"Quiet, Watson! Do you hear the clock chiming? The new year is approaching."- Sherlock Holmes (Ken Greenwald's "The Adventure of the Iron Box," collected in The Lost Adventurers of Sherlock Holmes, 1989)
So here we are again. On the threshold of the New Year and, as the past twelve month are slowly disappearing into the rear view mirror, the time has come make up the balance, which means I have to do my annual chore of compiling a best-of list and pretend to be surprised that the locked room mystery (once again) dominates the list – something actually caught me by surprise this year. No, seriously! Who could have foreseen that the impossible crime story would, again, be all over my list this year?
Anyone who dared to raise an impudent hand to that question will be burned, as a witch, at their nearest town square! Anyway...
I completed a list with my best-and worst reads of 2017 and have divided my list in four sub-categories. These sub-categories are "The Best Reads of 2017," "Honorable Mentions and Curiosities," "The Best Short Stories Read in 2017" and "The Worst or Most Disappointing Reads of 2017." Interestingly, the only name who makes an appearance in all four categories is John Russell Fearn.
So let's get this show on the road.
THE BEST READS OF 2017:
The Mystery of the Headless Horse (1977) by William Arden
A surprisingly cerebral entry in The Three Investigator series, in which Jupe, Pete and Bob give a helping hand to the family of a schoolmate, Diego, who are in danger of losing their long-held property. What could potentially help them is discovering a long-lost family heirloom, a gem-encrusted sword, but it disappeared over a century ago. And the trail has gone stone-cold. So the boys have to act more as historians, rather than detectives or adventurers, in order to find obscure clues and hints in dusty old archives at the local library.
Murder in Stained Glass (1939) by Margaret Armstrong
A solidly plotted detective story that takes place against the vary-colored backdrop of a stained glass artist's workshop and the charred bones that were found in the kiln. Only downside was that the story was a little more than a novella.
Murder à la Richelieu (1937) by Anita Blackmon
A dark, grisly tale of throat cutting and acid attacks at a quiet and usually respectable residential hotel in a southern town of the United States. The case is tackled by the delightfully crusty and snappy Miss Adelaide Adams. A character who makes you wish Blackmon had written more than just two mystery novels.
The Fair Murder (1933) by Nicholas Brady
A memorable mystery novel that opens on the muddy grounds of a rain soaked fun fair. One of the big attractions of the freak show, an immensely fat woman, is stabbed to death under somewhat baffling circumstances inside her tent. However, the memorable aspect of the plot is not the how, but the why, which made the book one of the darkest and most grotesque detective stories from the genre's Golden Era.
Ebenezer Investigates (1934) by Nicholas Brady
The village of Dowerby throws a bazaar in order to raise money for the new Village Hall, but the festivities end tragically with the brutal stabbing of a local girl. Rev. Ebenezer Buckle shines here as both a detective and as a shepherd of his community.
Dancing Death (1931) by Christopher Bush
One of the strongest, most tightly plotted of all the wintry, snow-covered holiday mysteries and places Bush's series-character, Ludovic Travers, in position that forces him to unsnarl the intricacies that link two murders with a burglary case in the wake of a fancy-dress ball. A minor masterpiece when it comes to these house-party detective novel.
Cut Throat (1932) by Christopher Bush
A political rally is canceled after the organizer received a hamper, carefully tied with rope, by special delivery and the hamper contains the murdered remains of a long-time rival – his throat had been slit from ear to ear. The subsequent investigation makes for a rich and baroque detective story, but the undisputed highlight is the time-manipulation trick used by the murderer to create a rock solid alibi.
A classic country-house mystery about an inexplicable and "dastardly double murder," which is plotted like a John Dickson Carr novel.
The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) by Bruce Campbell
An adolescent mystery novel about two cub reporters, Ken Holt and Sandy Allen, who investigate the peculiar case of a ghostly car that vanished from a stretch of hillside road.
The Mystery of the Invisible Enemy (1959) by Bruce Campbell
My first brush with the two cub reporters of the Brentwood Advance, Ken and Sandy, who have to figure out here how a particular ruthless extortionist could have obtained photographs of the plans of a new type of casting machine – which was being developed behind the locked doors of a sealed laboratory. A great read and discovery!
He Who Whispers (1946) by John Dickson Carr (a re-read)
One of Carr's masterpiece (shush, JJ) and tells the tale of a persecuted woman, vampirism and a seemingly impossible stabbing at the top of a crumbling castle tower in pre-war France.
Mystery in the Channel (1931) by Freeman Wills Crofts
Inspector French meticulously reconstructs the murders of the chairman and vice-chairman of Moxon's General Securities, who were shot to death, aboard a yacht found floating in the English Channel. A slow-paced, but fascinating, read with an excellent alibi-trick and a satisfying end.
So Pretty a Problem (1950) by Francis Duncan
Duncan's series-character, Mordecai Tremaine, is a retired tobacconist and a passionate reader of romance stories, but also suffers from the detective-curse and is perhaps the first character to be called out as "a murder-magnate." Here he's simply enjoying a holiday on the coast, in Cornwall, when a woman approaches him on the beach with the message that she has just shot her husband. Naturally, the case turns out to be far more complicated and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the book was a locked room mystery. One that was completely overlooked by the late Robert Adey when he compiled Locked Room Murders (1991).
Except for One Thing (1947) by John Russell Fearn
A practically unknown, but superb, example of the Columbo-style inverted detective story, in which Chief Inspector Garth of Scotland Yard matches wits with a celebrated chemist, Richard Harvey, who has foolishly tied himself to Valerie Hadfield – a cold and mean-spirited actress who could ruin him. So one day she simply vanishes and what happened
Death in Silhouette (1950) by John Russell Fearn
A massively underrated impossible crime novel: a prospective bridegroom disappears from his own engagement party, which was hosted by his future in-laws, but is eventually found behind the locked door of a dimly-lit cellar – hanging from a cross-beam. Fearn imagined a splendid, double-pronged solution that I can only describe as a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too explanation. You'll know what I mean when you read it.
Pattern for Murder (2006) by John Russell Fearn
A posthumously published novel, originally titled Many a Slip, which remained inexplicably unpublished for over half a century. The brilliant story follows the chief projectionist of a cinema, Terry Lomond, who strays down the path of a career criminal and begins, innocently enough, with petty theft, but a witness to a burglary faces him with the possibility of a spell in prison. So he decides to take out this witness and the ingenious method he develops is the stuff of geniuses. Highly recommended.
The D.A. Draws a Circle (1939) by Erle Stanley Gardner
A first-class duel of wits between Doug Selby and a crooked lawyer, A.B. Carr, which takes place amidst small town politics, corruption and a complicated murder investigation.
She Shall Die (1961) by Anthony Gilbert
You'll not often find titles from the 1960s on any of my best-of lists, but this is a late gem from a Golden Age writer with a penchant for mixing old-fashioned detection with domestic suspense. Here we have a story of a woman who is under a constant cloud of suspicion and suspected of having committed two murders. Arthur Crook makes a very late appearance, but shines with all the brilliance of the traditional detective figure in the last couple of chapters. Definitely recommended.
The Danger Within (1952) by Michael Gilbert (a re-read)
A first-rate, semi-autobiographical detective-cum-thriller novel centering on the inmates of an Italian POW camp and one of the many problems facing them is the body of a rumored traitor appearing under impossible circumstances inside a collapsed escape tunnel.
A Variety of Weapons (1943) by Rufus King
A young photographer, Ann Ledrick, accepts a commission to photograph ocelots and travels to a remote estate in the heart of the Adirondacks, but finds herself in the shadow of an old family tragedy – which would give birth to a new one. A clever plot steeped in suspense and a well-drawn cast-of-characters.
Death in the House of Rain (2006) by Szu-Yen Lin
A Taiwanese detective novel set in a mountaintop mansion designed as a three-dimensional representation of the Chinese character for "rain" and this place becomes the stage for no less than four seemingly impossible murders.
A Case of Spirits (1975) by Peter Lovesey
An excellent historical mystery set in Victorian England and the plot takes on one of the crazes of the time, spiritualism, which provides the story with a wonderful situation for an impossible crime. I really have to return to this series in 2018.
The Echoing Strangers (1952) by Gladys Mitchell
A splendid, imaginative and beautifully written tale about identical twins, who were separated after the death of their parents, homicidal mania, blackmail and two murders – which are tightly woven together in what is one of Mitchell's finest plots.
More Dead Than Alive (1980) by Roger Ormerod
A locked room novel with a ton of false solutions about a stage magician who vanished from the top room of a tower with the only door blocked from the inside. The plot recalled some of the better episodes and special from the Jonathan Creek series.
An honorable mention for Ormerod's The Weight of Evidence (1978), which has two original impossible problems that are closely depended on one another. I liked it.
The Owner Lies Dead (1930) by Tyline Perry
Arguably, the best reprint of 2017 and one of the highlights of this best-of list. A devastating explosion rips through a coal-mine in Genesee, Colorado, which results in a growing number of casualties. Rescue workers were able to bring eleven bodies to the surface and seventeen men were still trapped in the mine shafts, but the fire forces them to seal up the mine air-tight. After five weeks, the entrance is reopened and what they find at the bottom is a body with a bullet in his back! A fantastic impossible crime novel with a unique backdrop. Highly recommended.
It Might Lead Anywhere (1946) by E.R. Punshon
A religious rivalry at an ancient borough, called Oldfordham, ends with the fatal bludgeoning of a local miser. This is a rather slow-moving, ponderous detective story, but everything neatly fits together and have really fallen for Punshon's writing. Inexplicably, I have neglected him when compared to last year. So I have to rectify that in 2018.
The Case of the Missing Corpse (1936) by Joan Sanger
A newspaper reporter and narrator of the story, John Ellis, accompanies the writer of a daily sports column and amateur detective, Peter Alcott, on a special assignment to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of a famous sportsman – which brings them as far as pre-Castro Cuba. My reason for including this title is on account of the jolt of surprise I received upon learning the solution. It brought me back to my first experiences with Christie.
Lady in Lilac (1941) by Susannah Shane (a.k.a. Harriette Ashbrook)
A well-written, competently plotted suspense novel, full of twists and turns, about an aspiring actress whose down on her luck and her last dollar, but then her lives takes an unexpected turn when she prevents a woman from taking her own life. The two women decide to exchange identities and that's the beginning of a dangerous, fast-paced adventure.
La bête hurlante (The Howling Beast, 1934) by Noel Vindry
A fascinating read that consists of a conversation between M. Allou and a man, named Pierre Herry, who tells a bizarre story the former about the strange occurrences at a fourteenth century castle and ended with a double murder under seemingly impossible circumstances – which made him a wanted man. A crafty piece of detective-fiction that can be considered a minor masterpiece.
Constable, Guard Thyself (1934) by Henry Wade
This is an interesting detective story and an early predecessor of the modern-day police procedure, in which Detective-Inspector John Poole of Scotland Yard has to find the murderer of the Chief Constable of Brodshire, Captain Scole – who shot to death in his office at the police station. A shooting incident that is revealed in the solution to have been an impossible crime and the motive has its roots in the horrors of the First World War. Only flaw is that the murderer can be spotted early on in the book and this negates the gimmick of hiding the killer among an entire flock of policemen.
The Sleuth Patrol (1947) by Manly Wade Wellman
A cross between a juvenile mystery novel and scout fiction about three troop scouts, Holmes "Sherlock" Hamilton, "Doc" John Watson and Max Hinkel, who have various adventures that turn out to be linked together. A very fun read.
HONORABLE MENTIONS AND INTERESTING CURIOSITIES:
Death in the Dark (1930) by Stacey Bishop
The Five Matchboxes (1948) by John Russell Fearn
Account Settled (1949) by John Russell Fearn
Whispering Wires (1918) by Henry Leverage
The Maze (1932) by Philip MacDonald
Gruwelijk is het huwelijk (Marriage is Gruesome, 2017) by Eugenius Quak
I'll Grind Their Bones (1936) by Theodore Roscoe
THE BEST SHORT STORIES READ IN 2017:
Book of Murder (1930) by Frederick Irving Anderson
- "Beyond All Conjecture"
- "Big Time" (a virtually unknown impossible crime story)
De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017) by Anne van Doorn
- "De geliefde die in het veen verdween" ("The Lover Who Who Disappeared in the Bog")
- "Het joch dat grenzen overschreed" ("The Brat Who Went Too Far")
Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017) by Martin Edwards
- "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" by G.K. Chesterton (a re-read)
- "The Diary of Death" by Marten Cumberland
- "The Broadcast Murder" by Grenville Robbins
- "The Haunted Policeman" by Dorothy L. Sayers (a re-read)
- "The Villa Marie Celeste" by Margery Allingham
The Haunted Gallery: The Adventures of Miss Victoria Lincoln, Private Detective (2011) by John Russell Fearn
- "The Thief of Claygate Farm"
- "No Shred of Evidence"
- "From Beyond the Grave"
The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1978) by Edward D. Hoch
- "The Theft from the Onyx Pool"
- "The Theft of the Silver Lake Serpent"
- "The Theft of the Mafia Cat"
- "The Theft from the Empty Room"
- "The Theft of the Bermuda Penny"
The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales (1997) by Edward D. Hoch
- "The Valley of Arrows"
- "Ghost Town"
- "The Flying Man"
- "The Vanished Steamboat"
- "The Trail of the Bells"
- "The Phantom Stallion"
The Iron Angel and Other Tales of the Gypsy Sleuth (2003) by Edward D. Hoch
- "Punishment for a Gypsy"
- "The Gypsy's Paw"
The Ginza Ghost (2017) by Keikichi Osaka
- "The Mourning Locomotive"
- "The Monster of the Lighthouse"
- "The Cold Night's Clearing"
- "The Guardian of the Lighthouse"
- "The Demon in the Mine"
The Cases of Hildegarde Withers (2012) by Stuart Palmer
- "The Riddle of the Yellow Canary"
No Killer Has Wings: The Casebook of Dr. Joel Hoffman (2017) by Arthur Porges
- "Dead Drunk"
- "Horse-Collar Homicide"
- "Circle in the Dust"
- "No Killer Has Wings"
The Realm of the Impossible (2017) by John Pugmire and Brian Skupin
- "Jacob's Ladder" by Paul Halter
- "Leaving No Evidence" by Dudley Hoys (has fair-play issues, but the solution is great)
- "The Venom of the Taratula" by Sharadindu Bandyopadyay
- "Sir Gilbert Murrell's Picture" by Victor L. Whitechurch
- "The Miracle on Christmas Eve" by Szu-Yen Lin
- "Seven Brothers" (an excerpt) by Aleksis Kivi
- "The "Impossible" Impossible Murder" by Edward D. Hoch
- "The Lure of the Green Door" by Rintaro Norizuki
- "The Barese Mystery" by Pietro de Palma
- "The Locked House of Pythagoras" by Soji Shimada
The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016) by Max Rittenberg
- "The Invisible Bullet"
- "The Rough Fist of Reason"
- "The Empty Flask"
Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2002) by John Sladek
- "By an Unknown Hand" (a re-read)
- "It Takes Your Breath Away" (a re-read)
- "You Have a Friend at Fengrove National" (a re-read)
THE WORST OR MOST DISAPPOINTING READS OF 2017:
Beyond the Locked Door (1938) by Luke Allan
An obscure title in the locked room sub-genre and had hoped the book would turn out to be minor gemstone, but the overall plot was fairly weak and the explanation to the locked room murder was a redressing of one of the oldest tricks in the book. Not recommended.
Murder at the Chase (2014) by Eric Brown
A story that began promising enough with a man claiming to be a 120-year-old Satanist from the Victorian era, who held ghostly seances, which lead to the impossible disappearance of another man from a locked study. Unfortunately, the story was poorly plotted, disappointing and, worst of all, dull and boring.
Robbery Without Violence (1952) by John Russell Fearn
A bad and disappointing read by my favorite second-stringer, which began promising enough with the impossible theft of gold ingots from a hermetically sealed, time-locked bank vault. Sadly, the story dissolved into a poorly done pulp story with a second-rate science-fiction solution.
Hide in the Dark (1929) by Frances Noyes Hart
A boring, long-winded and excruciating read that takes place on All-Hallows Eve, 1928, in a dark, untenanted mansion. So the premise had potential, but was poorly executed.
So there you have it, folks. My highs, and lows, of the past year. And, with that out of the way, I only have one more thing left to do: wishing all of you a Merry Christmas and all the best for the coming year!
I'll be back in the final week of this year.