miss Trumbull's arrival a young worker from glass shop announces he has found charred bones in the kiln. And here I have to point out an amazing coincidence.

Murder in Stained Glass was published in the same year as R. Austin Freeman's The Stoneware Monkey (1939), which also dealt with an artist's studio and the cremated remains of a murder victim in a kiln. The similarities end there, but the circumstances in which the victims were disposed of by the murderer were very unusual and the only two (known) examples were released in the same year. However, the time between the writing and publications of both novels were too short for one to have influenced the other, but still a noteworthy coincidence and you have to wonder if something at the time gave both authors a similar idea – such as an article about a real-life case or simply a book we're not aware of. Who knows?

Anyway, the evidence in the glass shop, a bullet-hole in a window and a recently washed axe, suggests the victim was shot, chopped to bits and stuffed in the kiln. The floor slopes down to the drain, in the corner, which would have made it very easy to clean up the whole mess in mere minutes. But who was killed? Ullathorne has not yet returned from New York and Jake seems to have disappeared.

Miss Trumbull showed herself to be "a regular gadfly," or a "Meddlesome Matty," when she decides to stick her nose into official police business. She pokes around for a mysterious figure from Ullathorne's sketchbook, "the dark lady," which proved to be skillfully tied to a second murder. Usually, these additional murders, occurring late in a story, turn out to be filler material and the overall plot could easily do without them, but here such a late body proved to be very important to the plot. A plot that was cleverly constructed and pleasingly toyed around with a classic trick, which was applied here with some originality. There was also an interesting and late clue of a vandalized, stained glass window.

But as good as the plot was the writing, pacing and some of the characters. I particular loved Armstrong's depiction of Bassett's Bridge, which is awash with rumormongers and the village is described as "having a grand time" - as they have not "enjoyed themselves so much since McKinley was shot." A very honest description of the gossip-and rumor mill of a such a small place as Bassett's Bridge.

She sketches an interesting, if unlikable, portrait of the policeman in charge, Skinner, who seems to have a severe lack of scruples. Early on, he tells Miss Trumbull he first success came when he jailed, a presumable innocent, man on an arson charge, because the old guy was "better off in jail than anywhere else." At one point, he rushes off to "third degree" a tramp, but later admits it was "a washout" and, "what was left of him," was let go in the end.

So, all in all, I found Murder in Stained Glass to be a solid mystery novel, which had a pleasant balance between plot, characterization and setting. As a bonus, there was the specialized background about stained glass casting the story in "a blaze of colour and light." It give the book itself a bit of character. My sole complaint is the rather short length of the book. A little more than a novella, which made for a quick, fast-paced read. A very, very quick read.

Regardless, the praise Armstrong received is well-deserved and I can recommend Murder in Stained Glass as a nice little example of the Golden Age detective story.