With a Hint of Gloom

"Alice soon came to the conclusion that it was a very difficult game indeed."
- Lewis Carroll ("The Queen's Croquet-Ground," from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)
"Leo Bruce" was the penname of Rupert Croft-Cooke, who authored a series of inventive, tongue-in-cheek parodies of the detective story starring a ginger mustached, beer guzzling and pub-sports loving village constable turned private-investigator – the inimitable Sgt. Beef.

Cold Blood (1952) is the seventh and last full-length case Lionel Townsend recorded for Sgt. Beef, which ended the series with a dramatic finish and a wink.

Townsend observes in the opening chapter how the Ducrow-case seemed to have changed Sgt. Beef. The "old chuckle was still heard at times," but their meddling at the "gloomy house" with its "overpowering atmosphere of watchfulness and evil" left its marks on the psyche of the sergeant – becoming more earnest and "a little bit afraid."

However, in spite of its serious coating, the story is plaided with usual humorous remarks and comedic references. When they first read about the Ducrow affair in the newspaper, Townsend remarks Beef needs "a great deal more than successful detection" to be a famous detective. He must stand out and be different. Which can be accomplished by simply resembling a crocodile every couple of pages, "like Mrs. Bradley," or "talk like a peer in an Edwardian farce" like Lord Peter Wimsey.

A similar, wonderful conversation takes place between Beef and his client, Theo Gray, who engages him to find the murderer of Cosmo Ducrow, but the sergeant wants to know why he came to him and wanting the best man for the job isn't accepted as an answer – because there are some better known and better written up detectives than Beef. 

Well, the answer is that Hercule Poirot "was engaged on another case," Albert Campion was "not interested" and a rejection from Beef would've put Gray on "on the phone to Inspector French." It's passages like these that helped Bruce in becoming a fan-favorite, because mystery geeks love reading this type of genre-related, referential-type of humor.

Anyhow, Beef and Townsend learn that Cosmo Ducrow was "worth half a million," which he inherited from his father, but was described as a neurotic, hermit-like recluse – who was "shy to the point of misanthropy."

Ducrow buried himself in a small, Kentish village in a gloomy-looking, Georgian house surrounded by a small, but trusted, circle of intimates. There is a younger wife, Freda, who used to be his nurse. A nephew, Rudolf, alongside with his wife and Theo Gray is a long-time, live-in friend and there's a Major Gulley – who's in charge of running the estate. The group of rounded out by the servants and one of them is a murderer.

One early morning, Cosmo's body is found near the croquet lawn with the back of his head pulverized and besides him lay a croquet mallet, which "had been used to give him three or four terrible blows." The evidence and local police favor Rudolf as the murderer, which adds a hint of doom to the already present gloom.  

Initially, Sgt. Beef barrages the facts and people in the case with his typical, blunt approach and "cryptic statements" that "only grow more obscure" upon questioning, but soon comes to the conclusion that more than his reputation is at stake on how he handles the case. 

The case comes to a conclusion on a tension-filled evening when Beef arrives drunk and too late for an appointment at the Ducrow-home, which ends in a deadly rendez-vous on the rooftop of the house and the scene will give fans of Jonathan Creek and Sherlock a serious case of déjà-vu. Well, now I know where the idea for this gambit originated.

Anyhow, what's even more interesting than the ensnarement of the murderer is the classical nature of the solution, clues and, generally, how the entire plot hang together.

Cold Blood was penned and published in the twilight years of the Golden Age, but Bruce even included a "Challenge to the Reader," which states that Townsend had "scrupulously told the reader all Beef knew" and how "the reader may like to try his hand at finding the answers to the puzzle" – without resorting to "cheating" or "reading or looking into the remaining chapters."

During the first half of Cold Blood, I suspected Bruce was, as they say in England, taking the micky out of S.S. van Dine, but he was actually tipping his bowler hat at his brethren across the pond.

So, all in all, Cold Blood is a very accomplished, classically-styled mystery that harked back to the best from the 1930-and 40s and a better send-off than some of Beef's more well-known and famous colleagues, who had "been written up better," received. Recommended! 


The Locked Room Reader II: An Overview

"The idea is there, locked inside, and all you have to do is remove the excess stone."
- Michelangelo (1475-1564)

This is going to be a filler post in commemoration of the two-hundredth post tagged as a "locked room mystery," which is a poorly contrived excuse to ramble about the impossible crime stories I previously rambled about on this blog. So it's basically the blog-post equivalent of a clip show episode. Enjoy!

In late February of 2011, I began this blog and Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948) was the first review to be tagged as a locked room mystery. The plot is as clever as it complex and deals with the onstage murder during a reenactment of a medieval pageant by a seemingly invisible assailant. It was an extremely scare and coveted collectors items for decades, but was finally brought back into circulation by Mysterious Press in 2013 – as a modern ebook. I heartily recommend it, because Death of Jezebel stands alongside Green for Danger (1944) as a fine example of Brand's craftsmanship.

The explanation for an impossible problem can be tricky, complex and sometimes result in an over complicated, unconvincing answer – which has often invited comments along the lines of "oh, that could never happen in real-life." Over the past several years, I compiled five filler-posts with real-life examples of the locked room mystery intruding upon reality. Some of them are practically pre-written cases waiting for a mystery writer to commit them to paper. You can find all five parts here: I, II, III, IV and V.

I have accumulated a number of lists over the past four years and two of the most popular blog-posts in this category are "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries I: The Novels" and "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries II: Short Stories and Novellas," which are constant occupants of best read blog-posts – a list that can be found on your right under the header Most Consulted Dossiers This Week.

In contrary to these best-of lists, I threw together one entitled "The Reader is Warned: A List of My Least Favorite Locked Room Mysteries." It's a shorter selection of novels that include Joseph Bowen's abysmal The Man Without a Head (1933), Randall Garrett's overrated Too Many Magicians (1967) and Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (2006) – an atrocity comparable only to the horrors of trench-warfare from WWI.

Obviously, the television-and movie format of the detective story have been grossly neglected on this blog, but their under-representation is mainly due to barely watching any TV-and movie mysteries anymore. I used to watch quite a few of them, but have become increasingly frustrated with them over the years and you can't re-watch Columbo for eternity.

Nevertheless, I was able to work my way through a couple of episodes from various TV-series and the occasional mystery movie, which, to absolutely nobody's surprise, were by and large locked room mysteries. I reviewed Columbo Goes to the Guillotine (1989) that deals with two impossible scenarios: a decapitated illusionist in a locked, upper-floor apartment room and a remote-viewing trick – which the lieutenant wonderfully replicates in order to pad out the episode. So, yes, that part is padding, but good padding. I mean, it's Columbo giving a sound and logical explanation for an apparently genuine demonstration of supernatural powers, under test-conditions, at a highly secure location. What's not to love about that?

I've also reviewed a handful of episodes from Colonel March of Scotland Yard, under the post-title "Miraculous Shades of Black and White," which was a TV-series based on the short stories from John Dickson Carr's The Department of Queer Complaints (1940) – published under the byline of "Carter Dickson." I have also several reviews from the locked room-series Jonathan Creek, but they're mainly review of the poorly written, abominably plotted episodes from the final season. So I'd recommend my review of Time Waits for Norman (1998) and the best-of list posted in anticipation of the disappointment that buried the series.

Occasionally, I produce a filler-ish post that contains some particles of substance, which are rare, but they do occur from time-to-time. A case can be made this was the case with a post entitled "The Sealed Room: A Literal Stronghold," in which I touch upon the many death certificates issued to our beloved genre and an essay titled "The Locked Room: An Ancient Device of the Story-Teller, But Not Dead Yet." My conclusion is that we keep coming back because Edgar Allan Poe buried a soft, thumping organ beneath the floorboards of the locked room mystery when he invented the genre in his 1841 short story known as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue."

"Sealed Rooms and Ghoulish Laughter" is an overview of primarily short stories paying tribute or parodying my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr, who's primarily known as the undisputed Master of the Locked Room Mystery – covering such classics as William Krohn's "The Impossible Murder of Dr. Satanus" and William Brittain's "The Man Who Read John Dickson Carr."

Speaking of the "Grand Master," I've read most of his best and most well-known novels and short stories, before I began to blog, which resulted in namedropping him more than posting actual reviews. It's something that needs to be fixed in the future, but I did cobble together a few, unworthy reviews of some of his classics: The Judas Window (1938), The Emperor's Snuff-Box (1942), She Died a Lady (1943), The Bride of Newgate (1950) and Fire, Burn! (1957). 

Of course, Carr is an old favorite of mine, but I made some new, excellent discoveries over the past few years.

I had been aware of Bill Pronzini in short story form, but it wasn't until 2011 I began to read his full-length novels about the "Nameless Detective," which is a series containing two of my all-time favorite locked room mysteries – Hoodwink (1981) and Scattershot (1982). They're a pair of interconnecting stories that strung together no-less than five impossible crimes and demonstrates the locked room trope can be as much at home in a contemporary, gritty environment as in the stately homes of the 1930s. Pronzini drove this point home a third time in Bones (1985), which is an exceedingly dark and brooding story with a locked room murder in the distant past and a pile of bones being revealed by an earthquake. I recommend all three of them without hesitation.

On a lighter note, over the past couple of years, Pronzini and Marcia Muller has been collaborating on a series of historical mysteries about a pair of late-1800s gumshoes, which all include one or more seemingly impossible situation. There are three titles to date: The Bughouse Affair (2013), The Spook Lights Affair (2013) and The Body Snatchers Affair (2014).

Herbert Resnicow is still one of my favorite discoveries, because he brought an entirely new perspective to the genre from his previous career as a civil engineer and constructed locked room mysteries on a completely new scale. Large, open spaces inside enormous buildings were sealed as tight as your stock-in-trade bolted bedroom or locked study. This also have rise to a couple of unique set-ups with one-of-a-kind explanations, which are especially exemplary in The Gold Deadline (1984) and The Dead Room (1987). The only downside is that he wrote so few of them!

Finally, as far as new discoveries are concerned, I should mention historian and prolific writer of historical mysteries, namely Paul Doherty, of whom I learned through In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel – and have been hooked ever since. I particularly enjoyed the cheekily plotted The Spies of Sobeck (2008) and The Mysterium (2010), which had a very Carrian atmosphere with two seemingly impossible crimes.

On the international market, John Pugmire has been doing yeoman's work in gathering locked room novels from across the globe and translate them for an English-speaking reading audience. The catalogue of Pugmire's independent publishing-house has a swelling list of Paul Halter novels, but also contains the Carrian homage L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007) by Jean-Paul Török and Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) – which, technically, isn’t a locked room mystery. But that shouldn't spoil the fun. 

To my own surprise, I also found a handful of locked room mysteries from my own backyard and some of them were very decent: Willy Corsari's De voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937), Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) and M.P.O. Books' Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013). You can find more about Dutch-language locked room stories on this page, but it’s in dire need of an update.

Well, I'm halfway through a third wall of text, which really tells nothing more than I already did in the individual blog-posts I linked to. So this post is really proving itself a waste of time, but I might as well finish it now and run down some of the novels reviewed on here – because they make up the bulk of the locked room label.

Roman McDougald's The Blushing Monkey (1953) and Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968) belong to a rare strain of miracle crimes, because the problems being tackled within their respective pages revolve around unlocked rooms. However, they're still locked room mysteries, but you have to read for yourself how they managed to pull that off. It goes almost without saying that McCloy's book is absolutely brilliant.

Plot-wise, Zelda Popkin's Dead Man's Gift (1941) and Beverley Nichols' The Moonflower (1955) have one only one thing in common: the ending of both novels reveal one of the deaths to have been an impossible murder all-along. I liked both of them, but the former was definitely superior to the latter. However, they're both worth your time.

In the depart of rare, lesser-known, but excellent, locked room mysteries I would definitely recommend Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (1931), W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932) and Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way (1935).

However, its not just full-length, locked room novels I have read and reviewed, but also the occasional short story and short story collections. I should begin with mentioning The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) by Arthur Porges, which almost entirely consist of impossible problems solved by a wheelchair-bound scientist. They're pretty good and amusing stories that deserve to be better known.

Earlier this year, I wrote a seven-part review of a nine-hundred-page anthology, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014), which could all be read by clicking here. I didn't cover every single story in that mammoth anthology, because I had read a significant portion of them before, but I think seven separate posts is reviewing doing some justice to nearly thousand pages worth of impossible crime material.

I guess I'll end this dictionary definition of filler by pointing to the review of one of my all-time favorite short stories, "Eternally Yours" by H. Edward Hunsburgen, which was reprinted in The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) alongside one of my least favorite stories – "Death and the Rope Trick" by John Basye Price. It's somewhat baffling both shared pages in the same anthology, but it shows an interesting contrast in quality.

Well, I'll end this overlong overview here and apologize for wasting your time, because it really turned out to be nothing more than pointing towards old reviews and blog-posts, but, hopefully, there was something of interest in it. 

I'll try follow up yesterday's review of The Death Angel (1936) by Clyde B. Clason with a regular and proper review as soon as possible.


Death's Sober Lamplighter

"Deep in the forest hideaway,
the outlaws made their getaway.
From the sheriff and his men..."
- Opening theme from The Great Adventures of Robin Hood (1990-92)
Clyde B. Clason was arguably one of the brighter, more gifted pupils from the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection, who wrote ten novels between 1936 and 1941, which starred a genial, mild-mannered professor of history as the series character – namely Theocritus Lucius Westborough.

The books are penned in a literate, old-fashioned style without coming across as pretentious and are stamped with all the hallmarks of the Van Dine-Queen School.

First of all, there's an intelligent, well-educated amateur assisting the official police and they operate on a basis of mutual respect. Secondly, the cases often take place on the upper crust of society, where private collectors dwell, or have an industrial background – which provided Clason with more than enough material to put some meat on the bones of his plots to flavor them. 

The Man from Tibet (1938) and Dragon's Cave (1939) are notable examples of stories revolving around dead collectors and artifact-stuffed private "museums," while Blind Drifts (1937) and Poison Jasmine (1940) are interesting specimens of the industrial mystery novel. The latter is, in fact, excellent!

However, The Death Angel (1936) is a departure from rooms harboring privately owned collections and worlds of cutthroat commerce in favor of an English-style country house mystery.

Westborough has come to the estate of a personal friend, Arnold Bancroft, situated in southern Wisconsin and the place is aptly called "Rumpelstiltzken," because the dark woods surrounding the place reminds one "of a German fairy tale."

The plan of Westborough, author of a "ponderous eight-hundred-page tome" on Emperor Trajan, was a spot of relaxation as a guest of his friend, but the region is being disrupted by several events – such as an escaped convict roaming the area and local authorities being tied up in a grim, slowly escalating milk strike. What's about to happen at the estate are soon added to that list.

Bancroft has received several strange, threatening notes and shows one of them to Westborough. It has a few lines of "block capitals" that were "lettered in crayon" saying Bancroft has been cautioned and should now "beware my sting," which was signed "The Firefly." This note of warning is quickly followed by Bancroft's disappearance and the sound of a gunshot emanating from Bowen's Rock, which has a trail of bloody evidence suggesting someone got shot and was chugged into the river below. However, Bancroft isn't the only person who's missing from the house party. So who got shot and why?

Sheriff Art Bell is engaged with "crazy farmers" who "have burned two trucks," spilled "milk over the road from hell to breakfast" and even attempted "to blow up the bridge on the state highway" – showing French truck drivers how to do a strike properly.

The sheriff is short on manpower, resources and time, but is aware Westborough is the "fellow who straightened out those killings at Hotel Equable" and deputizes the professor to carry on the investigation in his absence. Occasionally popping back into the story when there are new developments.

Westborough has his fair share of clues and plot-threads to sift through, which include a bloody handprint, a missing motorboat, a purloined bow and arrows and a stolen saucepan – as well as sorting out alibis in combination with possible motives. This murder-without-a-body investigation absorbs a good half of the book, before other plot-threads begin to manifest itself.

The missing bow and arrows are used in an attempted murder by "a legendary, chimerical figure," a masked archer, "who had vanished in the forest like a phantom" and the firefly is leaving notes again.

But the best part of the plot commences when Westborough begins to extrapolate on the lightening bugs and poisonous mushrooms, which are the main ingredients of a double murder back at the estate – a crime in which the "odds” were “1,542 to 1 against" the victims "receiving all the poisonous mushrooms through chance and chance alone."

I've been arguing with myself if the overwhelming odds, in combination with the logical explanation, makes it qualify as an impossible crime novel, but I can't sway myself one way or the other.

The Death Angel could just as easily be labeled a (semi-) impossible crime as well as a calculated, but botched, attempt at a perfect murder. I decided to tag it as a "locked room mystery" just for the hell of it.

Well, either way, it's was a clever, involved method providing the book with unusual ending concerning the revelation of the murderer and nicely dovetailed with the previous plot-threads – out of which this one arose naturally. Even though, Clason felt compelled to warn his readers that "such complications" arising from multiple, interwoven plots "seem beyond all bounds of credulity." I really thought it fitted nicely together as well as drawing my attention away from the murderer and was completely out of my depth in explaining the odds, which can be as fun as hitting the bulls-eye.

So, yes, I quite enjoyed The Death Angel and just noticed there are only two left in the series to read, which kind of blows. If you haven't had read Clason yet, I'd recommend picking up the previously mentioned The Man from Tibet or Poison Jasmine.


An Air of Suspense

"Tonight's story, I confess, intrigues me; it is another instance from my notebook of the miracles which turn out to be no miracle. You are warned, good friends, that I shall try to deceive you until the end."
- Narrator (John Dickson Carr's "Death Has Many Faces," collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly and Other Mysteries from Radio's Golden Age, 1983) 
A week ago, I posted a review of an obscure, Golden Age mystery novel, namely The Crystal Beads Murder (1930) by Annie Haynes, which is a blog-post I titled for equally obscure reasons "The Devil in the Summer-House" – that also happened to be the title of a radio-play by everyone's favorite composer of seemingly impossible problems.

This prompted a comment from Sergio, who thought it cheeky to caption the post in such a Carrian fashion and how it gave him expectations for "a classic radio review."

I hadn't planned on doing such a review, but I need very, very little encouragement where John Dickson Carr's work is concerned. So why not, I thought, why not listen back to a small selection of Carr's radio-plays and ramble about this often neglected part of his writing career – which tends to be even more overlooked than his contributions as a writer of historical mysteries.

"Cabin B-13" is arguably Carr's most accomplished piece to hit the airwaves and a classic example of the old-time radio shows, which was performed twice on Suspense in 1943.

What's not as widely known is that the episode became the premise for an eponymous titled spin-off series on CBS. Cabin B-13 starred Arnold Moss as Dr. Fabian, an all-but-forgotten series character from Carr's body of work, who's a ship surgeon aboard the luxurious S.S. Maurevania and invited to listeners to come to his cabin to share some horrifying tales of "the strange and the sinister." 

There are only a few episodes that survived the passage of time, but the ones that did are distinctively Carrian in nature.

"The Bride Vanishes" is one of the shipwrecked survivors of this show and the nature of the problem is one of those pesky, apparently impossible problems – a "miracle" if you will. A newlywed couple, Tom and Lucy Courtney, found an inexpensive, but lavishly furnished, abode on the sun-soaked island of Capri, Italy, which comes to no surprise when they learn about the haunted "balcony of death" attached to the villa.

A girl by the name of Josephine Adams "disappeared like soapbubbles" from that balcony in what appeared to be "a first grade miracle." She was "all alone" on that "balcony forty feet up a cliff," which was as "smooth as glass," but she couldn't have fallen or thrown off because "there was no sound of a splash" – and she couldn't have come back because "her mother and sisters were in front of the only door." This vanishing-act happened in less than 15-seconds.

It's remarked upon that Lucy is a spitting image of Josephine and people from the local, English-speaking colony are warning them to stay clear of the balcony or even return to Naples, but that would've made for a very dull story – wouldn't it?

Well, Lucy vanishes under similar, unexplainable circumstances as Josephine and the story begins to uncoil itself during the subsequent search, but even in a suspense story Carr managed to chuck in a few clues to help you piece together the method – which reminded me of a Baynard Kendrick novel and that helped me figuring out the method.

All in all, a good, nice and a well put together story that was nicely brought to life by the performance of the cast. So, yes, I enjoyed this particular play.

The Great John Dickson Carr!
"The Sleep of Death" is another shipwrecked survivor from this series and tells a story of Ned Whitehead, a young American, who has bright, diplomatic career ahead of him and recently has fallen in love with a girl from an old French-Hungarian family – only her stern "dragon uncle," a Hungarian count, "who looks as black as a thundercloud" stands in the way of their marriage.

To proof himself to his future in-laws, Ned proposes to spend a night in "the circular bedroom," better known as the Tapestry Room, which is situated "high in the castle tower" of the family's French chateau. The walls are " hung with rare tapestries" and permeates with "a haunting atmosphere of witchcraft and death." For two hundred years, everyone who slept in that room died without a mark to be found on their body!

If the premise sounds familiar, you would be correct, because it's a slightly altered version of "The Devil’s Saint," originally written for Suspense, which cast Peter Lorre perfectly as the caliginous count. That's really all that can be said in disfavor of this episode: 1) it's a rewrite 2) it lacked Lorre. Otherwise, it's as excellent a suspense story as the original with a nifty twist ending and a logical, fairly clued explanation as to how the previous occupants of the Tapestry Room died – which made the original version a classic episode of that show.

Finally, "London Adventure," also known under the titles "Bill and Brenda Leslie" and "A Razor in Fleet Street," which is one of Carr's Baghdad-on-the-Thames stories and has Bill remarking in the opening scenes of the episode: "It [London] has put a spell on my imagination ever since I was a boy so-high," followed by "Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Fu-Manchu" and "hansom cabs rattling down the fog." Yes, the smell of adventure is in the air!

And, as if on cue, a police-official from Scotland Yard swings by and has brought some bad news for the newly arrived couple. It appears that Bill Leslie, an American diplomat, is a dead ringer for "Flash Morgan," a man wanted for several ripper-style murders, and he might be interested in stealing Leslie's identity – because slipping out of the country is a lot easier when you have the perks that comes with diplomatic immunity.

The inspector urges them to stay in the hotel, but Bill smells adventure and soon finds himself in tight, tension-filled spot when he flees inside a barbershop in Fleet Street. There's an apparently impossible throat-slashing inside the locked barbershop, while Bill and the barber swear they never left each other out of sight, but the locked room is merely the topping on a great (if short) adventure story that Carr's characters always seem to yearn for.

It's another episode I would definitely recommend, especially if your taste or somewhat similar to mine, Bill Leslie and Carr. It's that kind of story.

I hope this classic radio review has earned a few tips from Sergio's fedora and let me end by pointing out the review I posted yesterday of Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Maze Murders (1956), which also contains a locked room mystery. Because you can never have enough of those. Never!


All in a Maze

"Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly and to decide impartially."
- Socrates 
Late last month, I posted a review of Judge Dee at Work (1967), a collection of eight, historical detective stories situated in Imperial China of the 7th century, which were penned by the late Robert H. van Gulik – a Dutch diplomat and fervent sinologist.

I had read the stories from that volume before, but they reminded me there were a few novels from the series I had yet to read. So I elevated one of them to the top of my to-be-read pile and the only surprising part about picking this particular title is why I hadn't read it before.

The Dutch and English-language editions of The Chinese Maze Murders (1956) were preceded by publications in Chinese and Japanese, which were released in 1951 and 1953. 

Needless to say, the chronology of when and where the Judge Dee novels were written/published can be Confucius confusing, but The Chinese Maze Murders is one of the earlier novels – which did its part in establishing the series and helped popularizing historical mysteries in the process.

The Chinese Maze Murders has Judge Dee arriving in Lan-fang, "a far-away district on the Northwestern border," and, as "a border town," had "to reckon with sudden attacks from the barbarian hordes of the western plains." However, the less than heartwarming and disrespectful reception the new magistrate and his entourage receive proved that the town had already fallen from within.

Lan-fang is under the thumb of a self-styled tyrant, named Chien Mow, who usurped power in the district a decade ago and the only magistrate who dared to go up against him ended up on the riverbank – "his throat cut from ear to ear." As a consequence, the court is in abeyance. So the first course of action for the new magistrate is disposing of "this miserable local tyrant" and reestablish a rule of law, which occupies a large swath of the first half of the story, but it's fun to read how a small, outnumbered group of people outsmarted a small-time despot.

It's not entirely comparable to the scheme Nero Wolfe hatched in Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang (1965), in order to outwit a corrupt FBI, but the comparison suggested itself to me when reading it.

There are, however, other matters that Judge Dee finds of "absorbing interest" and prefers to concentrate on "two most interesting problems," which are "the ambiguous last will of old Governor Yoo" and the "murder of General Ding that is announced in advanced" – who holed himself up in his hermitically sealed library in his well protected, barricaded home. Hey, I told you it was kind of weird that I hadn't read this one before!

Well, the governor's last will is drawn up in a painting depicting a fantasy landscape and it's included among Van Gulik's illustrations. However, this plot-thread is thin, but dyed scarlet red and run through practically all of the other cases – which makes it difficult to comment upon without giving away too much. Luckily, there's also a murder in a locked room.

The Queen's Blessing
General Ding had "fought a victorious battle against barbarians across the northern border," but felt "unexpectedly compelled to resign" after returning to the capital and retired to Lan-fang. A month before Judge Dee arrivals he began "to notice that suspicious looking men" loitering in the neighborhood and began to wall himself up in his home. You have to take that last part somewhat literally. The gates of the general's mansion are "locked and barred day and night" and "walled up all doors and windows of his library save one." The one remaining door "has only one key," which the general always kept with him.

All of these safety measures proved insufficient in keeping an assassin from entering the sealed library and jab a small, peculiar looking dagger with a poison-daubed blade in the general’s throat.

Van Gulik noted in his postscript that The Case of the Sealed Room "was suggested by an anecdote concerning Yen Shih-fan," who was "a notoriously wicked statesman of the Ming period who died in 1565 AD," which gives some historical credence to a type of locked room-method that's always difficult to pull off without leaving the reader disappointed – especially the spoiled ones such as yours truly.

I mention this here not because I was disappointed about the method, but it felt terribly out-of-place in 7th century China. But, hey, who am I to argue with Van Gulik? He was the expert. The only problem I had, plot-wise, was that's next to impossible to deduce or even guess how it was done and the murderer was better hidden than you'd expect. I figured the murderer had left poison in the room, before the general locked himself in, and the small, poisonous blade was stuck in him after the door was broken down as a red herring that was to draw attention away from the actual poisoning-method. Well, I was wrong.

Anyhow, I think Paul Doherty would nod approvingly at the murderer's motive and army background of the killing, which are plot-elements that regularly turn up in his work.

These are just a handful of the problems thrown in Judge Dee's face upon his arrival in Lan-fang, which also involve a missing girl, barbarians and high treason. Most of these problems seem to eventually lead to an overgrown "country estate at the foot of a mountain" with "an old, dark house surrounded by a dense forrest" and has the titular maze – which is "bordered by thick undergrowth and large boulders" that "form an impenetrable wall."

As I said at the beginning of this post, The Chinese Maze Murders packs a lot of plot and storylines in this single, novel-length story, which is both a strength and a weakness. You're unlikely to get bored with this book, because there's always something happening or turning up – right up to the end when some of the culprits find themselves on the execution grounds about to pay for their crimes. On the other hand, there's so much happening that, plot-wise, the book misses the finesse and grace of some the later, tighter plotted-and written novels – such as The Chinese Gold Murders (1959) and Necklace and Calabash (1967).

Either way, fans of the Judge Dee series and historical fiction won't be disappointed by this entry in the series.

On final, semi-related note: I have tagged nearly 200 blog-posts as a locked room mystery. I see a commemorative filler-post in the not so distant future about this two-hundredth locked room post!