The Slaying of the Slayers

"Total slaughter, total slaughter.
I won't leave a single a man alive.

La de da de dai, genocide.
La de da de duh, an ocean of blood.

Let's begin the killing time."
- Genocide Song (Trigun)
Before I pull the next tome from its drawer and cart its stiffened pages into the autopsy room to provide you with an in-depth, post-mortem examination of its plot and writing, I have to nudge you in the direction of another review of mine that was co-written with a fellow Connoisseur of Crime and put up on his blog. Over At the Scene of the Crime, Patrick is marking the occasion of his 100th post with a series of collaborative reviews and for our joint effort we looked at Paul Doherty's first Judge Amerotke novel – The Mask of Ra (1998), in which Pharaoh Tuthmosis II succumbs to the noxious effects of an apparently impossible snakebite. I recommend going over that crime-scene after you're done here.

Today's tale of intrigue and murder also happens to be a volume from the set of books chronicling the storied career of the Chief Judge of Thebes, The Slayers of Seth (2001), which is Lord Amerotke's fourth recorded outing – and turned out to be quite a different story than the one I was expecting to find. It was tipped to me as a locked room mystery, but unlike its predecessors, there were no impossibilities and it was more of a thriller than a proper detective story. Granted, it's an excellent, blood-curdling yarn, however, I was hoping to find a plot that could match, or even out do, The Anubis Slayings (2000).

The characters who have a central role in this story are the titular slayers of the red-haired god of death, a small band of veteran soldiers who brought the grandfather of the reigning Pharaoh-Queen, Hatusu, a decisive victory over the invading armies of the Hyksos by courageously infiltrating an enemy campside and chopping-off the head of their mascot witch – who proclaimed to be the earthly reincarnation of the snake goddess Meretseger. This broke the heart and soul of their enemy and they were easily trampled in the succeeding battle.

When they returned home, the brave soldiers were treated to a hero's homecoming and the spoils of conquest consisted of a severed head, sacred Scorpion Cups and a glorious victory over a sworn enemy. Individually, they were bestowed with enermous riches, awarded honorable titles and their exploits on the battlefield became the stuff of legends, but the curse of the witch, spoken mere second before losing her head completely, looms over them like the blood-tinged shadow of their patron saint – and after the sands of time covered three decades a cloaked and masked figure appears out of nothing and begins picking them off one after another. And somehow, this deluge of bloodshed is closely connected with the poisoning of a young, ambitious scribe whose ambition was to become the betrothed of the daughter of one of the slayers and this youthful girl is now on trial in The Hall of Two Truths for his murder. But Amerotke believes there's more beneath the exterior of this case then meets the eye and more than once he nearly paid with his life for venturing too close to the truth.

As a tale of blood-soaked vengeance, adrenaline fuelled thrills and antediluvian perils wrapped up as a suspenseful serial killer story it's first rate, no argument there, but I think Doherty cheated himself out of creating a minor masterpiece with not even hiding a single clue – which would've made the excellent dénouement also a satisfying one. 

This self-appointed slayer of the slayers, whose presence is that like of a shadow, is the best culprit I encountered in this series thus far and when this person finally sheds the stained cloak and mask you find someone who's both remorseless as well as very human – with a very powerful and understandable motive. But the lack of clueing makes it impossible to anticipate or feel pleasantly surprised and there was definitely a missed opportunity with the murder of one of the generals by not securely locking the door and windows of The Red Chapel from the inside. Clues and a locked room killing could've easily turned this story in a thriller-cum-detective story rivaling John Dickson Carr's Captain Cut-Throat (1955), in which an apparently invisible assailant roams one of Napoleon's military camps and stabs his sentries under seemingly impossible circumstances. It remains one of my favorite historical detective stories.

But I have to be fair here and not be tempted into decrying this book merely because it's not what I wanted it to be. The plot is still a good example of craftsmanship and populated with interestingly drawn characters, especially the general's daughter who's accused of poisoning her lover and the militaristic heroes who give credence to the old adage "how the mighty have fallen," thrusted into dangerous and exciting situations. My favorite scenes are the prologue, in which the enemy's camp is being infiltrated and when they return thirty years later, alongside Amerotke, to investigate the makeshift tomb of Meretseger – only to discover it empty and trapped in a ambush. Great stuff!

In summation, this wasn't exactly what I was looking for when I picked up this book, but not once did I had to stifle a yawn and overall it's an engrossing, fast-paced read which will not fail to entertain the fans of this series. But I hope the next entry is a return to the previous books with a puzzling locked room mystery and at least one or two clues to mull over while traveling from one chapter to another.

Speaking of locked room stories, the next mystery on the list will definitely be one. I have more than enough of them in cold storage, but picking one will proof to be the real challenge. 

All the books I have reviewed in this series:

The Slayers of Seth (2001)
The Assassins of Isis (2004)
The Poisoner of Ptah (2007)
The Spies of Sobeck (2008)


Rated to Kill

"When your Monday has consisted of murder, two sessions with a boss who doesn't like you, a trip to the country, the chase and capture of a fleeing man, a tough softball game, and a tête à tête with a beautiful psycho who more or less announces that at a more convenient time and place for her she intends to have your body, whatever it will do to your life, it tends to bode ill for the rest of the week."
- Matt Cobb (Killed in Fringe Time, 1995)
What can I possibly say about William DeAndrea, as a preface to this review, that I haven't already touched upon in previous blog entries dedicated to his work? Chronologically, he was a crime writer of the modern, post-GAD era, but if you carefully peruse his books and short stories, it won't be too hard to notice the iron-clad links that connect the far past with the here and now – and hopefully the distant future as well. The hardboiled tone of story telling, resonating with the voices of Archie Goodwin and Philip Marlowe, partnered with an orthodox sense of plotting set against the décor of a television network, not only picked up the threads of tradition but also weaves new patterns. 

In the opening of Killed in Fringe Time (1995), Matt Cobb, the Vice-President in charge of Special Projects, who's responsible for handling everything that's too insecure for security and too private for Public Relations, is lulled into running an errand for Richard Bentyne – who recently signed a multi-million dollar contract to battle on The Network's behalf in the trenches of the late-night war against Jay Leno and David Letterman. The prime-time prima donna managed to snare "The Mountain Man," an eccentric billionaire hermit, for his show and wants the troubleshooter to pick him up from the airport – even though it's not part of his job description he indulges their newest acquisition for the sake of the station. But allowing a well-off solitudinarian, who estranged himself from society, to hitch a ride from him to the studio will proof to be the least of his worries.

As you've probably noticed by now, Richard Bentyne is the proverbial victim whose elephantine ego leaves absolutely no room for friends and compensated this with an impressive collection of enemies, but this, strangely enough, didn't turn him into a stock character or plot device. Before stuffing him into body bag, DeAndrea humanizes his character with a personal revelation that came up in a conversation between Bentyne and Cobb – making the murder somewhat less impersonal. Sure, he's as insufferable and asinine as they come, but hardly a Mr. Ratchett or Mary Gregor whose murderers could be cheered on without the risk of spraining your conscience.

Unfortunately, for the new face of late-night television, the murderer wasn't privy when he lay bare the faint traces of a genuine human being in his personality and before tapping the show his acid laced tongue tastes the numbing effect of fatal dose of poison. But what's really cruel is that the murderer doctored his specially prepared dish of chicken wings peppered with snippets of garlic. I personally could live with chomping down an alarming quantity of arsenic, but to have the taste of fried chicken lingering in your mouth before you depart from this world seems to me a faith worse than death.

It's up to Matt Cobb, leading force behind Special Projects, to keep the damage to The Network to a minim, which simply means sniffing out the murderer himself and handing this person over to the police. However, that's easier said than done when your lists of suspects consists of, among other, a delusional old woman, who believes the talk-show host was her long lost son, a producer who's also a live-in ex-girlfriend and a psychotic associate producer who could've crept from the pages of a second-rate, cliché riddled private eye story, nor does it help to be oblivious to the clues that are practically dangled in front of your eyes – which was also the case with this reader.

In my defense, some of the clues required a particular knowledge to perceive them as such, but there's not a legit excuse, other than brain leakage, for missing the main clue, which, retrospectively, was a dead giveaway – and I feel embarrassed for having missed it. So, well played, Mr. DeAndrea. Well played. But I'll get your next time Gadget! I will spot your cutesy, but oh so cleverly hidden, clues and unsnarl your tangled plot before that troubleshooter of yours does – and that's a promise! Well, look at that, it's nearly time for my medication. That means the moment has come to wrap things up here.  

Killed in Fringe Time is a prime-time showcase of the talents scribbled down in the opening paragraph, in which DeAndrea summons the phantasms of a bygone era that seamlessly blends into a contemporary setting. The result is a story that manages to feel both retro and fresh at the same time. It's also a perfectly fair detective story with enough twists, turns and dangerous situations to satisfy a wide arrange of fans within the genre.

It also whetted my appetite for Killed in the Act (1981), but I have to put off that one for just a few more weeks – while I reduce the pile of impossible crime stories by Paul Doherty and Herbert Resnicow. It's a job fraught with temptations, peril and sacrifice, but somebody has to do it!

The Matt Cobb series:

Killed in the Act (1981)
Killed with a Passion (1983)
Killed on the Ice (1984)
Killed in Paradise (1988)
Killed in Fringe Time (1995)
Killed in the Fog (1996)
Murder – All Kinds (2003)


Open Season

Bugs Bunny: "Just between the two of us, what season is it, really?"
Daffy Duck: "Ha, ha, ha! Don't be so naive, buster. Why, everybody knows it's really duck hunting season."
Back in December, I picked up a copy of Baynard Kendrick's The Whistling Hangman (1937), which spurred an altogether too short, but nonetheless riveting, reading binge – during which I covered several tomes from the Captain Duncan Maclain and Miles Standish Rice series. A review of The Last Express (1937) even made it to this blog. 
Though every bit as readable, Blood on Lake Louisa (1934) is an early effort that sets itself apart from the crime riddled chronicles of Maclain and Rice. In the first place, it's a standalone novel situated in a small town, Orange Crest, and has a distinct regional flavor – and the case is reported to the reader from a first-person point of view. The always clued-up Mike Grost also noted on his website that the plot was structured on the basic principles of an Had-I-But-Known story, which is strange for a masculine book set against the background of outdoors sportsmen and moon shiners with an almost entirely male cast – making this book somewhat of a curiosity. 

The person narrating the story is a small town physician, simply known to his family and friends as Doc Ryan, who reflects back at "the events that threw the whole of our little community into an uproar," which was set in motion when one evening he took a boat out to the lake to fish under the pale and sorrowful visage of the moon and take pot shots at the snoozing ducks between the reeds – but when he wants to retrieve a wounded bird he finds the corpse of a friend tingeing the dark blue waters with a splash of crimson red.

On the surface, the untimely demise of David Mitchell, a local banker, has all the earmarks of an unfortunate hunting accident, but a primarily investigation shows that the ammunition in the medico's rifle was of a different brand than the discharge that ended up killing Mitchell – making this a clear case of murder as he was already dead when the doctor emptied a cartridge at the feathered shooting targets.

Blood on Lake Louisa is very competent in keeping your eyes and mind from straying off the printed pages, from throwing a pocket watch hidden in a coffee pot at you to a confrontation with a dying man who utters a cryptic warning message, while moon shining and counterfeiting hover inconspicuously in the background – but the most engrossing parts were the lines that reflected the time and era. The first copies rolled off the press in 1934, but it was probably written at the tail end of the Prohibition Era. It's drenched with bootlegging references and several characters have bottles of hard liquor stored away, including the doctor and the sheriff, and shows how that particular decade in history taught Americans how to be unlawful – especially on a domestic level.

Less endearing was the stereotypical portrayal of minorities. I'm the farthest removed from a political correct, censor happy prick but even I cringed at some of the scenes in this book. Laughing at comedians who make edgy jokes is something completely different as being confronted with the uncouth, racial attitude of the 1930s and the reason why we'll never see another Baynard Kendrick print run until he drops into the public domain – which is a shame, really, in spite of this embarrassing character flaw.

All in all, this is a fairly well written and adequately plotted detective story, which keeps the reader occupied by littering the place with mystifying clues and stuffing shadowy nooks with mortal dangers, and while the solution doesn't come off as the mind-blowing surprise it was intended to be – it was still a nice first try and I appreciate it. However, I recommend you start off with The Whistling Hangman before examining Baynard Kendrick's other detective stories.

Once again, I have to end on an unrelated note. But today I received a package stuffed with impossible crime novels. So you know what to expect in the upcoming weeks here.


An Obituary for a Poet

"Nothing is simpler than to kill a man; the difficulties arise in attempting to avoid the consequences."
- Nero Wolfe (Too Many Cooks, 1938)
One of the drawbacks of roaming the remnants of a genre whose memories have become a fading echo in the recollection of the populace, is that's it difficult to keep your aim focus on one specific name or phase for an extended period of time. The map of the genre, for me, is still dotted with stretches of terra incognita, just waiting to be rediscovered and explored, which makes loitering almost a criminal offense – and a convenient excuse to explain away why it took me nearly a year to get back at Jack Iams after a favorable first impression.

Just about a year ago, I pored over one of his standalone novels, The Body Missed the Boat (1947), which was a very quick, but nonetheless amusing, read and left me wanting to sample more work from this little known author – so I ordered Death Draws the Line (1949) and What Rhymes with Murder? (1950). But it took me until this week to finally pick one of them up. The book I selected and finished reading yesterday was the enigmatically titled What Rhymes with Murder? 

As a detective story, it was interesting enough but not entirely satisfactory as the plot was very uneven in quality. But before examining the pros and cons, I have to drop a line or two here on how similar everything felt to one of William DeAndrea's Matt Cobb stories. It wasn't as good, of course, but the tone was very much the same – just like the voice that guided the readers through the events as they went down. The narrator, Stanley "Rocky" Rockwell, even holds a somewhat similar position as Matt Cobb as the fighting editor of one the cities biggest newspapers, The Record, and the problems he has to tackle arises from this job. Just for that, devotees of William DeAndrea and Matt Cobb should hunt down a copy for their collection. But on to the story.

In the opening chapter, Rocky relates how their only competitor, the Eagle, went into suspended animation after the local dynasty, who owned the news outlet, unexpectedly tipped over, but was brought back into circulation by a chain of rag sheets with a reputation for sensationalism and yellow journalism – and the first one to receive a treatment with their acid-based ink is a British poet en route to the United States. 

Ariel Banks was definitely a polarizing figure, a Bohemian versifier known as The Great Lover, but the editor of The Record hardly finds this to be sufficient justification for the Eagle to mobilize masses of self-righteous drones to protest his arrival and picket the train station – and since the poet has been invited to speak at the Tuesday Ladies' Club there's a double-edged stake in it for Rocky. First off, his long-time fiancée, Jane Hewes, is a leading member of the club and has to take care of the amative pen knight, which sits not well with him, to say the least, but at the same time he's obliged to oppose their rival competitors in what's rapidly shaping up to be a paper war.

Crime Map on the Back Cover
But when Monk Sparle, the callous editor of the Eagle, and his female field operator Amy Race, give Rocky the multiple choice option to either ascend the career ladder at their outfit or be trodden under foot everything becomes far more personal than a contact ad in a lonely hearts column – especially after a dead-shot plugs the poet's ticker with a slug in front of his fiancée.

What Rhymes with Murder? has a lot going for itself, from the crisp narration of the protagonist to the astute plotting on the authors part, but the clues impressed me as a trifle weak and the coincidences just made it come up short from being front page material – but the only real erratum was the trivialization of Rocky's presence when a secondary character suddenly donned the deerstalker for the dénouement aboard a night train bound for the Capitol.   

All in all, this is a very decent effort at crafting a detective story and a fascinating example of a work published at the tail end of that prosperous, golden era when the puzzle orientated stories were receding into the background to make place for the action-filled, hardboiled private eye tales that ran mainly on booze, cigarettes, gunoil and testosterone. You can find elements from both epochs tucked away between the pages of this book, making it sort of a transitional fossil of paper. So even though this is not a prime example of the classic detective story, it still has enough to offer to us fans to make it worth our time.

Now only one question remains: how long will it take me before I get around to reading Death Draws the Line? Place your bets now!

On a final, unrelated note: I hate it when one review, more or less, writes itself while others put up a real struggle when it comes to finding the right words and phrases – like was the case with this one. After the first paragraph, I started to blank out. The above is what I was able to churn out after numerous rewrites. Yeah, I blow.


The Body Missed the Boat (1947)
Girl Meets Body (1947)
Prematurely Gay (1948)
Death Draws the Line (1949)
Do Not Murder Before Christmas (1949)
A Shot of Murder (1950)
What Rhymes With Murder? (1950)
Into Thin Air (1952)
A Corpse of the Old School (1955)


There Goes the Neighborhood

"Ye, against whose familiar names not yet
the fatal asterisk of death is set..."
- H.W. Longfellow (Morituri Salutamus, 1875)
Christianna Brand called her "the funniest lady you ever knew," Carolyn Hart listed one of her books among her five all-time favorite mystery novels, The Times Literary Supplement juxtaposed her with satirist Evelyn Waugh and with The Asterisk Club she breathed life into one of the most absurd and amusingly unbalanced assortment of characters that ever graced the pages of a detective story. This now shamefully neglected mystery novelist was Pamela Branch
By all accounts, Pamela Branch must have been a delightful human being whose personal motto probably was, "if there be humor here, it's dark, and you may need a flash of light to see it," which is a sentiment that runs through out her work – especially in her firs novel, The Wooden Overcoat (1951). In it, she introduces a club more out there than the Diogenes Club and plagued by far more unpleasantries than the Bellona Club!

Founded by Clifford Flush, The Asterisk Club can boost to be one of the most exclusive fraternities in existence and you literary have to wring someone's neck to qualify as an aspirant member. Well, that is if you were able to hoodwink a jury into letting you off the noose. Yup. The ritzy, exclusive club moonlights as a refuge for wrongfully acquitted murderers and their newest associate is one Benji Cann, who bumped off his mistress and was astonished when hearing the jury proclaim him to be innocent, but they are strapped for vacant rooms at the club – so he's temporarily quartered at the rat-infested dwelling of their next door neighbors as paying guest.

Their neighbors, two artistic couples, Hugo and Bertha Berko and Fan and Peter Hilford, have, at first, no idea who they are taking into their home or with whom they made a deal, but the truth begins to settle in around the same time as the rigor mortis sets into the limbs of their lodger – and they collectively decide to dump the body. Because that's the first thing you think of when finding a stiff you are not responsible for. Hilarity ensues as Murphy's Law runs rampant during their futile attempts at dumping the bodies they rapidly accumulated over the course of the story.

A novel whose focal point are a band of murderers, who unjustly escaped the strangling clutch of the hangman's rope, with one or two corpses tossed in, who are the brunt of many of the jokes in the book, is perhaps not suppose to be this funny or endearing, but it's a physical impossibility to keep that mask of stern disapproval from slipping from your face when, for example, reading the "picnic" chapter.

Meanwhile, at the Asterisk Club, the members are aghast as they secretly observe the amateurish bungling of their next door neighbors, but then again, what can you expect from a bunch of first-time offenders – and they come to the inevitable conclusion that it's time for the professionals to show them how to dispose of those pesky human remains. More hilarity ensues!

As a detective story, it's less successful than as a ghoulish comedy of manners, but not bad on a whole – and who cares, anyway, when you're having this much fun, right? But to be honest, it's only the motive that really poses a problem here. It's impossible to anticipate. On the other hand, Branch planted a few simple, but very subtle, clues and hints that would've told me who the killer was, but they passed me by unnoticed and I appreciated the hidden symbolism that went with it – which, again, was dark and somewhat twisted.  

I think a good description of this book would be a sanguinary comedy of manners, comparable to The Addams Family on a rampage, but also manages to spin a decent plot in the background. 

It actually made me wonder why Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Josephine Tey (only know her from reputation) were elevated to Crime Queens, but Christianna Brand, Gladys Mitchell and Pamela Branch are ignored – when they were arguably better novelists than their more famous contemporaries. I find Brand and Mitchell (and now Branch) much more rewarding and their plots are a lot richer.

Shortly put, if Craig Rice was the Queen of Screwball Comedy than Pamela Branch was the Gentlewoman of Gallows Humor, both of who wrote wickedly funny murder mysteries, which, sadly, have gone out of favor with a mainstream reading audience. Thankfully, there are still publishing houses, like the invaluable Rue Morgue Press, who safe authors like these two literary jesters from being swallowed by The Nothing – or, as it is know around these parts, biblioblivion.

Note for the curious: The Wooden Overcoat was adapted in 2007 by Mark Gatiss (of Dr. Who and Sherlock fame) as Saterday Play for BBC Radio 4.

Bibliography (all of them reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press):

The Wooden Overcoat (1951)
Lion in the Cellar (1951)
Murder Every Monday (1954)
Murder's Little Sister (1958)


Raising Hell

"The infectiousness of crime is like that of the plague."
- Napoleon Bonaparte
I picked up Paul Doherty's The Plague Lord (2002) on a whim at a local book fest, after a questing in vain for his stories that were confirmed to me as bona fide locked room mysteries – and as the synopsis entailed a lot of promise, I held high hopes for this book to be one of his unconfirmed impossible crime tales. Unfortunately, I'm unable to cram it in one of the familiar pigeonholes without spoiling the best thing the book has going for itself: keeping you guessing whether you're reading a mixture of a detective and thriller story with occult elements or a hybrid supernatural crime saga. I even omitted the appropriate tags lest I spoiled the gist of the story. 
The backdrop of this historical romance is Cambaluc, thirteenth century China, when the Mongol Lord, Kublai Khan, rules as the first non-Chinese emperor over the region that was part of an outstretched kingdom, but as the narrative opens dark plumes have begun clouding the extended skyline of the empire. A secret society, known as the Water Lily Sect, has resurged and their Demon Father, the sorcerer Lin-Po, is determined to assist their demonic overlord from Hell, the titular Plague Lord, in executing the ultimate crime – exterminating the human race!

Members of the Guild of Pourers, who are tasked with keeping streets clean and cities inhabitable, are the first to feel the brunt of this fiendish conspiracy – as they are almost completely wiped out during an ongoing killing spree. During the same period, a number of religious figures, from different faiths and nooks of the world, have cataclysmic visions of Hell's gates opening up and consuming the world. This apocalyptic scenario will apparently begin within the borders of Kublai Khan's realm, who receives a warning from a spiritual envoy consisting of a Franciscan friar and a Buddhist nun, and as a response to this summons one of his most trusted advisors, the Venetian Marco Polo.

It's problematical to delve deeper into the plot at this point without giving the whole game away, but also because this is a story that sort of unravels itself without the assistance of a catalyst – which in itself can be considered as a strike against the book being labeled as a detective story. 

Nevertheless, the portion of the book relating the massacre of the street sweeping guild members is a fascinating story in itself, involving demonic possession, ghostly apparitions, mind reading and a mountain of blood spattered corpses. And no, that's not an exaggeration on my part. There are close to a hundred bodies littering the three hundred and some pages of this book and one scene recounts a small-scale holocaust at a pavilion, in which an apparently demon possessed guild member treats more than twenty of his companions to another ride on the Wheel of Reincarnation. 
Marco Polo at the court of Kublai Khan
Equally fascinating is the depiction of the Mongol court, which, under the rule of Kublai Khan, showed a surprising diversity of cultures and religious tolerance. Well, more than you would expect from that period in history. Marco Polo may be a favored with a high ranking position in the government and even passes sentences in criminal cases, as is seen early on in the story, but as a foreigner he still has to watch his step when addressing the domestic ruling class – who aren't always as enlightened as their heavenly mandated emperor.

As far as the story goes, that's really all I can spill without divulging too many tell-tale details regarding the plot. But suffice to say, it wasn't what I hoped to find when opening the book. Don't get me wrong, it's a decent story for what it is, but that's really it. I think it would've been a more satisfying read if there was an unmistakable sign post at the start that identified the story, because, one way or the other, readers are bound to end up a little disappointed.

Still, if you are an ardent reader of historical fiction, you might want to check this book out at some point in your life, if only for the delineation of the ancient China under Mongol rule, but don't trip and break your neck attempting to obtain the nearest copy. There are better, more satisfying, historical mysteries than this one – especially from the hands of this particular author.

And thus ends a shoddily written review, which always is a good indicator how dissatisfied I really am with a story – in spite of its pros. Oh well, a better read next time, eh? 


All in a Days Work

"What's in a name, after all?"
- Bill Pronzini
Ever since the inception of this blog, it has chronicled a journey of discovery through the realm of the post-GAD era detective story and during these travels I grew particular fond of the private eye novels penned by Bill Pronzini. It was on this very spot that I critiqued my first, full-length Nameless novel, Hoodwink (1981), but was already formally introduced to both author and character through a number of short stories scattered over numerous anthologies. The first one I read, "The Pulp Connection," was collected in The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) and whetted my appetite for more, but it wasn't until earlier this year that I began picking up his books – and the only regret I have is that I didn't do it sooner. So reading the short stories collected in Casefile (1983) felt as a return to those unenlightened years.

Chronologically, this collection opens with a smattering of archetypical, noirish private eye stories that were Pronzini's early literary endeavors into the genre, in which Nameless is confronted with the seamier side of life. But after "Private Eye Blues" the stories become gradually more complex as the unnamed gumshoe is confronted with locked rooms, semi-impossible disappearances and even a dying message.

It's a Lousy World

The bereaved widow of an ex-convict, who strayed from the crooked path to walk the straight and narrow, engages the services of Nameless to find out what really happened the night her husband was shot by two patrolling policeman – after apparently holding up a liquor store. Nameless exonerates the dead man by understanding the significance of a paper-wrapped bottle of hard liquor the ex-con was carrying when he was gunned down, and proves that this world sometimes really is just a lousy place.

Death of a Nobody

A street bum relates the story of how one of his chums witnessed a hit-and-run accident and extorted money from the driver he nicknamed Robin Hood, but this person turned Bad King John on him – and savagely beats him to death in a back alley. Nameless takes on the case pro bono. This is neither a puzzle yarn nor a hardboiled narrative, but a tale that is best described as a humanist crime story.

One of Those Cases

This is "an old story, a sordid one, a sad one," in which Nameless is engaged by a woman who suspects her husband of having a fling with another woman, but a surveillance of her husbands late night excursions into the unknown turns up evidence of a far more serious offense than not observing his wedding vowels. Essentially, this is a page from the life of a private investigator that ended on a slightly more exciting note than these types of routine checks usually do.

Sin Island

An elderly, indisposed millionaire hires Nameless to take the first plane to the sultry island of Majorca, a slice of the Spanish Mediterranean, where he's to deliver a suitcase stuffed with dough to his son – who cabled a demand for ready cash. It's a rather simplistic story, but I still quite liked the twist and it's the first entry in this collection that broke with the dark, moody atmosphere of the previous tales. 

Private Eye Blues

Here we have Bill Pronzini's "The Final Problem," in which he prematurely wrote-off his fictional brainchild to devout his career to writing big commercial novels, but came back on that premature decision in Blowback (1977) – and drastically altered the direction and tone of the series.

The Pulp Connection

Lt. Eberhardt calls his friend, Nameless, to the home of Thomas Murray, who garnered fame as the King of the Popular Culture Collectors, to assist him with deciphering a cryptic message left behind by the cultural accumulator after someone poked him with a steel spike – and left the dying man behind the locked door and fastened windows of his pulp room. The dying message is made up of three pulp magazines, Clue, Keyhole Mystery Magazine and Private Detective, but even Nameless, an enthusiastic collector himself, has a hard time making sense out of it. Unfortunately, the solution he comes up with depends too much on unsubstantiated guesswork rather than logical deductions and the locked room trick, clever though it is, is very risky and not a method I would gamble my freedom on. Nevertheless, it's still a very diverting story that shows a writer who has decided to have some fun with the conventions of the genre without apologizing for it.

Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?

Nameless is laboring under the naïve assumption that he's earning an easy fee, when he agrees to fill-in as a temporary night watchman for an importing company. The facility he has to guard already resembles an impenetrable fortress, where he can kick back with a pulp magazine most of the time, but it takes more than locks and shuttered windows to stop the detective curse – and before long he has to find an explanation as to how a body could be introduced into a building that is the equal to a sealed box. The solution to the reversed locked room problem is as simple as it's clever as well as the identity and motive of the murderer. Great title, by the way!

Dead Man's Slough

A minor tale, in which Nameless encounters a ghostly appearance of a red headed man clutching his head on the water and disappears under semi-impossible conditions – and the appearance of the man, corresponds with that of the ghost of a murdered miner. But Nameless doesn't believe in ghosts and searches the islet for answers. It's not really a spectacular story, but it pleasantly reminded me of Scooby-Doo.

Who's Calling

The last two entries in this collection have a combined page count of one hundred and nine pages and can almost be considered novellas. In this case, an attorney wants Nameless to track down an anonymous caller who has been harassing his daughter with lewd phone calls, but soon they transition from vulgar into the threatening – and our unnamed opt stumbles over yet another body. This is fairly clued story, but the problem failed to grab my full, undivided attention and the culprit is too easily identified. Not one of my favorite Pronzini stories, I'm afraid.


This story, on the other hand, has been a personal favorite of mine ever since reading it in a mini-anthology, Locked Room Puzzles (1986), and it's one of the standout stories of this collection – alongside with "Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?". Nameless takes on an undercover assignment at a bookstore where a wraithlike thief has been smuggling valuable maps past a perfect operating security system. The solution is uncomplicated, workable and absolutely brilliant.

Casefile is an excellent collection by any standards, but it will depend on where you stand in the genre on which half of the book you'll enjoy more. For me, it was the second, more puzzle-orientated part of the book, but I can understand if devotes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett find more satisfaction in the first fistful of stories. In any case, it's a perfect introduction to Pronzini's work and recommended to start of with if you aren't familiar with his work yet. 

All the books I have reviewed in this series: 

Twospot (1978)
Hoodwink (1981)
Casefile (1983)
Double (1984)
Bones (1985)
Shackles (1988)
Nightcrawlers (2005)


A Miracle by Gaslight

"Our heirs, whatever or whoever they may be, will explore space and time to degrees we cannot currently fathom. They will create new melodies in the music of time. There are infinite harmonies to be explored."
- Clifford Pickover
During a long and storied career, John Dickson Carr, arguably the greatest and certainly the most enthusiastic participant of the grandest game in the world, carved himself a legacy as the standard-bearer of the impossible crime movement. But in contrast to these accolades, achieved in the department of miracles, stands a second, equally impressive, body of work produced as a pioneering novelist of historical novels – which has seldom been the recipient of praise. There's no discernible reason why these stories are usually glossed over as they reflect a genuine love for history (c.f. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, 1937) and the atmospheric prose resurrected the ghosts of the centuries that slipped away in the mists of time. Not to mention the fact that he probably spawned a hybrid sub-genre with the introduction of the time traveling detective. 

Fire, Burn! (1957) is a particular fine example of this plot device, in which a modern day policeman is expatriated to the primordial days of Scotland Yard. This stretch of time in the history of the British police force has always fascinated Detective-Superintendent John Cheviot, who harbored private fantasies of crossing space and time to baffle his predecessors with the wonders of modern forensic science, but when he jumps out of a cab one night he inexplicably finds himself standing in the year 1829 in a custom made body! He's all of a sudden living in a dream, but not the one he frequently had as he has to conclude that it's hard to play a demigod of futuristic police work in a time where fingerprinting, ballistics and the preservation of a crime-scene are alien concepts – and basically only has his wits to fall back upon. Oh, and it isn't helpful, either, to quote from biographies that aren't published yet.  

Wits are fine when your assignments consists of such easy tasks as baring the identity of a pilferer who has been nicking birdseed from the beak of a dowagers pet macaw, but when this trifling offense turns out to be a prelude to murder, modern sophistication becomes something to long for – especially when dealing with a murderer who struck in the presence of no less than three witnesses but remained imperceptible to the naked eye. 

The victim, one Margaret Renfrew, who lived in with the old dowager and whose conscience was burdened with guilty knowledge regarding the affair with the birdseed, was shot, at close range, in a gas lit passage in front of Cheviot and two additional witnesses, but none of them saw as much as fleeting silhouette of the phantomlike marksman. Nonetheless, I unhesitatingly tagged one of the characters as the deadeye and deduced how this person obscured him/herself from sight, but was distracted away from these ingenious deductions – which in a way exposes the Achilles heel of this story.

At the core of this story you'll find a clever enough, but rather simplistically, constructed plot, in which your attention is drawn away from the obvious solution with Cheviot romancing over an at times exasperating heroine, gambling den brawls and the preparations of a crooked duel with an army captain.

This is not the kind of misdirection you expect from a reputable Machiavellian schemer, but lets not forgot that this story was jotted down during the big drop-off period late in his career when age started to claim its toll – making this book only an average fare by his own standards. However, it must be noted that some of his faded powers seem to have rejuvenated when he was composing historical mysteries, which perhaps has something to do with his wariness of modern-day life – as he clearly enjoyed reanimating these lost passages of time. As a matter of fact, they're almost lamentable elegies describing an unforfillable longing to the times when honor among men was restored with the aid of a set of dueling pistols, a can of hot coffee and twenty paces at an abandoned churchyard at six in the morning or a concerto of dazzling sword play on the crumbling battlements of a castle under siege. Yeah, he was an incurable and unapologetic romanticist.

To summarize what I'm trying to put across here, rather poorly, is that during the waning years of his career he somewhat rebounded when dedicating himself to writing historical fiction. The plotting regained some of its former glory coupled with an evocative prose and historical detail that really brings a tale to life. And even though Fire, Burn! is a notch or two below his other historical mysteries, such as The Devil in Velvet (1951) and Captain Cut-Throat (1955), it's leaps and bounds ahead of other later period, non-historical novels like Behind the Crimson Blinds (1952) and Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956). Granted, it's not Carr at his most ingenious, but at this point in his life he still refused to yield to that one unpardonable sin, namely that of being dull, and therefore recommendable to everyone who loves a darn good yarn – especially if you're already of a devoted follower of he holds all the keys.

I have two queries, though: how did John Cheviot ended up in 1829 and were the makers of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (the original UK series, not the atrocious US remakes) aware of this book when they created the series?


Kill Like a God

"Keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer."
- Michael Corleone (The Godfather II, 1974)
Paul Doherty is a name that has been echoing around these parts of the blogosphere, message boards and communities for weeks before it began resonating on our reading lists as more and more mystery buffs seem to be handing in book reports on their blogs and it is easy to understand why he's a writer you can easily pick up – no matter where you stand in the genre. Doherty situates his stories in fascinating sceneries, in which he allows the past to rise up to obscure the present by carefully reconstructing the mise en scène of erstwhile civilizations, fraught with danger, intrigue, mystery and oodles of crimes – some of them perpetrated in apparently impenetrable surroundings! 

The Anubis Slayings (2000) is no exception and is a continuation of the previous novel, The Horus Killings (1999), in which Hatusu, better known to historians as Hatshepsut, ascended the throne and established herself as the first women whose head was adorned with the double crown of Egypt – while her trusted subject, Chief Judge Amerotke, brought light in an ever darkening affair enshrouding the Temple of Horus.

But before I go on with this review, I must point out here that the skeleton plot of this book bears a striking resemblance to its predecessor, however, the multitude of plot strands are pulled a lot tighter together here and this benefited the overarching story notably.

In The Anubis Slayings, Hatusu and the vanquished King Tushratta of Mitanni are negotiating at the Temple of Anubis on a treaty to ensure a peaceful existence between the once warring nations, but King Tushratta is embittered at having tasted defeat at the hands of a woman he now has to bow his knees to – and in his heart he vows to avenge his wounded echo. Hatusu isn't taken in with the Mitanni monarch, either, and slowly, but surely, it becomes apparent that one of the participating parties is sabotaging the tentative truce – as the temple becomes the scene of a baffling crime that suggests the hand of a supernatural being. The patron saint of embalmers, Anubis, is even seen walking the earthly soil of the temple!

One of the temple chapels closely resembles an inviolable bastion, safeguarding a holy amethyst known as The Glory of Anubis, but someone managed to sneak pass the guards unseen, phase through a solid door, locked from the inside, without disturbing the pool dug in front of the door and plunge a dagger into the priest murmuring prayers in front of a statue of Anubis before dissolving into thin air with the amethyst – and when the door is broken down they find the only key of the door still dangling from the dead man's girdle. As with the previous book, the deception of the sealed room illusion here was also cleverly hinged on a presumption, but ultimately not a very spectacular or mind-blowing explanation. Although I definitely liked this locked chapel problem a lot more than the murder in the closed-off garden tower from the previous case.

But the theft and slaying of a priest at the temple aren't the only hurdles Judge Amoretke has to clear in order to preserve the environment needed to work out a deal with the Mitanni. In his capacity as Chief Judge he's also obliged to look into a myriad of varying problems, which range from a lost manuscript by a renowned traveler whose savaged remains were fished from the river Nile to a Mitanni warlord found with barely a mark on his body in a chamber with the door and shutters locked or latched from the inside, but in this story all the plot threads are connected to one single intricate scheme – which turned out to be a huge improvement in comparison with its forerunner.

Nonetheless, there were too many of these plot threads running through the story to utilize them all to their full potential and some of them receded into the background almost immediately after they were introduced and only brought up again towards the end as an afterthought, but that's a minor complaint, really, measured against the overall quality of the story – in which Doherty expertly reconstructed an ancient civilization and wrapped it up with enough threads from which he could've easily spun three more novels. So why do I even bring up two strands that were lost sight of when a thick blanket, embroiled with pleasing patterns, was being woven? I mean, this is the kind of plot I always hope to find in a post-GAD story.  

In summary, this is a book that is gratifying in its offering of a twisted, maze-like plot populated with interestingly drawn characters and is basically a breed of grand detective story that was thought to be extinct – and even though Doherty's sparse clueing betrays a modern heritage it takes very little, if any, away from the book.

Absolutely recommended without reservations!

The Judge Amerotke series:

The Mask of Ra (1998)
The Horus Killings (1999)
The Anubis Slayings (2000)
The Slayers of Seth (2001)
The Assassins of Isis (2004)
The Poisoner of Ptah (2007)
The Spies of Sobeck (2008)