1/16/19

Death Knell (1945) by Baynard Kendrick

Baynard Kendrick was a detective novelist and one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, even serving as their first president, but Kendrick's most enduring contribution to the American detective story was his sightless private-eye, Captain Duncan Maclain, who was used by the late Stan Lee as a moden for Daredevil – a blind lawyer and resident superhero of Hell's Kitchen. So you can argue Captain Maclain is the bridge between the (pulp) detective and comic book superheroes.

Captain Duncan Maclain lost his eyesight during the First World War, but "endless hours of rigorous training" sharpened his remaining senses and eventually turned his disability into a strength.

The office of his detective agency is fitted with high-tech recording equipment and has a subbasement, or "Bat Cave," where he practices blind target shooting with his friend and partner, Spud Savage. Over a period of two decades, Captain Maclain had tender fingertips trained in the sense of touch, muscles wracked with disciplined exercise and "keen ears" deafened by "ten thousand shots from an automatic" while he learned "to shoot at sound." And, as an extension of his acquired skills, he has two specially trained German Shepherds, Schnuke and Driest.

In the first novel of the series, The Last Express (1937), Captain Maclain proclaimed he had reversed "the old adage about the land of the blind where the one-eyed man was king," because he had become king in "a land of two-eyed detectives" – none of whom knew how to see as well as he did. However, his blindness is not merely a cheap gimmick. The books are generally very well written and cunningly plotted (e.g. The Whistling Hangman, 1937).

So, after having neglected this series for years, I decided to finally return to it and settled on Death Knell (1945).

Death Knell is the fifth entry in the series and represents an unusual personal murder case for Captain Maclain, because the people involved are friends of the woman he loved, Sybella Ford. A group of people who had unfortunately gotten themselves into "a nasty jam."

The backdrop of the story is a luxury suite, on the fourteenth floor of the Arday Apartments on Tenth Street, which is the home of a popular novelist and gun collector, Larmar Jordan. Jordan lives together with his wife, Lucia, a live-in secretary, domestic servants and a cocker spaniel, Winnie. A homely picture of a sophisticated, highbrow New York household, but during a cocktail party, Captain Maclain notices that not everything is as it appears.

Troy Singleton is "mistress number thirteen," or "is it twenty-four," who unexpectedly turns up at the cocktail party, claiming to have received an invitation, but nobody is aware of takes responsibility for this tactless move and she returns to the apartment the following day – which has fatal consequences. Jordan is all alone with Singleton in the apartment when the latter is shot on the balcony as "the carillon across the street began to chime." The murder weapon is "a single-shot, nine-millimeter German gun" from Jordan's extensive firearm collection and happened to be only person who could have pulled the trigger. So the police arrests him on suspicion of murder, because the involvement of an unknown hand appears to be a physical impossibility.

Captain Maclain is asked by Lucia to prove her husband innocent and this requires him to find a murderer who could not possibly have been there. And the only possible answer is "so crazy" he refuses to confide in the police. However, he says it could have had something to do with "the man in a tower" across the street, but the answer is more original than a simple sniper. After all, Singleton was shot at close range. Captain Maclain has to match the murder method to a number of suspects connected to either Jordan or Singleton and these suspects include a literary agent, Sarah Hanley. A newspaper reporter, Bob Morse, who writes profiles for the Globe-Tribune and Brownie Mitchell, a firearms expert, who's cataloging Joran's weapon's collection. Martin Gallagher is Singleton's husband and she never expected him to "ever get back from the war," but turned up right after the shooting.

So with an impossible murder on the balcony of a fourteenth floor apartment and a troupe of suspects makes this one of the more traditionally-styled, less pulpy, detective stories in the series, but one with more emphasis on the characters than the plot – which is relatively easy to solve. Once you know how it was done, you'll know who was behind it. Nonetheless, the story offers a brief, but interesting, glances in the psyche of Captain Maclain.

Captain Maclain protected himself from melancholy, "always dangerous to a blind man," with "an armor of mental steel," but underneath is a more vulnerable human being who mostly lived for the people around him. Like Spud, Sybella and the dogs. Life had hurt him badly. The book gives a particular touching description of the footsteps of his father and mother, which had become familiar and "something to look forward to." But then they had silenced and "life had gone on." Now this can come across as soap opera writing, but Captain Maclain is an interesting enough character to forgive the dramatic touchings.

There are, however, some more cheerful passages in his life: Captain Maclain can find "utter relaxation in music and talking books" or "the ability to read himself to sleep on long cold nights with a volume in Braille tucked under the covers beside him" and "the quilt pulled up to his chin." You can hardly get more cozy than that!

Anyway, the personal touches fit the story and plot, because it really is a very personal case for the blind detective. There are two attempted murders: leaving Sybella hospitalized and Schnuke injured. This person also left another body in his private elevator with a dagger in his belly. So naturally Captain Maclain feels a little hot under the collar and even threatens to flay the murderer alive. And you don't want to get on the bad side of the man who was the inspiration for Daredevil.

So, all in all, Death Knell was not a bad detective novel with perhaps a plot that was too easily solved, but with an interesting look at the lead character and the story has piqued my curiosity in Blind Man's Bluff (1943). Captain Maclain mentioned that he once met a murderer who discovered "a means of pushing people out of windows" when he wasn't there. So I might tackle that one some time in the next few weeks or months. Or, knowing who I am, sometime in the next two or three.

1/14/19

Balbane, the Conjurer Detective: "The Twisted Bullet" (1921) by Lewen Hewitt

Lewen Hewitt is a little-known, long-since forgotten mystery writer of short stories, whose work was mostly published in Detective Story Magazine, but as obscure as he has become today, Hewitt deserves to be remembered as the spiritual father of perhaps the first magician-detective of the genre, Balbane – who appeared in Detective Story Magazine from 1921 to 1922. Only six of these stories were reprinted a decade later in Best Detective Magazine.

A second achievement you can possibly put to his name is that Hewitt might have written one of the earliest examples of that popular staple of the locked room mystery: an impossible murder during "a spiritualistic séance."

Hewitt's "The Twisted Bullet" was originally published in February 12, 1921, issue of Detective Story Magazine and was reprinted in the June, 1932, publication of Best Detective Magazine.

Mr. Trautman invited a spiritual medium, Finley, to "show his ghosts" as "a diversion from the ordinary dinner party" and had "prevailed upon the great Balbane to attend," but had warned the magician-detective that, in case of fraud, there was to be "no melodramatic exposure" – only murder made such a dramatic exposure a necessity. The séance started out normally enough with "seemingly miraculous" slate-writing and reading from sealed envelopes, but eventually "the shape of a fiery ball" appeared in the center of the table. When the lights were turned on, they found "a great heap of purple violets" on the spot where the fiery ball was seen.

These are the simplistic, stock-in-trade, tricks of the fraudulent medium and I remember John Sladek's Black Aura (1974) had an excellent and entertaining rundown of most of these cheap parlor tricks.

A second séance is conducted and the ball of fire reappeared in the darkened room, but the magic of the moment was shattered by an explosion. Once again, the lights are turned on and a revolver lay in the middle of the table with "a wisp of smoke curling from its barrel," which pointed to the chair of a man named Hargrove – who's leaning back in his chair with a bullet hole in his forehead. So who fired the fatal shot. And, more importantly, how? All of the participants formed an unbroken circle of linked hands.

Trautman is not partial to "thickheaded policemen" and implores Balbane to reveal the murderer before the police arrives, but nearly everyone seated around the table turns out to have a motive. So the magician-detective decides to stage the third séance of the evening and lure out the murderer by using himself as bait.

Regrettably, the solution to the impossible shot in the darkened room with everyone locking hands is not as good, or imaginative, as its premise and impressed as a little impractical. Surely, one particular person should have noticed that something was amiss. I think I would have noticed it. In any case, "The Twisted Bullet" deserves recognition for being one of the earliest examples of a (locked room) murder during a séance in a pitch-black room. A premise with an enduring popularity and used by mystery writers to this very day. So definitely a notable title as far as the history of the genre is concerned.

Finally, in order to pad out this very short blog-post, I'll dump a list of links here to other reviews or posts about séance-themed detective novels and short stories.

Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of a Startled Lady (1935)
Anita Blackmon's There's No Return (1938)
John Dickson Carr's "The Black Minute" (collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly, 1983)
Robin Forsythe's The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936)
Peter Lovesey's A Case of Spirits (1975)
Bill Pronzini's "Medium Rare" (collected in Carpenter and Quincannon, 1998)
E.R. Punshon's Six Were Present (1956)
Clayton Rawson's "From Another World" (collected in The Great Merlini, 1979)
Max Rittenberg's "Rough Fist of Reason" (collected in The Invisible Bullet, 2016)
Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Six Queer Things (1937)

1/11/19

Death on the Waterfront (1941) by Robert Archer

The incredibly obscure Robert Vern DeWard was a mystery novelist from Iowa, United States, who wrote under two different pennames, "Robert Archer" and "Robert Platt," but produced only three detective novels – published by three different publishing houses. Two of his publishers were the diametrically opposites Doubleday and Phoenix Press.

DeWard wrote three little-known, barely remembered detective novels, Death on the Waterfront (1941), The Swaying Corpse (1941; as by "Robert Platt") and The Case of the Vanishing Women (1943), but hardly anything is known about him except that he died in 1984 aged 90 years old. I likely would have never heard of him had one of his books not been listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).

Death on the Waterfront is labeled as a locked room mystery, but the story is better described as a dark, gritty and social crime novel set on the New York waterfront of the 1940s. An intriguing story depicting a struggle between longshoremen and their union with the Eastcoast Shipping company.

The story begins when a "weakened, rusty cable" snaps on Pier 40 and metal bars began to rain down, "like shrapnel," which knocked out the brains of a longshoreman and wounded another – making it the third accident in as many days. Accidents caused by rotten cables, worn-out machines and overloaded slings. Fink Weller used to be the corrupt president of the Longshoremen's Union, but he was ousted along with his goons by Chris Jackson and is determined to confront John Murdock of Eastcoast Shipping. Jackson leads a delegation comprising members of the Negotiating Committee and Fat Melius, the union president, but Murdock refuses to budge. And the unsafe working environment is just the beginning of their problems.

On that very same afternoon, Negotiating Committee is scheduled to negotiate a new contract with Murdock. A contract guaranteeing decent wages and safe working conditions, but Murdock prefers to sign that contract with Fink Weller and his goons. Not with Jackson and Melius. So the union members begin "the strike talk" and evidence comes to a light a labor spy is operating in their camp. A rat, or stool pigeon, who are hated on the waterfront ("some murderers are pretty decent, but I've never known a stool pigeon that was").

So there you have an intriguing and uncommon premise for an early 1940s detective novel, but the depiction of the grim, seedy waterfront was genuinely fascinating. A place where the sidewalks are filled with longshoremen of every nationality and Archer even mentioned two seamen from the pier of the Holland American Line "who were jabbering Dutch at each other." During the dark hours of the day, the waterfront is frequented by ragpickers, homeless bums, drunks and prostitutes. How these bottom-of-the-rung, working-class longshoremen interact makes for an engrossing read to everyone who's interested or simply likes the (social) historic aspect of the Golden Age detective story.

My favorite part was the racially-laced, but friendly, banter between Colletti ("You better look out, black man. Some day thisa wop'll take you, jousta like Mussolini take Ethiopia") and Sangster ("Africa's a great big place. One day some of you little guys gonna git lost there").

About a quarter into the story, the body of a longshoreman and member of the Negotiating Committee is found dead in the back a big six-wheel cab-and-trailer-type truck with his throat with his throat ripped open "clear to his backbone" – done with a filed cargo hook. The hook belongs to Jackson and had both a motive and opportunity, because he's the only suspect with a partial or watertight alibi. So the police is hot on his heels and second murder complicates the case even further, but Jackson gets unexpected help in his hour of need.

Joey Stern from the D.A.'s office is the detective of the story and is helped by two willing amateurs, Dr. Winthrop Stevenson and his niece, Miss "Blackie" Maeve O'Callighan, who helped Jackson out of a very tight spot. Dr. Stevenson is "a bug for the Bill of Rights" who has seen "too many men framed and railroaded" to "further a political career" and is determined to help Jackson. This team comprising of an attorney and two willing amateurs reminded of Craig Rice's John J. Malone, Jake Justus and Helene Brand. Who knows? Rice might have actually influenced Archer, because Stern explained in the story that his deductive abilities were bred "by Perry Mason out of Hildegarde Withers," which are two detective-characters by mystery writers closely aligned to Rice. Stern also apologized for "the implied indelicacy."

Death on the Waterfront began as a dark, moody social crime novel reminiscent of Peter Drax's High Seas Murder (1939) and George Bellairs' The Cursing Stone Murder (1954), but the plot began to resemble an old-fashioned whodunit when the murders started to happen. The second murder is even committed in an oak-paneled library with an enormous fireplace flanked by french windows. And, no, the library was not locked from the inside. The impossible murder comes very late in the story.

Stern tackles these murders by a simple process of logic or, as he calls it, dialectics and interrogates all of the clues and suspects that initially pointed to Jackson as the murderer, but upon reexamination, the clues turned out to be pointing in an entirely different direction – even explaining in the final pages why the other suspects couldn't have been the murderer. Surprisingly, a good chunk of the story is concerned with the alibis and breaking a fabricated alibi is one of the main keys to the solution. The alibi-trick is not in the same league as the best by Christopher Bush, which mostly has to do with how obvious it was, but Death on the Waterfront is closer to Bush's alibi-busting novels, like The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936), than to the locked room mystery. However, there's a locked room murder in this book.

Towards the end, someone is gassed to death inside a locked apartment and having a rough idea how these old-fashioned gas-fittings work, learned from reading an unholy amount of detective fiction, I suspected how the locked room-trick could have been done. But then it was revealed that the gas meter in the basement had undisturbed cobwebs on it. So that was a nice touch to a minor locked room sub-plot and the explanation is slightly more original than the standard solution I expected, but suffers from being very dated. The locked room-trick here has the same problem as the dying message from Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of X (1932), which both hinge on, what's now, an arcane piece from history. Nonetheless, the locked room-trick wasn't too bad for relatively minor impossible crime sub-plot and its simplicity makes it even slightly terrifying. A trick that showed how easy it must have been, back then, to snuff someone out in the safety of their own home. You only needed to know about that and get to work.

Death on the Waterfront is unquestionably a less than ordinary detective novel with an unusual opening showing life and work at the New York waterfront, but the plot came up slightly short with a rather obvious solution. So this is only a second-tier title from the American School of the traditional detective story. However, the background of the story still makes it recommendable, if you're interested in the social and/or historical aspects of these vintage mystery novels.

1/8/19

Murder On-Line (1996) by Seimaru Amagi

I suppose only a tiny fraction of my regular blog readers are aware, or have read, a Japanese "light novel." Light novels are targeted at high-and middle school aged readers (i.e. Young Adults) and have an average length of fifty thousand words with the distinguishing characteristic that the books are illustrated with manga artwork depicting various scenes or characters from the story – naturally our beloved detective story is fairly represented in light novels. Some of these light mystery novels have been translated into English.

Japanese edition
Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto: Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002) by the pseudonymous "NisiOisiN" is an extremely odd, but very good locked room novel, with apparently impossible decapitations on a small, isolated island in the Sea of Japan. Kazuki Sakuraba's Gosick: Goshikku (Gosick: The Novel, 2003) and Gosick II: Goshikku: Sono tsumi wa na mo naki (Gosick: The Crime That Has No Name, 2004) is set in antebellum Europe, which is laced with Ruritanian aesthetics and the series has an impossible crime or two. The Crime That Has No Name was actually somewhat reminiscent of a Paul Halter novel (c.f. The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993).

I'm sure these series convey very little to most of my readers, but during the late 1990s, Kodansha published a quadrilogy of light novels part of detective series most of you should be aware of by now.

The Kindaichi Case Files is a long-running manga series that has spawned numerous anime adaptations, live-action TV series, video games and nine light novels, which were penned by Seimaru Amagi – who's responsible for some of the best stories in the manga series (e.g. The Prison Prep School Murder Case and The Rosenkrauz Mansion Murders). These light novels were illustrated by the original artist of The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Academy Q, Famiya Satō.

The four books that were translated into English are Opera-za kan arata naru satsujin (The New Kindaichi Case Files, 1994), Dennō sansō satsujin jiken (Murder On-Line, 1996), Shanhai gyojin densetsu satsujin jiken (The Shanghai River Demon's Curse, 1997) and Ikazuchi matsuri satsujin jiken (Deadly Thunder, 1998), but copies have become increasingly rare over time. And expensive. So maybe its time someone reprinted them in an omnibus edition, because Murder On-Line proved to be a pure, plot-driven detective story with an ingenious alibi-trick worthy of Christopher Bush and Agatha Christie. A trick that made the story a quasi-impossible crime novel, but not close enough to label it such.

Murder On-Line is a mystery novel reminiscent of Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) and Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996), in which "a group of crime and suspense fiction fans" from a chap-group, the On-Line Lodge, meet each other offline at an isolated, practically deserted mountain ski-resort, Silverwood Lodge – they only know each other by their online aliases. The names they picked for themselves are "Agatha," "Watson," "Ranpo," "Patricia," "Sojo," "Spenser" and "Sid," but one of them has a third (secret) identity. An identity simply known as "Trojan Horse" and this person has murder in his or her heart.

Hajime Kindaichi and Nanase Miyuki end up Silverwood Lodge after getting lost in the snowy mountains, but when the group of mystery fans learn Kindaichi is the grandson of the celebrated detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, they insist they stay the night. And a blizzard effectively strands them there.

Kindaichi and Miyuki are the unknown quantity introduced in the murderer's carefully planned scheme, but "Trojan Horse" merely sees them as “a minor bug” in the program that can be handled. Only "two more characters" who showed up to play the game. The first murder is committed that very same day, but everyone has an alibi: "Agatha" was being intimate with "Ranpo." "Patricia," "Sid" and "Watson" were having an online conversation when they were in their private cottages, which can be proved with chat-logs. Kindaichi and Miyuki were together. There's "an alibi for everyone." Kindaichi describes the murder as an impossible crime, because it was committed in "an isolated lodge" with all of the suspects alibied.

English-language edition
However, as good as the alibi-trick is, it doesn't meet my qualifications to be regarded as either a locked room mystery or impossible crime.

Back in 2017, I posted a comment to a blog-post by Dan, of The Reader is Warned, entitled "But is it a locked room mystery? The case of the impossible alibi," which asked if an alibi-trick can be considered an impossible crime. My answer is that an impossible alibi can't solely relay on eyewitnesses or physical pieces of evidence (i.e. train tickets), but murderer should appear to have been physically incapable of having committed the crime. For example, the murderer was in police custody or appeared to have been wounded/hospitalized (e.g. Mr. Monk and the Sleeping Suspect, 2003). There must be a serious physical limitation placed on the murderer and Christie wrote a rather well-known detective novel that used this kind of impossible alibi to perfection.

This was simply not the case here and the alibis fall apart when you consider two, or more, people working together. The chat-group alibi is not exactly rock solid either, because they all had laptops and the murderer could have been chatting from the victim's cottage. The group could even have suspected the two outsiders, Kindaichi and Miyuki. Something that was not considered or even mentioned in the story. And the clueing was a bit scant. The solution is still hinted at, but not as strong as in the best stories from the anime or manga series. However, you can probably blame the light novel format for that. Amagi didn't had the space to craft an ingenious plot like the one from The Prison Prep School Murder Case. Let alone to throw out too many complications or red herrings.

I should also note here that the last murder is quasi-locked room: a member of the chat-group was barricaded inside a cottage, but the murderer squirted two different liquids underneath the door into the cottage, which formed a deadly cyanide gas – giving the victim just enough time to leave behind a dying message. Technically, you could qualify it as a locked room crime, but it was never treated as such in the story. By the way, this is not a spoiler. The murder is shown to the reader.

So, Murder On-Line is not a locked room novel, but, as a traditionally-structured whodunit, it was brilliantly handled with an ingenious alibi-trick. The prologue gave us a glimpse of a perfect crime that was actually, well, perfect. A crime so perfect, it required private revenge to rectify it. An all too common theme in the Kindaichi series and they have done this motive to death, but the back-story to the murders was very detailed here. Usually, the series uses this motive as nothing more than to create incredibly and ambitious murderers. But this one was very well done. You can almost understand why the murderer planned on leaving six bodies at the mountain lodge.

Naturally, Kindaichi can't allow "Trojan Horse" to take out everyone in the group and not only has to demolish the murderer's carefully staged alibi, but has to separate everyone online identity from who they really are. And has to interpret such clues as the previously mentioned dying message and a body found buried in the snow behind one of the cottages. I particularly liked how the chat-group and early internet (culture) were woven into the scheme of the overall plot. Once again, it's a perfect example of modern technology can be incorporated in a traditionally-styled detective story. More amazingly, the book was published in 1996 and this makes it a far-sighted story as far as internet culture is concerned.

So, all things considered, Murder On-Line is a good and cleverly worked out detective novel with a splendid and original alibi-trick. The setting and cast of suspects consisting of a group of crime fiction readers, who use detective-themed nicknames, makes the book highly recommendable to readers who enjoyed Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murder and Lovesey's Bloodhounds. A great companion piece to those two mystery novels.

I sincerely hope someone decides to reprint The New Kindaichi Case Files (titled in Japan Opera House – The New Murder), Murder On-Line, The Shanghai River Demon's Curse and Deadly Thunder. And, perhaps, translate the remaining five titles from this series. Do you think Ho-Ling Wong, the Carl Horn of Locked Room International, has any plans for the upcoming holidays? Translating a light novel won't be as much work as a regular novel, right? More importantly, it would make me happy. :D

1/5/19

The Seventh Guest (1935) by Gaston Boca

Gaston Boca was "a highly-qualified engineer" with a degree from one of France's top schools, École Centrale, who was the assistant director of a factory in "the dreary Paris suburb of Nanterre," but during his obligatory military service, Boca produced four detective novels during the 1930s – making him one "the great French pioneers of the genre." Celebrated anthologist and locked room expert, Roland Lacourbe, praised Boca's work as "brilliant variations on our favourite theme." Namely the impossible crime story.

So it only was a matter of time before John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, introduced this pioneering writer from "the French Golden Age of detective fiction" to a worldwide audience

Les invités de minuit (The Seventh Guest, 1935) is the last of three mystery novels about Stéphane Triel, "a collector of tragic trifles," who previously appeared with his confident, Luc Dutheil, in L'ombre sur le jardin (The Shadow Over the Garden, 1933) and Les usines de l'effroi (The Terror Factories, 1934). The introduction notes Triel seems closer to Gaston Leroux's Joseph Rouletabille than to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, but personally, I couldn't see either Rouletabille or Holmes in him. As clueless as he may be, Dutheil had become a very unconventional, Watson-like figure by the end of the story. So any kind of resemblance to these characters are purely superficial, but what about the plot, you ask?

Pugmire wrote in his introduction, entitled "The French Golden Age," he had seldom read "a more monstrous and intricate plot," which is perhaps laying it on a little bit too thick, but the elaborate plot with its enclosed setting has all the qualities of a Japanese puzzle box with a bundle of impossible crime material locked inside – all of which are used to great effect by Boca for the story. And it all began with an invitation from a stranger.

A letter summons Triel and Dutheil to the French home of René and Jeanne d'Arlon, Nanteuil Manor, near Marley, Seine-et-Oise, but nobody answered the doorbell when they arrive. Smoke is coming out of the chimney of the concierge's lodge and a pot of potatoes was bubbling on the stove in the kitchen, but "Sleeping Beauty's castle" appeared abandoned until they hear a woman's cry. These cries lead them to a small wood cabin at the edge of a clearing with a track of large prints of clogs, "sunk deep, already half full of water," going up to the front door, but they don't come back. Upon entering the cabin, they find the body of a large, heavy man hanging at the end of a rope.

The victim is the nephew of the manor's concierge, Benoît Gérapin, who disappeared the previous night and appears to have taken his own life in the wood cabin. There was only a single line of clog-prints leading to the cabin door and to hang someone as heavy as Gérapin above his own height would require "an entire team of executioners," but there are anomalies suggesting a different story – such as lipstick on the victim's mouth. But they'll soon discover that nothing is really what it seems at Nanteuil Manor.

I have to repeat a warning here from Pugmire's introduction: Boca had "a distinct preference for strings of sentences" creating "a stream-of-consciousness effect," which takes three or four chapters to get use to. And the steady increase in character dialogue also helped smooth this out in subsequent chapters. However, it does make it a difficult story to review. Anyway, back to the story.

Shortly after the body is discovered, Jeanne confides in Triel that the estate has always inspired in her an indefinable, baseless feeling of fear and she decided to call on them for help when she learned they had manage to solve "a strange case" in "a little village on the Somme." Now that a tragedy had occurred, Triel and Dutheil discover first hand that Nanteuil Manor is place that's hard to leave. The manor has a large park "surrounded by insurmountable wall" with black doors "as impregnable as a tombstone," which turn out to be securely locked when try to leave and they become the prisoners of an invisible presence during the night. An invisible presence who performs a number of nifty parlor tricks!

Arguably, the most memorable and effectively used impossibility happens when Inspector Troubert, who had been called in by René d'Arlon, offers a toast to all of the Nanteuil guests, "visible or invisible," when they hear three distinct knocks on a bedroom door – which slowly started to open. Only nobody appeared in the doorway. So they decided to take a look, but the bedroom was empty and only two means of egress, apart from the connecting door they had come through, was "a shuttered window and a sealed arched doorway." And both had been latched or bolted from the inside.

Another inexplicable situation occurs, in the same room, when "a bundle of old rags" is thrown into the room, from the direction of the sealed doorway, which extinguished the chandelier. Once again, nobody was standing there and the door remained securely bolted. This time, Triel took a shot at the invisible guest and, whoever it was, left a drop of blood, but how?

The Seventh Guest is a nice treat for the avid locked room reader, however, the impossibilities here are simply cogs in the greater machine of the plot and the who, as well as the why, were actually much more interesting than the various impossible problems. And coming from me, that's saying something. I very much enjoyed the locked room trickery pulled by the invisible guest, but the primary impossible crime, in the wood cabin, could have been a resounding disappointment had it not been for the excellent handling of the situation and murderer's identity – making it perfectly acceptable. Not to mention the grim, but well-imagined, back-story that lead to this murder and that unforgettable night at the manor house with an invisible house guest.

In spite of its conventional exterior, The Seventh Guest is a dark, well-imagined, compelling and, above all, a mostly original detective novel with an ending that went down a path rarely taken by Boca's contemporaries. The result is a fine and memorable addition to Locked Room International's growing catalog of impossible crime fiction.

I'll continue to linger in the international scene of non-English traditional detective stories with a rare, little-known shin honkaku novel from Japan. So stay tuned!

1/2/19

The Rattenbury Mystery (1955) by John Russell Fearn

During the forties, John Russell Fearn wrote an introduction to his science-fiction novel, Other Eyes Watching (1946), in which he "revealed that his favorite mystery and detective writer was John Dickson Carr," famously known as the master of the locked room conundrum, but Fearn was as productive in the field of impossible crime fiction as the master himself – e.g. the very Carr-like The Five Matchboxes (1948). Robert Adey observed in Locked Room Murders (1991) that the only mystery novelists who continued to produce locked room puzzles, "in any quantity," after World War II were Carr and Fearn.

So this made me very curious about one of Fearn's little-known, standalone mystery novels, The Rattenbury Mystery (1955), which was originally published as by "Conway Carr." Was it an overlooked locked room novel? According to Philip Harbottle, the plot definitely has some "nice impossible crime resonances." Well, that was more than enough to get me aboard!

The Rattenbury Mystery opens with a young, beautiful woman, named Dorene Grey, leaving the London office of a well-known movie-and theatrical agent, Amos Rattenbury.

Dorene Grey is a country girl who has dreams of entering "the charmed world of Filmdom" and came to London when she saw an advertisement in the local newspaper, but even she can hardly believe the brief interview ended with Rattenbury casually offering her "a small part in a forthcoming film" – walking out of his office immersed in "pleasant daydreams." However, a handsome-looking stranger, Terry Hilton, accosts her on the street and urges her "to beware of Amos Rattenbury."

Hilton tells her there's a reason why Rattenbury is looking for young woman without previous experience in the film industry, because there are hundreds of actresses in the city looking for work. Only they know too much about his "rotten business" practices. So he preys on "innocent young simpletons" who can be dazzled with "the prospect of becoming a shining star," but Hilton's lack of tact is not entirely appreciated. And she decides to go back later that day to sign the contract. They parted with Hilton giving her a silver-plated whistle with "Metropolitan Police" engraved on it. Yes, he handed her a rape-whistle.

Terry Hilton is actually a widely known actor, whose name has topped "the bills from one end of the country to the other," but is also the younger brother of the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Sir Digby Hilton. He immediately drops by his brother to ask his help with prying Dorene Grey from the Rattenbury's clutches. Regrettably, there's very little Sir Digby, or the police in general, can do to help him with his mission, but, when he's about to take his leave, the desk telephone rang with dire news about Rattenbury – who has been found stabbed to death in his private-office. And the last person to have been with him was the now missing Dorene Grey. Even worse, she left a blood-smeared glove behind!

So the police is out in full force to track down and apprehend the angel-faced Dorene Grey, but the plot takes an unexpected turn into the bizarre world of the pulp detective when Terry and Sir Digby attend a movie-screening of Hamlet at the Pantheon Theatre.

Terry plays the leading role and Sir Digby was completely absorbed in the tragedy on the silver screen when the film was suddenly cut short. A figure in an old-fashioned Inverness overcoat, a wide-brimmed felt hat and black mask appeared on the screen against a gray background. This apparition introduced himself to the cinema audience as The Phantom of the Films, "a shade as unsubstantial as the pictures," who confesses to the murder of Rattenbury, but warns to let no man, police officer or private citizen, seek to discover his identity – because he's nothing more than "an elusive figure from the realms of romance" fleeting across the stage before vanishing. This is where the plot of the story slowly began to morph from a traditional, straightforward detective story (c.f. One Remained Seated, 1946) into a pulp-like crime novel akin to Account Settled (1949) or The Man Who Was Not (2005).

During the second half, Terry Hilton and Dorene Grey are reunited. She goes to an old friend of her late father for help, Professor Niccolo Dangelli, who's one of "the foremost scientific criminologist of the present day" and plans on producing his own movie that will reveal the truth to the British public. However, Professor Dangelli turns out to be as much a suspect as detective and appears to be part of vast, far-reaching conspiracy. So I was starting to get a little worried at this point, but more about that later.

I quoted Harbottle, in the opening, saying The Rattenbury Mystery has some nice impossible crime resonances and the murder of Amos Rattenbury can only be described as a quasi-impossible murder. Some would even qualify it as a full-blown impossible murder.

The private-office, where the murder was committed, hardly resembled the proverbial locked room, but, had Dorene not fled the room, she would have witnessed Rattenbury being stabbed by an invisible man! There is, however, an indisputable impossible crime very late in the book: a murdered woman is found in the middle of a patch of ground, of newly turned soil, which was "soft enough to take the lightest footprints," but the only traces the police found were the footprints of the victim – adding another Fearn title to the list Adey overlooked when he compiled Locked Room Murders. The tricks employed here were not too bad, for a pulp-style impossible crime novel, but hardly, as the story claims, "a method hitherto unemployed in the annals of crime." I've seen numerous variation on this particular trick and there's one well-known short story that pioneered it. Still, it was put to good use here and have no complaints about it.

I preferred the first half of The Rattenbury Mystery, as it somewhat reminded me of a Christopher Bush novel, with Terry playing the Ludovic Travers to Sir Digby's Superintendent George Wharton. I wish Fearn had continued to develop the plot along those lines. Nonetheless, the second half, messy as it may look, safely landed on its feet in the final chapter with an ending that was more in line with a traditional detective story. And included the explanation for the (quasi) impossible murders.

The Rattenbury Mystery was an uneven, but fun, detective novel covered with Fearn's (stylistic) fingerprints. Not only did the plot betray his pulp roots, but also laid bare his love for the cinema and film making. Fearn was an amateur cineast who made his own movies and this reflected in the reconstruction of Rattenbury's murder in Professor Dangelli's movie (The Phantom Stabber). So definitely a recommended read for fans of Fearn and the fanatical locked room reader, like yours truly.