12/30/11

A Deluge of Poison

"Society murders are a pain in the neck."
- Inspector Barry (Up to the Hilt, 1945) 
When you read contemporary criticism of the genre, it takes an informed and primed reader to immediately dispel their false impression that the field, during that prosperous first half of the previous century, resembled the grimy, nearly dried-up pool that it is today – with one monoculture dominating the market (i.e. the run-of-the-mill thrillers crime novels you find in bookstores today). This faux representation often suggests that the genre was ruled over by a court of female writers, known as the Queens of Crime, which consisted of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham. You can also earn a sparkling Lion King sticker if you namedrop Josephine Tey.

This simplistic, almost childlike, delineation of the genre is not only incorrect, but also deprecating to the myriad of published writers who were active at the time and especially to the women of this profession – who are dismissed either out of ignorance, such as Christianna Brand and Gladys Mitchell, or for having written their books on the wrong continent. It is, after all, a well-known fact that Britain was the comfy home of the literate, if slightly snobbish, puzzle-orientated mystery novel, while the Americas were the tough slummy back streets of the detective story and therefore writers such as Craig Rice and Dorothy Cameron Disney seem to have never have existed in their world at all.

This is why it's left to me, a dilettante instead of an actual scholar, to praise Anne Rowe's Too Much Poison (1944), a distinctly British mystery penned by an American woman, for its striking portrait of an unhappily married nurse, embroiled in two upper-class poisonings with snake venom, and her engaging narrative voice that continuously invites you to read one more chapter – which can also be frustrating if you're attempting to read it during one of the busiest weeks of the year!

When Mona Randolph married Dr. Harvey Carstairs, a rising Park Avenue specialist, he convinced her to keep their marriage under wraps – until he had established himself within the Manhattan social set as a physician to the rich and famous. This situation seemed to drag on interminably, while Mona acted as his secretary-nurse and furnished him with what little money she had, until her sister, Iris, married into a wealthy and well-bred family. Mona's newly acquired in-laws are not exactly charmed when they learn of her secret marriage arrangement with the young doctor and forbid Iris to see her until the Carstairs publicly acknowledge their marriage. At first, these demands seem like a blessing in disguise, to the downtrodden and neglected wife, as she can finally cash in on the interest rate of her sacrifices and take her rightful place next to her husband as Mrs. Carstairs.

But there's just one problem: her husband is involved in a serious affair with another woman, socialite Caryl Ellington, and wants to sever the ties that bind him to his common and homely wife – who had faithfully stood by his side for over three years and it takes the interference from his influential colleague and friend to make an honest woman of Mona before they each go their separate ways. During a celebrative get-together, at their home, they reveal their marriage to the world, but since this is a detective story the party is really nothing more than a prelude to murder.

First the atmosphere of this belated wedding reception is poisoned when Caryl Ellington, with her café society cronies, crash the party and followed-up with a botched suicide attempt of one of Harvey's patients, one Joyce Prentiss, who's murdered minutes later – when one of the guests introduces her to a lethal dose of poison tapped from the fangs of an exotic cobra. Enter Inspector Barry, assisted by Cliff Mallory, a renowned polo player and amateur sleuth who also moonlights as Mona's knight in shining armor, whose combined jobs consist of capturing the snake that slithered from the grassy front lawn into this party, assertively mingling with the other guests, before striking at its victim.

The most valuable asset this novel has, as I mentioned at the start of this review, is its preterite narrative, which is both inviting and lucid, however, its splendid characterization also makes it a perfect piece of counter-evidence against the claim that mystery writers from 1930-and 40s dotted on the upper classes. This story sketches a decidedly unflattering picture of the social set of the time and their cheerful, devil-may-care demeanor is nothing more than a thin veneer that gives their rather shallow existence a buoyant coating – and their petty stance against and ill-treatment of Mona Carstairs garners them no sympathy whatsoever.

So character-wise, Too Much Poison is an excellently written, in-depth story that does an above average job at bringing the people that populate its pages and their problems to live, however, it's kept from obtaining a place in the first ranks by a sloppily clued ending and a few missed opportunities. The clues are thinly spread out over two hundred and some pages and the main one isn't brought up until the second murder, which is committed with only quarter of the story left to go, and everything that could've clued you up on the motive was unfairly withhold. I also felt that more could've been done with the origin of the snake venom, which was explained in a rather off-hand manner, and the method for the public poisoning of Joyce Prentiss would've easily lend itself for an seemingly impossible situation – which certainly would have elevated the plot above that of merely avarage.

This makes Too Much Poison an excellent reading experience for fans who enjoy detective stories for their characters and past settings, without paying too much attention to the clues or be distracted by inconsistencies in the plot, but it will leave readers who want a fair shot at solving the problem themselves with a slight feeling of disappointment after they turn over the final page. In short, this novel could've been better and it could've been worse, but I still think it's worthy of our attention – if only for the characters. 

I scribbled this review in haste, as it's the last one of this year and time hasn't been entirely on my side, but I hope the amount of mistakes has been kept at a minimum and hope to welcome you all back in the new year – and wish you all the best during those dozen months that make up 2012!

Anne Rowe's bibliography:

Curiosity Killed a Cat (1941)
The Little Dog Barked (1943)
Too Much Poison (1944)
Up to the Hilt (1945)
Fatal Purchase (1945)
Deadly Intent (1946)

12/26/11

The Best of 2011: A Year in Review

"Every New Year is the direct descendant, isn't it, of a long line of proven criminals?"
- Ogden Nash

Christmas with Detective Conan
There were a number of motivating factors for starting this blog, but the most important one was the presence of another blog on the web, The Case Files of Ho-Ling, maintained by Ho-Ling – who is perhaps the only other person here, in the Netherlands, as consumed and enamored with classical and neo-orthodox detective stories as I am. I have been following his train of thoughts on the genre ever since it embarked on its journey, back in 2009, but it wasn't until his review of Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders (1987) that a light bulb appeared above my head and the filament began to glow. "Hey," I thought, "I can do this, too!" and when I told him the response was brief and to-the-point: "Do it!"

I finally had found a path that, in the deluded, self-made reality that exists only in the brain box of yours truly, might end, if properly treaded, with me becoming a 21st century equivalent of Anthony Boucher or Frederic Dannay – and usher in the dawn of a Silver Age of Detection. But in spite of this enthusiasm driven folie de grandeur, I still found remnants of doubts and uncertainty, which were left there by my notorious super-sloppy-typing-skills and could prove itself to be a handicap in this endeavour, but these fears turned out to be unfounded – as the responses that began pouring after putting up the first couple of review were overwhelmingly positive. Not only in the comment section of this place, but also in responses left on other websites, like the GADdetection Group, and I want to bestow my gratitude on each and everyone of you who took the time to peruse my vague little ramblings and compile responses.

It's thanks to you that the page counter sped by the 10.000 mark after only a few months, which, I think, proves that readers who enjoy a classically constructed detective story shouldn't be listed as extinct – and this is also reflected in the blogs from fellow mystery addicts who were also able to garner unexpected successes and popularity with their mystery blogs:

Patrick released At the Scene of the Crime only a short month after I opened up this place business, but just as quickly became one of the must-read blogs for everyone who enjoys a good, old-fashioned whodunit. Pretty Sinister Books covers a more broader scope of fiction, but when he dabbles in Golden Age Detective fiction you can be assured that the stories are obscure and that you probably haven't read it. One of his semi-regular features, entitled Left Inside, is one of the best things going in the blogosphere today! Sergio from Tipping my Fedora and Steve the Puzzle Doctor from In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel are the all-rounders of our crowd, covering everything from classic mysteries and modern crime stories to historical fiction and thrilling movies, which makes their blogs perfect places to seek inspiration if you have no clue what to read or watch next. Keep up the good job in 2012, guys! Bev from My Reader's Block and Patti from Pattinase are the glue of the community with their Vintage Mystery Challenges and the Friday's Forgotten Books listings. William's Traditional Mysteries has really taken off in the past few months and specialized himself in short, to-the-point reviews of both GAD and neo-GAD mysteries. Definitely recommended! Mystery scholar and author of the forthcoming Masters of the Humdrum Mystery (2012), Curt Evans, has began blogging and will be wondering through the genre, as The Passing Tramp, and has already established himself as rival to John Norris – when it comes to brining up obscure, nearly forgotten detective stories that most of us probably have never read before. Les Blatt's weekly audio reviews keeps us posted on which past gems are currently in print. And then there's the always knowledgeable Xavier Lechard, who blogs over At the Villa Rose, whose posts are infrequent but always worth reading.

I also want to thank authors Bill Pronzini and M.P.O. Books, for tirelessly bouncing emails back-and-forth with me, and Patti for welcoming me as a contributing member of the FFB crew.

And now it's time to announce the best and worst detective novels and short story collection read during the year 2011!

My top 35 of favorite detective novels read this year (in alphabetical order):

The Trampled Peony (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
Mystery and More Mystery (Robert Arthur, 1966)
Jumping Jenny (Anthony Berkeley, 1932)
The Last Chance (M.P.O. Books, 2011)
The Case of the Solid Key (Anthony Boucher, 1941)
The Wooden Overcoat (Pamela Branch, 1951)
Death of Jezebel (Christianna Brand, 1948)
Fire, Burn! (John Dickson Carr, 1957)
The Dead Sleep Lightly (John Dickson Carr, 1983)
Killed on the Rocks (William DeAndrea, 1990)
Killed in Fringe Time (William DeAndrea, 1995)
Death in the Back Seat (Dorothy Cameron Disney, 1937)
The Strawstack Murders (Dorothy Cameron Disney, 1939)
The Anubis Slayings (Paul Doherty, 2000)
The Stoneware Monkey (R. Austin Freeman, 1939)
Something Nasty in the Woodshed (Anthony Gilbert, 1942)
The Fourth Door (Paul Halter, 1987)
Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (H.R.F. Keating, 1979)
The Last Express (Baynard Kendrick, 1937)
Mother Finds a Body (Gypsy Rose Lee, 1942)
Mr. Splitfoot (Helen McCloy, 1968)
Pick Your Victim (Pat McGerr, 1946)
St. Peter's Finger (Gladys Mitchell, 1938)
The Seclusion Room (Fredric Neuman, 1978)
The Glass Mask (Lenore Glen Offord, 1944)
Death and the Maiden (Q. Patrick, 1939)
Hoodwink (Bill Pronzini, 1981)
Shackles (Bill Pronzini, 1988)
The Tragedy of Errors (Ellery Queen, 1999)
Black Widow (Patrick Quentin, 1952)
The Gold Deadline (Herbert Resnicow, 1984)
The Dead Room (Herbert Resnicow, 1987)
Death on the Board (John Rhode, 1937)
The Anagram Detectives (Norma Schier, 1979)
The Silver Scale Mystery (Anthony Wynne, 1931)

Special Awards:

The Worst Mystery Read in 2011: Elvire Climbs the Tower (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, 1956)

The Best Impossible Crime Story Read in 2011: The Dead Room (Herbert Resnicow, 1987) (just for being completely original in its set-up and execution)

The Best Short Story Collection Read in 2011: Murder – All Kinds (William DeAndrea, 2003)

The Greatest Discovery of 2011: Herbert Resnicow 

Well, that was it for this summing up. I hope everyone had a magical Christmas and wish you all the best in 2012! 

12/22/11

The Ghost in His Name

"Who do you think you are, Ellery Queen?"
- Melva Lonigan (Crime on My Hands, 1944)
During the early 1940s, Craig Rice, Queen of the Screwball Mystery, collaborated as a scenarist on The Falcon movies, which starred actor George Sanders as a debonair gentleman detective with an appreciation for the female form, and from this pool of creative consciousness eventually sprang Crime on My Hands (1944) – a lighthearted detective romp in which George Sanders takes it upon himself to clear-up a number of fatal shootings on the set of an action-packed Western. 

The name that was printed on the front cover and across the title page of this book was that of George Sanders, but there was, at least, one silent partner, working behind the scenes of this project, who did most, if not all, of the work. Craig Rice was the ghost in the typewriter, however, it's unclear if Cleve Cartmill, who seems to have strayed from his usual haunts, science-fiction and fantasy, to help her pen this facetious detective novel. But then again, it's not entirely impossible, either, and his part could've been limited to lending his expertise, as a science-fiction writer, to help her with the technical details on one of George Sanders' inventions – which he rigged up in order to trap the killer. It proved to be unsuccessful enterprise.

Crime on My Hands opens with a sneak-peek at George Sanders at work, as he shoots one of the final scenes for his latest movie, Die by Night, in which he plays the role of a self-assured, philandering amateur sleuth to perfection, but the thespian has grown tired of always playing the detective. 

"The vogue is for the light-hearted playboy with a butter heart and iridium brain to become involved in a murder situation. Now the audience knows that I, as the amateur detective, am going to triumph in the end. There's no suspense, except of an intellectual nature. The melodramatic action seeks to cover that dramatic fault, but I know suspense is lacking. I can't be wholehearted about it when I know that I will win, no matter what."

Fortunately, for him, he had to foresight to hire a clever and competent business agent, Melva Lonigan, to look after his professional interests and she managed to procure a contract in his name for the lead role in Seven Dreams – a fast-paced, action-filled Western fraught with danger and romance set against the backdrop of a barren, sun blasted desert landscape. Unfortunately, for him, this change of pace and setting is short-lived, as he, once again, finds himself hunched over the sprawled, blood-spattered remains of an extra, in the middle of a circle of wagons, but this time the cameras aren't rolling and the microphones are turned-off – and our on-screen gumshoe quickly notices that movie villains are nothing like their the real-life counterparts.

This murderer, for example, neglected to lither the scene of the crime with incriminating evidence for him to glance at and mutter cryptic remarks. As a matter of fact, this evasive gunman even expunged the few tell-tale clues, such as a film can protecting the undeveloped scene of the fatal shooting and a pair of silver handled revolvers, which our self-styled amateur sleuth had to go on. Not a good sport at all.

What I found interesting, whilst reading this book, was how well Rice had obliterated nearly every trace that could identify her as its author. There are still one or two sequences in this book that bear a partial finger print of her style, such as filming a scene in an artificially created sand storm, in which Sanders seems to be confronted with his shadowy adversary, and the parade of suspects who came tramping into his cabin during a botched attempt at entrapping the gunslinger, but, all in all, this is not a detective story that conformed to her usual style. 

In a way, this is also quite amusing, if you take into consideration that the authorship of Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941) and Mother Finds a Body (1942) were ascribed to her. I have only read the latter, but I immediately understood why people found it so easy to believe that they were penned by Rice – since they were covered with, what appeared to be, her fingerprints. There was a whiff of surrealism that emanated from the pages, the three main characters formed a unity (all but one of Rice's series detectives are team players) and the zaniness was vintage Ricean.

Lee's authorship of The G-String Murders and Mother Finds a Body has now been established and they were probably put down on paper with Rice's style and plotting technique in mind – which simply explains how a not entirely untalented amateur could equal the best efforts of a professional. Crime on My Hands also reinforces this claim, in a topsy-turvy way. Why would she ghost one book in her own, unique and easily identifiable style and cleverly disguise the other. I mean, if I wouldn't know any better and was asked to hazard a guess, as to who ghosted this book for George Sanders, the closest I would get to hitting the mark would be blurting out Stuart Palmer's name – on the fourth or fifth guess.

On a whole, Crime on My Hands is an OK story of crime and detection, but a must-read for fans that prefer their sleuths at their most amateurish and face their perils and brave their dangers in an upbeat manner – with a roguish grin plastered across their face. It's just plain fun, even if the track to the solution runs along a badly maintained railway line. But that shouldn't impair the fun derived from the overall story. The Rue Morgue Press should definitely take a look at this one for their catalogue.

There's a second detective novel that bore the name of George Sanders on its cover, Stranger at Home (1946), but this one was from the hand of Leigh Brackett – a writer primarily known for her science-fiction and screen writing. But contrary to its, more well-known, predecessor, this book is actually still in print and one that I will probably take a look at in the upcoming year.

12/18/11

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World


"But I don't want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat: "we're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
 "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn't have come here."
 - Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

According to the back-flap of the dust cover, wrapped around the binding of the first printing of The Seclusion Room (1978), its author, Dr. Fredric Neuman, is a practicing psychiatrist from New York – which probably explains why this story left me in a confusing, dual state of adoration and detestation. Psychiatrists are apt to mess with your mind like that.

In many ways, The Seclusion Room is a model of what contemporary mystery crime writers, who took it upon themselves to blur the borders and shove the genre into the mainstream, should be aiming for. On the other hand, the inveterate classicist within me was not amused at the solution, which, admittedly, was clever enough, but something important and essential was sacrificed in order to achieve its effect. But let's begin at the beginning.

The backdrop of this story is a psychiatric hospital, named Four Elms, where, during the waking hours of a particular dreary and unwelcoming morning, Dr. Abe Redden is roused from his reverie by the ringing of the telephone – which conveys immediate summons to one of the wards. One of his patients, Seymour Ratner, seems to have committed suicide behind the blocked door of the seclusion room, one end of a strip of cloth knotted around his neck and the other end tied to the radiator, but the circumstances in this bare room, with check-ups at fifteen minute interval, should've made this impossible. Even more baffling is the fact that Seymour Ratner was thoroughly searched before being secluded, however, when they finally pried open the door to the room they discovered that he had a knife in his possession and used this to carve the words THEY HAVE KILLED ME in the linoleum floor!

But murder is as infeasible as suicide, since this hypothetical murderer would not only have to be invisible, in order to sneak around in the hallway unobserved, but also able to phase through a solid door of a room that was temporarily made inaccessible by plugging the keyhole with a wad of wires – and a freak accident doesn't account for the presence of the knife and wire in the room.

Detective William Moore is not only confronted with a death that seems factually impossible on all counts, but also with an assortments of suspects and witnesses that could've wandered from a nightmarish rewrite of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Schizophrenics, alcoholics, child abusers, manic-depressives, rapists and half of these people are on the staff of the hospital!

However, it's not Detective Moore's footsteps who the readers follows, as you wander through the dimmed corridors of this institution, but those of one of their staff members, Dr. Abe Redden – whose wry and cynical narrative voice will delight fans of such writers as William DeAndrea and Raymond Chandler. The way in which he delineates characters, both patients and staff members, sketches situations and his pessimistic observations makes this an enthralling read, which, at times, really made this a book elevate itself above its status as genre fiction.

The Seclusion Room is a very modern novel that takes a serious approach at characterizing and fleshing out the inhabitants of the psychiatric wards, nurses stations and doctors offices at Four Elms and grapples with serious topics, such as a rape, but this does not mean that the book takes itself too seriously – as the characters and setting also easily lend themselves to a few very funny, but dark, comedic sequences. My favorite part from the book is probably when Redden and Moore visit the pathologist, who lectures them and tells anecdotes while his arms are buried in the abdominal regions of his latest patient. Yes, I'm aware that I have issues.

So, I hear you wonder, what's exactly the problem with this book? Everything I have said up this point indicates that I regard this a novel as a companion to those that were penned by Bill Pronzini, Herbert Resnicow and William DeAndrea. The problem is that the cleverness of this detective story is that the plot starts out with a baffling, classically-styled locked room problem that could've been lifted from the pages of a John Dickson Carr novel, "with all the mad logic of a dream," but once the story has descried itself, after a morbid send-up of the classic scene in which all of the suspects are gathered in the library, what is left of the problem is nothing more than a routine, common garden-variety crime, which, in essence, I liked, but to achieve this effect the locked room angle was turned into a sacrificial lamb. 

In spite of the fascinating set-up and the fact that it secured a spot in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), this is not a locked room mystery and the explanation to why I was dropped-off at the final page of this story with a split personality.

Overall, this is a very well written novel, populated with intriguingly sketched characters set in a world that sometimes resembles a ghoulish fun-house packed with cracked mirrors, and the modernistic approach to the traditional detective story definitely deserves praise, but this was one of the first novels I picked from Adey's listing of locked rooms and expected much more of this as an impossible crime story.

The technical aspect of the solution was a bit of a let down, but not disappointing enough to prevent me from further pursuing this author and he recently published another detective novel, Come One, Come All (2011), which is described as "a locked-room mystery, and a take-off on locked room murder mysteries" as well as a "comic novel, but realistic." So that one will be near the top of the heap for next year.

In conclusion, I'm left with only one more thing to say: Dr. Neuman, if you read this, you owe me a free consult! ;)

12/14/11

Death Throws a Party

"No man should tell a lie unless he is shrewd enough to recognize the time for renouncing it, if and when it comes, and knows how to renounce it gracefully."
– Nero Wolfe.
The trees have shed their leaves, which blanket our lawns and sidewalks, as the days have become notably shorter, the nights a lot colder and we pour ourselves a warm beverage – while we wait for the first snowflake to drop or a pond to freeze over. Decorated trees adorn our living rooms and dens. Jolly-looking, white-bearded, red-clad men in shiny boots took up their residence in the store windows and radio DJ's receive letters from listeners who threaten to burn the station to the ground if they play Wham's Last Christmas one more time. Ah, yes, Christmas must be upon us!

Over the past few years, I made it a holiday tradition to read two or three Christmas themed mysteries or detective stories with an evocative winter setting. Last year, it was the turn of Pierre Véry's The Murder of Father Christmas (1934) and Anthony Abbot's The Creeps (1939), but for this yuletide I had only one book lined up, Rex Stout's And Four to Go (1958), which can be put down to the fact that stories from the first category are becoming a bit scarce. I have less than a handful of them to go and I will spread them out over the years ahead of us, but, for the moment, it's time to head back to that familiar and comfy brownstone of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – and is there a better spot in "Cloud Cuckoo Land" to spend Christmas than at their place?

Snuffing up the mouth-watering aromas wafting from Fritz's kitchen, taking a stroll through the forest of orchids on the greenhouse roof and listening to the bickering, between Wolfe and Goodwin, emanating from the office as they plot petty larceny and throw marriage licenses around. Yup, there's only one place like that on the printed page!

Christmas Party (also published as The Christmas Party Murder)

The detective business has been rather slow at that famous brownstone, on West 35th Street, and without a profitable client or pressing matters to tend to, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin gave up on resisting their juvenile tendencies – which means that they no longer put in effort not to annoy one another too much. An agitated Archie is the first one to clamber out of the trenches of this childish workplace skirmish, after finding out that he's been scheduled to drive his oversized employer to Mr. Lewis Hewitt, who'll be entertaining a well-regarded hybridizer from England, on the same evening he's expected at a Christmas party, and charges straight ahead to deliver a cataclysmic blow to Wolfe's disposition: slapping a marriage license for himself and a woman named Margot Dickey on his desk.

Wolfe's response is a predictable one, "you are deranged," but Archie claims this battle and takes his fiancée to the party, however, it comes to an abrupt halt when the host, Kurt Bottweill, takes a swig from a poisoned goblet of Pernod – and the fatter-than-usual Santa Claus, who was tending the bar, vanished like smoke through a chimney. Plot-wise, this is a not ingenious or complexly plotted detective story, but a typical, average fare that you come to expect from Rex Stout. Luckily, we don't read his stories for their plots, but to cross the threshold of that comfy brownstone and spend a few hours in the company of a bunch of character who, at times, make you feel like you're visiting old friends and they wrapped themselves up in enough trouble to keep the story moving along nicely.

Easter Parade (also published as The Easter Parade Murder)

Mr. Millard Bynoe, an affluent man with a deep-rooted love for flowers, succeeded where Wolfe has been failing for years: cultivating a flamingo-pink Vanda, "both petals and sepals true pink, with no tints, spots, or edgings," but he simply refuses to display the orchid until the next International Flower Show – which is in this story marked down on the calendar for the following year. Wolfe finds this stalling unacceptable, but a rumor has it that his wife persuaded him to let her wear a spray of it during the church service on Easter Day, which inspires the stout detective with arguably the worst scheme of his career! He begs Archie to act as a go-between in attracting and hiring a thief to pluck the rare orchid from the innocent woman's bosom, but the plan goes awry when Mrs. Bynoe collapses in the street and Archie was seen running after the orchid snatcher.

Wolfe and Goodwin find themselves, once again, in a world of trouble and this time they have more on their plate than just a baffling and daring murder – literarily committed in the public eye. The gumshoes also have to obliterate any trail of the petty larceny of a flower that might lead to their doorstep. A great story, character-wise, but also depressing as hell that Stout wasn't able to do more with the plot – which could've been turned into a full-fledge impossible crime story with just a little bit more imagination.

Fourth of July Picnic (also published as The Labor Union Murder)

And while we're on the subject of impossible crimes, this story secured a spot in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) as a falsely advertised locked tent mystery. Nero Wolfe has agreed to venture outdoors to give a speech at a picnic of the United Restaurant Workers of America, under the condition that they stop pestering his personal, live-in gourmet chef, Fritz Brenner, to join their union, but a body turns up with a knife handle protruding from his back – and the locked and watched environment of the tent only functioned as a pool to keep the splash of dodgy characters from spreading all over the place (i.e. create a closed-circle of suspects situation). This was the least interesting and exciting story of this collection with its only really interesting point being Archie's short biography of himself.

Murder is No Joke

In spite of what the title, in combination with the theme of this collection, might suggest, this is, sadly, not a story with a plot that revolves around an April Fools joke with a killer of a punch line – which would've been great if only for the interaction between Wolfe and Goodwin on that day! But no, this is the only novella in the collection without a holiday theme, however, the plot of this story finally shows a shimmering of imagination. Flora Gallant asks Wolfe for help in dealing with a woman who has a negative influence on her brother, but the shrew is murdered in mid-conversation with Wolfe and Archie on the phone! The clueing was still below par, but the central idea was not devoid of merit and once again makes you wish Stout had been more adept were his plotting skills were concerned.

All in all, a fairly average outing for these two gumshoes, which derives it interest mainly from the situations they find themselves in rather than from their plots, but that's to be expected and not something I will hold against Rex Stout. These are stories about two detectives rather than detective stories and fans will no doubt delight in the way these two spend their holidays. Recommend... if you are a fan. 


Les Blatt also reviewed this book, as an audio podcast, last Monday over at Classic Mysteries

And on an unrelated note: I now own a copy of Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes and have already placed several orders based on descriptions in this book. Two very obscure, somewhat scarce and pricey titles will arrive here within the next 4-5 weeks, but a third, less obscure, book was delivered today and will be up next on this blog. So you know what to expect from this place in the new year: more impossible crime! 

12/12/11

A Greek Tragedy

"Take me away, far, far from Thebes,
quickly, cast me away, my friends—
this great murderous ruin, this man cursed to heaven,
the man the deathless gods hate most of all!
– Oedipus
Over the summer, I reviewed Moord op het eindexamen (Murder During the Final Exams, 1957), an proficiently plotted and intelligently written detective story set at a small-town gymnasium during a hectic and enervating exam period, which was partly extracted from real-life – since the author himself was an educator. Tjalling Dix was the nom de plume of Libbe van der Wal, a well-regarded professor and former rector at a gymnasium in Delft, who probably escaped from the pages of a Michael Innes novel, but you have to read my previous examination of his work if you want to be formerly introduced to this delightful don.

Een kogel voor Oedipus (A Bullet for Oedipus, 1954) was the first of only two detective novels to appear from the hand of Van der Wal and the backdrop for this one, instead of the buzzing teachers lounge and the austere classrooms, is a perturbed theatre company, Het Grote Toneel (The Grand Theatre), whose members are united only in their common hatred for their director and lead player. 

Gustaaf de Waeles was a gifted and accomplished actor, but he was also a vulgarian at heart who took up blackmail as a leisure entertainment.

As a manipulative oppressor, who made a sport out of slithering in between the bed sheets of any woman he found even remotely attractive and resorted to extortion if people didn't comply with his wishes, De Waeles was unrivaled. Needless to say, this thespian will not be as successful in drawing tears at his own funeral as he drew people when he took the stage, but then again, that can be considered as a trifling matter if you bowed out with a bullet wound in your head – and your murderer dressed up your final performance as an un-theatrical suicide. Heck, he even took his last bow off-stage!

During the intermission of Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus the King, the main attraction of The Grand Theatre is all of a sudden taken ill, claiming to be unable to stumble back on stage, he heads back home. For the second act, the role of Oedipus was played by De Waeles' personal substitute, who was unable to sustain the quality of acting of their lead man and the play was somewhat of a bust, but this was made up, for them anyway, when they heard that the illness was probably due to a case of acute compunction – which prompted him to take his own life!

The body of the actor was found in his own living room, unceremoniously slumped on a sofa in a dark corner of the room with a revolver, that seems to have slumped from the dead man's hand, on the floor, but it's the inartistic nature of this suicide that awakens a deep suspicion within the theatre-loving Inspector Joris de Corthe. De Corthe's theory that the man was shot is not very popular with his superior, who prefers a simple suicide over a complicated homicide, but the story that the silent witnesses have to tell him, ranging from a pair of clean shoes and broken coffee cups, slowly, but surely, convince him that his inspector might be on to something.

I can understand why this book was well received by the critics, whom, especially over here, have not always been patrons of the classical whodunit novel, on the contrary, but they must have fallen for Dix's characterization – which was described by one reviewer at the time as follow, "...can put people on paper, roughly sketched, but always on the on-the-mark and life-like." It probably also helped a lot that most of the characters carried emotional baggage from the war with them, a popular subject in Dutch literature, as they refer to family members who died during those dreadful years and one of them is even a political delinquent – who was recently released from jail after serving a term in prison for collaborating with the Germans.

Plot-wise, this book also deserves praise for its simple, but nonetheless clever, construction, even though a lot of the conventions seem to have been culled from the pages of detective stories that were penned during the 1910s, as nearly all of the suspects were trudging around in the murder room, one after another, before the police were finally brought in, which resulted in one or two clues being dropped. However, in this case it added some considerable charm to the story and minor quibble measured against the overall quality of the story.

There were clues, some better than others, such as the brilliant hint of the broken coffee cups, that did an excellent job at both telling you the truth as well as directing your attention away from the obvious culprit – and make you rethink your position and isn't that what a good detective story is suppose to do? The only thing I can hold against this book is that it didn't came alive in the same way that its successor did, which, I think, can be ascribe to the fact that everything in this story took place off-stage and was focused completely on the characters and plot. He simply neglected to turn the theatre into a stage for this story, but, as I noted before, this is a lesson he learned from and was not repeated in his next novel.

Overall, this is another competently written and cleverly constructed detective story from a writer who, sadly, only penned two of them and is all but forgotten today. A revival in his native country seems unlikely, but perhaps, one day, his work can be introduced to a more appreciative, English-reading audience. Hey, we can hope!

On a final note, I would probably murder indiscriminately in order to take a peek at the drafts/notes of his two detective stories (that is, if they exist), because I suspect that both were originally envisioned as full-fledge locked room mysteries, but something kept him from doing it. It could be that coming up with a good and original solution was a lot harder than he anticipated or that his publisher rejected it as unfeasible, but the crime-scenes in both novels were a bolt away from becoming sealed rooms.  

Other Dutch mysteries discussed on this blog: 

Bertus Aafjes' De vertrapte pioenroos (The Trampled Peony, 1973)
A.C. Baantjer's Het lijk op drift (The Corpse Adrift, 1998)
M.P.O. Books' De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)
Tjallin Dix's Moord op het eindexamen (Murder During the Final Exams, 1957)
Ben van Eysselsteijn's Romance in F-Dur (Romance in F-Dur, 19??)

12/10/11

The Dark Forest

"An arrow may fly through the air and leave no trace; but an ill thought leaves a trail like a serpent."
- Charles Mackay. 
When I first accompanied Sir Hugh Corbett and Ranulf-atta-Newgate on one of their royal assignments, chronicled in The Devil's Hunt (1996), they were ordered to go down to the university town of Oxford, where death was haunting the college hallways like an elusive ghost and an ungraspable presence, known as the Bellman, slithered through the streets after dark to post treacherous letters on church doors, in order to restore equilibrium and dispense King's justice – in which they succeeded but at a price! An arrow plugged Corbett, but it was uncertain if the wound would prove itself to be fatal one and readers found themselves dangling on that cliffhanger for nearly three full years. I recommend going over my review of that novel before reading this one. 
The Demon Archer (1999) picks up the threads, which spins the yarn of Sir Hugh Corbett's career, and we learn that the King's favored clerk was able to disentangle himself from the cold, protrusive embrace of the fray-cloaked specter of death, with only a scar to remind him of their short-lived fling, and once again able to serve the crown that rests on the brow of Edward I

When Corbett and Ranulf report back for duty, they are dispatched post-haste to the estate of the murdered Lord Henry Fitzalan, who was felled by an assassin's arrow during a hunting party in Ashdown Forest, and his death may have political ramifications – since Philip IV of France had handpicked him to lead an English envoy into his kingdom. A suspicious honor, to say the least, and Edward I wants Corbett to find out as much as possible, under the cover of a murder investigation, but the assassination of the detested nobleman might have a germ that shot it roots a lot closer to home. 

Lord Henry Fitzalan was a man who consorted with harlots and witches and his lecherous tendencies made him the scourge of the local women, but also within his own domestic circle he was resented. He kept his younger brother, Sir William, on a short leash and lived with his half-sister, Lady Madeleine, the stringent mother superior of St. Hawisia's priory, in a permanent state of armed truce and the forests encompassing his estate seemed to be teeming with natural enemies – one of them an outlaw who refers to himself as the Owlman.

I remember reading a comment once, from a reviewer, stating that Paul Doherty seemed more comfortable when he was operating within borders of medieval England and the intricate web of deception, intrigue and hidden motives he wove between the estate of the slain nobleman and the court of Philip IV seems to support that statement – as he effortlessly manipulated every strand in this vast mesh of plot threads without loosing grip on even a single one of them. This is not a feat that is achieved in even the best stories from the Ancient Egyptian series, but here it's pulled off to near perfection and this is reflected in the quality and construction of an excellent plot – even though the main clues were ambiguous and the story lacked the lure of an impossible situation. The narration was also more lucid with a body count that failed to run itself up into the double digits. Yes, that's right, your eyes can wander from one chapter to another without stumbling over, at least, two or three bodies along the way!

It's obvious that Paul Doherty is in control of this story, but the same can't be said about Corbett and Ranulf. The former has a hard time getting a firm grasp on a solution for the problems facing him and is even treated to a rhapsody of whizzing arrows, while Cupid empties his quiver with amazing aim and accuracy on the latter – who promptly falls in love when his eyes comes to rest on the beautiful daughter of one of the suspects.
Corbett eventually succeeds to pull away the cowl, which shrouded the face of his adversary who lurked in the shrubberies and loosened a barrage of arrows that claimed four victims, after he finally managed to put a name to the first victim of this demonic archer – a woman whose naked and decaying corpse was left on the doorstep of the priory. But the political angle, centering on the British envoy and the Treaty of Paris, was wrapped up with as much satisfaction as the murders in Ashdown Forest and fitted seamlessly with the actual historical facts and evidence of what was going on at the time.

The Demon Archer is another fascinating and lively sketch of a time when court intrigue dictated the political agenda of Europe, which Doherty perfectly captured and re-imagined as a modern detective story, mingling historical facts and faces with fictitious crimes and characters, and it works!

Please note that I am really tired when this was written (been busy) and this may or may not have translated itself into a sub par review (can't even tell that at the moment), but rest assured, I will be back on the old track for the next one! 

12/5/11

A Casualty of War

"All war is deception."
- Sun Tzu.
I can't remember if I brought this up before or not, but I have a soft spot for detective stories set during the dark years of WWII. The atmosphere provided by the black-outs, food rationing, air-raid drills and German bombers roaming the skies are often integral to the plot and offer up a picture of a time that now seems as far removed from our every day reality as a medieval castle under siege – even though there are still people around who lived through the war that tore the European continent asunder.

It was also a period that had the elements needed to furnish a story with an array of backdrops, characters, circumstances and motives unique to that point in history and these scenarios were explored in-depth by mystery writers, back then and now, in their stories. Case in point: John Rhode's The Fourth Bomb (1942).

Yardley Green is one of those sleepy hamlets, tucked away in the placid, slumberous countryside, which makes it an unlikely military objective for air raids from enemy bombers, however, one evening the dozing members of this community find themselves rudely awakened when an enemy aircraft drops a stick of bombs on them – which leaves two people wounded and one dead. The only fatality is a merchant in precious stones, Mr. Sam Gazeley, found in a ditch beside the crater of the fourth bomb and naturally the local authorities presume that the man was killed by the impact of the blast – and chalk his name up among the casualties of war.

But was Sam Gazeley a victim of an enemy attack or was he perhaps struck down by someone a lot closer to home? The situation at the bomb site seems to be favoring the former, but it quickly proves to be a problematic solution that is unable to erase every single question mark, that are doodled all over this case, when it becomes clear that a special belt, with small pockets filled with valuable diamonds, was not strapped around the waist of the dead merchant – and failed to turn up on what now turns out to be a crime-scene. As a result, Jimmy Waghorn is drawn into the case and he quickly comes into contact with a witness who spoke with Gazeley at the moment when the German aircraft began unloading its explosive cargo on Yardley Green!

Unfortunately, Waghorn is also tied to the Intelligence bureau, which does not give him the time needed to close the book on this investigation himself, but there's always his old friend, Dr. Lancelot Priestley.

The opening chapters were bursting with promise, demonstrating once again the dubious nature of the claims that John Rhode penned stories that could turn every long-suffering insomniac into a droopy-eyed Rip van Winkle, but this time that quality of story telling didn't sustain itself and the middle section can easily be summed up as a distribution point for providing his severest critics with ammunition. It was lethargic, repetitive, and, worst of all, just plain dull! The plot came into motion again when Dr. Priestley took over from Jimmy Waghorn, but that was when there were only thirty pages left to go and I was simply incapable of caring who had done in Gazeley (or what had happened to the diamonds) at that point in the story. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I rather liked watching the cerebral Dr. Priestley play the role of a modern day dues ex machina, logically explaining that what eluded mere mortals, and the final chapter was very well written – even if the ironic turn of events was rather predictable.

The Fourth Bomb is a classic example of a novel that should've been a novella at most. It has an excellent set-up and the solution is adequate, showing a rather clever crime made possible due to the wartime conditions, but everything that was uncovered in between them should've been condensed to one or two chapters – which would've made for a splendid novella instead of the bogged down novel that it is now.

Going over this review, I can't help but be surprised at how another disappointing read translated itself into a shoddily written review. Why can't I be better at this stuff?

Anyway, on a slightly unrelated note: I have found a solution to the ratio problem between GAD and Post-GAD reviews. I wedge this Golden Era between 1920 and 1950, but since I will partake in Bev's Vintage Mystery Challenge of 2012 I will simply copy her Gold standard by adding a decade to mine – which will immediately smoothen out the discrepancy in the ratio. Moving the goalpost: problem solved... for now. ;)