7/20/14

Unlocking the Truth


"There must be hundreds of these types of cases. People with unexplained mysteries, impossible crimes... we could make a difference. Provide answers the police never could."
- Anthony Rhys 
A fellow mystery blogger and author-in-waiting, P.J. Bergman, asked if I was interested in reviewing the first stories from his upcoming novel, which is an invitation I usually decline. The requests for reviews, interviews and "blog tours" are commonly made for the type of crime novels I try to avoid like an oncoming freight train, but there was something different about this request. I just can't quite put my finger on it.

The Locked Room is the title bestowed on this upcoming novel and it'll consist of a number of short stories, which forms an overarching narrative and very similar in set-up to Roy Huggins' 77 Sunset Strip (1959) and Bill Pronzini's Scattershot (1982) – and there are more similarities. They all feature private eyes trying to get a grip on a typical, drawing room-style problem: locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes!

"Private Eye" is the first chapter of The Locked Room and begins with the delivery of a package to Anthony Rhys, which contains a manuscript written by his brother, Kenneth, about their days as private investigators. However, the first case is a solo-act for Kenneth, who was an army major stationed in Iraq in 2004 and there he experienced his first brush with the impossible. A marine, Private First Class Frank Allsop, was ambushed and separated from his squad during a patrol, and the culprits "then disappeared into thin air" – leaving the private dead in a sealed bathroom of a rundown hotel.

The setting and background color of "Private Eye," the American occupation of Iraq, reminded me of two other war-time mysteries (recently) reviewed on this blog: Douglas Clarke's "Flashlights," published in The Strand Magazine in May of 1918, and Franklyn Pell’s Hangman Hill's (1946). There's, of course, the impossible problem of the former and the depiction of the uglier, personal side of a war of the latter. In this case, it's illegal gambling, pot smoking and yellow journalism. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to care for the explanation, because (IMHO) any variation of this solution destroys the effect you wish to accomplish with an impossible crime. Oh, it was explained well enough, especially under those circumstances, but I don't like a good locked room story to end like that.

"Diagnosis Cancer" is the second chapter of the book, in which Kenneth is dishonorably discharged from the army and has returned to Los Angeles, but the nasty cough from the previous story continues and is dragged to the hospital – where Kenneth meets a very unusual patient. Sean Erikson is a "guest of the state" on alleged charges of money laundering (his words) and now the mob may be after him, which is why he wants to get back to prison. And for a good reason: despite being handcuffed to the bed and sedated in a guarded hospital room, Erikson manages to disappear like consciousness faced with a chloroform soaked rag. I surprised myself how quickly I stumbled to the correct solution, but that takes nothing away from the story. Plot-wise, it's a massive improvement on "Private Eye." There's just one thing that was missing when they eventually found Erikson, but, logically, should've been on him and it's something that should be easily available in a hospital.  

"Window of Opportunity" is the last of the three, pre-published chapters of The Locked Room and the Rhys brothers have officially entered the detective business. Kenneth completed the exam for his private investigators license and Anthony cobbled together a website, which leads Emma Burton to their doorstep. Burton's parents died in what the police has labeled a murder/suicide, but there are still unanswered questions about the lack of fingerprints on the knife that killed her mother or the angle of the apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound that ended her father's life – and there's a locked room angle to case when the murderer becomes apparent. The only problem is that the murderer has a wrought iron alibi. It's a locked room problem similar to the one in Michael Collins' "No One Likes the Be Played for a Sucker," collected in the anthology All But Impossible! (1981), in which the killer, not the victim, was locked in a room at the time of the murder. Bergman's explanation is far more ambitious, complex and, as far as I can tell, completely original. But what I really admired about these stories is how the personal woes of Kenneth are used to advance the plot, instead of cannibalizing the story with reflections on his mortality and missed opportunities, which is why they became detectives – cause there are hospital bills that need to be paid.

In summation, it was about time for a new mystery writer, specializing in locked rooms, to appear on the scene and The Locked Room is shaping up to be an interesting entry in this sub genre. It also made me realize that I should finally sit down (one of these days) and write one myself as well as finally reading those locked room mysteries Mike Grost wrote.

7/16/14

Dislodged from Fiction


"Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—"
- Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven, 1845)
In my previous post, "The Reader is Warned," I compiled a list of the worst locked room-and impossible crime novels read to date and I confessed it was nothing more than a filler post, but there was a serious plan to follow it up with a regular review.

Well, that plan was doomed to fail when I decided to read a 1965 reprint of a revised edition from the 1940s of Rupert T. Gould's Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1929), which aligns this reviews with the series of (filler) posts I made on real-life, "domesticated" locked room mysteries. You can find the five-part series here: I, II, III, IV and V. The extraordinary events, occurrences and problems described by Gould in Oddities took place on a far grander scale than the cutesy impossibilities, resembling a detective story, I collected from around the web.

However, I have to begin with the author himself, who, judging by the introduction written by Leslie Shepard, was somewhat of a character himself. Shepard described Gould as "a remarkably talented and versatile man," whose interests where as varied as it was impressive. Gould served in the Royal Navy, was a nautical and mechanical expert, dabbled in broadcasting and wrote books. It's also mentioned Gould spend twelve years on the cleaning and restoration of four historic marine chronometers made by John Harrison in the 18th century. Oh, and he had a room filled with ancient machines and a notice on the door reading: "HOME OF REST FOR AGED AND DECAYED TYPEWRITERS" and "NO DESERVING CASE EVER REFUSED ADMISSION." The research done in sourcing the origin of the stories, verifying statements from decades ago and fishing for documents in dusty, disarrayed archives is something to be admired when you realize it was done in a time historians in the distant future will simply refer to as B.G. (Before Google). There is, however, one downside: footnotes that can gobble up a good portion of the page and slow down your reading.

Anyhow, the Oddities collected in Gould's books differ from events and person still known today, especially among connoisseurs of the impossible crime story, while others were completely forgotten even at the time when the book was written – which is a shame. The legends and myths of 18th-and 19th century pop-culture were quite interesting, and how they were being discussed really didn’t differ all that much from how it goes today. Take this comment for example: "The Illustrated London News... took the question, and opened it columns to what proved to be quite an extensive correspondence," which Gould quoted extensively in the first chapter that looks at the devil's hoof-marks that appeared in 1855 after a heavy snowfall.

It Walks By Night!
The tracks appeared in several places and covered 40 to 100 miles. Even more curiously, the footprints appeared in the most of impossible and inaccessible of places, "on the tops of houses and narrow walls, in gardens and courtyards enclosed by high walls and palings, as well as in open field." While the locals where convinced the devil was walking among them, the newspapers allowed their readers to speculate on the nature of the beast. The popular opinion was the footprints were made by an animal, but nobody could quite agree on what kind of animals could've made the tracks and how. Suggestions ranged from birds, badgers and even an escaped kangaroo, because a hoax perpetrated on such a scale seems even more preposterous – and which would've been a minor miracle in its own right. The only solution I have to offer can be found in The Footprints of Satan (1950) by Norman Berrow, whose treatment of the Devonshire footprints resemble an obstacle course from hell, nevertheless, it's acceptable enough considering the scale of the problem. Well, I have one other solution, but that would only work in a smaller environment and explaining it would make this post an even longer drag to read that it already is. And did I mention the chapters are littered with maps, diagrams and sketches? There are chapters that actually read like a detective story, but without a proper and satisfying conclusion.

The next chapter is dedicated to the Chase Vault in the cemetery of Christ Church, located on the island of Barbados, which gained an unsavory reputation for the "restless coffins" that were stored inside the sealed crypt. In the early 1800s, the vault became the property of the Chase family and the first to be interred was a two-year-old girl on February 22, 1808 and four years later she was accompanied by her older sister – who reputedly suffered great abuse at the hands of her father, Colonel Thomas Chase. The problems began a month later with the suicide Colonel Chase and the vault had to be reopened again, which showed the coffins had been thrown about the place. It still took a couple of years and repeats of this event for the story to gain some traction, but the precautions taken to prevent trickery came straight out of a locked room mystery. The floor was covered with sand, the place searched for hidden entrances and the governor of Barbados, Lord Combermere, stamped the fresh concrete slab with his seal and "several witnesses added private marks of their own," but upon reopening the crypt the coffins had been thrown around again. Gould quotes from several personal accounts and letters, some found in family archives, and cited three more accounts of dancing coffins in England and the Baltic.

John Dickson Carr attempted to explain this phenomena in The Sleeping Sphinx (1947) and Paul Halter's take can be found in a short story, "The Dead Dance at Night," collected in The Night of the Wolf (2007), of which the former has the most convincing explanation. The popular opinion of today is apparently that the story is "historically dubious," but allows me to offer an alternative explanation. By all accounts, Colonel Chase wasn't a beloved man, who may've been (morally) responsible for his daughter's death and it's not unimaginable the idea of payback in combination with too much time can make a person very creative. Of course, this person couldn't have anticipated Chase would die before the big reveal. This person could've kept the legend for going just for the sake of it and I think having fun is a good enough motive in the Barbados of the early 1800s.

Oh, and the seal, private markings and the sand covered floor are worthless, if the vault isn't constantly guarded. There were months, sometimes even years, between opening and resealing the place, and the markings were pressed in a wet surface – making it possible to cast replicas with plaster for a new concrete slab. I admit it would probably take a craftsman and a handful of accomplishes to do the heavy work, but Chase probably wasn't too popular with the slaves either, considering how he treated his own children.

The fascinating title of the third chapter, "The Ships Seen on the Ice," recounts the aftermath of the ill-fated Artic expedition of Sir John Franklin in 1845 and the disappearance of the Erebus and Terror – alongside with their crew. However, the disappearance of both ships isn't the mystery, but whether or not they were observed a few years later. In April 1851, an English brig fell in with a very large ice-floe, off the Newfoundland Banks, and "on the floe were seen two tree-misted ships, not far apart, one heeled over and the other upright," but were they the abandoned Erebus and Terror? Gould again loads this chapter with passages from documents and witnesses' statements, but the search for both ships continues till this day. Interestingly, Erebus and Terror play a minor part in a latter chapter on unconfirmed or vanished islands. 


Gould's short write-up on the "Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu" can be used by mystery writers as a plot outline for a Theodore Roscoe-style locked room mystery and who wouldn't want to read an impossible crime story that would begin thus: "It is not generally known (and I do not state it as a fact) that certain American citizens possess the ability to quite their bodies for a short period and to travel about in the form of fire-flies for the purpose of assaulting their neighbors." There's a footnote explaining the American citizen/Filipinos line (read it yourself). Berbalangs are ghouls who need to feed on human flesh in order to survive and you can only protect yourself with cocoanut pearl, limejuice and slashing at it with a Kris – graves of loved ones can be protected with similar items. Gould recounts a story found in an article by Mr. Ethelbert Forbes Skertchley, published in the 1896 journal of Asiatic Society of Bengal, about a visit to Cagayan Sulu and encountering the fire-fly spirits after visiting their village, but the kicker comes when he pokes around the isolated house were moaning of Berbalangs grew fainter. This is what the text says: "...I tried the door, but found it fastened... putting my shoulder to the door, I gave a good push and it fell in." Yes, there’s a body in the locked house. If you'll pardon my pun, but all this needs is some fleshing out and a good solution, and you have an anthology staple! I have no solution to offer here, because I can't make bricks without clay.

There's another, genuine and confirmed locked room situation in the following chapter, "Orffyreus' Wheel," which was a self-moving wheel invented by Johann Bessler and first exhibited in 1712. The idea of "perpetual motion" in the 18th century seems even more unlikely today than it probably did back than, but, if Bessler was a charlatan (very likely), "he must have been an illusionist far superior to Buatier da Kolta or J.N. Maskelyne." And the greatest trick Orffyreus ever played was a grand locked room illusion! On November 12, 1717, the largest of the wheels so far was constructed in a room in Weissenstein Castle, Hesse-Kassel, "where there were no walls contiguous to it, and where one might go freely round it on every side." The wheel was thoroughly inspected and the room closed, secured and sealed, but every time the room was opened the seals were found intact and "wheel revolving with its accustomed regularity" – repeated over a period of several months. Bessler's detractors were many, calling shenanigans and questioned his sanity, and his maid even run away and confessed to have been one of the people who manually operated the wheel. Whatever may have been the case, I have taken a liking to Bessler. He never gained anything from his demonstrations, refusing to share the secret and destroying the machines, but it's admirable how many people he managed to piss off by simply making a wheel spin. The closest example from mystery fiction I can come up with is the self-playing harp in the locked music room from Paul Gallico's Too Many Ghosts (1961).

The Beast Must Die
Oddities officially enters the Twilight Zone in the chapter "Crosse’s Acari," which is the story of a British amateur scientist, Andrew Crosse, who, in 1836, conducted an experiment "looking for silicious formations, and acari appeared instead." Crosse named them Acarus electricus and they are six-and eight legged insects (depending on the size), which ruined the name of their creator, because playing god or something. They were eventually dismissed as mites/cross contamination, but it was still an engrossing piece and learned that there’s such a thing as True Sci-Fi. Well, at the very least, Crosse and the Acari were able to foil the plans of Professor Googengrime.

There remaining chapters deal with the previous mentioned islands, numbers and Nostradamus, but the only one that really captured my attention was the one about "The Wizard of Mauritius," the beacon-keeper of the Isle of France, "who saw in the air the vessels bound to the island long before they appeared in the offing," which is a story Gould excavated after coming across a throw-away line. The wizard managed to do this in 1784, but the exact method behind the new science of nauscopie has been lost. Almost forgot: there's the chapter about an unknown, lost planet, named Vulcan, which still remains a planet of fiction to this day.

All in all, Oddities is a fun and often-intriguing compendium of the kind of weird stories you'd expect from a planet like ours, even if it were somewhat dated. I also liked the many historical characters popping up, such as Conan Doyle and Jean-Paul Marat, and other historical tidbits. Gould plays the role of impartial auditor very well as he tests these stories on their merit and brings more sanity to them there reasonably should be.  

7/10/14

The Reader is Warned: A List of My Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries


"Do not freeze it in a block of ice and then stand on it to hang yourself, creating a baffling locked room mystery."
- Jon Stewart (on one of the no-no's of the impossible crime genre)  
My two-part compendium posts of favorite locked room mysteries, "The Novels" and "Short Stories," continue to be the most popular items on this blog and while they could benefit from being rewritten, I decided to compile another list.

However, there's a slight difference with this best-of list: it's a compilation of notable examples of locked room mysteries that managed to be profoundly disappointing or turned out to be dull wastes of time There are even one or two I consider to be an abomination upon the genre itself, but let's judge them down from the top.

Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd: An Entertainment (2006)

Keep 'Em Under Lock & Key!
Cynically promoted as a warm, cozy send-up of Agatha Christie and the 1930s-style drawing-and locked room mystery, but the kind of love Adair dishes out to the classical whodunit is that of an abusive spouse. The book is telling the mystery genre it's has gotten old and fat, while it pinches it side fat and politely enquires when it plans on finally dying. That's the story in a nutshell and the locked room (solution) wasn't anything special, which may have been borrowed from an Edogawa Rampo story. This is the only detective novel in which I rooted for the killer to take out the detective.

Willy Corsari's De misdaad zonder fouten (The Faultless Crime, 1927)

The overconfident title of this debut novel is misleading, because the plot has more holes than Pablo Escobar on a rooftop in Medellin – which is the reason why I shied away from Willy Corsari for years. I remember the plot revolving around a man with a broken neck found inside his locked home, but the story (almost) reads like an anti-detective story as twins, sleepwalkers and other clichés tag each other in-and out. The final "twist" was just embarrassing.

Joseph Bowen's The Man Without a Head (1933)

I was able to find only one redeeming quality in Bowen's sole effort at writing a mystery novel: he genuinely wanted to write a baffling detective story, in which the reader could engage the writer, the detective and the criminal in a battle-of-wits. Unfortunately, the story of the decapitated miser in his sealed, ramshackle home in a sleepy village in New Mexico was poorly written and the plot borrowed heavily from the Sherlock Holmes canon. The solution for the locked front door was routine.

Maurice B. Dix's Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934)

This book was penned and published smack in the middle of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but the plot was swamped in retired tropes, tired-old clichés and pre-conceived notions non-mystery fans have of 1920s detective story – shoehorned into one novel. Dix fluffed it all up with some smart aleck dialogue, but the only fun was figuring out an alternative solution for the locked room murder of P.C. Brown (which I posted in my review).

Paul Doherty's The Assassins of Isis (2004)

I love Paul Doherty as an author of well-written, atmospheric historical novels that are complemented with a good deal of imagination to provide intrigue for the mystery aspect of his stories, which often includes an impossible crime. Dorothy isn't in the same league as John Dickson Carr and Ed Hoch, but they're usually good enough. The Assassins of Isis is a glaring exception to this rule: there's an interesting question to be answered how a bag full of snakes could be smuggled to the General’s rooftop terrace, but I preferred my solution to this locked room problem to the dull one that was given. However, the biggest problem is that the book entombs and hides its one good idea better than the burial site of Tutankhamun. Dorothy can do so much better than this!

Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe's Elvire a la tour monte (Elvire Climbs the Tower, 1956)

A slow-moving, talky mystery novel from the "Anthony Boucher of France" starring Elvire Prentice, "the old lady without mercy," and France's answer to England's Miss Marple. The scene of the crime is the Tower of London and the duty of locked doors and latched windows are replaced here with eyewitness testimonies, which made the false solution psychologically unsound. But it was still better than the actual solution.

Randall Garrett's Too Many Magician's (1967)

I loathe this one! It's horribly over written and the flow of the story is bogged down in the never-ending stream of personal titles (Milord and Goodfellow) that are used to end a sentence like a punctuation mark, but on top of that it's one of the dullest detective stories I have ever read. That's somewhat of an achievement on its own, considering the story takes place in an alterative universe loaded with wizards and sword fights with ghosts. The locked room element, while completely fair, simply wasn't worth the read and it ripped off John Dickson Carr. Nevertheless, Too Many Magician's still appears on best-of lists. Baffling!

T.C.H. Jacobs' Appointment With the Hangman (1935)

Arguably, the worst mystery novel I have read in 2012 and I say "mystery novel," but what I meant is a third-rate potboiler that threw everything in the mix it could get its grubby paws on. Appointment With the Hangman is laden with enticing, seemingly impossible occurrences, ranging from a talking cat to subduing an elemental spirit, but the only impossibility with a speck of originality was the disintegration-trick. On the other hand, the Detection Club should've confiscated his typewriter and broken his fingers for the levitation-bit.

David L. Marsh's Dead Box: The "Brown from the Sun" Mysteries (2004)

I can summarize this entry in one sentence: dried up brain barf scrapped and held together with a folded soft cover. Harsh? You can try the book for yourself, because copies are still available and the digital edition is practically free. You'll still get robbed of a buck and downloading it for free is simply a waste of bandwidth. So, once again, let the reader be warned!

Rupert Penny’s Sealed Room Murder (1951)

This entry will probably evoke cries of sacrilege and pledges to constables to shoot me, but it's a great example of a clever locked room trick buried in a mediocre novel and the impossible angle here is hampered by the floor plan – which gave part of the game away. The final quarter of the book could stand on its own as a novella, but the build up to the murder is a long, dragging ordeal and the pay-off isn't worth it in comparison.

A Room to Die In (1965) by Ellery Queen is another case of a good locked room trick stranded in a bad story. And speaking of EQ...  

Ellery Queen's The Door Between (1937)

This title receives a mention every now and then in best-of lists of locked room-and impossible crime stories, but there isn't much choice if you insist on having Ellery Queen on your list and that should explain why this book can make it on such lists – because there isn't any book from the same period that would make any list with such an obvious and outdated solution. I remember intensely disliking the slow, dragging and predictable pace of the story, which shouldn't even make a top-10 list of best EQ novels. The severely altered, somewhat hockey rewrite, entitled The Vanishing Corpse (1941), was so much better and far more entertaining than the original. There even was a reason for the race with a stolen ambulance!

Frederick Ramsay's Stranger Room (2009)

The first 20-30 pages bristled with promise as the author presents the reader with two locked room murders, one from 150 years ago, but that was apparently all the plot the book required and Ramsay proceeded to flesh out the characters inhabiting the backwater in which the story takes place. I hated all of them! Worst of all, the shift in focus came after Ramsay flung the telltale clue (pretty much the solution) to both locked rooms at the reader. As if saying, "enough of this silly plotting business for one book." I mean, how could you not notice the significance and potential of that particular item in a locked room mystery?! Good idea, but horribly executed. Did I mention I hated every single character from this book?

Clayton Rawson's No Coffin for the Corpse (1942)

Admittedly, the first half began promising enough when an attempt at blackmail ends in murder and a dead man rises from his improvised grave to extract revenge, but when the ghost apparently commits a murder and vanishes from a locked-and guarded room the story begins to loose its memento – noticeably so! If an author has to stop the story in order to pull the reader back in with a lecture on fakirs, you might want to ease off on the carnival-stuff just a little bit. It’s like saying to the reader, “now wait, hear me out! This is actually possible.” The solution for the locked room wasn't much better. It only makes you wonder why Rawson made it an impossible crime story in the first place: for the sake of discussing and theorizing about them?

This list hasn't been as extensive or in-depth as the previous two lists, but I probably repressed a handful of them and completely erased another few from my mind. I could've added Footprints (1929) by Kay Cleaver Strahan, but I actually liked that one and lacking a solution adds to the charm of the story. 

Well, that's the first (real) filler post in a long time and I hope to be back soon with a regular review. 

7/5/14

It Takes Your Breath Away


"The situation is becoming an impossible one."
- Professor Moriarty ("The Final Problem," collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894)
The name of Richard Forrest has been hovering in my peripheral vision for years as a writer who participated in that beloved sub-category of the detective genre, locked room mysteries and impossible crimes, but seem to have been unsuccessful in securing ever-lasting fame in this niche corner. Paul Halter's locked room novels appear to have been more well known, before they were even being translated, than the Lyon and Bea Wentworth mysteries by Richard Forrest, but is that justified? After all, Herbert Resnicow's reputation as a locked room specialist stills lays in shameful neglect.

The Death at Yew Corner (1981) is the fifth in the series of books starring Lyon, author of novels for children, and his wife Bea, a former senator, to whom murder and crime are pass times forced upon them by circumstances. In their fifth outing, circumstances that'll be leading them to murder are whirling around The Murphysville Convalescent Home, situated in rural Connecticut, where rivaling interests of union groups resulted in a full-blown strike and perhaps a very preventable death – a consequence of the understaffing of the home.

Fabian "Faby" Bunting is an old curmudgeon with a long-standing friendship with Bea, who was going to the home to meet her and suspects there's more to Bunting's death than simply a nurse leaving her unattended in the hot tub. The reader has been privy of the moment the unknown murderer snatched Bunting away and why she had to be killed: she saw too much through her opera glasses when peering out of the window in the sun-room. What she saw was the kidnapping of a labor organizer, Marty Rustman, which are the beginning of a strew of bizarre murders that would not look out of place in the Midsomer Murders. One of the victims is buried under several tons of earth and rocks with a stolen dirt truck, which, I think, actually happened more than once in Midsomer.

Before I continue, I have to point out The Death at Yew Corner isn't as heavy on politics as you might assume thus far. There are some comments, here and there, about minimum wages and Bea longing to reclaim "her" old seat in the senate, but it's mainly decoration – idem ditto for the strike outside of the home. The only (real) politics are the shenanigans of the divided union members, who impressed me as 1920s-style mobsters with a permit. You're apparently lucky if you get slapped across the face with brass knuckles, but Marty Rustman was shot and dumped in a shallow grave. And for this part of the plot, I suspect Forrest (rightfully) thought he could improve on Clayton Rawson's abysmal No Coffin for the Corpse (1942). I think the "dead-man-rising"-gambit was the best handled aspect of the plot and an infinitely better played out than by Rawson, a professional magician, but I think Forrest missed out on a better killer with a good, double-edged motive.

Oh, and I'm absolutely, one-hundred percent sure this part was inspired by Rawson's locked room novel, because Forrest worked an attempted murder in the plot by locking someone up in a sealed coffin – which is the exact opposite of a corpse without a coffin. That makes sense, right?

Speaking of locked rooms: there's one tucked away in the final portion of the story and the scene is set by none other than the prospective victim, who raised the security around her own home as a preventive measure. There are even guards and a dog. However, they couldn't prevent the murderer from getting to their client and they had to take the door apart with a hammer and chisel, but the solution reveals a patchwork of shopworn tricks strung together. But, still, it somehow works in combination with the secured premise, because it explains why someone would go through all that trouble in order to get to the victim – even if it reveals that there’s nothing new or inventive to it.

That basically sums up The Death at Yew Corner: a light, passable and sometimes entertaining detective novel, but not a must-read for aficionados of Golden Age-styled mysteries or impossible crime stories. Did Forrest wrote any locked room mysteries of note? I'd like to know. 

6/29/14

Snapping Up the Evidence


"Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1903).  
There was a gap in between starting and finishing George Harmon Coxe's The Camera Clue (1937), which is why the details from the first half have fuzzed a bit, but that's a minor obstacle for a hack reviewer like yours truly.

The Camera Clue is the third in a row of twenty-two novels starring Kent Murdock, "the best news cameraman in Boston," who made his first appearance in Murder With Pictures (1935) and in substance a cleaned-up, more likable incarnation of the Black Mask version of "Flashgun" Casey – a crime photographer debuting in 1934.

Interestingly, there are some similarities between the problems faced by Murdock in The Camera Clue and Casey in Murder for Two (1943), which I recently reviewed here. The victims in both stories are (gossip) columnists, but here the successful writer has a lucrative side business in blackmail, while the murdered journalist from Murder for Two was crusading against those kinds of abuses. It's basically a reverse take on the plot of the story I have just read. However, there are far more differences than similarities, which makes it stand on its own and Coxe answered a great question with this book: what if Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" had been written as a proper detective story...

"Planning one," is what Murdock asked Nora Pendleton when she inquired, "what constitutes a justifiable homicide," but her answer is surprising, "I just finished one," and the victim is Jerry Carter – the well-known columnist and blackmailer. Carter has a few indiscrete letters, which could threaten her current engagement with Roger Spalding and a confrontation over them ended with Nora shooting Carter. Twice! Carter crumpled in front of her, but Murdock finds it hard to believe and goes a-snooping. Murdock has his first pick at Carter's private office (the scene of the crime), snaps a few pictures and that's when the trouble begins. There are some familiar faces in a photograph taken of the street, in front of the block of offices, a third bullet fired may exonerate Nora and Murdock's meddling attracts some unwanted attention. All in a days work for a pulp-journalist from the 1930s.

Crime Map on the Back Cover
My impression, after merely two books, is that the photographic evidence in Coxe's novels function mainly as a safety deposit box for clues rather than for scientific analysis. You can take something away from the crime-scene, but erasing them from a photograph is a lot harder to accomplish – especially back then. You have to destroy them. In the mean time, that's as good as an excuse as any to sick some shady figures on whomever possesses the photographic plates and ground the stories in the hardboiled tradition of the pulp magazines. So not exactly a branch-off of the scientific-and realist school of detective fiction.

The ending is actually quite good, in which Murdock devices a Wolfean scheme in order to trap a multiple-murderer and even pulls a frame on another suspect to ensure cooperation, however, the best part was the least-likely-suspect card that was drawn – which probably would've worked better had I read one of the previous books in the series. All in all, a fun, fast-paced mystery of the pulpy, semi-hardboiled kind.

Finally, there's a seemingly insignificant part of the solution I need to point out, in which Murdock explains how he basically played a mind trick to prevent the armed murderer from shooting anyone during the confrontation. You can call me crazy, but I think that small bit may have given John Dickson Carr the idea for one of the impossible problems in one of the stage plays collected in 13 to the Gallows (2008). If you reverse what Murdock did there, you have the basics for a trick/solution to build a locked room story around. 

6/23/14

Pulling a Double Shift


"To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It's always simple. There's no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all."
- The Usual Suspects (1995)
Een tip van de sluier (A Tip of the Veil, 2013) is the ninth in De Waal & Baantjer series about a seasoned homicide detective, Peter van Opperdoes, and his loyal colleague and friend, Jacob. Van Opperdoes was one of the old warhorses of the illustrious Bureau Warmoesstraat, but was transferred to Bureau Raampoort after his wife passed away and continued to have conversations with her ghost – which raised some concerns over his mental health.

The supernatural entity, in the guise of a disembodied voice in Van Opperdoes' head, appears to be actually that of his dead wife, because she has knowledge of things yet to come, but observes the rules of fair play by only alluding to them. Actually, the role of the voice has always hovered in the background, but has been reduced even more since De Waal continued the series on his own. Baantjer created Van Opperdoes a few years after his own wife passed away and since the characters are basically stand-ins for the authors, it was personal touch to the old police inspector and probably why the voice is now mainly there to whisper words of comfort or encouragement.

In A Tip of the Veil, a surging storm is rocking the old city of Amsterdam, but Van Opperdoes has taken refuge in his favorite café, sipping a late coffee, while the bartender informs him there has been someone looking for him. It was important enough for the man to brave the storm and return to the café. Bob Pals is the man's name and his businesses are entrenched in real-estate, which is an occupation sometimes associated with the underworld over here and Pals' problem seems to have all the earmarks of the criminal classes – there are plans in the works for his assassination. The tip came from a man calling himself "Frits," but Pals isn't willing to part with more information than Frits' phone number.

Unusually, for this series, the first three quarters of the book are concerned with a routine investigation of vague death-threats with a murder tugged away at the end of the story. However, the solution of the shooting felt disconnected from the rest of the story and a shameless rework of an episode De Waal wrote for the Baantjer TV-series in the mid-00's. The best part was therefore the routine-investigation, which was lively written with a dose of light-hearted humor and populated with likeable characters. The cast of (semi-) regular (forensic) police characters gathering and analyzing evidence in the background often gives the series a CSI-ish feeling, but often used as a good contrast of between Van Opperdoes' old-school methods and modern police forensics.

De Waal succeeded very well in seamlessly meshing Baantjer's style of story telling with his own, which makes this series as enjoyable to read as the original Baantjer series, but there’s one main difference: Simon de Waal is closer to Georges Simenon with De Waal & Baantjer than Baantjer ever was with his DeKok books – which where at least always structured as detective stories. De Waal & Baantjer are stories about detectives rather than detective stories. And, yes, I'm fully aware that I have made that observation before. More than once. But it’s the best possible description of the series.

So, all in all, as enjoyable a read as they come in this series and (sadly) better than it's follow up.

There isn't a literal translation for the book-title of the tenth novel, Een tien met een griffel (Number One With a Bullet, 2014), but the closest equivalent in any language would be a misnomer. The story began promising enough when Jacob whisked Van Opperdoes away from his favorite café to the scene of a crime. A beautiful young woman has been found strangled in the apartment of her neighbor/lover, who's found dead not much later at an abandoned site – shot through the head. It appears to be a murder/suicide until it turns out the "suicide" happened before the murder and suspects begin to appear: an obsessed man and an ex-convict. The murder here is discovered in the first chapter, but the whole book felt more routine than the investigation of its predecessor. Story telling, characters and setting where as well written and brought to life as always, but the plot was abysmally disappointing and simply failed to grab my attention. And plot is kind-of the key point with me.

Oh, well, the synopsis of the next one sounds promising and, hopefully, it'll be as good as Een licht in de duisternis (A Light in the Darkness, 2012). 

By the way, is it just me or does it seem I'm rewriting the same review, over and over again, for this series?

6/19/14

The Final Snarl


"Inquisitive and presumptuous. I do not deny it. But I am a private detective. I am paid to be inquisitive and presumptuous. Not as often or copiously as I would wish, but I am nevertheless inquisitive and presumptuous on a professional basis."
- Dirk Gently (Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, 1987) 
Norbert Davis' Oh, Murderer Mine (1946) is the last hurrah for the unlikely tandem of Carstairs and Doan, but the page-count, 120 odd pages, makes it more of a novella like "Holocaust House," published as a serial by Argosy in 1940, than a novel such as Sally's in the Alley (1943). However, Davis knew how to properly jam-pack those pages, but his series detectives deserved a grander exit.

Doan is a short, chubby private-eye of the half drunk, shabby variety and Carstairs, a fawn-colored Great Dane, has never been able to reconcile himself with the fact that he's owned by a human of such low stock. I have mentioned in my review of The Mouse in the Mountain (1943) that Carstairs' intelligence gives the series a slight nod in the direction of SF/Fantasy territory, but it made the interaction between Carstairs/Doan possible and that is what's most attractive about these stories – even in the face of a weaker plot.

In Oh, Murderer Mine, Doan is hired by "Heloise of Hollywood," whose cosmetic products smear the entire upper crust of Western society, to keep a short leash on her 26-year-old husband, Eric Trent – commercialized in Heloise's ads as "Handsome Lover Boy." Professionally, Trent is a meteorologist and has taken up residents at Breckenbridge University, which means Melissa Gregory (an anthropology instructor) had to give up her office and perhaps even her apartment on the campus ground. I was surprised at this point to find the story shaping up to be college-type mystery, albeit an offbeat one, but than the nightly intrusion happened and were suddenly back in the zany, hardboiled wonderland of Norbert Davis.

The intruder clobbers a screaming Melissa to the floor and fires shots at his pursuers, Carstairs and Doan, who fail to nap the thief red handed. And then thing get complicated for them. They may have failed to find the intruder, but they did find another victim. However, Frank Ames, English Professor at Breckbridge, was less fortunate than Melissa: his throat was cut and the body stuffed inside a trashcan.

Oh, Murderer Mine has been widely pegged as the weakest of the three books and I agree, plot-wise, but (for me) it’s the same story as with Rex Stout. It's one of those rare series I read for the characters rather than a clever plotting and there were one or two supporting characters that played well off the main protagonists. There's deputy Humphrey, whom impressed me as a deliberate, overdrawn parody of the stereotypical dumb, aggressive police cops from the pulps – 'cause seeing Doan is enough to put him in irons and hurl accusations at him. Humphrey positively gloats and rubs his hands at the prospect of "a chance to peek" at Doan "in the gas chamber," which is about as friendly a gesture as scrawling "I Can Only Tolerate You For So Long" on a brochure for a funeral parlor and shoving it in a lovely decorated Valentine's envelope. A far more pleasant characters, and parody, emerges later on when one of suspects reveals himself as somewhat of a Great Detective working incognito. I liked this character and wished Davis had done more with them as rival detectives, alas, this was to be the last novel in the series.

There's a definite decline in quality here, but the weakness of Oh, Murderer Mine lay mainly in the overly complicated, twisted explanation that felt too heavy for the light, semi-hardboiled comedy mystery that preceded it – dragging the rest of the story down with it. The solution even revealed a complicated murder method for a death that was mentioned in the background of the story and could've easily been a short story (or epilogue) in itself. However, the rest is pretty much what you'd expect from a Carstairs and Doan mystery. The high point of that was the trail of destruction Carstairs left at the salon of Heloise, which reminded me of the subway riot caused by H.M. in Carter Dickson's A Graveyard to Let (1949). Recommended to fans only.