9/3/15

Death and His Brother Sleep


"I'm afraid you'll think I haven't exactly been minding my own business. Why should I, anyhow? Two months in this place ought to reveal all our secrets, if we have any. Mind you, it was a sheer accident in the way it happened..."
- Captain Charles Mallinson (James Hilton's Lost Horizon, 1933) 
There are several well-known documented cases of hobby deformation among mystery readers, which include associating the literary father of Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne, with The Red House Mystery (1922) and Gaston Leroux with Le mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) instead of La fantôme de l’opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1910).

Well, was it murder?
Similar examples dot the landscape of the genre, but there's one writer I'll never be able to associate solely with his one-off contribution to the detective-and thriller genre.

James Hilton was an English novelist best known today for Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1934) and a wonderful adventure-fantasy novel, Lost Horizon (1933), which I read during a short period when I was reading "Lost World" stories. There were, however, only a small amount of such books available at the time. So it was only a brief excursion outside of the detective story, but it did put Hilton's sole mystery novel on my radar.

Was it Murder? (1931) originally appeared as Murder at School, under the byline of "Glen Trevor," which remained an obscure fact for decades after success came knocking on Hilton's door and one presumes the book was filed away as a youthful indiscretion – until Dover Publications brought it back in circulation in the late 1970s.

I enthusiastically bought a copy years ago, but continuously put off reading it after perusing some decidedly mixed reviews of the book. Well, the book left me with some mixed feelings now that I have read it myself. Lets begin at the beginning...

The backdrop of the book is a minor, unassuming public school, named Oakington, where a student by the name of Robert Marshall fell victim of a peculiar accident when a heavy, old-fashioned gas fitting crushed his skull in the dormitory during the night. Dr. Robert Roseveare, current Head of Oakington, would've let the dead rest in peace were it not for a strange note he found inside the boy's algebra-book, telling that "if anything should happen to me, I leave everything to my brother Wilbraham" – which aren't the kind of thoughts you'd expect to be on the mind of a public school boy.

Dr. Roseveare calls in the help of an old student, Colin Revell, who once solved "a little affair at Oxford" when "a rather valuable manuscript had disappeared from the College libraby" and had solved the case "by means of a little amateur detective-work." The first impressions of Revell begs for comparisons with Roger Sheringham and Philip Trent, but there's a difference between the fallibility of the later two and the incompetence of the former.

A Mysterious Story of a Different Kind
Oh, there's enough to enjoy about Revell's handling of the case for the plot-driven reader. There are plenty of possible explanations bandied about and leads to follow up on around the school grounds, but Revell never appears to be fully on the mark and eventually has to leave without having cleared up the first death – not to the readers satisfaction anyway. I mean, why were the students who were sleeping right next to Marshall never considered to be suspects or even questioned as potential witnesses? That's just sloppy.

There are several months between Revell's first and second visit to Oakington, which occurs when learning about the supposedly accidental death of Wilbraham Marshall in the empty swimming baths of the school. It smacks of murder and has attracted the attention of an actual detective from Scotland Yard, Guthrie, but he only gives off the impression of being more competent than Revell and eventually leaves empty handed after a third fatality – which is annoying because I had correctly figured out the correct solution at this point.

And they were still roughly a 150-pages removed from stumbling across the solution themselves, but Hilton's pleasant, often light-hearted style has to be commended here as it sustained my interest in the story. The "surprise" revelation fell somewhat flat, but the effort was appreciated.

I also found it interesting that, in spite of the witty writing, there's somber shadow cast over the story by the Great War and its lingering affect it had on some of the characters. I've always been interested in detective stories that are tied to the World Wars of the 20th century, but I don't remember having ever read one in which the ghost of World War I was almost background character in itself. A very interesting aspect of the book.

Anyway, Was it Murder? is a prime-example of the amateur detective and mystery novel, but whether that's a good or bad thing is up to the individual reader. I'm still very divided on that question, but I do want to re-read Lost Horizon now, because that's a prime-example of an excellent potboiler!

9/2/15

Where the Truth Lies


"Well, whatever it is, it sure must be most unusual. Uh, the reason I say that is because, you know, when my wife and I try to remember what happened yesterday or the day before, well, we don't agree on anything."
- Lt. Columbo (Dagger of the Mind, 1972)
A warning to the reader: this is going to be a filler-post involving conflicting memories, parallel universes, Columbo and Dr. Watson's brain. This is your chance to turn away and come back within a day or two when I have regular review up. You've been warned!

Recently, I stumbled across a website, called The Mandela Effect, which collects shared, alternate memories of events and popular culture that contradict the recorded history of our plain of reality – indicating to some that we're sliding between parallel universes.

A popular series of children's books, The Berenstain Bears, is central to this phenomenon, because people across the world swear they remember the name being spelled as BerenSTEIN.

It became enough of a thing that (reputedly) the son of the creators, Mike Berenstain, felt compelled to respond to a particular blog-post to explain the history of his family name and how "most people have just misread the name" – which has done nothing to make the debate subside. Other examples include confusion over the date of Nelson Mandela's death, the number of states within the U.S. and the titles of TV-series or movies.

Dr. John H. Watson
As a consummate reader of detective fiction, I was immediate reminded of a phenomenon known within mystery circles as Dr. Watson's faulty memory, which is especially notable in two particular stories: "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" from His Last Bow (1892) and "The Adventure of the Resident Patient" from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893).

The stories open on a very similar, almost identical note as Holmes performs a mind-reading trick on Watson, which was the result of some editorial acrobats, but in their universe it's Watson's unreliable memory that recollected that moment at the start of two completely different cases – and that wasn't the only time Watson's mind became fuzzy on the finer details. He ascribed the first name of James to both Holmes' arch-nemesis, Prof. James Moriarty, and his brother, Col. James Moriarty, which makes no sense!

So I agree with Mike Berenstain's simple explanation, but I can understand why some people would freak out over this, because I have a crispy clear memory of an alternative ending to one of my favorite Columbo episodes. A faulty memory I had shelved away as a Watsonian lapse of the mind, but when I came across the Mandela effect I saw an opportunity for a filler post!

Columbo: Oh, the mind boggles, sir!
Try and Catch Me (1977) is arguably one of the greatest episodes from the series, in which Lt. Columbo's opponent is one of the most likeable murderers you'll ever meet on the small screen: a small, somewhat elfish-looking mystery writer, named Abigail Mitchell, who avenged her niece by locking the murderer inside her walk-in safe – which eventually began to lack the oxygen needed to breath.

Well, I was quite surprised, even a bit shocked, upon re-watching Try and Catch Me for the time, because I remembered a completely different ending to the episode. I remembered Columbo allowing Abigail Mitchell to get away with murder and even handing over the car-keys, a key piece (pun!) of evidence, to her, but that was not the ending I saw the second time around. On the contrary! Columbo makes no bones about it: she is coming with him to the police station.

Abigail Mitchell even asks Columbo if he "would consider making an exception" in her case, because she's "an old woman, quite harmless, all in all." To which Columbo replies, "you're a very professional person in your work and so am I." However, the episode ends with a line suggesting an alternate time-line, "if you had investigated my niece's death, all this need never have happened," but that would've been an entirely different story altogether.

There's nothing in the episode that would justify the ending I initially remembered, but I've got a possible explanation as to why my mind butchered that ending: it was during the time I began to discover mysteries and wanted everything to be exactly like my favorite detective stories, which, at the time, included Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express (1934) – which is a book that shares in the blame of turning in me into the mystery addict you know today. If you know solution of that mystery and the morally ambigious ending, you probably understand why my mind did what it did.

Well, that's all I've to say on this subject. I wish I could've delivered the definitive proof of dual realities, but hey, what's you gonna do. 

Hopefully, I have a new review up before long and meanwhile, you could check out my recent reviews of Freeman Wills Crofts' classic debut novel, The Cask (1920), or Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee at Work (1967), which is collection of short stories. 

Oh, and my sincere apologies for wasting your time with this post.

9/1/15

Packed for Shipping


"We have every hope of clearing the matter up, but we find a little difficulty in getting anything to work upon. We have, of course, wired to the Belfast post-office, but a large number of parcels were handed in upon that day, and they have no means of identifying this particular one, or of remembering the sender."
- Inspector G. Lestrade (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Cardboard Box," from His Last Bow, 1892)
Since early 2011, I have reviewed a wide variety of detective-and crime fiction on this blog, from Pat McGerr and John Dickson Carr to Louise Penny and Keigo Higashino, but I consider my reading of the genre to be still rather shallow – especially when compared to a scholar such as Curt Evans or a professional fan boy like Bill Pronzini.

You might think that's an exaggeration on my part, but take a look at the authors whose work I have barely touched or ignored altogether.

My bookshelves are entirely bare of any traces of the works penned by Milward Kennedy and Margaret Millar. There's a tiny, largely unread clustering of mystery novels by J.J. Connington, Henry Wade and G.D.H. & M. Cole collecting dust on those very same shelves and the only thing I had read by Freeman Wills Crofts was a short story, entitled "The Mystery of the Sleeping-Car Express," in The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (1990) – which is embarrassing for an enthusiastic advocate of Golden Age mysteries. Something had to change!

Since you have to begin somewhere, I decided to pick up Crofts' famous debut novel, The Cask (1920), which was written in 1919 "during a slow recovery from a long illness" with a "pencil and exercise book." A revised, more polished version of the draft was published a year later, which sold over a 100,000 copies and was translated in nine languages by the time my edition from 1946 rolled off the presses. The book was a commercial success and cemented Crofts reputation as a (Golden Age) mystery writer.

The Cask is an exuberant, old-fashioned story that takes place between the month's of March and May of 1912, but, stylistically, the book reminded me more of the stories from J.E. Preston-Muddock's Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective (collected in 2005) than (lets say) Conan Doyle's post-1800s Sherlock Holmes stories or A.E.W. Mason (e.g. At the Villa Rose, 1910) – even though the story is plotted like a Golden Age mystery.

The Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company has a cargo ship by the name of Bullfinch arriving from Rouen, France, but one of the casks it was transporting appears to have suffered damage. Sawdust poured from a crack alongside several golden sovereigns. The content of the damaged casket is far less benevolent than the stuff it's spilling: a body of a woman, instead of a statue, and the managing-director of the company personally fetches Inspector Burnley of Scotland to investigate the matter.

However, when they arrive at the docks, someone, somehow, carried off with the burdened cask and the first portion of this three-part structured novel is concerned with finding it again. The makeshift casket disappears a second time over the course of this investigation and the golden sovereigns are possible linked to a 50,000-franc lottery prize, but, overall, this part can be considered as a very long prologue.

A small point of interest from this portion of the book that I have point out is that there's police-constable, named John Walker, who "had read Conan Doyle and Austin Freeman, and other masters of detective fiction, and their tales had stimulated his imagination," and whose heroes he tried emulate – as he "climbed to the giddy eminence of an Inspector of the Yard." I instantly liked this character and namedropping mystery writers would become something of a trope in the decades ahead. 

The second part of the book takes Inspector Burnley to France, where he's reunited with M. Lefarge of the Sûreté, having previously collaborated in the Marcelle murder case, "which attracted so much attention in both countries."

The work both investigators have to do in the second part is closer to classic detective, as we know it, than the first part as they establish the victim's identity and retrace the steps of a couple of suspects, which covers England, France and Belgium – and even Stockholm, Sweden is mentioned. A rigorous testing of alibis is something Crofts build a reputation around and even become something British mysteries were mocked for, but there was nothing tedious about it here. And their work eventually pays off, when they procure the evidence needed to make an arrest and bring the case to court.

In third and final part of the story, a solicitor engages the services of a private detective, Georges La Touche, to go over the evidence and prove his client's innocence, in which he succeeds, but the dénouement shows Crofts was still somewhat inexperienced. 

Freeman Wills Crofts, Professional Plotter

The Cask is, at it’s core, a fairly simple case and the murderer successfully muddled the waters, which is probably when Crofts realized he had plotted himself in a corner and this resulted in a rushed, somewhat forced ending – complete with a confession and an off-page suicide. I think the book would've had genuine status as a classic today if the murderer had laughed in Le Touche's face and wished him luck with proving his case in court, especially as an ending to an old-fashioned, almost charming story, but would such darkness have gone over well at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties?

In any case, The Cask was a successful debut that promised much from its author and the genre it belonged to, which was a promise that was most definitely kept by everyone involved.

On a final note, in the weeks ahead I'll tackle one or two mystery novels by E.R. Punshon. I have (yet) another foreign collection of stories from the East on the pile and I'll finally be tackling a detective novel that gave me serious case of hobby deformation. Stay tuned!

8/30/15

Sitting in Judgment


"Guide the people by law, subdue them by punishment; they may shun crime, but will be void of shame. Guide them by example, subdue them by courtesy; they will learn shame and come to be good."
- Confucius 
Robert H. van Gulik was a diplomat, sinologist and a writer whose career highlights included being the Dutch ambassador to Japan and authoring a series of novels, short stories and a couple of novellas about Judge Dee – which popularized historical mysteries and established them as a proper sub-genre in the 1950-and 60s. 

The series is set in 7th century China, during the Tang dynasty (AD 600-700), when a lauded magistrate and statesman, by the name of Di Renjie, presided over the courts of the Imperial Governments of the time.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (c. 1949) is a translation of an 18th century novel, Dee Goong An, which was loosely based on some of the cases handled by Di Renjie and formed an unofficial starting point of the series. And Di Renjie was, of course, the model for Judge Dee.

The plots were constructed along the lines of the classical, Chinese detective stories, in which several, seemingly unrelated, cases are braided together, but Van Gulik threw out the supernatural agencies and replaced them with 20th century plot devices – such as a stronger emphasis on whodunit and the occasional locked room mystery.

Judge Dee at Work: Eight Chinese Detective Stories (1967) is a collection of short stories and I have read them before, but they were spread out over two different volumes. The title of the Dutch edition of Judge Dee at Work is Zes zaken voor Rechter Tie (Six Cases for Judge Dee, 1961), which didn't include "Five Auspicious Clouds" and "He Came With the Rain." They were published separately as Vijf gelukbrengende wolken (Five Auspicious Clouds, 1969) and included the novella Vier vingers (Four Fingers, 1964), which was published in The Monkey and the Tiger (1965) as The Morning of the Monkey.

This was also the first time I read a Rechter Tie book in English. So it was somewhat like rediscovering this wonderful series.

"Five Auspicious Clouds" is the first story from this collection and occurred when Judge Dee served for only a week as magistrate of Peng-lai, which is where my favorite entry in this series took place – namely the fabulous Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders, c. 1959). Judge Dee is confronted with the apparent suicide of the wife of a notable legal-mind, but there are enough signs pointing towards murder and the extinguished, pentagon-shaped incense-clock seemed to have fixed the time of death. A good, somewhat clever story of domestic murder and notable for having found a way to use the smashed-watch-trick... in the year 633!

"The Red Tape Murder" takes place in the same coastal district as the previous story, Peng-lai, in which Van Gulik allowed Judge Dee to be drawn into a military affair and exonerate Colonel Meng of a murder-charge and solve a pesky, bureaucratic problem of a missing document – a document interestingly titled P-404. They were unable to find that page! Anyhow, the murder of Colonel Soo turns out to be an impossible crime, because the innocent Meng appears to have been the only one who could've loosened the deadly arrow, but Judge Dee finds an alternative explanation and one that's reasonable clued. I've grown quite fond of this story, but not everyone is going to like it.

Six Cases for Judge Dee
Judge Dee still presided over Peng-lai as magistrate in "He Came With the Rain" and takes place on one of the hottest, wettest days of the dog-days. A pawn-broker is found stabbed and hacked to pieces at an old, abandoned watchtower in the marches and the only witness is a deaf-mute girl – who lived in the crumbling tower. A couple of soldiers apprehended a blood-covered suspect, but, of course, Judge Dee comes to a different conclusion. This is one of those stories that should be read as a historical story and it’s character development instead of as a detective story.

"The Murder on the Lotus Pond" has a change of scenery, the district of Han-yuan, which was the backdrop for The Chinese Lake Murders (1960) and The Haunted Monastery (1961), but in this minor case an elderly poet is killed in his garden pavilion. The setting and characters are very well drawn, but it's a minor, rather forgettable case and the murderer only got caught because he/she jabbered too much.

"The Two Beggars" takes the reader to yet another district, Poo-yang, where The Chinese Bell Murders (1958) and The Emperor's Pearl (1963) took place, but Judge Dee's time as magistrate of this district also coincided with his visit to Paradise Island – recorded in The Red Pavilion (1964) and features several impossible murders. However, this short story seems to have been missed by everyone as just such a story, which begins when Judge Dee witnesses a ghostly apparition during the Feast of Lanterns. The escape of the apparition from a watched, moonlit garden, in which the "garden gate to the park outside was securely locked and barred," coincides with the discovery of a dead beggar at the bottom of a drain. The encounter in the garden is explained by itself towards the end of the story, but initial sighting gives Judge Dee a good reason to take a closer look as the supposed accidental death of the beggar and eventually discovers a murderer. A well-told and constructed story.

The following story, "The Wrong Sword," remains in the district of Poo-Yang, but Judge Dee is absent for a large portion of the investigation and leaves two of his lieutenants, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, in charge of tribunal. A case and an opportunity to prove themselves presents itself during a street performance: someone swapped a "trick sword" for a real one and that came at the expensive of a young boy's life. It’s an interesting approach to allow a troupe of Watson's investigate a flurry of potential murderers, before Judge Dee correctly arranges the gather information and evidence upon his return.

"The Coffins of the Emperor" takes place in the isolated district of Lan-fang, the location of The Chinese Maze Murders (1952) and The Phantom of the Temple (1966), which is situated on the Western border of the empire – which has become a dark and desolate place during a warring conflict with the Tartar's. Judge Dee offers his assistance to the local military leader in solving a potential case of treason and clearing yet another military officer from a murder charge, before his head rolls off his shoulder the next morning, but the main attraction of this story is dark, sickly mood of impending doom permeating the plot.

The final story of the lot, "Murder on New Year's Eve," takes place in that same desolate place, but the explanation ends both this collection and Judge Dee's run as magistrate of Fan-lang on a positive note. It's a short, touchy story and that's all that can be said about it without giving anything away.

So, all in all, Judge Dee at Work is an excellent and well-balanced collection of stories, which can be read as both detective stories or historical fiction. And that makes it hard to be disappointed if you're a fan of one or both genres, but that goes for the entire series. Recommended!

Finally, if this review appears clunky or overwritten without the usual amount of detail... well... I finished this collection nearly two weeks ago and was in the hospital at the time. So not every detail was as clear as it should be when I finally began cranking out this review, but I'm getting back on track.

8/16/15

Presents from the Past


"...And all that was left to do was put together the pieces."
- Hajime Kindaichi (The Kindaichi Case Files: Smoke and Mirrors, 1993)
Some time has passed since I last read a novel from Bill Pronzini's four decade spanning series about his "Nameless Detective," but the previous review on this blog, covering the recently translated The Decagon House Murders (1987) by Yukito Ayatsuri, gave me a splendid excuse to delve into Quicksilver (1984) – which has a plot touching upon the unique history between the United States and Japan. 

In the opening chapter of Quicksilver, Nameless has gone into an official partnership with an old friend, ex-police lieutenant Eberhardt, who found office space in a good location, but the rent is pushing nine-hundred bucks a month. Luckily, there's a client waiting in the wings.

Haruko Gage has been the target of an anonymous, but generous, admirer who keeps sending her expensive gifts in the form of jewelry, which appears as an easy enough of a job for Nameless. It's simply a case of checking on some of Haruko's former lovers and hopefuls who were rejected. But things are seldom this easy for him.

These inquiries take Nameless to San Francisco's Japantown, but what began as a fairly benevolent problem turns into something far more sinister when Nameless visits a public bathhouse and stumbles upon the remains of a member of the Yakuza – hacked to the death with a katana!

It's not the only unnatural death Nameless finds on his path, but, in spite of the presence of the Yakuza, the book isn't a repeat of Dragonfire (1982) and his descend into the mafia-controlled quarters of Chinatown. Dragonfire was a hardboiled tale that put Nameless in the hospital and Eberhardt in a coma, which came on the heels of two unapologetically, classically styled-and plotted novels, Hoodwink (1981) and Scattershot (1982), but Quicksilver falls somewhere in between – i.e. a character-driven detective story with professional criminals lurking in the background.

The trail of bodies is slowly guiding Nameless many decades into the past, all the way back to the early 1940s, when American citizens of Japanese descend where thrown in internment camps for the duration of World War II. And the now often forgotten crimes that took place there.

I think mystery fans that've read a fair amount of Japanese detective fiction will recognize a familiar theme in the motive and identity of the murderer, but I don't know if that was done as a conscious nod to their corner of genre – considering there was even less Japanese crime fiction available in 1984 than there's now.

There's also the all important difference that Quicksilver was written from an American point-of-view, in the hardboiled vein of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which makes this an item of interest for scholars/connoisseurs of the Japanese crime story. It is interesting as comparison material to how Japanese mystery-and crime writers tackled this subject.

What makes the "Nameless Detective" series of interest to a plot-obsessed classicist, like myself, is not only the occasional excursions to the locked room niche (e.g. Hoodwink, 1981 and Bones, 1985), but also how relatable Nameless (and Pronzini) is as a fellow mystery fan boy. Nameless observes how a police-inspector, named Leo McFate, "talked like Philo Vance" and how a door "creaked open like the one on the old Inner Sanctum radio program."

And than there's Nameless' collection of pulp magazines, which feature or is mentioned in nearly every novel. In this story, Kerry Wade borrowed an issue of Midnight Detective with a luridly illustrated cover in the Yellow Peril tradition. My "Paperjack" edition has a synopsis that was written in that frame, because it promises such things as "a violent ritual murder" and "perverse kidnapping."

That's not at all the well put together, calm and slow moving story, which has the patience of meandering river that knows it'll eventually reach its inevitable conclusion – and doesn't need any gore to disturb its readers.

In short, Quicksilver is a great entry in the Nameless series and this badly written review really doesn't do it any justice. Read it for yourself.

8/11/15

A Decagonal Shaped Puzzle


"These writers (with others like them) are the aristocrats of the game, the old serpents, the gambit-devisers and trap-baiters whose strokes of ingenuity make the game worth playing at all."
-
John Dickson Carr ("The Grandest Game in the World," from The Door to Doom and Other Detections, 1980)
In late June of this year, John Pugmire's Locked Room International published a translation of a landmark mystery novel from the land of the rising sun, Yukito Ayatsuji's, Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), which is credited with launching the neo-orthodox (shinhonkaku) movement – and putting an end to the dominance of the socially conscious crime novel. If only that would happen over here in the West.

The Decagon House Murders was translated by our very own tour guide through the largely uncharted territory of the Japanese mystery novel, Ho-Ling Wong, who also wrote a postscript on the Kyoto University Mystery Club. They stood at the cradle of this movement and a thinly disguised version of the club (and its members) figure prominently in the book.

A short introduction on the neo-orthodox movement was penned by Soji Shimada, author of that bloody tour-de-force known as Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981), and sandwiched between the introduction and after word is the answer to an all-important, but rarely posed, question: what do you get when you populate Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) with the type of characters from Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996)?

Tsunojima is a small, deserted island off the coast of Japan and would've simply been one of the many, undistinguished rocks in the island nation if it weren't for the burned down ruins of a mansion and decagon-shaped house – which where the scene of a gruesome, quadruple murder case less than a year before the opening of the story.

So it goes without saying that the island is the perfect location for an excursion for the members of a certain university mystery club.

The club-members are known throughout a majority of the story by their adopted nicknames: "Agatha," "Carr," "Van Dine," "Ellery," "Leroux," "Orczy" and "Poe," which are, of course, names of famous mystery writers from the past – primarily from our Golden Age. One of them was exposed in the prologue to harbor plans to commit a small-scale massacre on the island, but the letter promising five victims, a detective and a killer at the end of their stay is taken as a joke or attempt at setting up a murder game.

There are also letters circulated to club members on the mainland, which pertain to tragedy that took place on the island several month ago and a death related to the mystery club itself. 

From this point on, the narrative alternates between the mainland investigation into the past murders and the rising body count on the island in the present. The former poses some interesting questions: why did the murder take several days to murder three or four people? Why was the hand of one of the victims severed? Where's the gardener who disappeared after the murders? Why do the current series of murders on the island tend to mimic the ones from the past?

My exposure to Japanese mysteries have mainly come from comics (manga) and some cartoons (anime), such as Case Closed and The Kindaichi Case Files, but you can easily see how the neo-orthodox movement influenced even that specific branch of mystery fiction. There's the cast of high-school or university students in a remote, isolated location with a dark crime in the past and a murderous avenger in the present, which is also pretty much a basic plot synopsis of every Kindaichi story. Perhaps the best example comes from an animated series, Detective Academy Q, which has several episodes forming The Kamikakushi Murder Case and has arguably the best use of bizarre architecture – alongside several seemingly impossible disappearances. I should re-watch those episodes one of these days and review them here. They were really clever.

However, as interesting and gratifying as the unapologetic attitude as an anti-modern crime novel might be, The Decagon House Murders has one or two flaws that you might expect from a debut novel – even from a (re)debut of an entire genre.

The plot is furnished with all the classic trappings of a Golden Age mystery, but the clueing is sparse and you need experience, combined with some intuition, to make a stab in the right direction. You can't really play the clever and smug armchair detective, as the story begins to unravel, but the only real drawback for me was that the story lacked an impossible crime! There were none! Absolutely zero! And this book was published by Locked Room International! Shocking, Watson! Shocking!

Anyhow... considering what The Decagon House Murders has done for my beloved, classically-styled detective stories in the East, as well as being an incredibly fun book to read, I was more than willing to look pass these minor flaws. And I'm very grateful to both Ho-Ling and Pugmire for tossing this one over the language barrier. May it be the first in a long row!

Finally, the legacy of The Decagon House Murders gives me an opportunity to say to (the memory of) Julian Symons what should've been said a long, long time ago: in your face, you dry-mouthed fairy!

8/10/15

The Artistic Touch

"Arsène Lupin is a delicate, squeamish burglar. He loathes bloodshed, he has never committed a more serious crime than that of annexing other people's property... And what you're saying to yourself is that he is not going to burden himself with a useless murder. Quite so."
- Maurice Leblanc (Arsène Lupin in "813," 1910)
The 53rd volume of Case Closed, known better in some parts of the world as Detective Conan, opens with the longest story in this installment and concerns Kaito KID's latest caper – or so it appears.

Takeyori Oikawa is a renowned artist responsible for a series of paintings depicting the "beauties of nature," which is one canvas removed from being a complete set. The fourth and final picture in the series is about to be unveiled, but in a note the infamous, white-clad thief promises to swoop down from the moonlit sky and scoop up the freshly painted masterpiece.

As a precaution, Oikawa takes the only security measure that helped in the past against the sticky-fingered magician: the presence of a certain detective, named Richard Moore, and the little brat who's always tagging along. However, the great "Sleeping Moore" and Conan are unable to prevent the painting from disappearing from a semi-locked and guarded room, but there's a bigger problem – KID may've broken his own code and taken a life during the heist.

Of course, this isn't strictly speaking a Kaito KID caper, but a Columbo-esque inverted story that's well motivated and clued. A locked room-style trick is used to create an alibi and to round out a solid plot, which makes this my favorite story from this bundle. The actual presence of KID in the background is merely an added bonus.

The next story covers only two chapters and is what Bill Pronzini would've called a "humanist crime story," even though there is no (real) crime in the story. What makes it a humanist story is the motivation behind a game of code cracking that Ms. Koboyashi created for her students in Class B-1 and that's all I can really say about this revoltingly adorable story.

A note for the curious: there's a note in the story signed with "The Fiend with 200 Faces," which is a reference to Edogawa Rampo's Kaijin nijuu mensou (The Fiend with Twenty Faces, 1936). The book was published in English in 2012 and has an introduction written by our fellow Connoisseur in Crime, Ho-Ling.

In the third story from this volume, a young boy comes to the office of Richard Moore with a peculiar and cryptic story of having witnessed a crime around New Year. The kid saw a man throw a body from a bridge in the river and the identity of the victim may be that of a missing rock star, but the account of the boy is reads like cipher – which includes allusions to "a scary picture of a nail" and "a big shining hammer."

The objective of this story is not so much the who-and whydunit angle, but retracing the steps of the child and making sense of his cryptic remarks, while the shadow of the Black Organization hovers in the background. And the possible connection between the B.O. and the apparently clumsy Eisuke Hondo, who keeps hanging around Conan and Moore.

The final chapter of this volume is a set up of a story that'll be concluded in the next volume and begins when Eisuke brings a case to Moore's office that bears a striking resemblance to "The Red-Headed League" from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891). This quickly leads them to the scene of a murder and Conan again feels the presence of the Black Organization, but that's a story for the next volume.

So, all in all, a fine collection with a solid opening story and some interesting side-developments concerning the main storyline and recurring characters.

I'll be back ASAP with a regular review. Probably a locked room mystery from Japan. Who knows!