"There is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out."- James Randi
Only a few days ago, I reviewed The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) by Robin Forsythe, which was recently summoned from its perennial slumber in the dark abyss, commonly referred to around these parts as "biblioblivion," by publisher Rupert Heath and genre-historian Curt Evans – who furnished all of the Dean Street Press editions with insightful introductions. I was sufficiently pleased with my introduction to Forsythe's work that I wanted to read another one of his mysteries as soon as possible.
I was torn between The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935) and The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936), but settled in the end on the latter because I found the synopsis to be enticing. Surprisingly, the plot turned out to contain an impossible situation or two that were overlooked by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).
These seemingly impossible situations are presented as supernatural phenomenon and occur at Old Hall Farm, situated in the village of Yarham, where John Thurlow lives in the company of his niece, Eileen – an ardent devotee and practitioner of spiritualism.
John is naturally "skeptical and cautious," preferring a scientific approach, but has become a tentative believer after "quite a lot of persuasion and study." He would love to experience the "spirit music," which was heard by Eileen in the old house that was "impregnated with the spirit of the bygone" and "bore the indelible imprint of the activities and designs of people since dead and forgotten" – leading to an experimental séance during which the eerie sounds of organ music are heard. A sensible and natural explanation for the spectral music proved to be as elusive as the ghosts themselves.
Old Hall Farm was not equipped with a wireless or a gramophone, which were both deemed by John as a "damned annoying contraption," and the church is a mile away. So where did the ghostly bars of music emanated from?
However, there a more pressing, Earth-bound questions raised directly after the séance. John Thurlow appears to have stepped out of the window of his study and simply vanished, but a more baffling problem presents itself the following day: the remains of Thurlow and Mr. Clarry Martin were found on a piece of wasteland called "Cobbler's Corner." Thurlow had his skull bashed in and Martin had been shot, but physical evidence precluded the possibility that they had murdered each other.
A gentleman-painter and amateur detective of some repute, named Anthony "Algernon" Vereker, happened to be in the neighborhood to sketch and paint, but a double-murder is as good an excuse as any to take a break from the artistic process.
Vereker's private enquiry looks into every person who orbited the lives of Eileen and the John Thurlow, which included a twenty-six-year old widow, Mrs. Button, who was still known locally as Miss Dawn Garford and the dead men were both vying for her affection. Arthur Orton rented the next-door property from Thurlow, called Church Farm, and he showed a great interest in both Eileen and the property, which might have given a double motive. Ephraim Noy is a mysterious individual who lives alone in a new bungalow and "about as communicative as a brick wall," but may have shared a "youthful indiscretion" with Thurlow in British India – which involved an Indian dancing girl and her murdered husband. And then there is the local amateur archaeologist, Rev. William Sturgeon, who's exploring a crypt and underground vault for King John's treasure.
On an unrelated side-note, King John's treasure was a major plot-thread in a historical mystery novel I read last year: The Song of a Dark Angel (1994) by Paul Doherty. Just so you know.
Anyway, Vereker alternates his role as an amateur detective with that of a ghost-hunter and personally experiences some of the ghostly events at Old Hall Farm, but the most interesting occurrence is the poltergeist activity in the late Thurlow's study: Eileen "heard the sound of footsteps" in the study and discovered upon inspection that "chairs, ornaments, clocks and the little table had all been moved," but all the doors and windows were securely locked and fastened!
Unfortunately, the explanation for all of these apparently supernatural and impossible situations was even in the mid-1930s very dated and "rather moth-eaten," which makes it advisable to not read The Spirit Murder Mystery as an impossible crime novel. You might end up disappointed if you do. However, in spite of that, Forsythe wrings an unusual and still fresh explanation from this extremely dated and moth-eaten plot device, which showed the same streaks of originality that was so prevalent in The Pleasure Cruise Mystery. The explanation for the gunshot wound was perhaps one coincidence too much and more consideration (and time) could've been given to the circumstances in which the bodies were found (i.e. cause of death), but I found them minor drawbacks in what was a wholly enjoyable detective story.
So, in the end, I think I preferred The Pleasure Cruise Mystery to The Spirit Murder Mystery, but, regardless of some flaws in the latter, I begin to become very fond of Forsythe. I don't think I'll allow his other books to linger much longer on my TBR-pile. There are only three of them left and then I still have three non-series to look forward to, which I'm sure will be reprinted sooner or later by the Dean Street Press.
Anthony "Algernon" Vereker series:
Missing or Murdered (1929)
The Polo Ground Mystery (1932)
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933)
The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935)
The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936)
The standalone series:
The Hounds of Justice (1930)
The Poison Duel (1934)Murder on Paradise Island (1937)