Mystery at Friar's Pardon (1931) by Martin Porlock

Philip MacDonald was a British novelist and screen writer who was better known as a writer of thrillers as, even in his more formal detective stories, "thriller elements keep breaking in and taking over from the puzzle plot," but he produced a few genuine mystery novels – like the synthetic The Maze (1932). A detective novel, or "An Exercise in Deduction," calculated and designed to fool the genre-savvy mystery reader. 

There's another obscure, long out-of-print pure mystery novel by MacDonald that has fascinated me for the longest time now. 

Mystery at Friar's Pardon (1931), published as by "Martin Porlock," is not only logged as an impossible crime in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991), but seen as one of the few genuine John Dickson Carr analogs. A detective novel that apparently can be mentioned in the same breath as Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935), Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) and Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954). John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, noted in his 2011 review that Mystery at Friar's Pardon reads like a homage to Carr and "seems as if it were right out of the Dr. Fell series," but the book predates practically all of Carr's celebrated novels – suggesting that "perhaps this work of MacDonald's inspired Carr." Adey added more intrigue by acknowledging MacDonald "hit upon something new" by staging a drowning in "a locked, waterless room."

The book is regrettably obscure and in desperate need of fresh ink and paper, but imagine my surprise when I discovered Mystery at Friar's Pardon was uploaded to the Internet Archive as part of The Fourth Crime Club Omnibus (1937). Why, yes, I'll take one! So let's see whether or not this elusive locked room mystery lives up to its reputation.

Friar's Pardon dates back to the 17th century with the last stone being laid in 1699, "stern and yet graceful," but the man who had the house built, Sir Roger Westmacott, died two years later "under mysterious circumstances in his bedroom." So the place became the property of his eldest son, Sir Derryck, who was a soldier and didn't return until 1706. But when he returned, history repeated itself and he died in the same room as his father under mysterious, inexplicable circumstances. Understandably, his younger brother and his descendants wanted nothing to do with Friar's Pardon and tried to sell the place for generations, but they were unable to rid themselves of it until 1800.

Bertram Deaves purchased Friar's Pardon and began to renovate and expand the house, while "pooh-poohing all local stories and warnings," but he died six months after moving into the house when he was in the prime of his health and his son suffered the same fate – all in the same room. There was a doctor who swore the body of the last victim showed evidence of drowning, but his room was upstairs and there was no water in the room or any "signs of water upon his clothes or person." This only deepened the mystery. So the family sealed up the wing with the room-that-kills and installed caretakers until Mrs. Enid Lester-Greene finally bought the place.

Mrs. Enid Lester-Greene is a famous novelist and playwright, known for such charming stories as Sir Galahad Comes Home and Oasis Love, who found the house of her dreams in Friar's Pardon. She not only refused to be scared away by "a lot of old wives' tales," but "in no way subscribe to belief in any supernatural influence over the house" and ordered the removal of the wall that sealed the haunted wing. Mrs. Lester-Green even decides to live in the haunted wing herself. She's not the only one who lives or stays there as a guest.

There's Mrs. Lester-Greene's daughter, Gladys, who has less personality or strength of character than her well-known, domineering mother. Major Claude Lester is Mrs. Lester-Greene's obstinate brother who sponges off his sister despite not liking her very much. Lesley Destrier is "sort of half guest and half family" who spends about seven months out of the twelve with the old lioness. Norman Sandys is Mrs. Lester-Green's well-dressed, competent secretary who's ever ready with a notebook to take down any ideas that can occur to his employer at a second's notice. There are also two notable house guests, Lady Maud Vassar and the eighth Baron Pursell of Mitcham. Lastly, there's the amateur detective of the story, Mr. Charles Fox-Browne, who needed work and accepted the post of estate manager of Friar's Pardon. Charles Fox-Browne had a varied army career as an intelligence officer and was for a time Chief Intelligence Officer to Brigadier-General Mallison's Brigade on the Somme. Something he has to rely on as the domestic strain and apparently supernatural phenomena become a prelude to murder.

Mrs. Lester-Greene is not the easiest person to be around, somewhat of a benevolent dictator, who appears to be generous with allowances, but prefers to be considered a Lady Bountiful and "see her see her protégés unhappy" than "finish being Lady Bountiful" – which would make everyone a lot happier. A situation not improved by rampant paranormal activity. Keys "plucked out from the keyhole" by invisible hands and doors locking, or unlocking, as by magic. A pair of pajamas disappear and reappear in a locked bedroom. A vase is smashed to pieces in another locked bedroom and disembodied hand with crooked fingers knocking on a bedroom window. And plenty of poltergeist activity. 

The situation culminates when Mrs. Lester-Greene's calls on the house telephone from her room in the haunted wing, screaming "help... help... for God's sake help," but her bedroom window is locked from the inside. Charles Fox-Browne has to break a window in order to get in and open the door. But they're too late. Mrs. Lester-Greene's body is laid out on a couch, not a mark on her body, but the doctor determines she drowned. There's not a drop of water or damp patch in the room. Surprisingly, the local police is more than a little willing to settle for a supernatural explanation.

So the whole setup, while a little long, is full of promise and there's a worthy payoff in the end, but the scheme as a whole turned out to be the proverbial mixed bag of tricks. I think having just reread Carter Dickson's brilliantly plotted The Reader is Warned (1939) made all the more obvious MacDonald lacked the divine touch of the master. Let's get the bad out of the way first.

Firstly, MacDonald gave away the identity of the murderer during the first-half of the story, but not due to clumsiness, sloppy writing or plotting. Some might even completely miss it, but, to me, it made this person stand out like a wolf among sheep. I can't tell what, exactly, betrayed the murderer to me without giving away the solution, but it's something very specific and not used until decades later in a somewhat contentious detective story – namely (ROT13) Vfnnp Nfvzbi'f fubeg fgbel, "Gur Boivbhf Snpgbe"). Secondly, the locked room-trick at the heart of the crime is routine. Not as bad as a secret passage or a pair of pliers to turn the key, but not good or original enough to warrant a reputation as an elusive impossible crime classic. Thirdly, the ghostly activity never gives you the impression that's anything else but cheap trickery, because the reader is never told what's suppose to be behind all those "queer deaths." MacDonald briefly goes over the history of the house and it's unfortunate occupants, but not why the owners started to drown in a bone-dry room in a new house with no history to speak of. Did they recycle building material from an already haunted house, paved the basement floor with headstones or simply a curse? The reader is never told and so the hauntings come across as nothing more than trickery, which robbed the story of most of its creepy atmosphere. And is not very Carr-like. 

On the other hand, the method of drowning in a locked, bone-dry room and how the murderer left it behind was an inspired piece of plotting. The kind of thing you would expect from a Japanese shin honkaku mystery writer with the clue of the spilled nail police being a clever touch to the drowning and locked room setup. There's another, more technical aspect to the murder, which demonstrated Golden Age mystery writers were very up-to-date on anything that could aid them in a juicy murder. Although it's a little weird to see a modern associated word like (ROT13) rnecubarf used in a 1931 mystery novel. I entirely agree with John Norris' 2011 review that the staged séance counts as "one of the best confession by entrapment scenes in a Golden Age novel." A great and very well handled ending to a regrettably uneven, but overall enjoyable, detective novel.

So all of this makes it troublesome to recommend Mystery at Friar's Pardon as a companion to Carr, Roscoe, Smith and Talbot, which is what most (locked room) readers aware of the book hope to find. I don't expect my review will do anything to fine-tune everyone's expectations, but advise you to expect something more in line with Herbert Brean, George Limnelius or one of Paul Halter's second-tier mysteries. You'll enjoy and appreciate it more that way.


The Reader is Warned (1939) by Carter Dickson

Several months ago, I reread and reviewed John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), whose reputation received a much deserved boost during the internet age as the story magnificently showcases Carr's ability to construct and navigate intricate, maze-like plots – planting clues along the way that double as red herrings. The Problem of the Green Capsule demonstrated he wasn't depended on murders in hermetically sealed rooms and fields of virgin snow to write a baffling detective story. And it made me want to revisit another one of his 1939 mysteries. 

The Reader is Warned (1939) is the ninth novel in the Sir Henry Merrivale series, published as by "Carter Dickson," which has always been somewhat of a low-key masterpiece of the series. A novel generally admired and highly rated when discussed, but rarely referenced or under exposed when discussing Carr's work or impossible crime fiction in general. You can probably put that down to the whole story trying to be as low-key and inconspicuous as possible in spite of it being constructed around some very ambitious and even sensational ideas.

Carr restricted the story to a few locations, centering on half-a-dozen characters, while the sensational, headline-grabbing implications and potentially "an international situation" is played out in the background – ultimately just played for laughs. It all worked out beautifully in the end. Although it likely made the book a little inconspicuous and easy to overlook. Particularly among Carr's impressive body of work, but not something that can't be fixed. 

The Reader is Warned is narrated by a consultant to the Home Office pathologist, Dr. John Sanders, who's invited by a friend and young barrister-about-town, Lawrence Chase to spend the weekend at Fourways. Fourways is the gloomy, Victorian-Gothic home of two great friends of Chase, the Constables. Mina Constable is better known to the general public as the romantic novelist, Mina Shields, who even tried her hands at "a straight detective story" that was "most unmercifully slated." Sam Constable is a retired textile manufacturer and "the complete British clubman" as well as being a bit of a domestic tyrant ("will you stop twitching and jittering with that glass, like an old hag soaking up gin in a pub"). And they'll be entertaining two more guests beside Chase and Sanders. Miss Hilary Keen is the lovely, keen-witted friend of Chase and Herman Pennik is a self-professed mind-reader. Pennik's presence is the reason why Chase asked Sanders "to bring Sir Henry Merrivale as well," but he's away on official business and can't come until Sunday. Too late to prevent the murder.

Herman Pennik regards Sam Constable as "an ill-mannered imbecile, brutal to his wife, insulting to his guests, an obstruction to all mental or moral progress" and confrontation over cocktail gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the full power of his Teleforce – prophesying he would not be alive by the time dinner is served. Just as the clock struck eight, Sam Constable walked down a hallway to the staircase landing when Mina saw him "dancing or staggering" from her bedroom door before he fell across the handrail. Less than a minute later, Sanders caught "a faint flutter of pulse" which stopped the second he found it. This where things not only get really weird, but outright impossible.

Sam Constable died without a mark, external or internal, on his body and there was not a single trace of any kind of poison. Solid, liquid or gaseous. Neither was he anywhere near of an electric fitting. He simply had a fit in the middle of the landing and died a minute later. Things go from bad to worse when Pennik presents himself to Chief Inspector Humphrey Masters as the murderer who can't be arrested or held as a material witness. Pennik is more than willing to talk with the press about his Teleforce.

So the presence of the old man is more than just a little welcome, but Sir Henry Merrivale arrives not in the best of moods as "there's some low, evil-minded talk" about sticking him in the House of Lords. So he expected a quiet Sunday to end the weekend and now he finds himself in the middle of another impossible murder case, which could spell the kind of trouble that could send him away to the House of Lords. H.M. naturally begins to meddle in the case and comes across a parade of seemingly ordinary clues that always become a little bizarre or even sinister in a John Dickson Carr story. Such as the white chef's cap, the burned candles and blobs of grease to a missing scrapbook labeled "New Ways of Committing Murder," which provides the plot with a missing-object mini-puzzle. More complications arise when a second, equally impossible, death occurs. This time, Pennik not only possesses a unimpeachable alibi, but now he can also do astral projection!?!

Some of my fellow reviewers (linked above) have rightly pointed out that Herman Pennik is one of Carr's best characters and villains, but what really made it work is that he's a character in a detective story. Pennik could not have succeeded in any other genre or format except the extremely fair play detective story. If Pennik had been a cartoon or comic book character, he would have been a badly written character with ill-defined powers that change when it suits the story. Pennik goes from being a humble mind-reader and being able to predict the future "to crack a man's bones and skull with thought" and astral projection. But here it served a purpose. For example, Carr used some uncharacteristically cheap, dime-store trickery usually reserved for second-and third tier mystery writers to explain the mind-reading act, predictions and astral projection – which were handily used to further both the plot and Pennik's characterization. There are the scraps and snippets showing the effect of the two mysterious murders have on the outside world ("TELEFORCE: NEW MENACE TO MANKIND?") and how it influenced the jury at the inquest. Just as pure entertainment, The Reader is Warned is as good as any of the better-known H.M. novels.

All of that's merely dressing and the true strength of the story is found in the answers to those three all important questions in any murder investigation. Who, why and how. Yes, the answer to those three questions were very clever indeed and mostly hidden in plain sight!

I've mentioned in my previous reviews Carr was practically unrivaled when it came to parading the naked truth in front of your eyes while simultaneously distracting your attention. You have to be a quick-witted, sharp-eyed reader to catch all of his sleight-of-hands on a first read, but The Reader is Warned might very well have his most daring and inspired pieces of misdirection. So clever and sneakily done, you can only really appreciate it on a second read, because even with all the fairly distributed clues and hints it's almost impossible to anticipate. Carr was very fair with his clues and hints. So fair, he practically spelled out the truth punctuated with several footnotes assuring there were no accomplices or mechanical devices lurking in dark corners. One of the footnotes reminded the reader that there has to be a motive, "though fully indicated in the text, is not obvious on the surface," advising “anyone interested in solving the problem" to "look carefully below the surface." Every footnote ended with the title of the book, The Reader is Warned. Carr was the embodiment of Cavalier sportsmanship!

The only flaw I was able to find, if you can call it a flaw, is that the story is very much a detective reader's detective story and new readers, to Carr and the genre, might want to start somewhere else first. But that hardly takes anything away from this brilliant, expertly cut gem of a detective story.

So what else can I possibly say? You're simply incomplete as a human being without having read and experienced Carr.


Cold Evil (1938) by Brian Flynn

I didn't intend to cram two reviews into as many days, but Dean Street Press released their third set of ten Brian Flynn reprints earlier this week. Since my previous read proved to be a little disappointing, I decided to tack on a review of one of these new editions. 

These reprints all come with an introduction by fellow mystery blogger, Steve Barge, who rediscovered Flynn back in 2017 and championed him getting back in print, which happened less than two years later – unearthing a long-lost gem from the 1920s in the process. Steve rightly pointed out in his introduction that one of the joys and strengths of Flynn's writing is "the variety of stories that he was willing to tell." Flynn wrote detective stories, the traditional kind of detective story, but he produced them in all kinds of different shapes and forms. Covering everything from Doylean thrillers to the old-fashioned whodunit. Steve gives as an example The League of Matthias (1934) and The Horn (1934), consecutive releases, which were so different in style you could believe they were from "the pen of different writers."

Flynn's variety of plots, divergence in narrative styles and willingness to experiment resulted in a handful pulp-style mystery novels of the kind commonly associated (on this blog) with John Russell Fearn and Gerald Verner. 

Somewhat anomalous for a pure, Golden Age writer to indulge in those type of thrilling pulp mysteries, but Flynn was a huge Sherlock Holmes fanboy who wore his fandom on his sleeve. Flynn's pulp-style outings were obvious attempts at reimagining Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot" (1910) and "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane" (1926) as modern, fair play detective stories or neo-Victorian thrillers – which happen to be not unlike the pulp mysteries by Fearn and Verner. The big difference is, of course, quality as Flynn was a better writer and plotter who created some weird, but magnificent, creatures by crossing the detective story with the pulp-style thriller. A strange, fluttering of sound is the harbinger of an Invisible Death (1929) in a house under siege. The Triple Bite (1931) is a Doylean thriller in which a ghastly, whirring kind of noise and puffy pink marks on the body the only signs death left behind. The Spiked Lion (1933) concerns a murderer who leaves his victim's bodies a mass of bruised and broken bones with slash marks. I tremendously enjoyed these pulpier outings stuffed with bizarre characters, strange deaths and the occasional impossible crime.

So my attention was drawn to the new reprint of twenty-first entry in the Anthony Bathurst series, Cold Evil (1938), which tackles the possibility of "murder by projection of evil" on a dark, gloomy moor during the winter months. 

Cold Evil is narrated by Anthony Bathurst's cousin, Jack Clyst, who the opening chapter finds having dinner at the vicarage of St. Crayle with Martin Burke, Christopher Chinnery, Dick Copeland and Edward Verschoyle. During the after-dinner conversation, someone "drags in the occult and the weird" and when that happens "no other topic will get a show." Martin Burke tells a chilling story about the time he witnessed the chimaera, "a fabled fire-breathing monster," coming to life in a Chinese village and "rush madly down the quaint Eastern street" – crying like a stuck pig. The creature left behind three bodies on the street with "a dull red mark," like a burn, behind each ear. Burke believes they were killed by a projection of evil, because they had offended a local holy man who willed them to die.

When the party breaks up to go home, Chinnery vanishes along the moor and his body is not found until a week later by an old quarry. Chinnery is frozen stiff with "reddish marks" behind his ears, but otherwise not a shred of evidence to suggest he was murdered. Nonetheless, Clyst asks his cousin to come down to St. Crayle to see if he can shed some light on Chinnery's mysterious passing. This is where it becomes apparent that Flynn was playing the waiting game with the story. 

Cold Evil takes place between early December and the first two weeks of January during which more people disappear on the moor, while they were on their way home. So there's a lot of waiting with bated breath for the bodies to turn up and discussing everything that has happened or can be expected to happen, which often turns to those cold, dark moors. A place where the bones of ancient Britons have rested for centuries and smiles at you in the summer, but lies in wait to kill unsuspected people in its "cold and callous cruelty" during the winter. Flynn even included a quasi-impossible situation with ghostly footsteps on the moor and a cornered shadow vanishing into nothingness. This added to the atmosphere of a silent, suppressed evil lurking somewhere on those dark, wintry moors in the dead of night.

Regrettably, Cold Evil is a textbook example of past results not guaranteeing future results. Invisible Death, The Triple Bite, The Spiked Lion and The Horn were detective stories masquerading as Victorian-era throwbacks or pulp-style mysteries, but Cold Evil is pure pulp trying to pass itself off as a detective story posing as a Victorian-era pulp. Flynn succeeded in keeping up the pretense until the last two chapters when the story makes a sudden left-turn into Shilling Shocker territory.

You should be able to make an educated guess as to whose hand is behind this "sinister, frightening, eerie business," but the motive, linking the victims together, came out of nowhere and neither can you anticipate the murder method – which definitely belongs on the pages of a dime thriller. So don't expect anything along the lines of Carter Dickson's The Reader is Warned (1939) or even J.J. Connington's Jack-in-the-Box (1944). However, I actually didn't mind this ending as much as you might expect. Flynn always tried to do something different and sometimes that meant he edged away from the traditional elements of the detective story (e.g. The Edge of Terror, 1932). What I did mind is how the ending brushed away all the intriguing clues as insignificant trifles. Those reddish marks? Red herrings. The promising clue of the three light-green hairs? The reader is only told afterwards why it pointed to the murderer without being given an opportunity to spot it yourself. So why even include them? 

Cold Evil is an interesting take on the Doylean thriller as the story gives the impression of holding its breath in silent anticipation until everything burst loose in the final chapters. Whether you end up liking it depends on your personal taste or your level of tolerance for pulp fiction, which is not to everyone's liking. Either way, if you're new to the series, I recommend you begin somewhere else first.

Sorry for two lukewarm (DSP) reviews in a row, but I've something excellent lined up for my next review and will return to Flynn sometime later this month. So don't you even dare think about touching that dial!


The Case of the Seven Bells (1949) by Christopher Bush

The Case of the Seven Bells (1949) is Christopher Bush's 35th novel starring his two series-detectives, Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George Wharton, which begins with giving the reader "a first-class and essential clue" to help them figure out why the murderer was caught. A murderer who was "clever enough for anything and the planning was perfect," but the whole scheme collapsed and the reason why it failed is that the weather was "remarkably fine" on the day the case began – while "the next few days were much cooler" and "generally wet." I love it when Bush hands out these so-called "starter clues" and one of the things that endeared him to me. 

The Case of the Seven Bells opens with Ludovic Travers hanging around the office of Bill Ellice's Detective Agency, in Broad Street, when his receptionist/secretary announced a possibly client. A nervous woman, named Maudie Brown, who has a peculiar story to tell.

Maudie Brown is employed as a barmaid at one of those typically English public houses, the Seven Bells, but, every now and then, she would slip into Porelli's Café before the bar opened – to enjoy "a quick coffee and what she called a change of air." Last time she enjoyed coffee with biscuits, Maudie overheard two men "planning some sort of robbery" at "some place or other called The Grange." She described them as "a couple of flash boys or spivs," but, whoever they were, they noticed Maudie. And they followed her back to the Seven Bells. One of them tells her politely what happened to another woman who blabbed to the police "about something she'd heard," while playing menacingly with a razor blade. Ellice promises to see if he could do anything to help her, but he has a lot to discuss with Travers the moment the door closes.

There are "plenty of smart boys" in the Seven Bells area, but, when Travers goes to take a look himself, it seemed incredible that there could be such things "as razor-slashings, and spivs who laid plains in eating-houses, and frightened barmaids." Why was Maudie Brown all dolled up on her day off? Why did she use an accommodation address and where did she sleep? Not much else can be done until Travers receives an early morning phone call from Superintendent George Wharton. Summoning him to the scene of a murder in Carr's Hill.

Mrs. Wyster was a celebrated and famous film actress, "only real woman genius the English screen has produced," who was known to the world as Aubrey Grange and she was taking a rest at a small bungalow, The Croft. Practically nobody knew she was staying there. Now she lay dead, "shot at close range and no gun," in the hallway passage of the bungalow with the telephone line cut and the place ransacked. Travers sees an obvious link between the eating-house plot and the murder whereas Wharton is very dismissive of the idea, which brings us to the highlight of the story.

I mentioned in previous reviews that nobody from Bush's time nailed the dynamic between the amateur detective and official policeman quite like he did.

Travers mentioned in earlier novels he has the crossword kind of mind that easily lends itself to grand theorizing according to the Socratic method, "put up questions and suggest answers," which prove to be correct once in three times – that's not a bad average. But the much more theatrical and maneuverable Wharton habitually pooh-poohs him and his fanciful theories. So if one of his theories turns out to be wrong, Wharton has one more failure to bring up in future arguments, but it suddenly becomes "our theory" when it turns out well or simply calls it his idea if it's an absolute winner. But don't think Wharton is simply another carbon copy of Lestrade. More than once, Wharton has upstaged Travers by solving the case before he does.

I think it makes them possibly unique as Golden Age detective-characters and them butting heads over a particular tricky problem, in their own characteristic way, is usually one of the highlights of any Christopher Bush mystery. The Case of the Seven Bells is no exception.

Wharton believe it more likely Maudie overheard a gang of house-breakers, not spivs, because "black market stuff's their specialty." Spivs don't do this sort of job or shoot to intentionally kill, but a gang of house-breakers is not very likely either. They must have known Grange was living there and when she would be home. So why shoot instead of tying and gagging her? A burglar shooting his way out of tight corner is "rare enough." Not to mention a hanging matter. So why did it happen here? There are other strange complications. Such as a neighbor hearing the whimper of a baby on the night of the murder and their prized witness, Maudie Brown, has vanished from the face of the earth. 

The Case of the Seven Bells had all the ingredients to make a densely-plotted, first-class Ludovic Travers and George Wharton mystery, but the plot regrettably is one of the most transparent, see-through in the entire series. Bush badly showed his hand here as he littered the opening chapters with alarm bells and red flags. You're unlikely to immediately catch on what, exactly, is happening, but enough to make you suspicious of certain things and be on your guard, which then goes on to spell out the solution in succeeding chapters – effectively turning the "starter clue" into a red herring of sorts. Something that could have worked had all those other clues, hints and tell-tale signs not been so blatantly obvious.

Technically, The Case of the Seven Bells is sound enough with an ambitious idea as the foundation stone of its plot and story. I half-suspect Bush intended the book to be the torchbearer of the (ROT13) snyfr vqragvgvrf trope as he shoved the question of alibis to the background, which the easily spotted solution and paper-thin characterization prevented. So only recommendable to fans of the series.


Death Among the Undead (2017) by Masahiro Imamura

Back in late 2018, Ho-Ling Wong posted an intriguing review of Masahiro Imamura's debut novel, Shijinso no satsujin (The Murders in the Villa of the Dead, 2017), which "made enormous waves in the world of Japanese mystery fiction" as it swooped the number one spots in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi, Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best 10 and Honkaku Mystery Best 10 rankings – marking "the first time anyone had managed to grab the grand spot of these three annual mystery fiction rankings." There's a good reason why the book was a smashing success in Japan spawning "a multimedia franchise" with manga and live-action adaptations. 

Masahiro Imamura accomplished something in his debut that many have attempted, but only few have succeeded in doing. The Murders in the Villa of the Dead blurs the lines between two different genre, namely the detective and horror story, without corrupting or tainting the integrity of either. The book impressively juggles the traditional locked room mystery with an actual zombie outbreak, which isolated the characters to the titular villa and created one of the most original closed-circle situations on record!

So, naturally, I've been banging on about the book getting translated ever since and half-expected Pushkin Vertigo would eventually pick it up, but it was John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, who scooped up the publishing rights – getting out an English translation quicker than I could have asked for. Ho-Ling Wong translated The Murders in the Villa of the Dead, retitled Death Among the Undead, which has a must-read introduction by the "God of Mystery," Soji Shimada. A jealousy-inducing introduction as Shimada goes over the history of the Japanese detective story and particular how "the youngsters belonging to the university mystery clubs" rebelled against the domineering social school of crime fiction. This is now known as the beginning of the shin honkaku boom in Japan. A movement that completely rejuvenated the traditional, plot-oriented detective story and mystery fans everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to them.

However, while the West only recently have gotten a taste of the great shin honkaku school, the movement has been dominant in Japan for decades and readers "yearned for the kind of impetus" that Yukito Ayatsuji's Jukkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) had created. Death Among the Undead gave expression to that yearning and might very well be the signal of "a revolutionary change for the mystery genre" in which authors look to fantastical elements, like "country house murder mysteries which utilize artificial elements" or zombies, to add something new and original to the core-puzzles of their novels. This is both amazing and slightly depressing. I'm poking here through the remains of the brief flareups of the Dutch detective story, while Japan is about to enter their Third Golden Age. 

Death Among the Undead forced that first step towards new grounds, like the shin honkaku movement did in the past, but the story begins as a typical, shin honkaku-style detective story with a university student as the narrator, Yuzuru Hamura – who's loves traditional detective fiction. So he tried to join the Shinkō University's Mystery Club, but its members were more interested in Young Adult fiction and used to club as an excuse to socialize. However, there's a second, unofficial and one-man mystery club on campus run by a third-year student. Kyōsuke Akechi is the president of the Mystery Society and aspires to be Great Detective, known as "The Holmes of Shinkō," who recruits Hamura as his Watson. Akechi and Hamura go around campus solving cases (like "The Case of the Leaked Theology Tests") or looking for lost cats as a part-time job for the Tanuma Detective Agency. Akechi always hoped something truly interesting and worthy would occur around him, but he was not content to wait until something turned up and had the habit to jump in on his own. This is why he has set his eyes on the Film Club's summer trip.

The Film Club has planned a trip to the Villa Violet, a private boarding house, situated near Lake Sabea in S Prefecture where they want to shoot a short, POV-style horror movie, but the trip is also "what some might call a group dating party" – which is why there not too keen on outsiders trying to horn in. A group of students gathering at a boarding house in the summer strikes Akechi as "the perfect place for some incident to occur," but he gets turned down several times. No outsiders! This changes when a note is found in club room asking "who will be the sacrifice this year?" A reference to a female club member committing suicide after their previous summer trip. Like I said, the story starts out like a fairly typical, neo-orthodox detective story. This could easily have been the premise of a story from The Kindaichi Case Files (The Legendary Vampire Murders comes to mind).

So there are a few cancellations and the persistent Akechi is approached by a second-year student, Hiruko Kenzaki, who offers Akechi and Hamura to join them after all. Otherwise, the trip might be canceled all together. What makes her deal so curious, is that they learn she's a detective "who has taken on many difficult and downright inexplicable cases that even the police couldn't handle." Kenzaki solved those cases with her "matchless powers of reasoning," but she comes from an illustrious family and her involvement is covered up with "strict restraints" on the media. So could there anything behind her arranging a place for them on the trip?

Akechi and Hamura become the outsiders in a group comprising of Film and Drama Club members, university alumni's and the manager of the Villa Violet, but, despite the alumni's turning out to be unpleasant characters, there's nothing to suggest all hell is about to break loose. Well, they discover that their smartphones have no signal and can't connect to the internet. There's the sound of ambulance sirens in the distance, helicopters in formation flying over and a brilliant, glowing aura behind the mountains. But everyone assumed that the Sabea Rock Festival was getting wild. Until they ventured out to explore an abandoned hotel in couples on "a Trial of Courage dare." This is where the story becomes unapologetically awesome!

While out in the dark, they can make out several figures descending the mountainside, swaying from side to side, dragging their feet and moaning until they were close enough for the lamp posts to illuminate "about a dozen swaying figures" coming their way – exposing their dark, bloodstained faces and torn clothing. And "the pungent, rotten smell of blood, grease and more." Obviously, these torn creatures are no extras hired to scare them and no-sold a rock thrown at its face. So they left cartoon smoke as they run back to the Villa Violet, but not everyone makes it back as what remains of the group barricade themselves inside. That one line, "things don't always go right," shows why the best storytellers today can be found in Japan.

They hear on the news that there was a possible bio-terror attack at the Rock Festival and the police has sealed off the entire area, but the news is evidently censored and communication cut-off to prevent mass panic. So now they have to survive until (hopefully) rescue comes, but one of them sees "a sign from heaven" in "the appearance of the walking dead" and a change to exact revenge. And the next day, one of the survivors is found dead under gruesome, hard to explain circumstances.

President of the Film Club, Ayumu Shindō, is found dead in his locked room and his death had not been a pleasant one. There were parts of his body that had been bitten off and his face had been gnawed all over, but nobody else had been in the gory, blood-drenched room and the balcony looked down on "the hordes of zombies swarming the grounds below." But they also find a folded piece of paper with "let's eat" scrawled on it. So there you have, what the story calls, "an unprecedented locked room mystery," because only a human could have possibly entered the room, but nobody "showed signs of having bitten Shindō to death." On the other hand, a zombie could have killed him, but "the possibility of a zombie penetrating the double-layered locked room, by accident or coincidence, is zero." Possibilities are explored through a locked room lecture, discussing fictional zombies and analyzing their own homegrown zombie hoard.

Their "brain only seems capable of sending simple orders" and "the coordination of their limbs is so bad they can't even run," easily losing their balance and struggling with obstacles, but they have "unlimited stamina" and feel no pain – which reduce the barricades to temporary obstacles. More importantly, they don't attack human, or each other, to eat, but to infect the living and reproduce. Anyone who's bitten gets infected, dies and rises again as a fully fleshed out zombie. Imamura brilliantly and logically integrated what the zombies can, and can't do, with the plot and story's setting, but how and where the zombies come into play is one of the key-pieces of the puzzle. Not just with the first murder. There's a second, equally gruesome murder in the elevator, where someone has been bitten to death and got his head smashed to a pulp, which is more of a how-was-it-done than an impossible crime. But the solution is ingenious! The third, very late murder is somewhat glossed over, as the body is impossible to reach, but the presence of zombies opened the door to an original twist on an old dodge.

Purely as a traditional, plot-driven detective novel, Death Among the Undead can stand with the best of its kind, past and present, but the story makes a point not to ignore the whydunit angle. Not merely the murderer's motive, but why the murderer employed such dangerous and high-risk methods. The trickery behind the murders can eventually be explained, but here it raises the question why such methods were employed. I really liked the dark duality the solution exposed between the intellectual and emotional facets of both the murders and murderer, which I thought was nicely complemented by an interesting and grim piece of commentary on the murder-magnet trope. I could go on, and on, praising the book, but there's one small detail that bugged me and it would be unfair to ignore or gloss over it.

Masahiro Imamura's succeeded in injecting zombies in a traditional detective story without killing it, but it came with a noticeable side effect. The characters took a more proactive approach to the murders than to the more pressing situation of hundreds of zombies, breaking down the barricades, slowly taking over the villa – floor by floor. They're rather passive when it comes to the zombies with a wait and hope for the best attitude and while coming up with all kinds of false-solutions to the murders, nobody is trying to figure out a way to escape from the villa to their van. Sure, they complain about the rope-ladder or a rope made out of bed sheets, but you're in the epicenter of a small, localized zombie apocalypse. What did they expect? A rooftop slip-and-slide? The zombies standing outside the villa can, theoretically, be bypassed. Just imagine the limited number of zombies as being water and Villa Violet a giant sluice. Eventually, they'll begin flooding the house, but you have control and slowdown the flood by using everything in the house to create either obstacles or a pathway. When one side of the villa has (mostly) cleared of zombies, they can slide down from a balcony, window or even the rooftop from the rope-ladder or bed sheets. And run to the van like the devil is on their heels. I was also slightly annoyed that nobody stumbled to the idea to sharpen the blunted, decorative swords and spears. This would have spared a little muscle power fighting an undead creature whose only advantage is unlimited stamina.

Nonetheless, this minor complaint is nothing to the detriment of the threat these terrifying creatures pose to the people trapped inside the villa. I do not fear Dracula, Freddy Krueger or Godzilla, but zombies never fail to unnerve me in how they can turn friends and family "into enemies in the blink of an eye." Imamura's zombies drive that point home very effectively. This is why an actual zombie apocalypse wouldn't kill us as a society or civilization. It would be the psychological aftermath that would neck us. Particularly if a zombie virus is permanent and turns everyone who dies into a zombie. Just imagine what that would do to people! I think I prefer to deal with malevolent ghosts or demonic children.

So, to draw this overlong and rambling review to a close, Death Among the Undead is close to perfect as a hybrid-mystery novel and has a plot bubbling with exciting new ideas and the spirit of exploration, which earned it a place alongside Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) as a rare classic of its kind. Simply put, the blast I had with Death Among the Undead could have wiped out the dinosaurs a second time. My best and favorite read of 2021! I sincerely hope we can look forward to an English translation of the sequel, Magan no hako no satsujin (The Murders in the Box of the Devil Eye, 2019), in 2022.

On a last, somewhat related note: I didn't want to wait too long with posting my review of this modern masterpiece and crammed as early as possible in my posting schedule. This came at the expense of yesterday's review of three short stories by Joseph Commings. So, if you have missed it, give it a look.


Miracle Wave: Joseph Commings' "Assassination—Middle East" (1981), "Murder of a Mermaid" (1982) & "The Grand Guignol Caper" (1984)

Joseph Commings began writing detective stories against "the unlikely backdrop of a pup tent in Sardinia during the Second World War" simply for "the amusement of his fellow soldiers," but back home there was a booming market for magazine fiction and his short stories appeared in numerous publications over the decades – ranging from Ten Detective Aces to The Saint Mystery Magazine. During those decades, Commings carved out a niche as one of America's premier writers of short impossible crime stories that can stand comparison with the best by Edward D. Hoch and Arthur Porges

Nearly all of his stories featuring his "formidable extrovert Yankee congressman" detective, Senator Brooks Urban Banner, are "stuffed to the gills with locked room lore and traditional Golden Age ambience." Sadly, the magazine market had largely dried up by the 1950s and Commings went through periods of complete obscurity and rediscovery, which came on top of a massive stroke in the early seventies that took away most of the use of his right hand side. A bright light came twelve years after he passed away when Crippen & Landru published Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004) collecting fourteen stories and came with an excellent introduction by the late Robert Adey. We've been waiting ever since for a second volume.

So why not treat myself to a little preview of that future second collection of Banner stories by reading three, previously uncollected, stories with one of America's greatest detectives in the lead? Actually two uncollected stories, because the third was collected in Banner Deadlines under a different title, but I sorely needed reminding how great that story is. And, as usual, special thanks to Alex, of The Detection Collection, who helped guide me to these stories. 

"Assassination—Middle East" was originally published in the May, 1981, issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and presents the gargantuan, harrumphing Senator Brooks U. Banner with a two-pronged problem within the American Consulate in Turkey – a disappearance and shooting like the one "that fired off World War I." Nathan Cross works in the Foreign Service at the American Consulate and is on his way to deliver passports and visas to two West Germans immigrants, Peter and Arla Geist. There was, however, a small oversight. Peter Geist forgot to sign his application and Cross needs his signature before he can hand over his passport, but all Geist does is performing a vanishing act with Cross as a witness. During his absence, "the Consul General had been shot dead by an Arab assassin" during a dinner for ambassadors, diplomats and VIPs. Luckily, one of the guests was nobody less than Senator Brooks U. Banner.

Simply as an impossible crime story, "Assassination—Middle East" cannot be counted among Commings best and most inspired stories with two simple problems with equally simple solutions. But, to his credit, my solution to Geist's disappearance was only half correct. Just nothing to get excited over. What was interesting is the story's setting and the diplomatic background, which reminded me of the recently discussed, 1960s mysteries by Charles Forsyte

"Murder of a Mermaid" was originally published in the August, 1982, issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and is the shortest of the three stories discussed here. Senator Banner was driving back to New York when he decided to invite himself to the estate of a champion swimmer, Aimee Waverly, but found her half submerged body in the swimming pool. Aimee Waverly's body had been in the water for nearly a week and coroner is stumped, because she "fought something in the water until she went under" that left no bruises on her body. She was a championship swimmer who could out swim anybody and "break any death grip you get on her," which begs the question how someone could have drowned her without leaving a mark on the body. Something supernatural?

So more of a how-was-it-done than an impossible crime, but with a truly diabolical and original solution that can only be described as vintage Commings. I thought the murderer had thrown a weighted net over Aimee, which would have been a simple, elegant explanation for the signs of a struggle (worn nails and torn, scraped fingers) with something that didn't leave any marks on her – a net that could later be retrieved with a pool safety hook. I thought it made sense. Commings had a better and much more ingenious kind of trick hidden up his sleeve.

The third and last story is better known today under its alternative title, "The Vampire in the Iron Mask" (collected in Banner Deadlines), but first appeared in the November, 1984, issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine as "The Grand Guignol Caper." I'm afraid I didn't fully appreciated "The Grand Guignon Caper" the first time around, because it's an unapologetic imitation of John Dickson Carr that can stand with the best by Paul Halter!

Colonel Walter Seven, of the Division of Criminal Investigation of US Army, is dispatched to post-war France to track down a hero of the resistance, Guy St. Hilaire, to pin the Medal of Honor on him. Guy St. Hilaire "killed over forty Krauts in hand-to-hand combat" and made "the way a little easier for the entrance of General Leclerc's armored division into Paris on the Day of Liberation," which brings him to an old chateau converted into a school on the outskirts of Paris. He lives and works there as a reclusive schoolteacher and reluctant to accept the medal, but Colonel Seven notices the bruises on the arms of a female schoolteacher, Lucienne Gallon. And that leads to a fight. Before they can come to serious blows, a schoolboy runs in to tell that his friend was just strangled by a vampire in the cemetery!

Achille Simplon, Pierre Cricq and Raoul Pax were in the cemetery, "horsing and pegging snowballs at one another," when a cloaked, faceless figure with iron teeth came up from behind a tombstone – seized and strangled Raoul. Achille and Raoul managed to get away and when they investigated found the footprints of the monster. These "particular tracks" lead from an old mausoleum dedicated to Duc de Gotha and back to it again, but Duc de Gotha had been beheaded during the French revolution and his resting place had not been entered in more than a century. It took two people to unlock and push open the rusted door with the cobwebs hanging undisturbed across the entrance, but upon entering, they discover someone had recently written "VAMPIR" in the dust on the coffin.

While all of this is going on, Senator Banner arrives to pin a medal on St. Hilaire and immediately has to give away his best imitation of Sir Henry Merrivale as Colonel Seven wonders whether it was "too many locked rooms" or "too many aperitifs" that "finally made Banner as crazy as a bedbug." But there's reason to his madness. Whether it's stating that knowing the answer to the locked tomb would leave them even further away from the solution to trampling on evidence in the snow. Everything worked and fitted together better than my Watson-like memory recalled. 

"The Grand Guignol Caper" succeeds not because of a single trick, twist or a grand surprise, but it's tapestry plotting with its various, independently moving parts coming together in a logical and convincing way to create a truly baffling crime. Something in the spirit of the cussedness of all things general. And to make it even more Carr-like, the story has a short, but spirited, fencing scene when Colonel Seven and St. Hilaire decide to have a duel. Because why not? Highly recommended! 

So, to make a long story short, these three stories perfectly samples Commings ability as a short story writer and plotter with and imaginative, often original bent of mind. A genuine unsung master of the short locked room mystery story. Just listen to the deafening silence emanating from The Invisible Event.


The Listening House (1938) by Mabel Seeley

Mabel Seeley was an American writer from Herman, Minnesota, who was known as "The Mistress of Mystery" and considered by the eminent critic, Howard Haycraft, to be on equal footing with the headmistress of the "Had-I-But-Known" school of detective fiction, Mary Roberts Rinehart – promising to "pilot the American-feminine detective story out of the doldrums out of its own formula-bound monotony." A promise that earned her debut novel, The Listening House (1938), a place on "The Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones of Detective Fiction."

Curt Evans, of The Passing Tramp, has discussed Seeley on his blog several times and praised The Listening House as a "spirited updating of the old HIBK novel" with "a much grittier edge" than its Van Dinean floor plans suggests, but well plotted and managed as a pure detective story. Anthony Boucher even called the book "one of the best of all first mystery novels" twelve years after its original publication! So there was more than enough promise and expectations were high.

Regrettably, the promise remained largely unfulfilled as she only wrote seven novels between 1938 and 1954. The general opinion appears to be that none of them lived up to The Listening House, which has been out-of-print for decades with secondhand copies being "extremely tough" to find. Until recently. Back in mid-June, Berkeley finally published a new edition of this obscure, hard-to-find gem and since the book has an intriguing entry in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019), I immediately pounced on a copy. I never claimed I was original. 

The Listening House is narrated by a young divorcee, Mrs. Gwynne Dacres, who gets unceremoniously let go from her copy-writing job and has to look for both work and cheaper rooms, which brings her to the lodging house of Mrs. Harriet Garr at 593 Trent Street – situated in the fictitious Gilling City. According to Curt, Gilling City is a thinly disguised St. Paul, Minnesota, where Seeley lived and graduated university during the 1920s. Mrs. Garr can let Gwynne a spacious living room and kitchen for four dollars a week for the summer, which would leave her almost eighteen dollars a month to eat on. More than enough time and financial breathing room to get back on her feet. But she quickly begins to wonder if she had moved in with "a deranged old semi-lunatic" with "delusions of persecution."

Mrs. Garr spends her days rotating between her parlor, hallway and a basement room with a rocking chair, three cats and a dog while keeping a suspicious eye on each of her lodgers. She believed some "went snooping around the house at night." Gwynne began to see Mrs. Garr as "an evil-eyed old woman with lovely white hair" who has "three big cats sitting on her lap or rubbing against her chair" and "the black dog parked alongside," but, during the night, she gets the unnerving feeling that the whole house was "holding itself tensely awake in the dark, listening." Either the house or something was listening to every breath she took! And then the trouble really began.

During a morning stroll, Gwynne discovers the body of man who has been shot and dumped down a cliff side, which Mrs. Garr's lodging house overlooks. Several weeks later, a squad of policemen, revolvers drawn, enter the house to arrest one of the lodgers on a possibly related and shocking crime. Gwynne is attacked for the first of several times when she goes to investigate quiet, furtive sounds during the night and Mrs. Garr apparently goes missing during a trip to Chicago. Some days go by before they decide to call the police to help break open the door of the locked basement room. Mrs. Garr had locked her cats and dog in there, but, when the door is opened, they found her body, clothes and hair scattered about the floor – torn to pieces like a scavenger's meal! So definitely one of the grittiest locked room mysteries on record! And there's another one. But more on that in a moment.

Where the story, in my opinion, earned its stripes as a classic of its kind is not how it revitalized the time-worn HIBK formula or its eerie, well sustained atmosphere and general sense of mystification. Not even the impossible situations secured that status. What makes The Listening House standout is how perfectly Seeley balanced the pros and cons of being an amateur detective to carefully manage the progression of the story, plot and character backstories.

Gwynne reflects how "the reporters in the newspapers and the characters in the fiction always seemed to comprehend what the police were working toward," but, in the case of Mrs. Garr, she "never knew what the police were going to do or think, and when I did find out, afterward, I usually disagreed strenuously." The police did all the routine work with her eventually learning the results in due time. So there are certain important aspects and plot-threads alluded to in the first-half, but not examined until the second-half. Such as the locked room status of Mrs. Garr murder, which is eventually confirmed during a well written and reasoned inquest scene. But there's also Mrs. Garr seedy past with an incident from 1919 that made the entire city tremble to its core. Nothing is rushed with every aspect and character of the story getting an opportunity to breath. It also gives Gwynne ample to time to recover from the various assaults. Lieutenant Peter Strom, of the Homicide Squad, remarks at one point, "I don't see how you've kept alive this long."

The most serious attack happens when Gwynne is knocked out in the middle of the night and a big wad of cotton, "sopping with the God damn dry cleaner," is placed on her face, but the double doors to her room were not only locked from the inside – a chair had been hooked under the doorknobs. The windows were closed, covered and fastened both inside and out. So how did the murderer entered and leave the room? This second locked room problem has a far better solution than the first one, which is so incredibly simplistic you immediately know how it was done once you learn why it's a locked room mystery. While there's nothing flashy about the second locked room-trick, rather workmanlike in spirit, neither is it overly simplistic or merely routine. I thought these locked room puzzles nicely placed their little part in a busy, complicated and ever-evolving story crammed with shifty characters, happenings and long buried secrets. The Listening House is always moving forward with new things occurring or being discovered. Even after the case is solved, the plot continued to twist and turn until its last pages.

So my review gives you only a very small sample of what to expect from Seeley's The Listening House, which also include a domestic treasure hunt, a developing romance, a quasi-historical plot-thread going back to 1919 that's as dark as a modern psychological crime thriller and so much more. Everything nicely folded together in the end with all the clues and information fairly on display. Or, to quote the lady detective herself, "it's bad enough having another amateur find a murderer you've been hunting yourself, without having it pointed out to you that you should have jolly well known it all along." Only drawback, if you can call it that, is that neither the who or how will pull the rug from underneath your feet. But, on a whole, The Listening House is one of the better written, cleverly structured debuts from the genre's Golden Age. I can completely understand why expectations were so high. Nonetheless, Seeley has earned more than enough credit with The Listening House to give The Whispering Cup (1941) or Eleven Came Back (1943) a shot. 

Notes for the curious: 1) Lieutenant Strom half-mockingly called Gwynne “a finder-outer,” which sleuth slang I've only seen used in Enid Blyton's The Five Find-Outers series and nowhere else. Did she read the book and sort of remembered it? 2) Some websites, like the GADwiki, lists an eight, tantalizingly titled, mystery novel, Sealed Room Murder (1941). Besides a few mentions, it appeared as if the book simply didn't exist. But then I noticed one website noted it was supposedly published by the Collins Crime Club. What contentious locked room mystery novel did they publish that same year? Rupert Penny's Sealed Room Murder (1941). So don't drive yourself mad trying to track down Seeley's Sealed Room Murder.


Utter Death (1952) by John Hymers

I think every long-time mystery reader has one, or more, pet tropes and trappings that draw us in like moths to a flame. Some of you might have noticed my excessive interest in impossible crime fiction or World War II period mysteries compounded by an incurable curiosity for the obscure and arcane, but not every trope or trapping lends itself to indulgence – like the frustratingly rare archaeological detective story. Two of the most well-known examples of the archaeological mystery novel are R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911) and Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). More recently, I found three short stories, Charles B. Child's "The Thumbless Man" (1955), MORI Hiroshi's "Sekitō no yane kazan" ("The Rooftop Ornaments of Stone Ratha," 1999) and Simon Clark's "The Climbing Man" (2015), but it remains a shallow pool to draw from. 

So, whenever I come across one, I take special notice and usually end up adding them to the towering, semi-sentient monstrosity that's my stack of unread detective novels. And that brings us to the subject of today's review.

John Hymers is even more obscure and little-known than his only, practically forgotten, contribution to the genre, Utter Death (1952), which brings the reader to the Cairo of the immediate post-war period where an utterly bizarre murder is committed among the members of a small, decaying British Colony – set against the skulduggery of an archaeological dig in the sand hills. So that was more than enough to get my attention, but who was John Hymers? Why has he has been so thoroughly forgotten today? Even lacking his own GADWiki entry.

None of the John Hymers found online seem to fit the timeline in which they could have written Utter Death, but there was a notable, 19th century English mathematician of the same name. So our Hymers could have been a relative carrying on the family name or a mathematician himself who simply picked the name as pseudonym. There might not be a link at all. I simply don't know. Not for sure, anyway, but I can make a tenuous guess as something struck me while reading Utter Death. A story with a little more than a passing resemblance to the early 1960s novels from a husband-and-wife team, Gordon and Vicky Philo, who wrote some magnificent mysteries together as "Charles Forsyte." Utter Death struck me as a very rough, unpolished attempt at the type of detective novels they would so expertly craft a decade later. You can even go as far as saying they pillaged Utter Death and refurbished the material as frameworks for their 1960s mysteries.

For example, the murders in Utter Death and Diplomatic Death (1961) share some resemblance in presentation and their reliance on stage-magic and misdirection. Diving Death (1962) shares its archaeological backdrop with Utter Death, but former takes place in the muted, two-color world of the seabed and the latter on the sun-scorched sands of Egypt. The setting of an isolated group of British characters in the Middle East is at the heart of both Diplomatic Death and Murder with Minarets (1968). Also note the similarity in choice of book titles.

I know I'm probably wrong here and the huge disparity in quality between Hymers' lightly plotted, second-string Utter Death and the Forsyte novels stands as a solid counter argument, but then again, that could have been the reason why they never acknowledged or claimed it – which has one point in its favor. Gordon and Vicky Philo began working on Diplomatic Death sometime during the 1950s, which had to be rewritten multiple times before finally being published in 1962. So, time-wise, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibilities Utter Death was an early, flawed attempt at the detective story that made it to print. But ended up being embarrassment when the Philos produced a better written, solidly plotted and more polished series of detective stories. This is nothing more than a guess, but there such a thing as a lucky guess. So who knows. Now let's get to the story at hand. 

Utter Death takes place some three miles to the south of Cairo in Mansiut, a so-called "garden city," where stucco villas, green lawns and avenues of poinsettias arose from "the mud which for centuries has been so generously left by the Nile" when a British Colony settled it. The result is not so much a garden as an exclusive, isolated island surrounded by deserts, rice fields and the river with no post office or shops. So you had to be "sufficiently affluent" to own a car to ride into Cairo, if you want to live in Mansiut. A small, dwindling remnant of the Colonial administration and it's social strata try to carry on there as old traditions have all but disappeared and the disillusioned diehards wonder why they ever handed the administration of the country back to the Egyptians. So a holdover from a previous era, but normally a pretty quiet, peaceful place that ends when the excavations begin.

Professor Maurice Selborne is a rising name in the world of Egyptology who's a notoriously difficult and unpleasant person to be around. A bit of an autocrat who's very protective of his excavation sites, which means practically nobody is allowed to come anywhere near. Somebody ignored his wishes! Professor Selborne has been excavating a hillside passageways close to an ancient temple where they have come across several chambers. However, the chambers were empty when they entered it, "not so much as a gold coin lying around," except for the paintings and carvings covering its walls. The odd thing is that they found the centuries old seal on the outer door intact, but the seal on the second door had been broken not so long ago. Yes, Hymers teased a locked room mysteries that unfortunately never materialized. But that's not all!

Someone has been sending Professor Selborne "Pharaonic messages" that can construed as death threats ("for the name of the god who ruleth here is Utter Death") and two workman have died violently on the job. But it neither frightened the archaeologists or put a stop to the excavation. Professor Selborne actually appears to be "playing a game of his own," as "if he had something up his sleeve," while being very keen on keeping the authorities out of his business. All they really know about Professor Selborne is that "he's unfaithful to his wife, is hated by his workmen and has been receiving anonymous warnings" which might be linked to "the present tomb he's excavating" – an explosive cocktail that ends in murder during a social gathering. Professor Selborne's body is found shot to death in his study, slumped over his desk, holding a half-crushed quill pen and a broken pieces of a vase scattered on the ground. The murderer also snatched something from the wall. Enter the Hercule Poirot of the Middle East, Inspector Zaky Bey of the Cairo Police.

Regrettably, there really is not much else that can be said about the story. Utter Death is a genuine enough detective novel, but has a plot as thin and fragile as finely-spun glass with a clumsy, amateurish grasp of clueing and misdirection. It kind of works as a detective story, but not a very good one. Only aspect of Utter Death that really stands out is its depiction of post-war Egypt and the social upheaval following Egyptian independence, which is more fairly put down than the old-world rumblings from the British quarters suggests. Another reason why the Philos could have written it, because they were British diplomats living and working in the Middle East at the time. It would explain why the scenery, social backdrop and some of the characters are so much much better realized than the plot. Even that was almost ruined towards the end with a very bad scene that could have been plucked from the yellowed pages of an opium-fueled, pot smoke filled pulp magazine story.

So, yeah, Hymers' Utter Death is more or less a repeat of my recent encounter with B.J. Kleymens' In de greep van de kreeft (In the Grip of the Lobster, 1965) with the question "who wrote this" proving to be more interesting than what they wrote. Not recommended unless you have a craving for the utterly obscure or intrigued by the potential mystery of Hymers' identity.

Sorry for the poor, sloppier than usual review, but it was a struggle to pad out this post into something resembling a proper review and will try to pick something less risky for the next time.