11/18/19

Invisible Death (1929) by Brian Flynn

Invisible Death (1929) is the sixth novel about Brian Flynn's Holmesian gentleman detective, Anthony Bathurst, which has the distinct honor of being the most unconventional, but very memorable, entry in the series – written and structured like a turn-of-the-century shilling shocker. I think Flynn intended to write the book as an homage to Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and The Valley of Fear (1915), but ended up being more reminiscent of Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1927). Only Invisible Death has much more consistency than the patchwork plotting and story-telling of The Big Four.

Anthony Bathurst receives a letter from Constance Whittaker, a cousin of Diana Prendergast from The Murders Near Mapleton (1929), who pleads for him to come down to Shallowcliff Hall in Lacashire. The letter strongly hinted that "something very dark and very sinister" had placed her husband, Major Guy S. Whittaker, in "grave danger."

So, since he never lets a cry for help go unheeded, Bathurst sets out for Shallowcliff Hall, but, the moment he sets foot in Liverpool, he finds there are some nasty-looking shadows close on his tail.

There's a man with a withered arm. A fat, silky-voiced slug of a man. A huge man with a, dirty, brown-beard. Lastly, a man with mutilated lips who turns out to be the leader of the group. Bathurst later learns these men are what remains of a Russian society, The Silver Troika, who were decimated by Major Whittaker during a special in the Great War – returning to England with the documents, papers and minute-books of the society. Now they want it back! Since the favorite afternoon pastime of the Troika is the same as the evening occupation, namely murder, only "a trifle more so," Bathurst decides to enlist the help of an old acquaintance.

Peter Daventry is the young lawyer who brought Bathurst into The Case of the Twenty-Two Black (1928), but here, to fit occasion, Flynn transformed him into one of those posh, smart-aleck men of action. A handy person to have around when you find yourself in the middle of a chase thriller.

Bathurst and Daventry attempt to sneak their way up to Shallowcliff Hall unseen and have to go through several middle-men, give them passwords and cross Ugford Moor, locally known as The Knype, into the eerie, foggy Little Knype Wood. Needless to say, this is quite a departure from the more conventional novels that preceded it, like The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928), but I thought it was very well done. And an excellent premise for what is about to happen!

Shallowcliff Hall eventually comes under siege by the Silver Troika, but, before they can get their murderous hands on Major Whittaker, he suddenly drops dead without anyone being nowhere near him and a post-mortem reveals he had been cleverly murdered – poisoned with a "tincture of aconite." Only question is how the poison could have been administrated without being seen. This poses a two-sides problem: on the one hand, Bathurst has to deal with the Silver Troika, while on the other hand he has to figure out who poisoned Major Whittaker. And how. A pretty and unusual puzzle comprising of such pieces as a stolen letter and the presence of an American entomologist, Horace Garland-Isherwood, who has the habit of surreptitiously sneaking around the garden.

The only plot-thread here that can really be discussed, without spoilers, is the impossible murder, but there's one part about the siege of the Silver Troika that needs to be highlighted.

There's a brief, uncharacteristic torture-scene in which the Troika try to extract from Major Whittaker's batman, Neville, with a so-called "Persuader." A tool that left Neville's right thumb "a piece of red, raw pulp." You practically never find this kind of gory violence in the work of writers associated with the traditional detective story and, if you ignore the rare third-degreeing at the hands of the police, the only other example I can think of is Rex Stout's The Golden Spiders (1953) – in which Archie uses some physical persuasion to make someone talk. Stout had the excuse of being an American. So this is just a very small example of how unusual a mystery this one really is.

However, you're not here to read about the professional proclivities of a bunch of homicidal villains who were plucked from the pages of a dime pulp. You're here for the impossible crime! Why else would you come here?

Steve Barge, the Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, who wrote the introductions for these new Dean Street Press editions said in his 2017 review that the poisoning method, as far as knew, "original for the time." This is kind of true. The trick has been used since 1929, one example can be found in a late '90s episode from the Dutch TV-series Baantjer, but there's a little-known short story from 1928 that used a similar poisoning-trick. Nonetheless, the book may be a first in another department.

Invisible Death intriguingly merged the impossible crime story with the dime thriller by setting it in a house under siege by criminals. An original premise more famously used in T.H. White's Darkness at Pemberley (1932) and Carter Dickson's The Unicorn Murders (1935), but Flynn's Invisible Death was there first.

Admittedly, the book is, plot-wise, the lightest so far encountered, but what it lacked in complexity was made up by the sheer joy of the story-telling, the weirdness of the plot and the evil, pulp-style villains – something that would have sunk it in the hands of a lesser writer. This is how you book evil foreign heels! As usually, Flynn's undying love for Sherlock Holmes bleeds through the pages and it's starting to have its effect on me. I now want to reread The Sign of Four or The Hound of the Baskervilles before the year draws to a close.

So, in closing, I highly recommend Invisible Death to everyone who already has read some of Flynn's conventional detective novels, because he'll be giving you something completely different here that worked surprisingly well. Invisible Death is easily one of the most fun detective stories that I have read this year.

11/16/19

The Case of the Black Twenty-Two (1928) by Brian Flynn

The Case of the Black Twenty-Two (1928) is only the second entry in the Anthony Bathurst series, but the plot already showed improvement over Brian Flynn's debut, The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927), skillfully unraveling two distinctly different, but inextricably intertwined, murders – committed on the same night while miles apart. Flynn's admiration for Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes very subtly bleeds through the story. But more on that later.

The Case of the Black Twenty-Two begins when a solicitors firm, Merryweather, Linnell and Daventry, receive "a rather peculiar commission" from an American millionaire, Laurence P. Stewart.

Stewart is a collector of "articles of great historical significance" and proudly possesses more than two-thousand objects of "historical interest and association," which have found a home in his private museum. Stewart has a strong preference for historical items with a Royal association, but has "a perfect mania" for anything connected to Mary, Queen of Scots. This all-consuming passion is why he reached out to the firm with a curtly worded letter with instructions.

The senior partner, David Linnell, is instructed to act on Stewart's behalf and purchase three historical articles, a collar of pearls, a tapestry fire-screen and a rosary of amber beads, which all have been "indisputably the property of Mary, Queen of Scots" – all three items will be on sale shortly at the Hanover Galleries. A not entirely conventional request, but a snappy telegram from Stewart confirms the commission. So the junior partner, Peter Daventry, goes to the gallery to inspect the articles in question, but, when Linnell goes there the following day, he found the gallery in "a condition of extreme excitement and agitation."

During the night, the gallery was robbed and the three items on Stewart's shopping list, the pearls, fire-screen and rosary, were taken away, but tragically, the night-watchman was brutally murdered during the robbery. And while Linnell is talking with Detective-Inspector Goodall, Daventry calls the gallery to tell his partner that the son of their client, Charles Stewart, has informed him that his father was bludgeoned to death last night in his library at Assynton Lodge. Inexplicably, the library door and french-windows were securely locked or fastened on the inside. Nothing appears to have been stolen from his private museum room. A pretty solid premise!

But before I continue, I've to pause here a moment and point out two interesting facts about the private museum in The Case of the Black Twenty-Two.

Firstly, a collector's private museum, or room where a collection is stored, is a trope commonly associated with S.S. van Dine and his followers, most notably Clyde B. Clason, but Flynn's use of it anticipates Van Dine – who used it for the first time in The Bishop Murder Case (1929). I thought it was very fitting the museum here is the property of an American millionaire. Secondly, there's a gem of a Sherlockian reference hidden in the museum. A reference that was never acknowledged, but one that can unmistakably linked to one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories and, if you spot it, the reference works as a bonus clue to the underlying motive that ties the cases together. What a fanboy!

Daventry has a brother, Gerald, who was peripherally involved in The Billiard-Room Mystery and "never tires of singing Bathurst's praises." So when Charles asks the solicitors to recommend him "an efficient, discreet, and trustworthy private detective," Daventry suggested seeking the help of that budding detective. Anthony Bathurst plays the role of Great Detective with his accustomed vigor and deduces his way from stolen fire-screens and little brown stones in a ink-bowl to a missing bullet and an obscure, murky passage of history. A passage telling of a Cardinal's great gift, the Black Twenty-Two. This titular plot-thread is very much in the Doylean tradition and can be linked to that fantastic Sherlockian reference that can be found in Stewart's private museum.

In my opinion, the historical mystery of the Black Twenty-Two is one of the better and most imaginative aspects of the plot. Only overshadowed by the reconstruction of the murder in the locked library. Unfortunately, there are also some less than stellar aspects of the plot that drags it down to the apprentice level of The Billiard-Room Mystery.

Even if you're really generous, there are only a handful of viable suspect. There's the son, Charles Stewart, the victim's ward, Marjorie Lennox, and his private-secretary, Morgan Llewellyn. You can add the mysterious man and who to the list who are, somehow, connected to the gallery murder. But when the genuinely surprising murderer is revealed, you want to cringe so damn hard you start believing Julian Symons had a point after all. A second drawback is the clumsily handling of the locked room angle, which had an uninspired, routine solution, but it hampered the murderer more than it helped – because leaving the french-windows open would have thrown red herring across the trail. Now all of the focus was on the people inside the house.

So, on a whole, Flynn's The Case of the Black Twenty-Two is an entertaining, well-written, but typical 1920s, detective novel with all the flaws and gusto of a burgeoning mystery writer. What really is impressive, considering the imperfections of The Billiard-Room Mystery and The Case of the Black Twenty-Two, is how the quality of plots and originality shot up like a bottle rocket in his next two novels. The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) and The Murder Near Mapleton (1929) are two of the best detective novels from the twenties, which followed on the heels of two apprentice novels. That kind of rapid improvement is something to be admired.

I want to read Invisible Death (1929) or The Orange Axe (1931) next, but I'll probably cram something else in between to keep things a little varied.

11/14/19

The Flying Boat Mystery (1935) by Franco Vailati

Leo Wollenborg Jr. was the son of a German-born Italian economist and a journalist, who moved to the United States in response to the introduction of the leggi razziali (racial laws) in 1938, but he left behind, what some have called, one of the most beautifully imagined Italian locked room mysteries, Il mistero dell'idrovolante (The Flying Boat Mystery, 1935) – published as by "Franco Vailati." So it was only a matter of time before The Flying Boat Mystery appeared on the radar of John Pugmire's Locked Room International.

The Flying Boat Mystery opens on the surface of the water basins of Ostia Airport, near Rome, where a flying boat is ready to depart for Palermo.

The passenger list comprises of three country tradesmen, Giuseppi Sabelli, Giovanni Marchetti and Pagelli-Bertieri. A middle-class, middle-aged couple, Augusto and Maria Martelli. A fascinating lady dressed in red, named Vanna Sandrelli, who carries "a lizard-green bag" which clashes horrendously with her clothes. Somewhat of a crime in Italy, I imagine. A plucky journalist of the La Gazzetta, Giorgio Vallesi, who only had eyes for another female passenger, Marcella Arteni. The last passenger of the list was supposed to be an Italian-born Greek banker, Francesco Agliati, but a bank-teller, Larini, arrived when the plane was full and ready to go – which forced him to part with a packet of lire to get the mechanics seat in the cockpit. And the mechanic traveled, cushioned with money, in the luggage compartment.

So this was suppose to be a routine, ninety-minutes flight from Ostia to Naples, but, during the flight, Agliati "decided suddenly to retire his large, bulky figure into the small toilet." Agliati never returned to his seat nor did he respond to repeated calls and knocking.

When the flying boat landed, the door was broken down and, to everyone's surprise, the small toilet was completely empty! The door had been locked on the inside and the only possible exit is a small skylight in the roof of the toilet, but its dimensions makes it absurdly impossible for the large, bulky man to have passed through and what reason could he have had for such "an absurd acrobatic exploit" in mid-flight? This eliminates the options of accident, suicide and murder. So what happened?

Vice Questore (Assistant Commissioner) Luigi Renzi reads in the newspaper that his old college friend, Giorgio Vallesi, was on board of the hydroplane when the banker inexplicably vanished and decides to insert himself into the investigation, but the impossible disappearance is swathed in complications – such as finding out everyone's reason for traveling on that plane. And, as to be expected, every single one of them is holding something back from the investigators. But that's not all.

A second, more grisly, problem presents itself when the head and arms of a person, who was on that miraculous plane ride, are found crammed in a suitcase that was left in a train compartment. This adds a complex little puzzle involving a dismembered corpse and suitcases with mysterious numbers written on the inside. Why not? Why settle on just an impossible disappearance from a locked toilet in mid-flight, when you can throw a little corpse-puzzle in the mix. However, the locked room problem, premise and solution, is the high point of the plot.

I figured out an essential part of the vanishing-trick, but only because the locked room situation resembled, in some ways, a unique aspect of a short story that was written in the past twenty-five years. I doubt the writer in question was aware of this Italian mystery novel, but found it interesting to see how they found two very different applications for exactly the same idea. What makes The Flying Boat Mystery such a joy is that Franco Vailati didn't stop there.

Once you figured out the basic principle behind the trick, the problem is still far from solved and you can even say that it becomes more complicated. Vailati showed the craftsmanship of a Golden Age writer with a beautifully done, partially false-solution to explain the second part of the vanishing-trick before Renzi shows the reader what really happened with a simple diagram – destroying a well-hidden alibi in the process. What a shame this was Vailati's only detective novel!

The Flying Boat Mystery was translated by Igor Longo and he wrote an article, "The Italian Mystery Novel," that ended the book and some parts hit a little close to home. Longo mentions that one of the reasons why the traditional detective story is in such a poor state, in Italy, was "the disapproving eye of dons, newspaper critics and other Arbiter Elegantiarum" unduly "praising the tosh written by their own pets" and "the locked room murder was laughed about" – used "only for epitomizing what the "good writer" was called to destroy." You can unfortunately say the same of my country. Where even the traditional detective fiction that had been written have rarely, if ever, been reprinted and have pretty much been forgotten about today or have even become lost altogether.

And to make it even more painful, Longo goes over a whole list of notable Italian writers of traditional detective stories and locked room mysteries! Most of them untranslated! I've a feeling JJ will lose his goddamn mind when he learns there's "a sort of minor Italian Rupert Penny" who's entirely out of his reach. Pugmire really has to make these Italian mystery writers part of the LRI family.

So, all in all, The Flying Boat Mystery is a very short, but fun, novel with a busy plot, good setting, an original vanishing-trick and an interesting use of the partially false-solution, which should satisfy the fanatical locked room reader.

11/13/19

A Twisted Fairy Tale: "The Too-Perfect Alibi" (1949)

"Dark theaters are best for dark deeds."

Previously, I reviewed Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Perfect Alibi (1934), a detective novel that turned the idea of an iron-clad alibi on its ear, which reminded me of a truly brilliant and innovative, but practically unknown, detective story that used the unbreakable alibi to perfection – performed over seventy years ago on the timeless CBS radio drama-series, Suspense. A bleak, mournful story that still stands today as one of the best episodes in the twenty year history of the show!

"The Too-Perfect Alibi" was written by Martin Stern and originally aired on CBS radio on January 13, 1949, starring actor/comedian Danny Kaye as the story's antagonist, Sam Rogers. Sam is a close friend to the woman he loved and "the fellow she loved."

Catherine was "the loveliest thing on God's earth" and Jack was "a beautiful hunk of man," a perfect match, but Sam never understood why Catherine was so made about him. A good-looking nobody who works as a clerk in a sports shop. However, when they announce their engagement, the well-to-do Sam takes it on the chin and offers them a lovely house as a wedding present, which delights Catherine, but Jack resents that Sam gives them everything he can't afford – sarcastically comparing him to Prince Charming. Unfortunately, for Jack, this remark reminded Sam of the fairy tale of "the Prince, the Princess and the Ogre." A story in which the Ogre dies because "the Prince kills him."

"The Too-Perfect Alibi" is an inverted mystery and the first 15, of 30, minutes comprises of plotting and carrying out the murder. Sam's plan hinges on an alibi, "a strong, unshakable alibi," designed to keep him out of the electric chair.

Usually, these alibi-tricks hinge on the manipulation of clocks, eyewitnesses or documents, such as dated tickets, letters or postcards, which gives the murderer a (small) window to do the dirty deed. Sometimes this window of opportunity is counted in minutes, not hours, which makes them quite risky endeavors. Sam created an indestructible alibi that removed much of the dangers of the initial stages of murder and the only dangerous obstacle was disposing the body where it would be found the following day. When the police started asking question, they got "thirty-five affidavits from responsible people" who swear Sam was at a party at the time of the murder.

A very inventive, yet simple, alibi that's impossible to crack open and can stand with the best alibi-stories by Christopher Bush, who might have partially inspired the story, because Sam utters an unusual phrase when he's almost caught deposing of the murder weapon – saying to himself that his "alibi was still 100%." A possible reference to Bush's The Case of the 100% Alibis (1934)?

So the first half of "The Too-Perfect Alibi" deals with the plotting and execution of Jack's murder, but, in the second half, Sam is confronted with the dire, unintended consequences of his perfect little crime. You have to listen for yourself how this dark, twisted fairy tale ends, but, if you want to end a detective story on a bleak, melancholic note that will cast a gloom on your audience, this is how you do it. I could hear "The Real Folk Blues" playing in my head when the episode ended ("you're gonna carry that weight!").

"The Too-Perfect Alibi" is, in my humble opinion, one of the best inverted detective stories ever written, which not only has an excellent and original alibi-trick, but an unforgettable conclusion that ended the episode strongly. You can listen to the episode on the Internet Archive (here) or Youtube (here). Enjoy!

11/11/19

The Perfect Alibi (1934) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Perfect Alibi (1934) is the third novel in the regrettably short-lived series about the Mercury crime-reporter, Charles Venables, which has been out-of-print for nearly a century and an elusive, over-priced item on the second-hand book market – even the 1941 abridged Cherry Tree edition is a rarity. Last year, Moonstone Press advertises they were going to republish a number of his detective novels in September, 2018, but there was an unexplained, nine-month delay. The Perfect Alibi was well worth the long wait!

Anthony Mullins, of Morphopoulos & Mullins, is an armaments manufacturer and "a brilliant engineer" who produces the guns that were sold through "an international system of graft" that had been built up by his late partner.

Six months before the story opens, Mullins drafted and signed an accusatory will that will place his wife, Patricia, in "a terrible position in the eyes of the world." The will states that, unless Mullins peacefully passes away in his sleep or a coroner says he had died naturally, Patricia loses a life interest in his estate. Leaving her without a penny. Mullin's reason is that he suspects Patricia has an affair with his nephew and junior partner, Ralph Holliday, which is why Mullins had cut him out of his will completely and send him abroad to get him away from his wife – under the guise of reevaluating Morphopoulos' network. So his safety has been ensured.

The Perfect Alibi opens with the locked, wooden garage on Mullin's estate, The Turrets, ablaze and inside the fire-fighters find the charred remains of the armaments magnate in the driving-seat of his car.

On the surface, the death of Mullins has the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but a post-mortem examination reveals a bullet lodged in the brain and there was no gun or key found inside the garage. So this was either an impossible suicide or a cold, calculated murder. A murder that will seriously test the determination, patience and ingenuity of several detectives over the course of several months.

Charles Venables makes only sporadic appearances in the story, but has a splendid excuse to largely assume to role of spectator in "the Burning Garage Mystery." When he briefly appears in the second chapter, Venables is busily reporting on the Aeroplane Mystery and later departs for Iconia where "the ruling monarch appears to have been murdered." So The Perfect Alibi takes place between the conclusion of Death of an Airman (1935) and the beginning of Death of a Queen (1935)! I thought this was a nice touch to the story and gives room to other characters to shine as detectives.

Inspector Trenton is officially in charge of the investigation, but his subordinate, Constable Sadler, who sees the case as a release from his routine, humdrum duties, does most of the legwork – until even Scotland Yard (off-page) reaches a dead-end. But there two other people, involved with the case, who turn amateur detective and not entirely without success. Francis "Frank" Filson is an artist who initially provided Patricia with a paper-thin alibi and he's roped in to snoop around by the woman in charge of Mullin's stables, Sandy Delfinage.

Sandy's primary suspect is Dr. James Constant, the Secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Scientific Research, whose organization inherited the bulk of the estate under Mullin's new will, but Dr. Constant possesses an absolutely unshakable alibi. Dr. Constant is not the only person in the lively, humorously drawn and slightly subversive cast of characters who has a role to play in the story. Dr. Eustace Marabout is a Doctor of Philosophy deeply impressed by "the overwhelming documentary evidence" of the supernatural and swears he saw the Devil "coming from the garage the day before the murder." Lord Overture is the owner of The Turrets, which he let to Mullins for a "paltry sum," but why did he take a potshot at Constable Sadler? Mrs. Murples is a rich, elderly woman who looks like "a pre-dynastic mummy" and uses her money to back young pugilists.

Sprigg had quite a gift when it came to integrating quirky, subversive characters into a highly conventional detective story without making them feel like they're out-of-place. Such as in the splendid The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935), but the plot and alibi-trick is where the story really shines.

The Perfect Alibi has a plot deeply entrenched in the tradition of breaking down alibis and identities closely associated with Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts. Technically, the plot is as sound as a whistle and, as Venables states in the final chapter, every "fact and clue we needed was given us" like "the fairest possible detective story in the world" – complemented by a cleverly done, inverted alibi-trick. There is, however, a problem with this cleverly constructed solution. Nobody ever asks that one obvious question or considers it as a possible scenario. There are features of the case that warranted that question to be asked, but Sprigg conveniently ignored this weak spot until the end.

I think most readers will ask this question or consider it a possibility. When you do, the plot becomes a whole lot less labyrinthine and the ending is not as impressive when Venables, "swinging lazily in a hammock in the gardens of the Royal Palace at Iconia," has one of those flashes of inspiration. You still have to work out the finer details, but you, as the reader, have no excuse not to arrive at the correct solution long before Venables stumbles to it. However, to be completely fair to Sprigg, it probably didn't help I recently read three or four detective novels working with pretty much the same central plot-idea.

So, while the plot of The Perfect Alibi is technically sound, strewn with clues and populated with lively characters, the scheme is easily poked through and took the punch out of its ending. I would rank the book along side Sprigg's debut, Crime in Kensington (1933), which is also a well written, cleverly plotted and amusing detective story, but too easily solved by an observant armchair detective. Still recommended to everyone who enjoys the alibi-busting stories of Bush and Crofts.

This leaves me with only one more Sprigg mystery novel on my pile, but I'll probably save Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) for sometime next year.

11/8/19

Murder on Wheels (1932) by Stuart Palmer

An ever-popular setting of the traditional detective story is (public) transportation, mostly ships, trains and the occasional plane, but my previous read, Brian Flynn's Murder en Route (1930), centered on a rarely used means of transport – an impossible murder on top of open-decker motor-bus. This reminded me of another, somewhat unusual, transportation mystery novel that has been languishing on my pile for ages. I was surprised to discover how well the plot of that book synced up with Flynn's Murder en Route.

Stuart Palmer's Murder on Wheels (1932) is the second case of arguably the best spinster sleuth of the genre, Miss Hildegarde Withers, who made her first appearance in The Penguin Pool Murder (1931).

Murder on Wheels begins during rush-hour, "on the tag end of a dreary November afternoon," where an open blue Chrysler crashes and became "inextricably entangled" with the fender of a Yellow taxi, but the driver of the Crysler has disappeared from the car-wreck – which was witnessed by the astonished cab-driver. Al Leech tells the police he saw the driver "rise right up out of the seat," into the air, fly down the street backwards! Down the street, the body of a man is found with "a noose of twisted hempen rope" around his neatly broken neck.

Miss Withers and Inspector Oscar Piper were having a quiet cup of tea in a nearby restaurant when the traffic officer started blowing his whistle, which effectively drops this impossible murder, on Fifth Avenue, in their laps.

The victim is eventually identified as a member of an old, once moneyed, New York family, Laurie Stait, whose grandparents used to rate with the Vanderbilts and the Stuyvesants, but now they live on a greatly depreciated income in a "big four-story graystone tomb." Laurie lived their with most of his closest relatives: his twin brother, Lewis, a frightened cousin and a dotty aunt who loves thriller movies, Hubert and Abbie. And living in an impossibly cluttered attic-room, is the 90-year-old grandmother to the twins, Mrs. Strait, whose only companion is a centenarian parrot. A fat, featherless monstrosity with the vocabulary of a piss drunk, foul-mouthed pirate. She lives like a recluse because she got away with murder in the late 1800s.

Naturally, there's a woman involved, Dana Waverly, who was engaged to one of the brothers, but loved the other and she has overprotective brother, Charles – a similar relation/motive arises from a link with a traveling rodeo show. So here we have all the ingredients for one of those typical, top-notch American detective stories from the 1930s. Something along the lines of Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of X (1932) and The American Gun Mystery (1933). But why did it linger on my pile for so long?

Back in 2011, I bought the brand new edition of Murder on Wheels from the now sadly shuttered Rue Morgue Press, but, around the same time, someone posted a discouraging review – chiding the book for its unoriginal and transparent plot. I've to agree that the play on the false-identity trope and the trick for the impossible hanging in the middle of traffic hardly posed a challenge to the reader, but, technically speaking, the overall plot is a masterly done piece of art. 

A plot comprising of many bigger and smaller moving parts that provide some originally handled side-puzzles. Such as what happened to the missing billfold and a surprise wedding, but Palmer saved the best for last. A second, equally bizarre murder is committed very late in the book and the explanation is an inventive, if pulpy, inversion of the locked room mystery with a cruel twist tacked on at the end. Even better is how the circumstances of this second death helped prove one of "the weirdest alibi" Miss Withers and Piper have ever run across.

Yes, Palmer failed to completely pull the wool over the reader's eye, but Murder on Wheels is hardly unoriginal. I even think the apparently cliched plot-thread about identities was cleverly handled, because the solution played out slightly different than you might first expect from the opening chapters and found the hanging-trick interesting – which came with an illustration that was (accidentally) scrambled in the RMP edition. Funnily enough, the trick not only links Murder on Wheels to Flynn's Murder en Route, but Palmer's solution was a variation on the faulty explanation I imagined for the impossible murder on the open-decked bus. I truly had no idea these two books would sync up so nicely.

So, on a whole, I can hardly claim Murder on Wheels is one of Palmer's greatest mystery novels, like The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933), The Green Ace (1950) and Nipped in the Bud (1951), but labeling it as entirely cliched and uninspired is a little unfair – as there are dashes of originality throughout the story. Palmer handled the various plot-threads with great skill, considering this was only his second novel, which all tied nicely together. So the only real problem is that it was not quite good enough to fool any seasoned armchair detective. This is why I can only recommend Murder on Wheels to readers who are either somewhat new to the genre or have already been charmed by Palmer, Miss Withers and Oscar Piper in their later outings. And Murder on Wheels has charm to spare!

11/5/19

Murder en Route (1930) by Brian Flynn

Back in February, I reviewed a Dutch short story, Anne van Doorn's "De bus die de mist inging" ("The Bus That Went Into the Fog," 2018), in which a shady American is inexplicably strangled aboard a regio bus (regional bus) on a cold, foggy winter day in February – because neither the passengers or the bus driver heard or saw the murder happen! Ninety years ago, Brian Flynn wrote a detective novel with a similar premise, but with an entirely different explanation.

Murder en Route (1930) is the eighth entry in the Anthony Bathurst series and begins on a cold, wet and "unutterably cheerless" night in mid-November that coated the coastal line in a thick fog.

The last motor-bus of the day is the 8.33 from Estings to Raybourne. A one-hour, fourteen-mile journey in an open-decker and the conductor, Frederick Whitehead, has began to notice the same man boarded the bus every night, for a month, at the exact same spot – who always traveled on the open top "no matter what the elements is like." And this rainy night was no different. Whitehead had not been off his platform and can account for every second of the journey, but only the mysterious passenger had ascended the staircase to the open-top of the bus. There he stayed, all alone, until the bus reached its destination. But he never descended that closely observed staircase. So, when Whitehead goes up to investigate, he discovers that the bus was "a blinking hearse" carrying a corpse!

The rain-soaked man is sitting in one of the seats and slumped to floor when the conductor touched his shoulder, but the man had no died of heart attack or exposure to the elements. There were the tell-tale marks of strangulation on his throat. But how did his murderer get on, and off, the bus without being seeing by the conductor or any of the passengers. By the way, the response of the bus driver to the discovery of a murdered man ("why can't people die in their homes—decently?") is why I love the English.

Reverend Parry-Probyn is the Rector of Kirve St. Laudus and the uncle of the wife of the Divisional Surgeon and has recently made his acquaintance with "a brilliant investigator," named Anthony Bathurst, who's greatly admired by the rector's son, Michael – immediately gets called upon to help the local police. Inspector Curgenven accepts his help with the rector and his son only to willing to lend a helping hand.

Firstly, I've to note here something John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, touched upon in his own review and that's the weird narrative structure of the story. The story begins in the third person, but Chapter IV introduces manuscript excerpts written in the first-person by the Rector Parry-Probyn. And he was not present for all of the scenes he described. So you get this unusual mixture of first-and third person narration that can be a little distracting, but hardly detracts from the clever plot and the diligent detective work. And Bathurst is in fine form here.

In the even earlier novels, like The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927) and The Murders Near Mapleton (1929), Bathurst played the role of Great Detective like a stage-actor with very little of his own personality bleeding through the performance. Bathurst is still the great, oracular detective in Murder en Route, but something was different this time. This time he was what you get, if you gave Philo Vance a soul.

The victim is identified as an American, Claude Sutcliff, who confided in his landlady that he offended a native tribe, in South America, "over some treasure-hunt" and they were determined "to get even with him" before they were finished – which is why he moved to the Old Country. Bathurst methodically extract the truth behind the murder by closely examining the body, which showed strange wounds on the wrists and peculiar smudge on the back of his overcoat. The fatal bus ride is reconstructed and this leads to a photographic clue as well as a link between the seemingly impossible murder on the top of the bus and the disappearance of an American fruit farmer in the City of Liverpool. This is merely a glimpse of a very involved, clockwork-like plot with many moving parts. Something that could have easily become a complete mess in the hands of a lesser plotter.

A plot with an original, well-clued and imaginative impossible crime with a surprisingly simplistic explanation considering how complex and involved the overall plot is.

I roughly figured out the general idea behind the trick very early on in the story, but completely misinterpreted the wrist-wounds and the smudge on the back. So my idea of the impossible murder played out a little different than the more practical explanation Flynn imagined. A simplistic and practical solution that logically fitted in the overall scheme of the plot. However, the best aspect of the plot and solution is undoubtedly the way in which Flynn played with multiple identities, which came together through the blinkin' cussedness of things to form a truly baffling crime.

I've only read five of Flynn's earlier novels, but he appears to have been to the false-identity what Christopher Bush was to the unbreakable alibi and John Dickson Carr to the locked room mystery. Flynn tackled the problem of identity with the same kind of ingenuity as Bush's cast-iron alibis and Carr's impossible crimes. So I've got something new to obsess about.

Overall, Murder en Route is a solidly plotted and fascinating detective novel about a victim who's as elusive as his murderer, but all of the clues are there for you to pick up and put together, if you can – making it my favorite entry in the series so far. Highly recommended!