5/30/12

The Man Who Explained Miracles

"Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
- The White Queen (Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, 1871)
A furnished room, alongside with the corpus delictis, vanishes from an apartment building, a burglar traverses a stretch of snow without leaving footprints and a man witnesses how a floating glove snatches up a gun and shoots a man point blank in the chest. These are only a few examples of problems brought to Colonel March's attention, who, as the head of Department D-3 of Scotland Yard, has to decide whether these implausible stories are either gross exaggerations, elaborate hoaxes or perhaps cleverly disguised crimes.

If such a department would exist in our everyday world, its sole task would be to keep the confused souls, who occasionally feel the urge to confess that it was them who surreptitiously stole the Crown Jewels when nobody was looking, from bothering the regular police, however, this is John Dickson Carr's mad, mad, mad universe – and not everyone raving feverishly about disappearing rooms and invisible men is a head case. The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), published under the byline "Carter Dickson," collects seven of the nine-recorded cases that passed through the office of Colonel March. 

The New Invisible Man

Colonel March finds a confused man, named Horace Rodman, sitting on the other side of his desk, relating a bizarre story of a disembodied glove who shot a man in the apartment across the street, which had an even more unlikely follow-up when he stormed the apartment with a policeman in tow – only to discover an empty room and a broken window "magically" restored. March never leaves his desk to the make the invisible marksman emerge from our blind spot and it did not disappoint. It's perhaps a tad-bit over elaborate, but that's smoothed over once you learn of the motive. Great ending that was very much in the Carrian spirit.

Part of the plot of this story was used for the radio play "Man Without a Body," which also recycled the impossible crime from the stage-play "Thirteen to the Gallows."

The Footprints in the Sky

Dorothy Brant loathed Mrs. Topham and the fact that her footprints where the only traces in the snow, leading to and from the doorstep of Mrs. Topham, makes her the only suspect when the hated woman was brutally beaten and robbed on the evening when Brant visited her. Luckily, Colonel March noticed the footprints in the sky. The solution is something Clayton Rawson might have come up with (e.g. The Footprints on the Ceiling, 1939) and the circumstances of the crime recalled Paul Halter's The Lord of Misrule (1994), which isn't necessary a good thing (in this case it's kind of corny), but overall, it was a fun story and loved the idea of the metaphorical footprints left on the night sky.

The Crime in Nobody's Room

An entire room, harboring the body of a dead man, vanishes from an apartment building, but it's not a very good or clever story – I'm afraid. The solution to the disappearing room was blindingly obvious and the overall plot only so-so. Oh well, every short story collection has its duds.

Carr rewrote this story as the radio play, "Five Canaries in a Room."

Hot Money

Unusually, for Carr, this story opens with a messy bank robbery, more reminiscent of the hardboiled writers who described the seamier side of life than a cerebral puzzle, but one is eventually deposited on the desk of Colonel March – and involves locating an invisible piece of furniture. The bank robbers were caught, but the money was probably dropped off at a fence, who specializes in laundering dirty money, and the police have a pretty good idea who this guy is, however, the only proof (i.e. the stolen money) vanished from a locked room. The room was strip-searched without finding as much as a snippet of cash, but Colonel March believes they might have overlooked a big piece of furniture that nobody ever seems to notice. 

A big, chunky piece of furniture that everyone has in his home, but never notices, resonated the "Judas Window," which every room has but only murderers could look through, and "The Silver Curtain," from which they can cut a figuritive invisibility cloak. Carr loved to create domestic horrors! The only weakness in thia story arises if you reject the launderers hiding hole as a piece of furniture.

"Hot Money" was also rewritten as a radio play and broadcasted under the title "Nothing Up My Sleeve." Arthur Porges' collection of locked room mysteries, The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009), has a lot of impossible situations like this one – c.f. "The Scientist and the Invisible Safe."

Death in the Dressing Room

A pick-pocket has been looting the wallets of the patrons of The Orient Club and one the dancers is stabbed to death in her dressing room, but Colonel March is on the scene (originally to look into the unusual pick-pocket case) to take charge of the case and turns a cast-iron alibi into scrap metal. A well-written and deftly plotted story.

This story was rewritten for Murder Clinic, instead of Suspense, and, IIRC, March was replaced with H.M.

The Silver Curtain

A young man looses everything, except his ticket to return home, in a French casino and is approached by a shady characters who offers him a wad of money in exchange for a favor: he has to sneak a bottle of pills pass custom services. However, the entire plan collapses like a house of cards when he witnesses how an invisible assailant stabs his new employer in an empty cul-de-sac. Upon re-reading this story, first read in the anthology The Mammoth Book of Locked-Room and Impossible Crimes (2000), I have to come to the conclusion that this is perhaps one of my favorite tricks for this kind of impossible crime. So simple and effective.

Error at Daybreak

The final case for Colonel March in this collection offers a similar problem as in his previous outing: a man is stabbed to death while standing alone on a remote, rocky spot of the beach, under observation of three witnesses, who see him waving at one of them before he collapses – stabbed in the back with something like a thin, old-fashioned hairpin. It's a decent enough story that did nice job of leading me up the garden path. I was convinced that the victim was stabbed (without noticing it because of the nature of the weapon) before he had reached that desolate spot and had either a) succumbed at that place from internal bleeding or b) waving had ruptured the wound. This would have been a neat method for the murderer to (accidentally?) finish off the victim after he didn't die instantly from the stab wound. Just imagine, murdering someone by waving at him or her. I think I would've let Colonel Race wave at the victim and accidentally create the impossible situation.

All in all, this was a solid collection showing Carr as one of the most versatile and inspired writers of his generation, who was not satisfied with merely explaining who dented the skull of Sir Ivan Pale in his windowless séance room with a crystal sphere, but also finding a way for the murderer to aparantly phase through a solid oaken door that was locked and bolted from the inside. Carr purposely placed hurdles in front of him to make things more interesting and fun, and that he tripped once or twice did nothing to lessen that effect. Carr simply was one of the best and most enthusiastic players of the Grandest Game in the World and that rubs off on the reader. 

5/27/12

Cards on the Table

"Cards are war, in the disguise of a sport" 
- Charles Lamb
Anthony Boucher (rhymes with voucher) tends to linger on in our collective memories as a critic, whose compendium of newspaper reviews, published under the title The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentaries (1942-1947), has become an important reference guide for contemporary mystery fans excavating the genre's lost history, but aside from penning critical commentary, science fiction stories, radio plays or compiling anthologies he also has seven detective novels to his credit – including a triad of books in which he confronts his private shamus, Fergus O'Breen, with a few very familiar tropes.

The Case of the Solid Key (1941) has him jimmying the door of a locked room problem and The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) drops him off on an isolated, cut-off islet with a murderer and an entire cast of suspects. Boucher's second endeavor as a mystery novelist, The Case of the Crumpled Knave (1939), takes a stab at the Queenian motif of the dying message.

Humphrey Garnett was a former research scientist, attached to the military, who has contented himself with doing private research from his private laboratory, collecting vintage playing cards, playing four-handed chess and worked on a five-pack solitaire, but he was not granted the time to complete these projects. Someone spiked his drink with poison and the only clue the police have to go on is a crumpled playing card they pried loose from Gernett's cold dead hand. Luckily for them, Colonel Rand arrives from New York City at the home of his old friend and he has a telegram that could refer the entire case to dusty, cobweb strewn archives where the police store their solved cases.

Before he faced his would-be-killer, Garnett dispatched a telegram to his old friend, Colonel Rand, asking him to come to Los Angeles because he might be an important witness at the inquest of his body. It turns out to be a pretty accurate prediction. Colonel Rand identifies Richard Vinton, engaged to Kay Garnett, Humphrey's daughter, as a cardsharp who used to work aboard ocean-liners and the one to whom the crushed knave of diamonds must refer to, however, his fiancé is not convinced and engages the services of her old childhood friend, Fergus O’Breen, who has just opened up shop as a private investigator. Now that trouble is his business and daily bread, he decided to take on the case.  

O'Breen goes over the Garnett household with a fine toothcomb and examines Kay herself and her ineffectual uncle, Arthur Willowe, the lab-assistant and Vinton's rival, Will Harding, the mysteries Camilla Sallice and few outsiders, but it's one of the attendees of the classic drawing room scenes who sees the truth after O'Breen delivered a clever, but wrong, solution and both of them have a specific problem. The false solution appears to be lifted from a Nicholas Blake novel and has nothing new to offer to a seasoned mystery reader. The correct solution is not bad, but, as it is explained, you realize that you already knew basically everything that is being told except that everything is now in its proper place and context. I can see and appreciate what Boucher was trying to do with this novel, but I can also understand readers who say "Oh, is that all" after reading the final chapter.

Still, the final part of the book might not deliver the punch promised in the set-up, but it's still better than some detective stories I have read that were actually a mess. I also enjoyed the characterization (especially of the amiable Colonel Rand and the pathetic and longsuffering Arthur Willowe) and the entertaining writing, which included some self-referential humor and even a bit of lamp shading ("It's against all rules,” Fergus groaned in desperation. “A new character at this hour!”). However, it was not all laughs and giggles as there were also a few interesting tidbits on playing cards and an interesting discussion (read: condemnation) of modern warfare and all of its horrors – especially against unarmed citizens. It's a bit discomforting to read knowning what the world had to look forward to in 1939.

Anyway, not a perfect detective story, but good enough to warrant a read if you're a fan of either Boucher or the Queen-Van Dine style detective novels.

5/25/12

"There is nothing as deceptive as an obvious fact"

"Sometimes the most illogical answer turns out to be the correct one. Reality is often stranger than anything we can imagine ourselves, but I'm not the first one who has said that. It probably was Sherlock Holmes, who always had something clever to say."
- Peter van Opperdoes (Een mes in de rug, 2012)
The book I alluded to in my previous post, read on a sultry and lazy afternoon in the cool shades beneath the trees, was Een mes in de rug (A Knife in the Back, 2012), published under the names De Waal & Baantjer, but the series has been a solo-project of Simon de Waal ever since Appie Baantjer passed away in late August, 2010. It's the sixth installment of a series that began after Baantjer retired the successful DeKok-series that ran for nearly five decades, sold millions of copies and spawned a television series that kept millions of viewers glued to their televisions. A decision as unpopular as Conan Doyle's resolution to wash himself from Sherlock Holmes in the churning waters of Reichenbach Falls, but it was also an understandable one coming from a writer in his eighties, penning two or more books a year, who had just lost his wife – and I thought that with the publication of Dood in gebed (Death in Prayer, 2008) we had reached the end of an era.  

But the writing bug reared its ugly head and the itch began, and before long, he was working on a new series with his ex-police colleague and fellow crime-writer Simon de Waal as a writing buddy. The main characters are the old-school veteran Peter van Opperdoes and his younger partner Jacob, who are basically thinly disguised versions of themselves. You can find traces of them all over the characters. Peter van Opperdoes has also lost his wife, but in the books he still talks with her and the first part makes it clear that he's not imagining things, however, she's only there to speak words of encouragement to her husband and not to whisper the name of the murderer into his ear. It's very unusual to have such a non-intrusive, supernatural entity hovering in the background of a straight-up police procedural. Anyway, Simon de Waal worked as a rookie-cop with Baantjer and this joint-project must have seemed like things coming full circle for them. Writing the first few books must have been fun as Baantjer loved to leave impossible plot-twists for De Waal to sort out. But she didn't have a sister indeed. Good luck with that, Simon! De Waal described Baantjer as someone with the mindset of a charming young man and acted as such, which makes me think of Baantjer as Archie Goodwin in his eighties.

So I settled down with A Knife in the Back (yes, yes) and expected nothing more than a charming, uncomplicated roman policier because the first three books were kind of disappointing – with a last-minute introduction of a culprit and a lack of fair play. They were as fun to read as the DeKok novels, but, plot-wise, insufficient to satisfy this spoiled brat. But A Knife in the Back was a marked improvement on its predecessors.

The problems for Van Opperdoes and Jacob begin when they have to go to a hotel where a guest has failed to emerge from his room, but the foul smell of murder does not stink up the place despite the presence of a body and the medical examiner seems to agree. Cause of death: heart failure. However, the manager made sure that the detectives did not leave the building without a problem and notified them that the body and the man who had rented the room were not one and the same person. With suspicion on his mind, Van Opperdoes goes over the body again and finds evidence suggesting murder – albeit an accidental one. The old detective showed that an old fox may lose his hair but not his cunning and prevented a murder from being filed away as a natural death. The rest of the plot unfolds through follow-ups on witness testimonies, credit card information and everything else that comes to the surface over the course of a police investigation, but in the end this was more a story about detectives than a proper detective story. Not a bad one, but still not a genuine detective story. Still, that should take nothing away from the book for the average reader because it’s not that kind of story and this will only bother individuals hooked on GAD. 
Baantjer & De Waal signing their second book
De Waal is a fictioneer who dabbles in variety of styles (police procedurals, thrillers and historical mysteries), but has yet to write a classically styled mystery (the historical ones echoed Doyle and his contemporaries) filled with locked rooms, clues and baffling crimes! I know it's an unreasonable expectation, but it would be awesome if one of our top-tier crime writers would pen an old-fashioned whodunit. Because we have to reduce the monoculture of modern thrillers dominating the shelves of our bookstores before it kills millions of people to keep the genre fresh, inventive and more importantly it would make me happy.

Bibliography:

De Waal & Baantjer series:

Een Rus in de Jordaan (A Russian in the Jordaan, 2009) [De Jordaan = neighborhood in Amsterdam]
Een lijk in de kast (A Skeleton in the Closet, 2010)
Een dief in de nacht (Like a Thief in the Night, 2010)
Een schot in de roos (Hitting the Bull's-eye, 2011)
Een rat in de val (Caught Like a Rat in a Trap, 2011)
Een mes in de rug (A Knife in the Back, 2012)

The Historical C.J. van Ledden-Hulsebosch series:

Moord in Tuschinski (Murder in Tuschinski, 2002)
De wraak van de keizer (The Emperor's Revenge, 2003)
Spelen met vuur (Playing with Fire, 2004)
De Rembrandt code (The Rembrandt Code, 2006)

The Boks series:

Boks en de lege kamer (Boks and the Empty Room, 2005)
Boks en het verkeerde lijk (Boks and the Wrong Corpse, 2006)
Boks en de spoorloze getuige (Boks and the Vanished Witness; never published)

Thrillers:

Cop vs. Killer (2005)
Pentito (2007)
De vijf families: Duivelspact (The Five Families: Devil’s Pact, 2011)
Wie een kuil graft... (Whoever Digs a Pit, 2011) [a twiller = twitter novel]

The next post will be a return to our beloved Golden Age.

5/24/12

A Smattering of Crime

"Small crimes always precede great ones."
- J.P. Racine

Yesterday, I was condemned to kill a few hours and the gentle breeze rustling through the leaves of the trees in a sun soaked park seemed to beckon me, which would have been a perfect spot to crack open a detective story, were it not for the fact that I forgot to take one with me. Well, I remembered taking a book with me, however, I had accidentally stuffed a few magazines with me. Hey! Absentmindedness is a sure sign of genius, I think. After all, unconsciously, I had the brilliant foresight to take few random issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine with me instead, part of a pile that I wanted to read for eons, so I settled down with an iced coffee, a bottle of iced water and a croissant and read the following stories.

Oh, and no. I did not spend hours reading only this handful of stories, but, after a while, there was nothing left in them I wanted to read and decided to snoop around in a nearby bookstore. But more on that in the next post and now on to the stories:  

The first of this batch of stories comes from one of today's champions of the locked room mystery, Paul Halter, whose "The Man with the Face of Clay" combines a curse, imported from the Middle East, with a miraculous murder offered up as proof. It begins when Archilles Stock tries to chalk up a lost on the record of his friend, Owen Burns, by inviting Miss White to their rooms to tell the tale of her late employer – the archeology enthusiast, Sir Jeremy Cavendish. On one of his latest digs, Sir Jeremy is cursed by one of the locals and upon his return to England he's visited by a creature, whose face resembles a grotesque mask molded from clay, after which he apparently commits suicide. The door was bolted from the inside and the French window, which was ajar, opened up on a sea of unbroken mud and freshly raked and undisturbed flowerbeds. Unfortunately, the solution is of a variety that never fails to disappoint me – no matter how well it was brought or motivated. But I have to say that Halter's strengths dominate his weaknesses when he's writing short stories. And having a good translator helps!

Keith McCarthy's "The Invisible Gunman" has another impossible crime for the reader to work their brains over: a master clock maker is shot to death in his shop and the murderer must have been his brother, they hated each other, but witnesses can place him inside his shop (across the street of his brother) at the time of the murder. Dr. Lance Elliot, his girlfriend Max and his eccentric father try to sort out this snafu. It has some clever misdirection and the solution gives us a neat twist on an otherwise hackneyed plot device. 

Norwegian author Richard Macker also penned a locked room story, "The Intell Club," in which Detective Inspector Rolf Owre takes a closer look at a suspicious suicide at a club for the intellectually gifted. The host of that night's meeting, Roger Aspvik, apparently locked himself up in the den and tasted cyanide before shooting himself. The story and setting are interesting, recalling the Columbo episode The Bye-Bye Sky-High IQ Murder Case (1977), but the solution was of exactly the same variety as the Paul Halter story.

One of the magazines also contained a re-print of Ellery Queen's "The Uncle from Australia." EQ is approached by the quintessential Australian uncle, who made a small fortune Down Under and returned to unload his wealth on either one of his two nephews or his niece. The only girl also turns out to be only one who will inherit, but her beneficiary is beginning to have second thoughts, afraid that the prospects of all that money might proof to be too tempting, and the brassy-looking Oriental paperknife in his back confirms his fears. The ending is a nod to a very famous whodunit and has the added bonus of a believable dying message.

Shamus Award winner Mike Wiecek, writing under the penname of "Mike Cooper," probed the problem of a murder committed in a hermitically sealed room, while the victim was alone, in "Whiz Bang" – which is the name of the complex where a retired billionaire was shot in a locked and moving elevator. A simple, but good, locked room mystery.

Yes, I picked the first cover for the sole reason that it has a portrait of all of the Armchair Reviewers on the front (including Carr and Boucher). The second cover is of the issue that has the Ellery Queen and Richard Macker stories.

5/22/12

Heavy Rain

"But when I was there it was strange – I suddenly had this feeling that everything was connected. It was like I could see the whole thing; one long chain of events... It was like a perfect pattern laid out in front of me and I realized that we were all part of it, and all trapped by it."
- Eric Finch (V for Vendetta, 2006)
According to the summary biography on the back cover of his detective novel Good Night, Sheriff (1941), Harrison R. Steeves was a professor of English at Columbia College who moonlighted as a literary-legal consultant and appeared in a number of settlements over literary property in that capacity. He wrote his sole detective story after he had recuperated from an unspecified illness and the book was published on his sixtieth birthday. The inspiration for the book came when he was on the road to recovery, which was paved with dozens of mystery novels, leaving him convinced that he could pull a better trick and I'm glad to report that it wasn’t half bad – making me somewhat curious as to whom Steeves had been reading when his sickness bound him to his bed and books.

Good Night, Sheriff sets about several weeks after the unfortunate passing of Mrs. Agnes Earlie, wife of Dr. Thomas Earlie, who was found dead in an open clearing alongside the road soaked from the torrents of rain that followed in the wake of an unseasonably sultry day in early November – felled by a bullet to the head. The general consensus is that Mrs. Earlie was accidentally hit by a "lost bullet" from a hunter's rifle, after all, it had happened before many years ago, but the insurance company who has to cough up twenty grand to Agnes Earlie's dying sister, Olivia, have their doubts and send Dr. Patterson to Mercer to look into the matter.

Dr. Patterson is also the story's narrator and interestingly enough, he was nameless for the first quarter (or so) of the book and this raises an interesting question: was he meant to be a nameless detective? Steeves dedicated the book to everyone who provided him with criticism and this effectually "knocked about, chopped, kneaded and hackled" the plot until it was in its present form, which, once again, according to Steeves himself, differed quite a bit from the first fair copy of the book. I can easily imagine one of his proofreaders suggesting that an anonymous narrator puts a distance between the character and the reader. The name Patterson is mentioned only a dozen or so times over the course of two-hundred-and-fifty pages and it sometimes struck me as if the name was wedged in between the text as an afterthought.

Nevertheless, Patterson proves himself to be an excellent, semi-official investigator as he sifts through the evidence, building up theories and talks with the people who are involved (like a local woodsman and the victims brother-in-law) – making this a very slow-moving and mostly sedentary detective story. No car chases and shoot-outs between the pages of this crime novel. Heck, the final seventy pages basically consist of one long conversation between Patterson and the person he tagged as the murderer. It's a fascinating accumulation of chapters, in which clues (both physical and psychological) are analyzed and form a "Prison of Logic" around the suspect. This even yields an unusual, but satisfying, motive for murder and this would've ended the book on a high note, but Steeves made an amateurish mistake when he attempted to spin a final twist that would turn the case up-side down.

In a final conversation with the Sheriff of Mercer, Patterson and the reader suddenly learns that everything they know of the murder also fits another, more inconspicuous, character and that's just a flat-out cheat! Was I surprised? Yes. Was I pleased? Not really. A cheap "surprise" like that felt unworthy of such a cerebral detective story. Still, if you can look past the final ten pages and you enjoy this kind of slow moving unraveling of a plot than it might be a book that could interest you. But be warned, this is not a book you are likely to finish over the coarse of a day or two. Somehow, I began to read slower and slower as I left one chapter after another behind me. It took me nearly a week to reach the final quarter.  

5/20/12

Death and Disguises

"The monsters made me do it."
- a poor excuse 
The 42nd volume of Case Closed, also known under its former title Detective Conan, opens with the resolution of the story that closed the previous collection of stories, in which Conan and Anita visit the old dwelling of her sister, serving now as an illustrators studio, to retrieve a (hidden) message from her sister. Of course, one of the illustrators is poisoned right under their nooses and it's up to the kid-sized gumshoe to figure out how the poison was introduced to the victim and by whom, before they can pick up that message from the past. A very good story with some solid detection and a clever, but risky, method for murder that cleans itself up after the dirty deed is done!

Rachel, Serena and their English teacher, Jodie Saintemillion, don the deerstalker and the Inverness coat in the next story to help out a former class-mate, Aya Nanakawa, who stands in the shadow of suspicion of having stolen from her employer – a convenience store owner. The store's earnings and leftover stock are unbalanced and this only happens when Aya closes. Newly installed surveillance cameras eliminated the possibility of shoplifters and nightly stakeouts did the same with burglars. A borderline locked room mystery! It's a simple, but nifty, story with an ample amount of detection, clueing and a nice solution that made a respectful bow to one of Conan Doyle's stories.

The next story is the main event of this volume, in which several of the series regulars receive an invitation, signed with Vermouth, for a party set on a creaky ghost ship and everyone has to come dressed up as a famous creature of the night usually found stumbling and crawling around in late-night B-horror movies. Once the ship swarms with "grizzly ghouls from every tomb" a murderous atmosphere swept its deck and the captain of the ship ends up with crossbow bolt in his chest. The solution hinges on an interesting combination of classic misdirection aided by modern technology, which I thought was neatly done, but, to be honest, I think this is also one of those stories that will turn away older mystery fans from the series. I'm afraid the disguises and identity swaps in this one may be a tad bit too campy (or comicy?) for them.

Nevertheless, it's also an important story because a number of the questions raised in previous collections are finally answered, concerning characters like Jodie Saintemillion and Vermouth, making this entry in the series nothing short of a feast if you read them for the ongoing storyline (involving The Black Organization and their dark garbed agents) and the (semi) regular characters. The final chapter sets-up a new story, involving the Detective Boys and a knife-wielding fiend, but it felt very out of place in this volume.

All in all, this was one of the strongest volumes in some time with some really clever detective stories and the ongoing storyline, involving a number of important characters, got a real boost in the second half of the book. It will still take some time before Aoyama has undraped the entire mystery that drives this series, but it are volumes like this one that keeps us fans coming back for more.

5/17/12

Insurrection

"A little rebellion now and then is a good thing."
- Thomas Jefferson
When it comes to finishing series, particular favorites of mine, I have an embarrassing track record of postponing the inevitable end and allow a final installment of a series to linger for months before, literarily, closing the book on them – which is why I still haven't read the final volume of Hikaru no Go almost a year after its release. I'm not quite sure why I hold of these endings, but the same was happening with Paul Doherty's The Spies of Sobeck (2008). The seventh entry in the Judge Amerotke series.

The series has been as dormant as the sun baked Sphinx of Giza, shrouding itself in uncertainties as to its status, until Paul Doherty announced last December the return of Amerotke, Chief Judge of the Hall of Two Truths, which is why you read this review now instead of somewhere towards the end of this/beginning of the next year. Yes. Nearly six months have been plucked from the calendar since the announcement, but believe me, it's a pretty swift return considering how slow I usually am with picking up series after abandoning them. This will probably lead to a handful of non-mystery related posts in the future, because I really need to return to the Artemis Fowl books and the epic Journey to the West one of these days.

Anyway, on to the review of a book I was a bit skeptical of after reading a review that seemed to have betrayed a rather unimaginative solution to the central (locked room) problem of the book. I basically decided to read it so I could take it off my list and have a complete set of reviews for when the new book comes out, but found a surprisingly good and clever detective story in an underhanded sort of way. But more on that when we come to the problem of the sealed mansion.

Upon her return from victories in the North, Egypt's Pharaoh-Queen Hatusu (Doherty's pet name for Hatshepsut) is confronted with a Nubian uprising in the South as rebellion begins to bubble beneath the surface of her sultry kingdom when a Nubian sect of killers, known as the Arites, begin to wage a very personal war against their Egyptian rulers – and even series characters aren't safe from the strangling clutch of their blood red cloths. Imperial messengers and members of the Medjay, Egyptian soldiers, vanish without a trace around the Oasis of Sinjar and one of the regulars is brutally murdered alongside with the members of his household and servants – and a similar attempt at the home of Amerotke was thwarted in bloody confrontation. And with bloody, I mean really, really bloody. Serial-strangulations, impalements, throat-cuttings, etc. After a while, I stopped counting the bodies because there were simply too many of them. Doherty is not a cozy writer!

Hatshepsut: a woman of stone resolve
But it's the Mansion of Silence, the garden retreat of Imothep, formerly chief scout of the titular spies, which provides a puzzle for this story. At the end of the day, Imothep locks himself up in the mansion and intone his prayers to a dying sun. The house is bolted from in the in-as well as the outside and the windows are barred and several feet up. Even outside shadows could not penetrate the fortified retreat, however, when the doors are busted open they find the former chief with a red strip of cloth tightly knotted around his throat. A valuable statue that once belonged to the murderous sect is missing.

I have to commend Doherty for convincing me in the end that the solution for the locked room trick is not a cheat but actually quite clever. It's one of those things that only works (and is acceptable) in a historical setting and isn't that sort of what you expect from a writer of historical flights-of-fancies? Granted, it's not one of the best of its kind, but I do appreciate the effort that was clearly put into it and the attempts made at misdirecting the reader. The clueing was still sparse but more than in some of his previous books I read. And when Doherty drops a clue, he drops a good one. In this case, the decomposed remains of a man, whose hands were cut-off, discovered in Imothep's garden a few days before his own murder. Like I said before, if you enjoy mysteries that read like the diary of a cat or includes the sleuth's knitting patterns at the end of the book than Doherty is perhaps not for you. His characters walk those mean streets of history!

The rest of the story is an exciting historical thriller, in which Judge Amerotke (and others) dodge assassins, descend into the underworld of Thebes and break the back of the Nubian revolt. It's a fast-paced, entertaining read and the fact that Doherty can write not only helps with telling a page-turning story, but also with incorporating his knowledge of history without disturbing the flow of the story. I only wish Doherty would do more with the clueing/fair play aspect when writing these stories.

I have now read all of the Judge Amerotke novels, seven in total, but instead of giving the bibliography chronologically, I will post them in order of strongest to weakest:

The Anubis Slayings (2000) [****]
The Horus Killings (1999) [****]
The Poisoner of Ptah (2007) [***]
The Spies of Sobeck (2008) [***]
The Slayers of Seth (2001) [***]
The Mask of Ra (1998) – a co-review with Patrick [***]

5/14/12

A Jury of Her Peers

"Trial by twelve good men and true... is a sound system."
- Colonel Arbuthnott (Murder on the Orient-Express, 1974, the movie adaptation)
Raymond Postgate (1896-1971) was from what I gathered a man of many talents when it came to wielding a pen, with an editorship and books on a wide variety of subjects adorning his résumé, including three full-length detective novels – of which Verdict of Twelve (1940) is a minor masterpiece.

As a committed socialist, Postgate was obviously using the popular detective story as a vehicle to examine human nature and voice social criticism, however, he did not completely abandon the detective story format in favor of characterization and you'll find at the core of this book a genuine mystery. The framing of this story is the trial of the draconian Mrs. Rosalie van Beer, who stands trial for the alleged poisoning of her 11-year-old ward, Philip Arkwright, with ivy dust and we witness this trial from the perspective of the twelve men and women of the jury who have to decide whether she's guilty of innocent.

Verdict of Twelve even begins with a series of character sketches of the jury members and this is a triumph of characterization, especially the one of Miss V.M. Atkins, who has a successful murder to her credit and her introduction is an inverted detective story within a mystery novel. You could easily lift this chapter from the book and it would stand on its own as a short story. It's also a delightful and fantastic departure from the more serious and soberly handled murder trial, in which Miss Atkins sets-up an ingenious and elaborate alibi-trick that could've been lifted from the pages of a Detective Conan story – and this is what made me instantly like Postgate as a mystery writer. I mean, here's a man who tried to write a detective story in a more serious vein by putting more emphasis on characterization, but nonetheless wedged a little side-puzzle between the pages that would have kept the likes Lt. Columbo busy for the better part of an hour.

However, the snapshots of Mrs. Morris, a Jewish woman whose husband was killed in the streets by racists, and the secretly gay Dr. Percival Holmes, a fat and eccentric scholar, who impressed me, at first sight, as a parody of the story book detective (not entirely unlike Dr. Bottwink from Cyril Hare's An English Murder, 1951), were far more impressive and disquieting. But perhaps I should give a short overview of the jury members as they were introduced to the reader in the dramatis personae:
Miss V.M. Atkins, crippled and malicious, with an undiscovered crime on her conscience.

A.G. Popesgrove, Thessalian foreman of the jury, who took his name from the telephone directory.

Dr. Percival Holmes, elderly, ill-mannered Greek scholar.

Mr. J.A. Stannard, a philosophical publican.

Mr. Edward Bryan, shop assistant and religious fanatic.

Mrs. Morris, a bitter victim of persecution.

Mr. E.O. George, the impatient Secretary of the National Union of Plasterers’ Labourers.

Mr. F.A.H. Allen, the most restless and happiest man on the jury.

Mr. D. Elliston Smith, a dull young man with misty thoughts or orgies.
Mr. Ivor. W. Drake, a second-rate actor.

Mr. G. Parham Groves, a gentleman traveling salesman.

Mr. H. Wilson, complacent editor of a small publication.
A nice lot, eh? These are the men and women who have decide over the fate of Mrs. Rosalie van Beer, but their backgrounds and personal prejudices makes it everything but an impartial jury and the fact that Van Beer is a thoroughly unlikable creature gives Sir Isambard Burns, leading Counsel for the Defense, quite a job in presenting a different picture of his client. After all, this is a woman who took pleasure in thwarting and embarrassing her ward, even brutally murdering his rabbit in the gas oven of the kitchen, which was for some jurors enough to mark her as a murderess. But the representatives of the Crown and Defense manage to present two conflicting, but convincing, stories of what really happened and it's up to jury to decide who's the closest to the truth.

The final postscript gives us an account of what actually happened and it's a surprising one, even if it's a bit commonplace and unexciting – almost a deliberate letdown but it perfectly fits everything we have previously learned of the case. Postgate setout to write a detective story about real people and he succeeded without forgetting that he was also penning a detective story. The result is a very unusual, but satisfying, mystery novel which I recommend without hesitation. 

5/11/12

Shooting for the Stars

He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind.
- Leonardo da Vinci.
When the 1960s rolled around, a distinguished London publisher, Collins, instituted a competition for the best detective novel from the hands of a university don and assigned Agatha Christie, C.D. Lewis and Julian Symons to jury duty. They had to weigh the merits against the drawbacks of the entries and make case-by-case decisions, which had a most favorable outcome for Message from Sirius (1961) as it picked up the grand prize. It was written by Cecil Jenkins, who lectured French at Exeter University, and praised by Christie as "both exciting and original" and described by Symons as "that great rarity, a truly original crime novel." Did my opinion on this book align with the experts? Lets find out!

Message from Sirius centers on the shocking death of Tony Bayre, a pop-star who's described as being bigger than Elvis Presley, Cliff Richards and James Dean rolled into one, murdered at his club when he was presenting the public at large with his latest work, "Nuclear Ecstasy," during a grotesque performance that's depicted on the cover of the Bantam edition. It's almost a shame, though, that such an intriguing illustration has such a mundane and simple explanation with no actual bearing on the plot. 

The out-of-this-world imagery of the cover (in combination with the title) must have tempted a few SF-fans into buying a copy on a whim, expecting to find a science-fiction yarn about two stranded space travelers menaced by the skeleton remains of an extinct alien race, brought back to life by the cosmic rays of the titular star, instead of a dark and off-beat police procedural – which is exactly what this book is.

The man in charge of this high-profile case is Superintendent Marc Ireland and he has a cast of prominent suspects that include a race car driver, a Secretary of Defense, a wealthy magnate, a popular actress, a member of the aristocracy, a member of Brain Trusts and a newspaper writer, but then one of the papers receives a letter from someone claiming to have been the one who shot Tony Bayre's rising star from the sky and signed the confession with the name "Sirius" – the brightest star in the night sky of the Northern Hemisphere.

Carl Sagan: "The stars call to us..."
They soon receive a follow-up letter prophesizing another murder and the hunt for Sirius is on! Or is it? I hate to admit it, but Symons was right when he called this a truly original crime novel, however, how beneficial this was to the overall story is up to the individual reader. I was dropped off at the final chapter feeling as mixed-up as Ireland's priorities in this case. At times, he seemed more concerned with the people around him than with apprehending a murderer who intends to strike again and the writing-style had tendency to be a bit confusing.

However, Cecil Jenkins did not draw on the past for this book and this proved to be my folly when I came up with a solution based on two old plot-devices. Heck, I was so convinced that my solution was correct that I was already mentally reprimanding Christie and Symons for calling this book "original" and "a rarity." The circumstances of the murders suggested to me that Jenkins had cut patches from the plots of Conan Doyle's “The Problem of Thor Bridge” (1922) and Nicholas Blake’s Thou Shell of Death (1936) and sewn them together, but this proved not to be the case and he came up with a completely different answer – as well as a somewhat original motive that reflected the rapidly changing world they were living in at the time. 
 
It's not a gobsmack of an ending or even all that clever (from a puzzle-plot perspective), but if you are a jaded reader who wants something different from a crime novel than it's definitely worth the effort to hunt down a copy of this curio.

5/9/12

A Whiff of Gunpowder

By the pricking of my thumbs,
something wicked this way comes.”
- William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act IV, Scene I)
We're going to extend our stay in the London of the Georgian Era and Regency Period to cover the events in A Wicked Way to Die (1973), a historical mystery penned by "Jeremy Sturrock," the nom-de-plume of Ben Healey (1908-1988), who wrote a slew of detective novels set during the dawn of the 19th century and follows the career of a well-known, womanizing and raunchy Bow Street Runner named Jeremy Sturrock.

I pumped more than one search engine for information on either Sturrock or Healey, but the results that were returned to me were meager to say the least. A rather late-bloomer in the genre, Healey did not publish his first detective novel, The Village of Rogues, until 1972 and they were distributed in the United States under the penname J.G. Jeffreys – which is sort of ironic if you think about it. Having a character share an alias with their creator always struck me as something typical American (e.g. Ellery Queen and Anthony Abbot) and the one Briton who does it gets re-branded before entering the Americas. I'm kind of curious as to what triggered this departure from series (written as if it was a first-hand account from Jeremy Sturrock himself). Was it a conscious decision to distance the stories away from their predecessors or because his publisher feared that American readers would be confused?

Anyhow, on to the review of A Wicked Way to Die, which refers to the circumstances in which actor Bob Mytton exchanged the interim of life for the eternal slumber of death and the backdrop for his final act is behind the locked door of the women's dressing room of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where the thespian apparently shot himself in the mouth during a performance. The death of Bob Mytton has all the earmarks of a suicide, but Jeremy Sturrock suspects murder based on the fact that his eyes were closed and that the victim had his forefinger on the trigger instead of his thumb.

From this brief description, you could make the assertion that Healey's output is closely related to the historical romances penned by John Dickson Carr, but having read The Bride of Newgate (1950) and A Wicked Way to Die back-to-back I can assure you that this is not the case. Carr was a romanticist while Healey was merely bawdy and coarse, which, perhaps, gives a more accurate picture of London life in the early 1800s, but it was also far less fun and clever – in spite of working with a lot of themes that are a staple of Carr's (historical) fiction (including an unexciting duel). The set-up to the locked room was intriguing, but the solution he proposed should only be uttered by a Hastings-like character before it's dismissed as nonsense, however, I have to give him props for using the locked room as a clue that helped identify the guilty party. This was even pointed out in an EQ-like Challenge to the Reader:
"I have set down everything most precisely for your consideration and being a lady or gentleman of near enough as good wit as my own—else you would not be reading this book; which I pray you have purchased honestly and not merely borrowed or stolen—you will by now know as much as I did at this turn. So no doubt you will have seen through that trick of the locked door, the only way it could be done, thus perceiving that I had five or six interested parties from which to choose the villain or villains..." 
All in all, this is not to say that I don't like Healey, who obviously had his heart in the right place as a mystery writer, I just think (based on my reading of this book) that he wasn't very good at it, however, I would still recommend this novel to people who read historical fiction for their period settings and characters.

5/7/12

The Night Can Keep a Secret

"I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day."
- Vincent van Gogh.
John Dickson Carr's The Bride of Newgate (1950) represents his first foray into historical mysteries, taking the reader to the grimy and overcrowded Newgate Prison in 1815, where we intrude on the final hours of Dick Darwent's life – as he waits for the hollow tread of the hangman's boot that will escort him to the gallows for the murder of Lord Francis Orford.

The official reading of the murder of Lord Francis Orford tells of a duel fought during the wee hours of the morning, but the defendant had a different story to tell. At first, anyway. Darwent declared that he was snatched from Hyde Park by a coachman, wrapped in a dirty coat stained with graveyard mould, and dropped off at the estate of Ordford, Kinsmere House, where he was shoved into a room occupied by the now departed Lord of the Manor – skewered to his chair with a French rapier. Next time Darwent opened his eyes, he was lying not far from his fencing school and next to him was the body of his supposed opponent. They do a check-up on Darwent's story, however, when the room is investigated they come to conclusion that it has been untouched for the past two years and because a room can't grow thick with dust and cobwebs overnight he's penciled in for an appointment with the hangman.

A less talented mystery writer would have had his hands full in coming up with a way to establish Darwent's innocence and explaining away a room that never was, but Carr was never a writer who preferred to side-step a problem and allowed Lady Caroline Ross and Sir John Buckstone to knock on the door of Dick Darwent's cell with an obscene proposition. Caroline wants to cash in on her grandfather's inheritance, but the old man's will states that she has to be married before her 25th birthday and this brought her to the condemned cell. She offers the fencing master fifty pounds to marry her on the eve of his execution and plans to enjoy widowhood with a champagne breakfast, as she watches how her husband is led to the scaffold and dropped through the trap-door with a stiff rope tied around his neck, and with nothing to lose (and intending to leave the money to his mistress, the actress Dolly Spencer) he agrees to become her husband for the remaining hours of his life.

I think the opening chapters of The Bride of Newgate form the strongest portion of this book. It not only sets-up a platform as strong as a gallows structure for the plot to stand on, but also gives us some solid, individual characterization as that dark, dismal prison cell seems to burst when the different personalities of the weakened Darwent, the haughty Sir John Buckstone, the ice-cold Caroline and the Reverend Horace Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate who stands up for Darwent, collide with one another and shows that John Dickson Carr was so much more than just a mere genre writer. 

A drawing of Newgate Prison
Of course, the trouble, for everyone who's involved in this case, really begins when Darwent's lawyer, Mr. Mulberry, appears with a last minute repeal and his clients not only finds himself a free man again but also a titled man with a wife he doesn't know and a mistress whose health has become a matter of grave concern – as well as fighting duels with gleaming swords and hand wrought dueling pistols and participating in a full-out riot at the Opera. Duels and brawls appear to be a staple of Carr's historical fiction and can also be found in such novels as The Devil in Velvet (1951) and Fire, Burn! (1957). 

There's also the problem of the room that dilapidated and blackened with age over the course of a single night and an explanation for this miracle may provide them with a key that could unlock all of the answers for them. The solution is not bad, but, as is the case with the seemingly impossible disappearances of large objects (like trains and houses), the range of possible solutions are limited and this one sticks out not for coming up with something different, but how carefully and cleverly it was constructed. Because it's not just the problem of how to make a room disappear, but also finding a reasonable explanation why a room should disappear and I think Carr did an admirable job at providing an answer for that little side-puzzle.

All in all, this may very well be one of Carr's finest attempts at using the ghosts of past centuries as a backdrop for one of his ingenious schemes and the vividly sketched images of the condemned cell, the early morning duels, the brawl at the Opera and that eternal triangle between Darwent, Caroline and Dolly also makes this book stand on itself as a historical novel. In short, it's a little bit more than just your average detective story, but without throwing any of the fun or cleverness overboard.