The Ghost It Was (1936) by Richard Hull

Only a year or two ago, Richard Hull was dimly remembered as the author of an unconventional inverted detective story, The Murder of My Aunt (1934), but the rest of his work remained in the shadows of obscurity until the British Library and Agora Books began reprinting his lesser-known work – such as Keep It Quiet (1935), Murder Isn't Easy (1936) and Excellent Intentions (1938). After half-a-dozen reprints, Hull emerged as an innovator of the inverted detective story and arguably one of the most popular rediscoveries of the present renaissance of the Golden Age mystery. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if he turned out to be more popular today than during his own lifetime.

Hull has regained his reputation as an experimenter and innovator of the inverted mystery, but he has also tinkered with the conventions of the traditional detective story. And that book was reprinted last year by Agora Books.

The Ghost It Was (1936) has been described as an homage to John Dickson Carr and black comedy in the best English tradition, but, this time, there are quite a few contrarians and Steve, of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, posted a less than exciting review in January – on which two people commented that they were unable to finish the book. So how good, or bad, is The Ghost It Was? Well, let's find out.

Gregory Spring-Benson is a man of "unlimited effrontery" with "exclusive and expensive tastes," but his bank balance was insufficient to meet the demand of the ever growing stack of unpaid bills and he has been unable to hold a job. As a previous employer remarked, "perfect idleness and sarcasm" are poor substitutes for more humdrum, but useful, qualifications. So he decided to up his "debonair frankness," combined with "a pose of specious honesty," to obtain an introduction to Linnell, deputy sub-assistant editor of The New Light, who sends the impertinent Gregory packing.

However, Linnell tells Gregory that, if he happens to have any ideas for a story, he can send it to him personally and an idea is presented when reading a poorly written column in The New Light.

The column reports that a well-known, international financier, Mr. James Warrenton, has returned to his ancestral village, Amberhurst, where he has purchased a mansion with "a private ghost" haunting the tower standing at the north-west corner of the house – who happens to be Uncle James to Gregory. Unfortunately, Uncle James has told his insufferable nephew to never darken his door again. So he has to find a way to worm his way back into his uncle's household and Warrenton, who's as impudent as his nephew, makes a sporting bet with Gregory. He gives Gregory six months to swindle him out of "an appreciable sum of money" using spiritualism.

I suppose this is where the story began to lose the previously mentioned commentators, on Steve's review, because the plot began to drag here. Don't get me wrong. This is a well-written, darkly comedic detective story, but the main plot was barely moving after this point and instead we got a closer look at the characters and some of their schemes, which eventually result in murder. But it takes a while to get there. I think it was a mistake to compare The Ghost It Was to Carr, because the similarities (impossible crimes, a haunted tower and ghost stories) are only superficial and not even Hull could match him in the plotting department. In my opinion, the book is much more black send-up of Edmund Crispin (c.f. Buried for Pleasure, 1948) with a hint of evil and full of wittily couched insults, verbal digs, unpleasant or downtrodden relatives and even a scheming parson. So, if you're going into this book expecting a Carrian pastiche, you'll end up disappointed or even giving up before reaching the final chapter. The reader has been warned!

Around the halfway mark, the plot begins to roll again and the people at the mansion witnessed a figure, who seemed "to emanate a radiance," on the tower "clad in a gown" and a short sword or dagger, which glowed, hung from "a ribbon that seemed to be attached to the waist." When this figure appears for a second time, Warrenton recognizes the ghost as one of his relatives and bursts out laughing, but suddenly, another figure came along the top of the turret with it's "right arm stretched out menacingly" and the other figure plunged to his death – a scene eerily reminiscent of the tragic ghost story from 1535. This is only quasi-impossible murder, but the second death on top of that haunted tower is indisputably a locked room mystery.

One of the household members, Emily, notices a strange gleam on the top of the tower from her bedroom window, moving backwards and forwards, before realizing it was either a dagger or a knife. A floating weapon that plunges itself in the only person who was standing on the tower, but here's the real kicker. Everyone was locked into their rooms to prevent them from playing the ghost. These two (impossible) murders were superbly handled, a nice spoof of the theatrically-staged murder mystery, which had a nice, uncomplicated solution with a beauty of a clue subtly foreshadowing the trick the murderer used on the tower. A clue actually worthy of Carr himself.

Regrettably, the way the final chapter was handled made the solution fall flat on its face and this was completely unnecessary.

Obviously, Hull was a writer who tried to be innovative and decided to do this, in this very conventionally structured detective novel, in the last chapter by not mentioning the murderer by name. Now this could have worked had the murderer not been so obvious and the reader had to pay close attention to find all the clues to piece together who they were talking about, which certainly was not the case here and this made Hull look like he was being difficult for the sake of being difficult – reflecting poorly on an otherwise pretty decent country house mystery.

In closing, The Ghost It Was is a good, but not great, detective story drenched in black humor, ghostly murders and an excellent portrayal of a dysfunctional family who dance to the purse-strings of the family patriarch. Only the unnecessary and irritating obfuscation about the murderer's name in the last chapter is a real blemish on the plot.


Myths and Murders: "The Case of the Modern Medusa" (1973) by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch had a storied, decades-long career as a voluminous writer of short stories and passed away, in 2008, with close to a thousand short stories to his name, but he was equally productive when it came to creating series-characters – somewhere around twenty of them. Some where better known or had longer lifespans than others.

I've previously discussed short stories collections starring some of Hoch's most celebrated series-detectives, such as The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1971), The Ripper of Storyville (1997) and Challenge the Impossible (2018), but there's an entire roster of lesser-known, secondary series-characters whose stories have remained uncollected to this very day. A roster comprising of characters such as Father David Noone, Ulysses S. Bird, Sir Gideon Parrot and Paul Tower. Most of them only appeared in a handful of stories.

I've yet to encounter any of these characters, but plan to track down a couple of these uncollected stories from some of Hoch's short-lived, unsung series and found an excellent locked room mystery from the slightly more successful Interpol-series – counting fourteen stories that were published between 1973 and 1984 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The protagonists of this series are Sebastian Blue, "a middle-aged Englishman formerly of Scotland Yard," who now works for Interpol and has been paired with a promising talent from the translation department, Laura Charme, to investigate "airline crimes around the globe." They operate from an office on the top floor of the Interpol headquarters in Saint-Cloud, Paris, France.

The third story in the series, "The Case of the Modern Medusa," was originally published in the November, 1973, issue of EQMM and brings the two Interpol agents to Geneva, Switzerland.

Two years ago, Otto Dolliman opened a Mythology Fair in Geneva and it appears to be merely a tourist attraction, but Interpol has reasons to believe the Mythology Fair is a cover for "a gold-smuggling operation" linked to the world-wide narcotic trade. A suspicion strengthened when Gretchen Spengler, a West German airline stewardess, was murdered shortly after "the live-action tableaux" of Perseus slaying Medusa. Gretchen Spengled worked at the Fair during her spare time and Interpol believes she used her position, as a stewardess, to smuggle cold out of Switzerland. So they send down Charme to take Spengler's place, as Medusa, but a few days later, the murderer strikes a second time and this murder is an impossible crime – except that "the room wasn't really locked."

Otto Dolliman has a small office-room dominated by an eight-foot-tall statue of King Neptune, holding a very real and sharp trident, which was driven by the murderer into Dolliman's stomach. There are only two problems: the only window in the office was covered with a wire-mesh grille, firmly bolted in place, while the only (unlocked) door had been under constant observation by Sebastian Blue!

A great locked room situation with an excellent and original explanation, easily one of Hoch's better impossible crime stories, but as good as the locked room-trick is a cheeky clue that doubled as a red herring by diverting your attention away from the truth. A splendid locked room-trick that perhaps would have better at home in the Dr. Sam Hawthorne series, where it would have been more appreciated, but "The Case of the Modern Medusa" predates the first Dr. Hawthorne story, "The Problem of the Covered Bridge," by more than a year – published in the December, 1974, issue of EQMM. So, purely as an impossible crime story, this one comes highly recommended to every locked room reader.

The pool of suspects is practically bone dry and the murderer is pretty much the only person standing in it, but, since this is a how-was-it-done, not a whodunit, this is of no consequence. A well-hidden murderer would have certainly rocketed this story to the status of a modern classic, but I'm more than happy with what I got. And then there are the two detectives.

Admittedly, Sebastian Blue and Laura Charme aren't exactly three-dimensional characters, who appear to lean on the gimmick of being police-detectives without borders, but they pleasantly reminded me of Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong – creations of Dutch mystery writer "Anne van Doorn." A somewhat older, former policeman who mentors a younger woman and they're occasionally confronted with an impossible crime.

All in all, "The Case of the Modern Medusa" has a cleverly constructed locked room problem and would like to see more of Blue and Charme. So I'll definitely be returning to this series and, predicatively, I'm already eyeballing "The Case of the Musical Bullet" (1974).


The Capital Murder (1932) by James Z. Alner

Dr. James A. Tobey was "a prominent public health official" from the United Stated, serving with "numerous public and private health organizations," who wrote such books as Riders of the Plague: The Story of the Conquest of Disease (1930) and Cancer: What Everyone Should Know About it (1932) – in addition to countless medical articles about cancer quacks, leprosy and venereal diseases in the army. So Dr. Tobey had a long, distinguished record as an authority on public health issues, but what has been forgotten today is that he once wrote a detective novel under the name of "James Z. Alner."

The Capital Murder (1932) was a truly obscure, virtually forgotten detective novel until Coachwhip reissued the book in 2018. A brand new paperback edition with an introduction and afterword by one of the Doyens of the Renaissance Age, Curt Evans.

The Capital Murder is more of a fascinating curiosity of the genre than one of its long-lost classic, but the detective-characters and structure of the plot were not without interest. The detectives are five distinguished members of the Serpentine Club, located in N Street, who were "directly interested" or "even involved in the science of criminology." These men are Commissioner Henry Selden, of the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, whose high-ranking position in Washington, DC, allowed his fellow club-members to play detective in an official police investigation.

An investigation primarily carried out by Trevor Stoke, an epidemiologist with the federal health service, assisted by "an utter nonentity," Jim, whose only purpose is to tell the story as Stoke's Dr. Watson – or, to be more precise, playing the S.S. van Dine to Stoke's Philo Vance. Other members are the Lieutenant Runy O'Mara of the United States Navy, Dr. Basil Ragland, an eminent psychiatrist, and a famous architect, Lance Starr-Smith. These men were gathered in the walled garden of the Serpentine Club on a warm June night, "six years ago," which fittingly places the story in the 1920s. Their discussion is cut short when they heard knocking against the garden door, "as if someone was knocking against it with a metallic instrument," followed by plaintive, agitated voice wailing "Madre de Dios." And what they find was a knife-handle protruding from the upper portion of the door.

A discovery followed by their attempts to deduce, what they came, from the dagger and wailing, but this is, again, cut short when an urgent message arrives summoning Selden to a house in Q Street.

An Argentinean woman, Beatrice Sigurda, was found dead "under conditions that are extremely suspicious" and murder is suspected. Sigurda was found by her servants, sitting upright, on a divan fully clothed with "a look of inexplicable horror" – two tiny puncture marks, a quarter of an inch apart, were found in the neck of the victim. A peculiar sort of poison appeared to have been employed here!

The Capital Murder was listed by the late Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991), which is where I learned of the book before it was republished, but this is not an impossible crime story. There are some locked room features to the murder, because the doors to the sitting room where either locked or blocked, but the window was open and a ladder was found in the garden. Someone used this ladder. More than once, but it was not the murderer. However, the trick the murderer used here was to create an alibi and not a locked room illusion. And the murder is never treated or even alluded to as an impossible crime. So, no, this is definitely not a locked room mystery.

Secondly, Curt noted in his introduction that the murder method in The Capital Murder somewhat anticipates "a celebrated slaying" in the debut novel by "a vastly better-known mystery writer from the 1930s," but this passing similitude is not as interesting as the semblance the basic plot has to a very well-known detective novel from the 1920s. No, it's not Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). This resemblance gave me an idea where to look for the murderer, but let's get back to the story.

Stoke and Jim become informal assistants to Detective Yates, of the D.C. Police, who looked the part of "the typical gum-shoe man" and chewed on the stump of a cigar, which brought Rex Stout's Inspector Cramer to mind, who never even lit his cigars – merely mangling them. Initially, Yakes is skeptical of Stokes and his methods, but slowly, he begins to warm to his schemes. And eventually even goes along with them. Stoke and Jim path to the solution to the murder is fraught with danger and excitement.

I would not go as far as the synopsis, saying the story has all "the rapid action" and "the breath-taking speed of the thriller," but the book can be summed up as darker, grimmer reimagining of A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922) with two friends getting into trouble while they attempt to track down a murderer. Just like The Red House Mystery, they only have a very swallow pool of suspects to work with. There are only three suspect: the gardener of the victim, Miguel San Remo, her neighbor, Professor Kent, and Dr. Roger Rollin. Naturally, these few suspects needlessly complicated the investigation by having been on, or around, the scene of the crime and they're all holding back why. This is what makes The Capital Murder a curiosity.

The Capital Murder is not only set in the 1920s, but really belongs to that era and particular the type of twenties detective novel that had not fully shaken the sensationalists elements of the Victorian era (c.f. the work of G.E. Locke). One of the very last chapters even has a Doylean flashback to an episode in Argentine, which finally revealed the motive for the murder. A motive you could never have deduced, or even guessed, from the investigation and this made the murderer all the more difficult to identity.

The murderer had a couple of clumsy slip-ups and there were some vague hints, here and there, but nothing constituting proper clueing or fair play. I really disliked how obliging the purportedly clever murderer was in helping drawing the noose tighter during the final confrontation with Stoke.

So, purely as a 1930s detective story, The Capital Murder came up a little short, but Alner deserves praise for how the murder weapon was handled. An "object of destruction" that could have dragged the whole book down to the level of a dime-store thriller, but I can accept how it was used here and it certainly helped the murder was not presented as a locked room mystery. Otherwise, the murder method would probably have struck me as a huge letdown.

Secondly, Curt Evans and Chad Arment, of Coachwhip Publications, deserve some praise for reprinting the book without scrubbing the "offensive renderings" or remarks of the non-white characters in the book – a tendency of the publishers when confronted with "the unfortunate temper of the times" in vintage crime fiction. Sanitizing these books only robs the reader of "a valuable and fascinating" record of "American and British literary and social history before World War II." So they reprinted the book, uncensored, with a fore-and afterword discussing the times and racial opinions aired by the characters in the book. I firmly believe this is how it should be done.

This makes me hopeful Coachwhip might take a look at W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932). A wildly original, pulp-like locked room novel with no less than three impossible crimes and eerily foreshadowed the assassination of the then former Louisiana governor Huey “The Kingfish” Long, but remember it being worse than The Capital Murder when it comes down to racial opinions of the characters. So the book was never reprinted and most publishers today would never touch it. However, it has a genuinely good plot with a series of imaginative and original impossible crimes and solutions, which deserves some recognition. At the very least, it should be accessible to readers who want to weigh and judge the book for themselves.

Well, let's take this poor, rambling review behind the shed and end it already. The Capital Murder is merely a curio of the genre with an uneven plot, wire-walking between the detective and thriller story, full of unlikely coincidences and completely unnecessary deaths. Even by detective story standards! You can even say it's a poor specimen of detective story, especially when compared to the other titles in the Coachwhip catalog, but it would be a lie to say it was a boring story. Hardly a technical masterpiece or an engrossing character study, but it entertained me for an hour or two.

Finally, I have gotten my hands of a much-praised and recently reissued mystery novel for my next read. So stay tuned!


The Laughing Cure: "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" (1979) by Jon L. Breen

A week ago, I reviewed Edward D. Hoch's Challenge the Impossible: The Final Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2018), which is the last collection of short stories about a retired New England medico, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, who begins every story with pouring a small libation before telling about one of the innumerable impossible crimes that plagued Northmont in the past – a small American town and locked room murder capital of the world. So with the publication of Challenge the Impossible there was nothing left to read in this series. Or is there?

Jon L. Breen is an award-winning mystery critic who took over The Jury Box column in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) from John Dickson Carr in 1977 and relinquished the column in 2011 to Steve Steinbock, but Breen is more than just a critic. Over the decades, Breen has penned over a 100 short stories and garnered a reputation as a "premier parody-pasticher" as he satirized his illustrious predecessors and contemporaries alike. Some of his parodies have been collected in Hair of the Sleuthhound (1982) and The Drowning Icecube and Other Stories (1999).

The Giant of the Short Story was not exempt from a friendly ribbing at the hands of Breen and in the November, 1979, issue of EQMM he aimed "the point of his pen at one of the favorite series characters in EQMM," Hoch's Dr. Sam Hawthorne.

"The Problem of the Vanishing Town," subtitled "A Chapter from the Memoirs of Dr. Sid Shoehorn, New England General Practitioner," takes place in the small town of Northsouth. A quiet, peaceful place where nothing ever happens except the absolute impossible. An inebriated Dr. Shoehorn begins his tale with relating some of the unholy miracles that have taken place in Northsouth and they're gems.

One day, "the public library disappeared overnight," leaving behind a vacant lot, but the disappearance was "a publicity stunt on the part of the librarian," who are "a militant lot," to protest budget cuts – she put it back the next day. Obviously, this story takes place in the same universe as Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979). A second incident that livened up a pleasantly dull Northsouth summer when an old man, Noah Zark, who claimed he was 2000 years old "challenged the Devil to a duel in the middle of the town square." But he was run through with "a pitchfork that came out of nowhere" in "full view of more than a hundred people." Why has nobody attempted to turn this premise into an actual story?

"The Problem of the Vanishing Town" takes place on a day in late August of 1928 and Dr. Shoehorn had delivered triplets that morning, attended to "a case of the black plague" and learned Sheriff Aperture got a telephone message saying that at three o'clock that afternoon "the whole town of Northsouth will disappear from the map." So they have to figure out how someone can make a whole town disappear.

I'm not sure whether, or not, "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" qualifies as an impossible crime story, because the plot only has a promise of an impossible situation. However, the explanation as to how the town of Northsouth eventually vanished, here played for laughs, could easily be used to explain the miraculous appearance of an entire town. So I decided to tag this post as a "locked room mystery" and "impossible crime," if only for being a parody of the Dr. Hawthorne series.

Since this is purely parody, there not much else I can say about "The Problem of the Vanishing Town," in terms of plotting or characterization, except that it's a fun, tongue-in-cheek treatment of one of Hoch's most popular and beloved series-characters. Crippen & Landru should have included it as a bonus story in Challenge the Impossible. Just like William Brittain's "The Men Who Read Isaac Asimov" in the posthumously published The Return of the Black Widowers (2005). So, long story short, "The Problem of the Vanishing Town" is unreservedly recommended to fans of Hoch and Dr. Hawthorne.

A note for the curious: one of the impossible murders Dr. Shoehorn casually described at the start of the story is the death of a clown, who was "mauled by a lion on the fifth floor of the Northsouth Hotel" when "the lion was in his cage five blocks away" – which was deemed "kind of interesting" by Dr. Shoehorn. Hoch picked up the challenge and turned this idea into a short story, entitled "Circus in the Sky," which was published in Scenes of Crime (2000). So I'll see if I can track down that story for one of my next short story reviews.

Next up on this blog is a review of a very obscure mystery novels from the 1930s that was reprinted last year.


Kirin's Horn: Case Closed, vol. 68 by Gosho Aoyama

The 68th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, published in the non-English speaking world as Detective Conan, begins with the final chapter of the story that closed the previous volume and has one of those which-of-the-three setups littering the series, but here it was poorly executed with a painfully obvious solution – resulting in an incredibly mediocre story. Luckily, the next two stories are much better.

The plot of the second story centers on another ill-fated attempt by Rachel to get her estranged parents, Richard Moore and Eva Kaden, back together and the birthday of her mother provides her with an opportunity. Rachel has won a weekend getaway at the Shizuoka Seaside Hotel, which is a perfect location for a small, intimate birthday party, but the series murder-magnet, Conan, tagged along with Rachel, Richard and Eva. So a murder interrupting the birthday party is a question of when, not if.

Eva Kaden is a busy, successful attorney at law and had to reschedule an important meeting to the hotel where she was having her birthday party.

Kaden's client are a former model, Akiho Kokubu, who has been the victim of a stalker and her husband, Takehiko Kokubu. Their appointment was to arrange an out-of-court settlement with the mother of the man who was stalking her, all of whom are in the hotel, but, before their scheduled meeting can take place, Akiho's body "appeared out of nowhere" in Kaden's hotel room when she was taking a shower – which is patently impossible. The hotel room has a door that can only be opened with a key card and has a small window without a balcony. So how did the murderer enter or leave the locked room?

The problem of the locked room is practically immediately solved, but this answer reveals a second problem hiding underneath it. How could the murderer have carried out a certain task requiring two, or more, people? One of the clues gave me an idea how this could have been done, but failed to completely envision the trick before it was revealed. So a good, richly clued story with a sugary ending.

The third story marks the return of my favorite recurring side-character, Jirokichi Sebastian, who's Serena Sebastian's rich uncle and sworn nemesis of that infamously elusive thief, Kaito KID. Jirokichi has attempted to capture KID numerous times, such as in volumes 44, 61 and 65, but it was Conan who, time and time again, prevented KID from getting away with a valuable object – something that gave the old man an idea. Jirokichi has gotten the traditional warning note from KID promising that, when the moon is full, he'll appear again "to take the Kirin's Horn," but this time he had added a post-script. A post-script asking Jirokichi to "put aside childish things" and "settle this like men."

Jirokichi deduces from this that he wants adults present, not children, because "children are Kaito KID's weakness." After all, not even a master of disguise, like KID, can pass himself off as a child. So he places Conan and the Junior Detective League in the limelight. Admittedly, this was certainly the most original way to shoehorn them into a case without them just being there. Conan remained surprisingly cool-headed in the face of all those rollings news camera considering that it could blow his cover wide open. Anita at least pulled her hoodie over her head, but Conan like a deer in the headlights.

Anyway, the Kirin's Horn is "a rare piece of amber" containing "a seed that's ten of thousands of years old," which was recently discovered in a shrine constructed by the devilishly ingenious 19th century craftsman, Kichiemon Samizu – whose "tricky devises" has given Conan and KID hard times on several occasions. However, the presence of his long-dead hand, sort of, gave away the mechanics of the plot.

Nevertheless, the impossible situation that emerged from this setup was an intriguing one: the Kirin's Horn is part of a statue, well hidden inside a mechanical pillar, which stands in the middle of a small room with four differently colored pedestals in each corner. All of these pedestals have keyholes and the four colored keys have to be turned at the exactly the same time to make the statue inside the pillar appear. Jirokichi ordered an electrical current to be placed on the pedestals and placed members of the Junior Detective League in front of the keyholes. Finally, Jirokichi nailed the keys into the wall with a big staple.

Well, in spite of all the security measures, the lights go out as predicted and it takes KID only a minute to steal the horn, but he has a problem, because the trap is sprung and he's trapped inside the shrine – along with the police, a film crew and Jirokichi. Uncharacteristically, KID has taken Conan out with a taser and spends most of the story lying in the middle of the room, like John Kramer, but why?

Seriously, I began to suspect KID had gotten his hands on some short-term APTX 4869 and had taken Conan's place, which would be perfectly acceptable within this universe and this would explain why Anita and Conan acted differently towards the news cameras. You know, KID would look practically identical to Conan as a child. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case and the explanation showed a little but more ingenuity. The locked room trick is mainly a mechanical one, which is hardly a spoiler, but still required enough subterfuge and manipulation of the situation to not make the mechanical aspect feel like a cop-out.

As a bonus, KID gives the reader a second locked room mystery when he appears to be trapped, but simply vanishes when the lights go out for a second or two! The solution is very comic book-like, but have come across it before in a short story and admired the skillfully placed red herring that made it very easy to overlook the solution.

Admittedly, this is far from the best story with either Jirokichi, KID or the lingering presence of Kichiemon Samizu, but still found this to be a wonderfully imagined, cleverly constructed and enjoyable story.

Regrettably, this volume is book-ended by two incredibly mediocre stories and the final story deals with a purse snatcher, disguised in a goofy-looking Hyottoko mask, who targets tori-no-ichi markets and his latest victim is Rachel's best friend, Serena Sebastian – who's determined to get revenge. So they're present when the purse snatcher wounds a man with knife and the victim, before losing conscious, gives Conan a cryptic, near-death-message. However, Western readers rarely have a shot solving the codes or dying messages in this, because they nearly impossible to translate. And this story is no different. So that probably detracted something from this pretty average, uninspired which-of-the-three detective story.

All in all, this was a fairly balanced volume with weak stories opening and closing this collection, but wedged in between you'll find two solid cases and one of them has appearances of some of my favorite recurring side-characters. And those two stories were more than enough to leave me satisfied.


Goodnight Irene (2018) by James Scott Byrnside

Back in 2015, "JJ" of The Invisible Event began a semi-regular blog-series, "Adventures in Self-Publishing," in which he examines independently published detective novels and with the exception of a few clunkers, like The Message in a Bottle (2017) by Merapi Omnut, the quality has been above average from what you'd normally expect from self-published works – most notably Lee Sheldon's Impossible Bliss (2001). Recently, he discussed a novel this series of blog-posts that sounded too good to ignore.

JJ opened 2019 with a review of James Scott Byrnside's Goodnight Irene (2018), a self-published locked room mystery, which he described as "an absolute belter" with "increasingly bizarre and unfathomable crimes" in an isolated house reminiscent of "the pell-mell craziness" of Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935). That alone was enough to get my attention, but then Byrnside turned up in the comments to say he wasn't "interested in writing anything except impossible crime." So that got him fast-tracked to the snow-capped peak of Mt. To-be-Read. Sorry Robert Innes and Adam Roberts. I'll get around to you two eventually.

Goodnight Irene is an ambitiously written, intricately plotted detective novel, certainly for a debut, which generally means the opening chapters are easier to discuss than the later. Here, it's the other way around.

The story opens with a prologue set in Chicago, 1907, giving the reader a glimpse of an appalling crime before moving twenty years ahead, to 1927, when a private-detective, Rowan Manory, made "a terrible error in judgment"  that has caused "irreparable harm" – effectively putting him out of commission for months. Five months later, Manory receives a letter from Robert Lasciva from Vicksburg, Mississippi, who received a death threat in the mail. A threat promising Lasciva will be murdered during the weekend of his fifty-fifth birthday and the murderer will be a guest at his party.

Lasciva has organized "a small, tight-knit celebration" at his remote estate, high upon a ridge, between the Bayou Pierre Mounds and Fort Hill with only one read leading up to the place. There are only three guests, a business associate and staff besides the two detectives of the story.

The guests are an elderly aunt, Bernice Lasciva, and a long-lost English nephew, Charles Lasciva, who brought along his wife, Margaret. Jack Tellum is Robert Lasciva's bodyguard, while Ruth Martice and Willie Aikes respectively fulfill the duties of private-secretary and butler/driver. The party is rounded out by his lawyer, Paul Daniels. Manory decides to take the case, not only for the much-needed three-thousand dollar fee, but the link his client has with the long-forgotten crime from the 1907 prologue and the untimely death of his mother – which probably gives you the impression that the book is a dark, grim and brooding historical crime novel. Goodnight Irene is definitely written in the traditional of the nicotine-stained, booze-fueled American pulp story, but the two main characters have a sense of humor and their comments often lighten the mood.

Coming next...
Manory has an assistant and friend, Walter Williams, who banter back and forth like a couple of married detectives from the comedic mystery novels of Kelley Roos and Herbert Resnicow. And this never strikes a false, jarring note with the pitch-black plot-strands. I believe Byrnside's talent as a writer is in straddling the various forms and tropes of the genre without turning the story and plot in a Frankenstein monstrosity.

Goodnight Irene begins to resemble a classically-situated, traditionally-styled detective story when Jack Tellum is poisoned and mumbles, what proves to be, a dying message, "choke, choke," which is funny coming from a character named Tellum (Tell 'Em). Very subtle, Byrnside. Very subtle. A note is found on Tellem saying "two are now dead" and promising two more "shall perish" before dawn. That second body belongs to the host, Robert Lasciva, whose decapitated body is found clad in a heavy, ancient and costly suit of armor in his office – three feet away sat the helmet propped up with a battle-ax by its side. There are no windows in the office and the door was locked with the key sticking in the lock on the inside.

Lasciva had been in the room with his aunt, Bernice, but the elderly lady could not have committed the murder, because she was physically unable to swing the big battle-ax and there's another problem. When the door was broken down, Bernice had disappeared from the locked, windowless room! What a brilliantly posed, double-edged impossible situation. A third, quasi-impossibility is thrown in for good measure when body parts are found, but the dismembered victim was not a member of the party and the house became inaccessible to outsiders when a flood washed away the only bridge to the mainland.

On a side note, Goodnight Irene is set during the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, known as The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which left over 700,000 people homeless, approximately 500 people dead and caused $1 billion in damages. The town of Vicksburg, Mississippi, was one of the places that was flooded in 1927 and is depicted in the story as being drowned in twenty-five feet of water, covering "any signs of civilization," except for a roof or tree here and there. The deluge had even "unearthed the contents of Beulah Cemetery" and forced "the coffins to travel through the town like some unholy pastiche of a funeral procession." These scenes reminded me of the devastating flood in Zelda Popkin's criminally underrated Dead Man's Gift (1941).

Byrnside dedicated Goodnight Irene to one of the uncrowned Queen's of Crime, Christianna Brand, stating that she may not have been "the most prolific or celebrated mystery writer," but "she was the best" and the plot slyly winks to Brand – draping another layer over this peculiarly structured detective story. A detective story that could have been penned by Bill Pronzini and plotted by Paul Halter, but paying homage to a mystery writer whose only flaw is that she didn't write enough detective stories.

The plot has some minor imperfections, such as a rushed ending and words ("pixilated") or phrases ("Five more minutes, Mom") that are or feel out-of-place in 1927, but overall, the quality of this self-published debut novel that I can easily dismiss those flaws as growing pains of a promising mystery writer. If there's anything to complain about, it's the routine solution to the locked office. The dying message of the bodyguard, the reason why the body in the locked room was clad in an armor suit, the disappearance of Bernice, the dismembered remains and the link to the crime from 1907 are all superbly handled, but have seen this locked room-trick more than once – one of the clues made it blatantly obvious this trick was being used. So that was a little bit disappointing.

Byrnside took an ambitious first stab at the detective story with Goodnight Irene and the result is an unconventional historical mystery novel, steeped in the offbeat style of the American pulps, but written around the skeletal frame of the traditional detective story and everything fitted together perfectly. Most promisingly, the solution to the dismembered remains is something you expect to find in a Japanese shin honkaku (neo-orthodox) detective novel. So, hopefully, Goodnight Irene is not only the auspicious beginning of the next John Dickson Carr or Paul Halter, but also the beginning of the end of the current Renaissance Period with the dawn of a Second Golden Age looming on the horizon. No pressure, Byrnside.