"Yes, a damned locked room."
- Lt. Eberhardt (Bill Pronzini's "The Pulp Connection," collected in Casefile, 1983)
After my previous review of Max Allan Collins' The Lusitania Murders (2002), I was dithering about what to read next: sample another one of Robert Arthur's contributions to The Three Investigators, pick up a holiday-themed mystery novel or return to the pile of unread E.R. Punshon mysteries? So, of course, I ended up picking something completely different.

Schemers (2009) numbers thirty-sixth in Bill Pronzini's ongoing series about the "Nameless Detective," which can be categorized as a "bibliomystery" with two seemingly impossible situations at the core of plot – both of them perpetrated in a private-library housing one of the finest collections of detective stories imaginable!

Crossing the threshold of Pollexfen's library is described as something akin to entering Aladdin's Cave: an interior light glints off the Mylar protectors wrapped around the bright, colorful spines and gives the impression of being hemmed in by mountains of precious stones. I think it's safe to say that most mystery aficionados would consider such a library to be a collection of gems. The place holds "upwards to fifteen thousand volumes" of detective fiction from the late nineteenth century and early 1900s, but also has "a fair representation of post-1950 authors and titles" – many of them signed and inscribed. It's some of those rarities that have gone missing. 

The missing items from the collection are Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939), Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance (1934), James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934),  Ellery Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery (1929) and Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930). Some of them are, what are known as, associating copies, which are books inscribed to fellow writers or famous people. Giving them considerable more value. There are, however, some anomalies making this everything but a routine case of theft or fraud, which is why the insurance company asked "Nameless" to investigate the claim.

First of all, nobody except Pollexfen had free, unlimited access to the library: the only key to the room was in his possession and there are double locks on all the (barred) windows and the door. Secondly, Pollexfen lacked the motivation to swindle his insurance company and obsessed over his collection like Captain Ahab, which comes on top of the obvious lack of traces of a burglary – which are a must if you want to swindle an insurance company. But there are more suspects in the home that houses "one big unhappy family."

Pollexfen has a wife, Angeline, and brother-in-law, Jeremy Cullrane, who are "money-grubbing alcoholics" and they would love to have gotten their greedy hands on half-a-million worth of books, but lacked opportunity and missed the knowledge to pick assemble a list of the most valuable titles. It is, however, determined by "Nameless" that a duplicate key could've been made, but that’s not how the books were spirited from the library. That answer turned a new page on a classic trick.

The second impossibility concerns "a sick new way of killing somebody" within the confines of a locked room and happens when two of the people mentioned above are found in the library: one of them unconscious and the other with his head blown-off by a shotgun blast. It's not difficult to figure out who's responsible for the murder, but the mystery lies in how it was done and the explanation requires an answer to the Chestertonian question of "how can a homicide not be a homicide" – and that answer is completely fair, plausible and original. I would also label it extremely risky and somewhat crazy, but I guess those are prerequisites for planning and committing a murder. 

I want to point out here that Schemers isn't the only bibliomystery in this hardboiled series: "The Pulp Connection" and "Booktaker," collected in Casefile (1983), which feature respectively a murdered pulp collector in his locked library and books and maps being stolen from a tightly secured store.

Interestingly, one of Pronzini's colleagues-in-crime, Lawrence Block, has two similar type of detective/rogue stories to his name that happened to feature some of the books that figured in Schemers. In "The Burglar Who Smelled Smoke," collected in both The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) and The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), a book collector is murdered in his locked and private library and a first edition of Stout's Fer-de-Lance figures in the plot – which was inscribed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Burglar in the Library (1997) revolves around a rumored associating copy of The Big Sleep by Chandler, which according to legend has a written dedication to Dashiell Hammett. They're excellent and come recommended, if you like these types of mysteries.

Well, I was planning to end my review here, but I really just noticed I had completely ignored the second plot-thread from Schemers. No joke. I was too distracted by my personal obsession over locked room mysteries.

Schemers is one of the more recent novels and Nameless has shed his lone-wolf persona from the earlier books, which lead him to become more of a family man and began to share his workload – namely with Tamara Corbin and Jack Runyon. Runyon is the lone wolf of this new pack and he has been doing his best to crawl out of "his own personal hell."

The case Runyon has been assigned to is to find the titular schemer, who has been harassing members of the Henderson family, two adult brother in particular, and the book opened with this figure desecrating the grave of their father. This person poured acid over the urn and headstone. Spits several times on the grave and leaves a threatening message that things have only just begun. A promise that is being kept when one of the brothers is assaulted in his garage with a tire-iron and it quickly becomes clear to Runyon the actions of this person is rapidly escalating, which may end with him pouring acid on a living person.

This plot-thread is meant to add some tension to compliment to the more cerebral investigation Nameless is conducting, but the why-dun-it aspect of the case was genuinely interesting – even to a classicist like yours truly. After a while, you simply want to know where all that pure, unadulterated hate oozed from. The only part I found annoying was Tamara's contribution to both cases, which consists of walking around with "a big cat-ate-the-canary smile" and talks insistently how a certain Lucas Zeller gave her sex-life a much needed protein injection with his meat needle. She also looks up some stuff on the internet for the guys, but I found her mostly annoying in this outing.

Fortunately, that only covers a tiny portion of the book and the majority covers the chapters detailing a couple of well written, intricately plotted stories populated with believable, rounded characters. Basically, everything one has come to expect from one of the grandmasters of the genre.


Seven Days to Disaster

"Espionage, my son, is far from being a joke in these days. It's wide and it’s deep and it sinks under your feet—like that water out there. It runs much deeper than it ever did twenty-five years ago."
- Sir Henry Merrivale (Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten a.k.a. Murder in the Submarine Zone, 1940)
The Lusitania Murders (2002) is the fourth entry in Max Allan Collins' remarkable, but sadly discontinued, "Disaster Series" that "combined the factual with the fanciful" by hurling celebrated writers of popular fiction in disastrous, world-altering events and have them solve a range of problems – just before tragedy strikes!

Jacques Futrelle was the spiritual father of one of the immortal detectives of the printed page, "The Thinking Machine," who perished on the R.M.S. Titanic in 1912, but The Titanic Murders (1999) gave him a proper sendoff. The Pearl Harbor Murders (2001) gave Edgar Rice Burroughs of Tarzan fame a murder to investigate on the island of Hawaii mere days before the devastating attack that pulled the United States into World War II. The London Blitz Murders (2004) pits Agatha Christie against a depraved serial-killer, known as the "The Blackout Ripper," when the city was being pounded by the Luftwaffe, but The War of the Worlds Murder (2005) remains my personal favorite – in which Walter B. Gibson comes to the rescue of Orson Welles during the infamous Panic Broadcast.

Willard Huntington Wright was a "trailblazing art critic" and an important avant-garde figure in pre-World War I New York City. Wright was a "caustic critic of popular fiction," but would gain everlasting fame in that realm of the literary world as the man who brought the British-style, puzzle-oriented mystery novel to the Americas and created one of the most irritating, know-it-all snobs in the genre – the wisenheimer known as Philo Vance.

However, that chapter of his career began in the mid-1920s with the publication of The Benson Murder Case (1926), but The Lusitania Murder is set during the first week of May, 1915, when the titular ship left New York for Liverpool, England on what would be her final voyage. During those days, Wright was still somewhat of an acid-tongued critic and a professional journalist.

Collins exercised his artistic license to place Wright aboard the Lusitania, under the guise of a reporter seeking interviews with some of the famous guests, which is an operation done under the familiar pseudonym of "S.S. van Dine." However, there's an ulterior motive for his presence aboard.

The Lusitania was a luxury liner that could be easily converted into a battleship and there are persistent rumors that, in its capacity as a passenger liner, the ship is used to transport "ammunition, weapons and perhaps even high explosives" into a war zone – effectively blurring the lines "between commerce and combat." It makes "Big Lucy" a potential target for U-boats and saboteurs. So, as "S.S. van Dine," Wright has to gauge the veracity of those rumors for an article, but he also has a slight personal interest in the matter as a public germanophile with a pro-German stance.

In reality, Wright was blacklisted from journalism for his German sympathies, which happened after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. There were also accusations of Wright being a spy for Germany. The picture Collins painted of him had a bit more nuance, which stated that although his "tastes run to Wagner, Goethe and Schopenhauer" it shouldn't be assumed he wears "a photo of the Kaiser in a locket" near his heart – which nudged him slightly into the neutral corner.

Anyhow, there's not just a possible secret, unlisted cargo of war supplies that requires Wright's attention, but there's also a small group of German stowaways found after departing from New York. Are they spies, saboteurs or merely part of a ring of thieves targeting the valuables of the first-class passengers? Whatever the answer is, someone wants to them out of the way and soon they're being targeted by a brutal, devious murderer.

Luckily, Wright receives help from the ship's detective, Philomina Vance, who's a Pinkerton operative with the deductive-skill of storybook detective and plays the Sabina Carpenter to Wright's John Quincannon. It's up to them to figure out whether the murders are connected to the possible war-connection the ship has with the Allied war effort or to the mysterious telegrams that some of the more prominent passengers received before departure. Or simply a fallout among thieves.

Collins used some of the actual passengers for this part of the plot, because they included a who's-who of the rich and famous from the early 1900s. They include multi-millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. Philosopher and writer Elbert Hubbard. A well-known American theatrical producer with German-Jewish roots named Charles Frohman. The Belgian fund-raiser Marie DePage. Which are just a few of the notable names.

This makes The Lusitania Murders a well-written and researched novel, which pleasantly blurred the lines between fact and fiction without becoming too implausible. It must be, however, noted that this entry paid more attention to the characters and the ambient setting that other books in the series, which may have something to do with the time-period in which the story was written – as it was written in the aftermath of the terrorist-attacks on September 11, 2001. Collins mentioned in his after word that "for a number of days" he "did not feel like playing the role of entertaining," which was particular troubling to "a writer in the process of creating a confection based around another tragedy of war."

So this probably gave characters, setting and the looming disaster a bit of a precedent over an Agatha Christie-style drawing room mystery. More than is usual in this series. However, that doesn't mean the story is bare of clues or a decent plot, which it has, and I feel confident in stating that both readers of detective-and historical fiction will find enough between the pages of The Lusitania Murders to loose the track of time for a couple of hours.

Finally, I want to point out that the foreword imagines Van Dine would titled this book The Lusitania Murder Case, which is an appealing title, but he preferred a six-letter word preceding the murder case-bit. I know he wrote The Gracie Allen Murder Case (1938), but that was an exception (and a bit of a sell-out). I think something along the lines of The Cunard Murder Case or The Kaiser Murder Case would've been closer to a Van Dine approved title for this book.

I guess this is as good to end yet another long, rambling and shabbily written review and urge you to read this series for yourself. I'd recommend The War of the Worlds Murder in particular, which is simply wonderful. And has Orson Welles as one of the main characters! 


A Light in the Darkness

"It arrived upon Christmas morning..."
- Dr. Watson (Sir Arthur C. Doyle's "The Adventure from the Blue Carbuncle," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892)
C.H.B. Kitchin was a barrister, stockbroker and a British novelist from the mainstream who inherited a fortune and reportedly used his wealth to partake in all kinds of leisurely activities, which included botany, chess, music, gambling and breeding greyhounds – briefly becoming an important figure among greyhound breeders.

A professional dilettante who, in comparison, makes Philo Vance appear as a slightly more believable character.

However, what helped Kitchin's name survive the test of time better than others wasn't financial independence or an expensive hobby, but having authored four mystery novels. The major titles in this quartet are Death of My Aunt (1929) and Death of His Uncle (1939), of which the former is often confused with The Murder of My Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull, but I decided to read the lesser-known Crime at Christmas (1934) as my introduction to Kitchin's work.

I know some of you might consider it too early to start reading Christmas-themed detective stories, but here, in the Netherlands, the festivities begin halfway November with the arrival of Sinterklaas – officially ushering in the festive season. Why start in November, you ask? So we can enjoy it at our leisure, of course!

Crime at Christmas is narrated by a stockbroker, Malcolm Warren, who was introduced in Death of My Aunt as a suspect and there brief references littered throughout the story to that previous ordeal. Luckily, none of those references spoiled the solution.

Warren is invited to spend Christmas at the home of a wealthy client, Mr. Axel Quisberg, where his family has gathered and "were several persons of differing temperaments are gathered together" there are undercurrents. However, the characters are (mostly) portrayed as genuine, flawed human beings and not as cardboard cut-outs in a game of clue, in which one of the "players" simply begs for the proverbial dagger-thrust in the back. It's simply a matter of incompatible personalities being stuck in the same place over the holidays.

The family and guests filling the house are as follow: Mrs. Quisberg, who's described as "a devoted wife and indulgent mother" of five, which are all from her first two husbands. There are two boys: a fifteen-year-old, named Richard, and his twelve-year-old brother Cyril, but the former is spending the holidays in Switzerland and the latter is recovering in an upstairs room from appendicitis – and never make an on-page appearance. They have two sisters who do appear in the story: namely twenty-year-old Amabel and eighteen-year-old Sheila. Finally, there's an elder, artistically minded brother, Clarence James, who's from their mother's first marriage and Warren's personality seems to possess a personality that’s incompatible with him.

There are, of course, some non-related guests: Amabel has brought along Leonard Dixon, "a stalwart ex-tea-planter," with whom she's very much in love, but nobody else seems to really enjoy his company. A medical-specialist from Vienna, Dr. Martin Green, has a much more amiable and likeable personality, which makes him a lively guest and conversationalist. The party is rounded out by Mr. Quisberg's secretary, Mr. Harley, and his timid, insomnia-plagued mother – who was invited because she would've been alone otherwise.

As you can probably deduce from these descriptions, it's hardly your standard, hate-filled family with a cruel and stringent patriarch or matriarch at its head asking to be murdered. So when a completely inoffensive character dies violently, it casts genuine pall of doom over the story.

C.H.B. Kitchin, Professional Dilettante
On Christmas morning, Warren finds the crumpled body of Mrs. Harley on his balcony. Mrs. Harley plunged from her second-floor window and broke her neck, but the incident is written-off as a tragic accident of an insomnia-plagued woman prone to sleepwalking when she finally dosed off – which might also have been due to being in a strange room and having confused the window with a door. The word murder is never uttered in the direct aftermath of Mrs. Harley passing and this part of the story has shades of Kitchin as a mainstream novelist, in which Warren records "some of the dullest passages" of his narrative.

However, Warren's musings on the characters and movement of the inhabitants of Beresford Lodge prove to be valuable clues in the second-half, which is when a very obvious case of murder is perpetrated on Boxing Day. The clues are neatly summarized towards the ending and consist of both the behavior of the characters ("conversation, hurried and agitated... on the front lawn"), what was overhead ("why, in that light I saw it as plain as I can see you!") and tangible indicators such as the smell of chloroform in Mrs. Harley room and a detonating pistol for firework.

The end result is a surprisingly clever, tightly-plotted detective story with mostly well-rounded detective story and the cherry on top was the final chapter, in which Warren has a conversation with the reader – discussing the aesthetics of the detective stories, plot and addresses a major coincidence that moved the second half of the plot. So that part was forgivable and you have to take the "blinkin' cussedness of things in general" into consideration. The only weak link in the chain would be the late introduction of the clue to the motive, which only made me see through half of the solution. But that's a minor complaint that shouldn't take away all that much from the overall quality of the book.

Crime at Christmas is slow moving in certain parts, but, overall, solidly plotted, well clued and populated with characters that don’t adhere to the clichés you might expect from an English country-house mystery. It's an excellent contribution to the pile of British Golden Age detective stories and a minor classic in the category of seasonal mysteries. Recommended!


Where's the Body?

"You've been dreaming... bodies are always being found in libraries in books. I've never known a case in real life."
- Colonel Bantry (Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library, 1942)
Comes a Stranger (1938) is the eleventh mystery in E.R. Punshon's Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen series and belonged to a cluster of incredibly rare titles, which come with a three-or four digit prize-tag attached to them – resulting in a limited circulation among collectors on the secondhand book market. However, the key word here is "belonged."

Dean Street Press is going to reissue yet another batch of Bobby Owen novels, which are scheduled for release early next month. Our very own genre historian, Curt Evans, provided the introductions, but Comes a Stranger also has an interesting after word adding some historical annotations to the plot – as well as mentioning the work of other mystery writers that were inspired by the same event. But this part can't be mentioned without spoiling a vital element of the plot. So I won't. Luckily, there's more than enough material to drone on about between the pages of this book. 

In the book immediately preceding this one, Dictator's Way (1938), Bobby Owen followed in the footsteps of Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey and Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Roderick Alleyn by falling in love with one of the suspects: the lovely owner of chic London hat shop named Olive Farrar. Interestingly, Alleyn and Agatha Troy met in Artists in Crime (1938), which was published in the same year as Dictator's Way and Comes a Stronger, but nearly a decade behind Sayers' Strong Poison (1930) – a book that seems to have saved many detectives from the celibate life of Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown and Dr. John Thorndyke.

The engagement between Bobby Owen and Olive Farrar has come to the attention of Miss Kayne, an old acquaintance of the latter, who invited the couple to spend a week at her place in Wynton Village, which is also the home of the world-renowned Kayne Library.

Miss Kayne's late-father had spend years in building up the library and has acquired the illustrious reputation of being "the finest collection of books in private hands." It contains the "whole history of early European printing" and "the birth of European thought," which tell the story of "the growth of the human mind during those years" – making it a modern Library of Alexandria. Under the "careful and somewhat complicated will" of Miss Kayne's father, there's an assurance that the library is kept together. However, this pits the interest of several interested parties against each other.

A crabby, grouchy bibliographical scholar, Mr. Broast, presides over the famous library and loves to act as its owner, but under the will he's only an employee and has to deal with monthly inspections from the co-trustees of the library – Mr. Nathaniel "Nat" Kayne and Sir William Winders.

The former is Miss Kayne's cousin and he would love nothing more than to cash in one the library’s reputation by selling off the books to the University of Wales. The latter is a rival collector who was "part dearest friend and colleague" and "part deadliest enemy and hated and dreaded rival," who would leap at an opportunity to replace Mr. Broast with one of his own man.

Well, it's against this backdrop, in combination with a visit from a real-life Scotland Yard detective, that things begin to happen all of a sudden, which commences with a report that a body has been spotted in the library. I say spotted, because discovered isn't the right word.

There's an American gentleman, Bertram A. Virtue, who saw a blood-covered body of a man through the grated window of the library. However, a thorough examination of the library failed to uncover as much as a single drop of spilled blood, but, strangely enough, the report coincides with the discovery of a murdered man in a sunken lane in the surrounding woods – which was clearly murder going by the bullet holes in the body. 

Bobby Owen is allowed to stay on at the village to assist the local authorities and slowly, but surely, begins to unravel the case, which has many interesting, seemingly baffling aspects about it. Why did the description of the apparent non-existent body in the library match a photograph in possession of Mr. Broast's giggling secretary, Miss Perkins? Why did Bobby Owen receive a box filled with forgot-me-nots? Is there a personal motive for the murder or is it tied to printed treasures stored in the library? Does any of this pertain to the "perfect murder" Miss Kayne alluded to in a conversation with Owen? And would it have killed the murderer to take a couple of shooting lessons, before emptying an entire magazine in the second victim? That's just lazy and sloppy work.

Punshon ties the entire bundle of plot-threads together with the skill and grace one expects from a novelist, but also has the air of a researcher/bibliographical scholar as it has many tidbits about the history of the printing press, rare editions and book hunting – which is compared with the work of a detective. It gave the novel a character of its own.

So, in that regard, Comes a Stranger is an absolute must-read for fans of the so-called "bibliomysteries," but let the reader be warned: some scenes towards the end of the book might be considered trigger emotions of heavy dread. It's not what you think. It's much, much worse!

The only smudge on the overall plot (IMHO) was why the first (shooting) victim died and the lack of adequate clueing to that answer, which therefore became a rather cheap, somewhat unfair method to divert attention away from the murderer. There was more than enough in the book to compensate for this slight imperfection, but, as a bit of nitpicker, I was mildly annoyed considering the quality of the overall plot.  

Otherwise, I heartily welcome Comes a Stranger back into circulation. 

I'll be back soon with a review that, hopefully, wasn't slapped together by a sleep-deprived mind, but, in the meantime, you might want to be enticed by my previous reviews of
Punshon's Crossword Puzzle (1934) and Death Comes to Cambers (1935).


Treasure and Treachery

"Not a problem... we do this kind of stuff all the time."
- Jonny Quest (The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest)
Robert Arthur was one of those prolific and versatile writers who participated in many different genres, which included detective stories, speculative fiction and radio plays, but I know him primarily from a handful of wonderful short stories such as "The Glass Bridge" and "The 51st Sealed Room" – collected respectively in Mystery and More Mystery (1966) and Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982). Surprisingly, however, is the fact that Arthur's name has not entirely faded from the memory of the general public.

It's true that the short pieces of fiction Arthur wrote for the popular magazines of the past have fallen into obscurity, but the contributions made to a long-running series of mystery novels for younger readers are still avidly read to this day. Some of those books were even turned into movies during the 2000s.

Arthur wrote ten of the forty-three books published about The Three Investigators, which originally appeared under the title Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. The Secret of Terror Castle (1964) was first entry in the series and the books would continue to appear until the 1990s, but the general opinion seems to favor the early period when Arthur was in charge of the boy detectives.

So, as a fan of Case Closed, I wanted to give The Three Investigators a shot and Mike Grost had mentioned one of the books, The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), on his extensive website on detective-fiction – which made it very, very easy to pick a title. It was already narrowed down to ten titles, but this basically narrowed it down to one.

The Secret of Skeleton Island has a short introduction, entitled "A Word from Alfred Hitchcock," in which the series and characters are briefly outlined for the benefit of those who missed out on The Three Investigators when they were the "appropriate" age to read them. Hitchcock himself appears in the opening-and closing chapter of the book as sends the trio on a mission and hears who they managed to solve the case.

Well, they are introduced as follow: Jupiter "Jupe" Jones is the First Investigators and described as "the brains of the firm." He's basically the Nero Wolfe to the other two's Archie Goodwin. Peter Crenshaw, the Second Investigator, is a tall, muscular boy who "excels at athletics" and could be seen as the legman of the group. The Third Investigator is Bob Andrews, "the most studious of the three," who's in charge of Records and Research.

In the opening chapter of the book, Hitchcock tells them Bob's father is working as a movie technician on a suspense picture called Chase Me Faster, but the final location of the shoot is plagued by a series of thefts and vandalism – as well as a possible haunting.

The location is a small island in the Atlantic Bay, down on the Southeast coast of the United States, where the movie company is rebuilding an old, abandoned amusement park for the final scene of the movie.

Skeleton Island is the name of the place and has a long, haunted history that stretched back before its discovery in 1565 by an English captain, which is backed up by the bones that are still uncovered in its sands and the occasional gold doubloon washing up on the beach. The Spanish doubloons are a remnant of a lost treasure, scattered over the ocean floor by a notorious buccaneer, named Captain One-Ear, in 1717 when "British troops had made a surprise attack on his quarters" on the island and was cornered in his longboat. However, there's a good explanation, accompanied by a splendid clue, as to what really happened to the golden doubloons. Granted, the doubloons are only a small plot-point and somewhat of a side-distraction, but I enjoyed this part and the clue was wonderful.

The obligatory spot of danger
Anyhow, Jupe, Peter and Bob were supposed to discreetly enquire about the thefts as undercover agents of the movie company, because who would suspect a bunch of kids of being meddlesome detectives? Well, apparently, just about everybody. The man who picks them up from the air-port, a Mr. Robinson, mockingly identifies them as "the three kid detectives from Hollywood" and "accidentally" strands them on a small island during a thunderstorm.

It's during this night they see the phantom of the abandoned amusement park riding one of the old, worn horses of the merry-go-round. According to the local legend, it's the ghost of a lovely, but headstrong, woman who was riding the same merry-go-round twenty-five years previously when a sudden storm had blown up, but she wanted to finish her ride and was struck by lightening – and her ghost has been seen riding the merry-go-round ever since.

However, more importantly, is that they meet Christos "Chris" Markos that very same night. A young boy from Greece who sails around the island in his small boat, searching for treasure, in order to help his father – a sponge diver who fell ill. Locals aren't very fond of Chris, suspecting him of being the thief, and the only one who really seems to believe him are Jupe, Peter and Bob.

They'll be sharing some very, very tight spots over the course of this mystery/adventure story, both above and beneath the surface, before they can bring the case to a satisfying close and report back to Alfred Hitchcock. The overall plot was much better than I expected from a juvenile mystery novel and could be compared with Scooby-Doo or the 90s version of Jonny Quest, if they had better plots or were written as straight adventure/detective stories. I mean, I figured out the solution, but never expected this kind of pure misdirection (simplified as it was) in a book targeted at children.

I also think we owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Arthur for the survival of the classically-styled detective story after the 1960s, because I think these book indoctrinated quite a few kids into seeking out more mysteries. Wait... did I say indoctrination? What I meant to say was brainwashing. No. Wait! Hold on for a moment. Not brainwashing. Remember, English isn't my first language. I sometimes confuse certain words. The word I'm looking for is... uh... conditioning? Why is the ghost of Fredric Wertham screaming at me that I just proved him right?

Anyhow, I enjoyed The Secret of Skeleton Island and I wish I could feel nostalgic about it as well for the complete experience, but it was only my first encounter with The Three Investigators. However, it probably won't be the last.

Finally, allow me to refer you to the review I posted yesterday of Craig Rice's zany The Big Midget Murders (1942) and I'll probably be back with another review before long. 


A Tiny Bit of Trouble

"The shortest joke in the world. Two words: midget shortage."
Jimmy Carr
A brief glance at the blog-posts that have accumulated under a specific "toe-tag," labeled Craig Rice, learns that the last review of her screwball series featuring the trio of John J. Malone, Jake Justus and Helene Brand date back to the early parts of 2011 – which can be construed as criminal negligence. Luckily, I found myself in the mood for something zany and The Big Midget Murders (1942) was just within reach. So let's jump right into it.

In a previous outing, namely Trial by Fury (1941), Jake Justus had won a casino from a Chicago millionaires in a wager "that she could commit a murder without being caught at it" and emphatically lost.

As a result, Jake became the proud owner of a casino and restructured the place into a cross between a nightclub and a theatre, which he financed with a loan from Max Hook – a semi-regular character in the series. However, owning money to "a gambling czar" with a body count to his name proved to be the least of Jake's problems.

The main course of entertainment comes from the act of Jay Otto, "the biggest little midget in the world," who's as talented as they come, but with a hate-filled, spiteful personality that reportedly drove his former secretary from a New York hotel window. So is it any wonder Jake calls in the help of his friend and Chicago's famous criminal lawyer, John J. Malone, to help him "fight out" of a "tricky clause in his contract." But it never comes to that.

They find Jay Otto in his dressing room, his "face blackened and discolored," hanging inside his closet from a noose made out of silk stockings. It's murder with a capital lowercase m!

So, they do what every sane person would do in such a situation: stuff the body in a bull-fiddle case and attempt to cover it up! There is, however, one snag in their plan: they turn out to be characters in a Craig Rice novel and therefore nothing will go smoothly or according to the plan – which explains the large amount of alcohol consumption by the characters. It can be a tiresome universe to life in.

First of all, the bull-fiddle case with the body inside is taken from the casino and turns up again on the doorstep of Justus and Helene, but this time it's empty. The problem is that the key to the fiddle case was in Justus' pocket, which resulted in The Big Midget Murders being marked as a (semi) impossible crime story and was even listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991). However, the explanation to the body being taken from the locked case makes this explicitly not a locked room-type of mystery and shouldn't be read as such or else you might end up severely disappointed – which also has to with only being a minor point in the overall plot.

Anyhow, the body of Jay Otto turns up in his own bed, redressed in silk pajamas, which puts Malone, Jake and Helene in the troublesome position of simultaneously having to figure out what just happened and keeping police attention away from the casino. Which is easier said than done.

This alcohol-fueled, merry-go-round involves a faded diva, named Ruth Rawlson, who accidentally drank from a doped bottle of whiskey in Otto's dressing room and knew of his death way before anyone else. There is Otto's assistant, Allswell McJackson, a kind giant of six-foot-six who has a chemistry degree, but had to settle for his current position because nobody wanted to hire a college professor who "looks like a wrestling champion" and became an immediate suspect after the second (official) discovery of the body. A search for a leather-covered strongbox gets Justus bumped on the head, but that's par of the course for a series closely linked to the hardboiled genre and Helene discovers a second body hanging from a pair of silk stockings – which leads to a dangerous encounter with one of Max Hook's rogue gunman and a descend into a dark cellar.

All of this somehow ties together with some of choirgirls at the casino and a classic money scheme that involved the dead midget, but Malone figures it all out during a Tommy Cooper-esque magic performance at the casino. A bit I very much enjoyed, but, as I've said before, I love bits of magic and illusions in my detective stories. Even if it doesn't involved an impossible crime plot. It's just fun to read.

The only drawback of the revelation is that the central clue hangs upon a minor observation, which helped in hiding the murderer from the reader, but should take nothing away from this drunken ride and its smooth, almost perfect arrival at it's logical conclusion. You might argue that The Big Midget Murders is a rather average fare for Rice, but, you have to remember, that not all classic mystery writers were Craig Rice and her punch-drunk style of plotting-and writing were practically unique in the genre.

So every book in this series has been, thus far, somewhat of an experience that I can definitely recommend, especially if you want something out of the ordinary, because Craig Rice knew how to avoid the ordinary.

If you're completely new to Rice, I would recommend to start with her classic and charming standalone novel, Home Sweet Homicide (1944), which won't fail to make you fall in love with her work.


When Words Collide

"Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"
- The Mad Hatter (Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)
So recently, I reviewed a locked room mystery by Philip Wylie, entitled Corpses at Indian Stones (1943), in which I referenced a second detective novel by Wylie that was catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crime (1991) – namely the tantalizingly titled Five Fatal Words (1932). I promised a review would soon follow and, well, here you are.

Five Fatal Words was co-authored by Edwin Balmer and appears to have been the first collaboration between Wylie and Balmer, but it wouldn't be the last. In the following years, they penned two science-fiction novels, When Worlds Collide (1933) and After Worlds Collide (1934), which seem to be still fairly well remembered among science-fiction readers – as well as giving me a punning post-title for this review. I know it'll probably make some people cringe, but I couldn't let it pass.

Interestingly, there are some mild science-fiction elements evoked in the second half of the book, but the first part seems to have taken its cue from the Victorian-era detective stories.

I found the opening chapter and immediate aftermath to be somewhat reminiscent of "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), which begins with an unusual advertisement in the "Help Wanted—Female" column – asking for a young lady who "must have no ties" and "willing to devote entire time for one year" to her job.

Melicent Waring has been out of a job for nine weeks and is becoming desperate now that her money, and that of her friend and roommate, has dwindled to a grand total of seven dollars and forty-two cents. So, of course, she goes to the job interview and the person who placed the advertisement, Mr. Robert Reese, turns out to be very reputable lawyer.

The advertisement was placed on behalf Miss Hannah Cornwall, who belongs to one of the wealthiest families in the world and has a habit of replacing her entire staff once a year. Miss Waring assumes she merely has "to read" and "be polite to a rich old lady of sixty who wants a lot of attention," but she soon figures out that her new job also consists of having to share her new employers fear and dread – which she fully comes to realize when she has to switch beds with Miss Hannah on her first night at the Cornwall estate.

Miss Hannah Cornwall's fear is rooted in the will of her long-departed father, Silas Cornwall, who bequeathed his six children a regular income drawn from his two hundred million dollar estate, but the only person who can inherit it all is the last survivor. That's simply asking for trouble!

A recent letter Miss Hannah received from a nephew in Dutch Guiana has greatly disturbed her: one of her brothers, Daniel Cornwall, has possibly succumbed from poisoning after receiving a weird and cryptic five letter message – which read "Doubtless Even a Tulip Hopes." A second brother, Everitt, dies under her roof and behind the locked-and bolted door of a bathroom after receiving a cryptic message saying "Don't Ever Alter These Horoscopes." There are more brothers and sisters who'll follow their unfortunate fate.

Destruction on a larger scale
I've always associated the tontine-scheme and sole survivor plot-line with Ellery Queen, who successfully played up this device in "The Inner Circle" and "The Gettysburg Bugle," collected in Calendar of Crime (1952), but it's also present in Will Levinrew's little-known Death Points a Finger (1933) – which appeared a year after Five Fatal Words. So maybe there was a cross-pollination of ideas there.

In any case, Five Fatal Words and Death Points a Finger are of interest to Ellery Queen fans as being early examples (and possible) inspirations for that typical Queen-ish plot-device.

Well, after the suspicious-looking death in the bolted bathroom and discovery of a potential, tale-tell clue to a possible explanation they're being abruptly forced from the estate. This marks an unfortunate decline in the plot and begins a thug-of-war with the reader’s credulity.

First of all, they make a brief excursion to Belgium, where a sister of Miss Hannah lives in a chateau on the river, but death even follows them there and strikes in a most unusual way – a deadly, poisonous mist smothers Domrey Valley and Alice Cornwall died alongside "sixty other old people" in "the Belgian fog."

If it’s murder, the murderer racked up quite a body count to get to one person, but be prepared to throw the book across the room when you reach the "explanation" for this death-mist. I always thought Doyle's The Poison Belt (1913) had a cop-out ending, but Balmer and Wylie showed him!

The quality briefly picks up again when they go back to America to visit Theodore Cornwall in New York.

Theodore Cornwall is a health-obsessed vegetarian who paradoxically praises science that "has made it possible for us the extend" the "great gift" that’s life, but completely allows astrology to dictate his life. A man who trusted science with his health believed "stars and constellations so immense and far away that the mind could not encompass their distances" concerned themselves with the "petty, individual, human fates and affairs," which seems to be confirmed when Theodore has a close-encounter with a "bit of cosmic debris" – when "a shred of some star" is catapulted into his bedroom.

The meteorite failed to kill him and, obviously, it had fallen from space long before it was hurled through Theodore’s bedroom window, but it was interesting to see how the science-fiction background of the writers crept into this story. It just struck a false note in the overall structure of the book. The bits and pieces with Theodore seemed to have been more at home in the pages of a screwball-type of mystery instead of dark, dreadful crime story about the slow extermination of a family.

I probably should mention Michael Innes' The Weight of Evidence (1944) here, which has a nifty, well-done murder with a chunk of meteorite an English university.

Anyhow, I guess the overall theme of the story is that everything seemed of the mark. The death messages were mystifying and had an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about them, especially the first two or so, but they were just side dressing to the plot. The locked room mystery was interesting, but was only a minor part of the overall plot and one part of the explanation left me unsatisfied. The deadly mist was obviously meant to make the murderer look omnipotent, but how it ended up fitting into the story makes you want to bludgeon the authors with a ball-peen hammer. The final explanation... well, I can't say I was either impressed or surprised by it, but the unusual chase at the end was nice.

I'm afraid Five Fatal Words is a little more than a curiosity of the Golden Age of the American detective story. A curiosity with some points of interest, but a curiosity nonetheless. So read it at your own discretion. 

And thus ends one of my longest runs of reviews of good, great and downright excellent mysteries. Well, hope to pick it up again with the next one. Stay tuned!