8/20/18

Hard Cheese (1971) by Ulf Durling

Ulf Durling is a Swedish physician, psychiatrist and a teacher of psychiatry, who became the director of the Danderyd hospital north of Stockholm, but during the early 1970s he penned a detective novel, Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971), which earned him the Swedish Academy of Crime Fiction's award for best debut – initiating his secondary career as a mystery writer. After sixteen novels and nearly a hundred short stories, the SAFC honored Durling with the title of Grand Master.

A 2014 short story, "Fallfrukt" ("Windfall"), was printed in the November, 2016, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and collected a year later in The Realm of the Impossible (2017). The short story was better than expected, for a Swede, but the solution arguably disqualified it as an impossible crime story. However, it inspired me to finally toss Hard Cheese on my towering pile. Something I had been reluctant to do before.

One of my early forays into the genre was the work of two Swedish crime writers, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, but they were so awful that I probably would have abandoned the detective story, there and then, had it not been for A.C. Baantjer and Agatha Christie – who had already shown me a very different kind of detective story. You can blame Sjöwall and Wahlöö for my unapologetic hostility to the modern, character-drenched crime novel during my years as an apprentice detective fanboy.

So how did Durling fare? Do we still have to scrub Sweden from the map for their part in the Scandinavian noir or did I find a pinprick of hope in Durling? Well, let's find out.

Hard Cheese was translated by Bertil Falk and published by John Pugmire's Locked Room International. I suppose the plot is best described, on the surface, as a blend of Leo Bruce's Case for Three Detectives (1936), John Dickson Carr's The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) and Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996).

The story has three narrators with each narrative answering questions from the previous section, or raising new ones, which reminded me of the structure of The Arabian Nights Murder and two of the narrators belong to an intimate circle of friends – who meet weekly to discuss and dissect their favorite detective stories. Something that obviously reminded me of Bloodhounds, but the humorous first part of the story, with the three amateur detectives taking a wack at the case, recalled Case for Three Detectives.

Johan Lundgrun, Carl Bergman and Dr. Efraim Nylander are the three elderly men who hold weekly meetings to discuss detective stories and the first part is narrated by Lundgrun.

During the 35th meeting of the group, in 1969, Bergman eagerly told Lundgrun and Nylander that he had a visit from his son, Detective Sergeant Gunnar Bergman, who indiscreetly told him the particulars of a case he's currently investigating – a case with all the trappings of a fictional locked room mystery! One that happened in their own, small town backyard. A shabby guest, Axel Nilsson, is found dead in his room of a seedy, second-rate hotel, the Little Boarding-House, after the cleaning-lady was unable to enter the room. The door was battered down and inside they found Nilsson's lifeless body: lying fully dressed beside the bed and evidence at the scene suggests he had his the back of his head on the footboard. Someone had emptied the content of a bottle of wine over the body. Nevertheless, it still appears to be a case of an unfortunate (drinking) accident, because the door was locked from the inside with the key sticking in the door lock and the windows were closed. So, if this was murder, the primary problem is how the murderer entered and left a locked hotel room.

I think this first narration is easily the best part of Hard Cheese. Lundgrun, Bergman and Nylander do a lot of woolgathering, constructing and demolishing numerous false solutions, which were all modeled around the fragmentary information given to Carl. So, naturally, they come up short, but I love a good piece of amateurish armchair detective work and this section of the story had it in spades.

The second part of the story, narrated by Detective Sergeant Gunnar Bergman, is more grounded in facts and has him tangling with the shady proprietor of the Little Boarding-House, Mr. Blom – who has found a lucrative way to make certain guests pay more for their room. Another character Bergman has to deal with is a local drunk and petty criminal, Algot Cronlund, who turned out to hold the key to the problem of the locked door. I thought this was an interesting contrast to the previous part with the three armchair detectives attempting to crack the case.

Sadly, this second part also had shades of the troubled, Scandinavian policeman. Bergman is not an alcoholic with a broken marriage, but his children can be a handful and he's very aware of his own (intellectual) short comings. He appears to be not entirely happy about his life, the town he lives in or his ramshackle car. This is why I, like Dr. Gideon Fell, prefer the chuckle of the Great Hanaud or the deadly bells of Fenchurch St. Paul over the hum of everyday life.

The third and last part is narrated by one of three detective readers, Dr. Nylander, who rapidly solves the case based on the character and backstory of the victim, the bottle of wine and a wedge of cheese that had been found in the waste basket of the hotel room. Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with the solution.

Firstly, the locked door of the hotel room began as the key problem of the plot, but the second half pretty much dismissed this aspect as irrelevant with an incredibly simple explanation. Something I could easily forgive, because Case for Three Detective pulled a similar gag. Once the titular detectives had paraded their intricate, but incorrect, solutions around, Sgt. Beef solved the case with a plain, simple explanation – reached by routine detection and commonsense. And it worked. During was unable to replicate the same effect here as the story lacked in the fair play department and the identity of the murderer has its own issues, which is linked to the lack of fair play. But the most galling was the postscript.

If you forget about the locked room angle, the murder method is absolutely ingenious. A trick you hope to find when opening the pages of a detective novel, but the pointless postscript trampled all over it.

Hard Cheese started out as a parody of the detective story, but Durling ensured that as little of the actual detective story reached the finish line and tripped the best part on the last page of the book! So this made Hard Cheese more of a deconstruction than a parody of the detective story and that approach just doesn't work for me. I'm too much of a purist for that.

On a whole, I did not dislike Hard Cheese, on the contrary, it was an enjoyable read and really liked the first part of the story, but you should not expect it to make my best-of list for 2018. 

On the upside, I'm now completely up-to-date with LRI. I've read everything they've published. Even Derek Smith's Model for Murder (1952)! So I hope, by the time this post goes live, Pugmire has announced a new title. I need my regular locked room fix!

8/16/18

The Godless Man (2002) by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty's The Godless Man (2002) is the second entry in the Telamon Triology, bookended by The House of Death (2001) and The Gates of Hell (2003), which tracks the ordeals of a talented physician, named Telamon, who acts as one of the "most trusted counselors and confidants" of his childhood friend, Alexander the Great – who were both tutored as boys by Aristotle in the Groves of Mieza. Alexander has a personality and god-like ambitions that tend to be a test to the methodical, level-headed physician.

The Godless Man is set in 336 BC and Alexander has destroyed the Persian armies at the battle of Granicus, capturing city after city, but the hungry Lion of Macedon is on the prowl for a port. So he took the city of Ephesus. A Greek city rife with deep-seethed rivalries, political intrigue and bloodletting.

Ephesus was a vassal of the Persian Empire and the elites of the city, the Oligarchs, supported the Persians, but they faced in strong opposition in the Democrats and their feud is closely-linked to an apparently never-ending string of murders – basically ancient gang warfare. When the city falls to Alexander, the Democrats are given an opportunity to purge the Oligarchs. Men, women and children are dragged to the market square, tried and summary executed. The bodies are stacked high when Alexander puts a stop to the bloodletting, because he wants to leave a peaceful, unified city behind as he marches deeper into enemy territory. There is, however, a problem.

A group of mighty Oligarchs, lead by Demades, took refuge inside a fortified shrine, the Temple of Hercules. A holy sanctuary not even a lynch-mob dared to violate.

Alexander promised the Oligarchs that they were allowed to leave unscathed and "not a hair on their heads would be harmed," but the whole group, including a Macedonian guard, is massacred during their final night inside the shrine and evidence suggests most of the victims were trampled to death – as if a wild horse had entered the shrine and "stamped on each man as he lay asleep." Another body was blackened by fire and the last one appeared to have been scratched to death. However, the most baffling aspect of this veritable holocaust is that the shrine was only guarded by Alexander's soldiers, inside and out, but hermetically sealed.

The Temple of Hercules is an ancient and simple structure: a heavily beamed roof supported by columns on both sides with small windows that are high and narrow. The main entrance is sealed and guarded, while the rear door is bolted from the inside and sealed from the outside with Alexander's insignia in purple blobs of wax. So how could eight men be brutally murdered inside a sealed shrine that was ringed by soldiers?

However, this is not the only impossibility to occur inside the Temple of Hercules on the night of the murders.

The shrine housed a holy relic, a silver vase, which reputedly holds a earthenware jar containing some of the poison which killed Hercules. A poison known as Hydra's Blood. The silver vase is kept on a stone plinth, firmly rooted in a bed of concrete, protected by "a circular pit" of glowing charcoal and the heat from it's quite intense, but, when they entered the temple, the vase was taken from its plinth and moved to a dark recess of the temple – while the bed of charcoal was still glowing. So who and why moved the vase, but, more importantly, how did this person cross the circular pit. On the surface, this impossibility strongly resembles the problem of the stolen crown from A Murder in Thebes (1998), protected by a pit of red-hot charcoal, but The Godless Man had the better solution of the two. I think this was actually the best of the three locked room problems in this story.

A third (impossible) murder occurs very late in the book, when a character apparently hanged himself in a bolted writing room with shuttered windows, but the explanation is pretty basic.

I don't believe the solution to the massacre inside the sealed temple will set any locked room enthusiast on fire, but the trick was better than I anticipated. I found the presence of a uniformed soldier among the victims incredibly suspicious and, when the dark recesses were mentioned, I began to suspect an extra person had been present in the shrine the whole time – clad in the tunic of a Macedonian soldier. This person simply blended in with the guards when they entered the temple to discover the massacre. However, the actual explanation turned out to be a little more involved and slightly more original than my initial idea. I really appreciate that in a locked room mystery.

As you can probably guess by now, this is only a fraction of the overall plot and bodycount. The slaughter of eight men at the temple is supposed to be the work of a Persian spy, The Centaur, who took his name from a society of Ephesian assassins, The Centaurs. The original group had been wiped out, but The Centaur took their bloody mantle and left behind a trail of blood in the city.

A well-known courtesan is murdered along with her porter, maid and a house-guest. An important witness is burned to death in his prison cell and then there's the previously mentioned locked room murder, which was staged as a suicide, but the story also had a sub-plot and involves a face from Alexander's past, Leonidas – an army veteran who loves to drink and dreamed of finding lost treasure. One day, Leonidas is found face down in the dirty pond of the House of Medusa. A gloomy, ghost-infested place of ill-repute. This plot-thread is resolved halfway through the story and the answer unearths yet another mass murder in Ephesus. Telamon is tasked by Alexander with piecing all these puzzles, within puzzles, together.

The Godless Man was far more focused on the plot than The House of Death, which was more of a historical thriller with an origin story, but, while the plot has some good (locked room) ideas, it did not entirely measure up as a proper, fair play detective story. A lack of proper clues made it look as if the murderer was picked at random and made for a slightly underwhelming revelation, but liked all of the impossible crime material. The impossible crimes are, unquestionably, the best bits of the plot. So, on a whole, this was still a good read. However, I can only really recommend it to long-time readers of Doherty and locked room enthusiasts.

8/13/18

The Art of Deduction: "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" (1959) by Theodore Mathieson

Theodore Mathieson was an American schoolteacher from Oregon, who taught in the public high schools of California, but turned to writing during the late 1950s and published a number of novels, which include the historical mystery The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961) and two juvenile detectives featuring The Sleuth Club – entitled The Door to Nowhere (1964) and The Sign of the Flame (1964). So those titles have been jotted down for my future explorations of the juvenile mystery genre.

Mathieson also penned a score of short stories that were published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The first of these short stories, "Captain Cook, Detective," spawned a twelve-part series of historical standalone stories starring famous figures from history as detective. Galileo, Alexander the Great, Hernando Cortez, Alexandre Dumas and Florence Nightingale were all fitted with a caped mantle and deerstalker hat by Mathieson.

The most-well known and frequently anthologized story from this "Great Detectives" series is "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective," originally published in the January, 1959, issue of EQMM, in which Da Vinci is tasked with finding an explanation for an impossible murder – committed in front of witnesses by an apparently invisible killer. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, recently reviewed The Devil and Ben Franklin and mentioned that this short story was described Mike Ashley, a prolific anthologist, as "one of the most ingenious" of the series with "its step-by-step unravelling of a seemingly impossible crime." So I decided to take down one of the anthologies with this story and see how good this story really is.

I read "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" in Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits (1993) and takes place on a late spring afternoon in 1516 when Da Vinci, now in his sixties, has left Florence to life in France.

Da Vinci is in the favor of the King of France, Francis I, but "the regal French beauty," the Queen, has never liked him. One afternoon, Da Vinci is sketching in a rose garden when a messenger from the Queen summons him to come to Amboise at once. Da Vinci is brought to an amphitheater where "a fine demonstration of marching formations" by "troops from the Netherlands, from Spain, and from Scotland," but, as the exhibition closed, Monsieur Philip Laurier, approached the empty center of the field – to blow a trumpet signaling the end. But when he began to raise his trumpet to his lips, Laurier began to stagger and crumple.

The witnesses who saw this happen caught the glimpse of a knife-hilt as he dropped to the ground, but "the knife could only have been thrown by someone standing at the level of the arena floor." Philip was the only one who stood in the empty arena! Queen is very anxious that this problem is solved as soon as possible.

I think "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" is better written than plotted. Not that the plot was bad, not at all, but the clues were clumsily handled. Mathieson deserves praise for sticking to the principle of fair play and placed as many as the short story form would allow in the hands of the reader. However, they all stuck out like rusty nails. Norris has criticized John Russell Fearn's clues tend to stick out like sore thumbs, but, compared to this story, Fearn has the subtlety of John Dickson Carr. I initially felt underwhelmed by the explanation for the invisible murderer until thinking about it a little more. The trick gels perfectly with the military background and the period in which the story is set works like a red herring, because the principle idea behind the impossible stabbing is associated with modern warfare. A similar piece of out-of-time misdirection was cleverly used by Carr in Fire, Burn! (1957). I needed some convincing, but ended up liking the impossible crime trick.

So, all things considered, this was not a bad story at all, either as a historical mystery or an impossible crime story, but the clumsily handling of the clues keeps this one from a first place. Nevertheless, I find it surprising that this often anthologized story never found its way in any of the specialized locked room anthologies. The detective, plot and setting are certainly original enough to be included in a line-up.

Anyway, my next post is going further back into the post when I'll be looking another of Paul Doherty's historical locked room mysteries. It's like the best of two worlds!

8/9/18

This is the House (1945) by Shelley Smith

Nancy Bodington was an English novelist who, under the penname of "Shelley Smith," wrote fifteen novels of crime, detection and suspense in "the malice domestic and "badass biddy" subgenres" – debuting with Background for Murder (1942) and ending with A Game of Consequences (1978). I likely would have remained ignorant of Smith's detective-fiction had it not been for Martin Edwards and John Norris regularly praising her work to the skies and back.

Edwards described Smith as "a writer of genuine ability and intelligence" and Norris has been "completely under the spell of this fine writer." They certainly aroused my curiosity with enticing reviews of Death Stalks a Lady (1945) and An Afternoon to Kill (1953), but, as to be expected with these two reviewers, the books they discuss tend to be hard to get by and Smith was no exception – until very recently, that is. Over the past two years, Endeavour Media reissued all of Smith's crime fiction as ebooks and can now be easily accessed by everyone.

So I decided to finally take a crack at one of her novels and picked one of her more traditionally-structured detective novels.

This is the House (1945) was described by Norris in his 2016 review as "a Carribean homage to the British claustrophobic village murder mystery" and the description of the plot struck me as Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935) as perceived by Christianna Brand. Well, I was not far off the mark!

The backdrop of the story is the most southerly island of the Windward Isles, Apostle Island, which has a dusty, ramshackle capital, Wigtown, that's overlooked by the titular house on the mountaintop – which is, strictly speaking, not a house. The place is nothing more than "a plain, square, two-storied villa" standing within the walls of an abandoned, 16th century Portuguese fortress. A fortress that had began to crumble into "a picturesque ruin," but Antoine Jacques, Premier Justice of Apostle Island, used the place as a foundation for his modern villa.

Jacques settled down in his fortified villa with his family, but tragedy struck when his wife, Julia, was struck by a crippling illness that left her almost completely paralyzed. Julia is a living, bedridden corpse who can barely move or speak and she wishes to die in order to end the suffering. A death wish that came true when a visitor came to the house.

Quentin Seal is a writer of "surprisingly intelligent" detective stories with a high reputation among "the more sober and scholarly fans" of the genre and has come to the island for a well-deserved holiday, but a friend has given him a letter of introduction to the Premier Justice of Apostle Island, Monsieur Jacques. Normally, Seal refused these banal entries in polite society, but the friend who gave him the letter promised his visit would be an interesting one and he was not wrong, because, when he climbed the seemingly endless steps leading up to the house, Seal makes an unsettling discovery – Julia lies dead in her room. On the surface, it appears Julia had been accidentally suffocated when the family cat had entered her room and had fallen asleep on her face.

However, the postmortem examination failed to find any cat hairs or fur in either the nose or mouth of the victim. So the doctor concludes Julia had simply died from a second stroke, which was to be expected, before the cat had entered her room and the jury entered a verdict of death by misadventure. An open-and-shut case, but, as Seal becomes involved with the Jacques family, he observes the ugly aftermath of Julia's death. An aftermath that turns out to be a prelude for a second, unmistakable murder.

Raoul Jacques is the only child of Antoine and Julia, an 18-year-old Lothario, who's furious when he learns that his mother has left all of her money to the church and holds Father Xavier personally responsible – accusing him of having taken advantage of his position to worm his way into her will. Raoul is egged on and encouraged by his depraved aunt, Miss Hattie Brown, who believes in "wickedness for its own sake." Father Xavier suffers a lot of slings and arrows at the hands of these two devils. The relationship between aunt and nephew, especially after the death of Julia, becomes a bit creepy at times.

Then there are the people who live in the house or are, in some way, connected to the people who live there. Such as Miss Brown's secretive secretary, Prudence Whitaker, who develops an unusual relationship with a vagrant beachcomber, Boris Borodin. Lastly, you have the bailiff of the estate, John Foley, along with his gossipy wife, Evelyn.

One of these characters is fatally knifed in a usually unoccupied bathing-hut and is found, partially undressed, on a shabby, chintz-covered bunk-bed, which is very suggestive and the answer to this aspect of the plot was definitely very daring for the time – resulting in a sequence of events that would probably have shocked some readers at the time. This murder and its use of sex is what made Norris label the book as "one of the earliest transgressive detective novels." However, I remember a mystery novel from the 1930s that was as risque as this one and believe it was John Dickson Carr's The Four False Weapons (1937), but it might have just as easily been yet another novel from the thirties.

Seal is asked by the family to use his talent as a professional plotter to assist the local police in their investigation and the police on the island is represented in the figure of Brigadier Napoleon Orage, a black policeman, who must be a nod towards Arthur W. Upfield's half-aboriginal policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte. I refuse to believe that the given name of the Brigadier is a mere coincidence. Anyway...

Seal plays his role as amateur detective to perfection and, towards the end, gathers all of the suspects in a room where, one by one, he begins to eliminate them before revealing the true identity of the murderer. I think this gradual process of elimination by showing why most of the suspects couldn't have committed the murders is a very satisfying way of lifting the veil. Particularly when the author has conceived a cunning plot with a cleverly positioned clues and misdirection, which was definitely the case here. All of the clues were present and the plot was very clever. The death of Julia Jacques turned out to be a canny, medical-based murder on par with the central murder from Brand's Green for Danger (1944) and part of the murderer's scheme reflected a certain the plot-element from Roscoe's Murder on the Way! So my (instinctive) comparison with Brand and Roscoe was right on the money.

This is the House is a first-class detective novel with a bodacious plot and written in the best tradition of the (alternative) Crime Queens, which comes especially recommended to mystery readers who're enamored with the work of Christianna Brand. You can bet this title is going to appear on my best-of list of 2018 and I'll try to return to Smith before this year draws to a close.

8/6/18

The House of Death (2001) by Paul Doherty

Back in 2016, I reviewed Paul Doherty's splendid A Murder in Thebes (1998), originally published as by "Anna Apostolou," which is one of only two titles in a short-lived series that began with A Murder in Macedon (1997) and are set during the rise of Alexander the Great, but Doherty rebooted the series in the early 2000s – penning three additional titles that are collectively known as the Telamon Triology. I'll be looking at these three historical mysteries this month.

There is, however, one difference this time around: I'm not going to read The House of Death (2001), The Godless Man (2002) and The Gates of Hell (2003) back-to-back, but spread them out all over August. My reason for this is that the first entry in this reboot showed that this series probably doesn't lend itself to binge reading. So I'll be interspersing my reading of the Telamon Triology with some mystery novels that have recently been added to the big pile.

This triology (sort of) continues where the previous, two-part series ended and the events from those earlier novels play a not insignificant role in the shadows of The House of Death.

Only difference between the two series is that the detective-characters from the first two novels, Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus, were replaced by a physician, Telamon, who is a childhood friend of Alexander and they spend their early days together in the Groves of Mieza – where they were both tutored by no less a figure than the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Telamon is a completely fictional characters, but one who was modeled on an actual historical figure, Philip the Doctor, who's associated with Alexander.

The House of Death takes place in the Spring of 334 BC and Alexander the Great has amassed his troops at Sestos, poised to cross the Hellespont, which is the crossroads between Greece and Asia, where he plans to take the sprawling Persian Empire of the King of Kings, Darius III. And march "to the edge of the world" to "win the vindication of the gods."

However, Darius III and Lord Mithra are already plotting the downfall of the Macedonian upstart. General Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek renegade, has been attracted by the Persians to fight Alexander III of Macedon, because they reasoned that "it takes a wolf to fight a wolf," but the Persians also have dangerous spy in the Macedonian camp, "Naiphat" – who's murdering people left and right! Particularly those who are important to Alexander when it comes to entering Asia.

One of Alexander's scout is found at the foot of a cliff with a winged dagger, of Celtic origin, sticking out of his body and a scrap of paper tightly clutched in his dead hand, which had a quote from the Delphic Oracle scrawled on it. Alexander's father had been assassinated with a Celtic dagger and, in combination with the Delphic Oracle, the murderer is obviously aiming at provoking memories, stirring guilt and playing upon Alexander's superstition. An attempt strengthened when two of the murders appear to have been of the impossible variety. 
 
A young handmaid, a Thessalian, who had been send across the Hellespont by her people to go to the city of Troy, in order to appease the goddess Athena, has apparently lost her wits and is brought to Alexander for questioning, but all he can do is hand her over to his friend, Telamon – who treats her with a sleeping drought that will allow her mind and body to rest. And chase out the phantoms. They leave her "in a closely guarded tent" with "its leather sheets lashed tightly together," only a ghost could get through that, but the unknown murderer manages to poison the maiden. This miracle repeated later in the story when Critias, the map-maker, has his throat cut in his tent, which was also guarded and tightly lashed together.

These sealed tent murders have fairly simple explanations and the throat-cutting barely qualifies as an impossible crime, but, simple as it may be, I liked the poisoning-trick. Simple, but workable. Sadly, you can guess where and when the trickery was done, because the identity of the murderer is pretty obvious.

I think the simplistic detective-elements are the only weakness of The House of Death. Doherty rebooted this series and therefore not only had to retell Alexander's story, but also had reintroduce a new series-character, Telamon, who had his own back-story that needed to be told. A second back-story is that of a secondary-character, named Cassandra, who Telamon rescued from the slave pens and took her on as his medical assistance. And then there's the impending battle between Alexander's forces and Memnon's mercenaries.

The House of Death is more of a historical thriller with an origin story at its heart than a proper detective story, but Doherty knows how to spin a yarn around historical events and the result is an engrossing historical novel. So now that the introductions are out of the way, I have good hopes for the last two titles in this series and have read some good things about the second title. I'll get around that one after my next read.

So, yes, this one definitely comes recommended, but only to readers who're already more than familiar with Doherty's work. Readers who are new to him might want to look somewhere else first.

On a final, semi-related note: I seriously suspect A Murder in Thebes and The House of Death might have been (partially) inspired by John Dickson Carr grossly underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955). I think we can safely assume that Doherty is more than aware of Carr's historical (locked room) mysteries and Captain Cut-Throat would probably appeal to him the most, because the plot resembles so many of his own historical detective stories (i.e. an enigmatic murderer going around killing soldiers). So I can easily imagine he wanted to give his own spin to the bare bones premise of Captain Cut-Throat.

8/2/18

Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) by Rex Stout

Last month, I reviewed three war-themed novels by Christopher Bush, The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1941) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942), which together form a home front trilogy that put Ludovic Travers back in uniform and solved three murder cases within the ranks of the military – praised by Curt Evans as "the most notable series of wartime detective fiction" published during the Second World War. This trilogy reminded me of two excellent, but often overlooked, novellas by Rex Stout with a similar war-theme and plots. So I decided to revisit them to see if they stood up to re-reading. They absolutely did.

Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) collects these two novellas, entitled "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Booby Trap," which were originally published in The American Magazine.

These two novellas represent, in my opinion, the best the series has to offer, because not only are they very well-written, fast-paced and tightly plotted detective stories, but the societal upheaval of the war provided Stout with an opportunity to deviate from series' formula – allowing him to cast his series-characters in a different light. I think this brought out the best in both Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

An abridged version of "Not Quite Dead Enough" was first published in the December, 1942, issue of The American Magazine and begins with a meeting between Major Archie Goodwin and "the top mackaroo of United States Army Intelligence." They need Nero Wolfe "to work on a certain matter of great importance," but he flatly refused. So they want Goodwin to go and see him, because he's the only one who knows how to handle him. However, when Goodwin returns to that famous brownstone on West 35th Street, after being away for two months, he gets "the worst shock" of his live.

The dusty desks and stacks of unopened mail in the office made him fear that either Wolfe or Fritz had died, but when he entered the kitchen he became convinced that they were both dead. Pots and pans were dusty and had not been used for weeks, if not months. Goodwin only found a dish or oranges and cartons of prunes in the cupboard, while the refrigerator only held lettuce, tomatoes and a dish of applesauce, but when he went up to the roof-top greenhouse he finally finds one of the residents of the brownstone, Theodore Horstmann – an orchid-nurse who looks after Wolfe's prize collection. Goodwin learns from Horstmann that Wolfe and Fritz placed themselves on a rigorous training schedule, because they intend to enlist and fight in Europe. Just like Wolfe did in the First World War ("I didn't kill enough [Germans] in 1918").

So getting Wolfe back into the game, this time with the U.S. army as a client, is easier said than done. Luckily, Goodwin bumped into a familiar face on his way back to the brownstone.

Lily Rowan has a friend, Anne Amory, who's desperately needs sound advice. She had found out something about somebody and wanted to know what to do about it, but she refused to give any details. Amory lives in an apartment building with a "goofy assortment of specimens" and a roof-top pigeon coop, which plays a part in the murder committed there shortly after Goodwin gets involved. And he uses this murder in an ingenious, if risky, way to ensnare Wolfe.

However, this novella is not just about Goodwin luring Wolfe back into the game to start working for the army intelligence, but the plot surrounding the murder is arguably one of Stout's best. Stout is not a mystery writer known for his ingeniously constructed, maze-like plots that brim with clues. Dialogue and characters were his forte, but the plot here is as clever and devious as the best short stories or novellas by such American mystery writers as Ellery Queen and Edward D. Hoch with a cast-iron alibi and a shrewd piece of misdirection – which I have only seen once before in an impossible crime story. Combine this cunning plot with the wartime backdrop and the unusual circumstances of the series-characters, you have one of the richest and most rewarding stories in the entire Wolfe corpus. I can't recommend this story enough.

The second and last novella in this collection, "Booby Trap," made its first appearance in the August, 1944, issue of The American Magazine and is a direct sequel of "Not Quite Dead Enough."
 
Armed Services Edition

In the previous story, it was mentioned that the army wanted Wolfe to work on a matter of great importance and here it is revealed that the matter concerns the secrets entrusted to army of various industrial processes – a trust which is, according to an anonymous whistle-blower, "criminally abused." Some of these industrial secrets, without patent or copyright protection, are being betrayed to those "who intend to engage in post-war competition of industries involved." A dirty, underhanded business that could rob tens of millions of dollars from their rightful owners.

The anonymous letter writer also hinted that there might be more behind the accidental fall of Captain Albert Cross, of Military Intelligence, from the twelfth floor of the Boscombe Hotel in New York. A second death occurs shortly after the Wolfe meets with the military brass and this death is most definitely a murder: Colonel Ryder is blown to pieces in his office by "a new kind of grenade." Not only new in construction, but in its content. It is, however, never explained why these grenades were painted pink. I suppose this has something to do with them being test samples or something. Anyway...

Plot-wise, "Booby Trap" is not as intricately plotted or involved as "Not Quite Dead Enough," but the tense and brutal ending makes more than up for that.

I have seen Wolfe disposing of murderers before (e.g. Black Orchids, 1942) and would later do so again (e.g. In the Best Families, 1950), but never as brutal or remorseless as here. Wolfe psychically breaks the cowardly murderer and then forces this person to commit suicide with a pink grenade, which makes him comparable to H.C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune and Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley – who both played avenging angels in their respective series. The disposal of the murderer is justified here by the fact that the truth, if it came to light, would seriously harm the war effort. I guess all is fair in love and war.

Not Quite Dead Enough gathered two excellent novellas with one of them being a gemstone of the Wolfe corpus and the other ending the collection on a dark, but unforgettable, note.

I noted at the beginning of this post that these novellas are often overlooked, or even ignored, when it comes to lists of World War II mysteries. A list traditionally dominated by British mystery writers. I suppose this has to do with American detective novels from this period having the war play out in the distant background or have their plots diluted by spy material. However, this is not the case with these two closely-linked novellas and can stand with the best British wartime mysteries, which includes Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940), Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1944) and Christopher Bush's wartime trilogy. Unreservedly recommended!