4/26/16

Magician's Bouquet


"The whole point and headache is this. Every microscopic opening in that room – the tiny little crack under the door, the keyhole, the joins of the two windows where the sashes meet – every place is sealed up as tight as a drum-head by glued paper fastened on the inside."
- Sir Henry Merrivale (Carter Dickson's He Wouldn't Kill Patience, 1944)
Clayton Rawson was an illusionist, mystery writer and editor who worked in editorial positions for various magazines, such as True Detective and Master Detective, which include having served as the Managing Editor for the famous Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, but he's primarily remembered as one of the Golden Era's foremost practitioners of the locked room conundrum – which were hatched by drawing on his extensive knowledge of magic, illusions and stage-effects. He even employed stage-magicians as the detective characters for both of his series: namely The Great Merlini and Don Diavolo.

One of the detective story’s greatest champion, Frederic Dannay, better known as one half of "Ellery Queen," described Rawson as "one of the topflight mystifiers in the whole bloodhound business." It's an opinion that was shared by John Dickson Carr, undisputed master of the locked room mystery, who was a friend of Rawson and on several occasions they concocted a challenge for each other – resulting in some excellent and even classic examples of the impossible crime story.

Two of those stories were collected in The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective (1979), which gathered all of the short stories and short-shorts about his most well-known and best-remembered creations. You guessed it: this flimsy introduction serves as a rickety bridge to my review of that very collection.

There are a dozen tales in this collection and the first three were originally published as reader-contest stories in EQMM, which reportedly flooded their offices with "an overwhelming response that many more prizes were awarded than the original number offered." I found them to be fairly clever for a bunch of short-shorts and comparable in nature to the nuggets of challenging crime-fiction found in Ellery Queen's Minute Mysteries and H.A. Ripley's How Good a Detective Are You? (1934).

In the first story, "The Clue of the Tattooed Man," there's an apparent impossibility clinging to the strangling death of a snake-charmer, Zelda, who was found in a hotel room on the eight floor with the only window "locked on the inside." A game of craps was being played by a group of circus performer in the corridor and they observed the only door providing an entrance or exit to the crime-scene. It was an all right story for something that short.

Interestingly to note: this short-short was not jotted down by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).

The next one, "The Clue of the Broken Legs," concerns the shooting of a theatrical producer, Jorge Lasko, who was bound to a wheelchair with two broken legs, but his murderer "vanished into thin air like a soap bubble" from a locked and guarded room. Not exactly a classic of the form and the explanation to the impossible murder is a slight variation on an old trick, but nice enough for a short-short.

I thought the plot of the third story, "The Clue of the Missing Motive," had the potential for a longer story, which deals with a gunman who took "potshots at an unidentified man in New York City’s Washington Square Park" with fatal consequences. The shots came from the direction of a house where everyone had a motive to kill one another, but they all lacked a proper motive for the murder of the man who actually got felled by a bullet.

The first actual short story from this collection, "From Another World," was the result of a sporting challenge between Rawson and Carr, in which they tried to best each other by trying to come up with the cleverest possible explanation for a locked and airtight room – the "sealed room to end all sealed rooms." Rawson opened his story in Merlini's magic supply store, "undoubtedly one of the world's strangest rooms," where the magician-detective receives a visit from his friend and narrator, Ross Harte.

Harte is also a reporter and is researching an article about extrasensory perception (ESP), psycho-kinesis (PK) and clairvoyance, which is why he stopped by Merlini on his way to the home of a millionaire. Andrew Drake has grown obsessed with psychic phenomena and wants to sink several of his millions in researching the potential power of the human mind, but wants to convince himself by setting up a séance with a medium, Rosa Rhys – who is described as one of "the greatest apport medium" currently operating in the United States.

However, when Harte arrives at the home of the millionaire, he has to break down the door to the room where the séance was being conducted and what was found inside that room was bizarre: the bloodied remains of Drake, an unconscious, skimpily-clad Rosa and every crack or opening was covered with gummed paper. The room was literally sealed shut from the inside! Rawson constructed a splendid and original trick to explain the sealed room, which had a clever piece of misdirection that even managed to stump Merlini for a brief moment. On top of that, the sealed room trick was tagged to an equally motive and a very convincing murderer – which made for a genuine classic locked room story and short detective-fiction.

You can find Carr's explanation in the book that provided an opening quote to this blog-post.

I originally read the next story, "Off the Face of the Earth," in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987), which mentioned in the introduction how Carr posed the premise of the story as a challenge to his friend: a man walks into a telephone booth and vanishes – followed by "work that one out." Once again, the magician and mystery writer rose to meet the challenge.

Inspector Homer Gavigan drops by Merlini with a rather peculiar problem: a chorus girl, Helen Hope, has gone missing and a very strange individual accurately predicted her disappearance. Bela Zyyzk claims to be "a momentary visitor to this planet" and is "a mindreader to boot," but Gavigan is the eternal skeptic and drags the self-proclaimed alien in front of a judge – which is when he makes another prediction how "the Outer Darkness is going to swallow Judge Keeler" as well. That's a problem for Gavigan. Judge Keeler is as crooked as a politician with scoliosis and has been pocketing fix money from the local mobsters, but they are in the process of closing a tight net around the Keeler.

So the last thing Gavigan wants is for the judge to disappear from the face of the earth and sticks a tail on him. The policeman charged with following him around never let him out of their sight for even a second, but there was a moment when the judge slipped into a phone booth. A phone booth of which "the back wall is sheet metal backed by solid marble" and lacked any "sliding panels, hinged panels, removable sections" or "trapdoors," which made a secret and unseen escape all but impossible – which is nonetheless what Judge Keeler managed to pull off. He entered a phone booth with only a single entrance and exit, watched by the police, proceeded to vanish from it. Leaving only his smashed, horn-rimmed glasses behind and a dangling phone receiver from which a voice was heard saying, "this is the end of the trail, Lieutenant."

Overall, the story does not soar to the same heights as the previous one, but it's still excellent and loved how Merlini improved on the trick for his demonstration.

For the next story, "Merlini and the Lie Detector," we return to the second batch of short-shorts that were used to challenge the readers of EQMM, but the murder of a TV producer proved to be unmemorable and not particular fair to the reader. I honestly did not care for this one.

However, I did enjoy "Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds," which is of special interest to fans of Ellery Queen and his detective stories about extensive searches of persons and rooms for vanished objects.

In this particular short-short, Merlini provides assistance to Inspector Gavigan and the Customs Service by helping to find a stash of "top quality blue-white stones." The person suspected of having hid the stones is a known crook and cardsharp, Pierre Aldo, but they have done a complete search of his person and cabin – without any result. Luckily, Merlini has a pretty good hunch where the diamonds may have been hidden. A fair story on the surface, but the experienced Customs officer, who rattled a whole slew of examples of diamond smuggling, probably should have checked that place, but, regardless, I still liked it. But I like these kinds of stories. My favorite is probably Ellery Queen's "Diamonds in Paradise," which is a cute short-short collected in Queens Full (1965). There's also Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Invisible Safe," from The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009), and "The Problem of the Missing Necklace" by Jacques Futrelle, which I recently reviewed in my takedown of several of his locked room mysteries.

The last of these short-shorts, "Merlini and the Sound Effects Murder," deals with the shooting of a sound effects specialist and the sound of his murder has been recorded, but Merlini solved the murder by noticing something that was not on the recording. A simple and somewhat disappointing story.

The next story, "Nothing is Impossible," tackles a subject not often dealt with in this genre of ours: ufology. Albert North is an aviation pioneer who has become interested in the study of extra-terrestrial visitors and has become "an unofficial clearing house for saucer information," but the circumstances of his strange death seems to indicate the aliens found him too inquisitive. North is found dead in his locked office and the only other person present in the room, his son-in-law, was unconscious and completely naked – his clothes "appear to have passed through his body."

However, the impossibility is not the locked office door, but how the murder weapon is nowhere to be found and the presence of strange footprints of two-foot, three-toed alien on the dusty surface of the file cabinet. Not a mind-blowing classic of the locked room sub-genre, but interestingly enough for its ufology background X-Files vibe.

The next story has a great title, "Miracles – All in the Day's Work," in which Inspector Gavigan was looking forward to his first vacation in over three years, but dropped by a fishing friend on his way to the Maine woods and became a witness to his seemingly impossible murder – because his murderer vanished from a watched room on the top floor of a New York skyscraper. A fun and interesting enough, but fails to pose a true challenge to the reader. You should be able to identify the murderer and gauge the main idea behind the locked room trick.

I found the next story, "Merlini and the Photographic Clue," not to be very memorable, which revolved around the murder of a gossip columnist and a photograph that showed a person could be at two places at the same time. 

Clayton Rawson shows-off "The Headless Lady."

The final story from this collection, "The World's Smallest Locked Room," begins with a sincere apology from Ross Harte for having been "so remiss in keeping you up to date on The Great Merlini," which is followed by an update on his life and how his magic shop has become "the largest emporium of magicians’ supplies in the world" – even receiving orders "written in Swahili" from "witch doctors in the Congo." The impossible problem is an attempted poisoning at a place called Pancakes Unlimited, but the plot is fairly minor and I found the snippets of background information, characters and historical references far more interesting. There's a private-investigator, named Hammett Wilde, who's "no relation to either Dashiell or Oscar," and there was a reference to the moon landing to show some time has passed since the earlier stories, which is probably why the victim was given the name of Hassleblad.

So, all in all, a fair collection of short-shorts and short stories, but I had already read the best ones in the various, well-known locked room anthologies. However, I did not mind reacquainting myself with those excellent impossible crime stories. More importantly, this volume has whetted my appetite for the Don Diavolo novellas and The Headless Lady (1940), which is the last unread Merlini novel residing on the big pile. So you can probably expect more Rawson in the not so distant future.  

4/23/16

Crime On the Coast


"Oh, ah. Adventure... there's plenty of 'em chum."
- The Fat Man (John Dickson Carr's "The Fun Fair," collected in The Detection Club's Crime on the Coast & No Flowers by Request, 1953-54)

John Rowland hailed from Cornwell, England and over the course of his lifetime, he had worked as a publisher, journalist, civil servant and even as a Unitarian minister, but what is of interest to this blog was his prolific spell as a mystery novelist – which lasted from 1935 until 1950.

Rowland was one of those minor-league mystery writers who passed into obscurity at the dawn of the second half of the previous century. Thankfully, the Poisoned Pen Press has blown the dust from two of his novels, Murder in the Museum (1938) and Calamity in Kent (1950), which has since been reissued under their banner of British Library Crime Classics. All of them prefaced with an introduction by a familiar genre historian and crime novelist, Martin Edwards, who can be found blogging at "Do You Write Under Your Own Name?"

I picked Calamity in Kent as my formal introduction to the work of Rowland for an obvious and predictable reason: the book was catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991), but one would be wise to heed Edwards' cautious warning not to expect "the devilish ingenuity that one associates with, say, the Americans John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson" – because the locked room conundrum is very simplistic and only a minor part of the plot. However, I stubbornly refused to lower my expectations, which I based on a hunch. But more on that later.

Despite my refusal to take a hint, I enjoyed reading Calamity in Kent and took a particular liking to the narrator, Jimmy London, who is a newspaper reporter, but the first chapter of the book finds him recuperating from an operation. The place where he tries to regain his strength is a small, Kentish seaside town, called Broadgate, planted on the coast of South East England.

One morning, while taking an early stroll, London notices a man who acts "queerly" and "seemed to be drunk, or stunned, or shocked," which rekindled his journalistic instincts, but even London was surprise to learn the cause of the mans distress.

The name of the troubled-looking man turns out to be Aloysius Bender and he's the operator of the cliff railway, known locally as the Broadgate Lift, but when he wanted to open up for business that morning he found a dead man inside one of the locked carriages – a hilt of a nasty-looking knife sticking out of his back. London seizes on the opportunity presented to him and takes the first step in getting his name back into circulation by searching the scene of the crime, which he knew was, strictly speaking, not entirely legal. But he had to put his "own future as a journalist first." And if he to take a pocketbook he had fished from the victim's clothes, so be it.

Rowland has an airy, light-hearted sense of realism about the conventions of the detective story and the actions of his characters. As I said, London pounced on the chance to return to the pack of newshounds roaming Fleet Street and contacted the newspaper who seemed most likely to pay him "a sensible fee as a special correspondent," which he got with The Daily Wire and dictated "a cold-blooded piece of butchery" over the phone for the his first installment – excusing the adjectives that there was "the added spice of a genuine mystery story behind it."

However, London’s friend and insight man at Scotland Yard, Detective-Inspector Shelley, remarks how London seems to make "a habit of being in on the beginnings of murders" and advises him not to find "too many bodies," because they have suspicious minds at the force. On the other hand, Shelley is aware that the mighty machine of Scotland Yard is a slow-moving one, which prevents individual cogs to tail a hunch like a lone wolf. So he understands the potential use of a free agent and is not averse to pooling his information with London.

It's a collaboration that slowly exposes the criminal network surrounding the victim, John Tilsley, who is suspected of black market racketeering, but that's pretty much all I have to say about the plot. I loved the narrative voice of London, the setting and the characters that were found there, but the plot turned out to be as light-weight as the writing and began to move towards thriller territory after the halfway mark – which naturally came at the cost of it not being a (pure) detective story.

I was actually reminded of such smart-alecky type of mystery/thrillers like Maurice B. Dix's Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934).

Finally, I have to comment on the locked room angle, which was very minor part of the story. London and Shelley mentioned throughout the book about the impossibility of how a body was able to end up in a sealed carriage without the locks being tempered with, but the explanation given in the final pages of the book were extremely underwhelming.

I had been warned in the introduction about this, but the lock in question was described as "a massive padlock of an old-fashioned type" that "tied the two gates together," which convinced me I had found either the originator or an early example of a certain locked room trick I had only come across in a handful of post-GAD stories. But I was wrong. It turned it was only a nominally locked room mystery.

I've the sinking feeling I gutted Calamity in Kent with this lackluster review, but I genuinely liked the book and it says something for Rowland he was able to hold the attention of a reader like me – after moving away from a locked room mystery to a smart-aleck thriller. Well, guess I'll be dipping into an actual impossible crime story for my next read.

4/21/16

The Carpathian Hound


"Obviously his hiding place must be something not only normal... but a location utterly above suspicion—invisible, not literally, but one the police see right through, and don't dream of checking."
-
Cyriack Skinner Grey (Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Invisible Safe," from The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey, 2009)
Two weeks ago, I reviewed one of William Arden's contributions to The Three Investigators series, The Secret of Phantom Lake (1973), which mentioned my previous blog-posts about Robert Arthur's The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) and The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) – which caught the attention of a fellow blogger who left a couple of interesting comments on my review of Skeleton Island.

Mike West is a writer who blogs at Strange Tales: The On-Line Presence of Mark West and wrote an insightful overview of the series, "Nostalgic for My Childhood – The Three Investigators," and compiled an "All Time Top 10." In addition to a number of reviews of books from the series. As long-time readers of this blog know, I find enthusiasm about detective stories to be very contagious and Mark West's post about The Three Investigators compelled me to plot an early return to the series.

I settled down on the twenty-third entry in the series, The Mystery of the Invisible Dog (1975), which was penned by M.V. Carey and it was one of the sixteen titles she wrote for this long-running series – making her one of the most prolific contributors to The Three Investigators. My reason for picking The Mystery of the Invisible Dog is as simple as it banal: I knew a key point of the plot was based on a short story by my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr. The story in question is even mentioned and described, but the plot of this book does not feature any seemingly impossible problems. On the contrary, but more on that later.

The Mystery of the Invisible Dog largely takes place during the dark hours of a late and chilly December. Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews tightly wrap themselves in another case in order to avoid Jupe's Aunt Mathilda, because they do not want to spend their holiday doing odd jobs on The Jones Salvage Yard. So a client is very welcome.

Mr. Fenton Prentice of 402 Paseo Place is a patron of the arts, who gives "generously to museums and individual artists" and his apartment is "a luxurious showcase for an art collection," which is stuffed with paintings, statuettes and antiques. However, it makes his problem all the more peculiar. Someone has been entering his apartment and rummaging through his papers, reading his letters and left desk drawers partially open, but Prentice "had a special lock installed" and even the manager of the apartments, "that loathsome Bortz woman," had no way to enter his rooms – yet there's someone who can enter and leave them without his knowledge. Who's this intruder and why does this person left any of the valuable items in the apartment untouched? 

There's something else going on: Prentice is plagued by the unsettling feeling of being haunted and watched by an elusive, shadowy and ghost-like figure.

A shadowy figure who shows himself twice to Jupe! One of them occurred halfway through the book and could easily have been a promising setup to what could have been an intriguing impossible problem. Jupe experiences "a sensation of a darker darkness" in the corner of the apartment room, but when he jumped towards the corner "his hands groped at walls" – simply "plain plaster walls." I had the silent hope this would have been something along the lines of Joseph Commings' "The Black Friar Murders," collected in Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004), but that turned out not to be the case. Anyway, we have not even gotten to the meat of the plot.

During their first visit to Mr. Prentice's apartment, Jupe, Pete and Bob happened to witness a man fleeing from the police and it turns out this person burglarized the home of the late Edward Niedland – an artist and personal friend of Mr. Prentice. Niedland had made a crystal sculpture of a hound for Prentice, which was based on a two-hundred year old legend from the Carpathian Mountain: one of the half-starved hunting dogs of a Transylvanian nobleman killed a child from the village and his nonchalant response was answered by a stone being hurled at his head. The noble man was fatally injured, but used his last breath to curse the villagers and vowed he would return from the grave as a huge, demonic hound. He must have been a relative of Vigo the Carpathian.

The theft of the crystal statuette triggers a series of crimes in the neighborhood, which begins with the attack on the caretaker of the local church and an appearance of the ghost priest that reportedly haunts the place – holding a flickering candle. But after that the crimes really begin to pile up: a batch of poisoned chocolates gave someone a severe case of indigestion, a small car bomb forced a car to uproot a fire hydrant and there was a serious house fire.

One of the policeman remarks how "things have been really weird on this block the last couple of days," but the theft of the Carpathian Hound and the string of apparently erratic crimes following in its footsteps constitutes the best part of the plot. I really appreciated how they were all linked together and loved how cleverly the hiding place for the statue was used as a piece of (prominently displayed) background scenery.

I thought that part of the plot was very well, but the explanation for the ghostly apparitions was maddeningly disappointing. Apparently, the supernatural has a sway in Carey's rendition of The Three Investigators, which makes me very, very hesitant about her other contributions to the series. I do not want to see ghosts, astral projections or any kind of magic seriously being used as a potential explanation in detective fiction. There always has to be a natural answer to apparent supernatural phenomena in detective fiction.

So I really feel split on The Mystery of the Invisible Dog: on the one hand, I really liked the parts of the plot which dealt with the theft of the Carpathian Hound, but disliked the supernatural aspect of the story. Guess the next time I pick up a novel about The Three Investigators, it'll be one by either Robert Arthur or William Arden.

But for my next blog-post, I'll be returning to the Golden Age of Mysteries. So stay tuned!  

4/19/16

The Lavender-Scented Clue


"The word impossible does not enter into a detective's dictionary."
- Inspector Stoddart (Annie Haynes' Who Killed Charmian Karslake, 1929)
The 55th volume of Case Closed, commonly referred to around the globe as Detective Conan, takes off where the previous volume left the reader hanging, which is on a deserted and isolated island where a TV special is being shot about teenage detectives. Predictably, a murderer is hiding among the group of promising sleuths.

In the previous volume, invitations were dispatched to the four corners of the Japanese islands and summoned some of the brightest young minds the land has offer: Natsuki Koshimizu from the South, Yunya Tokitsu from the North, Harley Hartwell from the West and Jimmy Kudo was supposed to represent the East, but since he can only attend as his alter ego, "Edogawa Rampo," his place was taken by someone else – namely Saguru Hakuba from volume 30. Not everything is what it seems and soon one of them is murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Yunya Tokitsu is bludgeoned to death with a hammer in an upstairs room of the abandoned house and his body is propped up against the window, which was securely fastened from the inside. Same goes for the door. It's a classic locked room murder and a bludgeoning was definitely not part of the scheduled program, because, as Hartwell remarks, who has ever "heard of a reality show with a real-life body count," but the murderer is evidently playing a game with them – even planting such clues as the scent of lavender and toolboxes in every room. The locked room gimmick is not entirely original, but Aoyama added to the trick and executed it with excellence. I really liked the impossible crime aspect of the plot.

However, the best part of the story was its take on the so called "Fallible Detective," which showed the dire consequences of playing detective and getting it completely wrong. I also hope some of the detective characters will return at some point in the series.

The next story is a fairly minor one, covering only three chapters, but one that's of interest to Western readers of the series, because, for once, we got a shot at actually solving a language-based clue – which usually are based around kanji and the fairness of those stories are often lost in translation. Story begins when Doc Agasa, Conan and the members of the Junior Detective League return from a disappointing soccer match and strike up an acquaintance with a German, named Rutger Heinen, who is attacked a short time later in the parking lot. He suffers a serious head injury and identifies George as his assailant, but Conan figures there's a double meaning to his confused statement and correctly interprets the bilingual clue.

It's an English-German play-on-words and would have worked just as well in Dutch. So it's a pity the Dutch translation of this series never got past ten or so volumes, because this would have been an easy code cracker to translate into Dutch.

You can read the third and longest contribution to this volume as an origin story: Conan is reminiscing about a dark night, many years ago, when he sneaked into the school library with Rachel to show her there's no such thing as ghosts – except they do find a rather mysterious figure there. A shadowy person perked on top of a bookcase, reading a novel by Maurice Leblanc, who issues a challenge to the young detective and subsequently vanishes from the room. Jimmy is not impressed with his cheap trickery and called him "just a clumsy magician," but he still picked up the challenge. What follows is them crisscrossing around town in search for clues and trying to break several codes, which appear to have severely over-valued the mental capabilities of a still very young Jimmy Kudo.

The best part of the story was seeing many of the side-and background characters as they were before the series began, such as a slightly younger and darker haired Doc Agasa. I also appreciated how a previous story from one of the earliest volumes put me one the wrong track, because I expected a similar outcome in this story, but Aoyama cleverly used, what was perhaps the most predictable ending, as a false solution – which gave this story a satisfying ending.

However, Aoyama's love for parallel-characterization is in full swing in this story and added even more layers to the web of interconnecting and parallel relationships and personalities in the ever-expanding Detective Conan universe.

The volume ends with a filler story, consisting of only two chapters, in which Rachel is gripped by the fear that her mother is seeing another man and therefore will never give her father, Richard Moore, a second chance. Conan helps her figure out who this man might be, but the explanation is ludicrously simple and there's no excuse for not arriving at the answer before Conan does. It's one of the simplest mysteries I've ever come across in detective fiction. You can also find another example of Aoyama's parallel-characterization on the final page of this story.

So, all in all, a reasonable solid volume of stories of which two were both excellent and very memorable. 

4/17/16

Squaring the Circle


"The lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892)
Dr. Gerhardus Hellinga was a Dutch internist, endocrinologist and the founder of andrological fertility science in the Low Countries and a founding member of De Vereniging voor Fertiliteitsstudie (Society for Fertility Study), which lead to him becoming a Principal Assistant in the Department of Internal Medicine of the Free University of Amsterdam. He worked there until his retirement.

After retiring from a professional life dedicated to medical research, Hellinga began to work on fulfilling a life-long cherished ambition: writing and crafting a misdaadroman (detective novel). I did not make that up in order to fluff this piece up. It was mentioned in his "In Memoriam," which noted "he had once said he would like to write a detective novel," but he put four of them to his name – before passing away in 1991 at the respectable age of 84. So, now that we got that shakily and clumsily written introduction out of the way, we can take a look at his debut novel.

Under the penname of "Hellinga Sr," he wrote not one, but four, mystery novels and three of them had a small village physician, Dr. Joris Joris, as the detective. Moord in het vierkant (Murder in the Square, 1981) was the first one in this short series. 

Dr. Joris suffers from "ziekelijke vetzucht" (morbid obesity) and as a result he's colossally fat with enormous shoulders and arms. Fat bulged around his neck and on his back. He barely had any hair on the top of his head, but it grew wildly above his ears and on the sides of his cheeks, which made his face look extra wide – giving it the appearance of "the head of a lion." His impossible fatness made him depended for personal care on his assistant, Hannes. Otherwise, he would have been regarded as an invalid, but the personal care he received from his assistant allowed him to continue to work as a doctor and make his patient rounds in the village.

The village of Bikhoven is a fictional place, nestled in a quiet polder landscape of the Province of North-Holland, which has a square grassy area that's completely surrounded by a complex of houses and streets – known in the village simply as Het Vierkant (The Square). Life in the village has remained relatively simple and there are still living remnants of the past, but, above all, it's a peaceful and quiet place. But that all changes when one of the prominent locals is murdered.

Scene of the Crime: Bikhoven, N.H.
Paul van Dam was a Public Notary, or simply notaris in Dutch, whose lifeless body is found inside his office: a revolver was clasped in his hand, blood stain on his coat and the door of a wall safe was swung wide open. After the discovery, the rumor mill of the village assumed Van Dam had shot himself, but Dr. Joris immediately determines the blood seeped from a stab wound. It's murder!

You could easily describe the subsequent investigation as a "Case for Three Detectives," because there are three of them. Firstly, there's Dr. Joris and he tows around a young man, Alexander Arnolds, who's dating one of the doctor's daughters, Dolly, but he may have been in the village at the time of murder on a work related assignment – as he's attached to one of the government ministries and usually does investigative work for this ministry. It may have been related to another village prominent. The last one is a rechercheur (detective) from Amsterdam, Mr. Verlinde, but he's a fairly minor character in the story.

Well, they encounter a surprising amount of suspects and motives in the small village, which cuts through all of the social strata of the village life: the Belgian wife of the mayor, who had an extramarital affair with Van Dam, and her husband may have wanted him out of the way because he was against the purchase of a plot of land by the village counsel. Klaas ten Cate is a chemist and claims to have made an important invention, which he wanted to sell to the Ministry of Defense, but he's not very popular with his fellow villagers on account of his loose morals and cruelty to animals. A Japanese man was beaten up by a German guest in the local lodging house, called "De Kat," after which he vanished from the stage and Japanese man was brought to the local hospital. There's woman suffering from insomnia, known to everyone as Aunt Alie, who keeps an eagle eye on her fellow villages with a pair of spyglasses and Dr. Joris calls her "the best spy he has." There's an old-fashioned barber, who saves his customers "like his father did fifty years ago," but he's also one of the prime movers of the local rumor mill.

This all makes for a very readable and enjoyable story, but, as the cogs of a plot, they were rendered useless when both the false and correct explanation fingered two persons outside of this closed community of suspects who only played a small part on the sidelines of the story – which also tied in with the obvious motive and made the murders incidental. Oh yeah, there's a second, completely unnecessary, murder and the culprit conveniently commits suicide. So I was left profoundly disappointed after that rather under whelming ending. It's why this review is so poorly written without much of substance, because, plot-wise, most of interesting stuff was thrown out of the window by the end.

I wish I could end my return to the homegrown detective stories of my country on a more positive note, but the ending was really disappointing.

Well, I did like the Dell Mapback-like map of Bikhoven and enjoyed the character of Dr. Joris Joris. Several times, Dr. Joris took a break from the story itself to sit down on his soapbox and lecture about his unorthodox opinions on doctor-patient confidentially, village life, the future of medicine and the effects the sound of a name has on shaping a child's personality. It gave him that aura of the Great Detective and he deserved a better case to help solve, but I've read De breinaaldmoorden (The Knitting-Needle Murders, 1983) is supposedly to be his best effort. So I'll probably give that one a shot somewhere down the line.

Well, I hope I'll be returning soon with something better. In the meantime, you might want to read my previous review, in which I took a closer look at some of the locked room mysteries penned by Jacques Futrelle during the early 1900s.

4/16/16

Everything is Possible


"Nothing is impossible... The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made."
- Prof. Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen (Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13," collected in The Thinking Machine, 1907)
Jacques Futrelle was a journalist, theatrical manager and an author of detective fiction who fathered one of the iconic characters of the genre's early period, "The Thinking Machine," which is the byname of Prof. Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen – considered by many mystery readers to be the American equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. Or at least one of his most notable rivals in the Americas.

Inexcusably, my reading of Futrelle and Van Dusen has been limited to a volume of short stories from the Modern Library, The Thinking Machine: The Enigmatic Problems of Prof. S.F.X. van Dusen (2003), which was edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison. As well as a number of short stories, such as "The Grinning God" and "The House That Was," scattered across several anthologies, e.g. Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories (1987).

Recently, I developed a yearning to return to Futrelle and read some of his stories I missed out on the first time around, which is when I was suddenly struck by Newton's apple – why not work my way through the ones Robert Adey listed in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991)? It's both ingenious and something completely unexpected for this blog! Right guys? 

The first story under examination, "The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom," presents a seemingly impossible situation in the guise of a ghost story. A stock broker, Ernest Weston, is engaged to be married to the daughter of a banker and wants to renovate his ancestral home as a summer residence, but a "gang of laborers" were the first one to be confronted with the malevolent presence in the reception hall – a creature of "about nine feet high" and "blazing from head to foot as if he was burning up." It was a waving a long knife and laughed at the frightened men as they fled from the home.

The ghost story attracted the attention of the press and they dispatched a "nerveless young man," Hutchington Hatch, but even the fearless reported had to fled after witnessing the burning ghost for himself. There was even an additional impossibility: Hatch saw how the ghost, "on the very face of the air," wrote with his finger the word BEWARE!

So he fled to his old friend, Prof. S.F.X. van Dusen, on whom he bestowed the nickname of "The Thinking Machine," who does not give any credence to the notion that something is impossible and demonstrates why. Van Dusen provides a rational and logical, if somewhat convoluted, explanation for the apparent supernatural phenomena, which he based on such clues as a lack of a particular smell and a slight noise "attributed to a rat running across the floor" – which is a surprisingly amount of fair play for a detective story published in 1905. I also loved how the impossible premise, in combination with the motive, places the story firmly in Scooby Doo territory.

Futrelle conjured up an impressive, imaginative and elaborate piece of charlatanism in "The Problem of the Crystal Gazer," in which an enthusiastic investigator of the occult, Mr. Howard Varick, is shown an unsettling glimpse of the future by a seer – an East Indian mystic named Adhem Singh. Varick peers into the crystal ball, which was "faintly visible by its own mystic luminosity," before "a veil seemed lifted" and "the globe grew brighter" to show him his own death at the hands of an unknown man. He saw himself sitting his study, which was miles away, as a man slipped into the room and planted a knife in his back! The problem is brought to Prof. van Dusen and he believes there was something prophetic in the vision shown in the crystal ball, but it was brought about with a great deal of cheating and theatrics. He even declares, "the affair is perfectly simple."

However, the trickery involved to create the illusionary vision is everything but simple. Clever and original, but not simple. The explanation for the trick is tentatively related to the plot of the previous story, "The Flaming Phantom," and Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Haunted Policeman," which was first collected Striding Folly (1972).

The next one, "Kidnapped Baby Blake, Millionaire," began as a very promising and intriguing story, but the plot fell prey to one of the hoary tropes of the period: a fourteen months old heir to an immense fortune, Douglas Blake, waddles into the snow-covered backyard and simply vanishes into thin air. There's a track of "regular toddling steps of a baby," but they came to an abrupt ending as if the baby had shot up into the air. Ransom notes only serve to obscure the matter and I genuinely wish the snatching eagle had not been passed by as an improbability, because it would have been slightly better than the eventual explanation. I regard this story as the first serious disappointment of 2016!

In "The Last Radium," a colleague of the famous scientific detective, Professor Dexter, procured a precious supply of radium, which consists of no more than one ounce – representing "practically the world's entire supply of that singular and seemingly inexhaustible force." Fortuitously, a widow of a French scientist, Mme. Therese du Chastaigny, has a leftover supply of radium from her husband and is willing to part with it for every reasonable offer, but her visit coincides with the disappearance of Dexter's radium from the laboratory.

A laboratory with windows that were set high up in the walls, fastened from the inside, and there's a guard stationed at the sole door, but Van Dusen sees what everyone else, including Dexter, completely overlooked. The explanation was a bit carny and would have preferred the one Van Dusen hinted at, suggesting someone "fished out the radium through a window in the glass roof by some ingenious contrivance," but it was pretty passable for something from the early 1900s. I also appreciated the off-page cameo Mme. Curie.

"The Problem of the Missing Necklace" is a fun, semi-inverted mystery story in the tradition of Maurice Leblanc's Arsène Lupin and E.W. Hornung's A.J. Raffles. Scotland Yard regards a famous jewel thief, Mr. Bradlee Cunnyngham Leighton, as a crook, but one of "the cleverest in the world," because they have never been able to put a finger on him – which drives one of their chief operators, Herbert Conway, up the wall. On his latest job, Leighton swiped the pearls from Lady Verron and has booked himself a trip to the United States, but finds Conway as one of his fellow passengers.

However, an illegal search of Leighton's cabin and a subsequent search by custom-officers were unsuccessful in locating the pearls. So Conway asks the famous American scientist-cum-detective for help and he quickly points out a place that overlooked by the officers, which makes this only a semi-impossible crime. However, the method for smuggling the pearls of the boat was clever and was later reused by a famous mystery writer for a similar impossible theft of jewels.

I hated the next story, "The Roswell Tiara," which involves a precious stone pried from a tiara that was locked away in a wall vault and only the owner knew the combination to open it, but the explanation is a combination of tired old tropes and coincidences. I disliked it pretty much for the same reason "Kidnapped Baby Blake, Millionaire" disappointed me. You can safely skip this one. 

"The Problem of the Perfect Alibi" revolves around what appears to be a cut and dry case for the police: a young man of some social prominence, Mr. De Forrest, was found stabbed to death in the sitting room of his suit and as he was dying from his injuries he scribbled a number of helpful notes – such as the name of his murderer, motive and hearing the clock strike two. There is, however, just one problem: the murderer was sitting in the dentist chair for an emergency treatment at the time of the murder and he can supply the police with several creditable witnesses. Unfortunately, it’s a ramshackle alibi and the trick is really not all that impressive, which would be considered amateurish stuff during the Golden Age. So it's not all that noteworthy how Van Dusen tears it to shreds.

"The Mystery of the Scarlet Thread" offers a classic, if somewhat dated, locked room mystery, which begins with several attempts at ending the life of Weldon Henley.

Henley is a young broker who occupies a handsome suit in "a fashionable establishment," which is luxuriously furnished, spacious corridors, staff and the modern miracles of both "the gas and electric systems of lighting." When he moved in, he had all the electric apparatuses removed and only employed gas for the purpose of lightning. Often kept "one of his gas jets burning low all night." A habit that nearly did him in: one night he woke up nearly asphyxiated by the gas, because the gas jet he had left burning had gone out and the tightly locked room had slowly filled with the noxious fumes – which is presumed to have been an accident. But these apparent accidents keep happening. They are assumed to be accidents on account of the carefully locked and barred door and windows of the suit, which precluded any outside interference.

The case is brought to the attention of The Thinking Machine by Hutchington Hatch, a reporter for The Daily New Yorker, who figures out the method based on a scarlet thread that was found on a flagpole and the way early twentieth century gas fittings functioned. I'm sure this particular gas outfitting would not be allowed today and everyone who would install it would probably be dragged in front of a judge.

I found the next story, "The Vanishing Man,"to be very unusual in its ordinariness and revolves around a promising business tycoon, Charles Carroll, who took the reigns of a successful brokerage concern as its young president, but not everyone agreed with his rapid ascension in the company – leaving "a residue of rankling envy." Nevertheless, Carroll functions above expectations and money is pouring into the company, but then strange things started to happen: Carroll seems to be able to vanish from his watched or locked private office at will and reappear there with the same ease.

These bouts of temporarily invisibility coincides with a prospected theft of gold bonds, but how these plot-threads intertwine with the overarching motive is what this both an original and unusual story. Only questionable part is the huge gamble Carroll took. A really, really big gamble. The locked room trick was incredibly simple and only a minor part of the overall story, which was perhaps for the best. Finally, I would like to observe this story was from 1907 and modern moneymakers, like Carroll, seemed to have still been admired as the financial wizards of the new century, but that would all change after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. A character like Carroll was more seen as pure villains than the daring anti-hero that Futrelle sketched in this story.

"The Haunted Bell" is a fairly, but over-elaborated, tale of a man, named Franklin Philips, who's being plagued by the ringing of a Japanese gong, which he received as a gift from his wife. The piece of antique consists of "six bells on a silken cord" and seems to ring of its own volition. Philips initially puts it down as a trick of his nerves, but calls in Prof. Van Dusen to help silence the ghost of the bells. Only problem is that the ghost yarn has turned into a crime story by that time and involves a shady curio-dealer, a dead burglar, a vanished servant and Japanese houseguest who had a great deal of veneration for the bells. A fun, but simple, story that could have easily been plucked from the pages of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898), which is one of the first collections of impossible crime stories – because its solution seemed to fit the type of stories from in that volume.

Finally, I decided to re-read one of the stories, "The Phantom Motor," which stood up to reexamination. The setting of the story is a small, peaceful place called Yarborough County, but it had a fully engaged police force of several dozens of men who were stationed upon its highways, because the county was very particular about their speeding laws. It has superbly kept roads, "level as a floor," which tempted many drivers and provided the county with a steady income – in particular from a place known locally as The Trap.

The Trap is described as a "perfectly macadamized road bed" situated "between two tall stone walls" with "only enough of a sinuous twist in it to make each end invisible from the other," which have a Special Constable stationed at each end. There was telephonic communication between both officers and they could warn each other if one failed to stop a car or get the registration number, but there's one speeding automobile that manages to vanish impossibly from the speed trap. Not once, but several times! A well-known reporter, Hatch, has an opportunity to witness the ghost car for himself and decides to call in the help of his old friend, Van Dusen. Of course, he manages to find a completely rational explanation for the apparently supernatural quality of the speeding car and how managed to disappear from a closely observed and guarded speed trap. I only have one minor complaint: could two trained and experience traffic officers really be fooled by what they saw. Surely, they would see that one was not like the other. Regardless, I found this to be a fun impossible crime story from the early 1800s.

Well, that's it for this review and I know what you think: what about stories such "The Problem of Cell 13," but rest assured, I'll certainly do a follow up to this post and read/re-read more Thinking Machine stories to review. So this will definitely be continued. I just can't say/promise when that will be. However, I can promise that the next review won't be a week from now.