6/18/18

Ripper (1994) by Michael Slade

Jay Clarke is a Canadian lawyer specialized in criminal insanity and a novelist who writes under the pseudonym of "Michael Slade," a penname he has shared with Rebecca Clarke, John Banks and Richard Covell, who collaborated on fourteen novels about the Special X division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – published between 1984 and 2010. I understand that the series is written on three concentric levels: who-and howdunit form the core of each story that's wrapped in psychological horror tinged with supernatural elements. The outer layer, or outward appearance, is that of a modern-day police procedural. Stories are stuffed with gore. Lots of gore.

So you're probably wondering why a gentleman of taste and a connoisseur of the traditional detective story, like yours truly, is doing with a gory serial killer thriller from the 1990s.

The Special X series was lauded by John Dickson Carr's grandson, Wooda H. McNiven, who praised Ripper (1994) as "a fair play whodunit" in "the Grand Guignol tradition" with one seemingly impossible, ultra-gruesome killing taking place after another and the story is littered with references to the master of the locked room conundrum – who, according to McNiven, would probably have given the book "two thumbs up." Apparently, Carr was an enormous influence on the series and there are two additional titles crammed with impossible crimes.

Crucified (2008) has impossible murders committed on an airborne bomber and a submerged U-boat, while Red Snow (2010) has two locked room puzzles and a dying message. Ellery Queen is another writer who greatly influenced the series. I was tempted to begin with Crucified, but settled on Ripper as it seemed to be one of the more highly regarded titles in the series.

Firstly, I have to say that the writing, structuring and background of Ripper reminded me of Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series, because the plot is steeped in the lore of Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, Tarot cards and Satanism. I suppose the similarities are not entirely coincidental as Fowler started out as a horror writer who has since dabbled in the locked room sub-genre when he began writing the PCU books. Only drawback is that the background material, concerning the shenanigans of Jack the Ripper and Crowley, tend to read like textbook excerpts, which is not something every reader can appreciate, but it didn't bother me at all here – even helping to give to story itself a (sort of) personality. But let's take a closer look at the plot of the story.

The plot of Ripper consists of two, intertwining plot-threads beginning with the gruesome killing of a prominent American feminist, named Brigid Marsh, who was "strangled, stabbed, skinned and strung up like a piece of meat." She was dangling by a hooked chain, spiked into the base of her skull, from the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge. A homeless witness below saw the body come over the bridge and heard the footfalls of two people on the bridge. 
 
Corporal Nicholas Craven of the Mounted Police is the police-detective in charge of the investigation, but, since the victim is a citizen of the United States, he has to contact the Commander of the Special External Section of the Mounted Police (Special X), Robert DeClercq – whose unit handles criminal cases in Canada with a foreign link. This specialized police unit, "staffed by those who'd once spied for the now-defunct Security Service," is another aspect that reminded of me of Fowler's PCU series.

Craven and DeClercq work (more or less) together on the case and their attention is soon drawn to a recently, independently published horror novel, entitled Jolly Roger, which was written by "Skull & Crossbones." Only problem is that the murder preceded the publication of the book. So the book is a direct link to the murderers, but the small-time publisher, Fly-By-Night Press, have no idea who the author, or authors, really are. The only line of contact between the publisher and writer is through a Vancouver postbox. As an interesting side-note: a minor sub-plot of the story is the torture and murder of a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Chas Fowler, who had described Jolly Roger as "the nadir of horror fiction" and an "argument for censorship" – which ended with him getting his head squeezed by mechanical plates until his face split in two and the skull collapsed in on itself. I would really like to know if Slade had a particular reviewer in mind when he wrote that passage.

A second, interesting aspect, of this first plot-thread that should be mentioned is that entomology plays an important role in tracking down the killer. The first victim had been stabbed numerous time in the abdominal region and lice were found there that are normally only found on animals, which are eventually identified as having come from a very specific and endangered animals. This kind of foreshadowed the CSI craze of 2000s and shows how much Slade liked to blur the borders between different (sub) genres.

During this investigation, which takes up half of the book, we get the setup of the second plot-thread.

A woman by the name of Elvira Franklen lives with a gang of cats, all of them named after fictional detectives and mystery writers, and she has been writing "interactive mysteries" since the 1930, but none of them prompted a response like Shivers, Shudders and Shakes: Seance With a Killer – which had been purchased by an unknown buyer and this person had given her strict instructions. A select group of people were to be gathered and brought to Castle Crag on Deadman's Island. Only thing they needed for the charity event was "a real sleuth" and DeClercq had promised Franklen he would provide them one.

Inspector Zinc Chandler was a member of Special X, but he had been shot through the head during the events described in Cutthroat (1992) and, as a consequence, had been sidelined for several years. Unfortunately, the powers that be are reluctant to bring him back into the fold. So DeClercq asks him to go the charity event on Deadman's Island. However, shortly after his arrival there, he quickly stumbles to the conclusion that he has walked into a veritable death-trap as people die left and right in what can only be described as a wholesale slaughter. And several of these killings are of the impossible variety.

A deadly crossbow bolt is fired from a nook in the dining room, where the dust and cobwebs were undisturbed, which has a secondary impossibility of how the antique crossbow could have been fired. As it would have fired itself immediately had it been cocked, loaded and then replaced, because "the heavier weight of the crossbow squeezed the handle toward the stock." There's even an illustration of the crossbow explaining how to operate it. The explanation for this impossibility is deadly simple and finds a new use for a classic locked room technique.

A second impossibility occurs when Chandler witnesses someone entering the Turkish bath, but when he enters only a moment later this person is laying on the floor with his throat cut and a "Y" had been drawn in blood on the tiled-floor – a dying message. Unfortunately, the dying message was rather weak, because it was left unfinished, but the locked room-trick itself was acceptable enough. And these are only two of the murders that took place there over a short period of time. Nearly all of those murders are the result of ingenious and psychotic booby traps that have been rigged up all around the castle.

Japanese edition
A good example of these booby traps is when two of the guests, while having sex in a canopy bed, are trapped inside a net with together venomous baby snakes. Why baby snakes, you ask? The reason given in the book is that adult snakes conserve venom by giving dry bites, but young one (of every species) are barbarians. So, a baby snake, who is frightened by humans, "will empty their poison glands."

So, as you can probably guess, my favorite part of Ripper was the Grand Guignol-style massacre at Castle Crag and this portion of the story reminded me of the mechanical, death-trap house from John Russell Fearn's Account Settled (1949) – which also featured a number of seemingly impossible murders. Only difference is that the murders in Fearn's novel were very clean in comparison the slaughter perpetrated between the pages of Ripper.

Anyway, the Jolly Roger murders and the brutal killings on Deadman's Island turn out to be inextricably linked, which were tied together better than you'd expect from a slasher, with an ending that took its cue from The Burning Court (1937). One of the last lines ("the Hollow Man was hollow no more") really drove home that the author likes Carr.

This has left me in two minds. On the one hand, the graphic serial killer story is not my genre at all, but on the other, the plot was better than it has any right to be. Sure, this is not exactly a neo-Golden Age detective novel, but Slade effectively demonstrated here that even a guts-and-gore-type of thriller can have a degree of logic to it and this is something I really appreciated about Ripper. And the impossible crimes were the cherries that topped this pile of mutilated corpses.

On a whole, I was not entirely blown away by Ripper, but, as a genre classicist, I appreciated Slade's more traditional slant on the contemporary serial killer novel and his obvious love and respect for Carr's work. So you can expect reviews of his other locked room thrillers sometime in the future.

6/15/18

The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) by Christopher Bush

The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) is the eighteenth mystery novel by Christopher Bush and has the unfortunate, two-sided reputation of being an ingeniously plotted detective story marred by lackluster writing and paper-thin characterization. This appraisal of the book is not entirely without merit. However, I can be very forgiving of a detective story's imperfections, like a cast of cardboard characters, if the plot is well put together – probably the reason why I never had a problem with the so-called humdrum school of mystery writing. The Case of the Tudor Queen has quite a rack of a plot on her!

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
A tricky, complicated plot that slowly begins to unravel when Bush's lanky, bespectacled economist and freelance detective, Ludovic Travers, is driving his Rolls-Royce up from Southampton.

Superintendent George "The General" Wharton is in the passenger seat next to him and Palmer is sitting in the back, which makes for a diverse party that provides the book with brief, but interesting, character sketches of the men – only genuine piece of characterization in the entire novel. Travers is described as a man who had been born with "a gold spoon in his mouth" to whom "deduction and the chase were the most thrilling of hobbies" and as a detective was always looking for "the short cut." Wharton was a man who had risen from the ranks and his preferred method is "patient inquiry, slow accumulation" and "the gradual elimination of the unwanted." They were "the perfections of the opposite that make the unique fit."

Travers had missed a turn along the way and they got lost, which is how they ended up at the front-gate of a cottage standing on the outskirts of a tiny village.

A woman emerged from the gate of the cottage, as they passed it, who looked in a hurry and they offered her a ride to the nearby train station. The name of the woman is Edith Bunce, a maidservant and dresser, who's in the employ of a well-known theatrical actress, Mary Legreye – currently playing Mary Tudor in Stony Heart. Legreye had given Bunce a three-day holiday and expected her back at the cottage that day, but the cottage was still all locked up and Legreye had not come with the last train of the day.

Travers and Wharton decide to accompany Bunce back to the cottage, which turns out to have been burglarized. The telephone-line had been hacked through with a knife and later two miniatures, that had hung on the wall, are discovered to be missing.

There's evidence Legreye had arrived at the cottage, but inexplicably left again without her hat, fur and gloves. So this interests our detectives and they decide to take a gander at the main residence of the missing actress, a two-storey house in Westmead called Arden, which is dipped in darkness when they arrive there and awaiting them inside is the scene of a bizarre, double tragedy – which could be either murder, suicide or a combination of the two. Fred Ward was employed by Legreye as an indoor servant and part-time gardener, as "a kind of permanent charity" on her part, but the man was now laying on the kitchen floor. Ward had been dead for many hours.

Legreye is eventually found in an immense room that ran along the whole front of the house and the room had been cleared of all furniture, which had been placed behind a large screen. The only furnishing in that bare room was a single high-backed, winged chair with a side-table next to it. A throne on which the body of Mary Legreye was seated, like "a queen posed to give an audience," with an empty glass and an uncorked bottle standing on the table besides her. Legreye and Ward had both been poisoned. And there was a twenty-four hour gap between their deaths!

Admittedly, I think these opening chapters are the only really engagingly written parts of the story with the investigation at the dark, gloomy house, after the bodies had been discovered, resembling a mansion-story by Roger Scartett – in which the house almost becomes a character itself in the story. Travers is even relieved when finally two uniformed constables arrive, because the house no longer seemed "as clammy and deadly silent." The arrival of the local police had miraculously turned the place into "a mere building" that held "a grim, and even alluring, mystery."

However, I can understand why some readers have a problem with the remainder of the story, which is, regrettably, as flatly written as it's characterized and the plot is structured like one of the earlier novels from the series (c.f. Dead Man Twice, 1930). Something probably not every reader will appreciate.

The Case of the Tudor Queen is divided into two parts, respectively titled "Presentation" and "Solution," which gives the main-stage almost entirely to Superintendent Wharton. As he questions suspects and tests the soundness of their alibis, Travers recedes into the background, like a chameleon, to polish his “monstrous hornrims” and ponder the case. A similar role he had in the earlier novels, like The Perfect Murder Case (1929), but Travers is still the one who eventually gets hold of the solution. Although it took a while in this instance.

The last portion of the story takes place months after the initial investigation, which lead to nowhere, but, by pure chance, Travers is placed on the right track that allows him to completely demolish one of the suspects air-tight alibis – which also explained the clue of the "flake of green enamel paint." I wanted to kick myself for having missed that "the vital clue" that tied the murder or Legreye to the play and the life of the historical character she had portrayed on stage. In my defense, this link didn't occur to Travers either until the last couple of pages.

So, on a whole, The Case of the Tudor Queen is an imperfect detective novel, notably the lackluster story-telling and flat characterization, but the plot is an interesting take on the theatrical mystery. A theatrical mystery that primarily took place in the private life of the lead actress and how the murders came about, as well as why her body was posed on the throne, is vintage Bush. This made for a clever, intricately plotted detective novel that was perhaps not told as well as it could have, but this did not deter me from enjoying the book. I think fans of Bush, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode will agree with me. Unless you're JJ.

6/12/18

Cherry Blossom Memories: Case Closed, vol. 66 by Gosho Aoyama

The 66th installment of Gosho Aoyama's hugely popular, long-running Case Closed series, published in Japan as Detective Conan, turned out to be the first volume in ages that was completely underwhelming with only one of the three (complete) stories being any good – an impossible crime tale about a hungry, haunted store house that eats stolen treasure. But more on that delectable story later.

This volume opens with the concluding chapter of the "mystery of bloodred wall" that introduced police-detective of Takaaki Morofushi, of Nagano, who has a personal link to the tragedy that took place in "the Manor of Death." A mansion built by a millionaire and gifted to a group of artists, but one of them died tragically and ever since the place has garnered an unfavorable reputation. This reputation was compounded when another artist was starved to death in one of the room that had been blocked from the outside. However, the victim left an elaborate dying message.

One of the walls had been painted red and two wooden chairs had been nailed together, back-to-back, which were respectively painted black and white.

I've seen this dying clue referred to as fantastic and epic, but I think that would be overstating it. Nevertheless, the dying message deserves to be praised for tackling a problem often encountered with these clues, because they're regularly altered, destroyed or faked by the murderer – occasionally they were even left unfinished. So they don't really work as dying message stories, but here the victim had the time needed to create a destruction-proof dying message. And he did by simply giving it a double meaning. I only know of one other example in which the victim had the time to protect his dying message, which was in the Columbo classic Try and Catch Me (1977).

So I would definitely rank this story as a notable example of the dying message and something tells me Ellery Queen would have approved of it. Something tells me they would have appreciated the true meaning behind the painted wall and chairs.

Regrettably, the next story is a poor example of the unbreakable alibi. The Junior Detective League are at the cinema to see the latest monster movie, Gomera Final, where they find a familiar face, Inspector Santos, who's mooning about his unanswered love for Detective Sato. She changed his life when, as children, a soda drink decorated with paper cherry blossoms. The cherry blossom is "the emblem of the Japanese police" and that makes it "the flower of courage." One of the woes of the ongoing saga known as the Metropolitan Police Love Story.

At the cinema, they meet a woman who confides in them that she's being stalked and when they accompany the woman back to her condo, they discover the body of her boyfriend. Everyone knows she committed the murder, but the problem is that she was with Santos and the Junior Detective League at the cinema watching a movie. However, the alibi-trick is ridiculous with a lot that was left to chance, such as "befriending the people seated around her," establishing her alibi, but the whole trick was risky, particularly how the witnesses were used, everything could have gone wrong – like a certain someone waking up or a late moviegoer taking one of the unoccupied seats. And how she established her presence in the cinema, during the murder, was plain ridiculous.

Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts have rekindled my love of the alibi problem, but this alibi-trick was unbelievable rubbish that, even in a comic book setting, was hard to believe.

The next (locked room) story is my favorite from this volume and begins with the news of "a string of thefts," but the Junior Detective League are discussing the story of "the monster store house." A class-mate of Mitch was playing hide-and-seek in the neighborhood and was looking for a friend when he peeked through the top-floor window of an old store house, but the place was filled with expensive looking antiques – someone was staring at him from behind the treasure. The door was locked and nobody answered when he called. According to the owner, the building had been locked for years and nobody could possible be in it. And, when he unlocks the door, the place was entirely empty!

The store house was designed by a 19th century craftsman, Kichiemon Samizu, who also constructed the impenetrable vault from volumes 64 and 65. The place is reputedly haunted and, if you place anything inside, "a monster will gobble it up."

So they decide to take a look at this haunted store house and Conan witnesses this vanishing mystery first hand, when he looks through the top-floor window, but the room is, once again, completely bare when the owner unlocks the door – except for footprints in the dust. You can probably guess the nature of this locked room trick. However, it was still nicely constructed story with a nifty way to resettle a 19th century-type of locked room story in a contemporary setting. There is a nice side-story in which the members of the Junior Detective League try to upstage Conan. And he has to figure out who's giving them support in the background.

So a nice, old-fashioned impossible crime story that reminded me of Keikichi Osaka's short-short "The Hungry-Letter Box" (The Ginza Ghost, 2017).

The next story brings Harley Hartwell and Kazuha all the way from Osaka to Tokyo, because they need help finding a student attending Teitan University, Teruaki Kunisue, who grew up next door to Kazuha. Kunisue was in Osaka on holiday and Kazuha had made him a lucky charm, but Harley had accidentally given him Kazuha's charm. And she has a good reason to want it back before Harley can lay his hands on it and discover her secret.

A search that leads them to a sports bar, where Kanisue was assaulted, and Conan has to deduce, who of three suspects, had attacked him. I think the attacker was fairly obvious to spot for more than one reason. A simple and forgettable story.

Finally, the last chapter of this volume sets up an inverted detective story about the murder of a Gothic Lolita in the restroom of a dinner. As to be expected, Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan were present when the body was discovered. And that story will be concluded in the next volume.

So, all in all, this volume was rather underwhelming and only saved by the concluding chapter of the red wall case and the story about the hungry store house. Hopefully, the next volume is back up to its usual strength.

6/9/18

The Master Must Die (1953) by John Russell Fearn

Back in January, 2016, I read John Russell Fearn's The Lonely Astronomer (1954), originally published as by "Volsted Gridban," which was my introduction to the work of this astonishingly prolific English pulp writer and since then have burned through twenty of his detective novels, novellas and short stories – which were as varied in nature as the many genre's he had dabbled in during his thirty-year career.

Fearn had literally turned his hand to every form of detective fiction imaginable: impossible crimes, inverted detective stories, juvenile mysteries, genre hybrids, thrillers and even an early precursor of the contemporary crime novel.

The Lonely Astronomer is "an impossible crime science-fiction mystery" and one of only two novels featuring a 22nd century scientific investigator, Adam Quirke, who's a white-maned, six-feet-nine intellectual giant prone to uncontrollable fits of laughter. A very annoying characteristic that was (thankfully) not as prominent in his first outing as it was in his second recorded case. It's this first outing that I picked as my next read.

The Master Must Die (1953) takes place in the far-flung year of 2190 and Gyron de London "one of the most powerful industrialists to ever be spewed up from the financial and industrial deeps," which made him the power behind the government of the British Federation. De London climbed to eminence over "the bodies of less of less sagacious and less ruthless people," all of them long-forgotten, but one person had not forgotten about his victims and send him a threatening letter – promising that on March 30, 2190, he would die at the hands of a sworn enemy. The letter was signed with "THE MASTER MUST DIE."

De London has "enemies by the thousand," but his suspicions run in the direction of the people from his inner circle.

Against his wishes, De London's son, Harry, has married the daughter of a high-born Englishman and an equally high-born Martian woman, named Owena Tirgard, but he intensely dislikes and distrusts Martians – descendants of the original settlers who had severed ties with their home planet and declared themselves independent from Earth. After all, the stamp on the envelope of the threatening letter was a Martian stamp. I'm not sure what surprised me more: that people were sending snail mail from Mars to Earth or that a single airmail stamp covered the cost through the variable distances and zones between the two planets.

These are, however, more suspects to consider. Miss Turner is De London's "inhumanly efficient" secretary and has "gone down the hill of acid spinsterhood" during the "sixteen grinding, pitiless years" she has worked for him. De London is very much aware that she deeply resents him and that she had recently been on holiday to Mars. Secondly, there was Rogers, De London's chauffeur and general factotum, whose father was a brilliant physical scientist who got "swindled and crushed" by the big business. Something a son would naturally resent.

So there are more than enough potential murderers surrounding the powerful industrialist and, as March 30 draws closer, De London begins to take an extreme, overly expensive measure to ensure that nothing or nobody can get to him – which includes protection from lethal cosmic rays!

De London orders his engineers to convert half of his private-office into "a radiation-proof chamber of tungsten steel" with a lining of "a new type of lead composite" used on space ships to block cosmic radiation. A group of armed guards are stationed around this so-called "cube-room" throughout the day. De London is supposed to be untouchable within that vault-like, radiation-proof chamber, but, when he failed to reemerge from the room, they had to burn through the door. Only to find his body inside without a mark on it!

I have to point out here how similar the premise and setup of the impossible murder is to one from Christopher St. John Sprigg's "Death at 8:30," collected in Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017), but the difference between the two is that The Master Must Die has a pure science-fiction solution. An ingenious, futuristic method of killing someone inside a bare, radiation-proof room of steel that even Quirke found difficult to understand and reconstruct. So the reader has absolutely no chance whatsoever to work out the locked room trick for themselves, but the identity of the murderer was interesting. And somewhat solvable.

Usually, the murderers in Fearn's detective stories are not very difficult to spot, because he was more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts aspect of murder and probably the reason why he was so surprisingly good when it came to writing inverted detective stories – e.g. Except for One Thing (1947) and Pattern of Murder (2006). Anyway, the murderer here appeared to have presented himself on a silver platter to the reader in the run up to the murder and Quirke's discoveries, regarding the method, initially confirmed this character as the killer. By the end, Fearn settled on another character as the murderer, which was perhaps not properly clued, but this person possessed the motives, means and opportunity.

So not exactly a rug-puller of a surprise, but, after reading more than twenty of his mystery novels and short stories, I found this divergence from the usual pattern interesting. And this is really all that can be said about the plot of this very short novel.

I do want to note here the fascinating and, sometimes, hilarious fact that the vision of the future these classic science-fiction authors had primarily concerned big objects, like rockets, but rarely the small, everyday things. Fearn created a world in these two books were you can take a space liner to Mars, which has "a 3-D projected orchestra" as entertainment, but the cargo of this liner probably carried sacks of paper mail. All of them properly stamped. I also noticed this in David V. Reed's Murder in Space (1944), which takes place in a fully colonized Milky Way, but courtroom photographers still used flashbulbs!

I'm not very familiar with the (classical) science-fiction genre and this could be something primarily found in the work of the second-stringers, because I believe Isaac Asimov got a lot right. However, I find it intriguing that these early science-fiction authors were able to envision space ships, asteroid mining operations and terra-forming alien worlds, but had a glaring blind spot as to how these technologies could possibly impact and innovate normal, everyday life.

On a whole, The Master Must Die is not one of Fearn's finest detective stories or even a noteworthy entry on the list of science-fiction (locked room) mysteries, but it was a fast, fun read helped by the fact that Quirke was not half as insufferable as in The Lonely Astronomer. So this one can only really be recommended to readers who like Fearn, pulpy science-fiction or genre hybrids.

6/6/18

The Back Bay Murders (1930) by Roger Scarlett

The Back Bay Murders (1930) is the second detective novel Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page co-wrote under their shared pseudonym, "Roger Scarlett," which cemented Inspector Kane of the Boston Police as their series-character and had the dubious honor of falling prey to "the most glaring piece of plagiarism ever to exist" – a "word for word copy" surreptitiously published in England. Curt Evans has an interesting piece on his blog about the cover-to-cover plagiarism of The Back Bay Murders in Don Basil's Cat and Feather (1931) with comparable samples. And the plagiarized passages have to be read to be believed. Don had cheek, that's for sure.

The Back Bay Murders opens with Inspector Norton Kane taking his friend and loyal chronicler, Mr. Underwood, to Mrs. Quincy's reputable brownstone boardinghouse in "the formerly sedate neighborhood of Boston's Back Bay."

Mrs. Quincy caters to solitary individuals, "entrenched in respectability," without immediate relatives and offers them comfort, luxury and human society. Only exception to this rule is Arthur Pendergast, a neurotic young man, who lives there with his mother and he has reported unusual case of housebreaking to the police. Pendergast's room had been ransacked and the floor was stained with thick, reddish brown substance, as if "blood had rained down from the ceiling," but even more curious was the white Persian cat playing in the room with a white feather – tossing it around and pouncing on it. A bizarre scene and Kane promises to let him know if anything turns up.

However, Kane and Underwood return to the brownstone the next day when Pendergast has been found murdered in his room. Someone had slit his throat and a white feather was left on the scene.

Inspector Kane is in fine form as he solves Pendergast's murder in short time and identifies a visitor to the brownstone, Alvin Hyde, as the murderer. Hyde came to the brownstone to deliver a record of Saint-Saëne's Danse Macabre to Mr. Weed and they listened to it together, which is when Hyde got out of the room and murdered Pendergast. But this explanation immediately poses another question: who's Alvin Hyde?

Kane reasons that Pendergast was a neurotic man without friends or acquaintances outside of the house, which means that without "a ready-made, practically self-confessed murderer" the police would looking for his killer among his fellow lodgers. So the murderer blazed a path of evidence leading straight out of the front door of the brownstone. And, had the police fallen for this scheme, they would forever be chasing a man who doesn't exist. A scheme as cunning as it's daring and especially liked the red herring of the faked fingerprints. Just one of the many clever little aspects that make up the plot of The Back Bay Murders.

During the second half of the story, Mrs. Quincy is scratched with a deadly dose of hydrocyanic acid in her bedroom and the circumstances of her death makes it a (borderline) impossible crime.

Hydrocyanic acid causes instantaneous death and her husband, who was in the sitting room next door, heard her fall. The bedroom had second, unlocked door that opened into the hallway (see floorplan), but her husband heard no commotion or anything that indicated that a second person had been present in the bedroom – which is by itself not enough to tag this as an impossible crime. However, the murderer turns out to have a perfect alibi and, as Kane observed, it appeared to be "physically impossible" for this person to have killed Mrs. Quincy. And the explanation is a play on a well-known locked room technique.

So I decided to tag this review as a "locked room mystery" and "impossible crime." Even if it is, technically, only a borderline impossibility. Still, a very nicely done and cleverly conceived murder.

Honestly, I did not expect The Back Bay Murders to upstage its predecessor, because the series would not really find its own voice, namely that of a dark, gloomy yakata-mono (mansion stories), until the next novel, but here the authors were already getting comfortable with themselves – slowly emerging from the shadow of S.S. van Dine. This second mystery has a really knotty, complex plot littered with physical and psychological clues and hints, which range from a leaky roof, broken pieces of (crystal) glass and the psychological makeup of the murderer. There's always a hint of Freud in the Scarlett novels.

The personality of the murderer obviously took its cue from R.L. Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885) and the only drawback is that this made the murderer's identity increasingly obvious as the story progresses.

Nevertheless, everything else was very well handled and showed two mystery writers who were growing and quickly finding their own stride. They would come into full bloom with their next three mystery novels and the result is a lamentably short-lived, but high quality, series of detective stories that simply cannot be recommended enough. Coachwhip and Curt Evans deserve a heap of praise for bringing this series back into print. Because these books belong on the shelves of every enthusiast of the Golden Age of detective fiction.

The Roger Scarlett Mysteries:

The Back Bay Murders (1930)
Cat's Paw (1931)

6/2/18

Murder Among Children (1967) by Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake's Murder Among Children (1967) originally appeared under the name "Tucker Coe" and is the second of only five private-eye novels about a disgraced ex-policeman, Mitch Tobin, whose partner was shot and killed when making an arrest – while he was in bed with a woman who was not his wife. Tobin was summarily dismissed from the NYPD and withdrew from the world, into his suburban backyard, where he had began to work on a wall.

If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you're probably wondering why a fervent classicist, like myself, picked a relatively modern crime novel with a tormented ex-cop, soaked in guilt, as its protagonist. There's a perfectly logical and even predictable reason for picking this title.

Murder Among Children was brought to my attention by the Thrilling Detective Website, which has a page, titled "And Throw Away the Key! Locked Room P.I. Mysteries," listing "locked-room capers and other impossible crimes that good ol' regular joe private eyes cracked" – a list that includes such names as Lawrence Block, Henry Kane, Jonathan Latimer and Bill Pronzini. So that placed the book on my wish list, but what really aroused my curiosity was the publication date.

On his excellent website, Mike Grost remarked, in reference to Helen McCloy's The Further Side of Fear (1967), that "the late 1960s is an atypical era in mystery history for a writer to develop an interest in locked room puzzles."

The '60s was a dark decade for traditional, plot-driven detective fiction and impossible crime (short) stories were primarily being written by two masters of the short story format, Edward D. Hoch and Arthur Porges – who kept the home fires burning in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. There are one or two notable (locked room) novels from this period, like McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968), but then the movement within my beloved sub-genre pretty much grinds to a halt until the 1970 and '80s.

So I had become curious about this fairly modern, somewhat gritty locked room novel from the sixties. And I'm glad to report that Murder Among Children was far better than I anticipated. Let's dig in.

A slightly bitter and world wary Tobin has buried himself in the garden of his suburban home, in Queens, where he lives with his wife and fourteen year old son, but a widening rift exists between them. Particularly between Tobin and his teenage son. So he has began building a wall around the garden ("its construction was its own purpose"), but, one day, a distant relative turns up on a his doorstep, Robin Kennely – an 18-year-old with friends who are in a spot of trouble. Kennely has a boyfriend, Terry Wilford, who opened a coffee house in Greenwich Village with three of his friends.

A day or two after they opened, a plainclothes police detective, named Edward Donlon, dropped by to ask questions, make insinuations and harass their patrons by asking them for their identifications. So they think he either wants to make trouble for them, because he doesn't like their crowd of people, or wants a bribe. A non-money bribe! Tobin reluctantly promises to come down to the coffee house the next day, but, when he arrives there, Robin comes shuffling down the stairs holding a carving knife and smeared with blood – after which she collapses. Upstairs, there are two bodies slashed to ribbons. One of the victims is her boyfriend, Terry, while the other is a heroin-addicted prostitute.

The locked-off situation of the upstairs floor and the witness downstairs appear to eliminate the possibility of the presence of a fourth person, which results in the arrest of Robin, who has no recollection of what happened.

You would expect this is the moment when Tobin rises to the occasion and intrude on his former colleagues in order to exonerate Robin, but he tightly shuts the door to the outside world behind him and refuses to have anything to do with the case. This has deadly consequences. George Padbury is one of the three partners and was downstairs when the murders happened, who suddenly remembered an important detail, but Tobin resolutely refuses to talk with him over the telephone. So the next time he hears about Padbury, he has been killed in a hit-and-run.

So, inch by inch (or brick by brick), Tobin is slowly pushed out of his garden and is encouraged by his wife to "go on out and talk to people, nose around, do this, do that" and "find out who really did the killings." During his private investigation, Tobin is often assisted by one of three partners, Hulmer Fass, a young black man who helps him interview the pimp of the murdered prostitute and pretty much acts as a cultural interpreter. But the investigation also brings them to a religious group, New World Samaritans, who leased the building to the three young men and are lead by a blind man, Bishop Johnson.

Actually, Tobin finds the key to this case only a stone's throw away from this new age church, but the path he has to take to reach that point is littered with complications and corpses – which eventually gets him arrested on suspicion of Donlon's murder. And the policemen, who interrogate him, come up with a false solution that made him the perpetrator of the double locked room murder! A very modern interpretation of the Anthony Berkeley-style false solution, but this interrogation helped Tobin put the final puzzle pieces in their place.

Firstly, the solution to the locked room puzzle is not terribly original and merged to very basic techniques of the impossible crime story, but these techniques were put to good use here and made sense, because (like the whole solution) it hinges on the actions and personality of the murderer – who was not exactly in the right frame of mind. All of the pieces fitted nicely and logically together. My only real complaint is Robin's shocked state and amnesia, which was an incredibly convenient thing to happen for the plot. If you logically follow the sequence of events, there should have been three bodies on the second floor. Or, at least, Robin should have been severely wounded and unable to identify the murderer. Besides that, this was a pretty good for a detective story written and published in the 1960s.

Murder Among Children is the type of (locked room) P.I. novel Pronzini wrote in the 1980s and should be seen as a precursor of Hoodwink (1981), Scattershot (1982) and Bones (1985). So, if you liked any of those three novels, you will certainly enjoy Murder Among Children.

On a final, related note: I reviewed a number of locked room P.I. novels over the years that the Thrilling Detective Website forgot to list on "And Throw Away the Key." These titles are Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941), Manly Wade Wellman's Find My Killer (1947), Bill S. Ballinger's The Body Beautiful (1949) and Roy Huggins' 77 Sunset Strip (1959).