11/21/20

Almost Instantly (1953) by C. Buddingh'

Cornelis Buddingh' was a Dutch poet, critic, chess player, translator and a connoisseur of detective stories who translated novels by Herbert Brean, Leslie Charteris and Ethel Lina White into Dutch and some of his reviews can be read on the DBNL website – discussing writers like Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and Zelda Popkin. Although I was not a fan of him trashing John Dickson Carr's writing or describing Sir Henry Merrivale as a "vage houten klaas" ("a sketchy wooden Punch puppet").

During the early 1950s, Buddingh' opined that, "if the Dutch detective wants to have its own atmosphere and character," the Dutch detective story has "to have a Dutch setting, populated with Dutch characters, where a murder committed by a Dutchman is solved." You have to remember that a big chunk of our pre-WWII detective fiction took place on foreign soil and this slowly began to change towards the end of the 1940s, which had absolutely nothing to do with us losing the colonies. We were planning to go home anyway. So with the detective story coming home, the 1950s became a short-lived Golden Age for Dutch detective fiction. A fact I've only recently uncovered and it lead me to A.R. Brent's Voorzichtig behandelen (Handle with Care, 1948) and W.H. van Eemlandt's Kogels bij het dessert (Dessert with Bullets, 1954), which is why I reviewed them back-to-back last month.

A year after his public proclamation on the future of the Dutch detective story, Buddingh' published his own detective novel, Vrijwel op slag (Almost Instantly, 1953), but as we all known, it's easier to be a critic than a craftsman – something the noted mystery critic and author Anthony Boucher could have attested to (e.g. Rocket to the Morgue, 1942). Buddingh' was already on thin ice with me for badmouthing Carr (pure heresy!). So let's see if he was as good at putting a plot together as he was in picking them apart.

Buddingh' picked as his detective the son of the former Chief Commissioner of Rotterdam, Rokus Huet, who's studying medicine in Amsterdam, but prefers to spent most of his time procrastinating or playing chess. Huet looks with horror at his future as a doctor and having to rise before noon. When the story opens, Huet is visiting an old friend in Gouda, Inspector Karel Jonkman, who's an artistically-inclined detective who donned a police uniform to honor the memory of his father, but his heart wasn't fully dedicated to the job. What he really wanted to do was paint.

During his stay with Jonkman, Huet is introduced to a local painter and friend of the inspector, Gerard van Gelderen, "who swears by Picasso" and they meet a young couple when visiting the artist at his studio, Marius Weekenstro and Elly Kreukniet – more or less secretly engaged. And upon hearing Jonkman is a police inspector, Marius seizes to opportunity to complain about Elly's uncle and legal guardian, Jochem Kreukniet. Kreukniet is a legal adviser who reputedly made his small fortune with blackmail and collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation, but at home, he acts like Victorian-era domestic despot and treats his niece with "a subtle sadism" that translated in Nelly being "bullied and harassed and humiliated" on a daily basis. And he's assisted in this by his wicked housekeeper, Ms. Gonda Luning. Generally, she's kept on a very tight lease and her uncle even sicced the police on Marius, because they kept seeing each other every opportunity they got. This is why Elly is taking drawing lessons in secret.

Jochem Kreukniet is practically tailormade to be the victim and, two days later, he's indeed murdered at his home with a blow to the back of the head, but his murderer didn't stop there. The murderer emptied an ashtray over the body, placed a folded one gulden bill in his lapel and drew a circle with purple lipstick on his forehead!

Jonkman and Huet quickly catch on that there were a lot of people, personal and professional, who had a reason to beat Kreukniet into an early grave. De Lange (didn't catch a first name) is Kreukniet's slippery business partner, who badly needed money, but their partnership had begun to deteriorate and Kreukniet had hinted that he was going to be cut out of his will. But there were also three women in his life who had either lost something or stood to gain tremendously. Eliza Westvaan is new, very posh, secretary and could have been the future Mrs. Kreukniet. She had pushed Kreukniet's previous secretary and mistress out of the picture, Okkie Maffel. The third woman was actually the first Mrs. Kreukniet and she inherited her ex-husband's house and nearly half of his fortune.

Almost Instantly is pretty much a by-the-numbers whodunit with a slightly eccentric detective, an official police inspector, a body, a small circle of suspects, some bizarre clues and detective work mainly contained to interviews – occasionally testing an alibi or clearing up a side-thread. Naturally, this wasn't helped by the fact that nearly everyone was up to something around the time of the murder. Some of which took place around the scene of the crime. I think you can best compare Almost Instantly to a competent, but fairly average, Christopher Bush novel from the same period. Not bad, but not outstanding.

So, technically, Buddingh' succeeded in writing a genuine detective novel, but stylistically, Almost Instantly isn't a Dutch detective novel. It's a British detective novel with a Dutch setting and Dutch characters. You can't miss how much Buddingh' was influenced by the British Golden Age mystery writers and there was even a bookshelf scene in which Huet sees a whole row of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Nicholas Blake, Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes novels. Huet identifies them as "his own favorite authors in the genre," but the explanation makes it even more obvious. Such as the choice of murderer and (uncommon) motive, which recalls a certain mystery writer and the reason why the murderer planted those strange clues on the body had been used before by Carr. Carr executed that idea better and with much more subtly than Buddingh'. Not so easy, is it? :D

A second, stylistic, flaw are the nonsensical names of some of the characters. I'll admit that it was mildly amusing to name the victim Kreukniet (does not crease) and have him bludgeoned to death, but it didn't help give the story that authentic Dutch character Buddingh' had been pleading for the year previously. You would think that was the one thing he wanted to do with Almost Instantly.

So, yes, technically, Almost Instantly is a decent and solid enough detective novel with a well hidden murderer, who can still be spotted, but most of the story travels over territory that had been trampled during the first half of the previous century and only difference is that it was written in another language – even that was done with a distinctly English accent. Nevertheless, it's always a pleasure to read an honest to God detective novel in my own language, which makes its blandness a little more forgivable.

11/19/20

Ask DNA: Case Closed, vol. 75 by Gosho Aoyama

The 75th volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, originally titled Detective Conan, begins, as so often is the case with this series, with the conclusion to the story that left the previous volume with an open end, which began with a dead man's letter summoning Harley Hartwell to Tokyo – where he and Conan become involved with the murders of two of the dead man's relatives. Conan and Harley were present when his son ate a randomly picked, poisoned slice of cake and Harley found the body of his mother in her study. However, "she was alone in the study" and "the room was guarded by cops." So it was either suicide or "a locked room murder."

This is a long, involved and somewhat complicated story in which two different cases overlap and the focus in these last two chapters are on the two poisoning-tricks, because the plot-threads revolving around Harley's dead client are quickly resolved through a written confession. Such as who killed him and why his dying message was destroyed. Conan and Harley turn their attention to the brace of seemingly impossible poisonings.

Thankfully, the weak and dangerous explanation to the first poisoning, given in the previous volume, turned out to be a false-solution with the actual solution being so much better, cleverer and more believable – a neat trick making good use of the visual comic book format. The second (locked room) poisoning-trick is a lot harder to swallow and the method struck me as very unreliable. But, in either case, it was disturbing to see how carelessly the murderer flung cyanide around the place like it was candy on the 5th of December.

So, on a whole, a good and decent enough story, but not one of the best Conan/Harley team-up stories. Not by a long shot.

The second story is an interesting one! Conan and Rachel accidentally discover that someone is posing as her father, Richard Moore, who has been visiting the 70-year-old Takae Kiritani and "solving cases free of charge." Moore refusing to accept money? Something smells fishy! Conan and Rachel confront the man posing as the great "Sleeping Moore," Ryohei Onda, who turns out to be a young college student and is engaged to the granddaughter of the old lady, but why the deception. Ryohei explained that she had been afraid of burglars and posing as a famous detective, to help install new locks, helped to make her feel safer, but she kept calling him to give small cases to solve. Such as finding a lost cat or why her TV kept changing the channels even though she "wasn't touching the zapper." Conan decided to help fake Moore solve the case of the living room poltergeist, who kept changing the channels, but then a murder is discovered next door.

A very loud, rude and much disliked resident is found dead when his neighbors forced open the door of his apartment, because his alarm-clock kept beeping, where they find him slumped against a wall with his throat slit and clutching a bloodied knife – a key is lying near the body. Conan immediately deduces that the murderer has to be one of the three neighbors who discovered the body, but the murderer's alibi-trick proved to be a tougher nut to crack than the locked room-trick.

This is undeniably a minor entry in the series, but also a perfect example of Aoyama's abilities and talent as both a plotter and storyteller. A relatively simplistic story with multiple, beautifully dovetailed layers. Firstly, you have the breakdown of the locked room and alibi-tricks. Secondly, the true reason why Ryohei is posing as Richard Moore and why he's so interested in the old lady. Thirdly, why the old lady habitually raises her voice and barks out orders. Everything is connected, one way or another, which include the throwaway problem of the living room poltergeist. Yes, Conan's initial solution was wrong! So, yes, I liked this amusing and clever story.

The third story is another chapter in the ongoing soap, known as the Metropolitan Police Love Story-arc, in which Detective Chiba is entirely oblivious that his first, long-lost love is the new police recruit of the traffic department, Neako Miike. Conan and the Junior Detective League try to bring them together as they're trying to find someone who spray paints cars with the slightly hostile message, "DROP DEAD." The plot hinges on finding a link between the vandalized cars and why they were being targeted, which had been well-clued in advance. Another relatively minor, but good, story.

The fourth and last story ends this volume with a punch to the gut! A dark and sad story as good and strong as "The Poisonous Coffee Case," from vol. 60, which brings Richard Moore to a belated engagement party of an old high school friend, Raita Banba, who will be married to the next day to Hatsune Kamon – only she never makes it to the wedding. Hatsune burned to death that night and evidence at the scene suggests it was murder.

I spotted the key piece of the plot on the second page, but refused to believe what I was reading and didn't expect Aoyama would go there. But he did go there. And how! I know most of you don't read this series and you might have gotten the idea from the bright, colorful covers or cartoon-like premise that Case Closed is a comic cozy, but Case Closed is no stranger to some gloom and doom. I already mentioned the very noir-ish and excellent "The Poisonous Coffee Case" or the second story here has Conan (pretty much a small child) crawling around a dead man who had bled to death in his home. Case Closed is by Western standards not exactly kid friendly (rated T+ in America), but it's still a traditional, puzzle-oriented detective series. And these type of detective stories tend to eschew certain crimes or subjects. For example, I've read an ungodly amount of detective stories, but can only remember three novels in which a rape occurred. While this story uses something very different, I honestly never expected it to be used in this series.

Even with stumbling to it early on in the story, the solution still delivered its intended blow. Even without the tragic ending, the plot is a minor technical masterpiece with a solution woven around to normally unpardonable sins. One of them is a personal dislike and the other a rule that was set in stone nearly a century ago, but miraculously, they both worked under these very specific set of circumstances. Proving once again that the rules and conventions of the detective story can be broken, or bend, but only by people who understand and respect them. Aoyama also demonstrated modern forensic science, like DNA, doesn't have to be a stumbling block or obstacle.

My only complaint is that [redacted] decision seems a little too radical and drastic. There's no denying [redacted] situation is not an enviable one, but surely, there must have been a better solution. Otherwise, this was a very good and memorable story that came close to matching "The Poisonous Coffee Case." The story also introduces a new face to the ever-growing cast of recurring characters, Toru Amuro, who's a private detective.

So, yeah, a pretty solid volume with two minor, but well written and plotted, stories bookended by a big Conan/Harley team-up and one of the most tragic cases in the series. I wasn't disappointed.

11/15/20

The Padded Door (1932) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn's The Padded Door (1932) is the eleventh title in the Anthony Lotherington Bathurst series and has plot resembling Tread Softly (1937), in layout and structure, but The Padded Door worked its way towards a much more traditional conclusion than Tread Softly – which can be partially seen as a very early precursor of the modern crime novel. Just an example of Flynn's versatile abilities as a writer and plotter that allowed him to effortlessly shift from classic whodunits and impossible crimes to scheming serial killers and pure, undiluted pulp fiction.

Nevertheless, while The Padded Door is on the surface a typical, plot-oriented 1930s detective novel, it has one of the most audacious solutions of the period that begins with an astonishing surprise at the halfway point. So it's going to be one of those reviews where I dance around the finer plot details.

The first half of The Padded Door centers on the murder of a shady moneylender, Leonard Pearson, whose business practices "sailed exceedingly close to the wind and lay perilously near to blackmail." On the night of his murder, Captain Hilary Frant called on Pearson to fork over a thousand pounds in exchange for letters that belong to his sister, Pamela, which could ruin her engagement to the heir of tobacco empire, Richard Lanchester. Pearson's butler overheard Captain Frant telling his master he would like to cave in his skull and that "the world will be a thundering sight better place to live in," before making his exit through the french windows with the letters in his pocket. But the next day, Pearson is found beaten to death in his study and the money is nowhere to be found.

Detective-Sergeant Waterhouse and Detective Inspector Andrew MacMorran quickly pick up the scent of Pearson's last visitor, Captain Frant, when he finds his name and time of appointment written down in the victim's diary, but things go from bad to worse when he tries "to foist on Scotland Yard a counterfeit alibi" – nor was it very helpful that he lost his heavy, knobbed walking-stick. So he was arrested and charged with murder. Pamela tells their father, Sir Robert Frant, to get Sir Gervaise Acland for the defense and Anthony Bathurst to find the real murderer, but he's abroad on another case. Six weeks elapsed before he could be "called to the scent" and by then, it was "within an ace of being cold." And it was way too late to stop Captain Frant from going to trial.

You can argue that the whole buildup to the trial, culminating with the verdict, is nothing more than one long prologue to the second murder, but the first and second act were so cleverly and daringly tied together that it worked. Second act opened with a smashing surprise with the discovery of a body stuffed inside a large cabin-trunk that was left near a village road. Honestly, I didn't expect [redacted] to bite the dust! This makes everything that preceded it not look as straightforward as it was initially laid out.

Unfortunately, this makes discussing what happens in the second half very difficult, but let's give it the good old college try.

Bathurst has more to do, as a detective, in the second act and becomes ensnared in a webbing of contradictions, dead ends and a latticework of strange clues such as blue-veined cheese, a magazine interview, uncharacteristically light thuds and a cinema fire that claimed the lives of seventy people – a tragedy that had briefly pushed Pearson's murder from the headlines. But even with all those clues and foreshadowing, I was unprepared for the ballsy solution or how the two murders linked up. Flynn came up with something fresh and original here, but it's the kind of cleverness and originality that cuts on two sides. As ingenious as the solution is, it stretches credulity to its limit and it's the kind of precarious, tight-rope stunt more commonly associated with Flynn's better-known, celebrated contemporaries. John Dickson Carr managed to do it with The Hollow Man (1935) and Agatha Christie did it with The Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Very fittingly, the plot of The Padded Door, like The Murder on the Orient Express and The Hollow Man, hinges largely on the author's specialty. I don't believe he'll ever play that game better than he did here.

A second, incredibly cheeky, move is the truth behind Pearson's murder and how it related to the second killing, but the who is something most of his contemporaries would have probably shied away from. Flynn made it work and, while stretching things considerably, did it seemingly effortlessly. I also begin to believe Flynn loved Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes more than oxygen. Flynn was a little more subtle here and the only obvious nod to Holmes was reference to making bricks out of straw, but you can see how big of an influence Doyle had on Flynn in the finer details of the solution.

So, all of that said, not everyone's going to agree with my praise and, by the time this review is posted, surely some reviews of that effect will already have appeared. After all, I was less enthusiastic about Tread Softly than Steve and Kate, but The Padded Door was the antidote I sorely needed after a string of weakly plotted, lightweight and somewhat disappointing detective novels. Sometimes it's just fun to have clues thrown in your face and the wool pulled over your eyes at the same time.

11/12/20

The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) by James Scott Byrnside

The locked room mystery and impossible crime story comes in many different shapes and forms, opening the door to endless possibilities and variations to kill, or disappear, people under circumstances that can only be described as miraculous – whether the victims were in a sealed room, closely guarded or in an open space. And then there are the miscellaneous impossibilities such as levitation, phantom fingerprints, predictive dreams and the physical alibi. So the possibilities really are endless and mystery writers have been tinkering with it ever since Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" in 1841. 

There is, however, one type of impossible crime that appears to be incredibly restrictive without much room for innovation or originality. I'm talking about the no-footprints scenario. 

John Dickson Carr's name is synonymous with the locked room and impossible crime story, but even the master himself only produced two really good and original no-footprints novels, The Hollow Man (1935) and She Died a Lady (1943) – latter published as by "Carter Dickson." If you look at what other mystery writers have written, there are no more than a dozen novels and short stories that stand out as inspired and original. Some examples that come to mind are Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944), Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan (1950), Douglas Ashe's The Longstreet Legacy (1951), David Renwick's Jonathan Creek episode The Black Canary (1998) and two masterly done short stories, Robert Arthur's "The Glass Bridge" (1957) and Arthur Porges' "No Killer Has Wings" (1960). Japan also produced some fine examples (e.g. Gosho Aoyama's "The Magic Lovers Case") and recently Paul Halter came up with a creative variation on the no-footprints scenario in La montre en or (The Gold Watch, 2019). This short list of notable titles is why I've come to regard the no-footprints scenario as the most challenging and tricky impossible crime to tackle. A puzzle for experts.

So I was excited when the prodigy child of the Renaissance Era, James Scott Byrnside, announced his third novel featuring a killer who can apparently walk through walls and doesn't leave any footprints in the snow! 

The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) is a prequel to Goodnight Irene (2018) and The Opening Night Murders (2019), set in November, 1920, which takes Rowan Manory and Walter Williams, Chicago's finest, to Barrington Hills – located "deep within the recesses of untamed Illinois." Thomas Browning, a rich railway magnate, wants a reputable private detective to debunk a psychic, Madame Cuchla, who has convinced his business partner, Hadd Mades, that turning Barrington Hills in a resort town is a bad idea. Madame Cuchla claims the region is haunted by one of the town's most notorious past residents, Otto Savore. Someone believed by the locals to be a vampire who, in 1875, allegedly killed more than fifty people in a single night with "none of the doors or windows of his victims were trespassed" and "no footprints in the snow." So, quite naturally, the townspeople buried him alive and "no grass ever grows on the vampire's grave." Madame Cuchla warns that death will come if the ground is ever build on.

Manory tells Browning that "any number of Chicago-River gumshoes could explain" the parlor tricks employed by psychics for a third of his price, but Browning wants a reputable detective to convince Mades. Manory certainly delivers the goods as he not only explains Madame Cuchla psychic reading of Williams, ghostly knocking and a floating face that vanished in a puff of smoke, but also gives a solution to the vampiric bloodbath from forty-five years ago. So the opening alone is good enough to be added to the list of debunked séance mysteries, but the problems that follow are of a less conventional nature. And they're all "damned impossible."

A New Mapback!
Early next morning, Mades returns to the remote house, hammering on the front door and yelling blue murder, because the vampire is in the house and Browning is in grave danger. Mades shows Manory the developed photographs that were taken of the house the previous days and one of them shows a grotesque-looking creature standing outside the balcony door, "sharp nails were touching the glass," as if trying to enter. But how did the vampire get on the balcony? There's no way to reach the balcony from the outside and the freezing cold makes it unlikely someone was waiting on the balcony for the right moment to photobomb without being seen. So that's the first impossibility stumping Manory, but "an agonizing scream" quickly announces a second one.

Thomas Browning's body is found in the garage with a twisted spine, broken bones, a slash across his right wrist and two bleeding puncture marks in his neck, but how had the murderer entered, or exited, the garage – only footprints going from the kitchen door to the garage belong to Browning. Another set of footprints goes from the kitchen door into the direction of the forest. A third and fourth set of footprints go from the garage window and back into the forest. Finally, two footprints are found next to the skylight on the garage roof, but none of them explained how Browning could have been attacked and killed. The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is brimming with impossible material. There's a past murder case in which severed hands were left in the bedroom of a locked house and a second murder is committed inside a locked bedroom while Manory was sitting guard in the corridor. However, the story should not be judged solely as an impossible crime novel. 

The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire has a small pool of suspects comprising of Browning's much younger wife, Madelaine, who sleepwalks and the reason why they have a live-in specialist, Dr. Sinclair. A daughter from a first marriage, Gertrude, who used to be married with a socialist associated with a band of hardliners, but he was "suicided" in a jail cell. She had not been on speaking terms with her father until he summoned her back home with the promise of a surprise. Howard Amorartis is a writer of supernatural horror and hopes his name will one day be as well-known as Poe, but now he has been commissioned to pen Browning's biography. Belby is the butler-chauffeur who's "not intelligent enough to devise a murder plan," but perhaps "subservient enough to carry one out." And there's always Browning's frightened business partner, Mades.

I think The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is actually more accomplished as a whodunit than as a locked room mystery with a murderer who was hiding in plain sight (always satisfying) who had an original motive to engineer a whole series of otherworldly crimes. Just like in previous novels, the plot resembles a Matryoshka doll with multiple, interconnected problems that not only includes a plethora of impossible crimes and elusive murderer, but a dying message that had to be violently pried from the victim's clenched fist or why the murderer had no option to sever the hands of the second victim – a kind of corpse puzzle you normally only come across in Japanese shin honkaku detective stories. Add to this the excellent clueing, the characterization of the two bantering detectives and all of the various, moving plot-strands grasped in an iron-clad grip demonstrating why Byrnside might very well turn out to be the herald of a Second Golden Age.

A Classic Mapback
But what about the impossibilities? Can they stand toe-to-toe with the ten no-footprints novels and short stories mentioned above? Yes... and no. The plot is crammed with the impossible crimes, but quantity doesn't always mean quality and only two of them are good.

Firstly, while the murder in the snow surrounded garage didn't came up with a new footprint-trick, everything else about this tricky murder made it an excellent impossibility with a good explanation why the witness at the window saw him fight with an invisible entity. Honestly, the whole situation that brought about this murder was quite clever and something that would have gotten the approval of Carr. Secondly, the murder in the locked and guarded bedroom has a routine solution, where the locked door and guard are concerned, but Byrnside succeeded in making one of my biggest no-noes perfectly acceptable and logical. And then there's the reason why the murderer had to cut off the hands. Unfortunately, the explanations to the past case with the severed hands that were left in a locked house or how the vampire was able to reach the balcony were underwhelming.

Nevertheless, when the plot resembles a nesting doll and practically everything is done correctly, the less than impressive explanations to two of the impossibilities is a blow the story can easily absorb without any damage to the overall plot. Byrnside continued to be awesome with how he handled the ending. Chapter 17 is a Challenge to the Reader asking eight questions that have to be answered before the case can be considered solved. Manory gives his explanation of the case at the annual dinner of the Detectives Club and there's a Rival Detective in attendance, Miss Genevieve Pond, who plays armchair detective and tries to deduce the solution before Manory gives it. I suspect she'll either become Manory's love interest in a future novel or become an antagonist when Byrnside decides to tackle the inverted detective story with an impossible, but it's probably the former. After all, Manory needs someone to bounce off on. They're polar opposites, is what I mean.

So, a long, rambling story short, Byrnside performed the hat trick with three back-to-back gems of the Western-style, neo-orthodox detective novel covering various styles and subgenres. All three are historical mysteries written in the typical, hardboiled style of the American pulps, but plotted and clued like a traditional, Golden Age detective stories filled with locked rooms, dying messages and bizarre murders – which all pay subtly homage to some of the greats of that bygone era. Goodnight Irene was an ambitious debut and The Opening Night Murders showed prodigious improvement with its labyrinthine plot, which can also be read as the two of the longest fan letters everyone has ever written to Christianna Brand. Byrnside moved away from using Brand as a foundation stone for his work and the result is The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire is a fully realized, modern incarnation of the classic detective story that can stand on its own. One of the bright lights of 2020 and all three come highly recommended.

On a final note: sorry for the flurry of 2020 reviews, but had to rearrange some posts and cram them all in here.

11/11/20

Checkmate to Murder (1944) by E.C.R. Lorac

Edith Rivett was a British detective novelist who wrote more than 70 mysteries under two different pseudonyms, "Carol Carnac" and "E.C.R. Lorac," which can best be categorized as John Rhode-like "humdrum" novels reminiscent of Ngaio Marsh, but my limited experience with Lorac has been spotty – mostly pedestrian and forgettable. So why pick such an uneven, second-string writer on the heels of several underwhelming detective novels?

British Library Crime Classics has reissued seven of her novels over the past two, or three, years and their latest reprint, Checkmate to Murder (1944), sounded too good to ignore. I'm glad to report it's the best Lorac I've read so far.

This brand new edition is subtitled "A Second World War Mystery" and Martin Edwards wrote in his introduction that the book is a fascinating account of "a domestic crime committed at a time of national crisis." Lorac certainly exploited the blacked-out London setting backdrop better here than in Murder by Matchlight (1945) and more memorable than the depiction of post-war Britain in Fire in the Thatch (1946), which are two of her best known mysteries. But barely remember either. Something that's less likely to happen with Checkmate to Murder.

Checkmate to Murder largely takes place in, and around, the large, grimy and beetle-infested Hampstead studio of a little-known painter, Bruce Manaton, who shares the place with his fastidious and artistic sister, Rosanne – who had been badly hit by the war. And now they were constantly swinging back and forth between being broke and absolutely broke. Story opens on a cold, foggy winter evening in January and five people were gathered in that grimy, dimly lit studio. An obscure actor, André Delaunier, who sits on a model's platform garbed in a scarlet robe and a broad-rimmed Cardinal's hat. Opposite the sitter, Manaton is furiously attacking a canvas with a piece of charcoal and occasionally utterers orders at Delaunier ("Chin up, chin up—to the right a little"). On the other end of the studio, two men were playing an absorbing game of chess under a single light bulb. Robert Cavenish is an elderly, highly respected Civil Servant and the younger Ian Mackellon is "a first-class chemist" in government employ. Rosanne is preparing supper in the kitchen and occasionally pops her head around the door.

A quiet, peaceful evening in Bohemian squalor rudely disturbed when a Special Constable bursts into the studio with a limping Canadian soldier in tow. Neil Folliner is the grand-nephew of the Manaton's misery landlord, Albert Folliner, who's "a nasty old skinflint" and was either as poor as a church mouse or hoarded money.

Albert Folliner lived alone in a largely empty house, using his bedroom as a living room, which is where his grand-nephew found his body with a bullet in his head. An empty cash-box and pistol lay on the floor. Only a few seconds after discovering the body, a Special Constable enters the bedroom and chases the soldier who he saw making a bee-line to the studio "as though for a deliberate reason." So the situation looks very dire for the young soldier, but Detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald takes nothing for granted.

Macdonald is not the most distinguished, or colorful, of the Golden Age inspectors, but always thought their quietly competent, purely professional and dogged police work should be seen as a payoff for the lack of a personality, eccentricities or (God forbid) a private life – ensuring there are no outside distractions. Macdonald focus here is entirely on the case as he reduces the number of suspects to half-a-dozen, inquires into the previous tenants of the studio and asks what role the Special Constable had to play in the murder or why he looked so frightened. All the while, the grimness of the war hangs heavily over the story like a dark black-out curtain!

The introduction notes Checkmate to Murder takes place during "a period of British history when blackouts, fire-watching, and air raid precautions were an everyday fact of life" and "black-out regulations were a nightmare" to Rosanne, but her brother was always forgetting them and "the probability of being fined always hung over their heads." She unwittingly robbed herself of an alibi when she went outside to inspect the black-out curtains, but the whole district is dotted with derelict, or bombed-out, buildings awaiting demolition and it's mentioned that a lot of capital is tied-up in it now that the war has brought everything to a grinding halt. So this gives everyone a one-size fits-all motive to shoot the old man, because they all could use a bit of money. Lorac also showed how the war impacted people in much smaller ways. Such as how Rosanne had treasured, "like fine gold," some China tea against an emergency for months and a colleague of Macdonald had to feed a hungry witness.

There are, however, some smudges on the plot that held it back a little. Firstly, it's not difficult to figure out who did it and how. Secondly, the problem of the cast-iron alibis is acknowledged, but never explored, or discussed, as usually the case with alibi-breakers (see Christopher Bush) and can understand why Lorac danced around this issue – because a discussion would have lead to an obvious question. A question that would have given the whole game away. So if you can figure what question to ask and answer it, you'll have no problem identifying the murderer. Lastly, Lorac demonstrated her status as a second-stringer by giving the motive a personal dimension. An unnecessary, last-minute addition that actually cheapened the solution. Checkmate to Murder had worked towards the solution by showing how hard life had become during the war, "what with taxation and cost of living," which made the cash-box a perfectly acceptable motive. And fitted the overall theme of the story. So no idea why Lorac decided to add an ulterior layer to the motive.

Nevertheless, Checkmate to Murder is mostly a solid, well written and competently plotted detective novel with some finely drawn characters, an excellently realized backdrop and some good ideas (like the alibi-trick). Not everything is perfectly executed, but it's her best novel to date and comparable to some of Marsh's better efforts, e.g. Death in a White Tie (1938) and Overture to Death (1939). So recommended to readers who previously didn't have much luck with Lorac or with a special interest World War II period British mystery novels.

11/8/20

Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death (2020) by P. Dieudonné

P. Dieudonné's Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020) is the third novel in the series of Rotterdam politieromans (police novels) about Inspector Lucien de Klerck and his assistant, Ruben Klaver, but this time, Dieudonné breaks the mold of the Amsterdam School of the Dutch police novel – popularized by the late A.C. Baantjer. Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death is a traditional-styled detective novel, updated to the 21st century, with not one, not two, but three impossible disappearances! These impossibilities are something else compared to your garden variety no-footprints situation or a homely locked room murder.

The story begins with a cleaning lady finding the body of her employer, Romano Pasqualini, lying in the front room on the first floor of his home, in Delfshaven, with the back of his head resembling "a mushy mess of blood and hair." An important detail ensuring the reader there was a man in that room who was as dead as a doornail. She immediately alerted the police and posted herself at the front door until they arrived.

A short time later, De Klerck is cycling to work when he notices the squad car and stops to offer his assistance to the two policemen, but what greets him on the first floor landing is "a suffocating smoke" coming through the cracks of the door – inside the room a fire was spreading rapidly. But what he didn't see was a body! When the firefighters had done their work, they discover that the windows were locked from the inside with exception of a small skylight that's "too small to squeeze through" and "virtually inaccessible." Nobody could have escaped through the front door with either the cleaning lady or the police standing there. So how did the body vanish with the same question applying to the person who made it disappear and attempted to torch the place?

De Klerck and Klaver have their work cut out for them and the disappearance of Romano Pasqualini's body is not the only complication in this uncertain, elusive murder case. Romano was 25-years-old and lived in an expensive, 17th century house, but made a living delivering pizzas and his prospective father-in-law is not exactly thrilled that he was seeing his daughter. Apparently not without reason.

De Klerck is approached by private detective, Fred Kroon, who working on behalf of an insurance company to track down a tightly organized gang specialized in jewel robberies and spectacular, seemingly impossible, escaped. One such occasion saw the police in hot pursuit of two gang members on a motorcycle, two police cars on their tail and a third meeting them head on, but, somewhere mid-way, they simply vanished into thin air – as the three police cars passed each other. There's a slope on both sides, overgrown with trees, with fences behind it. So it was not possible to disappear from that stretch of road. And yet... they did. A trick repeated later on in the story when a dare devil races through the city, performing dangerous stunts and leading the police on a merry-go-round, which seems to come to an end when he drives into a tunnel cordoned off by the police. Just like that, the motor cyclist disappears again and magically reappears some distance behind the police cordon, which is captured by security cameras inside the tunnel and witnessed by a police helicopter pilot in the sky!

This is why Kroon suspects Damiano Pasqualini and his young brother, Romano, play a key role in the gang, because Romano has a YouTube channel on which he uploaded videos of himself performing very risky, death defying motorcycle stunts – radiating with pride and sheer joy. Romano's dead. So he couldn't have been the one who raised hell in the city and used as a sealed tunnel as a portal to reappear behind the police cordon. I expect to find this kind of stuff in Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed series (e.g. vol. 61) or the work of Soji Shimada (e.g. "The Running Dead," 1985), but not in, what has been up to this point, a typically Dutch series of police novels. However, I'm not against this becoming the new norm.

Coming across a Dutch locked room mystery is always a special treat. I remember that shiver of excitement when reading Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) in which a group of people had gathered in front of a locked bedroom door and someone flings the key under the crack of the door into the hallway. But when they open the door, all they find is a dead woman. Anne van Doorn's De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019) was a rare treat with two well executed impossible crimes, but Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death not only added one more for good measure, but went all out in how they were presented. But what about the solutions, you ask?

The strange disappearance of the body, and murderer, from the locked, watched and burning, smoke-filled house is the best of the three with a solution breathing new life in an old idea that had been experimented with before – only it never really worked in the past. Reason why it never worked (unless staged under tightly controlled circumstances) is it required something that's not as easy to come by as it's made out to be. Even then there's no guarantee it would work. However, the present smoothed out that problem and provided something that made the trick work in a way that wouldn't have been possible in the 1930s or '40s. Dieudonné seized it with both hands and the characterization helped to reinforce the locked room-trick.

Diedonné tipped his hand with a clue to the second impossibility that gave away how it was done, but suspect this was done on purpose to make third disappearance, and reappearance, look even more impossible. Solution to how the motorcycle went up in smoke doesn't explain how it materialized outside the tunnel. So that was nicely done. And in spite of the reckless, dare devil antics, the solutions are simple and surprisingly believable. Just as a contemporary take on the impossible crime novel, Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death is excellent and it was a joy to read.

There's more to the story than a string of miraculous vanishings. De Klerck and Klaver have to figure out what happened to the body and who's responsible, which was handled a trifle weaker than the other plot-threads. A coincidence, or two, were needed to tie everything together with one of the coincidences stretching things a little, but hardly enough to dampen my enjoyment of the book. E-Pulp gives us a glimpse with Dieudonné of the genre's Golden Age when writers were given the time and opportunities to hone their skills, improve and finding a voice of their own – hopefully building an audience along the way. Rechercheur De Klerck en het doodvonnis (Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence, 2019) was written as an homage to Appie Baantjer, but the plot was very light and the solution to the fascinatingly presented bridge-murders lacked ingenuity. Rechercheur De Klerck en het duivelse spel (Inspector De Klerck and the Diabolical Game, 2020) used the tried and tested Baantjer formula to write a much more traditional detective story with improved clueing and a new trick to create a cast-iron alibi. Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death is a full-blown detective novel with a tricky, complicated plot, more improved clueing and three daringly executed impossible crimes. I found this to be very rewarding and can't wait to see what the fourth, tantalizingly-titled Rechercheur De Klerck en het lijk in transit (Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit, 2021) has in store! 

Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death continues to improve on its predecessors and did in a most spectacular way with three originally posed and solved impossible crimes, which are too rare in this country. So highly recommended to all the Dutch-speaking readers of my blog and publishers looking for non-English crime-and detective fiction to translate.

Note to the reader: sorry for two back-to-back 2020 reviews, in as many days, but they are recent publications and didn't want to wait with posting the reviews until November. So they were squeezed in after the fact.    

11/7/20

The White Lady (2020) by Paul Halter

Last year, John Pugmire's Locked Room International published a worldwide exclusive, La montre en or (The Gold Watch, 2019) by Paul Halter, which was released in Chinese, English and Japanese before it finally appeared in French – as well as marking his return to the novel-length locked room mystery. There was a five year gap between Le masque du vampire (The Mask of the Vampire, 2014) and The Gold Watch, but Halter is back and up to his old tricks again.

Le mystére de la Dame Blanche (translated as The White Lady, 2020) is Halter and Pugmire's second "worldwide exclusive in celebration of LRI's 10th anniversary year." What better way to celebrate that milestone that with a ghostly locked room mystery!

Halter uses the opening chapter to grab the reader, spin them around a few times and push them, slightly disoriented, straight into the story, which must have been done to prevent even the most experienced reader from immediately getting a foothold on the case – while not neglecting to drop a clue or two. So the readers gets a lot to digest in the first two chapters, but the gist is that Major John and Margot Peel are en route to Buckworth Manor. Margot has been summoned there by her sister, Ann Corsham, because their father, Sir Matthew Richards, unexpectedly married his private secretary, Vivian Marsh. Ann believes Vivian to be "a vulgar schemer" whose "plan is obvious to everyone" except their father. She wants Margot and John to come down to help "take the wool from over father's eye."

However, this family reunion doesn't breakdown in an outright civil war. On the contrary, the sisters slowly warmed to their much younger stepmother and the whole situation became kind of friendly, but then another woman entered the household. The White Lady! A ghost which has haunted Buckworth for centuries and she has uncanny knack to vanish, as if by magic, every time she's cornered.

One night, Sir Matthew wakes up, cold to the bone, turns on the light and sees the figure of a woman standing in the middle of the room. A woman dressed in a long, white cape and a white shawl over her head. She smiles, raised her hand and contemplated touching Sir Matthew, but shook her head and disappeared through the bedroom door with Sir Matthew on her heels – who followed her into a small study at the end of a corridor. Sir Matthew saw her open and shut the door behind her, but, when he went after, "the strange apparition had mysteriously vanished." There was no place, or room, in the study to hide (for long) and window was closed. And this was actually not the first appearance of the White Lady at Buckworth Manor.

In early summer, Sir Matthew's other son-in-law, Peter Corsham, was a approached in the park by the ghostly figure of a woman, "in all white," but she quickly turned around and saw her go straight through a six-feet high, wire fence "as if it didn't exist." So is the village haunted or is someone playing the ghost to frighten the people at the manor? The White Lady makes another appearance, but this time, she strikes away from the manor house. And she leaves a body behind!
Billy, Jack and Harry are ten-year-old boys and the village troublemakers who are arguing over their latest scheme when Billy tells Harry to go chew grass. So, in response, Harry tore some leaved twigs from a nearby bush, stuffed them in his mouth and started chewing, but they were twigs of hemlock. And when Harry begins to feel sick, the White Lady appears and touches him on the brow. Harry "staggered and dropped to the ground" as a terrified Jack and Billy "watched her slowly disappear into the darkness of the woods."

Inspector Richard Lewis is the Buckworth policeman charged with investigating the initial White Lady sightings and, when the child died, he contacted Scotland Yard, but Superintendent Frank Wedekind has too many cases on his plate and handed over this brainteaser to his old friend, Owen Burns – an aesthete who appreciates murder as a fine art. Burns tells his friend and Watson-like chronicler that they're up against "the most implacable enemy of all" against "whom one can do nothing." Burns acts as much as an enigma as the murderer and shows full mastery over "the art of uttering mystifying words" and keeping everyone else in the dark about "the fruit of his cogitations." He also shows a great deal of interest in the village recluse, Lethia Seagrave, who lives alone with her animals and earns money with fortune telling. But is she the White Lady? Neither the police or Burns seem to get to a speedy conclusion. All the while, the White Lady continues to terrorize Buckworth Manor like some demented Scooby Doo villain!

The Gold Watch
In one instance, the White Lady managed to disappear from a corridor when all the exists were under observation and this impossibilities comes with a floorplan, but an accumulation of impossible situations and inexplicable apparitions is a double-edged sword. Especially with Halter. On the one hand, it makes for an exciting and fun read, but delivering good, or original, solutions for multiple impossibilities usually proves to be a bridge too far. Halter's Les sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997) is a textbook example of biting off more than you can chew and The White Lady unfortunately is no exception.

Two of the miraculous vanishings have such disappointing solutions that you have to wonder why they were presented as locked rooms in the first place. One of them actually had a good reason to be underwhelming, but it would have been better if the White Lady in these two instances had simply disappeared behind a corner or tree, because as badly done impossible crimes, they kind of knocked down the whole story a peg or two – instead of enhancing the plot. These two poorly handled disappearances are a serious blotch on an otherwise well done and typical Halter detective novel.

Halter showed more ingenuity with the two murders and his presentation of the White Lady throughout the story. The seemingly accidental poisoning of Harry and the ghostly appearance was more in line with what readers expect from an impossible crime and the second death was not unjustly described by Burns as "a Machiavellian murder." A cruelly executed, nearly perfect, murder that the killer could have gotten away with had it not been for those meddling detectives. I compared the White Lady with a demented Scooby Doo villain, which is how she's presented and it worked for me. Halter didn't take the Hake Talbot route by loading the story with an eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere in which a phantom-like entity appears as easily as she disappears, but admits there's something strange and earthly about the ghost. A ghost who sometimes "traverses walls and wire fences without difficulty" but, at other times, "she opens doors and windows in her path." It drives home the idea that someone, somewhere, is playing a deep game. This is what makes it so disappointing that only one of the impossible crimes is up to scratch and the result is that The White Lady doesn't come anywhere near to matching its marvelous and ambitious predecessor, The Gold Watch.

So, on a whole, The White Lady was a good and fun read, but very much a mid-tier Halter novel in line with Le brouillard rouge (The Crimson Fog, 1988), La mort vous invite (Death Invites You, 1988) and the previously mentioned The Seven Wonders of Crime. And that's disappointing coming right after a time-shattering detective novel with a plot covering an entire century! Honestly, I begin to believe Halter is actually better at handling and exploring wondrous themes than hammering out hard locked room-tricks. La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990), Le septième hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991), Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996), L'homme qui aimait les nuages (The Man Who Loved Clouds, 1999) and The Gold Watch are some of his best and most memorable novels, which don't lean heavily on their impossible crimes. Even when they're really good.

I can only recommend The White Lady to long-time Halter fans and advise readers who are new to his work to start somewhere else.