4/30/11

An Ax to Grind

Yes, I know that it may be difficult to wrap your mind around it, but I'm about to review my first thriller, The After House (1914) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, for this blog!

What's next? Discussing Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett? Chatting incessantly about the "literary" crime novels on today's best seller lists? Oh, for Carr's sake, what's becoming of me? ;D I promise that the next book will be a return to the great old detective stories... well... sort of... but for now let's embark on a frightful journey aboard a blood-soaked craft that might have gone the way of the Mary Celeste had it not been for a resourceful young man posing as a sailor. 

The Cursed Ship

The story of the massacre aboard the Ella, an old coasting-vessel reequipped as a pleasure-boat by the boozer millionaire Marshall Turner, on that "terrible night of August the twelfth," is retrospectively narrated by Ralph Leslie – a newly graduated, but nearly penniless, doctor, who still hasn't fully recovered from his bout with typhoid fever. While being hospitalized, he developed a yearning for the open sea, where he hopes to regain his strength and earn some money, and upon his release he jumped at the opportunity to join the crew of the Ella and is put to work as a deck steward mainly looking out for the passengers residing in the ship's after house.

With its crew and passengers all present, the ship sets sail to sunnier climes, but even before that blood-streaked night the voyage was troubled by dark undercurrents and ill-omens of things yet to come. The ship's owner and his drinking buddy, a ship officer named Singleton, act as a menacing scourge to pretty much everyone around them, and end up passing around motives to justify a small-scale holocaust.

During the faithful night of August the twelfth and the early morning of August the thirteenth, someone emerged from his berth or abandoned his post, and, under the cover of darkness and slumber, picked up a red painted emergency ax and gruesomely hacked three people to death – including ship's captain!

With three horribly mutilated, blood spattered corpses on their hands, the aghast crew puts Singleton, who had a one-sided skirmish with the captain, in irons, strip Turner of any authority he thought he had and nominate the levelheaded Leslie as their new captain to help them get out of this mess. But how do you lead a crew of experienced, seafaring men to a safe harbor when you lack their nautical knowledge and experience, and how do you keep them, and the passengers, safe and sane when there's a very real possibility that the actual ax-wielding killer is still prowling the decks with them?

Suspicion is abound as well as loyalty to one another as some of them try to obliterate tell-tale pieces of evidence that might identity the murderer, but don't make a mistake about it, this is not a straightforward, puzzle-orientated detective story, since there really aren't any legitimate clues to look at, but an atmospheric thriller not entirely unlike Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939).

For an early thriller yarn, this wasn't all that bad of a story, and I really liked the macabre picture Rinehart painted of the Ella towing a jollyboat that's been converted to a floating crypt for the three slain victims, nonetheless, she slipped up and botched the ending. The final quarter of the book transforms from a slightly paranoia inducing thriller to a full-fledged courtroom drama, which doesn't even yield the solution in a dramatic dénouement and only serves to suck out all of the atmosphere – which was the best thing the book had going for itself.

This feels like a stylistic anomaly. The murderer, who, by the way, is a complete whacko, should've been confronted before they reached their port of call, and not after a mistrial when Leslie revisits the ship, which felt like the solution was hastily given as some sort of after thought – and it shows... badly!

To sum up the book in one sentence: some good, some bad, but overall a readable enough story if you don't expect too much from it.

4/28/11

"They were all dead by the end of August"

Note: a regular book review, this time of a detective story actually published before 1950, will be up in the next day or two. Stay tuned!

The concluding volume of Spiral – The Bonds of Reasoning has been looming at me from my desk ever since it arrived in the mail, but I find myself unable to pick up the book and burn through it at my usual breakneck speed – insatiable devouring all the answers that I have waited so many years for. But with the ending of another series, Hikaru no Go, which I enjoyed reading as much as Case Closed and Spiral, and the cancellation of Deadman's Wonderland, I'm practically left without series to read – not many regular series anyway.

So instead of greedily gobbling down this treat, I'm going to savor it for a few days and let it ripe – and meanwhile I have been sampling a potential replacement, Amnesia Labyrinth, which is described on the back cover as a new offbeat tale of murder and twisted love.

The Three Sisters

The protagonist and sometimes narrator of this series is a rather stereotypical manga character named Souji Kushiki, a reserved, good looking student from an affluent family who aces all his school tests and excels at sports, and has just returned home from an extended stay at an far-away boarding school – much to the delight of his three sisters, who are more than merely overjoyed when they learn of his return.

He enrolls into a local school, where he meets the incessantly energetic Sasai, who seems to know a good deal about his personal life, and learns from her that three of their fellow students were brutally murdered over the summer holiday – and she's determined to pick up the investigation where the police left off and wants to enlist his help in cracking the case.  

Up till this point, the plot bears all the hallmarks of your typical high school murder mystery, in which two students try to connect the dots of a series of unusual crimes that are, in one way or another, linked to their school, but that's where the story, like Spiral, is deceptive in its initial appearance. However, where Spiral morphed into a clever and intriguing, multi-layered game of chess, the plot of Amnesia Labyrinth quickly distorts itself into a dark and twisted character driven crime story.

The prodigal son returns home
Souji's family life is one that will probably disturb many readers of this blog. His step-sister, Harumi, has a crush on him, but she's too shy to actually make a move on him, while his full-blooded sister, Youko, constantly wraps her arms around him and simply can't stop fondling with him and he actually has a sexual relationship with his half-sister, Saki, which they deem as normal. An already difficult family relationship, to say the least, strained by the fact that his sisters may be involved in the murders at his new school.  

It's too early to say for sure which direction the series will eventually take, but as things stand now, it has all the potential to be either a total disaster, in a modernist, thrillerish kind of way, or a complete and welcome surprise. But in case of the latter, it pretty much all depend on how well the mystery elements of the plot will develop in the upcoming installments.

Amnesia Labyrinth is published by Seven Seas, and the second volume is lined up for a release in early June.  

Final note: You can read a free sample of the first several pages on the website of the publisher. Remember: it's manga, so read right-to-left.

4/27/11

A Poisonous Affair

One of the best detective novels I read last year was Murder on Safari (1938) by Elspeth Huxley. Despite its uninspired title, the book is the epitome of what a detective story should be: an excellent cast of well-drawn characters inhabiting a vividly painted setting and a top-notch plot that plays scrupulous fair with its readers – in this case providing a solution with nearly a dozen footnotes, referring back to the pages where the clues were given. Brilliant!

Huxley played the grandest game in the world the way it's supposed to be played, and therefore expected a great deal from The Merry Hippo (1963), but was a bit let down by the overall story, which, while not bad, failed to grab my full attention.

The Incident at the Merry Hippo

The titular hippo is a sumptuous guest house in Hapana, one of those two-by-four countries tucked away in a nook of the African continent, where a Royal Commission, consisting of both Europeans and Africans, have taken up their residence as they discuss and investigate the country's independence from British imperial rule. Not as easy a task as it may seem with a local political climate resembling an explosive powder keg, revolutionary movements, religious cults and informational leakage to communist Russia, which may or may not be linked to the fatal poisoning of one of the Commissionaires during what should've been a leisurely picnic – and it's even possible that the victim unwittingly took his poisoned sandwiches from the wrong lunch box.

Huxley tells a genuinely amusing story, in which she sketches an ill-assorted cast of characters, who clash with one another on more than one occasion, and the setting shows that she knew what she was writing about. But the plot, somehow, didn't keep up with the rest story and thus failed to excite and capture this reader's complete, undivided attention.

However, it's not that the plot is bad itself, it just isn't very interesting and pretty mundane compared to the rest of the story – and the solution is both anticlimactic and somewhat unfair where the motive is concerned.

All in all, this was not the follow-up success that had been expected, but, fortuitously, I still have a couple of her books from the 1930s to hunt down, which, hopefully, have maintained the overall quality of Murder on Safari.

4/25/11

The Pin-Covered Doll and Some Voodoo Hoodoo

It's an understatement to say that Gladys Mitchell was one of the least conventional mystery writers of the 20th century, whose fondness for preternatural events, evoking magical scenes and settings, off-the-wall plotting and uncanny knack for creating believable children gives her detective stories a fairytale-like quality. This is further heightened by the presence of her series detective, the shrieking, cackling, rib-probing pterodactyl-like Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, who's not unlike an unsightly Good Witch of the North.

However, this doesn't always make her books good detective stories as fair play is often drowned in the imaginative wealth and complexity of her plots, and plot threads are sometimes left dangling in the wind. The best example of this is her often touted masterpiece, The Rising of the Moon (1945), which is narrated by a 13-year-old boy and is better read as a coming-of-age story with strong mystery elements than as a pure detective story – because the ending leaves you scratching your head in utter amazement (it's up to the individual reader to decide whether that's a good thing or a bad thing).

At her best, though, her books had the deceptive appearance of a conventional, British mystery novel, often complete with a charming country villages and quaint vicars, but they really are clever and delightful send-ups of the genre and brimming over with bizarre elements – such as witchcraft and chopped-up corpses (e.g. The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop, 1929). 

Merlin's Crime

Merlin's Furlong (1953) is a book from her middle-period and displays nearly all of her strength and practically none of her weaknesses, and begins in a very conventional manner when a rich and cantankerous old man invites his nephews over and starts playing around with his will. Surely an ill-advised course of action for any character in a detective story, but we won't learn immediately what happens to them as the story shifts focus from the crabby old geezer and his suffering relatives to three enterprising young men ready to embark on an adventure.

These three undergraduate students, Harrison, Waite and Piper, answer a peculiar advertisement beseeching the help of a warlock in handling a pin-covered voodoo doll. The man behind this strange request is the eccentric ex-college professor Havers, who dabbles in the black arts, and hires them to retrieve a stolen religious icon from the old man who's toying around with his legacy in his dilapidated home. Confusing? Complex? Not at all, and this is only the start of their adventurous journey.

The foursome, the three men and the professor's voodoo doll, embark on their risky venture to Merlin's Furlong, the name of the despot's home, but the region is cluttered with ancient ruins bearing that Arthurian name and they accidently end up at Merlin's Castle – coincidently the dwelling of the oddball professor who employed them to get his icon back. But when they finally arrive at their correct destination, after trampling around the country side, they don't find the item they set-out to retrieve, but the old man sprawled out on his bed with a sizable dent in his skull – and when the local police discovers the body of professor Havers in his coach-house they have a heck of a lot of explaining to do.

Enter Mrs. Bradley, whose expertise in witchcraft is much needed to unravel this dazzling complex plot that involves a pin-covered voodoo doll, a desecrated gravesite of a suicide victim who was buried twice, a secret room stuffed with artifacts, a dead cat and a live monkey, a midnight cult and a change of heirs.

Mitchell neatly ties all these plot threads together and satisfactory accounts for all of them, which makes Merlin's Furlong one of her most rewarding books. The plot perfectly exhibits her sheer, unrivalled and wild imagination, but nothing of the detective story is lost along the way – which was as nice as a surprise as the solution itself.

So if you haven't met Gladys Mitchell and Mrs. Bradley before, this is a great book to make their acquaintance and it's widely available again thanks to the wonderful people at the Rue Morgue Press. May their books grace our bookshelves for many decades to come!

4/23/11

The Private Eye Who Read the Pulps

"In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected, but any one of them must always be mistrusted."
- Nero Wolfe (Champagne for One, 1958)
Hit your print screen key, this is a sight to behold! Not only is this the fourth blog entry in a row that discusses a book from the post-GAD era, but also the second one, posted back-to-back, of which the author, thankfully, is still among us! There's some life welling up in this dusty, cobweb-strewn crypt erected in honor of the great pioneers of the detective story.

Bill Pronzini is one of the lucky few to be carted into this mausoleum who still has a pulse and a healthy color on his cheeks, and the book that put him here, way before his time, is Hoodwink (1981) – a clever impossible crime novel set at a pulp convention that offers two different locked room scenarios.

The Pulpeteers

The case opens with Pronzini's nameless gumshoe kicking back in his office chair with an old pulp magazine, deeply immerged in a story from an old acquaintance, Russell Dancer, a once popular wordsmith of pulp fiction who rapidly descended into hackdom after the pulp market collapsed, when that very same writer drops in on him bearing an invitation to a pulp convention that has a minor favor attached to it.

San Francisco's first annual Western Pulp Con is the setting for the reunion of The Pulpeteers, a social group of people involved in the pulps, primarily intended for writers, but among its members are also an editor and a cover artist, and someone has been littering their mailboxes with extortion notes – accusing each of a 30-year-old plagiarism.

That's were the unnamed shamus comes in. Dancer wants him to prowl around the convention to see if he can pick anything up that might indicate who's behind the blackmail scam, but there's not much he can do at the con besides fawning at his favorite pulp writers, buying pulp magazines missing from his collection and wooing the daughter of two well-known writers – and the only thing he's able to figure out is that there isn't much love lost between the lampoon of pulp legends who euphorically refer to themselves as The Pulpeteers.

Notwithstanding the antagonistic undercurrent, everything seems to go off pretty well and the con promises to be a minor success – until a shot rang out from behind the locked door of Dancer's room and when it's opened, he's hovering over a body with a smoking gun in his hand. The locked and watched environment of the hotel room makes it a physical impossibility for anyone else to have fired the fatal shot, but the hack writer claims that he's innocent and the only one who's willing to believe him is nameless. 

Nameless takes on the case, more or less, pro bono, and digs deeper into the internal relationship between the members of the pulp group, as well as the origin of the extortion notes – and determines that they are closely intertwined with one another, but that doesn't bring him any closer to a actual murderer or how this person managed to escape from a locked and watched hotel room. The case becomes increasingly more complicated when he chances upon the body of another member of the group, whose skull has been split with a double-bitted ax, locked behind the door of a completely sealed shack and the fallen stepladder suggests a freak accident. But nameless is rather skeptical of that theory. 

The locked rooms are expertly and satisfyingly explained, and are as good as anything you might expect from the great old practitioners of the impossible crime story. The murder in the hotel room has a convincing and logical explanation for the locked room illusion, while the method for sealing the shed is delightfully complex and a more workable variation on a trick that we've seen before.

Full marks for Pronzini on that aspect of the plot, but how does the rest of the story measure up against the works of his predecessors? Surprisingly well. Just like Rex Stout, he successfully blends orthodox plotting with hardboiled storytelling and unlike many of his contemporaries; he can tell that story without padding and drowning it in character angst.

That's not to say there isn't any character development in this book, there is, nameless even has a sex live (somewhere, that prick, Julian "Bloody" Symons, is nodding approvingly), however, these moment of characterization are snippets sprinkled over the plot and therefore don't distract the reader from the fact that he's reading a detective story. Heck, I even became interested in these brief moments of character insight, for the sole reason that they were brief and not dwelled on for hundreds of pages, and nameless is a fairly interesting character.

He's described as one of the last of the Lone Wolf private ops, who wanted to become a detective because he loves reading the pulps, and even though he's living his dream, investigating two seemingly impossible murders, the job isn't as banged up as it appears to be in fiction. But he's doing what he dreamed of doing as a kid, he has his collection of pulp magazines and even gets the girl on occasion – and that's stuff dreams are made of for detective geeks.

Now if only a hard-bitten homicide cop would rang my doorbell, imploring me to follow him to an old, rundown mansion of a dysfunctional family where the eccentric matriarch was found strangled to death in a sealed attic room – and left a cryptic dying message on the dust covered floor that implicates the cursed family heirloom, a phantom clock that strikes thirteen at midnight, as the guilty party! That would be achieving true happiness.

You know, I really loathe real-life criminals for their lack of creativity. If they put a little effort in their petty crimes, I could build a career as a famous consulting detective – or at least as a ragged private eye in a shabby raincoat with a messy office in a disreputable neighborhood. 

Oh, woe is I!

4/21/11

Case Closed, volume 38: On the Ropes

I have decided that reviews of Gohso Aoyama's marvelous Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) series will become a semi-regular feature on this blog spot. Yes, I know. It's somewhat befuddling and illogical to start smack in the middle of a series, but I have been reading these stories since 2006 – and I didn't have the time to revisit all those foregoing volumes.


But don't let that stop you from discovering this tremendous and imaginative detective series for yourself and try to catch up with me if you can. It's been done! Just take the time to read these notes and this earlier blog entry, so that you know what to expect, and plunge yourself in the vibrant, ever expanding universe of Detective Conan – where high adventure and mystery awaits all who seek it!

The Trap

The first chapter of this book is the conclusion of a case that started in the previous volume, which involved a murdered software developer who had close ties with the elusive criminal organization that's responsible for Conan's precarious situation. However, they appear to be completely unaware of the death of their computer programmer, and Conan decides to bait a trap with the program he was developing for them, but they remain as intangible as ever.

This story provided another compelling plot thread in the ongoing and increasingly more important main storyline, concerning Conan and his wraithlike adversaries. 

The Stolen Scroll of the Thunder God

Conan and his buddies of The Junior Detective League lend a helping hand to one of their own in the hope of earning a set of beautiful Festival Dolls for Amy, but at the apartment where the dolls reside also hangs a coveted wall scroll worth a small fortune – and, of course, someone swipes it. This is a fairly clued but minor story in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter."

The Man Behind the Mask

Conan, Rachel and her dad, the celebrated sleeping detective, Richard Moore, attend a professional wrestling show where they have an opportunity to meet the star of the company and reigning champion – the famous masked wrestler, Wolf Face. But a backstage rivalry soon leads them to the dressing room of another wrestler, scheduled to face the masked lucha libre in the main event, who was brutally stabbed to death in front of a running camera and the video shows that the perpetrator was none other than Wolf Face!

Conan does an excellent and swift job in deducing who of his fellow in-ring combatants donned one of his masks and done in his opponent – successfully proving that Wolf Face's paws are free of blood and securing his secret identity from the fans and press.

Not a Good Day to be Harley Hartwell

Conan's friend and rival detective, Harley Hartwell, also has a knack for landing himself in tight situations – as he and Kazuha find themselves at the mercy of a ruthless jurist who's trying to force him to decipher a code cooked up by a private detective who has the goods on her. He has to try to keep himself and Kazuha alive while also trying to reach Conan for help. This is more a thriller than a proper mystery, but with the complicated cryptogram worked into the plot an intelligent suspense story would probably be a better qualification. 

The stories that make up this volume are a fairly good, if somewhat unexcited, addition to the series, and will not fail to entertain its fans. 

Case Closed, volume 39: The Adventure of the Scarlet Blaze is set to be released in mid-July, and I, for one, can't wait to get my greedy hands on it.

4/20/11

Divorcees in Crime

Note: I wrote this review when my concentration was completely shot, so it didn't turn out the way I wanted.

It's a well-established fact that Kelley Roos is one of my all-time favorite mystery writers, only second to the unsurpassed master of the locked room mystery, John Dickson Carr, and I'm sure that some of my fellow detective enthusiasts are probably sick and tired at this point of me pouncing at every opportunity to proselytize Roos' work – especially that unacknowledged masterpiece, The Frightened Stiff (1942), which, by the way, is still in print. Just FYI.

I adulate Roos' witty style that's usually tightly woven with the threads of a cleverly crafted plot, and I dote on Jeff and Haila Troy – one of the better bantering husband-and-wife detective teams in the genre. Considering this affinity I have for the books and characters, it was disconcerting to learn that, in their last recorded case, my favorite snooping couple had gone their separated ways!

One False Move (1966) was written after a seventeen year break from the series, in which between suspense and thriller stories appeared under the Kelley Roos byline, but before the end of the second decade, William and Aubrey Roos decided to return to the traditional detective story – resulting in an amusing romp, in which they deliver playful jabs to their own body of work, both their straightforward detective stories and suspenseful thrillers, as well as their characters.

Torn Asunder

After her divorce from Jeff Troy, Haila Rogers packs up and leaves New York City behind her to recuperate with relatives living in Carsonville, a scant town in Texas momentarily buzzing with activity as the town's anniversary nears closer and the rehearsals for a pageant are in full swing – reenacting a fairly recent and bloody piece of local history, involving a gang of outlaws and several brutal murders. But that's all stuff for the history books, and, with the era of desperados behind them, the town reclaimed its sleepy demeanor and serenity.

But they didn't reckon that with Haila's arrival, they welcomed someone in their midst who's a chronic sufferer from, what later would be diagnosed as, "Jessica Fletcher Syndrome," which especially acts up in an aggressive manner in small town environments – and before long, she just so happens to overhear fragments of a heated argument, between a blackmailer and his unidentifiable victim, naturally ending with a fatal knife thrust to the blackguard's heart.

As I mentioned earlier, the Rooses gently poke fun at themselves in this book, and they acknowledge their heroines morbid habit, of tumbling over bodies wherever she goes, in a conversation between her and the local chief of police:  

"This isn't the first murder victim you’ve discovered?"
"Well ... no"
"The second?"
"Well ..."
The chief's eyebrows rose above his steel-rimmed glasses.
"The third, Miss Rogers?"
"Well, it's been quite a few. Come to think of it, I’ve never kept count. You see, my ex-husband was always getting mixed up in murder cases. In fact, that was one of our bones of ... shall I say, contention?"

In defense of Jeff, that's hardly fair criticism when only moments ago she tripped over the still-warm and bleeding remains of the first homicide victim the town has seen in decades, but then again, maybe she has a valid point when a second murder of a local admiral, battered to death with a bronze bust of Shakespeare, coincides with him unexpectedly showing up in town – and even has a nearly fateful brush with the murderer.

This subtle way of poking fun at the conventions of the genre and their own stories is pretty typical of this book, and you have to be a little familiar with their previous work to fully appreciate it. For instance, if you contrast some of the events, concerning Jeff and Haila, with those from their first detective novel, Made Up to Kill (1940), you have to conclude that the series has come full-circle – as both the characters and readers rediscovers one another. 

The humor and zest of the earlier books are still very much a part of this late entry into the series, but the plotting, alas, seems to have suffered from the Rooses picking up the traditional whodunit format again, after having abondoned the form for so many years to write thrillers and suspense stories. Not that the plot is an awful mess or painfully transparent, but proper detection has become a secondary concern, nevertheless, the two modern murders were neatly tied-in with the towns history set against a semi-theatrical backdrop – which is worthy of at least one or two bonus points.

Everything considered, this is not a book to begin with if you're new to the series, but if you're devotee of Kelley Roos than you probably want to check up on your old friends, Jeff and Haila Troy, and find out for yourself how they will haul themselves out of this messy quagmire.

4/17/11

Not Your Typical Victim

In an earlier blog entry that was dedicated to the memory of H.R.F. Keating, I mentioned that he was an unusual writer in the field, who excelled when he wasn't attempting to pen down a formally plotted detective story, but when he focused his direction on the battle-of-wits between his subservient police inspector, Ganesh Ghote, and a powerful adversary.

The best example I could provide at the time was Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (1971), in which the poor inspector is locked in a mental standoff with a cunning confidence-trickster, but also remarked that Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (1979) and Under a Monsoon Cloud (1986) apparently took a more interesting and earnest approach to this form of story telling, however, I was unable to comment on them then since neither book had yet come into my hands – a glaring omission that has now been rectified.

In the past two weeks, I added both titles to my ever-growing collection and have just finished reading Inspector Ghote Draws a Line, in which Keating puts a nifty spin on the old cat-and-mouse game between protagonist and antagonist.

Lest You Be Judged

The servile Inspector Ghote is ordered off to the heat sweltering abode of Justice Asif Ibrahim, situated in a secluded spot of the sultry country side, to find out whose been leaving the old judge threatening letters and prevent any attempts on his live. But the pensioned-off judge, who earned himself an unpopular reputation by condemning the plotters in the Madurai Conspiracy Case to death shortly before India's independence, is obstinate in his refusal to accept any help and is determined to make Ghote's job as difficult as possible, by obscuring information and attemps at restricting him in his investigation.  

Ghote's presence is only tolerated on insistence of a two relatives and because he's in the guise of a Doctor of Philosophy, there to assist him in committing his memoirs to paper, which conveniently strips him of his official status and privilege of asking importunate questions – and before long it begins to dawn on the inspector that his foe is not the nebulous would-be killer, but his prospective, unyielding victim-to-be.

This makes for a satisfying and original artifice on the authors' part, in which the solution to the case at hand is not revealed by peeling away the many layers that cover-up a murderous plot, but the ones that encumber the character of Sir Asif Ibrahim – resulting in one of the rare triumphs of characterization over plotting.

Nevertheless, even with the characters emerging triumphantly from the book, its plot is nothing to sneeze at, either, offering both misdirection as well as a properly clued solution – proving once again that he wasn't completely inept with the traditional format and makes for an overall gratifying reading experience.

Inspector Ghote Draws a Line is perhaps not as fun a read as Inspector Ghote Goes by Train, even plodding in parts, but it shows Keating at the top of his game in what undoubtedly is his masterpiece.

4/14/11

Tales From a Mysterious Traveler

Robert Arthur is credited with writing over two hundred short stories, ranging from mysteries to fantasy, won two coveted Edgar statuettes for his radio show, The Mysterious Traveler, and created a popular juvenile detective series, The Three Investigators. But despite these accolades, Robert Arthur's name has all but faded from the publics' collective memory – which I think qualifies as criminal neglect.

I got my first taste of his work last year, when I read the poorly edited anthology Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries (1982) – consisting mostly of over anthologized stories (Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" and Hoch's "The Leopold Locked Room") and a few decent efforts (Kantor's "The Light at Three 'O Clock" (mainly for its Carrian atmosphere) and Woolrich's "Murder at the Automat"), but there was one story that stood out, and that was Robert Arthur's "The 51st Sealed Room." 

Robert Arthur (1909-1969)
"The 51st Sealed Room" concerns the upcoming book from the hands of a famous artisan of impossible crime stories, who claims to have contrived a new method for escaping from a sealed environment that would make John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen turn green with envy. But before he can put his revolutionary locked room story to paper, his decapitated body, propped up in front of his typewriter with his head gazing down from the bookcase, is found behind the locked doors of a completely sealed cottage.

The solution, however, is not entirely original, but a variation on a ingenious method conjured up by Joseph Commings in one of his famous locked room stories, and most of the fantastical clues turn out to be nothing more than red herrings. However, my curiosity was roused and was thrilled to learn there was an anthology that collected ten of his mystery short stories. 

The tales that make up Mystery and More Mystery (1966) is the only available compendium of his detective fiction, written for a young adult audience, but that takes nothing away from the quality and inventiveness of the plots - and especially the locked rooms in this collection makes you mourn the fact that not more of his work was collected (Douglas Greene, if you're reading this *hint* *hint* *hint*).  

Ten Tales From a Mysterious Traveler:

Mr. Manning's Money Tree

The collection opens with a diverting story, in which a bank clerk, who's about to be arrested on an embezzlement charge, stashes his loot in a secure hiding place, as a comfy nest egg, to help him begin anew when he has served his sentence. Well, at least that was the plan, but, upon his release from prison, he quickly learns that his task is not quite as easy as he first suspected. A fun, moving story with a neat twist on the  "Hoist-On-Their-Own-Petards" gambit.

Larceny and Old Lace

Grace and Florance Usher are two sweet, innocent-looking old spinsters who lived a sheltered existence, tucked away in a small, sleepy upstate town, and the only excitement they ever knew came from their experience as seasoned readers of detective stories. But their humdrum lives is shaken up when they inherit a furnished house from their nephew, who came to a sticky end at the hands of an unknown assailant, inspiring them to pack up their bags and explore the Big City. The only problem is that some shady locals also have a fested interest in the house, but the two elderly maids are a lot tougher than they expected and at times more terrifying than a battalion of hard-bitten homicide cops with hoses. 

The story is best described as a precursor to Home Alone, but instead of a beguiling brat there are two seemingly harmless old ladies who act as a holy terror to the criminal elements of the neighborhood. An unapologetically funny story!

Note that the main characters and set-up of the story share some remarkable resemblances to Torrey Chanslor's Our First Murder (1940), and one has to wonder if, perhaps, one sprang from the other.

The Midnight Visitor

A slight tale, in which a spy attempts to pawn off an important document from a confrere. A fun but forgettable story.

The Blow from Heaven

The first impossible crime story of the collection, offering an intriguing challenge to the reader: how did Professor Natzof Kohn murder his benefactor, Madame Farge, who was alone in a room, under observation, when she was stabbed, while her beneficiary was delivering an animated lecture on primitive superstition and black magic? The dénouement is perhaps over ambitious and belongs to a particular type of locked room solution that tends to leave its readers with a sense of disappointment, but the trick is well handled here and all the clues are there.

The Glass Bridge

Like the preceding story, this is an inverted mystery, of sorts, with a locked room puzzle to mull over – and the solution is diabolically clever. The basic facts of the case are as follow: Marianne Montrose (a blonde blackmailer) was seen entering the house of mystery writer Mark Hillyer, leaving a single track of footprints in the two feet deep snow surrounding the house, from which she vanishes as if she never passed the thresh hold at all. It's a physical impossibility for Hillyer to have carried her body off the premises, without leaving any marks in the snow, nor would his heart condition allow him to place any strenuous strain on his body, like chopping up her corpse or digging a grave, without keeling over. However, he's all to eager to make himself suspicious and gives the police veiled hints, which provides the reader with the maddening problem of knowing who killer is but not how he managed to pull it off. Classic!

Change of Address

Another story in which the culprit proves to be a "Hoist-on-His-Petard," when a long suffering husband bashes in the skull of his nagging wife with a spade and buries her body in the cellar of his newly acquired beach house, but there are always skeletons that simply refuse to stay buried! A very, very satisfying story.

The Vanishing Passenger

This tale involves a murder committed aboard a train, solved by a man and his mystery-writing aunt, but it's not a very interesting story and failed to grab my attention. Duds like these are to be expected in every anthology.

Hard Case

Like the title suggests, this is a tougher than usual story for this collections as a father traps a rural highway man who shot his son (and several other locals) in a mug-killing – and extracts his revenge in a particular ingenious manner that involves a hidden object puzzle. This is probably what the Ellery Queen stories would've been like, if they had a hardboiled edge to them.

The Adventure of the Single Footprint

The police solicit the help of a mentally unhinged person, who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes, to help them solve the murder of his uncle – and this could've been one of the better stories of the collection, if the back cover hadn't touted the identity of the murderer.  

The Mystery of the Three Blind Mice

A brilliant homage to Ellery Queen, in which a private detective and his young son are summoned to a transplanted castle inhabited by a rich and licentious stamp collector, who suspects one or more of his in-laws of theft. But before the father-and-son detective duo can look into the case, someone takes several shots at their client and his near dying message virtually implicates all the major suspects.

As to be expected from an Ellery Queen-type of story, there's someone who proffers a false solution to the mystery and even a code that has to be cracked by solving a riddle. Now that I think of it, this is not only a nod to Ellery Queen, but also foreshadows Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed. In any case, a must read to fans of both series!  

4/11/11

Not What You'd Expect From a Disney

Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not a belated rant on Disney's inane scheme for a modern rendition of the Miss Marple character – plucking her from a quiet village in the British countryside and dumping her in the Big City in the guise of a present-day version of a 1920s flapper.

I will not drop any embittered comments on how Agatha Christie's grandson is pimping out her estate and that everyone with a pocketful of loose change can take Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple for a ride. Nor shall I make poor attempts at sarcasm by saying that the next major announcement will probably be that Harlequin Publishers has acquired the rights to The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930), and are in the process of revising them into full-length romance novels – with all the detective stuff cut out of them, of course, but to make up for the lost of authenticity they will slap the name of Mary Westmacott on the covers. Nope. Not a peep out of me on that subject.

The Disney I'm referring to is Dorothy Cameron Disney, one of the many shamefully neglected names in the field, who specialized in blending detection with atmospheric scenes of suspense and eerie foreshadowing sequences – commonly referred to as "Had-I-But-Known." This term is used to describe the books of Mary Robert Rinehart and her followers, who usually have their heroine reflecting back at the start of their novels, "had I but known that my surprise visit to my Great-aunt Agatha would expose a dark plot leading to the death of four people, I would never have gone to Rockport." Or something that runs along similar lines.

To be fair, this particular sub-genre never really appealed to me, sounding just a little bit too much as cozies with some doom and gloom added to the mix, but the descriptions and reviews of Dorothy Cameron Disney's mysteries, suggesting complex plotting wrapped up in a thick, atmospheric blanket, did catch my attention – and after reading her first book, Death in the Back Seat (1936), I'm glad that, once again, I succumbed to temptation.

Death in the Back Seat opens with a young couple, Jack and Lola Storm, taking a break from their expensive New York lifestyle, and settle down for while in the quiet town of Crockford, situated in rural Connecticut, where they rent a small cottage from the unsociable Luella Coatesnash – a stout, old-fashioned woman who's somewhat of an unofficial sovereign of the region.

But peace and quietness simply cannot be allowed to reign long in a detective story, and when a mysterious telephone call, more or less, orders the Storms to pick up a business acquaintance of their landlady, who, at that moment, is visiting France with her companion, they're unwillingly dragged into a vast and dark plot – leaving them with a corpse on the rumble seat of their car and a bag in the front seat stashed with cash.

And that's just for starters. Crockford, being the small town it is, are prejudiced against the suspicious outsiders and it doesn't exactly help that their cottage, and the grounds immediately surrounding it, are the center of all the criminal activity in the region – from a burglar, his face blackened with charcoal, stumbling from their closet and fleeing into the night to charred fragments of bone in a furnace.

Crime Map on the Back Cover
However, they're not making things exactly easy for themselves, either, purposely stumbling from one dangerous situation into another – all the while finding clues, uncovering hidden relationships, and, more importantly, not trying to get themselves killed. The only thing you can say against them is that they don't do it with the same joie de vivre as the Troys and the Browns, but then again, this not that type of mystery.

This book is really one big knotted ball of plot threads that slowly unravels in front of a captivated reader, and the best part is that you can play with it yourself, by trying to unsnarl it before Jack and Lola do, or, uhm, just sit back and enjoy the ride.  

On a final note, Mike Grost notes on his excellent website that Disney completely ignored one of Van Dine's sacred rules, and I have one thing to say about that: good for her!

There are, IMHO, only two rules for writing a good detective story: it has to play fair with the reader and there has to be a plot (or at the very least an attempt at creating one). I see no discernible reason why a detective story should exclude sinister societies, monstrous conspiracies, tough gangsters or a genuine love interest. It just depends on how well an author can work these elements into a story, and some do it better than others. Disney is one of them and scores full marks for this effort.

4/10/11

The Art of the Detective Story


The regular book reviews will commence next weeks, including a critique of another one of my new discoveries, and a pretty good one at that, but for now, you will have to do with this piece of artwork from The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service – depicting its members as famous fictional detectives. 



Role call: Yuji Yata as Hercule Poirot; Ao Sasaki as Miss Marple; Keiko Makino as Sherlock Holmes; Makoto Numata as Shunsaku Kudo and Kuro Karatsu as Kousuke Kindaichi.

Case Closed: A Response to Patrick_O and Pharmmajor

Note of warning: time didn't permit me to write this response at my leisure or properly proof read before posting – so please judge it on its content and not the style.



This is a slovenly response to a blot-post on TGWTG website by Patrick and Pharmmajor discussing, back and forth, one of my all-time favorite detective series, Case Closed a.k.a. Detective Conan, but I'm afraid the only thing the article did for me was irking me the wrong way and the parroting on Patrick's part genuinely annoyed the heck out of me.

However, someone has already told me I was too harsh on him, but, as he said himself, a little harsh criticism has never hurt anyone. So here we go (I'm not going over every single little thing that riles me, but just adress the major points):

Jim: "Detective manga is a small, but highly popular genre in Japan that has gradually grown in popularity here in America over the past few decades."

Jim is correct in stating that detective stories in manga form are highly popular in Japan, but they haven't gradually grown in popularity over here – on the contrary, they've been selling rather poorly. Last year, the releases for Case Closed were cut back from six to four volumes a year, The Kindaichi Case Files was only sporadically released (about once a year) before ending up on the chopping block and there has yet to be a publisher who gives series such as Q.E.D., Detective Academy Q, The Accidents, Chief Detective Kenichi and Master Keaton as much as a glance.

Why this woeful lack of interest of both readers and publishers? I don't have a definite answer to that question, but I can offer a theory. Contrary to Japan, the traditional mystery isn't an active part of our pop-culture, that is to say, writers such as Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie still enjoy a large readership, but there's barely a place on the market for neo-orthodox mystery writers.

Case in point: John Pugmire faced the daunting task of getting one of Paul Halter's locked room novels published into English, but, as the years crept by, it started to look more and more like an impossibility that would even baffle Dr. Alan Twist and Owen Burns – and was only solved by the advent of self-publishing services.

This is not the case in Japan, where there's an entire neo-orthodox movement whose books are even eligible (and won) literary prices – which is why Conan and Kindaichi are such a success over there, with both younger and older readers, but fail to really catch on here in the West. The problem is that the traditional detective story, which include locked room mysteries and other impossible crimes, has become a specialized genre over here and publishers mistakenly targeted these books at the type of manga fans who gobble up series like Naruto and Bleach, instead of actual mystery fans – and, unfortunately for Conan and Kindaichi, there's only a small overlap of manga and classic mystery readers.