4/21/14

Nowhere to Hide


"The lamps are going out all over Europe...
 - Edward Grey
The first conflict of interests on a global scale, usually referred to as The Great War or The First World War, is often cited as the start of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, however, there are barely any war-time set mysteries from the period – unlike the abundance of World War II mysteries from twenty odd years later.
 
"The Signaling from Scarthoe Hill..."

Well, I found a rare World War I spy/detective story when thumbing through my copy of Locked Room Mysteries and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), "Flashlights" by Laurence Clarke, published in the May issue of The Strand Magazine of 1918. The story is illustrated by Warwick Reynolds. I had flicked pass the entry of the story before, but it was an uncollected, stand-alone story and only just noticed the publication date. It was a public domain story and available, fully illustrated, here as part of the collected issues from January to June.

The impossibility of "Flashlights" are the streaks of magnesium-lights being sent up to the sky from Scarthoe Hill, signals to German submarines, and they've cost to British navy two ships as a consequence. To stop the signals, Captain of the Coastguard, Evan Carlton, hermitically sealed off the hillside with a cordon of troops, but the flares persevere. Carlton himself witnessed, through a telescope, the flares being sent up and the barrier of soldiers closing in on the spot where the light emanated from – only to discover the place completely deserted. No. The solution has more originality than revealing the spy was wearing a soldier's uniform and blended in with the cordon sanitaire, but the answer does own some debt to ideas from its time and its predecessors.  

A Military Draft (Get it!?)

A special-agent attached to the Admiralty Secret Service, Terrence Milner, is dropped from the sea on the land in a one-man amphibious landing and takes cover in an abandoned house. Milner expects to be staking out for days or even weeks, but the flares are soon lighting up Scarthoe Hill again and the manor is suddenly everything but deserted. Laughter is heard. And Milner is confronted with an unusual homely picture. Milner's landing and investigation of the house are the best portions of the story. It's a nice bit of suspense with a wartime setting with an impossible problem lurking in the background and reminded me somewhat of John Dickson Carr's excellent Captain Cut-Throat (1955), which is a historical spy/mystery set during the Napoleonic Wars. I wonder if Carr was aware of Clarke's story.

The last part of "Flashlights" slightly diminishes the overall quality of the story with some Victorian love-friction between Milner and a woman, whom he tries to third-degree from her German husband – who's unflattering depiction can be attributed to the "Down with the Hun" position of the Brits at the time. Overall, "Flashlights" is noteworthy as both a detective-and locked room story, because of its unique setting, impossible problem and (historical) ties to the Scientific School of Detection. It's a short story that's more than worth the few minutes it takes you to read it and can be found (again) here.

I hope to back with another review before long, because I'm halfway through a very unusual (inverted) impossible crime story.

4/16/14

Uneasy Ties


"Curiosity is useful for us detectives. It makes us nibble away at impossible problems."
- MacDougal Duff 
Charlotte Armstrong's The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943) was jotted down on my wish list after a laudatory and tantalizing review from Patrick, who still blogs At the Scene of the Crime, praising the novel as "one of the most uniquely-constructed impossible crime mysteries I've ever come across." Naturally, my interest was piqued, especially after finding out the book escaped the attention of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Inpossible Crimes (1991), but that was for an obvious reason – 'cause it is not an impossible crime story. But more on that later.

I have to agree Armstrong took an unconventional, but fanciful, approach to constructing the plot and characterization that was both in-depth and grotesque. In a way, the story reminded me of some of John Dickson Carr's later period Sir Henry Merrivale novels, in which he experimented by removing or reducing one of the central ingredients of a whodunit (e.g. A Graveyard to Let, 1949).

The Case of the Weird Sisters begins conventionally enough with the engagement between Alice Brennan and Innes Whitlock, who has one million dollars to his name. It's a marriage of convenience and they both take something away from it: Innes gets the wife he desires and Alice's future is secure in a rapidly changing world. However, the unconventionality begins to seep through when their car, conveniently (plot-wise, that is), breaks down while passing through Innes hometown of Ogaunee, Michigan, forcing them in a situation they would've otherwise avoided – visiting Innes' three sisters at their ancestral home.

"Whitlock Girls" are what remains of the town's past dynasty and their distorted personalities, detached from reality, is reflected in both their characters and physical presentation. Maud is a lazy slob who gradually lost her hearing and a car-crash left Isabel with one arm, but Gertrude is the one Innes fears as it was negligence that left her blind in a horse-riding accident. Maud, Isabel and Gertrude are locked in their own worlds, but the question arises if these separate entities could form an alliance when they learn of the engagement and the accidents begin to happen. The missing road sign could've meant anything, but the falling lamp and tinkering around with gas pipes are clear indicators of malice. And they do what every rational human being would do in a case of attempted murder: call the police bring in an amateur detective!

MacDougal Duff is a retired historian-turned-detective and furnished this review with an opening quote, but The Case of the Weird Sisters really shouldn't be classified as being of the impossible variety. The nature of the disguised murder attempts require the simple power sight and sight or the practical use of both arms, however, the physical restrictions aren't even considered a necessary obstacle by Duff – arguing the sisters could've been in cahoots or one of them isn't half as disabled as everyone believes. You could argue it's a borderline impossible crime, but I would (IMHO) place it closer to such howdunits as Dorothy L. Sayers' Unnatural Death (1927). The disabilities of the three sisters mainly functions here to cross a nifty array of possible scenarios off against the sequence of events.

Patrick justly points out that the sequence of events, in some instances, was perhaps too clever for its own good, but the genuine weakness of The Case of the Weird Sisters may also be the books biggest triumph: Armstrong kneaded a fascinating detective story with compellable characters out of the mundane facts of how-and when a table lamp was thrown over and a road sign was removed. It's not a first-grade mystery and perhaps needed a full-blown impossible problem as the centerpiece of the plot, but it's a strangely compelling story. 

By the way, I smirked immaturely a couple of times at the poor choice of words directed at the Whitlock sisters. Duff actually begins explaining himself to the blind, but stuck-up, Gertrude with "Well, you see..." and part of me wanted Duff to follow up with "...truth only falls on deaf ears if people refuse to see it or grab it with both hands, you fossilized crayfish. Why aren't you collecting dust up in the attic?

Hey, I gathered from the overall story that Armstrong didn't like the Whitlock's either. So... until next time.

4/9/14

Mapping Out a Plan


"It does help the reader relate events to setting, and does so accurately and with a sense of atmosphere. As a combination of decoration and usefulness, it's probably the best of the lot."
- Jack Iams (on the "mapback" edition of his Girl Meets Body, 1947)
I unearthed a spiral-bound book during a minor restructuring of my shelves and it's one of those books I intended to read, but lingered on the pile before being shelved. Well, Piet Schreuders' The Dell Mapbacks (1997) is actually more of a diary posing as a booklet than an actual book. It goes in a few short chapters, fourteen pages in total, over the history of the immense popular and highly collectible Dell Mapbacks – distinguished by their airbrushed cover art and crime maps on the back covers.

Schreuders is a graphic designer by trade and admirably adopted the Dell Mapback style-and trademarks for the compilation of The Dell Mapbacks, which is plainly a labor of love of a collector/fan. The book even opens with What This Book is About ("a series of highly collectible BOOKS published between 1943 and 1953"), Wouldn't You Like to Know ("who murdered the DELL historian, William H. Lyles?") and Persons this Book is about – followed by a dramatis personae and a List of Exciting Illustrations.

Dell Books was brought into being in the middle of World War II when Dell founder, George T. Delacorte, Jr., needed paper to print books and Lloyd Smith of Western Printing & Lithographing wanted printing work, but the most eye-brow raising from this chapter was how these beloved collectibles were abridged or even censored! "Some books were abridged drastically so as to fit Dell's page requirements" and "although the front cover blurb... suggested that the books were complete, they rarely were." And worse: "one compositor, Ralph MacNichol, spiced the house style with his editorial judgment by removing words like Christ, Jesus, and Goddamn." It's good to see one moral arbiter had to foresight to see the possibility of the nazi's eventually opening a North-American branch of the Kultuurkamer and brushed up on his résumé just in case. Hey, I had to raise that petty censorship with a Godwin.

The following chapter concerns the art-department of Dell Books and in particular the work of Gerald B. Gregg, who painted the covers of 212 novels and drew a couple of back covers, and praised for "extraordinary skill with the airbrush which made the Dell covers of the 1940s unique in appearance." True to the nature of a detective story, Gregg was "resorting to the tricks of the time to get the effects" such as pasting a paper doily onto the bottom of a painting (i.e. cover of Fanny Heaslip Lea’s Half Angel, 1946; a romance novel). The Dell Mapbacks reproduces fourteen of Gregg's covers in this book. Another artist mentioned in this chapter is Robert Stanley, who used himself as a model for characters such as Sam Spade, Mike Shayne, Hercule Poirot and Zorro! 


However, it's the crime map on the back covers that stands out as the standard feature among these Dell Book trademarks, and the feature that keeps drawing-in readers, but they probably cost them the most work – from editors and volunteers to map specialists. Something worth mentioning is that Schreuders included two of his own (fake) mapbacks, but they are truly astonishing pieces of art! I especially liked the map showing the location, Haags Gemeentemuseum, of the first international paperback art exhibition in The Hague, in February, 1981. The chapter also notes Dell historian, Lyles, discovered the identity of a prolific crime back artist, Ruth Belew, who drew 150 (or so) in the series.

The historic overview of Dell Books ends on a sad note with the story of William H. Lyles, writer and researcher, who wrote a biography of the Dell Books entitled Putting Dell on the Map (1983) and it's reputedly a meticulous analysis of the stories in comparison with the artwork/crime maps. Unfortunately, there were personal and financial problems for Lyles (resulting in selling-off his entire and complete collection of mapbacks), which ended with him snapping and committing suicide after shooting (and wounding) his then girlfriend in July of 1996. The remainder of The Dell Mapbacks consists of a diary for 1998 and interspersed with replications of front-and back covers of various Dell publications – from mystery and romance to western and science fiction. Flipped through the book again, but it's hard to pick a favorite. Even the simple map of the European Theater of Operation, from the back cover of Eisenhower Was My Boss (1948; Kay Summersby), makes me want to seek out that book.   

Long story short, The Dell Mapbacks is an interesting curio and as collectible for Mapback collectors as the original books. And Schreuders included a list of essential reading, if your interest has been piqued on this niche subject.

Yes, I just rambled for more than a full page on what basically amounts to a calendar/diary from 16 years ago, because it had some background info in it about a defunct publisher of detective stories from the 40s. Again: welcome to the niche corner.

4/8/14

Behind Locked Doors


"Is it a big house or is he just out to the police?
- Lt. Columbo (Murder Under Glass, 1978)
Looking back at my review of E.C.R. Lorac's Fire in the Thatch (1946), I noted that, while it was a good read, I'd probably end up only remembering the story's depiction of post-WWII England and the same was true for the backdrop of Murder by Matchlight (1945) – which I read before this blog was flung on the web. Lorac obviously knew how to create an evocative surrounding and giving her characters a touch of life, but Rope's End, Rogue's End (1942) indicates Lorac also knew her way around an intricate tangle of plot threads. And is it any wonder the book secured a spot in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991)? Anyhow, on to the review.

Wulfstane Manor is a mansion that served as a fortified holding in the days of the Plantagenets, but has remained untouched since Queen Anne's time and the place is beginning to show its age. Lorac's (almost) turns the old, creaking Wulfstane Manor with its faded and worn furniture in a character in itself: like a very old man sitting quietly in the corner and observing everyone around him. In this case, it's what left of the once wealthy Mallowood clan. The house now belongs to Veronica and her twin brother, Martin, who suffered from infantile paralysis as a teenager and is easily affected by stress, which is partly the reason why their father left them the house – and that caused a row and fall-out between them and their three brothers.

Richard is an adventurer and "brings back unknown primulas and new Tibetan poppies for wealthy gardeners to cherish," while Basil and Paul replenished the lost family wealth by becoming "city wallahs" in the finance sector. It has always been Paul's wish to restore the old family home, but there's a lot of bad blood between Paul and Veronica. And, of course, this family is reunited at Wulfstane the day before Paul leaves for a trip around the world. Nevertheless, he tries a last ditch effort to pursued his sister to sell the house and may even tempered with their already modest income to drive his point home (pun not intended, I swear!).

The exchange between brother and sister has all the courtesy of a meeting between two diplomats from the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War: "How pleasant that we can both express our aversions in a manner so academic, Paul! As a family, our mode of speech is remarkably uncorrupted by either temper or jargon" replied with "Yes. There's still something to be said for breeding... we don't descend to face-slapping tactics in practice, whatever the trend of our feelings..."

Still, the reunion wasn't a complete disaster and a row was prevented, but the following day a gunshot is heard from the upper-floor and the solid, unyielding door to the disused playroom had to be forcefully broken open and what they found was the body of one of the four brothers – a sporting gun with a piece of string leading from his foot to the trigger. A simple and obvious case of suicide, however, loose ends brings Chief Inspector Macdonald in for consultation and begins to ask pesky questions.

Rope's End, Rogue's End is a legitimate locked room mystery and doesn't relay on the cop-out solution of the murderer dumping the key in the room after breaking down the door. I hate those. And, unfortunately, usually found in these second-tier mystery novels. However, the impossibility of the murder actually strengthened the plot of the story, because it's one of few aspects in the overall story that genuinely prevents a haughty armchair detective from being too clever and cute. I think everyone who has read a few detective stories intuitively comes up with the same solution, but, factoring in that two of the four brothers are out of reach (after the murder) and how everyone's movements played out really upset every possible variation of this solution I tried. It had to be right!

I also liked how the locked room problem was presented and treated: the victim was heard moving around in the playroom before the sound of a gunshot and the only escape the window provides is a thirty foot drop. The badly maintained roof is as impassable as a minefield and alternative solutions are discussed/rejected. The actual solution is fairly simple (in theory) in comparison with its presentation, but it's acceptable and original enough to not leave me disappointed.

That being said, Rope End's, Rogue's End is not completely flawless, but it's the best and most skillfully handled detective story I have read from Lorac thus far.

4/2/14

The Art of Deception


"For in the long run, either through a lie, or through truth, people were bound to give themselves away..." 
- Agatha Christie's After the Funeral (1953)
After a brief, unannounced leave-of-absence from this blog, I've been slowly picking up my normal reading pace and managed to finish My True Love Lies (1947) by Lenore Glen Offord in just a few days. And no, contrary to the title, it's not a sugary, one-note romance novel, in which true love stands as the sole survivor, but a bone-fide detective story by a writer who served as the mystery critic for the San Francisco Globe for three decades – and stood-in for Anthony Boucher whenever he was unavailable during World War II.

My True Love Lies is set in the year following Allied victories over the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific, but civilian and military life is still entwined in the San Francisco of 1946. The streets are filled with navy uniforms and the story's protagonist, Noel Bruce, has a job as a government job as a paid driver while she studies (line-) drawing at the Sherwin Art School. Noel is also friends with a charming and good humored Navy commander, named Miles Coree, who came back to San Francisco to find his fiancée married to another man.

A great detective once observed artistic blood is liable to take the strangest forms and the body found inside an unfinished war sculpture, a clay model called "Woman at the Grave," can attest to that statement!

Offord is represented on my best-of list with The Glass Mask (1944), because it’s an excellent treatment of the "perfect murder" ploy without a cop-out ending and an example of the kind of detective stories American's weren't suppose to be writing at the time: the kind set in a small and sleepy country-side town in which time has crept forward instead of marched. My True Love Lies doesn't bat in the same league as The Glass Mask, but the writing plainly shows Offord knew her way around a plot.

The reader is constantly kept busy with mysterious developments and analysis's of the crime. There are crimes from the past lingering in the present and unknown pursuers are harassing Noel and the relationship between the different characters become more, and more, entangled. There are the "Five Scared Artists:" Noel, Anna Tannehill (it was her sculpture in which the body was discovered), Will Rome, Rita Steffany and Paul Watkins – who's inseparable from his cousin, Daisy. This lot is rounded out by the head of the art school, Eugene "Papa Gene" Fenmer, a brash reporter from the Eagle, Red Hobart, a derelict known as "Old Dad" and the ex-wife of the murdered man. And they all gravitate towards the scene of the crime.

Offord actually came up with a clever solution as to why the corpse was hidden in the clay model (other than dramatic effect) and there was a nifty double-twist at the end, which made My True Love Lies an above average mystery novel. It missed that special spark to make it really great, but it's definitely better than similar artsy-themed detective stories such as Dorothy L. Sayers' Five Red Herrings (1931) and Ngiao Marsh's Artists in Crime (1938).

In parting, here's a nugget of wisdom tugged away in the opening of the second chapter of My True Love Lies and reflects on the news playing up the Bohemian angle of the murder case: "Like many journalistic implications, these were partly true and mostly a long way from accuracy." We're almost a century removed from the publication of this book, but I'm afraid this little quote still holds some truth today considering you could make a special-edition DVD box-set for 3D home entertainment systems of the recent news coverage of the missing Flight 370 with downloadable content of Jesse Ventura taking the viewer through all the conspiracy theories.  

Well, enough filler writing for one review and I'll probably grab a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery from the shelves for my next read.
 

3/20/14

Rummaging in the Past


"I suppose we'd better ask some questions." 
- D.I. Anastasia Hardy (Kate Ellis' "The Odour of Sanctity," collected The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, 2000)
The year 1920 is generally accepted as a semiofficial starting point for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which witnessed the debut of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the rest, as they say, is history. During the same period, H.C. Bailey and one of his two series-characters, Mr. Reginald "Reggie" Fortune, were introduced in a collection of short stories, entitled Call Mr. Fortune (1920), and was the first of many popular and critically acclaimed mysteries from his hands – good and recognizable enough for Christie to spoof in Partners in Crime (1929). 

Howard Haycraft noted at the time: "it seems safe to say that any impartial statistical poll of the sentiments of readers on both side of the Atlantic would assure a position high on the list to H.C. Bailey" and S.S. van Dine reputedly began to reshape Philo Vance in the image of Reggie Fortune, but, today, Bailey has (undeservedly) become a footnote in the genre’s history. 

I say undeservedly based on a handful of novels, such as the excellent and reissued Shadow on the Wall (1934) and Black Land, White Land (1937) or the superb and sadly out-of-print The Sullen Sky Mystery (1935), with only The Great Game (1939) falling short of the mark – which is surprising considering it's a crossover of sorts. And I like crossovers! However, The Bishop's Crime (1940) proved to be a return to those earlier novels. 

The cathedral village of Badon is the backdrop of The Bishop's Crime and dominating the horizon of the town is the historical tower of Badon Cathedral, known as "Jacob's Ladder," on which a previous prior envisioned angels ascending and descending from heaven, but the past keeps its hold on the place in other ways. There used to be shrine devoted to a statuette of the Virgin Mary, discovered by the founder of the church, a Saxon King, however, the treasure was reputedly lost at sea after Henry VIII claimed it – which begs the question if the relics were hidden before the shipping accident. 

A historical subplot is briefly teased with one or two murders buried deep in the past of Badon, but they're left there and Fortune's expertise is called upon when the body of a burglar is discovered on a well-frequented road to London. However, it's not an accident and foul play is suspected. Fortune retraces the steps of the victim back to Badon based on the content of the stomach and analyzing the dirt found underneath his nails. There's another criminal element meeting an unfortunate end and it becomes obvious someone's hunting for lost treasure, but Fortune has difficulty getting a solid grip on the case. 

It depresses and somewhat amuses Fortune as he pieces together a mosaic of slander clues, scattered across the centuries in Greek and Latin, to form a complete picture of the events that took place in Badon, and the Biblical references, lines of poetry, lost treasure and historic tie-ins makes The Bishop's Crime play out like a small epic. The resolutions, once again, reveals Fortune as an ancestor of Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley as he plays judge, jury and executions (by proxy) in meting out his own peculiar brand of justice for every guilty person involved in the case. That's interesting aspect of the "plump, drawling Reggie Fortune," who has no qualms about manipulating people into murdering each other in the pursuit of justice – much to the shock of Lomas ("My God!"). Still weird to think a TV-series like Dexter can be connected to H.C. Bailey, Gladys Mitchell (Speedy Death, 1929) and Rex Stout (Black Orchids, 1942 and "Boody Trap" in Not Quite Dead Enough, 1944).
 
Finally, I realize my review has been rather summary and lacking detail, but that's because there were gaps in reading the book, nonetheless, I enjoyed the read even if it didn't quite reach the heights of The Sullen Sky Mystery and Shadow on the Wall. It's easy to see why Bailey was considered as one of the leading lights of (British) detective fiction and reminded me to give the short Reggie Fortune stories a shot.

3/15/14

Jonathan Creek: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp


"Don't think you can hold a man who can use his brain."
- Prof. S.F.X. van Dusen (Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13")
Last night, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (2014) closed the gate on the fifth season of Jonathan Creek and, contrary to my expectations, the ending of the episode left open a door to possibly a sixth season or another 90-minute television special.

I calculated from the synopsis the episode would end with Creek's funeral after saving Polly from a bunch of kidnappers in an impromptu bullet-catch act to put a permanent end to the series. Instead, we got more of the same, lightweight mish-mash of smaller mysteries thrown together to form an episode – except that here it was stitched in one overlapping story. So that was an improvement over The Letters of Septimus Noone (2014) and The Sinner and the Sandman (2014).

First of all, there's the kidnapping of the clever wife of a cabinet minister, who's whisked away and kept in chains in a disused bunker in the woods, but clues are beginning to find their way out of the sealed prison: a feat only imaginable if she possessed the power of teleportation. The kidnapping is tied-in with the woman who cleans for Jonathan and Polly Creek, Denise, who begins to regret finding "Aladdin's Lamp" at a car boot sale and wishing for more excitement in her life.

Be careful what you wish for!

Polly has to help her dispose of the body of a male gigolo, who died in her bathtub, which is part of the reinvented dynamic of the series I genuinely enjoy – namely the comedic absurdity likely to be found in those original bantering, mystery solving husband-and-wife teams. Unfortunately, the comedy and the plot of this season don't gel as well as Kelley Roos' classic The Frightened Stiff (1942) and the excellent Sailor, Take Warning! (1944). Which, IMHO, is what Renwick should've aimed for this season even if it had come at the expense of the locked room motif of the series.

There was a minor locked room mystery in last night's episode: after her ordeal with the gigolo in the bathtub, Denise changes the sheets on her bed and locks the door of her bedroom before going to sleep, but the next morning she finds an expensive watch underneath her pillow belonging to cabinet minister's wife! How did it get into the locked bedroom?

At the end The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, I began to wonder if Renwick had read the criticism in the Jonathan Creek topic on the John Dickson Carr message board concerning one part of his plotting technique (SPOILER: the use of (unknown) accomplices) to create a seemingly impossible situation – which has now been completely phased out and replaced for trivial or coincidence laden impossibilities. The appearance of the wristwatch from a sealed bunker into a locked bedroom is a good example of the latter and the lotto prediction from the previous episode of the former. You can roughly work out how the watch got there, if you recognize the story the kidnap-plot was based on and snatching a book title from Carter Dickson for the episode was just to throw dust in the eyes of any genre savvy person who might be watching.

By the way... is it really that hard to come up with an impossible situation and a reasonably good solution? I'm always happily plotting along and coming up with possibilities how the murderer could've escapes from a locked room and failed to leave any footprints in several inches of snow.

In lieu of any competition, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp stands as the best of the three episodes, but only because the plot was more focused and the last 40-minutes weren't as excruciatingly boring as the first twenty odd minutes. However, I'm afraid the only thing fans of Jonathan Creek will take away from this season is a kinder feeling towards the third and fourth season of the series.