3/31/11

H.R.F. Keating (1926-2011): His Life and Crimes

H.R.F. Keating: His Life and Crimes

H.R.F. Keating
Last Saturday, March 27, 2011, the mystery community was saddened to learn that H.R.F. Keating, author of over fifty detective novels and former president of The Detection Club, had started sleeping the big sleep. He will be missed by many, but, with the immense body of work he leaves behind, he will never stray far from our thoughts.

Keating was one of only a handful of contemporary mystery writers who managed to catch my attention, and perhaps the only one who was at his best when he wasn't attempting to write a formal detective story. The more traditionally crafted stories, from his hand, often suffer from transparent plotting and easily perceptible culprits, but excelled when he solely concentrated on the battle-of-wits between Ghote, a downtrodden Bombay detective, and his opponent – usually a person who, in one way or another, wields much power.

But he was also a noted reviewer, critiquing crime books for The Times for fifteen years, served as president on the board of several literary societies, such as the Crime Writers Association and The Detection Club, and won several prestigious prices – among them an Edgar for his first Inspector Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder (1964), and a Cartier Diamond Dagger for outstanding services to crime literature.

From the Casebook of Inspector Ghote

The best example I can give of the intellectual dueling is the very entertaining novel Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (1971), in which the long-suffering inspector finally seems to have landed himself an easy assignment: escorting an infamous confidence trickster back to Bombay, while he enjoys the air-conditioned comforts of the Calcutta Mail train, however, his traveling companion has his own ideas of a fun train ride. The result is a delightful battle-of-wits between Ghote and the legendary conman. Briefly put, a nifty and unusual crime story that lacks any detection and crimes, but just shows two men constantly trying to top one another in a struggle of wits and wills. 

Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (1979) and Under a Monsoon Cloud (1986) take a more earnest approach to the intellectual duel between the inspector and his adversary, but I have yet to read either of these books – which make it impossible for me to comment on them.

Nevertheless, he wasn't completely inept with the conventional detective story, as he demonstrated in The Body in the Billiard Room (1987) – a spoof on Agatha Christie, in which Ghote is packed off to a mountain district, unaffected by the ravages of time, to investigate the murder of a billiard marker at a well-to-do gentlemen's club. The poor inspector not only has to find a murderer in unfamiliar territory, but also has to deal with an exasperating mystery buff, who sees in him the image of "The Great Story Book Detective," and constantly tries to make him read Christie's Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. It's a diverting mystery and better plotted than most of his other orthodox detective stories I've read. Definitely recommended!

As you can see, I really enjoyed reading most of his stories. So when I heard of his passing, I decided to pull one of his novels from my stock of unread books, and actually had a hard time choosing between Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote (1976) and The Murder of the Maharajah (1980), but ended up picking the former - because it featured Ghote. 

Foul Play in Tinsel Town 

Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote opens with the inspector being dispatched to Talkiestan Studios, where Dhartiraj, India's favorite on-screen villain, was found crushed under a Five-K Light, and the ropes bore the tell-tale marks of being cut. It's not as ritzy as a sabotaged crystal chandelier, but hey, it got the job done. And despite that the fact that the film rogue was very popular among his peers, there's a surfeit of potential murderers with a motive to kill the beloved movie star. The list of suspects range from the fading star of Jagdish Rana, who was kicked from his comfy spot as the definitive big screen bad boy, to the popular hero Ravi Kumar, who had seemed to have a deep seethed hatred for Dhartiraj.

But the hustle and bustle of tinsel town overwhelms the timid policeman, and when he's swooned off his feet by a famous actress it really starts to affect his thinking – dreaming of the spotlight and glory that could befall him as the man who avenged Dhartiraj's death by bringing his killer to justice. The thing is, that's easier said than done, because murderers have a habit of taking a shot at getting away with their dirty deeds, and this one is helped by the unwillingness of his fellow suspects to cooperate with Ghote.

The book is a perfect showcase of Keating's strength and weaknesses as a detective writer. He vividly paints a picture of a part of modern Indian pop-culture, the world of filmi, and the story barely has a dull moment – in spite of mainly consisting of interviews conducted one after another. The suspects being questioned, like a disillusioned director and a pushy producer, are interesting enough to hold the readers attention, as well Ghote's fascinating discovery of the glitter and glamour world known as Bollywood and how tries to deal with it.

That's all great and fun, but this makes the book more a story about a detective than a detective story, since the plot is threadbare and the few clues, that actually indicate the killers guilt, are too thinly spread around – and while that doesn't make the book a prime candidate for best mystery ever written, it still has plenty to offer for fans of the series or someone who's just looking for a diverting read.

Keating was someone who tried to do something new with the detective story format, without betraying it, and while not every attempt was a howling success he should be commended for trying and staying true to the heart and soul of the genre.

We truly lost a remarkable man and writer, but for us, his readers, his lives on in his work, and Penguin Modern Classics has announced four reprints of his books: The Perfect Murder (1964), Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg (1970), Inspector Ghote Trusts the Heart (1972) and Under a Monsoon Cloud (1986).

So grab this opportunity and read one of them in Keating's honor (or any of his other books currently residing on your to-be-read pile or local bookshop/library). 

In Memoriam: H.R.F. Keating

1926-2011

R.I.P.

3/28/11

Frances Crane, the Many Colored Death

The motley-colored titles that Frances Crane gave to her detective novels always conjured up a mental image of a careless and cheerful woman, who wrote jovial and lighthearted whodunits, but that picture was a bit disturbed after reading a short summary of her life. I somewhat fell in love with her when I read how she was thrown out of Germany for openly mocking and criticizing the new Nazi regime, but was also a bit saddened to learn of the tragedies that plagued her family and that she had more lofty ambitions in mind with her literary career. On a brighter sight, the mystery genre gained from the lost suffered by mainstream literature – selfish though that thought might be.

The Pink Umbrella (1943) is my first encounter with Pat and Jean Abbott, a husband and wife sleuthing team that were all the rage at the time, and was the fourth book in the series but the first one in which they were married. Unfortunately, their honeymoon leaves a lot to be desired. Pat had just enlisted in the Marines and will be shipped off to war within a few days, which doesn't leave much time at all to enjoy each other's company in a blacked-out New York City, where they don't know a soul. Or at least, that's what they thought.

They bump into an old acquaintance of Pat's, Ellen Bland, now living in America, with her archetypical dysfunctional family and assorted cohorts, after fleeing occupied Europe. Murder ensues! But contrary to time-honored tradition, it's not one of her family members, like her nasty, controlling ex-husband Louise or their 16-year-old son, Dick, who already knows how to hit the bottle, who meets a sticky end, but their sour-faced and ill-mannered housekeeper. It's an understatement to say that the old crone had an unattractive personality, however, caving her head in seems like a drastic measure to terminate her employment when a pink slip would've sufficed. Pat and Jean lend their invaluable help to New York's finest in uncovering a ruthless murderer.

Crane wrote a fluid story, almost in a careless manner and a loose style, that gives the story a touch of gaiety that's very becoming of this particular type of mysteries, but the plot left me under whelmed. The clues are not liberally thrown about and the motive for the second murders borders on cheating – making it very difficult for the reader to have an equal shot at arriving at the same conclusion as Pat did. His explanation also relayed too much on shaky amateur psychology (saying that this person was the only one with the personality of a cold blooded murderer). I really wanted to like this book, and did like some of it, but as a detective story it left me frigid.

However, if you're one of those detective fans who enjoy reading mysteries for their characters, without paying too much attention to the clues and plot, you'll probably enjoy tagging along with Pat and Jean. Otherwise, I recommend taking a look at the books by Kelley Roos and Delano Ames.

Oh, and kudos to anyone who spots the (obvious) reference to my favorite book. Here's a hint: it's not a mystery. Good luck! 

3/27/11

Actors and their Demons

Back in December, I asked a mixed group of clued-up enthusiasts, well-read scholars and zealous collectors to recommend me a few good American detective writers, and they were unanimous in their nomination of Patrick Quentin – one of the collective pennames of a collaborative writing team whose output was of prodigious value to the genre. My enquiry also spawned quite a tail of comments discussing the participating members and showed how intricate the inner workings of the team was. I shall therefore not attempt to shoehorn all that information into a short biography, but refer you to their page on the GADwiki.

As a ferocious reader of detective stories, I wasn't completely unaware of their existence – having already read S.S. Murder (1933), The Grindle Nightmare (1935) and Death's Old Sweet Song (1946), but was only impressed by one of them (their take on the shipboard setting was marvelous). Nonetheless, this false start did not deter me in my newly made resolution to start reacquainting myself with their work, especially now that I was equipped with a better understanding of their work. You see, I put a lot of stock in the opinions expressed by the group I consulted and their exuberance was highly contagious. This resulted in a feverish itch to start ordering their suggestions left and right, but managed to restrain myself by showing firmness of mind and fortitude!

Well, OK... that's not exactly true. There were just too many outstanding orders at the time, but hey, it's a convenient excuse to delude one self into believing one possesses traces of self-restraint and must be properly rewarded for cultivating such a virtues characteristic. One of the rewards came a few days ago, when I finally had an opportunity to dig into the second book from the Peter Duluth series. 

Yeah, it's a never-ending cycle from which no escape is possible.

Puzzle for Players (1938) appears to be an immediate sequel to its predecessor, Puzzle for Fools (1936), in which Peter Duluth was recovering from a bout of alcoholism in a disquieted sanatorium, where he assisted Dr. Lenz in apprehending a devious killer who left his victims tied-up in straightjackets. Having survived that dark abyss, his next step in his rehabilitation process is staging a big comeback as a theatrical producer. Lady Fortune seems to be casting an auspicious smile at him in this endeavour, as he was successful in assembling a talented cast of actors and acquired an excellent play to produce, but his luck is stopped dead in its track when he learns that the stage for his return is at the old Dagonet.

The Dagonet is a decrepit, old theatre with a dismaying reputation of being jinxed and where the disembodied reflection of a young woman, who hanged herself there a few decades earlier, haunts the dressing rooms, but credulous superstition and ghostly backstage visitations are only an ill omen of things to come. Nearly everyone is struggling with his own demons, but when a couple of unlikable characters turn up, who try to worm their way into the production, and the first body drops in on the rehearsals, it's clear that someone is giving them another demon to fight against – and this one's a lot more tangible!

This is an excellent mystery that does a first class job at balancing a superb plot with an exploration of well-drawn characters, without falling into the modernist hack-trap of wallowing in angst and misery, and the issues they have to face are actually tightly woven into the plot – and the final scene provides a powerful dénouement.

Puzzle for Players is a novel that reminded me why I love reading these old-fashioned detective stories.

3/22/11

"Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream?"

There's not much that can be said about Sydney Hobson Courtier, since the only biographical details available online are rather summary – confining to the rudimentary facts that he was an Australian teacher who authored twenty-six detective novels. Most of them featured either inspector Ambrose Mahon or his colleague 'Digger' Haig, who's at the helm of Courtier's 1959 novel Death in Dream Time.

The story embarks with an unaccountable SOS, from an estranged cousin, summoning shopkeeper Jock Coreless over hundreds of miles of land to an Aboriginal themed amusement park, called Dream Time Land, but before arriving at his destination he witnesses the aftermath of a fatal roadside accident – and is stunned when he recognizes his own flesh and blood in the mangled remains sprawled on the asphalt. Somewhat thrown off his balance, he neglects to make his presence, and kinship to the victim, known to the police officers at the scene, and jumps back in his car for the final leg of his trip.

Upon arrival, he's trust into a tense situation as he confronts a grudging assembly of characters who stalk the grounds of Dream Time Land, and they're unanimous in denying that his late relative was in their debt. But why, then, would he claim to have creditors when his slate was clean, and why chuck a sharpened bone, dipped in snake poison, at Jock if there's nothing underhanded going on at the park? Along side 'Digger' Haig, of the Brisbane police, they explore the park for answers by accompanying a group of tourists on their tour of the place – passing many breathtaking dioramas, depicting the Aborigine story of creation, while interrogating suspects and deciphering the hidden code, which holds a horrifying motive for a handful of murders, encrypted in the SOS message.

The plot of Death in Dream Time is decent enough, especially for a detective novel that can be considered as a product of the modern era, but where this book really excels is in its effective use of the theme park setting in combination with insightful information on Aboriginal folklore – producing a few evocative scenes of mystery and imagination. The characters, however, with the possible exception of old Austin Flax and his cursing Cockatoo (who definitely has a touch of Fowler's Arthur Bryant about him), are a shade less colorful than the surroundings they inhabit – and far less interesting than its plot, but that's a minor quibble, really, as the book maintained my interest until the final page.

If you enjoy reading the works of Clyde Clason and Arthur Upfield then this book is absolutely worth tossing on your pile of unread books.

3/19/11

"You are remembered for the rules you break"

After several rewrites, I have come to the conclusion that this isn't going to be one of my better critical pieces, but here we go anyway:  

During the waning years of the 1920s, a clique of notable mystery writers were starting to form a closely-knit gang, who called themselves The Detection Club, and codified a set of rules, which became known as "Father Knox's Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction," to lend an air of legitimacy to their mob. And it amuses me to no end to imagine Berkeley, Christie, Freeman, Sayers and Bailey restlessly waiting in the lobby of a hotel, when, all of a sudden, Knox comes strutting down the stairs, after a long and exhaustive conclave with Chesterton, triumphantly raising the ten commandments above his head. But I digress.

The stories collected in the volume Sins for Father Knox (1973), penned by the Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky, take the rules set forth by the clergyman and use them as a framework for a little less than a dozen diverting, offbeat mysteries that simply refuse to adhere to them. Skvorecky deliberately breaks one of Knox's commandments in each one of his stories and then directly challenges the reader to deduce, based on the clues given, which one he has disobeyed – as well as finding out who-and howdunit!

A short overview of the stories:
  
An Intimate Business

The first story serves as an introduction of the main protagonist, Eve Adam, a woman imprisoned for the poisoning of her former beau – a movie director of ill-repute. But the moonfaced, love-struck Lt. Boruvka believes her to be innocent and offers his services in clearing the blotch from her name. This is unfortunately a dull, but necessary, introductory for the stories to come. Just try to bear through it. 

The first challenge to the reader


3/16/11

I spy with my little eye...

Delano Ames' series detectives, Jane and Dagobert Brown, can be considered as the British equivalent of the facetious husband-and-wife detecting teams that were so fashionable in the States during the forties and fifties – not surprising, since Ames was from the US originally. And just like their counterparts, on the other side of the pond, the Brown's are a couple with a fondness for lighthearted banter and a tendency to flutter through life with an air of careless sanguine – as well as an ill-fated habit of almost casually chancing upon a body or two wherever they go. Ah, the good life!

Death of a Fellow Traveller (1950) has a pitiable Jane enduring one of Dagobert's latest fads, as he immerses himself in the world of international intrigue and foreign double agents. He grows a hideous beard, which he's convinced will make him look inconspicuous in public, listens in on private conversations hoping to pick up a coded message, and concludes that the limping man, who's seen visiting their next door neighbors, must be on the payroll of the Russians. But when a rather inconsiderate and ungrateful burglar only has eyes for some of Jane's jewelry, instead of his laboriously compiled and invaluable spy files, playing secret agent man seems to have lost its appeal and he decides to trick his wife into spending a short holiday at a small Cornish town.

Well, a couple of amateur sleuths planning a quiet holiday is an almost guaranteed prelude to murder, and no one should be too surprised when the limping man turns up at their little vacation spot and topples off a cliff. Naturally, the Browns put themselves in charge of the case as they try to piece together the events leading up to the fatal drop-off to figure out if it was just an unfortunate accident, a desperate suicide or murder most foul – and, in case of the latter, whether there was something in Dagobert's spies, after all, or if there's a more domestic origin to the crime. There are suspects aplenty!

This is a rollicking detective yarn, showcasing the blinkin' cussedness of things in general, and one that is self conscious of being a story, thereby providing Jane and Dagobert with various opportunities to poke fun at themselves and their situation. This is a book that will not fail to entertain readers who already enjoyed Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime (1929) and Kelley Roos' The Frightened Stiff (1942).

Woefully, the book has been out-of-print for decades, but a reprint is within sight as the Rue Morgue Press (who else?) is slowly, but surely, bringing Ames' books back into print – so if you have trouble finding this particular title on the secondhand book market, I can recommend his first novel, She Shall Have Murder (1948), from their outstanding catalogue.

3/12/11

Of Ancient Gods and Family Skeletons

In recent years, I've developed a strong affinity for the American detective story. Not the hardboiled variety of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but the more traditional approach of Van Dine's literary descendants, such as Kelley Roos, Ellery Queen, Clyde Clason, Anthony Boucher, Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice, as well as some of the post-GAD era authors like Edward Hoch and William DeAndrea.

The plots these writers crafted were usually adroitly plotted and the often specialized milieus offer up an intriguing picture of a bygone era or providing the reader with fascinating nuggets of arcane information – like in stories set among collectors who own private museums, filled with antique weaponry or artifacts from an ancient civilization, or depicting the inner workings of an early 20th century company. But more than that, I enjoy them for their "Spark of Life," which seems to be deficient in a lot of British mysteries.

For those reasons, I was looking forward to reading The Cat Screams (1934) by Todd Downing, as it seemed to have all the ingredients for a classic American detective story: a hotel in Mexico under quarantine, where violent deaths are presaged by the wailings of a cat, situated in a area, inhabited by many American colonists, plagued by an epidemic of suicides, while old superstitions and antique masks of archaic deities hover in the background.

With all these intriguing plot threads at your fingertips, it's hard to fathom how anyone could churn out a fabulously mundane and sluggish story, devoid of any pace or a graduating tightening atmosphere that should spring naturally from the given situation, but Downing managed to do it. Nobody seems to be worried about the unidentified disease that is slowly killing a young Mexican and how that effects their quarantined condition, and the sudden, violent death of several of their fellow guests is met with almost complete indifference – only towards the end of the book some of them start to show some strained nerves at the sound of the foreboding screams.

Thankfully the book still had a plot with a couple of clues thrown in and a somewhat decent solution, but the only remarkable feature is really just how unremarkable the whole story is. Clyde Clason did this type of detective story much better and more convincing in The Man from Tibet (1938), and has a locked room mystery to boot!

A.B. Cunningham's Death Haunts the Dark Lane (1948), on the other hand, provided a more stimulating challenge to the reader, not only that, but also exhibited that a plot can be elevated by inhabiting the story with well-drawn characters set in a detailed painted surrounding. Here the back drop for murder is the rural town of Deer Lick, where Sheriff Jess Roden has to track down the murderer of a young heiress and bride-to-be who was stabbed to death with an unusual weapon that leaves a bullet-hole-like puncture – a problematic job that involves dragging the rattling skeletons of the county's most influential family from their cupboards.

One of Cunningham's fans was critic and fellow mystery writer Anthony Boucher, who wrote laudatory reviews of his books in which he praised him for depicting convincing backwoods people and the regional flavor of his stories – and judging solely from this book, I can definitely understand his enthusiasm.

The plot provides an intriguing problem for both the reader and Jess Roden, who's a pleasantly active and human detective (somewhere between Roger Sharingham and Inspector Boney), and even though the family, at first glance, appear to be the stock-in-trade dysfunctional family, that overpopulate our beloved Cloud Cuckoo Land, they are convincingly drawn. Heck, where most modern crime writers need hundreds of pages to flesh out intricate family relationships, full of angst and flashbacks of incestuous childhood experiences, Cunningham only needed half a chapter to explain the animosity within the murdered girl's family. The only thing that marred the story is that the clueing wasn't as strong as it could've been and being rushed to a hasty conclusion weakened the ending.   

Still, despite a somewhat poorly executed ending the book's good enough to warrant a further investigation of this writer, who, at one point in time, seems to have been one of the top second-tier names in the field, but is now almost completely submerged in Lethe.

Luckily, there are books out there, like The Anthony Boucher Chronicles, to guide us through the past and introduce us to writers that did their part, however small, in shaping the detective story.

It's been a fun and interesting Odyssey so far! 

3/9/11

A Night at the Monastery

When this blog embarked on its journey through the brittle pages of venerable paperback editions and pass hefty hardcover volumes with crackled spines, I did not anticipate that less than ten posts later I would be critiquing my first detective movie – and a pretty obscure one at that. It's not that I didn't want to do the same hack job at reviewing movies as I do with books, it's just that I'm already familiar with the well-covered, critically acclaimed magna opera of cinematic mysteries, such as Green for Danger, The Murder on the Orient-Express and The Maltese Falcon, that doing movies simply wasn't in the short term plans for this place.

I was, therefore, pleasantly surprised and greatly impressed by Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (1974), an adaptation of Robert van Gulik's 1961 novel The Haunted Monastery with screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution fame), which starred an almost all-Asian cast – only the character of Judge Dee was played by Khigh Dhiegh, who was of mixed North African ancestry. This was quite a different approach from an earlier attempt to adapt the Judge Dee stories to the small screen, an ephemeral series made for British television in the late 1960s, which had a cast without a single Asian actor among them.

But the pleasure of watching this fine movie isn't just derived from its ethnic authenticity; it also treats its source material with the respect it deserves, even reusing many of the books dialogue, and did a splendid job at recreating the locale of the book: an old and musty monastery, plagued by ghostly apparitions and infested with death, during a heavy thunderstorm.

That's not to say that there aren't some minor changes, here and there, but for the most part the plot follows the book like a shadow – and both start off with a somewhat familiar trope of the detective being overcome by a sudden storm, which forces him to seek shelter in a dark and a dreary monastery on the night of its anniversary. But the festivities can't muffle the whispers of murder echoing through its darkened hallways and endless staircases. 



And although it's more a story of suspense than one of ratiocination, Dee still does an excellent job at uncovering the truth behind the former abbots death, deducing the truth from the man's final drawing of a cat, and the way in which he disposes an unsavory character, who murdered several innocent women, would've received the nodding approval of both Reggie Fortune and Mrs. Bradley. The story also contains a subplot involving a ghost window, appearing and disappearing in front of the Judge's eyes, however, the solution is very crude and antiquated – so don't expect too much from it.

On the whole, there's not much that can be said against this film, except that they pulled a Peter Ustinov by casting an actor who does not at all resemble the Judge Dee from Van Gulik's illustrations, and that one would wish they had either picked a better, more detection orientated, book (e.g. The Chinese Gold Murders) or simply had made more than one episode. But these are minor quibbles, really, that pale measured against the overall quality and enjoyability of the movie.

The one thing I don't understand, though, is why it's relatively a little-known film, even though it's one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen and was even nominated for an Edgar! 

In closing, I can only say that I hope that Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders will become available on DVD at some point in the future. It's too good to languish in obscurity! 

3/6/11

She Looked So Startled

I'm certainly no authority on Anthony Abbot, having read only two of his novels, About the Murder of Startled Lady (1935) and The Creeps (1939), but according to the introduction of the former Abbot was the alias of a well-known novelist, Fulton Oursler, who turned to detective stories in the early 1930s – and what I gathered from them was that he was an early practitioner of the police procedural in the Van Dine-Queen mold. Just like the aforementioned writers he was a plot-orientated writer who casts himself in the role of Thatcher Colt's narrator – a debonair Police Commissioner, who can be seen as a combination of Ellery Queen and his father. And all but the last two titles in the series begin with About the Murder of [a Person], which is akin to Van Dine's The [Six Letter Word] Murder Case and Queen's The [Country] [Noun] Mystery novels.

However, that's where the similarities end: whereas Van Dine and Queen have detectives who make incredible deductions based on mathematics and arcane knowledge, Thatcher Colt has an entire police department at his disposal for proper, methodical police work and early forensic methodology.

The case at hand begins as a simple, straight forward and routine police job of pulling in a couple of self professed spiritualists, a wife and husband, who were giving private séances and exhibiting ghosts at three dollars per exhibition, but when frisked the police exorcized a ghost from the mediums bosom – i.e. forty yards of cheese cloth daubed with luminous paint. But in the face of this overwhelming and damnable evidence, they maintain that they're legitimate mediums with a direct line to the spirit world. Not only that, but recently they have been making contact with the ghost of a murdered woman whose body has never been found.

Thatcher Colt is more than a little skeptical, but lets himself being persuaded by their champion, a professor turned psychic investigator, to give them the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to vindicate their assertion of mediumship. The result is a spook show at Centre Street, in which Colt apparently receives a first hand account of a gruesome murder from the Great Beyond – detailing the horrifying circumstances in which a murdered woman, named Madeline, was dismembered and put into a watery grave.

She's even able to give an exact location of the spot where the murderer dumped her remains, and, to everyone surprise, they find a heavy box filled with a skull and bones. Unfortunately, for the police, the girl was shot through the head and therefore her ghost is unable to remember her last name or identity of her butcher (convenient, eh?). But Colt does a bang-up job at identifying the girl in less than two days by employing a skilled forensic sculpture to reconstruct the face on the skull, and from here on out the story concentrates on fishing the murderer from a small pool of suspect – ranging from her religiously fanatical father and a unbalanced half sister to a swinging boyfriend and his dominating sister, and the two spiritualists who knew more than they were letting on.

The apparent supernatural knowledge of the mediums is a neat variation on the impossible crime story and is adequately, if a bit dully, explained. Its main problem is that I have seen other writers propose more inspired solutions for this type of miracle problem, but otherwise it's an excellent and competently plotted detective story with a great dénouement set in an operating room where the doctors are in the progress of stitching together the second victim. 

3/5/11

The Big Apple Chase

The witty and cleverly constructed detective novels by Kelley Roos, a joined pseudonym of the husband-and-wife writing team of William and Aubrey Roos, was one of the greatest serendipitous discoveries in my never ending quest for great-but-forgotten mystery writers – and on my list of personal favorites they rank almost alongside the unexcellable John Dickson Carr.

When they were at their best, they managed to combine a sparkling sense of humor and some risible banter, between the two protagonists, a wisecracking, mystery solving couple named Jeff and Haila Troy, with clever and well thought out plots. These qualities are most evident in their 1942 novel, The Frightened Stiff, an unsung masterpiece, in which the recently married couple move into their first apartment that turns out to be a former speakeasy (one that Jeff used to frequent, much to Haila's dismay) and comes with a naked corpse in the garden who was drowned in their bathtub. Hilarity ensues!

Ghost of a Chance (1947) is a bit different from the other Rooses I have read thus far and starts off with an ominous phone call from a stranger – asking Jeff's help in preventing the murder of an unnamed woman that is about to take place any minute. Well, the Troy's never been the ones to pass up a good mystery and follow a trail of instructions that eventually leads them to the subways, only to find the man's exanimate remains on the tracks and they are rather skeptical of the whole drunken accident theory the police cooked up. As a result, they find themselves faced with the daunting task of preventing a second murder in a city with several million potential victims!

What follows is a race against time, as the Troy's tramp about New York in search for leads that will help them safe a life, but almost everyone they meet along the way seems to be part of a sinister conspiracy and will stop at nothing to prevent them from reaching the intended victim. But despite the odds that are stacked against them, and the many dangers they have to dodge, they keep a level head and their recognizable sense of humor, which makes the book somewhat reminiscent to other humorous chase novels such as Crispin's The Moving Toyshop (1946) and Carr's The Punch and Judy Murders (1937) and The Blind Barber (1934).

Now, granted, this might not be the most ingenious detective story ever conceived, certainly not by the Rooses own standards, but tagging along with Jeff and Haila around town, sidestepping or crawling out of dangerous pitfalls and snooping for clues, is just plain fun and offers the reader a picture of a time when mysteries were allowed to be diverting and entertaining. 

If you're new to Kelley Roos, I recommend you check out some of the recent reprints by the invaluable Rue Morgue Press and make their acquaintance through The Frightened Stiff and Sailor, Take Warning! 

And on a side note: I have noticed that most of the detectives reviewed here, so far, have rather unconventional plots and therefore I promise that the next book will be a more traditional mystery.

3/2/11

"Experience is the cane of the blind"

"I've reversed the old adage about the land of the blind where the one-eyed man was king. I've become king in a land of two-eyed detectives, none of whom know how to see as well as I do."  
- Captain Duncan Maclain, The Last Express
Baynard Kendrick's second detective novel, The Last Express (1937), is the first entry in what was once a very popular series chronicling the extraordinary adventures of Captain Duncan Maclain, a private investigator who lost his eyesight during the First World War, but through rigorous training he sharpened his remaining senses – turning a defect into virtue and conquering his darkened world by successfully applying his newly garnered skills for detective work. This makes him a rather unusual combination of the traditional detective and a pulp hero.

He can astonish skeptics of his abilities with dazzling, almost Holmesian, deduction, as he does with his client in the opening chapter of this book, but he also has an office studded with high-tech recording equipment and has a subbasement, four floors below street level, where he practice blind target shooting with his business partner and friend, Spud Savage. It's therefore not difficult to see (no pun intended) why Stan Lee saw (no pun intended here, either) in him the potential for a superhero and used him as a model for Matt Murdock – a blind defense attorney who strikes fear into the hearts of the criminal elements of Hell's Kitchen as his masked alter ego, DareDevil.

The Last Express opens with the arrival of Evelyn Zarinka, a young and not un-attractive woman, at Maclain's office. Her brother, who's a District Attorney, is crossing swords with a big time gangster and she fears he's deeper involved than is healthy for him, but before the sightless detective can even as much as lift a finger to help her dispel the dangers facing them, her brother meets an untimely demise when an unknown assailant throws a hand grenade into his car – and the only clues the police and Maclain have to go one are the victims cryptic dying words and mangled cage containing a couple of dead mice.  

The investigation that follows provides a knotty problem for Maclain's sensitive fingers to unsnarl, but is also fraught with many dangers as the book continuously skips from moments of rational detective work to thrilling scenes of suspense. There is, for example, a second murder, committed in front of witnesses at a nightclub, which takes some considerable thinking on Maclain's part to figure out and a remorseless hit man puts Maclain and Spud in a tough and perilous situation. But my favorite parts of the story deal with a treasure-hunt-like search and exploration of the labyrinthine tunnels, underneath the streets of New York, to locate a disused and sealed tunnel that holds, according to urban city legends, an old wood-burning locomotive and the end station of their dangerous journey for the truth. 

It's a good and fast-paced read, with some frantic and harrowing moments, that throws a couple of fairly interesting puzzles into the mix. However, it's this hodgepodge of styles that inevitable dulls the detection part of the novel and leaves the reader a bit dissatisfied with the overall experience. The method employed at the nightclub, to temporarily obscure the murder, and the reason for the D.A. to carry around a bunch of mice were adequately and satisfyingly explained, but the interpretation of the dying message and the identity of the guilty party felt like a letdown.

I can recommend this one to readers already familiar with Baynard Kendrick and Duncan Maclain, but if you're new to them a better starting point would probably be The Whistling Hangman – a novel of detection without the trappings of the thriller and suspense story.