8/19/14

Keep Your Head in the Game


"Now, I give you fair warning... either you or your head must be off, and that in about half no time!"
- Queen of Hearts (Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)
The penname of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee, "Ellery Queen," is synonymous with such tropes as the "Dying Message" and "A Challenge to the Reader," in which the reader is invited to pick up the gauntlet and solve the problem them self.

So, not very surprisingly, I wormed through practically the entire series when I discovered the phenomenon known as the Golden Age detective story. There is, however, a problematic issue I have nurtured over the years regarding their locked room mysteries and impossible crime tales. They can be too clever for their own good (The Chinese Orange Mystery, 1934), mind numbingly obvious (The Door Between, 1937) or shoot themselves in their own foot with a daft explanation (The American Gun Mystery, 1933), but the worst of them are the ones that are actually pretty good – except that they are buried in bad or little-known, short stories. The King is Dead (1952) and A Room to Die In (1965) are examples of good locked room ploys stuck in horrendous novels and "The Three Widows," from Q.B.I.: Queen's Bureau of Investigation (1955), is a case-in-point of a good, but obscure, story that has one of their cleverest impossible methods. "Snowball in July," from the same collection, also deserves a mention, because it came up with an alternative solution to make a train disappear between two stations. 

Well, I stumbled across another one of their great ideas for a baffling locked room scenario, but, even more baffling, it was condemned to obscurity from its conception. The Case of His Headless Highness (1973) is a Janus Mystery Jigsaw Puzzle with a short, open-ended story by Ellery Queen on the back of the box. You're supposed to solve the mystery before finishing the puzzle and the complete picture will show if you were correct, which is a novel idea, except that it probably didn't reach the audience that their novels, magazine stories, radio plays and TV-and movie adaptations had.

The Case of His Headless Highness begins with Ellery Queen and Inspector Jiggs standing over the slain remains of "His Royal Ex-Highness King Musaka of Zharkan," who escaped to America after a revolt and the new ruler has put a bounty on his head – which made Musaka particular suspicious and wouldn't allow anyone in his room at the boarding house. Musaka was basically a hermit with a strong lock on the door with a peephole in it and the only person allowed to enter was his loyal servant, Igor, but someone still managed to pass the secured door and get away with the king's head!

What makes the solution particular interesting is that it doesn't hinge on manipulating locks, windows or your perception of time-and space, or the "blinkin' cussedness of things in general," but on how to lure a recluse out of a tightly locked room – and still make it appear as if the killer had all the maneuverability of Jacob Marley's ghost. If The Case of His Headless Highness (or idea) had been fleshed in an actual short story, it probably would've been one of their most well-known shorter works of fiction and delivered another classic locked room mystery rivaling "The Lamp of God" (from The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1940). But what did they do with it? A one-page, opened ended story on the back of a box for a jigsaw puzzle!

You can read the story for yourself at Ellery Queen: A Website on Deduction and at the end of the page, you can click a link to a picture of the completed puzzle showing the solution.

By the way, Dannay was reputedly fond of changing story titles when he edited Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and couldn't help but think that The Call of the Land Pirate would've been a great alternative title. If you have read the story and saw the pictured solution, I recommend you read this definition of "Land Pirate" and you'll have to agree with me.

8/18/14

Solving the Unsolvable


"In my cases, sir, you can have practically everything."
- Dr. Gideon Fell ("The Hangman Won't Wait," collected in The Door to Doom, 1980) 
Yes, I know. I have criminally neglected this blog over the past few months, but, hopefully, activity will now revert back to its regular pace without any interruptions. And now, without further ado...

The Third Bullet and Other Stories of Detection (1954) is a collection of short stories by John Dickson Carr, one of the Old Masters of the Impossible Crime tale, who seldomly disappoints – even if I knew a few stories from other books and incarnations (i.e. radio plays). A novella, "The Third Bullet," opens the collections and stars a prototype of Colonel March (e.g. The Department of Queer Complaints, 1940), Colonel Marquis, tasked with looking into the seemingly impossible shooting of Charles Mortlake. Mortlake was shot in his pavilion, which exits where either bolted shut or under observation and the evidence points to one person. The explanation follows Merrivale's Law of the "blinkin' cussedness of things in general," which made an extremely confusing murder appear to be completely impossible, however, it's main weakness is its length. It should've been much, much shorter. I can also recommend the mini-anthology Locked Room Puzzles (1986), which includes this novella and three others by Bill Pronzini, Clayton Rawson and Edward D. Hoch.

"The Clue of the Red Wig" details the peculiar circumstances surrounding the murder of Hazel Loring, a columnist with a loyal following of housewives who read her weekly column, "Smile and Grow Fit," whose denuded body was found on a park bench in Victoria Square on a cold December night – most of her clothes neatly folded besides her. A young, cheeky Franco-British journalist, Jacqueline Dubois, takes on the case on behalf of the Daily Record and helps Inspector Adam Bell find a clever answer to the baffling problem. Miss Dubois herself brings some Gallic flair to a quintessential English detective story, saying such things like "hot ziggety dame!" and offering to make love to the Assistant Commissioner in exchange for a scoop. And, of course, casting a young, French journalist as one of the detectives is nothing more than a poorly disguised nod and a wink at one of Carr's favorite locked room mysteries, Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) by Gaston Leroux.

"The House in Goblin Wood" is one of few short story appearances for the Old Maestro, Sir Henry Merrivale, and it's generally considered to be on par with the best full-length cases of H.M. Twenty years before the opening of the story, a young girl, named Vicky, disappeared from a house that was locked and bolted from the inside – only to reappear a week later with a story of having lived with the fairies. When she returns to the house two decades later, she disappears again under similar circumstances, however, this time it becomes a grim fairy-tale. This is like G.K. Chesterton at his best: treacherously benevolent on the surface.

"The Wrong Problem" is a semi-inverted mystery with the tendency to twist and turn, in which Dr. Gideon Fell has a talk with a man by a lake, located in a valley in Somerset, about a crime that has been buried in the distant past. There's an artificial island in the lake with a summerhouse and the man was suspected to be responsible for the death of two of his family members, who died in the summerhouse. One of them in a bare, top-floor room with bars decorating the sole window and the only door was under constant observation. The method was recycled from another story, but, as a whole, it was nice, leisurely and well clued detective story.

"The Proverbial Murder" involves the fatal shooting of Dr. Ludwig Meyer, a German refugee, working a dissertation on atoms and the police surrounded the cottage at the time, because his English wife had reported him as a spy. Ardent readers of Carr will probably figure out large swats of the solution before Dr. Fell. There are bits and pieces that cropped in other stories, but even without that it's not that difficult to get on the right track. A simple, but nice, detective-meets-spy story.

I was already familiar with "The Locked Room" as a radio play, in sound and script, in which a book collector, Francis Seton, is assaulted inside his locked and guarded office, but Dr. Fell makes short work of the problem. And, to be honest, the story is a notch or two below Carr's best and the locked room problem/solution impressed me as sloppy in their presentation. Not all that bad, but also far from the best.

"The Man from Paris" shows why John Dickson Carr is grossly underrated as a writer of historical mystery-and adventure stories and here he combines it with his talent to imitate 19th century fiction writers. In the Dr. Gideon Fell mystery The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), Carr wrote a completely imaginary, but very convincing, passage from a lost Edgar Allan Poe tale. Here a Parisian travels to America to right a wrong, but is confronted with a dying woman and her will that has disappeared under impossible circumstances, however, as a mystery, it’s only of interest for the secret identity of one of the characters – and the historical atmosphere of mid-19th century America, if you enjoy historical mystery. By the way, while I was reading the story, I suddenly wondered who the president was at the time and the story immediately answered with a reference to Zachary Taylor. As to say, here dummy. Hey, it could've been James Polk, right?

And thus concludes my first, proper review in what feels like ages and I have still failed in giving my all-time favorite mystery writer a bad review, which I solely blame on Carr for insisting on being an unapologetic mystery writer. I mean, how can snooty purist like me take umbrage at a man who loudly proclaimed: "...I wanted to write detective stories. I don't mean that I wanted to write great novels, or any nonsense like that! I mean that I simply damn well wanted to write detective stories." It's an attitude that's strongly reflected in his work and it's a stance that's still hugely appreciated! 

8/3/14

Liquidation of a Businessman


"X. The unknown quantity, who may upset all our calculations. It's fatal to forgot him. Whenever you make a list of possible criminals, you are apt to put yourself in the blinkers and forget that anyone exists outside of your list. Always put in X, and keep a sharp look-out for him."
- Inspector Mallett (Tenant for Death, 1937)
"Cyril Hare" was the adopted pseudonym of Judge Alfred A.G. Clarke, who drew liberally from his education and professional background for his mystery novels. Clarke had studied law as well as history and was called to the Bar in 1924, where he worked as a barrister in the criminal courts, until the outbreak of World War II – during which he served as a judge's marshal. In 1950, Clarke became a judge and traveled the court circuit. A "gig" that was at the heart of what many still consider to be Hare's masterpiece, Tragedy at Law (1942), which I would recommend for the portrayal of the life of a Circuit Judge alone.

Tenant for Death (1937) was the first to appear under the Cyril Hare byline and plays on the motif of the shady financier that gained popularity in the years following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. In a way, Tenant for Death is a bit different from other Hare mysteries I have read, because the resolution wasn't a matter of law or hinged on a passage from history. There is, however, a clever piece of misdirection revealed in its conclusion and, while it's a dry read at times, the story displayed what we'd call today a social conscience – which translates in bits of social commentary and subtly showing the difference in lifestyles between the poor and rich.

Nevertheless, judging by the story's content, I doubt Hare's political sympathy was with the left. There's an amusing scene, in which a communist lorry driver picks up one of the characters (ex-jailbird), but when the driver finds out his passenger is wanted for questioning he dumps his comrade in the middle of nowhere. In the pouring rain. Leaving him with nothing more than the clothes on his back and an empty tin jug. Hare saw the social problems of his time, but a solution uttered by one of the other characters, on how it's good for young people to do Empire Building in Kenya instead of loitering in the Old Country, would be considered politically incorrect in today's world.

Anyhow, enough of the background noise in Tenant for Death and lets turn to the plot itself, which focuses on the business endeavors of Lionel Ballantine, the mystery man of financial world, who balanced his businesses between a dozen different companies – known as the "Twelve Apostles." Unfortunately, Ballantine's business model has stopped working and disappears before everything comes crashing down around him. Ballantine's escape, however, ended in a dingy, obscure place called Daylesford Gardens, South Kensington. Two estate agents checking the inventory of the house discover the strangled remains of Ballantine in the smoking room of the house. A newspaper saw the previous tenant, Mr. Collin James, enter the building with an unknown man, but left the place by himself.

Enter Inspector Mallett, whose unraveling of the case is a slow, meticulous yet satisfying process, but the downside is that it slackened the pace of the story considerably. On the other hand, Tenant of Death balances plot, detective work and characterization satisfactory and Hare allows the reader to drift on a treacherously slow tempo towards the final chapter – where he took me by surprise. And about the opening quote, I think Hare should've gone with The Unknown Quantity as book title. It fits the story better and does justice to the clever solution.

I should probably also reference Trent's Last Case (1913) by E.C. Bentley, which is an obvious comparison made before, but thought Tenant for Death shares some common ground with Nicholas Blake's There's Trouble Brewing (1937). Not just for their political tone, but also in the kind of (detective) problems they explore in different settings and explanations. And, interestingly enough, they were both published in the same year.  

Tenant for Death is a solid, but slow moving, detective story and a better-than-average debut novel in this genre, which may prove to be treacherous grounds for smug and seasoned armchair detectives.

Lastly, if you're interested in giving this fox posing as a hare a shot, I would recommend the previously mentioned Tragedy at Law, Suicide Excepted (1939) and An English Murder (1951).

7/20/14

Unlocking the Truth


"There must be hundreds of these types of cases. People with unexplained mysteries, impossible crimes... we could make a difference. Provide answers the police never could."
- Anthony Rhys 
A fellow mystery blogger and author-in-waiting, P.J. Bergman, asked if I was interested in reviewing the first stories from his upcoming novel, which is an invitation I usually decline. The requests for reviews, interviews and "blog tours" are commonly made for the type of crime novels I try to avoid like an oncoming freight train, but there was something different about this request. I just can't quite put my finger on it.

The Locked Room is the title bestowed on this upcoming novel and it'll consist of a number of short stories, which forms an overarching narrative and very similar in set-up to Roy Huggins' 77 Sunset Strip (1959) and Bill Pronzini's Scattershot (1982) – and there are more similarities. They all feature private eyes trying to get a grip on a typical, drawing room-style problem: locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes!

"Private Eye" is the first chapter of The Locked Room and begins with the delivery of a package to Anthony Rhys, which contains a manuscript written by his brother, Kenneth, about their days as private investigators. However, the first case is a solo-act for Kenneth, who was an army major stationed in Iraq in 2004 and there he experienced his first brush with the impossible. A marine, Private First Class Frank Allsop, was ambushed and separated from his squad during a patrol, and the culprits "then disappeared into thin air" – leaving the private dead in a sealed bathroom of a rundown hotel.

The setting and background color of "Private Eye," the American occupation of Iraq, reminded me of two other war-time mysteries (recently) reviewed on this blog: Douglas Clarke's "Flashlights," published in The Strand Magazine in May of 1918, and Franklyn Pell’s Hangman Hill's (1946). There's, of course, the impossible problem of the former and the depiction of the uglier, personal side of a war of the latter. In this case, it's illegal gambling, pot smoking and yellow journalism. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to care for the explanation, because (IMHO) any variation of this solution destroys the effect you wish to accomplish with an impossible crime. Oh, it was explained well enough, especially under those circumstances, but I don't like a good locked room story to end like that.

"Diagnosis Cancer" is the second chapter of the book, in which Kenneth is dishonorably discharged from the army and has returned to Los Angeles, but the nasty cough from the previous story continues and is dragged to the hospital – where Kenneth meets a very unusual patient. Sean Erikson is a "guest of the state" on alleged charges of money laundering (his words) and now the mob may be after him, which is why he wants to get back to prison. And for a good reason: despite being handcuffed to the bed and sedated in a guarded hospital room, Erikson manages to disappear like consciousness faced with a chloroform soaked rag. I surprised myself how quickly I stumbled to the correct solution, but that takes nothing away from the story. Plot-wise, it's a massive improvement on "Private Eye." There's just one thing that was missing when they eventually found Erikson, but, logically, should've been on him and it's something that should be easily available in a hospital.  

"Window of Opportunity" is the last of the three, pre-published chapters of The Locked Room and the Rhys brothers have officially entered the detective business. Kenneth completed the exam for his private investigators license and Anthony cobbled together a website, which leads Emma Burton to their doorstep. Burton's parents died in what the police has labeled a murder/suicide, but there are still unanswered questions about the lack of fingerprints on the knife that killed her mother or the angle of the apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound that ended her father's life – and there's a locked room angle to case when the murderer becomes apparent. The only problem is that the murderer has a wrought iron alibi. It's a locked room problem similar to the one in Michael Collins' "No One Likes the Be Played for a Sucker," collected in the anthology All But Impossible! (1981), in which the killer, not the victim, was locked in a room at the time of the murder. Bergman's explanation is far more ambitious, complex and, as far as I can tell, completely original. But what I really admired about these stories is how the personal woes of Kenneth are used to advance the plot, instead of cannibalizing the story with reflections on his mortality and missed opportunities, which is why they became detectives – cause there are hospital bills that need to be paid.

In summation, it was about time for a new mystery writer, specializing in locked rooms, to appear on the scene and The Locked Room is shaping up to be an interesting entry in this sub genre. It also made me realize that I should finally sit down (one of these days) and write one myself as well as finally reading those locked room mysteries Mike Grost wrote.

7/16/14

Dislodged from Fiction


"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—"
- Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven, 1845)
In my previous post, "The Reader is Warned," I compiled a list of the worst locked room-and impossible crime novels read to date and I confessed it was nothing more than a filler post, but there was a serious plan to follow it up with a regular review.

Well, that plan was doomed to fail when I decided to read a 1965 reprint of a revised edition from the 1940s of Rupert T. Gould's Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1929), which aligns this reviews with the series of (filler) posts I made on real-life, "domesticated" locked room mysteries. You can find the five-part series here: I, II, III, IV and V. The extraordinary events, occurrences and problems described by Gould in Oddities took place on a far grander scale than the cutesy impossibilities, resembling a detective story, I collected from around the web.

However, I have to begin with the author himself, who, judging by the introduction written by Leslie Shepard, was somewhat of a character himself. Shepard described Gould as "a remarkably talented and versatile man," whose interests where as varied as it was impressive. Gould served in the Royal Navy, was a nautical and mechanical expert, dabbled in broadcasting and wrote books. It's also mentioned Gould spend twelve years on the cleaning and restoration of four historic marine chronometers made by John Harrison in the 18th century. Oh, and he had a room filled with ancient machines and a notice on the door reading: "HOME OF REST FOR AGED AND DECAYED TYPEWRITERS" and "NO DESERVING CASE EVER REFUSED ADMISSION." The research done in sourcing the origin of the stories, verifying statements from decades ago and fishing for documents in dusty, disarrayed archives is something to be admired when you realize it was done in a time historians in the distant future will simply refer to as B.G. (Before Google). There is, however, one downside: footnotes that can gobble up a good portion of the page and slow down your reading.

Anyhow, the Oddities collected in Gould's books differ from events and person still known today, especially among connoisseurs of the impossible crime story, while others were completely forgotten even at the time when the book was written – which is a shame. The legends and myths of 18th-and 19th century pop-culture were quite interesting, and how they were being discussed really didn’t differ all that much from how it goes today. Take this comment for example: "The Illustrated London News... took the question, and opened it columns to what proved to be quite an extensive correspondence," which Gould quoted extensively in the first chapter that looks at the devil's hoof-marks that appeared in 1855 after a heavy snowfall.

It Walks By Night!
The tracks appeared in several places and covered 40 to 100 miles. Even more curiously, the footprints appeared in the most of impossible and inaccessible of places, "on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open field." While the locals where convinced the devil was walking among them, the newspapers allowed their readers to speculate on the nature of the beast. The popular opinion was the footprints were made by an animal, but nobody could quite agree on what kind of animals could've made the tracks and how. Suggestions ranged from birds, badgers and even an escaped kangaroo, because a hoax perpetrated on such a scale seems even more preposterous – and which would've been a minor miracle in its own right. The only solution I have to offer can be found in The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow, whose treatment of the Devonshire footprints resemble an obstacle course from hell, nevertheless, it's acceptable enough considering the scale of the problem. Well, I have one other solution, but that would only work in a smaller environment and explaining it would make this post an even longer drag to read that it already is. And did I mention the chapters are littered with maps, diagrams and sketches? There are chapters that actually read like a detective story, but without a proper and satisfying conclusion.

The next chapter is dedicated to the Chase Vault in the cemetery of Christ Church, located on the island of Barbados, which gained an unsavory reputation for the "restless coffins" that were stored inside the sealed crypt. In the early 1800s, the vault became the property of the Chase family and the first to be interred was a two-year-old girl on February 22, 1808 and four years later she was accompanied by her older sister – who reputedly suffered great abuse at the hands of her father, Colonel Thomas Chase. The problems began a month later with the suicide Colonel Chase and the vault had to be reopened again, which showed the coffins had been thrown about the place. It still took a couple of years and repeats of this event for the story to gain some traction, but the precautions taken to prevent trickery came straight out of a locked room mystery. The floor was covered with sand, the place searched for hidden entrances and the governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere, stamped the fresh concrete slab with his seal and "several witnesses added private marks of their own," but upon reopening the crypt the coffins had been thrown around again. Gould quotes from several personal accounts and letters, some found in family archives, and cited three more accounts of dancing coffins in England and the Baltic.

John Dickson Carr attempted to explain this phenomena in The Sleeping Sphinx (1947) and Paul Halter's take can be found in a short story, "The Dead Dance at Night," collected in The Night of the Wolf (2007), of which the former has the most convincing explanation. The popular opinion of today is apparently that the story is "historically dubious," but allows me to offer an alternative explanation. By all accounts, Colonel Chase wasn't a beloved man, who may've been (morally) responsible for his daughter's death and it's not unimaginable the idea of payback in combination with too much time can make a person very creative. Of course, this person couldn't have anticipated Chase would die before the big reveal. This person could've kept the legend for going just for the sake of it and I think having fun is a good enough motive in the Barbados of the early 1800s.

Oh, and the seal, private markings and the sand covered floor are worthless, if the vault isn't constantly guarded. There were months, sometimes even years, between opening and resealing the place, and the markings were pressed in a wet surface – making it possible to cast replicas with plaster for a new concrete slab. I admit it would probably take a craftsman and a handful of accomplishes to do the heavy work, but Chase probably wasn't too popular with the slaves either, considering how he treated his own children.

The fascinating title of the third chapter, "The Ships Seen on the Ice," recounts the aftermath of the ill-fated Artic expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 and the disappearance of the Erebus and Terror – alongside with their crew. However, the disappearance of both ships isn't the mystery, but whether or not they were observed a few years later. In April 1851, an English brig fell in with a very large ice-floe, off the Newfoundland Banks, and "on the floe were seen two tree-misted ships, not far apart, one heeled over and the other upright," but were they the abandoned Erebus and Terror? Gould again loads this chapter with passages from documents and witnesses' statements, but the search for both ships continues till this day. Interestingly, Erebus and Terror play a minor part in a latter chapter on unconfirmed or vanished islands. 


Gould's short write-up on the "Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu" can be used by mystery writers as a plot outline for a Theodore Roscoe-style locked room mystery and who wouldn't want to read an impossible crime story that would begin thus: "It is not generally known (and I do not state it as a fact) that certain American citizens possess the ability to quite their bodies for a short period and to travel about in the form of fire-flies for the purpose of assaulting their neighbors." There's a footnote explaining the American citizen/Filipinos line (read it yourself). Berbalangs are ghouls who need to feed on human flesh in order to survive and you can only protect yourself with cocoanut pearl, limejuice and slashing at it with a Kris – graves of loved ones can be protected with similar items. Gould recounts a story found in an article by Mr. Ethelbert Forbes Skertchley, published in the 1896 journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, about a visit to Cagayan Sulu and encountering the fire-fly spirits after visiting their village, but the kicker comes when he pokes around the isolated house were moaning of Berbalangs grew fainter. This is what the text says: "...I tried the door, but found it fastened... putting my shoulder to the door, I gave a good push and it fell in." Yes, there’s a body in the locked house. If you'll pardon my pun, but all this needs is some fleshing out and a good solution, and you have an anthology staple! I have no solution to offer here, because I can't make bricks without clay.

There's another, genuine and confirmed locked room situation in the following chapter, "Orffyreus' Wheel," which was a self-moving wheel invented by Johann Bessler and first exhibited in 1712. The idea of "perpetual motion" in the 18th century seems even more unlikely today than it probably did back than, but, if Bessler was a charlatan (very likely), "he must have been an illusionist far superior to Buatier da Kolta or J.N. Maskelyne." And the greatest trick Orffyreus ever played was a grand locked room illusion! On November 12, 1717, the largest of the wheels so far was constructed in a room in Weissenstein Castle, Hesse-Kassel, "where there were no walls contiguous to it, and where one might go freely round it on every side." The wheel was thoroughly inspected and the room closed, secured and sealed, but every time the room was opened the seals were found intact and "wheel revolving with its accustomed regularity" – repeated over a period of several months. Bessler's detractors were many, calling shenanigans and questioned his sanity, and his maid even run away and confessed to have been one of the people who manually operated the wheel. Whatever may have been the case, I have taken a liking to Bessler. He never gained anything from his demonstrations, refusing to share the secret and destroying the machines, but it's admirable how many people he managed to piss off by simply making a wheel spin. The closest example from mystery fiction I can come up with is the self-playing harp in the locked music room from Paul Gallico's Too Many Ghosts (1961).

The Beast Must Die
Oddities officially enters the Twilight Zone in the chapter "Crosse’s Acari," which is the story of a British amateur scientist, Andrew Crosse, who, in 1836, conducted an experiment "looking for silicious formations, and acari appeared instead." Crosse named them Acarus electricus and they are six-and eight legged insects (depending on the size), which ruined the name of their creator, because playing god or something. They were eventually dismissed as mites/cross contamination, but it was still an engrossing piece and learned that there’s such a thing as True Sci-Fi. Well, at the very least, Crosse and the Acari were able to foil the plans of Professor Googengrime.

There remaining chapters deal with the previous mentioned islands, numbers and Nostradamus, but the only one that really captured my attention was the one about "The Wizard of Mauritius," the beacon-keeper of the Isle of France, "who saw in the air the vessels bound to the island long before they appeared in the offing," which is a story Gould excavated after coming across a throw-away line. The wizard managed to do this in 1784, but the exact method behind the new science of nauscopie has been lost. Almost forgot: there's the chapter about an unknown, lost planet, named Vulcan, which still remains a planet of fiction to this day.

All in all, Oddities is a fun and often-intriguing compendium of the kind of weird stories you'd expect from a planet like ours, even if it were somewhat dated. I also liked the many historical characters popping up, such as Conan Doyle and Jean-Paul Marat, and other historical tidbits. Gould plays the role of impartial auditor very well as he tests these stories on their merit and brings more sanity to them there reasonably should be.  

7/10/14

The Reader is Warned: A List of My Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries


"Do not freeze it in a block of ice and then stand on it to hang yourself, creating a baffling locked room mystery."
- Jon Stewart (on one of the no-no's of the impossible crime genre)  
My two-part compendium posts of favorite locked room mysteries, "The Novels" and "Short Stories," continue to be the most popular items on this blog and while they could benefit from being rewritten, I decided to compile another list.

However, there's a slight difference with this best-of list: it's a compilation of notable examples of locked room mysteries that managed to be profoundly disappointing or turned out to be dull wastes of time There are even one or two I consider to be an abomination upon the genre itself, but let's judge them down from the top.

Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd: An Entertainment (2006)

Keep 'Em Under Lock & Key!
Cynically promoted as a warm, cozy send-up of Agatha Christie and the 1930s-style drawing-and locked room mystery, but the kind of love Adair dishes out to the classical whodunit is that of an abusive spouse. The book is telling the mystery genre it's has gotten old and fat, while it pinches it side fat and politely enquires when it plans on finally dying. That's the story in a nutshell and the locked room (solution) wasn't anything special, which may have been borrowed from an Edogawa Rampo story. This is the only detective novel in which I rooted for the killer to take out the detective.

Willy Corsari's De misdaad zonder fouten (The Faultless Crime, 1927)

The overconfident title of this debut novel is misleading, because the plot has more holes than Pablo Escobar on a rooftop in Medellin – which is the reason why I shied away from Willy Corsari for years. I remember the plot revolving around a man with a broken neck found inside his locked home, but the story (almost) reads like an anti-detective story as twins, sleepwalkers and other clichés tag each other in-and out. The final "twist" was just embarrassing.

Joseph Bowen's The Man Without a Head (1933)

I was able to find only one redeeming quality in Bowen's sole effort at writing a mystery novel: he genuinely wanted to write a baffling detective story, in which the reader could engage the writer, the detective and the criminal in a battle-of-wits. Unfortunately, the story of the decapitated miser in his sealed, ramshackle home in a sleepy village in New Mexico was poorly written and the plot borrowed heavily from the Sherlock Holmes canon. The solution for the locked front door was routine.

Maurice B. Dix's Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934)

This book was penned and published smack in the middle of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but the plot was swamped in retired tropes, tired-old clichés and pre-conceived notions non-mystery fans have of 1920s detective story – shoehorned into one novel. Dix fluffed it all up with some smart aleck dialogue, but the only fun was figuring out an alternative solution for the locked room murder of P.C. Brown (which I posted in my review).

Paul Doherty's The Assassins of Isis (2004)

I love Paul Doherty as an author of well-written, atmospheric historical novels that are complemented with a good deal of imagination to provide intrigue for the mystery aspect of his stories, which often includes an impossible crime. Dorothy isn't in the same league as John Dickson Carr and Ed Hoch, but they're usually good enough. The Assassins of Isis is a glaring exception to this rule: there's an interesting question to be answered how a bag full of snakes could be smuggled to the General’s rooftop terrace, but I preferred my solution to this locked room problem to the dull one that was given. However, the biggest problem is that the book entombs and hides its one good idea better than the burial site of Tutankhamun. Dorothy can do so much better than this!

Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe's Elvire a la tour monte (Elvire Climbs the Tower, 1956)

A slow-moving, talky mystery novel from the "Anthony Boucher of France" starring Elvire Prentice, "the old lady without mercy," and France's answer to England's Miss Marple. The scene of the crime is the Tower of London and the duty of locked doors and latched windows are replaced here with eyewitness testimonies, which made the false solution psychologically unsound. But it was still better than the actual solution.

Randall Garrett's Too Many Magician's (1967)

I loathe this one! It's horribly over written and the flow of the story is bogged down in the never-ending stream of personal titles (Milord and Goodfellow) that are used to end a sentence like a punctuation mark, but on top of that it's one of the dullest detective stories I have ever read. That's somewhat of an achievement on its own, considering the story takes place in an alterative universe loaded with wizards and sword fights with ghosts. The locked room element, while completely fair, simply wasn't worth the read and it ripped off John Dickson Carr. Nevertheless, Too Many Magician's still appears on best-of lists. Baffling!

T.C.H. Jacobs' Appointment With the Hangman (1935)

Arguably, the worst mystery novel I have read in 2012 and I say "mystery novel," but what I meant is a third-rate potboiler that threw everything in the mix it could get its grubby paws on. Appointment With the Hangman is laden with enticing, seemingly impossible occurrences, ranging from a talking cat to subduing an elemental spirit, but the only impossibility with a speck of originality was the disintegration-trick. On the other hand, the Detection Club should've confiscated his typewriter and broken his fingers for the levitation-bit.

David L. Marsh's Dead Box: The "Brown from the Sun" Mysteries (2004)

I can summarize this entry in one sentence: dried up brain barf scrapped and held together with a folded soft cover. Harsh? You can try the book for yourself, because copies are still available and the digital edition is practically free. You'll still get robbed of a buck and downloading it for free is simply a waste of bandwidth. So, once again, let the reader be warned!

Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1951)

This entry will probably evoke cries of sacrilege and pledges to constables to shoot me, but it's a great example of a clever locked room trick buried in a mediocre novel and the impossible angle here is hampered by the floor plan – which gave part of the game away. The final quarter of the book could stand on its own as a novella, but the build up to the murder is a long, dragging ordeal and the pay-off isn't worth it in comparison.

A Room to Die In (1965) by Ellery Queen is another case of a good locked room trick stranded in a bad story. And speaking of EQ...  

Ellery Queen's The Door Between (1937)

This title receives a mention every now and then in best-of lists of locked room-and impossible crime stories, but there isn't much choice if you insist on having Ellery Queen on your list and that should explain why this book can make it on such lists – because there isn't any book from the same period that would make any list with such an obvious and outdated solution. I remember intensely disliking the slow, dragging and predictable pace of the story, which shouldn't even make a top-10 list of best EQ novels. The severely altered, somewhat hockey rewrite, entitled The Vanishing Corpse (1941), was so much better and far more entertaining than the original. There even was a reason for the race with a stolen ambulance!

Frederick Ramsay's Stranger Room (2009)

The first 20-30 pages bristled with promise as the author presents the reader with two locked room murders, one from 150 years ago, but that was apparently all the plot the book required and Ramsay proceeded to flesh out the characters inhabiting the backwater in which the story takes place. I hated all of them! Worst of all, the shift in focus came after Ramsay flung the telltale clue (pretty much the solution) to both locked rooms at the reader. As if saying, "enough of this silly plotting business for one book." I mean, how could you not notice the significance and potential of that particular item in a locked room mystery?! Good idea, but horribly executed. Did I mention I hated every single character from this book?

Clayton Rawson's No Coffin for the Corpse (1942)

Admittedly, the first half began promising enough when an attempt at blackmail ends in murder and a dead man rises from his improvised grave to extract revenge, but when the ghost apparently commits a murder and vanishes from a locked-and guarded room the story begins to loose its memento – noticeably so! If an author has to stop the story in order to pull the reader back in with a lecture on fakirs, you might want to ease off on the carnival-stuff just a little bit. It’s like saying to the reader, “now wait, hear me out! This is actually possible.” The solution for the locked room wasn't much better. It only makes you wonder why Rawson made it an impossible crime story in the first place: for the sake of discussing and theorizing about them?

This list hasn't been as extensive or in-depth as the previous two lists, but I probably repressed a handful of them and completely erased another few from my mind. I could've added Footprints (1929) by Kay Cleaver Strahan, but I actually liked that one and lacking a solution adds to the charm of the story. 

Well, that's the first (real) filler post in a long time and I hope to be back soon with a regular review. 

7/5/14

It Takes Your Breath Away


"The situation is becoming an impossible one."
- Professor Moriarty ("The Final Problem," collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894)
The name of Richard Forrest has been hovering in my peripheral vision for years as a writer who participated in that beloved sub-category of the detective genre, locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, but seem to have been unsuccessful in securing ever-lasting fame in this niche corner. Paul Halter's locked room novels appear to have been more well known, before they were even being translated, than the Lyon and Bea Wentworth mysteries by Richard Forrest, but is that justified? After all, Herbert Resnicow's reputation as a locked room specialist stills lays in shameful neglect.

The Death at Yew Corner (1981) is the fifth in the series of books starring Lyon, author of novels for children, and his wife Bea, a former senator, to whom murder and crime are pass times forced upon them by circumstances. In their fifth outing, circumstances that'll be leading them to murder are whirling around The Murphysville Convalescent Home, situated in rural Connecticut, where rivaling interests of union groups resulted in a full-blown strike and perhaps a very preventable death – a consequence of the understaffing of the home.

Fabian "Faby" Bunting is an old curmudgeon with a long-standing friendship with Bea, who was going to the home to meet her and suspects there's more to Bunting's death than simply a nurse leaving her unattended in the hot tub. The reader has been privy of the moment the unknown murderer snatched Bunting away and why she had to be killed: she saw too much through her opera glasses when peering out of the window in the sun-room. What she saw was the kidnapping of a labor organizer, Marty Rustman, which are the beginning of a strew of bizarre murders that would not look out of place in the Midsomer Murders. One of the victims is buried under several tons of earth and rocks with a stolen dirt truck, which, I think, actually happened more than once in Midsomer.

Before I continue, I have to point out The Death at Yew Corner isn't as heavy on politics as you might assume thus far. There are some comments, here and there, about minimum wages and Bea longing to reclaim "her" old seat in the senate, but it's mainly decoration – idem ditto for the strike outside of the home. The only (real) politics are the shenanigans of the divided union members, who impressed me as 1920s-style mobsters with a permit. You're apparently lucky if you get slapped across the face with brass knuckles, but Marty Rustman was shot and dumped in a shallow grave. And for this part of the plot, I suspect Forrest (rightfully) thought he could improve on Clayton Rawson's abysmal No Coffin for the Corpse (1942). I think the "dead-man-rising"-gambit was the best handled aspect of the plot and an infinitely better played out than by Rawson, a professional magician, but I think Forrest missed out on a better killer with a good, double-edged motive.

Oh, and I'm absolutely, one-hundred percent sure this part was inspired by Rawson's locked room novel, because Forrest worked an attempted murder in the plot by locking someone up in a sealed coffin – which is the exact opposite of a corpse without a coffin. That makes sense, right?

Speaking of locked rooms: there's one tucked away in the final portion of the story and the scene is set by none other than the prospective victim, who raised the security around her own home as a preventive measure. There are even guards and a dog. However, they couldn't prevent the murderer from getting to their client and they had to take the door apart with a hammer and chisel, but the solution reveals a patchwork of shopworn tricks strung together. But, still, it somehow works in combination with the secured premise, because it explains why someone would go through all that trouble in order to get to the victim – even if it reveals that there’s nothing new or inventive to it.

That basically sums up The Death at Yew Corner: a light, passable and sometimes entertaining detective novel, but not a must-read for aficionados of Golden Age-styled mysteries or impossible crime stories. Did Forrest wrote any locked room mysteries of note? I'd like to know.