10/17/18

These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie (2018) by Arthur Porges

Back in September, 2017, I reviewed Arthur Porges' No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman (2017), a slim, 86-page volume comprising half a dozen short detective stories, which were first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine during the early 1960s and finally brought back into print by Richard Simms – who runs The Arthur Porges Fan Site and Richard Simms Publications. I closed my review with the comment that, hopefully, the next collection would gather the stories from the Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie series.

Simms posted in the comment-section that he was seriously considering doing such a collection and eventually received an email from him telling me that he was working on another volume, entitled These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie (2018), which was released in early September.

So that was surprisingly fast considering there was less than a year between my suggestion and publication, but very much appreciated.

The series consists of eleven stories and were mostly published in the previously mentioned Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, from 1962 to 1964, with only two of them appearing in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and This Week – a Sunday magazine supplement to The Los Angeles Times, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Cincinnati Enquirer. A final story was published more than a decade later in the May, 1975, issue of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct Mystery Magazine. This is the first time they appear in print together.

Prof. Ulysses Price Middlebie is a retired Professor Emeritus of the History and Philosophy of Science. A keen ornithologist and devout naturalist who began to apply his scientific knowledge in the field of criminology when a former pupil, Detective Sergeant Black, asked his advice in a disappearance case and he has kept coming back ever since – usually with a seemingly impossible problem. I should mention that not every story in this collection is, strictly speaking, an impossible crime or locked room story. They're all howdunits with seven, or so, qualifying as (quasi) impossible crime stories. So a nice little feast for fans of the pure, puzzle-driven detective story.

The opening story, "These Daisies Told," introduces the reader to Prof. Middlebie and how "his universal grasp of nature" helped him to acquire "his niche as consultant in crime" when a former pupil turned up on his doorstep with a tantalizing problem.

Detective Sergeant Black knows Dale Corsi murdered his wife, who has been gone for a week, but is unable to locate the body. A problem exacerbated by the fact that they lived on a small ranch quite off the main highway. So there are more than enough place where Corse could have secreted the body, but Middlebie's mind houses a rich depository of knowledge about the natural world and this helped him spot the hidden location of the body without too much trouble – revealing a truly clever way to dispose of a body. Apparently, Porges thought this was "one of his cleverest ideas" and you can hardly disagree with him. My only complaint is that the central clue required specialized knowledge to get an inkling of the solution. Still a good opening to a solid collection.

The second story, "The Unguarded Path," has a unique premise for a locked room mystery: Middlebie is not asked to help his one-time pupil, Detective Sergeant Black, to solve an impossible crime, but to prevent one from happening. An angle that had never been used before.

Franklin Devoe was the lawyer for the Syndicate and knows "where all the bodies are buried," which makes his ex-employers very nervous, because Devoe is ready to talk and they sicked their best contract killer on him. Joe Vasta is described by Black as "a kind of criminal Professor Middlebie" with a habit of sending "a whole series of letters to the man he's after" and is behind a string of mob hits that "left the police flatfooted" – now he has been sending letters to Devoe promising he'll be dead before he can appear before the Grand Jury. The police has Devoe "covered the way they watched Khrushchev when he came to New York" and his estate is a locked up as tight as a drum with guards patrolling the grounds.

So Black asks his former professor to help prevent a murder that could not possibly happen and Middlebie uses his scientific knowledge to show him "an unguarded path for murder" that "most houses have." The idea of this unguarded path is almost on par with the idea of the Judas window from Carter Dickson's homonymously titled The Judas Window (1938). Easily one of my favorite stories from this collection!

The next story is "The Missing Bow" and the plot is odd one that doesn't really work for me. Howard Cole used to manage a sporting goods store, but more importantly, he was "an expert archer." He even did all trick shots for a Robin Hood TV-series. That all ended when Victor Borden rammed his car into Cole's that killed his wife and 8-year-old daughter. Cole lost an arm and was so mangled below the waist he can only hobble around now, however, he somehow managed to fire an arrow into Borden, but was practically caught in the act in a blind alley and here the problem begins – no weapon, like a bow or crossbow, was found on him. And there was no place or time to hide one. Not to mention the physical impossibility of loosening an arrow with one arm.

Middlebie finds the solution to this conundrum in an old, dusty tome from 1903 and the explanation is legitimate, but unconvincing and Porges must have realized this, because a lot of emphasize is placed on the motive. This is a trick requiring a very dedicated and driven murderer. So it might work for some readers, but I was not impressed by it.

The fourth entry is a short-short, "Small, Round Man from Texas," which reminded me of the shorter works and radio-plays by Ellery Queen. Black and Middlebie assist a French policeman, Inspector Paul Hermite Rameau, to capture a master thief, Cauchy Fourier Boussinesq, who's internationally known as the Chameleon. A man of six feet five inches tall, but has a talent for illusions to make himself unnoticeable and this short-short is a demonstration of his talent. And, no, Porges didn't copy-paste the solution from John Dickson Carr's The Crooked Hinge (1938). So, this was really short, but fun, little story.

The next story is another short-short, "Blood Will Tell," in which Black poses an impossible challenge to Middlebie: a multi murderer is about to go off scot-free unless they can get a blood sample, but the suspect simply refuses to give them a sample and has claimed everything from religious objections to the Fifth Amendment. So the courts has warned Black not "to touch his sacred veins" or else. Middlebie has a trick up his sleeve to get a blood sample and this makes for yet another very short, but incredibly fun, short-short story. As an aside, I think "Blood Without Violence" would have been better title for this impossible challenge.

The next story is one of Porges' best locked room stories, entitled "Coffee Break," which ranks alongside "No Killer Has Wings" and reviewed it separately back in April. So I'll skip it to keep this post as brief as possible. However, one thing I'll note here is that this story finds Middlebie with a taped ankle and this injury forces him to act as an armchair detective in the next couple of stories. And there are numerous comparisons to Mycroft Holmes in them.

The seventh story, "A Model Crime," is minor one and deals with the theft of eight ounces of custom-built transistors from the heavily guarded and secured premises of Morton Electronics, which are worth about twenty-one thousand dollars – "quite a haul." Only a handful of dependable engineers had access to the locked room where the transistors are being kept and taking them from the plant is next to impossible, because the place is run like Fort Knox or Area 51. The method is actually not bad and very practical, given the circumstances, but not as impressive in 2018 as it probably was in 1964.

Next up is "To Barbecue a White Elephant" and the problem of the story is somewhat reminiscent of "The Scientist and the Time Bomb" from The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009).

Black brings a baffling case or arson to Middlebie: a man has inherited a house, or white elephant, which is highly taxed and comes with barely any income. The house is tied to the estate and, if he abandons it, he forfeits the annuity and other benefits. So the man goes on a two-month holiday to Mexico City, a thousand miles from the house, while the place is locked up and closely watched by a security company. After six weeks, "a fire of unknown origin levels the building." Middlebie is tasked with finding out whether there's something like an incendiary device with a six week delayed time-fuse. A clever, scientific detective story with nifty gimmick that's not as insane as the fifteen year fuse from "Time Bomb." You really have to read that Grey story to believe it.

The following story is titled "The Puny Giant" and has an unusual impossible problem. A woman was found dead in the middle of large lawn battered to death by "a broken chunk of solid concrete" that weighed over ninety pounds. Only problem is that Black's primary suspect is her scrawny, sixteen-year-old adopted son who could not have lifted the chunk of concrete to deliver the deadly blows. However, I figured out this trick when his hobbies were mentioned. Still a pretty good yarn with a couple of slightly unsettling final lines.

The next story is "The Symmetrical Murder" and concerns the death of Howard Davis Valind, "a cancer-quack" or "mass-murderer," who preyed on the fatally ill, but was justly murdered when staying at a seaside hotel. He was killed when standing on the balcony to feed the birds when he was smacked in the head by "something moderately heavy and fast-moving" or "something massive," but a lot slower moving. However, the balcony was roofed and the hotel room had been locked from the inside. So how was he killed? I actually figured out the method based on the story-title and remembering a locked room novella with almost exactly the same impossible situation and explanation. I'm sure this is merely a coincidence, because you would expect a writer of scientific mysteries to hit upon a trick like this one.

On a side note, why do so many detective stories force the reader root for the murderer? I try to be a good boy, I really do, but even Middlebie here called the victim a swine who preyed on "the most pitifully helpless human beings." And told Black he would not cry if he failed to build a court case against the murderer.

Finally, this volume ends with the 1975 story, "Fire for Peace," in which Black and Middlebie is confronted the bad combination of "fire and fanaticism." A chemical plant full of inflammable material is working on a nerve gas, but the place is targeted by an arsonist who, inexplicable, has started a dozen fires on the premise and has been sending letters taunting them – all signed "Committee of One, for Peace." The solution here, like "The Missing Bow" is taken from history, but this one was a lot easier to swallow. A good story and decent ending to this altogether too short a series.

On a whole, These Daisies Told: The Casebook of Professor Ulysses Price Middlebie proved to be an excellent collection of short stories and showed Porges was a genuine maverick when it came to dreaming up miraculous crimes with often very original explanations. Something that's exemplified by such stories as "The Unguarded Path" and "Coffee Break."

Personally, I can't wait the for the upcoming entries in this ongoing series and the next volume is titled The Price of a Princess: Hardboiled Crime Fiction (2019), which I hope will be of the same quality as Edmund Crispin's surprisingly hardboiled short story, "The Pencil," from Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979). After that, there's a good chance Simm will compile a volume with the four Julian Morse Trowbridge impossible crime stories with the eleven uncollected, standalone locked room stories. And that would give us an almost complete collection of Porges' locked room fiction. The key word there is almost. I hope that Simms will also consider re-reprinting Eight Problems in Space: The Ensign De Ruyter Stories (2008) and The Adventures of Stately Homes and Sherman Horn (2008).

So we have potentially a lot to look forward to on the Porges front!

10/14/18

Murder Most Ingenious (1962) by Kip Chase

I really, really like impossible crime fiction and currently have more than four-hundred of my nearly nine-hundred blog-posts tagged with the "locked room mystery" label. It made me wonder how many of titles listed in Robert Adey's recently reissued Locked Room Murders (1991) I have read and, if would tally all of the novels, novellas and short stories, I would probably be able to cross out nearly 50% of this comprehensive bibliography of the locked room sub-genre – likely somewhere between 800-900 titles. And that's a conservative estimate.

In my defense, a good chunk of that number comes from prolific locked room practitioners like John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton, John Russell Fearn, Edward D. Hoch, Arthur Porges and Bill Pronzini. I'll probably do a tally in the future.

One title I can now scratch out is the modestly titled Murder Most Ingenious (1962) by "Kip Chase," a pseudonym of Trevett Coburn Chase, who wrote his first mystery novel, Where There's a Will (1961), on "a Remington portable typewriter on the fender of a Ford panel truck parked along the coastline of Trinidad." The book was published by a British publisher, Hammond, Hammond & Co, who ordered two more books, Murder Most Ingenious and Killer Be Killed (1963), which were "dictated to a tape recorder" while Chase commuted to his work – ending when his publisher was absorbed by another company that did not publish detective novels. So he only got to write three of them.

That's a damn shame, because Chase basically was a next generation Golden Age mystery writer who combined a more modern, up-to-date style of story-telling and characterization with a classical, traditionally-structured plot. The impossible crime element is practically unique. So let's dig in!

Hubert Goodall is an estate owner from Palos Verdes Peninsula, California, whose income from the family holding allows him to live in comparative luxury and run his own, second-rate art gallery from a building on the estate. A building that will play a not unimportant part in the story. Anyway, Goodall also "participated vigorously in civic activities" and is particularly concerned with keeping the Peninsula as it is, quiet en peaceful, which is why he turned to an unsavory character, Jock Harrison, who had survived "the wild, free-swinging prohibition days" – now he manipulated real estate deals, managed legitimate night clubs and dabbled in blackmail. Goodall wants Harrison to force a man, named Jack Christie, out of the Sleeping Hills Development. Simply to keep the peninsula as it is.

The subsequent chapters introduces the character who are, in various ways, connected to either Goodall or Harrison and will play their role in the impending murder of the former.

Firstly, there are the three heroic veterans of the Korean War of 1950-53, George Craig, Tony Ortega and John Williams, who came back from Korea with "a bucketful of medals" and the press had dubbed them The Three Musketeers. After the war, Craig became a painter and Goodall made him member of the Board of Directors of the Peninsula Art Association, which is a position he used to get Ortega a job in Goodall's art gallery. His lovely wife, Pat Craig, is a night-club singer with a past link to Harrison, but Williams, a genius when it comes to electronics, is only connected to Goodall and Harrison through Craig and Ortega. These are three very important characters in the overall story, but there are more: Geraldine and Jennifer Goodall, who are the wife and granddaughter of Hubert Goodall, but there's also the owner of the Swinging Times, Willie Delaney, and one of his waitresses, Jeanie. Both of whom are associated with Harrison. And Jeanie had a special role in the scheme to ensnare Christie.

However, before their blackmail scheme can be set in motion, Goodall is brutally gutted in the office of his art gallery and the safe had been drilled open, which happened to contain the only valuable picture they had on loan from San Francisco Coberly Collection – a Gauguin that had been neatly cut from its frame. Only problem is that the office can only be entered, or exited, through a corridor that goes pass a desk with an all-night guard. The guard swears nobody entered or left while he had been on duty and the man is put through the wringer by the police, but never deviated from his story. So Detective-Lieutenant Horowitz is stuck with a seemingly impossible knifing.

Fortunately, he gets help from a retired, wheelchair-bound colleague, Justine Carmichael, who used to be the well-known, highly regarded Chief of the Homicide Division. Despite his handicap and being far pass the retirement age, Carmichael is often called upon by his former colleagues as a special consultant and is paid from a special fund. Carmichael is pretty much a predecessor of the TV-detective Ironside.

Carmichael is not merely an armchair detective who reasons from a wheelchair. He drives around in a specially adjusted car to pay personal visits to suspects, views the body at the morgue and inspects the crime-scene on several occasions – picking up hints and clues to the murderer and method as he goes along. The clueing here is a dead giveaway that Murder Most Ingenious is a detective story written and plotted along classical lines punctuated by the excellent locked room situation of the gallery-office and its original solution.

Mike Grost mentioned on his website, when discussing Helen McCloy's The Further Side of Fear (1967), that "the late 1960s is an atypical era in mystery history for a writer to develop an interest in locked room puzzles." I think the entire 1960s is a period unlikely to be associated impossible crime fiction, but have come across quite a few over the past year or two. Some of them were quite innovative.

You have Robert Arthur's The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) and the massively underrated "The Glass Bridge" from Mystery and More Mystery (1966). A.C. Baantjer's Een strop voor Bobby (A Noose for Bobby, 1963), Leo Bruce's Nothing Like Blood (1962), Robert Colby's In a Vanishing Room (1961), Paul Gallico's Too Many Ghosts (1961), Robert van Gulik's The Red Pavilion (1961), Helen McCloy's excellent Mr. Splitfoot (1968), Martin Méroy's Meartre en chambre noir (Murder in a Darkened Room, 1965) and Donald Westlake's Murder Among Children (1967). And then there are the numerous short stories by Hoch and Porges. So it's interesting to see how many good locked room mysteries were actually being published during this dark decade for traditional detective-fiction. Who knows? Maybe John Norris was right that we were too hasty with completely writing off the sixties. He was right about the 1950s. 

All in all, Murder Most Ingenious definitely lived up to its book-title. A cleverly written and plotted detective story that harked back to the glory days of the genre, but the ending also showed the dark grittiness of the modern crime story. And the reader got a glimpse of a darker, more dangerous, side of the gray-haired, wheelchair bound retiree. However, even that was more classical than modern, because the morally questionable action of Carmichael can be found as far back as Sherlock Holmes and (more memorably) used by such writers as H.C. Bailey, Gladys Mitchell and Rex Stout. Chase can now be added to that list.

Murder Most Ingenious well worth the effort of tracking down for fans of the traditional-styled detective story and the locked room mystery. You can definitely expect Chase to make another appearance or two on this blog.

10/12/18

Specialist in the Impossible: "Sorcery in the Death House" (1943) by Curtiss T. Gardner

Curtiss T. Gardner is a now obscure, long-forgotten mystery and pulp writer from Maryland, United States, who wrote short stories during the 1940s for such magazines as Thrilling Detective, Popular Detective and G-Men Detective. Gardner also penned a few detective novels and Anthony Boucher noted that he introduced "the first big business detective on record" in Bones Don't Lie (1946), but not much else known about him or his work.

However, I made an interesting discovery when thumbing through my copy of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) and came across four entries for Gardner, all of them short stories, of which three belonged to a series with an intriguing sounding protagonist, Val Vickers – who's known as "the one and only Specialist in the Impossible." This short-lived series was originally published in Dime Mystery, from 1943 to 1944, which had some fascinating, pulp-like premises.

"Satan's Insidious Chessmen" has a murder with a poisoned dart in a room in which the victim was alone playing chess with an automaton and "In Bed We Die" concerns a death by electrocution in a house where a storm had taken out the main electrical power supply. But the first of these three stories, entitled "Sorcery in the Death House," had a locked room situation I simply had to read for myself.

"Sorcery in the Death House" was originally published in the September, 1943, issue of Dime Mystery and can be read on archive.org.

Val Vickers is asked to put a stop to an arch-criminal, named Merlin the Wizard, who has already spirited two condemned men from the electric chair in the death house and it looked as if it was done by magic, but Vickers is of the opinion that, "whatever laws Merlin may have broken," the "laws of nature aren't among them" – which is why he's attending the execution of Pete Audia with a concealed photographic apparatus. So he can immortalize the vanishing-trick on the photographic plate.

Just like on the previous occasions, the "glaring death house lights went black" and "a flash of fire puffed up from in front of the death chair." When the lights came back on in the smoke-filled execution chamber, there was a wounded guard on the ground and the death chair was empty! There is, however, not a nook or cranny in the death house "to conceal a broom stick" and the exists were being guarded, but Audia is nowhere to be found on the premises of the prison. Once again, Merlin has saved a condemned murderer from the electric chair.

Vickers succeeded in snapping a picture when the lights went out, but the murderer assaults him in the dark room and the photographic plate is destroyed. So he has to do it the old-fashioned way and reason his way to an explanation, which is path fraught with danger and botches an attempt to catch Merling using another condemned prisoner as bait. He also has to tangle with a beautiful woman, Marylee Church. Basically everything you'd expect from a pulp-detective.

Adey unfairly dismisses this story as "pretty feeble." Sure, the locked room trick, which is the main attraction of the story, is not one of the all-time greats on par with the best from John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch. Nonetheless, this was perhaps the only way you could make a condemned prisoner, strapped to Old Sparky, disappear from the death house and nearly all of the components of the trick fitted the information supplied to reader – which deserved the proverbial A for effort. And the motive for helping condemned murderers escape the chair has a shimmer of originality to it.

My only complaint is that the death house setting was not played up to its full, sinister effect. Just imagine how different this story would have read had it been written by Carr. Even if exactly the same solution was used.

So, all in all, not one of the greatest locked room mysteries ever written, but still a fairly good, fun and pulpy detective story with a great setting that could perhaps have been better exploited. Nevertheless, I'll definitely be returning to Gardner in the hopefully not so distant future, because Wildside Press has reissued the previously mentioned Bones Don't Lie. Of course, I'll be on the lookout for the other Val Vickers stories.

On a final, semi-related note: Bill Pronzini has written a great short story, "The Arrowmont Prison Riddle," collected in All But Impossible (1981), in which a condemned prisoner has a noose placed round his neck and the trapdoor is sprung, but the locked and guarded execution shed underneath is scaffold is found to be empty – somehow, as the trapdoor opened, the prisoner simply vanished into thin air! Pronzini's solution is more original and involved than the one found in Gardner's "Sorcery in the Death House." So you might want to check that one out.

10/11/18

The Locked Room Reader IX: The Problem of the Intoxicated Thespian: An Addendum

Several years ago, I cobbled together a series of blog-posts about real-life examples of locked room mysteries and impossible problems, which you can read by following these links: I, II, III, IV, V and VI. In my first post, "Just About As Strange As Fiction," I went over six of such examples and christened the first one The Problem of the Intoxicated Thespian.

Wilfred Lawson
I found this locked room anecdote on another blog, Shadowplay, which has a 2008 blog-post, simply titled "Locked Room Mystery," recounting the story of a "character actor and celebrated inebriate," Wilfred Lawson – who could "function quite well with a skinful." According to one story, Lawson was to do a live radio show and a minder was given "the task of keeping him from the demon drink." A sober Lawson was escorted to a windowless dressing room and was locked inside with the only key in the custody of the minder.

The dressing room had previously been the subject of thorough search and not a single drop of alcohol was found, but, when the minder returned an hour later, he found Lawson "utterly rat-assed, pissed beyond language." So how did he manage to get completely smashed when he was locked inside a room?

As the resident locked room fanboy, I have to compliment the comment-section of Shadowplay, because they came up with a treasure trove of potential (false) solution in the tradition of Anthony Berkeley and Ellery Queen – here are some great examples:

1: Lawson acted intoxicated and got drunk after being released from the dressing room.
2: An accomplice disconnected the water supply and pumps whiskey into the room, which would be "a drunkard's dream" to "drink booze from the fawcett of a sink."
3: An accomplice pushed a drinking straw through the keyhole.
4: Lawson had swallowed a condom filled with booze and regurgitated it as soon as he was left alone (yes, disgusting).
5: A normal, healthy looking orange injected with liquor.
6: Vodka ice cubes.

Well, I provided an alternative explanation in my blog-post, which goes as follow: a character actor is likely to pick up certain skills for their roles, such as pick-pocketing, but a professional alcoholic would know a sly trick or two in any case. So what if Lawson came to the radio studio armed with a flask of hard liquor and

I provided an alternative explanation in my blog-post, which goes as follow: a character actor is likely to pick up certain tricks for their roles, such as pick-pocketing, but a professional drunkard would have trick or two up his sleeve in any case. So what if Lawson came to the radio studio armed with a flask of hard liquor and slipped into the pocket of the minder. Before being locked inside the dressing room, Lawson shook the hand of the minder or padded his shoulder. He had to do this so the minder wouldn't feel, or notice, how the actor fished the flask from his pocket with the other hand. When the minder returned, the flask was secretly put back in his pocket and, when they found no alcohol on either the actor or inside the dressing room, he again fished the flask from the minders pocket – leaving everyone baffled. Lawson basically turned the poor minder in unwilling drug mule.

Recently, I read back this old blog-post of mine and only then I noticed a glaring flaw in my reasoning. You see, I doubt a single flask is sufficient to render a veteran boozer, like Lawson, completely shitfaced, but immediately another explanation occurred to me. A solution inspired by and based on the comments that were posted on Shadowplay. So I would like to pause here for a moment and pose a challenge to the reader.

You have to keep in mind that the problem here is not how the alcohol could have been smuggled inside the dressing room, but, as the comments suggests, the quantity and disposal of the container. Some of the ideas presented in the (false) solutions form many of the puzzle pieces. One last hint: think back of the scene from The Seer of the Sands (2004) when Jonathan Creek explained the ghostly message in the bottle to Carla.

So take a moment to go over all of the information and turn it over your mind. Let's see if we arrived at the same conclusion.

"Well, you've seen all the clues. Have you get it? I think I do."
 
My solution depends on how much time Lawson had at his disposal to prepare, but if had known in advance that they would lock him inside his dressing room, he could have found an accomplice at the radio studio. A monetary compensation would have done the trick. After all, this was not a crime. A stone-cold sober Lawson is locked inside a dressing room without a drop of alcohol, but he took an empty balloon with him and, when the accomplice softly knocks on the door, Lawson places the mouth of the balloon over the keyhole – while the accomplice fills the balloon with a short, spray-gun powered tube. Lawson literally has a skinful at his disposal!

After he finishes his skinful, he can simply rinses out the balloon at the sink and buries it at the bottom of the waste bucket. Who would think a balloon in the waste bucket was used as a modern-day wine-skin? A relatively simple trick, if you can find an accomplice, but it gets the job done. 

So we have arrived at the end of this filler-post, but you enjoyed it and perhaps gave you an idea why I love locked room puzzles so much. Or why I can't get enough of them. 

10/10/18

The Sleeping Island (1951) by Francis Vivian

This month, Dean Street Press reissued the entire Detective-Inspector Gordon Knollis series by Arthur Ernest Ashley, who wrote as "Francis Vivian," which were originally published from 1941 to 1956 and reviewed two of these titles in September – namely The Singing Masons (1950) and The Elusive Bowman (1951). I liked them enough to delay my return to Christopher Bush and read another one of these once rare, long-overlooked mystery novels.

The Sleeping Island (1951) is the eighth title in the series and is a slightly darker, more somber story than the previous two books I read. A gloomy, old-fashionably told detective story with some of the trappings of a modern-day, character-orientated crime novel.

During the Second World War, Paul Murray was stationed on Lampedusa Island, in the Mediterranean Sea, together with Peter Fairfax and the Palmer brothers, Dennis and Roy. One of them, Dennis Palmer, was in enviable position: he was engaged to Brenda Morley and had a good job waiting for him back home, but Palmer was also the trustee of the family fortune – a then princely sum of eight thousand pounds. Palmer's grandfather hated lawyers and objected to paying death duties. So he had handed Dennis a cheque for the whole eight thousand pounds. But when he enlisted, Dennis became worried what would happen to the money if he was killed in action. So he handed over the cheque to Brenda to hold on to until he returns.

Tragically, Dennis is killed in an unfortunate drowning accident. Or so it appears. Only a short time later, Paul Murray began courting Brenda and they married within six weeks. Oh, they kept the money. The Palmer's never saw a dime back of their own money back.

However, everyone believes there was something fishy about Dennis Palmer's drowning on Lampedusa. Some are even convinced Murray has cleverly engineered a perfect murder to get his hands on the money, but everyone is flummoxed about how he was able to murder Palmer, because, when he met his death at the bottom of a cliff at Point Ailaimo, Murray was bathing in Creta Bay – in the presence of several witnesses. So nobody could "prove it was anything else but death by misadventure." But the marriage between Paul and Brenda Murray was not a happy one.

Brenda has been unable to forget Dennis and, when the story opens, has "established a half-yearly wake" during which she wallows in "a bath of self-pity and sentimentality." Something that has begun to irk Murray. He has had enough that a ghost from their past is constantly haunting the dinning-room, the lounge and even the bedroom. So an argument ensues between the two and Murray leaves the house, but after he left, Brenda receives a visitor. Roy Palmer demands money to treat his terminally ill mother, because it was their money. He also tells her that Murray has never stopped seeing his first fiance, Gloria Dickinson, who was put up in a nice flat from "Den's money" and has lived off it ever since – everyone apparently knew it. She ends up giving Roy three-hundred pounds and tells him her lawyer is drafting a new will that gives everything back to his family. Only she never got to sign it.

 
When Murray returned home later in the evening, he finds the home empty and when venturing out into the darkened garden he finds Brenda's lifeless body. Drowned in the lily pond! A gruesome detail is that her cat has also been brutally killed by having its neck pulled and throat squashed.

The local police telephone Scotland Yard and Detective-Inspector Gordon Knollis is sent to the scene of the crime, but this time he not only has to untie a complicated, closely-knit web of linked motives, suspects and their movements – he has to contend with a pesky, stubborn suspect who openly sabotages his investigation. Peter Fairfax was slinking around the house at the time of the murder and he intends "to flummox up the evidence so thoroughly" that Paul "hasn't anything to stand on but a trapdoor in an execution-cell." Fairfax is convinced Paul had murdered Dennis and Roy had killed Brenda, which another motivation to temper with evidence and obstructing the course of justice. He simply believes Paul deserved to be hanged for one murder or another.

I think this is easily the best part of The Sleeping Island. Fairfax found a great place to hide a pair of shoes and he thought he was very clever with the kippers, but Knollis exposes his meddling with skill and experience. Something that really complimented the efforts of the police-characters. I also think this almost has a Anthony Berkeley-like quality to it (c.f. Trial and Error, 1934). Unfortunately, the ending has two problems that drags it down my previous two reads in this series.

Francis Vivian evidently preferred to work with a small, close-knit cast of characters with only three or four suspects. Here he told an engaging story of domestic murder with a dark, potentially second murder hidden in the past and, as a reader, you want the resolution to come out of this back-story that has dominated the entire story up till the ending – only to end with a disappointing anti-climax. This murderer could have worked, but not in this story. Secondly, I believe the alibi-trick on Lampedusa Island remained unexplained.

It could have been my fractured reading of the book, but a solution was only alluded to or hinted at, but never actually explained. Knollis talked about the death of Dennis Palmer as a perfect murder that looked like an accident and "can never be proved." So perhaps this was done to contrast a perfect murder with a not so perfect murder? Either way, it didn't work out for me. So a well-written and characterized story of crime, but not all that impressive as a  detective story.

Regrettably, The Sleeping Island was not as good a detective story as either The Elusive Bowman or The Singing Masons, but better luck with the next one. One disappointment is not going to deter me from the promising, intriguing sounding Sable Messenger (1947), The Threefold Cord (1947) and The Laughing Dog (1949). To be continued.