7/14/15

A Room That Kills


"Something happens in this house, and no living soul knows what it is, for they who have seen it have never yet survived to tell the tale. It's not more than a week back that a young gentleman came here. He was like you, bold as brass, and he too wanted a bed, and would take no denial. I told him plain, and so did my man, that the place was haunted. He didn't mind no more than you mind. Well, he slept in the only room we have got for guests, and he—he died there."
- Liz (L.T. Meade & Robert Eustace's "The Mystery of the Circular Chamber," from A Master of Mysteries, 1898) 
Secret of the Blue Room is a black and white movie thriller/detective from 1933 and was based on a German movie from the previous year, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, which received two additional remakes by Universal – one as The Missing Guest in 1938 and the other as Murder in the Blue Room in 1944.

The original remake of the German movie was considered to be a lost movie, before it apparently resurfaced some years ago and now you can even watch it on YouTube.

Secret of the Blue Room attracted my attention when reading a glowing review describing the movie as "a gem of a locked-room mystery" with a "tight-as-a-drum plot" that "doesn't have an ounce of fat to it and moves quickly." Well, that was all the encouragement needed to make this movie a priority and the first half was like seeing Carter Dickson's The Red Widow Murders (1935) or Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968) spring to life!

The location of the movie is an old, medieval castle in the possession of Robert von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill), Lord of the Manor, who's hosting a birthday party for his daughter, Irene (Gloria Stuart), and invited three of her friends and potential suitors – Captain Walter Brinks (Paul Lukas), reporter Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens) and a young cub named Thomas Brandt (William Janney).

They have a gay old time, playing the piano and singing songs, but when they sit down for drinks and cigarettes the conversation turns to the subject of ghosts. Lord von Helldorf is pressed by the party to tell the story of the Blue Room, which harbors a tragic and bloody history. Von Helldorf's sister and best friend died under peculiar circumstances in the Blue Room and suicide appeared as unfeasible as murder, because motives and means were lacking.

A third tragedy happened when "a detective made up his mind to spend a night in the blue room," but in the morning they found him on the floor "with his face frozen in a look of agonizing horror." He had died of fright! The room was locked and remained unopened for twenty years.

The three suitors want to prove their courage to Irene and decide to each spend a night alone in the murderous room, but the place lives up to its reputation and Brandt is the first to go. There was only key to the room and it was stuck in the lock from the inside. The open window had a drop of several feet and landed in a moat, but the body is not found and suicide is as unlikely as murder – just like twenty years ago!  

Note for the curious here: Secret of the Blue Room is a low-budget movie and this was apparent when they forced the door by ever so gingerly nudging it, because I suspect everything around them might have come crashing down had they applied any real force to the set piece. A door that can be forced that easily can be opened and closed with a large paperclip. Anyhow...

After having absorbed its first victim in two decades, the room truly awakens from dormancy and Faber is shot there while playing on the piano. A gun vanishes from the room after it was locked and Irene is attacked by a mysterious man, which is the point where they decide to call in the police – arriving in the form of Commissioner Forster (Edward Arnold).

The questioning of the occupants and servants of the castle by Commissioner Forster is interspersed with vignettes from the servant quarters, populated by some enjoyable characters, before the room is being investigated and several traps are sprung – ending with a gunfight between the murderer and last remaining suitor inside the castle.

Secret of the Blue Room is an unpretentious, well-paced compound of the thriller and mystery genre with elements of the classic horror story with its dark, wind battered castle, but robbed itself of a classic status by plundering the moth-eaten bag of tricks from the late 1800s for the explanation. A seasoned mystery addict will recognize the bits and pieces borrowed from Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and "The Empty House," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903), but the overall movie was too charming and fun to care about the punctuation marks that ended it. The plot may've been littered with old tropes, but the movie used them very well.

So if you ever wondered how stories in the spirit of Wadsworth Camp's The Abandoned Room (1917) and John Dickson Carr's "The Devil's Saint," collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983), translates to the screen... well... you'll be able to waste a fun little hour on this movie.

7/12/15

Somewhere in Time


"The past is but the beginning of a beginning, and all that is or has been is but the twilight of dawn."
- H.G. Wells (The Discovery of the Future, 1901)
L'image trouble (The Picture from the Past, 1995) is the ninth Paul Halter novel published in English by John Pugmire's Locked Room International, which has become of inestimable value to incorrigible addicts of impossible crime stories – such as yours truly.

The Picture from the Past is partially set in the last year of the 1950s and finds Chief Inspector Archibald Hurst of Scotland Yard, accompanied by Dr. Alan Twist, in pursuit of the notorious Acid Bath Murderer, before they recede into the background of the story.  

The lion's share of the book consists of a narrative divided between the past and present, which describe apparently unrelated events, half a century apart, but they begin to intertwine and betray some astonishing parallels as the story progresses.

On the 1959 end of the story, there's John Braid and his newlywed wife, Andrea, who recently moved into their new home in the quiet village of Shapwick. John was able to afford to cough up the money their new home, but is as furtive about his job in the city as the respectable Mr. Neville St. Clair from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Man with the Twisted Lip," collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), which is something that's eating away at Andrea.

However, John has something else gnawing at his mind: an old photograph of a street in London from around the turn of the century. It evokes strong, unexplainable emotions. John even allows himself to be hypnotized by the shady owner of the local bric-a-brac shop to penetrate the mist enshrouded parts of memory lane, but they only manage to retrieve a few references to notes of music – and murder!

The story-line that's set in the past is written in italic and focuses on the Jacobs family, which is torn apart when three men clad in black murder Mrs. Jacobs in the streets without an apparent reason. A senseless death that was prophesized by a local soothsayer and it wouldn't be the last death he foretold.

As you might remember from past ramblings or my old review of the Jonathan Creek episode Time Waits for Norman (1998), I have a special interest in (impossible crime) stories that play around with the notion of space-and time – which Halter pulled off amazingly well for someone who's main flaw is often failing to create a sense of time and place for his (historical) settings. I loved how the echoes from the past began to manifest in the present story line, while the characters from the present discussed time travel, reincarnation, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) and newspaper reports of the elusive Acid Bath Murderer. I'd like to brag that I quickly caught on how the past storyline related to the present one, which was very Carrian in nature and much appreciated.  

As to be expected from its author and niche-publisher, The Picture from the Past contains not one, but two, locked room mysteries.

In the storyline from the past, the fortuneteller, Jack Atmore, is found murdered behind the locked door and tightly shut window of his own home, but even more peculiar is the ominous letter he send himself – warning himself of his imminent death. The second impossibility is the baffling disappearance of John Braid from a partially locked-and watched set of rooms, but the solutions aren't breaking any new ground. It's even admitted in the explanation of the disappearance that's on old trick and the solution for the locked room murder was a trek across well-trodden ground. 

However, the locked room mysteries were only small side issues in a larger, over-arching plot that playfully combined two different narratives and toyed around with overlapping, parallel time-lines that managed to work in a serial killer plot in the background. Not everything is always perfectly executed or convincingly explained by Halter, but his imagination is something I have grown to admire.

The characterization seemed sharper than usual in some characters, but that appeared to depend on their importance and prominence in the story. I have said it before, but I believe Halter severely handicapped himself by setting his stories in England.

If I remember correctly, Le diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993) is the only Halter novel I have read to date that convincingly pulled off the English setting, but that was because he visited the location before writing the book. I think problems usually bugging his work, such as an unconvincing depictions of the historical settings and English characters with a Gallic flavor, would've vanished like a magician's assistant had they been set in France – something along the lines of a Henri Bencolin-style series reminiscent of early Carr. It would've gelled better with Halter's love for the grotesque.

So, all in all, The Picture of the Past was an interesting treatment of a theme that even today remains largely unexplored and while the plot isn't picture-perfect (pun!), I can't help but admire the effort at creating a complex, time-shattering mystery.

I guess Dr. Twist summed up why I liked this story more than I should have: "you're also... attracted to the past, which fills you with nostalgia. In particular, you love the last century."

Finally, I have to thank John Pugmire for his tireless work in getting these books translated and published... only to have sit there and hear us moan about some imperfections in the plot. Forgive us, John! And know that we're aware that you're spoiling us.  

7/5/15

Tailing the Devil


"If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it."
- Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton's "The Purple Wig," from The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1914) 
The late Edward D. Hoch was a giant during his lifetime as one of the most prolific mystery writers of short stories, which are the bedrock of the genre, and Hoch put nearly a thousand of them to his name – published in such magazines as Famous Detective Stories and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

A number of popular series characters emerged form these stories, but, arguably, the most memorable and timeless figure from Hoch's cast of detectives is Simon Ark.

Simon Ark appeared in Hoch's first short story, "Village of the Dead," in 1955 and was characterized over the years as a wandering soul, "searching the world for a long time, perhaps for centuries, in hopes of meeting the devil in combat," who may've been a Coptic priest in the early centuries of Christ – roughly 2000 years ago!

City of Brass and Other Simon Ark Stories (1971) collects one novelette and two short stories, in which Ark detects and vanquishes a variety of evils.

The first story in the collection is the titular novelette, "City of Brass," which originally appeared in the 1959 September issue of The Saint Mystery Library and it reminded me of the Wrightsville stories from the Ellery Queen series.

The place where this short novel takes place, Baine City, is larger and denser populated than Wrightsville, but the flavor was similar due to the plotting being toned down in favor of the (religious) themes with a dash of characterization.

Baine City is an upstate New York town dominated and depended on a single industry: Baine Brass. However, it has made the city a prosperous and peaceful slice of America, which slowly comes to an end when rumors begin to circulate about sinister and unethical experiments at Baine University – carried out by Professor Wilber.

The murder of a graduate student, Cathy Clark, seems to be connected to Wilber's experiments and possible motives and suspects are entwined in all of the social layers of the town. Ark investigates the murder alongside his nameless narrator over a Fourth of July weekend, which comes to a dramatic close at the funeral of the victim.

I don't think the explanation will manage to surprise anyone who's consumed even half the amount of detective fiction that Hoch produced during his lifetime, but the fairness in clueing was appreciated and it was a nice, charming story to read. Once again, I recommend this novelette to fans of the Wrightsville novels by Ellery Queen (e.g. Calamity Town, 1942).

"The Vicar of Hell" is the second story in the collection and was first published in Famous Detective Stories in August of 1956. 

The tale is set in London and concerns a lost tome, The Worship of Satan, published in the 17th century, but copies were confiscated and destroyed by the government. The volume discussed two suspicious deaths from 400 years ago, which are the poisoning of James Butler in 1548 and the sudden passing of Sir Francis Bryan – whom Oliver Cromwell once revered to in a letter as the Vicar of Hell.

Three centuries has passed and a copy has resurfaced! However, the person wanting to sell the book was found murdered under circumstances that would draw the envy of the writers of Midsomer Murders: pinned against the wall like a cross with three arrows and pentagram scrawled in blood on the floor.

Simon Ark and the nameless narrator are primarily occupied with tracking down a band of roving Satanists, which gives the story a trashy and pulpy flavor, but the hiding place for the book was genuinely clever and sidestepped the pitfall that usually befalls detective stories involving lost manuscripts – e.g. Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding (1948) and John Dickson Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933). I suspect this bit of the story was refurbished as a Nick Velvet story, because it's too perfect not to have used it for one of his thefts.

The final story, "The Hoofs of Satan," was first published in Famous Detective Story in February 1956 and listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but it's not an impossible crime story.

Obviously, the inspiration for this story came from an incident from 1855 in East and South Devon, England. A trail of hoof-like marks appeared after a snowfall and ran for miles, which even appeared in normally inaccessible places for none-winged creatures – such as on top of houses, narrow walls and enclosed courtyards and gardens. The hoof-marks in this story never perform any of those incredible feats, but form two lines coming and returning to the nearby woods. There presence is merely strange, but not impossible.

The explanation is well clued and motivated, but hardly original and Hoch lessened some of the effect of revelation by revealing in the opening there would be a murder. That should've been part of the revelation and something the reader could have anticipated based on the hints.

The 1855 incident was discussed in depth in Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1929) by Rupert T. Gould, which I reviewed here.

So, all in all, a short and decent collection of short stories, but not the best example of Hoch's talent as a mystery writing machine.

On a final note, the next couple of reviews will also be of recent releases and include such writers as Yukito Ayatsuji, Paul Halter and Case Closed.

6/27/15

Home Intruders

"There are so many possibilities, and yet all of them seem wild and improbable."
- Tommy Beresford (Agatha Christie's "The House of Lurking Death," from Partners in Crime, 1929)  
As you may have noticed, I've been abandoning the trail of obscurity to focus on the profusion of reprints, translations and even neo-orthodox mystery novels that are currently flooding our wish lists – hence why nearly every review over the past month was tagged as "Foreign Mysteries"and "Post-GAD."

Well, for reasons even I can't fathom, I neglected the publications from Locked Room International as well, which is an independent publisher of English translations of mainly French impossible crime novels. The owner and translator of Locked Room International, John Pugmire, has introduced many, interesting locked room mysteries to a non-French speaking audience and is currently still in the process of translating Paul Halter's work – one of the two biggest fanboys of John Dickson Carr on the European continent.

One of LRI's latest offerings is La Maison qui tue (The House That Kills, 1932) and was written by a former juge d'instruction (examining magistrate), Noel Vindry, who penned a dozen locked room mysteries between 1932 and 1937 – which all began with this book.

The House That Kills introduces Vindry's detective, Monsieur Allou, an examining magistrate "who could work without giving that impression," but goes on a holiday on page one and puts a younger colleague in charge. And it doesn't take long for a problem to present itself.

Pierre Louret shot and killed a knife-wielding vagrant in self-defense and a large sum of money found on the tramp's body suggests he may have been hired, instead of crazy, but the frightened Louret family is unwilling to show the police the skeletons in their cupboards – preferring to barricade themselves in their fortress-like home. The windows are barred or shuttered and the bedroom doors have a pair of heavy bolts, but even when the police are crawling around the premise they are unable to keep the menacing force out of the door.

A menace that may be bloody inheritance from the days of Pierre's father in the United States, which called to mind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear (1914) and Joseph Bowen's The Man Without a Head (1933).

The results are two, seemingly impossible crimes and twice as many murders! The first victim is Pierre's sister, Germaine, who's found dead in her bedroom – clutching a smoking gun and a toppled chair with a knife-handle sticking out of her chest. As to be expected, the windows were secured from the insight and the bolts were drawn. The second impossibility occurs when another member of the family gets snuffed out when apparently nobody was around him.

At roughly the halfway mark, Monsieur Allou returns early from his holiday to take over the reigns of the investigation and brings the case to a close by fingering the obvious suspect, but it was also the point where I began to lose faith in the plot.

The House That Kills has received some lukewarm reviews upon its release, but I can forgive wooden, human-shaped chess pieces or the lack of atmosphere in a (locked room) mystery... if the plot is any good or original. That's what was severely lacking in the first half.  

The murder in the locked bedroom was an audacious redressing of one of the oldest tricks in the book, but to pull it off as it was presented in this book would require a supernatural amount of luck and foresight – and only worked because the plot required it to work. Amazingly, I pictured the exact solution in my mind for the second impossibility and rejected it immediately, because it seemed silly. I think it would've been more convincing if it had been presented as a crime of opportunity, done in the spur of the moment, because the murderer seemed to be well versed in the Xanatos Gambit.

However, the second half has some points of interest that shows the promise worthy of the praise French mystery scholars give him. Firstly, Allou played god over life and death to collar the murderer in the act and that has consequences in the second half, which isn't a theme that's often explored in Golden Age mystery series – let alone in a debut novel. Of course, there's Speedy Death (1929) by Gladys Mitchell, but that's another story all together.

Secondly, there's a third, seemingly impossible crime in this portion and the solution to the nearly fatal shooting of Allou in his locked and watched apartment is original. I figured out how it was done, but only because it's very similar to favorite short story of mine from the late 1930s. However, Vindry seems to have been the originator and it's unlikely the other author was even aware of this novel.

So, the plot of The House That Kills isn't erected on the soundest of foundations, but I never want to be too harsh on debut novels. After all, John Dickson Carr's legacy began with It Walks by Night (1930) and who am I to judge. If I wrote a locked room mystery, the result would be exactly the same. Who gives about in-depth, character exploration? There's probably a body behind that locked door and certainly one in that field of unbroken snow outside!

I really wish I could be glowingly enthusiastic about this one, especially because of the time and effort Pugmire has put into translating these novels, but this just isn't a top-tier locked room mystery.

On a final note, I'll contain to knock off some of these recent releases, but I'll return to the Golden Age regularly with the like E.R. Punshon and Stuart Palmer

6/14/15

In the Mist of Time


"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit the facts."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur C. Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892)
In my previous blog posts, I reviewed Keigo Higashino's Seijo no Kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) and the fifty-second volume from the long running Case Closed series by Gosho Aoyama, which were two distinctively different works of Japanese crime fiction that were recently translated.

So, I thought, why not complete the hat trick and diminish the pile of recently published, but unread, mysteries at the same time?

That brings us without too much delay to Katsuhiko Takahashi and Sharaku satsujin jiken (The Case of the Sharaku Murders, 1983), which the Mystery Writers of Japan honored with an Edogawa Rampo Award. Thames River Press published a translation of The Case of the Sharaku Murders in 2013, but the book appears to have already fallen into obscurity, because even Ho-Ling seems to be unaware of Takahashi – and he's one of the few who isn't depended on translations.

The opening chapters of The Case of the Sharaku Murders gives the impression of setting up a British-style university mystery, which begins when the body of Saga Atsushi is fished out of the ocean off the coast of Cape Kitayama – located near Tanohata in Shimohei County. Saga was a renowned calligrapher and one of the foremost authorities on ukiyo-e in the country. It was a genre/style of woodblock printing and paintings that were popular in Japan from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

Professor Nishijima was a rival of Saga and who managed to garner an unprecedented amount of influence and power in their niche-corner, which he managed to do by helping students gain positions in museums and universities – making him popular professor to have as a student aspiring to be paid one day. The vehicles of this simmering rivalry are both men are members of, Edo Art Association (EAA) and Ukiyo-e Connoisseurship Society, but despite all of this the death is filed away as a suicide and the story moves in a different direction.

A young, promising ukiyo-e scholar, Ryohei, and research assistant of Professor Nishijima becomes engrossed in the mystery of "Sharaku," who was a famous woodblock print artist and active for only ten months – between May 1795 and February 1796. Sharaku was assumed to be a Noh player, but the matter of his identity became a touchy subject in the ukiyo-e establishment in the wake of the Shunpoan Affair of 1934.   

Ryohei came across a possible clue pointing in the direction of a person who could've been Sharaku, tugged away in an art catalogue that was printed in 1907, but you have to appreciate history or art to enjoy what follows. This investigation swallows up the entire middle section of the book and covers several centuries of obscure, Japanese history on woodblock printing and oil paintings – from the early 1600s to the late 19th century.

However, these scholarly enquiries are done and presented as proper and vigorous detective work. The ten month period of Sharaku's activity is used to check if figures from the era have an alibi for that period and there's an interesting takedown of multiple hypotheses that have accumulated over the decade, which includes pseudonyms of closely related figures and even an entire workshop – explaining the prolific output over a short period. 

In this slow, meticulous way, a nearly 200-year-old web of relationships and cultural influence is uncovered and Takahashi densely packed it with historical background information. A reader expecting an academic mystery might get more than they bargained for and feel like they're reading a fictionalized textbook, but I think it's the best part of the story – especially compared to the overarching plot book-ending this story-within-story.

On a brief side note: this part also strangely reminded me of the historical subplot of the fleeing Revolutionary War soldier from Herbert Brean's underrated Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1952).

Upon his return from his excursion into the past, Ryohei finds himself in the middle of academic skullduggery, which leads to a fatal house fire and a tragic hit-and-run, but the slow pace really began to bog down the final half of the book.

The Case of the Sharaku Murders has an involved, somewhat ambitious plot, but the explanation doesn't pull the rug from underneath your feet and that's begins to frustrate when the story keeps retracing its own steps – filling in blanks here and there with each explanation. There's even a long, written confession by one of the persons involved explaining that persons actions in the whole case and the book didn’t end with that letter.

As explanatory plunge in obscure nook of Japan’s history, The Case of the Sharaku Murders was as interesting as the tattoo lore from Akimitsu Takagi's Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1948), but, as a detective story, I feel as divided about it as Togakushi densetsu satsujin jiken (The Togakushi Legend Murders, 1994?) by Yasuo Uchida. 

Well, that put a stop to that short-lived streak of positive reviews of really good mystery novels. 

6/11/15

Like a Destroying Angel


"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."
- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
From all the Japanese mystery writers who clambered over the language barrier, Keigo Higashino appears to be one of the few who actually met with success and popularity on the other side.

A translation of an award winning and somewhat controversial novel, Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), was published in 2011, which collected favorable reactions across the board – from readers of contemporary thrillers to fans of the traditional mystery novel. A translation of Akui (Malice, 1996) came out last year and a fourth translation is scheduled for 2016, but the second release has been languishing on my to-be-read pile ever since its release in 2012.

Seijo no Kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) is the second, novel-length entry in the Detective Galileo series and has a plot that frames an impossible poisoning as an inverted mystery, which occasionally channeled the spirit of Agatha Christie. There's even an eternal triangle at the core of the plot.

Yoshitaka Mashiba has one, fiery wish: to find a wife and have children. That's why Yoshitaka’s marriage to Ayane is made under the condition that she had to be pregnant within a year or he would divorce her. After nearly a year, it becomes obvious to Yoshitaka that the deadline won't be met and began to court Hiromi Wakayama. One of Ayane's students from quilting school. 

As the saying goes, "hell has no fury like a woman scorned." Ayane puts this piece of proverbial wisdom into practice by poisoning her husband, but the reader isn't show how she managed to spike the coffee with arsenous acid (i.e. arsenic) – while being miles away and surrounded by witnesses, that is. 

The initial investigation is for Police-Detective Kusanagi and his assistant, Koaru Utsumi, who go over the crime-scene and statements with a fine toothcomb, which makes for a pleasant police procedural reminiscent of Ten to Sen (Points and Lines, 1958) by Seicho Matsomoto

The police investigation focused mainly on how the coffee could've been poisoned, but every attempt at separating the essential facts from the side issues showed how frustrating a simple, straightforward looking poisoning can be. It's a complex and impossibly constructed house of cards, but its construction was as fun to watch as its destruction at the hands of Detective Galileo. 

Detective Galileo is the nickname of Manabu Yukawa, assistant professor of physics, who made his scientific mind available to Kusanagi in previous investigations, but it's Utsumi contacting the physicist – convinced Ayane used a trick to cover her tracks. As Yukawa observes, "criminal tricks are different from magic tricks," because the audience of a magician never has an opportunity to examine the stage where the illusions took place. However, "with a criminal trick, investigators can pore over every detail of the crime scene until they’re satisfied." Some trace always remains. 

Yukawa provides a delightful, false solution involving a time-delayed trick to release poison in a water kettle, but some readers will have a problem with swallowing down the final explanation. 

The explanation for the poisoning is as clever as it's original. The clues that were embedded in the characterization made it feel inevitable and I would place it in the same league as Ronald Knox's "Solved by Inspection," collected in The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (1990), but I would actually understand the people who would dismiss it on grounds of being unrealistic – because even I was there for a moment. 

However, the final chapters translated to a convincing argument for the reader to suspend their disbelief and I went along with it... willingly. 

What more can I say? Salvation of a Saint is a first-rate example of what the genre can produce when stories aren't dismissed for having something as vulgar as a plot. While Higashino's work is modern in appearance, it's the plotting that makes him closer to Western mystery writers of the past than from the present, but hey, lets not flog that horse again. Not now anyway. 
On a final note, the book slated for release next year is Manatsu no Hoteishiki (Midsummer’s Equation, 2011), but there's already a Dutch translation available. So I just might go for that edition instead of waiting for the English release in 2016 and reading it somewhere in 2019.

6/8/15

Evil Never Prevails


"With a keen eye for detail, one truth prevails."
- Edogawa Conan  
The 52nd volume of Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) begins when the premiere of Star Blade VI is mere minutes away and the Junior Detective League is part of the crowd in front of the movie theatre. While waiting in line, they strike up a conversation with a fellow fan and professional photographer, but he dashes off to meet a friend after a brief phone call. And the first screening of the movie is only moments away!

It's the shortest story from this volume, covering only two chapters, but Gosho Aoyama crafted a nifty plot, which paraded around as a calculated, inverted detective story, before revealing a why-dun-it with a heart – giving Conan an opportunity to do what most detectives only seem able to pull off at the end of a case (i.e. preventing a murder). I remember Hercule Poirot doing it in a short story from the collection Poirot's Early Cases (1974).

In any case, I loved the double-layered structure of the plot, because there can never be enough plot in a detective story. Never.

The next story comes from the Metropolitan Police Department and concerns a knife-wielding maniac in a ski mask, who brutally murdered the occupants of the houses he burgled. A young couple, engaged to be married soon, had a brush with the fiend, but escaped with their lives and home in tact. However, the burglar is a sore loser and vowed to come back for revenge. Now they have to deduce who among the wedding guests could be the murderer. It's a reasonable plotted story, but very easy to pick apart.

For the third story, Aoyama seems to have drawn inspiration from Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) and one of the first Columbo episodes (Murder by the Book, 1971).

A successful and elderly novelist of historical fiction has murdered his ghostwriter, stolen his manuscripts and rigged up a tight alibi for himself, but a cat named Novel threatens to upset the plan and the murderer has to improvise – by turning certain items in the room upside down. Books, models cars and boxed action figures.

The explanation for the upturned items is almost too clever for a spur of the moment idea, but this devilish stroke of ingenuity was undone when the body is discovered before it was meant to. And the one who made the discovery was Conan!

Without a doubt, this inverted, Columbo-style mystery with Queenish underpinnings was my favorite from this lot, but there's one thing that bugs me. The murderer took a partially finished manuscript of a mystery novel with him, but was stumped when he tried to come up with an ending himself, which came after plotting a murder and improvising a trick that took care of the evidence that was left behind. He did that as an amateur killer. But as a writer, he couldn't come up with a somewhat decent ending? Well, I guess that's why he needed a ghostwriter.

The final story, covering three chapters, began promising, but fell apart in the final stretch of the story. Conan, Rachel and Serena are scouring a maple grove in search of a red handkerchief. A popular TV drama made the area a popular tourist attraction and fans are flogging the grove, which can be witnessed by the many handkerchief tied to the branches of the maple trees – an important plot-point from the TV series. Naturally, there's something sinister about that first tree with the red handkerchief and the body that was found in the woods, but I didn't care about the ending. Or the deus ex machina that brought it about.

The final score: two good stories (first and third), one average (second) and one bad (last one). Not a bad score.

I'll return presently with a regular review and I hope the two impossible crime novels I ordered will arrive somewhere this week.