10/29/14

The Game's Afoot


"But when the third... gets killed, and all three of them in the same territory, I begin to get suspicious."
- Capt. Daniel von Flanagan (Craig Rice's The Fourth Postman, 1951) 
Jakob van Schevichaven (1866-1935) is considered here to be the first professional Dutch mystery writer, under the single-name pseudonym "Ivans," who paved the way for later popular writers such as "Havank" and A.C. Baantjer.

I've read and heard about the Fathers of Dutch Crime Fiction, Ivans and Havank, but never got around to reading any of their detective stories, because there's mainly biographical information on the web – while the available plot summaries tend to be vague, unappealing or spoiler ridden. So I never gave them to good old college try. Well, recently, I found a copy of De bosgeest (The Forest Spirit, 1926) on my shelves and thought: why not. It has to happen sometime.  

Book has a ton of these illustrations!
Ivans' series characters are a well know, celebrated English detective, named Geoffrey "G.G." Gill, and a Dutch lawyer, Willem Hendriks, who has been chronicling his cases since De man uit Frankrijk (The Man from France, 1917). Gill and Hendriks were obviously cast from the same mold as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, but, interestingly, Hendriks was presented as a more developed, individual character while G.G. acted more as one of the stereotypical, lower-ranking Rivals of Sherlock Holmes, i.e. Martin Hewitt.   

The Forest Spirit was originally published in 1926, but Hendriks informs the reader the story took place several years before The Great War (i.e. First World War) and began with a telegram from G.G. announcing his arrival the next day. G.G. invites Hendriks, alongside with his family (wife and daughter), on a trip to the Eifel (Germany) where they soak up the landscape of hill-and low mountain tops, ruins of medieval strongholds, circle-shaped lakes (maar) and lots of green – even the rude, inhospitable locals can't dampen the mood. The problems begin when a mistake, made at the hotel they booked, forced them to take refuge in a familiepension (hostel). Hendriks wakes up in the middle of the night to see a dark form with yellow/green eyes peering at him through the open bedroom window, but, naturally, there was nothing to be found upon investigation.

I think there was something positively tantalizing about a ghostly apparition in an early 1900s mountain hostel in Germany, followed by the striking of matches and flickering, dying lights of fire, as a household of guests awakes in utter confusion. It was a brief, but nice, scene, I thought! Moving on...

Old-fashioned spelling of De Bosgeest
The next day, during one of their daily hikes, G.G. and Hendriks, see a frightened road worker running and screaming "murder" and "bosgeest," which leads them to the body of a forest ranger and he wasn't the first one to be murdered in the region. Previously, three forest rangers have been murdered, back of their heads caved in, but the police have never been able to find any trace of the murderer. In the last case, the victim was found by following his footsteps, it had rained just before, but they were also the only footprints discovered on the scene – fanning the flames of superstition. Amazingly, the impossible situation of the footprints is mentioned only once and the problem explained itself in the end, which became a slight disappointment as I read on. No theorizing? False solutions? Boo!

Seasoned mystery readers familiar with the early classics will probably experience an "aha" moment at this point, but, first, I have to credit Ivans here for not blatantly copying Edgar Allan Poe or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was also a good idea to split the interest for the only real suspect in the game in two camps: the official police, who think he's guilty, while G.G. is convinced he's afraid of the spirit. I was never quite sure if I was on the right track, even though I picked up on an obscure clue, which is what I liked. What I don't like, however, is that I still don't know if I like The Forest Spirit. Ivans went full "Weird Menace" with the solution, and I grunted when it was confirmed, but the explanation is unsettlingly convincing and the motive has a lot to do with it. That, and the villain of the story. Mary Gregor from Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931) and Mr. Ratchett from Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express (1935) were saints compared to this character!

So, yeah, I'm divided on The Forest Spirit, which began as a mysterious travelogue set in Caspar David Friedrich Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Mist), merging into Holmesian-era detective story and ending on an unsettling weird note... but I can't get pass the how of the murders. I don't think I like it, but than again, I'm probably too traditional minded for the alternative crime novel. That is John's department.

P.S.: Good news for the non-Dutch readers of this blog. According to this website, there have been translations of some G.G. novels in English, German, Swedish, Norwegian and Esperanto.

10/26/14

Malice With Mischief


"A fairy tale in terms of blood--a world in anamorphosis--a perversion of all rationality... It's unthinkable, senseless, like black magic and sorcery and thaumaturgy. It's downright demented."
- Philo Vance (S.S. van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, 1928)
Well, I told you the next review wouldn't take another month to appear, didn't I? O ye, of little faith! However, I did found myself in a spot of trouble in finding my next read, because I'm still waiting for a package to arrive. So I was forced to climb Mt. To-be-Read to pick something from the old stack of unread detective stories, which became surprisingly easier when I decided it had to be something obscure and The Monk of Hambleton (1928) seemed to fit that description.

The Monk of Hambleton was penned by Armstrong Livingston, who's apparently one of those mystery writers too obscure for even the GADWiki, but the capsule-biography in front of the book notes that the author was born in New York City, made his home in Algiers with his wife and began writing in 1918 – which resulted in such novels as The Mystery of the Twin Rubies (1922), Trackless Death (1930) and the (now) ambiguously titled Light-Fingered Ladies (1927?).

I have Trackless Death jotted down on my never-ending wishlist, because Robert Adey has it listed in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), but The Monk of Hambleton is my first, favorable exposure to Armstrong Livingston's work. The best way to describe the story is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) as perceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a pinch of Scooby Doo. There's even a young, female investigative operative, named Kitty Doyle, who plays the Miss Climpson to Peter Creighton's Lord Peter Wimsey in the endgame of the story. But that’s skipping ahead of the story.

Varr & Bolt Tannery occupies a couple acres of ground nearby the village of Hambleton and while the weather-beaten, shabby looking buildings of the leather plant may give the appearance of a neglected company, it's actually a thriving business – under the harsh, unrelenting rule of Simon Varr. The opening of the story mentions that it's said of Varr that "he knew how to exact the last ounce of efficiency from men and material without the expenditure of a single superfluous penny," but a strike has brought his efficient machine to a grounding halt. On top of that, Jason Bolt, "a minor partner in the business," is suffering from expansionism and his son, Copley, wants to marry the daughter of the tannery's manager, Mr. Graham – who, in turn, finally wants to be a partner instead of drawing a regular salary.

However, Varr is determined to bend everyone and every situation to his will, including a radical end to the strike, but it seems the universe itself has turned against Varr: his kitchen garden is raided, the first love of his wife, Leslie Sherwood, unexpectedly returns to the village, as did his wife's sister, October "Ocky" Copley, after spending twenty odd years in Asia followed by arson and theft! Varr's stalwart determination is really tested after a late-evening encounter with the legendary and titular monk of the village – who points an accusing finger like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Livingston even included an imaginary passage from The History of Wayne County about the origin of the legend and included this foreboding doggerel:
"Who meets the monk at crack o' dawn
Shall rue the day he was born.

Who meets the monk in light of day
Woe goes with him on his way.

Who meets the monk when dusk is nigh
Within a fortnight he shall die."

It's simply a play on the Irish Banshee legend, but fun nonetheless, especially in a detective story!

Simon Varr took a different path
Simon Varr didn't fare as well in this story as Ebenezer Scrooge did in his, because he simply couldn't catch a hint, and the spectral monk strikes him down in his kitchen garden with an old, Persian-inscribed dagger – reading "I Bring Peace." This scene was delightfully old-fashioned, second-tier stuff, in which Varr dramatically removed the mask in a "What? You!" moment right before being stabbed. So cheesy.

Peter Creighton is a reputable private investigator from the Big City, who was supposed to come, anyway, to investigate the arsons at the tannery, thefts and the ghost, but now has a fresh murder on his hands. I think Livingston purposely made Creighton the exact opposite of his more famous colleague of the time, Philo Vance. Creighton is a modest, nondescript professional instead of a posh dilettante with an intimate knowledge of obscure subjects, which Livingston made a point of by making Creighton say he couldn't read Persian. You just know if this had been Van Dine's The Strike Murder Case, Vance would've revealed himself as an amateur expert on the ancient Persian Empire often consulted by genuine historical authorities on the subject. It would've also been his most terrifying and challenging murder case since triumphantly ending the previous one.  

Anyhow, Creighton's woolgathering technique gathers more tangible clues such as the chips of blue steel, finger prints, written notes, shadowing witnesses and the implications of the shallow footprints concerning a small educated man or a large illiterate one. A nice dash of Chesterton, I think!

And nice would be a good summarization of The Monk of Hambleton. Livingston has a nice, pleasant, albeit dated, writing style suiting the backdrop of a now bygone era, but the plotting was still (partly) in a previous era – making it not all that difficult to anticipate the eventual ending for the seasoned mystery reader. The normally clichéd ending of the dying murderer/confession was handled better that I could've hoped for. So there's that.

In closing, The Monk of Hableton is a better-than-average, second-tier mystery novel from a period that didn't count the most prosperous years of the Golden Age in its decade, but this book definitely was a sign of things to come. (I consider the 20s as the start-up years with the 30-and 40s as the Golden Decades and winding down in the 50s).

10/18/14

The Shadow of Civilization


"Any truth is better than indefinite doubt."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Yellow Face" from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1893)
I know, I know. I promised in my previous post activity would slowly resume, which was a month ago, but, naturally, there was another distraction followed by a slight case of reader-and writers block – preventing even some filler stuff from being posted. So no definite promises, this time around, but this was hopefully the last of the prolonged silences haunting this blog.

The Bone is Pointed (1938) is the sixth in a series of Australian-set detective novels featuring Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte of the Queensland Police by the English-born mystery writer Arthur W. Upfield. Bony is of mixed blood, a "half-caste," which wasn't as common or accepted back in Upfield's time as it's today, but Bony is presented as a hardworking, intelligent and determined policeman – who moved up the ranks by combining his education with his Aboriginal tracking skills.

The cover blurb of The Bone is Pointed, "the outback's weirdest manhunt," surely promised a more thriller-oriented outing for Bony, but the crux of the problem is that the hunter is being hunted while searching for a missing stockman.

Jeff Anderson is a stockman on the Karwir Station, owned by Old Lacy and his wife, who went missing when checking fences during a heavy rainstorm, but only his horse, The Black Emperor, came back – which could’ve meant he was thrown off by the animal. However, they are unable to find the body and there's no shortage of motives for foul play. Anderson was known as a spiteful, cruel and ill-tempered creature who may have seriously mistreated members of the Kalchut tribe.

Kalchuts are a small tribe of less than a hundred Aboriginals living the tradition lifestyle of the old continent on the neighboring property of Karwir Station, which is owned by the Gordons and they're determined to protect the Kalchuts from the encroaching Western civilization. If they murdered and hidden Anderson, it would certainly mean government interference and the end of the Kalchuts. The relation between the Kalchuts, the crime and their impending doom, if implicated in the crime, reminded me of the relationship between the primitive Marshmen and the ruling class of a fictional sultanate in Peter Dickinson's The Poison Oracle (1974). Anyhow, the case remains unsolved for months and it would've slipped through the cracks of time if it weren't for Sergeant Blake calling in a higher up – DI Napoleon Bonaparte of the Queensland Police.

The trail is several month's old when Bony arrives on the scene, but through observation, interviewing witnesses and analyzing physical evidence Bony is slowly, but surely, retracing the steps of the missing stockman. But that's the easy part. As a half-caste, Bony dresses and speaks like a white man, but this case confronts him that he isn't immune to the believes of his Aboriginal side. Kalchuts are known with the ancient and potent magic of bone pointing, which curses its victim to the unwanted comforts of an early grave.

Unfortunately, the combination of Aboriginal folklore and Upfield's uncanny talent for turning the Australian continent in a living, breathing character of its own somewhat failed to produce the story it should've been, because I was giggling (immaturely) every time someone asked Bony if he was still being boned by the blacks. Or tried to banish the boning from his mind. There was so much forced boning that there must've been blood in his shoes by the end of the book. Leave him alone already. No means no!

So aside from my complete inability to take the cultural slice Upfield offered in The Bone is Pointed as a mature-minded adult, everything worked out well enough in the end with a good, simple, but inevitable, conclusion.

Cake in the Hat Box (1954) is still my favorite, from only the handful of Bony novels I have read, but that Upfield is grossly underrated and criminally neglected as a mystery writer is something I'm starting to become convinced of.

Finally, I'll really make an effort this time to make sure this review doesn't become a drawn-out euphemisms for "see y'all next month."

9/20/14

Dead of Winter


 "The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it."
- Hercule Poirot (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, 1926)
A little over a month ago, I promised this place would resume its steady, regular course without any further interruptions. Well, that whole scheme didn't exactly pan out this month, but, hopefully, this was the last prolonged silence on this blog – until the end of the year anyway. And now, once again, without further ado...

Dead Cold (2007) by Louise Penny is the follow-up to her multiple award winning debut mystery novel, Still Life (2005), which introduced Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. Louise Penny made it on my wishlist on account of the reviews posted by Patrick on his blog, but a few topics (here and here) severely mocking the "ultra-modern," socially aware and character-driven crime novels on the GADetection Group slingshotted Dead Cold to the top of the pile. The topic is worth a peek, unless you consider yourself to be a member of the "respectable wing" of the genre, because that place is teeming with barbarians who read detective stories just for fun.

Anyhow, I can see how Dead Cold, originally published as A Fatal Grace, wasn't awarded this year's Edgar, because it's another obstacle in the path of the Crime Novel becoming Serious, Respectable and Dignified Literature – even going as far as tossing an impossible crime angle in the plot like the proverbial monkey wrench. Good job, Mrs. Penny!

The scene of the crime is the small, quiet Québécois town of Three Pines, wrapped in the white powdered cloak of the Christmas season, where the annual Boxing Day curling match is rudely interrupted by a piercing scream. CC de Poitiers was a self-invented self-help guru, who created the self-proclaimed successor of Feng-Shui, a patchwork of philosophies known as "Li Bien," and was obviously full of herself and a cruel streak – which provides ample motives for her assassin-in-waiting. And there are more than enough potential murderers walking around in Three Pines... including her own family. However, the murky method for dispatching CC can be labeled as esoteric. De Poitiers was sitting in a crowd, on a frozen lake, watching the game when someone, somehow, managed to electrocute her!

Armand Gamache's team is called in and (I think) he partly epitomizes the difference between Canada and America, because Gamache appears to be a lot closer related to the European-style policeman you'll find in modern mysteries than his American colleagues of the today. Gamache is a hardworking, capable policeman who’s married and relies mainly on teamwork with office politics usually making things more difficult than they should be. I was tempted to compare Gamache with DCI Tom Barnaby from the Midsomer Murders, but, as I read further, Gamache also began to remind me somewhat of Inspector Bram Petersen from M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug-series – which was also influenced by Penny's plotting technique and ability to combine symbolism with plot-patterns.

The main difference is the location and culture of the story's backdrop. It's modeled as a typical English-village mystery, but you'll never mistake it for one as the characters populating Three Pines, fleshed out without cannibalizing the plot, are Canadian. I think this is the first (very) Canadian mystery I have read, but, as a foreign reader, it adds an extra layer of attractiveness to the story – especially when the author isn't above giving the surrounding an air of mystery. Quebecois are described as undistinguishable from one another, all wrapped in winter clothing, and how a murderer can practically move around unobserved and pepper the story with historical references to the House of Plantagenet, allusions to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and you've a book that I couldn't wait to get back to for nearly a week. I commend Penny for making me reject the murderer, but coming back to this person made, logically, sense and there were clues. Or, to use the term approved by the politburo, "indicators."

I have to point out, before wrapping up this review, how much I enjoyed the false solution that nearly fooled Gamache, which basically required a couple of Canadians to violently agree with each other on a horrible, horrible decision. Excellently tied-in with the seemingly impossible electrocution and actually more believable, but the eventual explanation gelled better with the overarching plot.

So, to finally put an end to my first, rambling post in exactly two weeks time, Dead Cold is an enjoyable, well-written, fair play mystery set in a place that's surprisingly overlooked in a genre (once) very popular in the Angelo-Franco world, but Penny has clearly corrrrected that oversight. I'll be more than likely back to peek over Gamache's shoulder again, because Penny reportedly wrote another impossible crime novel!

9/6/14

The Hieronomo Clan


"Speaking is silver, silence is gold."
- Proverb
Even occasional readers of detective stories are probably familiar with some of the shopworn tropes and timeworn clichés of the genre, but they can still yield surprising results in the hands of a talented writer – which immediately brings me to The Balcony (1940) by Dorothy Cameron Disney.

Ah, yes, a Disney who indulged in the fine, gentle art of murder and blood spattered corpses. The Strawstack Murders (1939) is a minor masterpiece and Death in the Back Seat (1937) isn't far behind, but The Balcony is altogether a far more soberer affair than its predecessors. There's more emphasis on story telling, characterization and social commentary, which doesn't mean that the "Had-I-But-Known" approach from the previous novels was completely abandoned. Disney's heroin at the helm of this standalone, Anne Hieronomo, still reflects at the opening of the story "it did not occur to me that the dead hand of my great-grandfather would affect my own life and the lives of many others" with some other eerie foreshadowing's.

Anne's great-grandfather, John S. Hieronomo, was a leading figure of the abolitionist movement in the South during the American Civil War and settled down in Maryland – where he build "Hieronomo House" – which he bound to his descendents in what would later be deemed as a very shortsighted will. John Hieronomo's inheritance wasn't enough for the upkeep and the place now lays in gloomy neglect, and run a shoestring budget, but the provision to keep Hieronomo House as a dwelling place for the family for the span of twenty-five years has run out. The family is going to sell the house and the place will be turned into a hotel, but, before saying goodbye, they are going to have one last family reunion. What could possibly go wrong?

Upon her arrival, Anne meets most of her extended and estranged family for the first time, mostly great-aunts and uncles, but soon begins to notice something is not quite right. Or to borrow a phrase from proper literature, "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." A good, long and solid fence separates the estates of the Hieronomo's from the Ayres, who have been entangled in a bitter feud for the past twenty-five years, but here's my one problem with The Balcony. Representing the Hieronomo's neighbors is the blonde, handsome Dan Ayres, who meets Anne in a "cutesy" scene in the snow, slip in reference or two to the work of the Bard and nobody will notice you're gunning for a Romeo and Juliet angle – which is why I hoped Dan would be the second body promised in the story's summary. Hey, sometimes I hate happy endings. This was one of them.

Anyhow, there are more than enough family members for Anne to worry about, wandering in-around the house, beginning when Anne is given the Blue Room by accident. The room that belonged to her great-grandfather, John. There's an all too casual incident with an unloaded gun and, before long, we see some of those HIBK qualities creeping into the story – when the house seems to be filled with would-be-murderers and impending doom. Anne even finds out that picking up, and paying, for a package can look suspicious when her great-aunt, Amanda Silver, suddenly disappears and is found shot in the room she previously spend the night. The family has her back, but Anne's worried what one of them might be concealing behind his or her back.

Dorothy Cameron Disney
Well, as I said before, Disney focused in The Balcony on storytelling, characterization and some historical social commentary on the black slave trade, which she entwined admirably with the plot. The long dead John Hieronomo and his friend, Amos, a black man, were the most interesting characters in the story and how their actions influenced events over the course of a quarter of a century. However, I can imagine the open, brash way Disney approached the subject might have popped a monocle or two in the early 1940s. 

I'll never understand how Serious Critics can dismiss Golden Age detectives, because they were, supposedly, not interested in the socially relevant issues of their time (or some crap like that). As if Darwin Teilhet never wrote The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934), which is set in Germany against the background of a rising Third Reich and describes the early atrocities those silly, goose-stepping Nazi's became so known and reviled for after World War II. I'm sure that counted as broaching as socially relevant issue, because, you know, some countries were already kind of being invaded by the time The Balcony was published. Anyway, moving on...

What I especially enjoyed about the story was how subtle it appeared to be poking fun at the sprawling, remote country house-mystery with a reunion of people going on, but I'm not sure if that was intentionally or Disney just being a professional –  sidestepping the trap of the cliché. For example, there's a reunion at a country house with snowfall, but it isn't a blizzard cutting off the party from the outside world. Before Amanda disappears, Anne hears a sharp sounding click in her bedroom, but when the door is broken down the room is completely deserted. However, there isn't a locked room mystery to be found. The policeman isn't half as dumb and impulsive as he appears. So are the butler, maid and the unknown person lurking in the background. Hell, even racism has a twist in this mystery! Literary nothing is what it seems at Hieronomo House.

The Balcony may not be the twisty, complex and knotted affair of the previous novels, but Disney managed to pen one in which storytelling and characterization actually transcended the plot. And that in a book from nearly 75 years ago! Who would've thought that!? By the way, the plot, by itself, isn't too bad, either, but the story and characters cocooning it made the detective-elements just so much better.

And, finally, this: I hate reading back my old reviews. I really, really do.

8/29/14

"A" is for Antique


"Have we ever... handled any murders for him before?"
- Lutie Beagle (Torrey Chanslor's Our First Murder, 1940). 
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini are acclaimed crime-and mystery writers in their own right, creating the celebrated private-eyes Sharon McCone and the Nameless Detective, but their masterstroke came when they decided to merge their universes and throw everything together – even when the characters were a century apart (e.g. Beyond the Grave, 1986).

I have reviewed many of their collaborations on this blog, from Double (1984) to the recent Carpenter and Quincannon novels (The Bughouse Affair and The Spook Lights Affair, 2013), but a bulk of the exposure has gone to Pronzini's work. In my defense, Pronzini's contagious enthusiasm for fiction has formed a treacherous pool of quicksand, normally known as a bibliography, which is hard to escape from. And the abundance of locked room mysteries! You can't forgot about that. However, the end result is that I have only read two solo-works by Muller: The Tree of Death (1983) and The McCone Files (1995). So I decided it was about time to tackle a proper Sharon McCone novel and where better to start than at the beginning...

Edwin of the Iron Shoes (1977) was the debut of "the founding mother of the contemporary female hardboiled private eye," but the plot is very traditional and that's how I really prefer my private-eyes – not too hard boiled.

The epicenter of Edwin of the Iron Shoes is Salem Street, where the careworn buildings provide housing for a clutter of antique stores and junk shops, but, recently, their owners have been on the receiving end of vandalism mingled with arson. Intimidation that eventually culminates in murder of one of the shopkeepers. Joan Albritton owned a small shop, Joan's Unique Antique, which is where her body was found – stabbed with a bone-handled knife snatched from an open display case. The inoffensive antique dealer was a client of All Souls Cooperative, a legal firm to help the unfortunate ones in society, and they sick their staff investigator on her murderer.

Sharon McCone has more than enough leads to sort out and suspects to follow up on. Firstly, there's the possible connection between the acts of vandalism and an impending real-estate deal with a cold and vindictive mogul, Cara Insgall – which also attracted the attention of a shady bail bondsman, Ben Harmon. A character who's about as hand tame as Max Hook from the mystery stories by Craig Rice. Secondly, there are the suspects that are a lot closer to home. Oliver van Osten was one of Joan's antique dealers and more than willing to put his knowledge at McCone's disposal. Or Charlie Cornish, owner of the Junk Emporium across the street, who had a relationship with Joan and disapproved of her seeing Harmon. What's the role of the wood-carved little-boy mannequin, named Edwin, wearing ornate iron shoes?

Muller penned an ambitious first mystery novel that stands pleasantly closer to the works of the then (semi) retired generation of writers than the hardboiled private-eye Muller is associated with today, but hey, that's just my personal bias for pure detective stories rearing its ugly head again. Edwin of the Iron Shoes does reflect the talent Muller (and Pronzini) has for creating characters without sacrificing the plot, which is commendable, but my favorite part was when McCone spend the night at the crime-scene – where she had a brush with a night-time intruder after a vivid dream and probably had her first argument with a police lieutenant over the course of a murder enquiry. Or how McCone sneaked into places she wasn't suppose to be and how her theory was crushed when her handpicked murderer became another victim. The inevitable confrontation with the murderer got a smile, because, this being the first in the series, the training wheels were still on and McCone only had to fear for her life at knifepoint – instead of arguing over the barrel of a gun. What I'm trying to say is that characterization can be a wasted effort when I'm reading the book.

The only (minor) complaint I have is the identity of the murderer. I kept hoping it wasn't this person, because it was too easy, but absolutely forgivable for a debut novel. So, all in all, not a bad start of what blossomed into a successful series.

8/24/14

A Room With a Story


"There was, too, not only the past, but a sinister present. The shadow of murder and a murderer haunted the house."
- Arthur Hastings (Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, 1975) 
Wadsworth Camp is as obscure as most of the names listed on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki or mentioned in Locked Room Murders and Others Impossible Crimes (1991), but cross-searching them placed two novels by Camp on my wishlist – one of them being The Abandoned Room (1917).

The Abandoned Room was published in the same year as the United States' entry into World War I, during which Camp served as a war correspondent and probably had a brush with mustard gas. Camp most likely wrote the book before the war, but didn't feel the need at that moment to include any reference to the armed conflict that the world was entrenched in at the time. It strangely enough feels like reading a thoroughly British country house mystery as perceived by R.M. James.

Spook Central would've been a good name for the ancestral home of Silas Blackburn, called The Cedars, which he delivered back to the "swift, obliterating fingers of time." A thick and dark forest with patches of stagnant lakes surrounds the home. There's a disused, overgrown family graveyard on the rundown grounds and at the core is the abandoned bedroom, in which many generations of Blackburn's died anguish – usually of a head injury. Silas' great grandfather had been brought to that room from a "Revolutionary skirmish" and his father picked the room to shoot himself in, which are just two of the cozy family stories. However, Silas is afraid that his cousins, Katherine and Bobby, might want to prevent him from changing his will and takes refuge in the old bedroom. Both doors are locked from the inside. And, predictably, Silas is found murdered in his bed, but here is where it gets weird.

Robert "Bobby" Blackburn was on his way to his uncle on the evening of the murder, but wakes up the following morning in an abandoned, ramshackle house well-nigh The Cedars – without shoes or his most recent memories. The possible motive of securing an inheritance and a sudden memory gap makes him the prime suspect for the county detective, Howell, which is strengthened with a footprint matching his and a monogrammed handkerchief found underneath the bed. Yes. There are moments when the story shows its age. However, you probably won't mind them as much once the abandoned room has you in its spell ("I'm possessed by this house and can never leave it again!").

Anyhow, the seemingly impossibilities continue to pile on at The Cedars: Silas' body is moved mysteriously inside the death room, which becomes soon the scene of an identical and equally baffling murder. And there are, of course, more suspects to consider. Why was Katherine always the first to notice there was something happening in that room? What is the real purpose of Carlos Paredes' presence at The Cedars? Why is Dr. Groom so keen to point out the haunted history of the place and suggests they might be fighting the dead who resented the intrusion of the living? Surely, there must be something up with a butler named Jenkins! However, the main attraction remains the thick atmosphere and allusions to ghostly inhabitants of the grounds that is pulled over this story, which is really well played in the second half of the novel – and features another impossible situation or two.

Bobby wants to rifle the pockets of the second victim for important papers and the otherwise unoccupied room is being watched by Katherine, but the papers vanish practically in front of his eyes and upon touching the corpse he "felt death cease to be death" for a moment. I can imagine this particular scene could've impressed a very young and imaginative John Dickson Carr. These apparently supernatural crimes persist and they're used to great effect, but the problem is that they revolve around a gimmick that was out-of-date even by 1917 – as reasonable and convincing as it may have been brought. Camp gave a good explanation why it was missed, but I think he should've continued working on the implied solution that arose when everyone began to think "that the void between the living and dead had, indeed, been bridged." Again... Camp was evidently a master at the oldfangled art of presentation-and effect. What it lacked was an extra punch of originality (see: locked room solution) to push it as one of the early classics of the locked room sub-genre. Now The Abandoned Room only gives us bragging rights about how the Detective Story stole Camp away from the Ghost Yarn. So what do you think about that Dr. Crowe?

Finally, for those interested, the blog Bill Ectric's Place has compiled bits and pieces of information on Wadsworth Camp from around the web.