9/25/17

All Joking Aside

"Our April Fool's joke had turned completely around, so as to make fools of us all."
- Dr. Watson (Ken Greenwald's "The April Fool's Adventure," collected in The Lost Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1989)
Uncovering the work of a previously unexplored, or even unknown, writer from the Golden Era of the detective story is always a pleasure, but when the stories are consistently good, even improving with each succeeding book, you potentially have a brand new favorite on your hands – which brings me, once again, to the work of Christopher Bush. Yes, I know. I promised in my previous blog-post that a review of Case Closed would be next, but decided to go for the hat-trick by tackling another one of Bush's mystery novels.

The Case of the April Fools (1933) is the ninth book in the Ludovic Travers series and the only novel-length detective story exploring the plot possibilities of All Fool's Day. 

Previously, I have only came across the April Fool's Day theme in a handful of short stories, which include Ellery Queen's "The Emperor's Dice" (Calendar of Crime, 1952), Peter Godfrey's "The Flung-Back Lid" (The Newtonian Egg and Other Cases of Rolf Le Roux, 2002) and the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that provided an opening quote for this post. And that pastiche originated as an episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio-plays written by Anthony Boucher and Denis Green.

So using the chicanery of April Fool's Day, as a premise for a detective story, looks to have been mostly a play toy of writers who belong, or can be linked, to the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection, but Bush doesn't really belong to this group of writers – and that makes his novel-length treatment of this idea all of the more interesting. Let's dig in, shall we?

The Case of the April Fools begins with Ludovic Travers going over the paperwork pertaining to a vacant piece of property, the Mermaid Theater, of which Durangos Limited is negotiating the lease. A dilettante stage producer, Courtney Allard, has been toying with the idea to purchase the lease and dropped in on Travers with his business partner, Charles Crewe. So nothing out of the ordinary there and the relationship between both men would had remained purely a business one had Travers not serendipitously overheard a conversation between Allard and Crewe at a restaurant. And they were talking about Travers!

Allard was overheard saying that Travers "looked a bit of a fool" and Crewe suggested he'd ask him to come along with them, because "a jury'd believe every word he said" and that makes him "pretty useful as a witness." On the following morning, there's a letter in the mail inviting Travers to stay the night at Allard's country house, The Covers, to talk things over regarding the lease.

As to be expected, Travers becomes at once ensnared in a beautifully woven, but complex and knotted, web that has been spun around the perplexing circumstances of a double murder. Both of them committed, one after another, on the morning after his arrival at The Covers.

The first of the two victims is the business partner of his client, Charles Crewe, whose body is found slumped beneath the open window of his bedroom with "the handle of a knife protruding from his ribs," which completely shocks Allard – who mutters confusingly "we only meant it as a joke." Travers hurries out of the room to call the police, but, while he's away, a gunshot echoes through the house. When he returns to the room, Travers discovers that a second body has been added to the crime-scene: Allard was lying on his back with a gunshot wound underneath his chin, which plowed a bullet upward through his skull. Only problem is that the room is bare of any firearms that could explain this second death as a suicide.

So, there you have it, "a dastardly double murder," committed on April Fool's Day, to test the mettle of both detectives helming this detective story, of which the second is Chief Inspector Norris of Scotland Yard – who's actually the one who puts all the pieces together in the end. But more on that later.

First of all, Travers and Norris have to run through the entire gamut of potential suspects, clues and red herrings.

These clues and red herrings range from anonymous death threats, addressed to Crewe, to talks about a long-forgotten murder case that involved a Harley Street specialist, but equally interesting was the background of the characters that were gathered at the county house – including a couple of (American) actors. Allard and Crewe were developing a stage-play and the opening chapter showed, what could be called today, viral marketing with posters appearing all over the city showing a green-sleeved mandarin billed as Wen Ti. However, the posters did not make it clear what exactly they were advertising and this gave rise to a good deal of speculation.

Well, the plot-strand about the identity of this mysterious Chinaman, who was scheduled to make an appearance at the country house, is a very minor one and somewhat anti-climatic. Regardless, the reason for the poster campaign, the presence of the actors and pretty much everything else were revealed to be irreplaceable cogs in the machine of the plot. A machine that needed every single cog, wheel and valve to work exactly in the way it did in order to create the baffling double murder, which is really impressive.

I think this goes to show that Bush really was a mystery writer who was halfway between Freeman Wills Crofts and John Dickson Carr.

On the one hand, you have an intricate plot that can only be described as Carrian and recalled a particular story from The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), but has a solution anticipating a rather well-known locked room novel by Carr. I suppose the only real weakness of the plot is that seasoned readers of impossible crime stories can probably gauge the outline of the truth, but that still leaves you with having to fill in the details and clearing up all the loose ends.

And that brings us to the other hand. Once again, the detective work is split between different characters, Travers and Norris, but this time it's the policeman who upstages the amateur sleuth at his own game – figuring out the truth in a moment of inspiration when his children play an April Fool's prank on him. I assume this must have surprised readers at the time, because most of them were probably still accustomed to the Lestrade-type of Scotland Yard detectives in a case that involves one of those civilian snoops.

For more than one reason, I found The Case of the April Fools to be an intriguing read with an elaborately constructed, Carrian-style plot that could easily have been retooled as a full-fledged locked room story. On top of that, I believe the plot is the only example of a novel-length detective story built around the shenanigans of All Fools' Day. So, yes, I begin to believe to have found another Golden Age favorite in Bush and look forward to future reprints by Dean Street Press, but, after having read three of them back-to-back, I'll be taking a break from Bush. But you have not seen the last of him, or Travers, on this blog!

9/21/17

An Almost Perfect Alibi

"It all came together then, you see — all the various isolated bits — and made a coherent pattern." 
- Miss Jane Marple (Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced, 1950)
The Perfect Murder Case (1929) is the second book in Christopher Bush's voluminous Ludovic Travers series and offers, what initially appears to be, a sensational, thriller-like plot about a murder that was announced in advanced, but the book swiftly turns into a Croftsian detective story – dealing with a quartet of alibis that had "passed as bombproof." And there as many different detectives working on the case to test these alibis.

The opening chapter, titled "By Way of Prologue," presents the reader with a short series of vignettes that appear to have no bearing, whatsoever, on the subsequent story. However, these apparently disconnected scenes are actually moments of key importance and they even contain some well-hidden hints regarding the solution to one of the unbreakable alibi. So keep your eyes peeled when reading these scenes.

What happens in the following chapter can be read as a challenge to both the reader and the detective-characters populating the book.

On the 7th of October, the Daily Record receives a letter, signed by "Marius," in which he announces his intention "to commit a murder," because his prospected victim left "no other way out" of a particular situation – even sharing the date and a rough location of the murder. Marius writes that his victim-to-be is scheduled to die on the night of the 11th and the scene of the crime will be somewhere north of the Thames in London. The letter concludes with a promise that "fuller particulars" will be shared with the press and police before the event takes place.

These letters brazenly announcing the intention to commit coldblooded murder anticipate similar, challenging, letters from Agatha Christie's celebrated The A.B.C. Murders (1936), which might have been inspired by this novel. Only difference is that the pseudonymous "Marius" does not mock the detectives and actually has regard for the innocent ("women and children particularly need not be frightened").

Nevertheless, the general public is morbidly curious and heavily speculates about the person who wrote the letters, which range from a simple hoax and a madman to the possibility that the writer is a sportsman who gave the law a "sporting chance" in order to ease "the pangs of conscience." And while the public is engaged in heavy speculation, the newspapers identified the brand of typewriter that was used and the police were circling the pillar-boxes the letters had been put in.

I liked the built up to the murder and believe this aspect of the story should've been expanded upon a little more, because the ambiance of a cold, drizzly London (eagerly) anticipating a murderer to strike one of them down was very well done. It would have been nice if that part of the story had been given an additional chapter.

In any case, in spite of every possible precaution that could be taken, given the circumstances, the police failed to prevent the murder from happening or catch the murderer in the act.

The victim is a disagreeable person, named Thomas Richleigh, who is murdered in the privacy of his own home, behind the locked door of his dining-room, where he's found sprawled in an easy chair with a bloodstain on his waistcoat – a knife-handle protruded from the center of the stain. I suppose I should, briefly, talk about the problem posed by the locked dining-room.

At the outset, the murderer appeared to have used a key to the door in order to enter, and leave, the dining-room and simply locked the body inside, but this turned out not to be the case. Ludovic Travers demonstrates, towards the end of the first half, the very simplistic, two-part trick employed by the killer to escape from the locked dining-room, which followed the pattern of other (famous) locked room novels from this period – e.g. Anthony Berkeley's The Layton Court Mystery (1925) and S.S. van Dine's The Canary Murder Case (1927). So, technically, the murder qualifies as an impossible crime, but a very minor one and should not be the primary reason for reading the book.

Incidentally, providing an explanation for this locked room problem also happens to be the most noticeable contribution Travers makes to the case, because he only plays a secondary role in the story.

Travers is in at the death, however, he "retired discreetly to a corner" and, like a chameleon, watches the police do their work from the sidelines. He even exclaims to the Chief Constable "you don't suspect me of being one of those amateur people who come along and settle everything." So the majority of the detective work comes down to Superintendent Wharton and the battalion of policemen working under him, but the lead detective-character is John Franklin, late of Scotland Yard, who is now working as an inquiry agent for the investigative branch of Durangos Limited – a firm of "expert consulting and publicity agents for the world in general." Travers is attached to the same firm and sometimes drops back into the story to give some sound advice to Franklin.

The work done between Superintendent Wharton and Franklin consists of picking apart the alibis of the four primary suspects, Charles, Ernest, Frank and Harold, who are brothers and the nephews of the murdered man. All four of them have a financial incentive to wish the unwanted comforts of a silk-lined coffin on their uncle, because Richleigh intended to marry his vulgar housekeeper. Something that would have seriously cut into their inheritance. Only problem is that all four of them possess an unshakable alibi and their investigation into these alibis takes both detectives as far as a remote corner of France. And this trip abroad, to investigate an alibi and multiple different detectives, really drove home the comparison to the detective-fiction by Freeman Wills Crofts (c.f. The Cask, 1920).

Interestingly, The Perfect Murder Case has, plot-wise, something in common with the previous title I read in this series, Cut Throat (1932), namely that the murderer's identity becomes apparent after the halfway mark, but the problem remaining for the detectives is this character's unimpeachable alibi – which has to be demolished if they want to get their man. I think the tracking of suspects and gathering of evidence, in order to demolish this alibi, makes for an engrossing read. Particularly when part of the problem is this specific alibi "grows stronger every day."

My sole complaint about The Perfect Murder Case, if you can call it a complaint, is that the alibi-trick is rather workman-like compared to the absolutely brilliant, inspired and original time-manipulation trick from Cut Throat. Admittedly, that comparison is far from fair and only make it because the other book is still very fresh in my mind. And had hoped to find a similar time-manipulation alibi here. On the other hand, The Perfect Murder Case is far more consistent as a detective novel than Cut Throat, which was made up of two separate, but closely intertwined, stories. As a result, the second half of Cut Throat completely outshone the first half, but The Perfect Murder Case was an excellent and a far more consistent read from start to finish.

So, yes, this was a great read and really appreciate this opportunity, given by Dean Street Press and Curt Evans, to explore this long-neglected series of Golden Age mysteries. You can expect me to return to this series before too long, but I will probably squeeze in a volume by Case Closed before taking a third look at Bush. So keep slamming into that refresh button until then.

9/18/17

Timing is Everything

"You tried to contrive the perfect alibi, sir. And it's your perfect alibi that's gonna hang you."
- Lt. Columbo (An Exercise in Fatality, 1974)
Christopher Bush was an English schoolteacher and a veteran of both World Wars, reaching the rank of Major, but arguably his greatest accomplished was authoring more than sixty detective novels over a four-decade period – most of them starring his series-character, Ludovic Travers.

During his lifetime, Bush had a accumulated a considerable readership, "a steady Bush public," who had stuck with him throughout those tumultuous, ever-changing decades. Once he retired at the age of 83 in 1968, Bush began to fade from popular memory and his books "disappeared from mass circulation," which resulted in them becoming collector items and some apparently came with a hefty price-tag attached to them – effectively keeping them out of the hands of ordinary readers. This is, however, about to change.

Dean Street Press is on the cusp of reissuing all 63 of Bush's detective novels, which come with a thorough introduction and a preface of each individual book written by our very own genre-historian, Curt Evans – who blogs at The Passing Tramp. The first ten titles in this series of reprints are slated for release in October of this year.

I was given a review copy of one of the book that has been described, by Nick Fuller, as having an ending that will convince "the reader that Bush was to the unbreakable alibi what Carr was to the impossible crime." So I was intrigued to say the least.

Cut Throat (1932) is the seventh entry in the Ludovic Travers series and has a pleasantly intricate, multi-layered plot concerning the many complications twirling around the gruesome slaying of a newspaper tycoon.

Sir William Griffiths is the man "who built up the Associated Press" and has recently washed his hands from a tottering newspaper, called Mercury, which has since been merged with the Evening Record – owned by his long-time rival, Lord Zyon, who can be considered his complete opposite. Lord Zyon gave his newly acquired property a brand new banner to run on, "Free Trade With a Difference," and inaugurated a political movement to begin a "Work-For-All Crusade." The league is going to be formally launched at a rally at Albert Hall and Travers is invited to attend the rally.

Ludovic Travers is the director of Durangos Limited and an economics expert, who wrote such celebrated works as The Economics of a Spendthrift and The Stockbrokers' Breviary, which is why Lord Zyon often consulted him. Travers is asked this time to tackle a minor problem regarding the content of a speech to be given at the rally, but this consultation places him on the forefront of a bizarre murder case.

A case that, surprisingly, begins when Sir William gives Lord Zyon notice that "he will be most certainly on the platform tonight" and the message implied that he's on board with the new movement, because he also dispatched a special hamper filled with personally obtained evidence of illicit "dumping" by some large, popular stores. However, when the wicker basket arrives, and is opened, what they found inside was not evidence of predatory pricing of exports, but the lifeless, bloodied remains of Sir William – with an ugly gash running across his throat.

So the arrival of the hamper marks the beginning of the first part of the police investigation, in which Travers acts in the "capacity of detached observer," as he accompanies Superintendent George "General" Wharton of the Yard on his round of interviews with people who had ties with the victim.

These people include Sir William's heir and nephew, Tim Griffith, a world explorer who recently returned to England from Mongolia. A financial secretary, Mr. Bland, who has "a vulgarian" as a wife and his chess-playing friend, Reverend Cross, are also questioned in addition to the victim's slimy butler, Daniels, and Fred Sanders – a reporter who always seems to be on the spot when something happens. The questioning of these people and the discovery of a burnt-out, smoldering car wreck covers the first half of the book, which ends up explaining part of the journey the body of Sir William made after the murder was committed. And this part of the plot might prove hard to swallow for some readers.

Cut Throat is best described as two separate, but interlacing, stories with one of the two plot-threads detailing how the body was removed from the original crime-scene and eventually ended up inside the hamper. These series of events are completely detached from the murderer's original plan and will strain the credulity of some readers. Personally, I was not too bothered about this outside meddling in the murder, but loved the second half and solution too much to allow the hamper business to dampen my enthusiasm.

During the second part of the book, the murderer's identity, or guilt, becomes more and more apparent, but the only problem is that this person is in possession of an iron-clad alibi!

Nevertheless, Travers brilliantly dismantles this person's carefully constructed alibi and his reconstruction of the evening of the murder was very amusing, which demonstrated how the murderer was able to manipulate time itself. Perhaps it's my chronophobic tendencies speaking, but absolutely loved that ingenious time-manipulation trick. Even the fact that part of explanation came in the form of math homework could not diminish the cleverness of the trick. It's this kind of ingenuity that reminds me why I love detective stories.

So, if this is par for the course for Bush's detective-fiction, I can't but agree with Nick Fuller's observation that he was to the unbreakable alibi what Carr was to the locked room mystery.

Cut Throat has also made me very curious about The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1937), but those two will probably be included in the second batch of reprints. Until then, we can (appropriately) kill some time with the first ten reprints in the Ludovic Travers series and my next review will probably be of another one of Bush's mystery novels. Yes, my appetite has been properly whetted!

9/13/17

The Problems of Dr. Joel Hoffman

"I know it's impossible, but impossible things have happened... before this. I should know—I'm becoming something of an expert on them."
- Dr. Sam Hawthorne (Edward D. Hoch's Diagnosis: Impossible: The Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 1996)
Arthur Porges was an American mathematics teacher, assistant professor and an author of hundreds of short stories, covering a wide breadth of genres, but most impressively is that he was one of the most productive writers of locked room mysteries in the detective genre – eclipsed only John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch. I assume Bill Pronzini and Paul Halter have, in recent years, come close or even surpassed the number of impossible crime stories written by Porges.

However, even more impressive than having written forty-five locked room stories is the sheer originality of the problems and solutions, which demonstrated Porges was a clever and inventive writer. A writer who possessed a first-rate brain. Yes, in my world a writer of top-drawer locked room mysteries qualifies as a genius.

The impossible crime fiction of Porges is scattered across a handful of series, and a number of standalone stories, which were published in such periodicals as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, but only a couple of them reappeared in (locked room) anthologies – only two series were book-formed as short story collections in recent history. Richard Simms of the Arthur Porges Fan Site, as Richard Simms Publications, has been collaborating with the estate of Porges to bring as many of his short stories back into the print as possible.

So far, these reprints have mainly consisted or work from other fields of popular fiction, such as science-fiction and fantasy, but also includes a now almost ten-year-old collection of truly excellent detective stories.

The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) is an almost complete collection of short stories about the titular, wheelchair-bound, character whose extraordinary scientific-mind is often consulted when the police is faced with a seemingly impossible crime. And as great as the plots are the (supporting) characters. Particularly, the genius, but good humored, teenage son of Grey who does most of the legwork for his father. The stories made you yearn for more, but we had to patiently wait for nearly a decade before we were being treated for a second volume of Porges' impossible crime fiction.

No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman (2017) is an incredibly slender, almost booklet-like, volume of only 86-pages and gathered all six short stories in the short-lived Dr. Joel Hoffman series – which originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine from 1959 to 1963. So one of the stories was actually published during the twilight years of the genre's Golden Age.

Dr. Joel Hoffman is the Chief Pathologist at Pasteur Hospital, situated on the Californian coast, where he acts as "a one-man crime lab" and consultant to his personal friend, Lieutenant Ader, who can't always rely on the local coroner because he's "a political hack." As a result, Dr. Hoffman is called in as an unofficial consultant on all the interesting, seemingly inexplicable, cases in the district. And five of the six of his recorded cases qualify as impossible crimes. So let's start digging into them!

The first story in the collection, "Dead Drunk," is absolutely excellent from start to finish, which opens with Dr. Hoffman and Lt. Ader being on the spot of deadly roadside accident.

A drunk driver killed an eight-year-old boys, who was standing with his mother at the crossroad, but the driver is "a playboy of fifty plus," Gordon Vance Whitman III, who has used his millions and diabetes as a Get Out Of Jail Free Card in previous automobile accidents – collisions that have left several people seriously maimed. However, this is the first time he left a body in his wake. But, once again, he appeared to have gotten away with it. As the courts only suspended his driving privileges.

One year later, Dr. Hoffman is requested by Lt. Ader to perform an autopsy on the body of a man who was found inside "a locked, third-floor apartment." The name of the victim is Gordon Whitman and he had been on "a long binge behind a bolted door," but Ader has his suspicious and the postmortem examinations reveals a surprising cause of death. Someone had directly introduced phosgene gas into the lung's of the victim! So this is not merely a locked room puzzle, but also a scientific conundrum and the explanation deftly combines a practical locked room gimmick with a first-rate scientific trick.

What really makes this an excellent story is the murderer's fate. A character who, no doubt, will have the sympathy of most readers.

The second story, "Horse-Collar Homicide," has arguably the most gruesome murder method in this collection and begins with "the mysterious death of Leonard Bugg Lakewood," which initially looks like a stroke. Lt. Ader doesn't like "the overall smell of the situation" and decided to consult his old friend, Dr. Hoffman.

Lakewood was a not so benevolent family tyrant, in his sixties, with a deep rooted pride in the family history and, once a year, he would throw "a family party in the old style." During these parties, the old man loved to revive "ancient diversions" and bully his "long-suffering relatives into participating for prizes." So these parties were only pleasant for one person, but that changed during the last gathering with an 18th century May Day celebration theme. One of the old-fashioned games "the rural sport of grinning through a horse-collar," but when Lakewood stuck his head inside the horse-collar he immediately had an epileptic fit and fell to the ground – deader than "a salted mackerel."

A second-rate hack would have explained this sudden and inexplicable death with a charge of electricity or a well-timed dose of some sort of obscure poison, but Porges was not a hack. Oh no. The murderous trick he imagined is the stuff of nightmares and, while fast-working, must have really, really hurt like hell. I winced in admiration when I read the solution. A great story that is, perhaps, more of an howdunit than a proper impossible crime story, but perfectly demonstrates that Porges, above all else, was a true original when it came to plotting detective stories.

The next story, "Circle in the Dust," is a non-impossible crime story and tagged by Richard Simms as his personal favorite. As a rabid locked room fanboy, I can forgive Simms for preferring this charming crime story over the brilliant classic that is "No Killer Has Wings." Anway...

Lt. Ader brings Dr. Hoffman "a simple murder" involving "the traditional blunt instrument." The victim is a harmless old lady, Mrs. Valerie Antoine, who lives in a mortgaged house stuffed with trashy furniture, junk and bric-a-brac. Only the termites eat three meals a day there. So who would want to cave in the head of an old, inoffensive widow with barely a penny to her name? Obviously, there was something of value in the house, but the only clues they have to go on is a circular outline in the dust and a sun-blasted shape on the wall opposite from where this object was taken.

An object that turns out to be a genuine rare item that would appear to be completely worthless to everyone except a particular kind of expert. Very clever. So, yes, a good and solid crime story, but somewhat out of place in this series.

"No Killer Has Wings," AHMM, Jan. 1961
The fourth story, "No Killer Has Wings," is a shimmering gem of an impossible crime tale and arguably the best no-footprints story ever penned within the locked room sub-genre. This brilliant story opens with Lt. Ader taking his niece, Dana, to Dr. Hoffman and ask him to help them clear the name of her fiance, Larry Channing, who's neck-deep in trouble and currently being held "on a first degree murder charge" by the lieutenant – since only he was in a position to kill his uncle, Colonel McCabe.

Colonel McCabe was bludgeoned to death, while dozing, on his private beach and the physical evidence points an accusatory finger at his twenty-four year old nephew, Larry. On the beach, there were prints of the victim going from the stairs to the water and back to the blanket where he lay down when he was assaulted. A second track of prints, belonging to Larry, lead from the stairs to the body and back again. There are no other prints except those belonging to the victim's dog and the beach is accessible only from the house and the sea.

So that leaves the primary suspect, Larry, in a very tight spot. Luckily, Dr. Hoffman comes up with a devilish clever explanation based on the murder weapon with blood and hair on the wrong spot! You have to read this one for yourself, but take my word for it, the problem of the impossible absence of footprints have never been played better than in this story. And that includes the work by Carr and Hoch!

The fifth story, "A Puzzle in Sand," is a sequel to the previous entry in this collection and even takes place "on that very same stretch of sand" as where Colonel McCabe was beaten to death. Once again, the murder could very well be "another impossible stinker."
After the previous story, the house and private beach were let to Myron Crane. The new tenant was a banker, philanthropist and a church elder, but this respectable pillar of the community has a secret in his past and this made him blackmail material. A man, known as Garrison, was overheard having a violent quarrel with the victim and the murder weapon, "a P-38 war souvenir," was found in his possession, but what appeared to clinch the matter is that only his footprints lead to the body and back. However, Garrison claims he was framed and Lt. Ader is inclined to believe him.

The solution to the impossibility surrounding the murderer's lack of footprints on the beach sand is not as original as in the previous story. As a matter of fact, the solution here is a variation on a rather disappointing, time-worn, ploy that rarely satisfied when used in an impossible crime scenario, because the answer comes across as a cop-out and is soul-crushingly disappointingly. So this story deserves praise for how it handled this particular ploy without disappointing the reader or giving the idea you were cheated. Once again, Porges knew how to write a detective story even when it wasn't as original as his top-drawer work.

Arthur Porges (1915-2006)
Finally, the collections ends with, somewhat, of a whimper, titled "Birds of One Feather," but the problem lay more with me than with the story.

Dr. Hoffman is asked to explain how a man and his pet bird, which was always perched on his shoulder, could simultaneously expire from cyanide poisoning while the victim was simply changing a flat tire – a problem complicated by the fact that not a trace of the poison was found in the stomach content. I immediately figured out how the poison-trick was accomplished, but this had very little to do with my own cleverness. The clue of the poisoned bird reminded me of an episode from the 1975 Ellery Queen TV-series, which had a similar kind of problem that involved a dead bird. I would not at all be surprised if the scenarist of that specific episode had been aware of this story, originally published in AHMM in 1963, and reworked the main gist of the trick when he wrote the episode.

So, all in all, No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman is a very short, but excellent, collection of detective stories with four of the six entries being top-notch examples of either the locked room mystery or the pure howdunit – such as "Dead Drunk," "Horse-Collar Homicide" and the superb "No Killer Has Wings." These stories alone is what makes this volume a must have for (locked room) readers like myself. Only real downside is that these half dozen stories constitutes the entirety of the Dr. Hoffman series. And that's hardly enough.

On the upside, the next collection in this series by Richard Simm might gather some, or all, of the impossible crime stories in the equally neglected Professor Ulysses Middlebie series. I would love to be able to finally read such tantalizing-sounding short stories like "The Puny Giant," "These Daisies Told" and "Blood Will Tell." So here's hoping! 

9/12/17

The Long Halloween

"We go from the past to the future..."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, 1969)
Frances Noyes Hart was an American writer of short stories, which were published in the Saturday Evening Post, Scribner's Magazine and Ladies' Home Journal, but she also authored three crime-related novels and her most well-known work is arguably The Bellamy Trial (1927) – a courtroom drama that was selected as a Haycraft-Queen cornerstone of detective-fiction. But she also penned a traditional-styled detective novel that, in some regards, preceded Anthony Berkeley's Panic Party (1934) and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939).

Hide in the Dark (1929) takes place on All-Hallows Eve, 1928, in an untenanted manor house, called Lady Court, where a group of former college friends have gathered to have an old-fashioned Halloween party.

The drove of friends jokingly refer to themselves as the March Hares, because the original members were born in March and claimed to be mad, but wisely decided not to insist on these qualifications when new people were drawn into the circle of friends. However, they slowly grew apart since the last time they threw a house party was ten years ago. So this celebration of All-Hallows Eve is also a reunion of the March Hares, but a pall hung over the gathering by the absence of one of them, Sunny, who drowned herself when she was only nineteen – which happened ten years ago. And the motive for killing herself may lie with one of her former college chums attending the reunion party.

So there you have it. A story with a conventional, but not badly drawn, backdrop with a premise that's an early example of a classic plot-device. Hide in the Dark could easily have been a fun or even an historically important detective novel. Sadly, the first half of the book unfolds at an excruciatingly tedious pace and the yammering of the boring cast-of-characters completely ruined the book for me.

There are references in the opening part of the book to the past suicide and the bridge connecting the house to the mainland is swallowed by the rising water of the creek, which effectively isolated the party from the outside world. But the only interesting bit from this portion was the backstory of Lady Court.

A story concerning the ancestor of one of the party members, Sidney, who was "a famous duelist" and his consistent fighting made the elites of the time decide that "the safest place for His Majesty's servant was His Majesty colony," which brought him to colonial America with his young wife, Damaris – who had wept bitter tears for lost England upon arriving in the strange land. One evening, Sidney was stabbed in the back of the neck, while he sat at his desk, and everyone assumed he had been murdered by two runaway slaves. There are some mysteries surrounding the murder, such as missing sheet of paper and "a few grains of sand" on the desk.

When I read this backstory, I hoped the historical mystery was going to be used as a (minor) sub-plot with a solution that would make this plot-strand a forerunner of the modern-day historical detective story, but alas, Sidney's murder proved to be nothing more than mere window dressing.

After the story, mercifully, managed to drag itself across the halfway mark, the story finally gets a little bit more interesting.

As the weather outside worsens, the party decides to play a host of tradition (Halloween) games, like bobbing for apples, but the main event of the night is the game that lend its name to the book-title. The game is pretty much hide-and-seek with the lights out and the person who has to hide himself found a perfect hiding place, which is an idea inspired by one of the C. Auguste Dupin stories by Edgar Allan Poe ("you know, the purloined letter stuff"). The most obvious place in the house, "where no one in God's world would think of looking," namely the big sofa in front of the fire where he had to wait until he heard the signal to hide. And he would simply continue to sit in that spot.

Only minutes after the gong signaled the start of the game, a scream pierces through the dark house and when the lights are turned on the hider is found on dead on the sofa. A stab wound in the neck.

As said here above, this is the point where the story becomes slightly interesting, as "the rôle of inquisitor" is passed around between several characters, but the most notable aspects where in the tail of the story and concerns two of the characters taking blame for the murder in order to protect one another – which brought the work of Christianna Brand to mind. I also liked how Hart handled, what could have been, a cliched scene with the murderer attempting to commit suicide. It was a nice inversion of expectations and in keeping with the murderer's personality.

However, by the time I finally arrived at this point of the story, I had completely stopped caring about who did what and why. And this can solely be blamed on the tortuous slowness of the first half of the book. The sluggish pace of that first half managed to extinguish any flicker of interest I might have had in the plot or character.

So, technically, it has to be admitted that Hide in the Dark is not entirely devoid of interest as a detective story, but getting to those parts is an absolute chore and, once you arrive there, were hardly worth this reader's time or patience – making this a genuine letdown. I can only really recommend the book to genre scholars and historians as an ancestor of the previously mentioned books by Berkeley and Christie, but leisure readers might want to give this one a pass.

To end this review on a positive note, I received my copy of No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman (2017) by Arthur Porges today. So that one will be next on the list.