5/21/19

The One-Man Police Squad: "The Bizarre Case Expert" (1970) by William Arden

Dennis Lynds was an American crime writer of many pennames, such as "Michael Collins" and "John Crowe," under which he wrote modern private-eye stories, pulp thrillers and movie novelizations, but, as a pen-for-hire, he also became a prolific contributor to The Three Investigators series – using the pseudonym "William Arden." So I always associate that penname with his juvenile detective fiction.

However, Lynds also used the Arden byline for a short, but pioneering, series of corporate espionage novels and a single short story that was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).

"The Bizarre Case Expert" was originally published in the June, 1970, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and republished in Ellery Queen's Master of Mysteries (1975). Interestingly, the brief introduction to the story asks the question "are we experiencing a renaissance of the Locked Room mystery?" At the time, more "locked-room detective stories have been submitted to EQMM in recent months" than usually come their way in years, but, happily, "the locked-room 'tec theme is now being revived" with "more ingenious plots than you would expect" – which is in line with my observation that the 1970-and 80s were the genre's Silver Age.

As an aside, Lynds produced a genuine locked room mystery during the seventies, The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972), but a fairly minor work compared "The Bizarre Case Expert." A short story that strangely avoided being included in every anthology impossible crime anthology published since the 1980s.

The titular expert is Detective Sergeant Joseph Marx, of the Central Squad, where all of the dead-end cases filter through before they're consigned to the Unsolved File, but Detective Sergeant Marx is tasked with reviewing the so-called "circus cases." These are pretty much the unusual cases that have stumped the precincts.

"The Bizarre Case Expert" begins when a two-day old, dead-end case ends up on his desk from the Tenth Precinct on Diamond Hill. A major problem with this particular case is that not even the police knew the exact nature of the problem facing them, because it could be "a locked room or a perfect alibi or a vanished weapon," which left them in a hole – so DS Marx had to dig them out. The problem and setup of the murder is truly mystifying.

Patrolmen Sid Lewis and Ed Lincoln responded to a noise complaint at Laguna Terrace, but, when they arrive, the apartment 6-B is deadly quiet. The front door, locked and chained from the inside, had to be broken open and inside they find the body of the tenant, Sally Tower, who had been killed with multiple blows to the head. Some feet away, lay the body of her ex-husband, Paul Tower, who had received a serious blow to the head. A blow that even broke his nose and rendered Tower "instantly unconscious." However, he lived to tell the story. According to his story, a tall man with a mask had entered the apartment through the fire-escape window and attacked them. But this is patently impossible!

The fire-escape window was open, but various neighbors had it under constant observation and nobody saw a prowler going up or down the fire-escape. One of these witnesses was a invalided woman who lost sight of that part of the building for a minute. So this suggests Paul Tower is the murderer, but this is equally impossible according to the medical examiner, because he simply could not have wounded himself or had the time at his disposal to hid the murder weapon – which adds another layer to this locked room conundrum when it's found. A delightfully, maze-like and original premise with an inventive solution that succeeded in winking at both the traditional detective story and the modern police procedural.

Sadly, the lack of clueing prevented "The Bizarre Case Expert" from attaining the status of classic locked room story. Arden gave to the reader nothing to even form a rough idea of what happened in that apartment, which detracted from a great and novel ending.

In summation, "The Bizarre Case Expert" has a tantalizingly baffling premise with a pleasantly satisfying conclusion, but the plot missed an essential ingredient to make it something truly special. Nonetheless, the multi-layered impossibility and solution still makes it recommendable to dedicated readers of impossible crime stories and should be considered for inclusion in a future locked room anthology.

5/17/19

The Case of the Haven Hotel (1948) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Haven Hotel (1948) is the thirty-third entry in the voluminous Ludovic Travers series, co-starring Superintendent George "The General" Wharton, which is one of those charming, typically English seaside resort mysteries – comparable to Agatha Christie's Peril at End House (1932), Nicholas Brady's Week-end Murder (1934) and John Rowland's Calamity in Kent (1950). This makes it one of Bush's more leisurely paced detective stories.

The Case of the Haven Hotel begins with a brief introduction of the two series-detectives, Travers and Wharton, in which the former explains how "long years in the company of George Wharton" has matured him. Travers' introduction to Wharton is truly excellent. Showing why they're perhaps my favorite team of detectives.

This brief overview ends with a challenge to the reader, of sorts, in which Travers tells the reader they'll "be troubled by no more descriptions" and "conversations there will be," but warns the reader not to mistake it for "aimless chatter," because every bit of chit-chat will probably contain a clue – pruned and edited to give everything its real significance. He was not lying.

With their wives away, Travers and Wharton "manoeuvred a fortnight's holiday together" at the Haven Hotel, Sandbeach, for the first two weeks of July.

Sandbeach is one of the last seaside strongholds where the upper classes still have their "decorous holidays" with their children and nannies. They play golf. Lounge in chairs on the hotel lawn or on the beach and go for the occasional swim in the sea, but these are the immediate post-war years of scarcity, strict rationing and long queues. So the black marketeers are doing booming business and Wharton has to postpone his holiday a couple of days, because he has to cover for a colleague who's working on the black market stuff. However, Wharton gives Travers the name of Sandbeach policeman, Inspector Fry, who has something that might interest him. This meant mixing pleasure with business.

Travers goes to the Haven Hotel ahead of Wharton and meets the people who would come to play a role in a pair of murders and attempted murders.

Mr. Havelock-Rowse is the affable, but status-conscious, owner of the hotel who wanted all his guests to feel they were in a home from home. Jeffrey Worne is the venerated author of the highly-praised Scarlet May and prides himself on being "the only serious novelist in England who's never attempted a detective story." Worne is staying at the Haven Hotel to write his next book and everyone's "wondering if they're going to be in it." There's a ravishing ex-Commando, Major Brian Huffe, who has a mutual attraction with another guest, Barbara Channard, but she wears a wedding ring. Old Peckenham is "a most distinguished-looking old chap" and used to be in the church, but Travers comes to the conclusion that he is "a consummate and artistic liar" when he told him a personal anecdote about his time on Bikini Atoll – which was lifted, word for word, from an article in the National Geographic Magazine. A timely reference to the Atom bomb test at Bikini. 
 
Lastly, there are some minor characters. Mrs. Smyth looks like a motherly old soul, but very little what happened at the hotel escaped her eyes or tongue. Peggy is a prying chambermaid who was seen listening at Worne's keyhole. And this party is rounded out by a abominable child, Gerald, who some wish was carried away by the tide.

During his first days, small, but strange, things happen. Travers and Huffe have the unshakable feeling that they had seen Worne before. Travers even notes that Worne had dyed his hair black. Inspector Fry thought he had seen Peckenham before and he had been told to lay-off a hot lead on the local black market. Travers had seen a car arrive at the back entrance of the hotel in the middle of the night. So there's enough happening under the peaceful surface of Beachsand.

All of these undercurrents come together in a narrow inlet, which is known as The Mouth, where Major Huffe meets with, what appears to be, an unfortunate accident when the rowboat began to sink and it appeared he struck his head against the side of the sinking boat – a body was not recovered. A short time later a serious attempt is made on the life of Travers. This is not the obligatory spot of danger, but a serious and spirited attempt to silence him. A second, very obvious murder is discovered and a body washed up on a sandbank blows apart Wharton pet theory, which was modeled on the Birlstone Gambit. So there's your reason for liking Bush, JJ.

In one of my previous reviews, I have said that nobody nailed the symbiotic relationship between the fictional amateur detective and professional policeman quite like Bush, but The Case of the Haven Hotel puts Travers and Wharton on the same footing. They both act as amateur detectives who work together with the local police. As a consequence, the reader is not treated on tracking movement of suspects and destroying one, or more, cast-iron alibis, but on pure amateur detective work with information being extracted from conversations, observations and wool-gathering. Surprisingly, the professional policeman turned out to have a firmer grasp on the case than the amateur theorist. I love it when Wharton comes out on top!

However, in spite of most of the story being a lightweight mystery novel without one, or two, of Bush's trademark alibi-tricks, The Case of the Haven Hotel had a pretty solid and satisfying solution with a fairly original motive. Only thing you can really hold against it is that its not as carefully plotted as earlier titles and how some ideas were recycled from earlier novels. However, those ideas were put to excellent use here. I would even say that a key-element of the plot was better used here than in that previous story.

So, all in all, The Case of the Haven Hotel is a slightly unusual, but good, entry in the series, which comes highly recommended to readers who are already acquainted with Travers and Wharton.

5/14/19

The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943) by Enid Blyton

Last year, I reviewed the eighth title in Enid Blyton's The Five Find-Outers and Dog series, The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950), which is a juvenile mystery aimed at children between 8-12, but has a plot drenched in the traditions of the pure, Golden Age detective story and scrupulously observed the rules of fair play – even turning the red herrings into clues once you realize they're red herrings. A schoolbook example of how to plant clues and red herrings!

Naturally, older or more seasoned mystery readers will immediately peer through the veil of intrigue, but that doesn't take away from the fact that The Mystery of the Invisible Thief is a technical achievement in plot construction. A plot that must have surprised and impressed its intended audience. So, as a fan of the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective story, I intended to pay a second visit to this series. Just to admire Blyton's putting together a fair and sound plot.

My fellow crime fiction addict, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, was the one who pointed my attention to this series and he posted a glowing review of the "exceptionally promising" debut of The Five Find-Outers and Dog.

The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943) begins on a dark April night, in the village of Peterswood, when the titular cottage of Mr. Hick is set ablaze.

The cottage is old, half-timbered and thatched with a straw-roof that had been converted into a workroom, where Mr. Hick kept valuable papers worth "thousands of pounds," which impelled Mr. Hick to dart towards to the burning workroom – getting pulled back by three people while screaming "my papers" and "get them out, get them out." A fire expert from the insurance company determined that petrol had been used to torch the cottage. This was a case of arson!

Peterswood is a small, quiet village in the English countryside where Larry, Daisy, Pip and Bet live. Larry is the oldest of the group and Daisy's older brother. Bet is the baby of the group, just eight years old, who's often teased by her brother, Pip. Just around the time of the fire, a plump, well-dressed boy moved into the village with his jet-black Scottish Terrier, Buster. The name of this initially unpopular, self-satisfied boy is Frederick Algernon Trotteville and his ingratiation into “the little company of four friends” is the high-mark of the novel.

I mentioned in my review of The Mystery of the Invisible Thief that the antics of the children were very cartoon-like and how their pestering of Constable Theophilus Goon kind of reminded me of The Exploits of Quick and Flupke, but here the children were surprisingly realistically characterized – even showing how mean-spirited they can be. Frederick is christened "Fatty" on account of his size and initials. He had already been "Tubby" and "Sausage" at school and now he would be "Fatty."

In his own review, JJ pointed out the obvious subtext of Fatty being emotionally neglected by his parents. Fatty can do whatever he want, wherever he want and whenever he want. There's no parental oversize. Larry remarked Fatty has "so much pocket-money he doesn't know what to do with it" and there was a rather sad scene where Fatty was eagerly lapping up the attention Pip's mother was giving him. This is surprisingly dark, if you ask me!

Fatty bonds with Larry, Daisy, Pip and Bet when they form a detective-club to find out who burned down Mr. Hick's cottage and destroyed the valuable papers. Bets comes up with the name when Larry explains to her what a detective is ("oh, a find-outer").

The Mystery of the Invisible Thief has many features of the Intuitionist School of G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr with a seemingly impossible disappearance, a bizarre clue, disguised red herrings and the kids are even friends with Inspector Jenks – who's the antithesis of Constable Goon. On the other hand, The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage is firmly rooted in the traditions of the Realist School of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode. A good portion of their investigation consists of trying to find the person who left rubber-soled footprints, with criss-cross markings, in a muddy ditch in the garden of Mr. Hick's garden and "a bit of grey flannel" from a suit caught on a thorn. This puts them on the trail of a tramp who was one of the many people in the garden on the night of the fire. And they discover that there were "a lot of quarrels and upsets on the day of the fire."

Mr. Hick had "a fine old quarrel" with his man-servant, Horace Peeks, who was fired on the spot, but had he set fire to the cottage as revenge? Peeks has been secretly dating a fellow servant, Lily, who still works for Mr. Hicks and uses the Five Find-Outers to post a warning letter to Peeks. Mrs. Minns is the talkative housekeeper of Mr. Hick and is constantly yelled at by her employer about her cats or letting the children into his kitchen. Finally, there's a scholar obsessed with old documents, Mr. Smellie, who had an argument with Mr. Hick over certain papers.

Unfortunately, the plot and clueing were uninspired, workmanlike and lacked genuine fair play.

The footprints in The Mystery of the Invisible Thief was a clever, tell-all clue presented as a red herring, but here it was simply a question of tracking down the person who owned a pair of rubber-soled shoes with criss-cross markings, which didn't even seem to matter in the end – because the arsonist made a stupid slip of the tongue. Fatty noticed. Same story with the piece of cloth. More annoyingly, you never really get an opportunity to break the alibi, because you're told about a certain location when the alibi-trick is explained. Very unfair. However, you don't need these clues to figure out who or why.

All in all, The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage is not as good a detective story as The Mystery of the Invisible Thief, but serves its purpose as an introduction to The Five Find-Outers and Dog. So a good, but imperfect, series debut that will not deter me from exploring this series further. The Mystery of the Pantomime Cat (1949) and The Mystery of Holly Lane (1953) sound promising!

5/10/19

An Internal Affair: "Motive" (2000) by Hideo Yokoyama

Hideo Yokoyama worked as an investigative reporter for Jōmō Shimbun, a daily newspaper based in Gunma prefecture, but, in the late nineties, he turned to writing fiction, dabbling in numerous genres, ranging from manga stories and children's books to novels based on real-life events – peppered with a good dose of detective-and police novels and short stories. Yokoyama debuted with a collection of police stories, entitled Kage no kisetsu (Season of Shadows, 1998), which earned him the Seicho Matsumoto Prize. More prizes would follow!

"Dōki" ("Motive") was awarded with the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for Best Short Story in 2000 and an English translation was published in the May, 2008, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

This short story came to my attention when I read a brief, but glowing, review written by Mike Grost. He described it as a perfectly harmoniously story with "a solidly constructed puzzle," realistic characterization and an inside look at the inner workings of a police station, which all interact with each other in "a logical and ingenious fashion." I couldn't agree more! "Motive" is pretty much a classical, Ellery Queen-style short detective story dressed up as a contemporary police procedural. And it worked!

Superintendent Kaise Masayuki, of the Police Affairs Department, proposed and helped implementing "a new system aimed at preventing the loss of police IDs."

Normally, a police officer carried his ID notebook during off-duty hours, but under the new regulations, the head of each section was entrusted with safekeeping the ID notebooks when an officer went home – locking them away in a storage safe at the police station. Kaise had to overcome strong opposition within the ranks of Criminal Investigation Department and his reputation, as a second generation policeman, was tied to this plan. And then the unthinkable happened.

U Station had been storing ID notebooks by floors. The first floor housed the Police Affairs Section and Traffic Section, which is where thirty ID notebooks vanished from the locked storage safe over night! There are two entrances to the station, back and front, but nobody could have entered without being seen by the night-duty officers.

However, "Motive" is not a locked room mystery, or even quasi-impossible crime story, because how the ID notebooks were taken is very straightforward. What is the mystery is why they were taken. The key to the safe was hanging on the wall facing the duty staff. However, this is not locked room mystery, or even a quasi-impossible crime story, because how the ID notebooks were taken is pretty straightforward. The question is to find the person who took them and, more importantly, why. I believe this is where "Motive" is a noteworthy entry into the annals of crime fiction, because there are not that many traditionally-plotted detective stories that are purely whydunits.

So the theft of thirty ID notebooks from a police station is an "unprecedented scandal" and Kaise is given only two days to hold an internal investigation, during which he has to find the culprit and retrieve the notebooks or else they have to face public in shame – finding the well-hidden motive is the key to finding both the thief and the notebooks. The motive is neatly tied to the characters populating the U station and the culture, as well as the regulations, of the Japanese police. Just as neat was Yokoyama's take on the false solution. Kaise figures out who and why, but there was an extra layer to the motive he initially had not foreseen.

So, in summation, Yokoyama's "Motive" is prove that the modern-day police procedural can function, or double, as traditional detective story with a good plot, characterization and a simple, but effective, twist in its tail. Highly recommended!

5/7/19

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

My last three reads can be described as a varied lot, coming from two different countries and periods, but they had one thing common: a solid idea, such as the locked room-tricks from A. Roothaert's Onrust op Raubrakken (Unrest at Raubrakken, 1935) and Robert Innes' Flatline (2018), which were stuck in middling to mediocre novel. This resulted in some mixed reviews. So I decided to return to a mystery writer who I enjoyed reading very much in 2018.

Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935) is the penultimate mystery novel published during his lifetime, which was followed by the excellent Death of a Queen (1935), after which he enlisted in the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War – where he was killed in the valley of Jarama during his first day of battle on February 12th, 1937. The Six Queer Things (1937) was published posthumously.

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face cements the fact that Sprigg was not only a good writer and a proficient plotter, but also possessed a wealth of imagination.

A fascinating, splendidly realized detective story comprising of two parts that are poles apart, a satirical village mystery and a thriller set in West Africa, which together form one of those rare anthropological mysteries.

The first part of the story begins with Rev. Samuel Wykeham, vicar of Little Whippering, complaining to himself that nothing ever happened in the village. This proved to be the proverbial famous last words, because at that very moment a small boy shot down a hill accompanied by "screams of terror." William Bundling had a close encounter with "The Invisible Man" who had threatened the boy to slit his belly open, if he ever caught him sneaking around the house.

Sam O'Leary is the mysterious person, known locally as The Invisible Man, who arrived in the village with "his face hidden behind a scarf" and "nobody's seen him by daylight." A recluse has taken possession of the Wilderness, "an eyesore of a cottage," where only tradesman are allowed and groceries enter the home through a little flap in the front door – everyone else can expect to be insulted at gunpoint. Reverend Samuel decides to pay his new parishioner a visit, but is greeted with a barrel of a gun and gets twenty seconds to vacate the premise or he'll blast his goddamned head off ("devil-dodger or no devil-dodger"). Police Constable Collop is treated with a little bit more respect, but O'Leary still calls him a bastard and a "blasted bluebottle."

This last confrontation ends with O'Leary warning Collop that, if anyone else dares to disturb him, they can expect "a charge of buckshot in their gizzards to help them on their way."

So this is grist on the rumor mill of Little Whippering. Some believe O'Leary is a murderer in hiding, while others think he's a leper or a gold hoarder, but, despite the legend growing around him, the isolated miser became a part of the fabric of the little, old-world village. Several years later, a bearded man, George Crumbles, descended upon the village looking for O'Leary, but Crumbles is found a short time later dangling from a rope in his hotel room and the police demands O'Leary discards his disguise – revealing to them an inexplicable sunburned face and an exciting back-story that took place in West Africa. A story about an expedition to steal the treasure of the African Kingdom of Balooma and betrayal among the perpetrators, which is why O'Leary had buried himself in a small English village.

Obviously, this part of the story was inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1914).

However, if you think this is merely another play on the shopworn Birlstone Gambit, you're dead wrong. Sprigg played a dazzling game of three-card monte, but replaced the cards with "an amazing confusion" of identities and clues. Like I said, Sprigg was a proficient plotter.

One more thing I should mention is that the first half of the story is an amusing, satirical look at English village life centering around the vicarage. Reverend Samuel is expecting two guests, Mr. Neptune Jones, who is to become a permanent boarding guest at the vicarage, but Jones turns out to be a black man from West Africa. Very much to the shock of Mrs. Wykeham. The second guest is Dr. Ridge, an American anthropologist, but this person also defies Rev. Samuel's expectations and these two characters show Sprigg had been deeply immersed in Marxism at the time. Neptune Jones and Dr. Ridge obviously were meant as subversive, outside elements in the old, conservative-minded village. However, I appreciate he had a sense of humor about it.

For example, Dr. Ridge has come to Little Whippering to obtain records of the customs of European villages, "which are rapidly dying out," before it's too late and makes observations about their May-Day fertility rites and vegetation God (Jack-of-May) – noting "a certain resemblance to the social tenets of the Wahina tribe." Some of these characters will turn up again in the second half.

The second half begins when a gruesome, ritual murder is committed at the Wilderness and Inspector Archibald Campbell decides to go Africa to unearth the truth behind these deaths. The opening of the second part is basically an overview of the previous half, which untangles the mess of identities and gives a solution to the murders, but there's not much else what I can say without giving anything away. Suffice to say, Campbell runs into a spot of trouble and one of the last chapters has a well-imagined scene of a sacred and secret ritual. This links The Corpse with the Sunburned Face to the detective fiction of such Australian mystery writers like S.H. Courtier and Arthur W. Upfield.

All in all, The Corpse with the Sunburned Face is a rich, colorful and well-written detective story that has both its darker and lighter moments, but, more importantly, it has a cleverly constructed, slightly unorthodox plot. The result is one of Sprigg's more memorable detective novels.

5/2/19

Flatline (2018) by Robert Innes

Last year, my fellow locked room enthusiast JJ, of The Invisible Event, posted an installment on his blog of "Adventures in Self-Publishing," a series bravely tackling self-published detective novels, novellas and short stories, which introduced me to the work of Robert Innes – a mystery writer specialized in impossible crime fiction. So that earned him a top spot on my list of persons of interest.

As of this writing, Innes has penned nine novellas about his series-character, Detective-Sergeant Blake Harte, who transferred in Untouchable (2016) from Manchester to the quiet, picturesque village of Harmschapel. But as Sherlock Holmes and Midsomer Murders has learned us, "the lowest and vilest alleys in London" do not present "a more dreadful record of sin" than does "the smiling and beautiful countryside." Harmschapel proved to be a hotbed for seemingly impossible murders.

JJ had cautioned me to read the series in chronological order, because the later stories refer back to the murderers from previous cases, but also warned that Untouchable would probably infuriate me beyond all measure – which is why it took me so long to get around to this series. I had no idea where to begin. So I finally decided to just pick a title with the most intriguing-sounding premise and impossible problem.

Flatline (2018) is the sixth novella in the series and D.S. Blake Harte is hospitalized and scheduled to go under the knife to have his appendix removed, but something dark is brooding in the staff rooms and corridors of Clackton General.

Exactly a year ago, Doctor Joe Tilsley and Nurse Kelsey Richards, who are dating, accidentally killed a young woman, Lucy Pennock, when they struck her with their car on a dark, rainy country road. Joe convinced Kelsey they should get out of there in order to protect their careers, but the death of Lucy weighs very heavy on Kelsey's conscience, which naturally puts a strain on their relationship. She becomes incredibly suspicious and slightly paranoid when D.S. Harte is hospitalized, because she found out he's "an extremely talented officer" behind "the solving of some truly baffling cases," but worst of all, Harte is the police officer in charge of the investigation into a deadly hit-and-run – one which happened exactly a year ago! But the worst is yet to come.

Kelsey receives a disturbing video message from someone wearing a surgical mask and cap, who identifies himself as The Watcher, warning Kelsey that the time has come to pay for the innocent life that had been so cruelly snatched away. This is followed by the bells of Big Ben booming from the tannoy system in the middle of the night and sinister phone call from The Watcher ending with "the long, monotonous tone of a flatline." Finally, there's the murder.

Dr. Joe Tilsley enters one of the two elevators in the hospital on the tenth floor and gets stuck on his way down, between the eight and seventh floor, which stays there for twenty-five minutes. When they finally opened the elevator doors, Dr. Tilsey is lying on the floor. And according to the physical evidence, he had been drowned in a bone dry elevator during those twenty-five lonely minutes when he had been trapped inside.

So here you have, what's undoubtedly, an intriguing premise for an impossible crime, but the story turned out to be a mixed bag of tricks. Let me begin with what I liked about it.

The locked room-trick found a new variation on an old principle of the impossible crime story often employed by such luminaries as John Dickson Carr, Edward D. Hoch and Paul Halter. You have to wonder why nobody else had come up with this idea before and miraculous drowning in the closed elevator was strengthened by the cussedness of all things general. A well-done impossible crime with a Carrian touch. The second thing I liked was the presence of a rival-detective, Sergeant Gardiner, who has been after Harte's position ever since he arrived in Harmschapel and provides the story with a ridiculous false solution, which is exactly what I expected from a rival-detective – because the Western detective story needs more Simon Brimmer's and Superintendent Akechi's. They're simply fun.

On the other hand, I hated how Harte's private life intruded upon the story. I mean, this is supposed to be a dark, brooding detective story with an elusive figure dressed as a surgeon stalking a doctor and a nurse in the corridors of the hospital and apparently leaving behind a body in a locked elevator. But the flow of this story is interrupted several times so that Harte can argue with his boyfriend about him always working or discharging himself from hospital against the advice of the doctors.

This is exactly what I hate about so many modern police procedurals. Not to mention that this came at the cost of at least three characters who needed a little more fleshing out.

Dr. Joe Tilsley is pretty much a non-entity and only there to provide a corpse for the story and a motive for the murderer, while Nurse Kelsey is a typical woman-in-peril who gets unburdened when a deus ex machine gave a new explanation for the hit-and-run. So not very original, but could have been more than it was if it was shown how that fateful night changed their relationship. The two already were an interesting contrast of each other. But the character who really got the short end of the stick was the murderer.

If the reader had been told what made the murderer tick, it would have strengthened the locked room-trick even more, because the murderer's personality and state-of-mind is integral to the murder. Innes could have gotten away with this, because he had dragged a good red herring across the trail to divert your attention away from this person.

So, all in all, Flatline is an uneven detective story with some good ideas, but clings too much to the conventions of the modern, British police procedural and allowed the personal life of the police-detective to intrude upon the story – disrupting and eventually breaking my immersion. However, I will not give up on this series and try one or two more. Ripples (2017) and Atmosphere (2018) have fascinating-sounding premises for an impossible crime story.

Well, this is the third mixed review in a row, but I'll try to pick something good for my next read. Fingers cross!

4/29/19

The Case of the Magic Mirror (1943) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Magic Mirror (1943) is the twenty-sixth entry in the Ludovic Travers series and here the influence of the tough, hardboiled school began to show with its first-person narration by the detective, "the dissolute rich" and "scheming femmes fatales" – changing Travers from a prim intellectual to a genteel private-investigator. However, the plot hearkened back to the more elaborate, Golden Age baroque-style detective stories from the early days of the series (c.f. The Case of the April Fools, 1933). The book even begins with a sporting challenge to the reader.

The Case of the Magic Mirror begins in the Spring, of 1942, with Travers recovering from an operation that removed "a lump of shrapnel from a premature bomb." So he has enough time on his hands to tell the story of one of the most unusual murder cases he had been unofficially connected to, but the solution was "so absurdly simple" that some wonder why they haven't "seen it from the very first."

To cement his claim, Travers tells the reader that in the next paragraph is "the germ of that simple solution" allowing you, the reader, "to solve the whole thing well before the last page" and prove your mettle as an armchair detective – which is an excellent example of fair play. Right off the bat, Bush gives away a clue as a freebie! This is exactly why he has become one of my favorite Golden Age mystery writers.

The story Travers has to tell took place shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1939, but the case has its roots in an earlier swindle affair and a big, headline grabbing 1937 trial. Five men were charged and convicted for fleecing thousands of pounds from race-horse bookies by tampering with the time-stamps of telegrams, which were used to wire bets to the bookies. These convictions were secured with the testimonies of the "socially dubious" Joe Passman and one of the accused, Rupert Craigne, ensuring most of them got "a couple of years apiece," which infuriated one of them, Patrick Sivley – who worked as Passman's chauffeur. And, as he's dragged out of court, he screams he will get them even "if it's the last thing I do."

Enter Joe Passman's stepdaughter, Charlotte Craigne, who's married to Rupert and, once upon a time, she had been Travers' sole indiscretion in life.

Charlotte is completely devoted to Rupert, but financially depended on Passman and suspects he masterminded the bookie-swindling case. So she turns to her ex-lover, Travers, to use his detective skills to dig up dirt on Passman, which she wants to use as blackmail material. So why would Travers agree to take part in this scheme? Charlotte hands him a snapshot of a small boys and tells him its his son! A son she gave birth to after their relationship ended. If he refuses to help her, Charlotte promises him to send his wife all the prove of his bastard son. So he has no choice but to acquiesce.

However, Travers makes plans "to clip the lady's claws" and engages a private-detective, Edward "Eddie" Franks, to not only help him with the Passman end of the swindling affair, but also help him disprove his paternity by identifying the boy in the photograph, which is one of the things that reminded me of the early books in the series – when John Franklin, an inquiry agent of Durangos Limited, assisted Travers and Superintendent George Wharton (e.g. The Perfect Murder Case, 1929). So far, this appears to be a relatively simple, straightforward case, but then the murders happened. And those murders is another thing that reminded me of the earlier books.

Before his fall from grace, Rupert Craigne was a famously conceited actor and, upon his release, he has been making a public exhibition of himself by loudly proclaiming his innocence in public.

One day, Charlotte gets a letter from Rupert telling her that he's going to a seaside place, called Trimport, to "collect a crowd" and "tell them a few things." Theatrically, Rupert was standing in a small boat addressing the scores of swimmers and the people crowded at the water's edge. A rifle-shot silences the actor as he falls backwards into the sea. Charlotte and Travers witnesses the murder, but the worst is yet to come. When they return to the manor house, the place is crawling with police. Joe Passman has been stabbed to death around the same time Rupert Craigne was shot!

These multiple, closely-timed and tightly intertwined murders were a staple of Bush's detective novels from the 1930s and he got a lot of mileage out of exploring the possibilities this premise has to offer. Some notable examples are Dead Man Twice (1930), Dancing Death (1931), The Case of the Bonfire Body (1936), The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) and the previously mentioned The Case of the April Fools. This time the murders are complicated when two people go missing: Sivley had been spotted near the house around the time of Passman's murder and this is assumed to have been the reason why he bolted, but the old, dutiful butler of the place, Matthews, appears to have "simply walked out of the house" – vanishing without a trace or reason. Lastly, there the titular mirror, which was taken from the wall and replaced by a framed print.

The Case of the Magic Mirror has all the ingredients of a first-rate detective novel. An intricately-linked double murder plot, a cat-and-mouse game with a dangerous, beautifully characterized dame and personal angle for the protagonist. Travers is not only blackmailed, but circumstances forces him to pull the wool over the eyes of the old war-horse, Superintendent George "The General" Wharton. Always a tricky thing to do. Even more so to someone he respects as a friendly rival and considers to be a friend. Or what about keeping his wife in the dark about his past with Charlotte? Consequently, Travers emerges from this story "a trifle shop-soiled."

In spite of the rich, busy plot with multiple moving parts and a quasi-impossible alibi-trick, the whole scheme was as transparent as a child's lie and this made the intended surprise solution fall flat on its face. However, I have to give props to Bush for the trickery behind the first murder. Some parts of the trick are a little difficult to swallow, which mainly has to do with time and timing, but not entirely impossible to pull off under those circumstances. As an aside, a far more famous mystery writer used a slight variation on this trick in one of his latter, lesser-known detective novels.

So, on a whole, The Case of the Magic Mirror failed to secure a place among the top-rank titles in the series and not recommended to readers who are new to the series, but the close ties Travers has to the case and how he handled it makes it a must-read to fans of Bush.