8/7/20

An American Tragedy: Q.E.D, vol. 10 by Motohiro Katou

Seven months ago, I began my review of Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. volume 4 with a belated New Year's resolution, namely to reach volume 10 before 2020 draws to a close, which came sooner than imagined with a little less than five months to go – opening the way to end 2020 with a review of volume 20. This should be doable if I discuss volumes 11-20 as twofer reviews. But lets take a look at volume 10 first!

I've commented in previous reviews that Q.E.D. is practically incomparable the other, more well-known, anime-and manga detective series, because Motohiro Katou took such a radically different approach to characterization, plotting and storytelling-and structure than Case Closed, Detective Academy Q and The Kindaichi Case Files. The tenth volume honors this reputation with one of the most atypical anime/manga detective stories. Yes, I've said that before about previous volumes, but this is truly something else. And for various reasons.

Firstly, the previous ten volumes all comprised of two stories, spread out over two longish chapters, but volume 10 is one long, novel-length story, "In the Hand of the Witch," which is a prequel story that takes place in Salem, Massachusetts – where 300 years ago "the famous witch hunts started in America." So you might reasonable expect a detective story drenched in the lore of witchcraft and witch hunts, but the story is one of murder trial with all the courtroom shenanigans and wizardry of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason. You never see a good, old-fashioned courtroom dramas in these anime/manga detective series.

"In the Hand of the Witch" begins with the return of Sou Touma's younger sister, Yuu Touma, who was introduced in volume 6. She came back to Japan with a postcard that was delivered to her brother's address in the United States and she needed an excuse to visit Touma, but he's not home when she arrives. So she begins to tell Kana Mizuhara the story of the case he had been involved in when he was a 10-year-old child prodigy at MIT. A case that happened five years ago.

At the time, the 10-year-old Touma held a part-time job inputting data for the Massachusetts' District Attorney office where comes into contact with a young and ambitious prosecutor, Annie Craner, who's about to make her courtroom debut.

Craner has been placed in charge of the Marcus Osborne murder case and is tasked with prosecuting and securing a conviction against their suspect, Mrs. Sarah Osborne, who was found to be all alone with the body of her husband when two local policemen on patrol heard a gunshot coming from the Osborne mansion – perched at the end of a cape in Salem. The roads coming in and out of the cape were barricaded and a mountain hunt was conducted without result. So the only person who could have shot Marcus Osborne was his wife. Sharah was a devout member of a dubious organization, The Path to Arcadia, which taught "self-enhancement through the cosmic forces" and "donated a lot of money" to the group.

The police "suspected she killed her husband for the inheritance" and was taken into custody a week later.
 
An easy, slum-dunk case that a young prosecutor can put on their resume, but the oafish, incompetent-looking and nameless defense attorney is giving her an unexpectedly tough fight. A character halfway between Gardner's Perry Mason and Craig Rice's John J. Malone, who not only begins to punch holes in Craner's case, but drops a bombshell in the middle of the courtroom with an alternative solution! A (false) solution backed by ballistic evidence. And on top of that, the public opinion begins to turn against Craner as she's being accused of conducting a modern-day witch hunt.

It takes an astute observation from Touma to put Craner's case back on track, but Touma acts mostly as background character struggling whether, or not, he should help a troubled student, because he sees himself as "a bringer of misfortune" – who always ends up hurting the people around him. Touma is depicted here as a child with too much weight on his shoulder, which gives the story a dark edge. Particularly in the light of the tragic conclusion of the story and trial. Something that had a "profound influence" on him.

So, character-wise, "In the Hand of the Witch" is an important entry in the series and the solution to the murder has some clever and even ingenious ideas, such as where the murder weapon was hidden, but the scheme had too many loose nuts and bolts rattling around to make it convincingly work. Some of those loose nuts and bolts depended on a large repository of pure, undiluted cosmic luck and planning to either obtain or make them work the way it did. This made the murder look more like a reckless gamble than a carefully planned crime and ruined, what could have been, a first-class cat-and-mouse courtroom drama.

Yeah, the plot-technical side of this volume was slightly disappointing with bits and pieces that were hard to swallow, but the storytelling and characterization were as fascinating and surprising as usual. How many of these anime/manga detective series would reduce their main protagonists to background characters in the longest story of the series? A story with a sequel, of sorts, that will be told in the second chapter of volume 12. So you can very likely expect a twofer review of volumes 11 and 12 sometime later this month.

8/6/20

The House of the Red Slayer (1992) by Paul Doherty

Paul Doherty's The House of the Red Slayer (1992) is the second novel in the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan series, originally published as by "Paul Harding," which opens with a prologue, set in 1362, showing Moorish pirates capturing a carrack in the Middle Sea and massacring the passengers – pilgrims, merchants, travelers and tinkers. A gruesome, long-forgotten episode that would nonetheless lead to more bloodshed nearly two decades later.

A "murderously cold" wind swept over London in December, 1377, which despite the ice and hail is supposed to be "a time of innocence and warmth," but Sir Ralph Whitton, Constable of the Tower of London, exchanged his comfortable quarter for a grim cell in the North Bastion tower. The stairway to the room is guarded by two trusted retainers with the door between the steps and the passageway securely locked. Sir Ralph and his guards are the only people with keys to the doors.

The reason for these security measures is that Sir Ralph receives "a drawing of a three-masted cog" together with "a flat sesame seed cake," which frightened him enough to lock himself up. Sir Ralph also doubled the wages of his guards and insisted that visitors be searched, but the moat underneath the tower window became frozen solid – opening a pathway to his assassin. An assassin who climbed the wall using the footholds cut into the tower, prized open the wooden shutters with a dagger and killed the sleeping Sir Ralph. A possible matter of treason that brings Sir John Cranston, Lord Coroner of London, to the Tower of London with his scribe, Brother Athelstan.

The House of the Red Slayer is surprisingly conventionally-structured during most of the first half of the story with Sir Ralph's family-and social circle filling the small pool of suspects.

There's his daughter, Philippa, who's betrothed to Geoffrey Parchmeiner. A young man who enjoyed the approval and trust of his prospective father-in-law. A brother, Sir Fulke Whitton, who can expect to inherit a chunk of his estate. A mute Moorish servant, Rastani, whose conversion to Christianity is doubted and has a reason to harbor a grudge against his master. Gilbert Colebrooke is his disgruntled lieutenant and wanted Sir Ralph's post for himself. A chaplain, William Hammond, whom Sir Ralph "caught selling food stocks from the Tower stores." Finally, there are two friends of Sir Ralph, Sir Gerard Mowbray and Sir Brian Fitzormonde, who are now hospitaller knights, but served with Sir Ralph in Egypt.

So most of the first half of the story is told as a traditional, Golden Age-style detective story with its focus primarily on the mysterious murder in the tower room and there only two, very minor, subplots dangling in the background – concerning Cranston's marital problems and the desecration of Athelstan's churchyard. The Great Community is "plotting treason and rebellion" in the shadows, but these plot-strands barely have a presence.

Doherty is a cruel God who cannot be appeased, or satisfied, with a single, measly corpse and the wholesale bloodletting in the prologue proved to have been the soup severed before the meal.

A second victim slipped from a parapet and spattered his brains on the sharp, icy cobbles below, which coincided with the sounding of the tocsin bell, but that "great brass tongue only tolled when the Tower was under attack." Something that was not the case and when the soldiers went to investigate, they found only "the claw marks of the ravens" in the snow surrounding the bell! A minor impossibility of the no-footprints variety with a simple, but good, explanation. After this second murderer stops being subtly and the murders that follow are even by Doherty's standard savagely brutal and gory, which is underlined by his unfurnished depiction of the times.

Doherty doesn't romanticize the past and has no problem with the showing the stinking streets, the heaps of human waste and the unwashed masses or how the frost tortured the wandering lepers and slaying beggars huddled in their rags – while the blackened corpses of river pirates hung picturesquely from the low scaffolds. And remember that this is supposed to be a Christmas-themed mystery novel!

Regrettably, The House of the Red Slayer is a better historical novel than a detective story, because the murderer is not is difficult to spot or hard to figure out who this person was in the prologue and motivated this person. But it was admirable the way in which Doherty tried to misdirect the reader by presenting one of the murders in a very different light than you would expect from him, but that's what immediately aroused my suspicion. Once you look at that murder as a [redacted], there's only one person who could have done it. So, yeah, I didn't reach the same conclusion as Brother Athelstan with a dazzling piece of armchair reasoning, but the scant clueing made that nigh impossible anyway.

The House of the Red Slayer is one of those Doherty novels that is strong on historical content and writing, but have weak clueing and a plot that is easy to pick apart. So not the strongest title in the series, but, as a historical novel presented as a detective story, it's a very immersive read and the idea to "camouflage" one of the murders was a genuinely clever touch. Even if it can give the whole game away to a reader who has consumed an unholy amount of detective fiction.

8/3/20

Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair and Other Stories (1998) by Roy Templeman

Roy Templeman's "Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room" is one of three novella-length pastiches, collected in Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair (1998), which came to my attention when reading a fascinating description of the plot in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) – a theft from "a locked trophy house" protected with "trip wires, booby traps and a flock of geese." A bit of detective work revealed that two of the three stories are impossible crime tales! So on the pile it went.

I've never been a huge fan of pastiches and only handful of writers, like Jon L. Breen, Edward D. Hoch and Arthur Porges, wrote pastiches that truly honored or even added to the original source material instead of staining it. Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu's "The Book Case" (2007) with a 100-year-old Ellery Queen is a good example of a pastiche that should considered canon. More often than not, they're nothing more than glorified fan fiction or aspiring authors hitching their wagons to classic, ready-made characters. This is something that's especially true for Sherlock Holmes pastiches, which has become somewhat of a cottage industry.

There is, however, a third, much rarer, kind of pastiche. Pastiches with either good plots, ideas or writing that were depreciated by being presented as imitations.

Templeman's three Sherlock Holmes pastiches definitely fall into this category and can't help but feel that these stories would have been better remembered today, particularly among locked room fans, had he created an original detective character – like a modern-day Rival of Sherlock Holmes. Either that or he should have tried selling the impossible crime ideas to David Renwick, because these stories would have worked remarkably well as Jonathan Creek episodes. Something tells me Templeman had at least watched the first season before he began working on the stories.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair" is the first of the three stories and opens with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson being summoned by Mycroft Holmes to have a private interview with the Prime Minister and a cabinet member, Sir Simon Clayton. Sir Simon has bizarre story to tell of, what could be, either "a huge confidence trick" or "a world-shattering discovery which could topple Empire." Great Britain could be at "great peril" from it.

Sir Simon recently rekindled an old friendship with a crony from his university days, Rodger Hardy, who came from a family of industrialists with "a flair for invention," but the family went bankrupt and the ancestral home, Halam Hall, became a ruin. Rodger had gone abroad and nothing was seen of him for years until, one day, he turned up again to invite Sir Simon, to Halam Hall, where he wished to show him something. And that something was a sight to behold! Halam Hall is "an unbalanced architectural mongrel" that had been flogged over the decades with the whims of fashion and individual tastes, which includes an underground ballroom that was left unfinished and down there ten grinning Chinamen were constructing "a full-sized ocean-going wooden junk" – over fifty feet in length. But why was he spending six months to construct a large boat in a place where there was no hope of ever getting it out?

Rodger asked Sir Simon to come down every month to observe its construction and promises all
will be revealed upon completion. When the time comes, the completed vessel was surrounded by poles and caged in with strands of copper wire, which appeared to make a buzzing sound. Rodger told his friend the junk is being "electrically energised" and invited him to join him for dinner, but, when they returned two hours later, the huge Chinese junk that had taken up the whole space of the ballroom had simply vanished into thin air. A situation that becomes even more impossible when Rodger drives Sir Simon to the River Thames where the newly build ship was floating on the water.

 
So what's the catch? Rodger claims to have invented a way to transpose "matter through space by means of converting solids, by electricity, into waves, which could then be converted back again into the original solid state." And he's willing to part with the secret for the then astronomical sum of one million pounds. British government wants Sherlock Holmes to find out whether they've got the hands on paradigm shifting invention or if they're being trick, which means finding an explanation how the vessel was removed from the underground ballroom to which the door was "too small to allow exit." And how it reappeared on the River Thames.

A neatly posed locked room puzzle cleverly making use of the underground ballroom, because it immediately excluded the possibility that the architectural monstrosity housed two large, identical rooms – promising something more original than a simple piece of misdirection. I'm glad to report that the solution delivered on the promise made by its premise and the locked room-trick made this story the most Jonathan Creek-like in the collection. No idea why it wasn't included in Locked Room Murders: Supplement.

Unfortunately, "Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair" also has some flaws and shortcomings preventing it from becoming a true (locked room) classic.

Sherlock Holmes only deduces the motive behind the scheme, but has to relay on subterfuge to find out how the vessel disappeared from the ballroom and reappeared again on the Thames, which came at the expense of the clueing. So what should have been a how-was-it-done type of puzzle detective story becomes a story about a detective tackling a massive locked room mystery. You can only make an educated guess how it was done. A second problem is that the story is a little overwritten with modern attitudes bleeding through in certain parts, which is true for all three stories in this collection. Each story could have been told in half the number of pages without compromising the plots. Still a highly enjoyable story with an originally worked out impossible crime.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Tick-Tock Man" is pretty much a (historical) travelogue of the Peaks District, Derbyshire, where Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are spending a holiday when they begin to hear about the mysterious death of an old, German watchmaker – who was found in his ransacked home with a head wound. The doctor concluded that the wound was not fatal and that he had died of heart failure, but the villagers believed it was "an unnatural death." A believe strengthened by escaped pet raven of the old watchmaker who has been frantically screaming, "tick tock, tick tock, tick tock. Kiefernzapfen, kiefernzapfen, kiefernzapfen," around the village. The message of the raven turns out to be a dying message by proxy that reveals where the old man had hidden his money, but most of the story has Holmes and Watson soaking in the local color and history. There's a darkly humorous anecdote about a mischievous parrot and the history of "the plague village," Eyam, which is remembered for the way "the god-fearing folk contained the pestilence" by isolating themselves that stopped the plague from spreading to other nearby villages. Here's to your memory, Eyam.

So a very minor, but readable enough, story with a simplistic, paper-thin plot and a holidaying detective that makes it one of Holmes' least exciting and memorable cases.

"Sherlock Holmes and the Tick-Tock Man" convinced me Templeman is either a schoolteacher or an (amateur) historian, but probably a teacher, because I heard the voice of a teacher every time one of these stories slipped into lecture mode.

The last story is the one that got listed in Locked Room Murders: Supplement, "Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room," in which Holmes is consulted by Viscount Siddems who recently returned from India with a collection of trophies and eastern armory – building a trophy house-cum-armour museum to store the collection. Viscount Siddems had his house burgled and this made him decide to protect his trophy house, built a few hundred yards away from the hall, with "man-traps, trip-wires to set off shot guns" and "a flock of geese." Geese were used in Roman times as watchdogs because the slightest unusual sound would set up "an unholy honking."

However, these securities measures didn't stop a thief from walking up the trophy house, unlocking the door with a key and taking a Japanese shield from the wall without setting off the flock of geese. So the viscount doubled the number of traps, shotguns and fixed bells to the trip-wire, but the thief simply took away another shield. But how?

Just like the opening story, "Sherlock Holmes and the Trophy Room" shows a lot of ingenuity and originality with how it presents the impossible situation, but this time that's not reflected in the explanation. Such an elaborate setup requires a scrap of cleverness to either put the traps out of commission or circumvent them with a way to keep the geese quiet, but the solution, while perfectly workable and logical, was a little too facile. And underwhelming. Luckily, the reason behind the thefts was good and something Arsène Lupin would have warmly approved of.

So, as some of you probably noticed, my take on the individual stories don't seem to align with the opening of this review, but I believe the flaws and shortcomings of these three stories were enlarged by being pastiches. It comes with certain expectations that Templeman was unable to live up to. But had he created his own detective characters, Templeman could have told his stories on his own terms with the result being something along the lines of Hal White's The Mysteries of Reverend Dean (2008), Andrew May's The Case of the Invisible College and Other Mysteries (2012) and Stephen Leather's The Eight Curious Cases of Inspector Zhang (2014). I think originally created detective characters would have softened some of its flaws.

After all, even as pastiches these were superior detective stories, especially the first one, compared to most what was being published at the time.

Sherlock Holmes and the Chinese Junk Affair and Other Stories is not a timeless classic by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a well intended collection of stories written by an enthusiastic amateur with a commendable interest in locked room puzzles – something that was too rare in the nineties. So recommended to the ferocious locked room reader and addicted Sherlockian who'll read everything with the name of the Great Detective printed on it.

7/31/20

The Sulu Sea Murders (1933) by Van Wyck Mason

The Fort Terror Murders (1931) served as my introduction to both the pulpy, spy-tinged crime fiction of Francis van Wyck Mason and an exceedingly rare, well hidden subcategory of the locked room and military mystery novel – set in lonely, desolate army posts and fortresses. Since then, I've found two more novels that belong to this very specific subcategory, George Limnelius' The Medbury Fort Murder (1929) and Mason Wright's The Army Post Murders (1931).

Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) appended that list with a fourth novel, Van Wyck Mason's The Sulu Sea Murders (1933), which described the locked room problem as the "shooting of a man alone in a room at the guarded top of a tower on a military base." The military base here is a godforsaken outpost on a small, sultry island, Sanga Sanga, on the edge of the Sulu Sea in the southwestern Philippines.

The Sulu Sea Murders is the seventh title in the Captain Hugh North series and begins with Captain North listening to the dying words of a pearl diver, George Lee, who had been shot at a dive bar, but the only substantial thing Lee can tell him is that the shooter had a butterfly tattooed on his arm – mostly rambling and raving about a sunken ship, pearls and the "blue dog's belly." So its up to Captain North, an intelligence officer of the Department of Criminal Investigations, to apprehend his murderer. A task bringing him to the gates of Fort Winfield.

Fort Windfield is an old Spanish fortress, nicknamed Killers' Castle, where the "withering, nerve-blasting heat" made "killing easy" and the natives say that the fort has been unlucky ever since "the bleeding hands of Spanish slaves" had reared its solid walls. A commander during Spanish times had gone on a killing spree and there have always been "an unholy lot of suicides," which makes "a sinister Jolly Roger" more suitable to raise on the top of the guard tower than the Stars and Stripes of the United States. A bad reputation that scarcely improved under the iron rule of the unpopular, much despised commanding officer, Major John Flood.

Captain North feels upon his arrival that something is not quite right, because normally, men tucked away in distant corners of the world welcomed strangers and particularly an army legend, like North, but the "weary, heat-tortured men" reminded him of card players "interrupted by an intruder" – right before a game for high stakes. Why is everyone so interested in the barometer dropping? These are the first signs that the case is not going to be as easy as Captain North had hoped.

The man who killed George Lee is quickly identified as Private Paul Laval, of B Company, who's placed under arrest and confesses to have shot the diver during an argument. But what Captain North learns too late is Laval's past circus career as an acrobat, escape artist and human-fly. When goes to check on the prisoner, Laval had indeed found a way out and left behind a dead guard. A second, practically identical, murder soon follows with the victim dying with that strange phrase on his lips, "blue dog's belly."

The Sulu Sea Murders actually comprises of two different, intertwined, story lines tied together in the last few chapters, but the contrast between the first and second half of the book showed how much this series occupied the borderlands between the adventure, detective, espionage and pulp fiction – colored with the palette of the regional mystery novel. The first half is a mild adventure/thriller with an escaped murderer running loose on "a postage-stamp island" and Captain North eavesdropping military style or diving to the sunken ship without any equipment, which gave the book one of its best and most memorable scenes. Captain North is presented as someone who's as much at home on the pages of an adventure story as he would be tangling with villains in James Bond-style spy thriller, but the second half revealed him to be somewhat of a Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Thorndyke!

After the second murder, the primary suspect is kept in protective custody in one of the top rooms of the tower, guards posted at the stairs, with the only other way up being two hundred feet of unbroken masonry. A physically demanding wall to climb and impossible to complete without being seen by the sentries below, but the person who was held there was found with his head blown to pieces. However, the description from Locked Room Murders: Supplement wrongly described that the victim had been all alone, which is incorrect, but a chemical experiment eliminated this suspect when it showed his gun had not fired the fatal shot. Captain North also relies on his scientific knowledge to crack the locked room problem, but not before carefully constructing and then having to discard a "once glittering theory." A unexpected, but nicely done, false-solution.

The correct solution to the shooting at the top of the guarded tower was and unexpectedly good, and interesting, trick, but not for the usual reasons.

Van Wyck Mason shamelessly "borrowed" from two short impossible crime stories written by the same, highly regarded, writer, but I detest those two stories and finding out that their solutions were melted together here to create a superior locked room-trick earned him my forgiveness – because he showed how these tricks should have been used in the first place. Although some will likely disagree with me on that point. But there's more to the second half than the impossible shooting.

I already mentioned Captain North conducting experiments and building theories, but there's also a surprisingly amount of clueing and fair play that almost makes you forget certain details were glossed over. The Sulu Sea Murders has a busy plot and might have missed a thing, or two, but don't believe it was ever explained how exactly Laval got out of his prison cell. You can say he was an escape artist, but the cells are inside a centuries old fortress with thick walls, arrow slit windows and iron eyes where prisoners were shackled to back in the days. So you have to show how exactly he was able to escape. Another thing that remained unexplained is who bandaged the wounded pearl diver.

Nevertheless, in spite of these smudges on some of the finer details, the main plotlines were clearly stated and resolves in a highly readable blend of the traditional, Golden Age detective story and the pulp-style adventure thriller. And these two different styles came together in a spectacular way when Captain North tried to lay a trap for the murderer. Sometimes things don't go exactly as planned! This all helped make The Sulu Sea Murders the best I've read so far by Mason and will be hard to beat as my personal favorite Captain Hugh North title, but The Yellow Arrow Murders (1932), The Hong Kong Airbase Murders (1937) and The Munitions Ship Murders (1941) all look promising. There's always Mason's standalone locked room mystery novel, Spider House (1932). So this blog hasn't seen the last of Mason or Captain North.

7/29/20

Murder Jigsaw (1944) by E. and M.A. Radford

So this was supposed to be a review of Todd Downing's penultimate detective novel, Death Under the Moonflower (1939), but the poor, mind-numbingly boring storytelling and pacing ruined, what could have easily been, an excellent mystery novel – quickly becoming a chore to get through. A dizzying plunge in quality from Murder on the Tropic (1935) and The Last Trumpet (1937)!

So I abandoned Death Under the Moonflower and started looking around for a palate cleanser, which brought me to the recently revived Edwin and Mona A. Radford. A husband-and-wife writing team who followed in the footsteps of R. Austin Freeman with a competent, long-running series of forensic detective novels.

Murder Jigsaw (1944) is the second novel featuring their series-detective, Dr. Harry Manson, who's the head of the Scotland Yard Crime Research Laboratory, Medical Jurisprudist of the national Police Force and the author of a number of standard works on different "branches of the Pathological side of criminal investigation" – while holding the rank of Chief Detective-Inspector. A scientific detective with a remarkable diverseness of knowledge with dry-fly fishing as his only pastime. This hobby of his was nicely dovetailed with his work as a forensic investigator in Murder Jigsaw.

The Tremarden Arms is a Cornish fishing hotel where Dr. Manson had planned to spend a short leave on the water, but ended up solving "a problem that had puzzled the Cornish police for weeks" when an unpopular hotel guest got himself killed.

Colonel Donoughmore is one of those stock-in-trade characters whose only purpose in a detective story is to provide the other characters with motives to want to shoot, stab, strangle or bludgeon them to death, but the murderer in this case was a bit more subtle about it. This murderer didn't resort to the sure-fire bullets from an old service pistol or a dagger snatched from a curio cabinet, but staged an accident that certainly had the local police fooled. Apparently, the colonel had fallen down a steep, dangerous slope and had struck his head on the way down – where he was found floating, face down, below the surface of the water. Dr. Manson observes too many coincidences and he has "a very profound suspicion of coincidence." Even more so when "it is connected with police matters." And he has to go over the heads of the local authorities to continue his investigation.

A painstaking and meticulous examination of every microscopic clue, detail and fact that comes to light during the investigation.

Dr. Manson attends the autopsy that reveals tiny, green-colored objects in the victim's throat and lung-and stomach content, which is analyzed and comes back with an answer that leaves no doubt that the colonel was murdered. More interestingly, Dr. Manson has a portable laboratory, known as his "Box of Tricks," which he uses to collect and analyze various samples. He also uses the marvels of forensic science to make a well-hidden fingerprint appear on an object that previously showed "no trace of prints." The forensic detective work and scientific deductions done by Dr. Manson betrayed just how much of fan Edwin Radford was of Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke. And, if I remember correctly, the forensic detection in Murder Jigsaw is somewhat similar to Dr. Thorndyke's investigation in The D'Arblay Mystery (1926).

But to erase any doubt that Murder Jigsaw belongs to the much maligned "Humdrum" school, the Radfords had Dr. Manson meticulously pick apart "a carefully prepared alibi" in the tradition of Freeman Wills Crofts. So some of you are probably throwing up your hands in desperation, but, if you dislike the Humdrum writers, you're very likely to hate Murder Jigsaw. Slow, meticulous gathering and examination of clues, alibis and possible scenarios is the best the story has to offer, because the nuts and bolts of the plot begin to suspiciously rattle towards the end – without being flawed or unfair. I believe the problem is that (ROT13 to decode spoilers): gbb znal crbcyr jrer vaibyirq va gur “cresrpg wvtfnj bs pbvapvqrapr” jvgu gur svefg crefba chapuvat uvz haqre gur puva, gur frpbaq crefba penpxvat uvf fxhyy naq gur guveq crefba qebjavat uvz naq zbivat gur obql. Naq guvf znqr na nccneragyl fuerjqyl cybggrq, arneyl cresrpg zheqre zber n pevzr bs bccbeghavgl gung nalguvat ryfr. Honestly, it's a cheap plot-device that can be used to turn the most simplistic situations into a tangled web. So not every reader is going to appreciate it.

I appreciated the solid detective work, logical reasoning and a plot with a sense of direction, even if it took its sweet time getting there, but the solution sadly makes Murder Jigsaw the weakest Dr. Manson title from the current Dean Street Press reprints. If you're new to the Radfords, I advise you start with Murder Isn't Cricket (1946), Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947), The Heel of Achilles (1950) or Death of a Frightened Editor (1959).

Murder Jigsaw was the last Dr. Harry Manson novel on my big pile and look forward to the next titles to be reprinted, which will hopefully include such titles as Death of a Peculiar Rabbit (1945), A Cosy Little Murder (1963), The Hungry Killer (1964), Murder Magnified (1965), Trunk Call to Murder (1968; locked room mystery) and Death of an Ancient Saxon (1969). For some reason, their 1960s novels have very alluring premises!

7/26/20

The Kindaichi Case Files: The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case

The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case was originally serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in 2015 and collected, together with the second half of The Antlion Trench Murder Case, in volumes 6 and 7 of Seimaru Amagi's The File of Young Kindaichi Returns – praised as "surprisingly refreshing" to long-time readers. Since I've always had a love-hate relationship with this series, I decided to pick The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case over the new 37-Year-Old Kindaichi Case Files as my next stop in the series.

The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case brings Hajime Kindaichi, Nanase Miyuki and Saki (#2) to a Western-style mountain inn, in Yozakura Village, where they intend to research an old murder case for their school's Mystery Club. The inn used to be a private sanatorium, in the 1960s, but the arrival of Dr. Kigata Ouryuu coincided with the disappearance of a worrying number of patients.

On a dark evening, in late winter, a night nurse caught him burying a dismembered patient under the cherry blossom trees, where the police later found a private graveyard, but Dr. Ouryuu had already disappeared – never to be seen again. But when spring came, something unbelievable happened. Where the bodies had been buried, the trees bloomed with "crimson-colored cherry blossoms" that "looked like they'd sucked blood." So the story stuck in the public imagination, but everyone in the village prefers to forget it ever happened and that includes the elderly owner of the inn, Aizen Yoshino. She advises the three students to enjoy the crimson cherry blossoms and then return home. But things are never that easy in a detective story!

When they arrive at the inn, they meet Fuyube Sousuke, Etou Chinatsu and Onoda Kyouichirou, who have been friends since their schooldays and visit the village each year during the cherry blossom season. Miyazawa Shouku is an artist who comes each year to paint the crimson cherry blossoms. Toramoto Katsuo is an old man with a facemask and does very little except intently observing the cherry blossoms. The place is staffed by two part-timers, Hazaki Shiori and Shikishima Daigo, and a cook, Kitayashiki Gouzou.

So had this not been a Kindaichi story, there would have been scarcely a hint of the bloodletting awaiting them the next morning when Onoda didn't turn up at the breakfast table. The door of his room is locked and has to be opened with the master key. What they found behind that locked door was a spectacle, even for this series!

Onoda Kyouichirou is lying in the middle of the room with petals covering his body and the branch of a bloodthirsty cherry blossom piercing his heart, as if a small tree had grown out of his chest overnight, but equally curious is a braided cord "tied in a complicated manner" to the branch – a cord with the room key on it. The key is "an old model, German-made key" with a complicated design that's hard to duplicate and the master key was kept in a safe. A safe to which one person held the key and another the passcode. And with the windows securely fastened, Kindaichi and Inspector Kenmoichi are faced with a locked room murder.

 
Naturally, the murderer is not done yet and one of the subsequent murders is committed under practically identical circumstances in a locked and guarded room, but with a very different kind of solution. A solution that was audaciously foreshadowed in a much earlier chapter. However, the locked room-tricks are not the main draw of the story and neither is the who or even the well handled why. One of the locked room-tricks can only be described as routine and the other is a daring play on a true-and-tried impossible crime technique, while the murderer (purposely?) stands out in the cast of characters.

So what makes The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case a noteworthy entry in the series is the way in which Amagi toyed and subverted the expectations of long-time readers who are more than familiar with the cliches and tropes of the series.

A good example of Amagi toying with readers expectations is the first page, a one-panel prologue, which made think, "ah, this old song and dance again," but then it was openly admitted to and discussed about a quarter into the story – something that has never been done before in the series. Amagi delivered on the promise with a nicely done spin on the motive that has been done to death in Kindaichi. The identity of the murderer, while a little obvious, proved to have a surprise in store when it was revealed why the murders were presented so bizarrely. But were ultimately very simplistic.

So the (relative) simplicity of the locked room murders were a worthwhile sacrifice, because they served a clear purpose that paid-off in the end. And what a coincidence, I decided to read The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case right after Graham Landrum's The Rotary Club Murder Mystery (1993), which ended up doing the opposite.

All in all, The Bloodthirsty Cherry Blossom Murder Case is not the best title the series has produced, but it's a top-rank title on account of how creatively Amagi played with the expectations of his readers. The story almost reads like a knowledgeable, fan-written pastiche that had fun with the established cliches and tropes of the series. Recommended to fans of the series!