11/13/19

A Twisted Fairy Tale: "The Too-Perfect Alibi" (1949)

"Dark theaters are best for dark deeds."

Previously, I reviewed Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Perfect Alibi (1934), a detective novel that turned the idea of an iron-clad alibi on its ear, which reminded me of a truly brilliant and innovative, but practically unknown, detective story that used the unbreakable alibi to perfection – performed over seventy years ago on the timeless CBS radio drama-series, Suspense. A bleak, mournful story that still stands today as one of the best episodes in the twenty year history of the show!

"The Too-Perfect Alibi" was written by Martin Stern and originally aired on CBS radio on January 13, 1949, starring actor/comedian Danny Kaye as the story's antagonist, Sam Rogers. Sam is a close friend to the woman he loved and "the fellow she loved."

Catherine was "the loveliest thing on God's earth" and Jack was "a beautiful hunk of man," a perfect match, but Sam never understood why Catherine was so made about him. A good-looking nobody who works as a clerk in a sports shop. However, when they announce their engagement, the well-to-do Sam takes it on the chin and offers them a lovely house as a wedding present, which delights Catherine, but Jack resents that Sam gives them everything he can't afford – sarcastically comparing him to Prince Charming. Unfortunately, for Jack, this remark reminded Sam of the fairy tale of "the Prince, the Princess and the Ogre." A story in which the Ogre dies because "the Prince kills him."

"The Too-Perfect Alibi" is an inverted mystery and the first 15, of 30, minutes comprises of plotting and carrying out the murder. Sam's plan hinges on an alibi, "a strong, unshakable alibi," designed to keep him out of the electric chair.

Usually, these alibi-tricks hinge on the manipulation of clocks, eyewitnesses or documents, such as dated tickets, letters or postcards, which gives the murderer a (small) window to do the dirty deed. Sometimes this window of opportunity is counted in minutes, not hours, which makes them quite risky endeavors. Sam created an indestructible alibi that removed much of the dangers of the initial stages of murder and the only dangerous obstacle was disposing the body where it would be found the following day. When the police started asking question, they got "thirty-five affidavits from responsible people" who swear Sam was at a party at the time of the murder.

A very inventive, yet simple, alibi that's impossible to crack open and can stand with the best alibi-stories by Christopher Bush, who might have partially inspired the story, because Sam utters an unusual phrase when he's almost caught deposing of the murder weapon – saying to himself that his "alibi was still 100%." A possible reference to Bush's The Case of the 100% Alibis (1934)?

So the first half of "The Too-Perfect Alibi" deals with the plotting and execution of Jack's murder, but, in the second half, Sam is confronted with the dire, unintended consequences of his perfect little crime. You have to listen for yourself how this dark, twisted fairy tale ends, but, if you want to end a detective story on a bleak, melancholic note that will cast a gloom on your audience, this is how you do it. I could hear "The Real Folk Blues" playing in my head when the episode ended ("you're gonna carry that weight!").

"The Too-Perfect Alibi" is, in my humble opinion, one of the best inverted detective stories ever written, which not only has an excellent and original alibi-trick, but an unforgettable conclusion that ended the episode strongly. You can listen to the episode on the Internet Archive (here) or Youtube (here). Enjoy!

11/11/19

The Perfect Alibi (1934) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Christopher St. John Sprigg's The Perfect Alibi (1934) is the third novel in the regrettably short-lived series about the Mercury crime-reporter, Charles Venables, which has been out-of-print for nearly a century and an elusive, over-priced item on the second-hand book market – even the 1941 abridged Cherry Tree edition is a rarity. Last year, Moonstone Press advertises they were going to republish a number of his detective novels in September, 2018, but there was an unexplained, nine-month delay. The Perfect Alibi was well worth the long wait!

Anthony Mullins, of Morphopoulos & Mullins, is an armaments manufacturer and "a brilliant engineer" who produces the guns that were sold through "an international system of graft" that had been built up by his late partner.

Six months before the story opens, Mullins drafted and signed an accusatory will that will place his wife, Patricia, in "a terrible position in the eyes of the world." The will states that, unless Mullins peacefully passes away in his sleep or a coroner says he had died naturally, Patricia loses a life interest in his estate. Leaving her without a penny. Mullin's reason is that he suspects Patricia has an affair with his nephew and junior partner, Ralph Holliday, which is why Mullins had cut him out of his will completely and send him abroad to get him away from his wife – under the guise of reevaluating Morphopoulos' network. So his safety has been ensured.

The Perfect Alibi opens with the locked, wooden garage on Mullin's estate, The Turrets, ablaze and inside the fire-fighters find the charred remains of the armaments magnate in the driving-seat of his car.

On the surface, the death of Mullins has the appearance of an unfortunate accident, but a post-mortem examination reveals a bullet lodged in the brain and there was no gun or key found inside the garage. So this was either an impossible suicide or a cold, calculated murder. A murder that will seriously test the determination, patience and ingenuity of several detectives over the course of several months.

Charles Venables makes only sporadic appearances in the story, but has a splendid excuse to largely assume to role of spectator in "the Burning Garage Mystery." When he briefly appears in the second chapter, Venables is busily reporting on the Aeroplane Mystery and later departs for Iconia where "the ruling monarch appears to have been murdered." So The Perfect Alibi takes place between the conclusion of Death of an Airman (1935) and the beginning of Death of a Queen (1935)! I thought this was a nice touch to the story and gives room to other characters to shine as detectives.

Inspector Trenton is officially in charge of the investigation, but his subordinate, Constable Sadler, who sees the case as a release from his routine, humdrum duties, does most of the legwork – until even Scotland Yard (off-page) reaches a dead-end. But there two other people, involved with the case, who turn amateur detective and not entirely without success. Francis "Frank" Filson is an artist who initially provided Patricia with a paper-thin alibi and he's roped in to snoop around by the woman in charge of Mullin's stables, Sandy Delfinage.

Sandy's primary suspect is Dr. James Constant, the Secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Scientific Research, whose organization inherited the bulk of the estate under Mullin's new will, but Dr. Constant possesses an absolutely unshakable alibi. Dr. Constant is not the only person in the lively, humorously drawn and slightly subversive cast of characters who has a role to play in the story. Dr. Eustace Marabout is a Doctor of Philosophy deeply impressed by "the overwhelming documentary evidence" of the supernatural and swears he saw the Devil "coming from the garage the day before the murder." Lord Overture is the owner of The Turrets, which he let to Mullins for a "paltry sum," but why did he take a potshot at Constable Sadler? Mrs. Murples is a rich, elderly woman who looks like "a pre-dynastic mummy" and uses her money to back young pugilists.

Sprigg had quite a gift when it came to integrating quirky, subversive characters into a highly conventional detective story without making them feel like they're out-of-place. Such as in the splendid The Corpse with the Sunburned Face (1935), but the plot and alibi-trick is where the story really shines.

The Perfect Alibi has a plot deeply entrenched in the tradition of breaking down alibis and identities closely associated with Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts. Technically, the plot is as sound as a whistle and, as Venables states in the final chapter, every "fact and clue we needed was given us" like "the fairest possible detective story in the world" – complemented by a cleverly done, inverted alibi-trick. There is, however, a problem with this cleverly constructed solution. Nobody ever asks that one obvious question or considers it as a possible scenario. There are features of the case that warranted that question to be asked, but Sprigg conveniently ignored this weak spot until the end.

I think most readers will ask this question or consider it a possibility. When you do, the plot becomes a whole lot less labyrinthine and the ending is not as impressive when Venables, "swinging lazily in a hammock in the gardens of the Royal Palace at Iconia," has one of those flashes of inspiration. You still have to work out the finer details, but you, as the reader, have no excuse not to arrive at the correct solution long before Venables stumbles to it. However, to be completely fair to Sprigg, it probably didn't help I recently read three or four detective novels working with pretty much the same central plot-idea.

So, while the plot of The Perfect Alibi is technically sound, strewn with clues and populated with lively characters, the scheme is easily poked through and took the punch out of its ending. I would rank the book along side Sprigg's debut, Crime in Kensington (1933), which is also a well written, cleverly plotted and amusing detective story, but too easily solved by an observant armchair detective. Still recommended to everyone who enjoys the alibi-busting stories of Bush and Crofts.

This leaves me with only one more Sprigg mystery novel on my pile, but I'll probably save Fatality in Fleet Street (1933) for sometime next year.

11/8/19

Murder on Wheels (1932) by Stuart Palmer

An ever-popular setting of the traditional detective story is (public) transportation, mostly ships, trains and the occasional plane, but my previous read, Brian Flynn's Murder en Route (1930), centered on a rarely used means of transport – an impossible murder on top of open-decker motor-bus. This reminded me of another, somewhat unusual, transportation mystery novel that has been languishing on my pile for ages. I was surprised to discover how well the plot of that book synced up with Flynn's Murder en Route.

Stuart Palmer's Murder on Wheels (1932) is the second case of arguably the best spinster sleuth of the genre, Miss Hildegarde Withers, who made her first appearance in The Penguin Pool Murder (1931).

Murder on Wheels begins during rush-hour, "on the tag end of a dreary November afternoon," where an open blue Chrysler crashes and became "inextricably entangled" with the fender of a Yellow taxi, but the driver of the Crysler has disappeared from the car-wreck – which was witnessed by the astonished cab-driver. Al Leech tells the police he saw the driver "rise right up out of the seat," into the air, fly down the street backwards! Down the street, the body of a man is found with "a noose of twisted hempen rope" around his neatly broken neck.

Miss Withers and Inspector Oscar Piper were having a quiet cup of tea in a nearby restaurant when the traffic officer started blowing his whistle, which effectively drops this impossible murder, on Fifth Avenue, in their laps.

The victim is eventually identified as a member of an old, once moneyed, New York family, Laurie Stait, whose grandparents used to rate with the Vanderbilts and the Stuyvesants, but now they live on a greatly depreciated income in a "big four-story graystone tomb." Laurie lived their with most of his closest relatives: his twin brother, Lewis, a frightened cousin and a dotty aunt who loves thriller movies, Hubert and Abbie. And living in an impossibly cluttered attic-room, is the 90-year-old grandmother to the twins, Mrs. Strait, whose only companion is a centenarian parrot. A fat, featherless monstrosity with the vocabulary of a piss drunk, foul-mouthed pirate. She lives like a recluse because she got away with murder in the late 1800s.

Naturally, there's a woman involved, Dana Waverly, who was engaged to one of the brothers, but loved the other and she has overprotective brother, Charles – a similar relation/motive arises from a link with a traveling rodeo show. So here we have all the ingredients for one of those typical, top-notch American detective stories from the 1930s. Something along the lines of Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of X (1932) and The American Gun Mystery (1933). But why did it linger on my pile for so long?

Back in 2011, I bought the brand new edition of Murder on Wheels from the now sadly shuttered Rue Morgue Press, but, around the same time, someone posted a discouraging review – chiding the book for its unoriginal and transparent plot. I've to agree that the play on the false-identity trope and the trick for the impossible hanging in the middle of traffic hardly posed a challenge to the reader, but, technically speaking, the overall plot is a masterly done piece of art. 

A plot comprising of many bigger and smaller moving parts that provide some originally handled side-puzzles. Such as what happened to the missing billfold and a surprise wedding, but Palmer saved the best for last. A second, equally bizarre murder is committed very late in the book and the explanation is an inventive, if pulpy, inversion of the locked room mystery with a cruel twist tacked on at the end. Even better is how the circumstances of this second death helped prove one of "the weirdest alibi" Miss Withers and Piper have ever run across.

Yes, Palmer failed to completely pull the wool over the reader's eye, but Murder on Wheels is hardly unoriginal. I even think the apparently cliched plot-thread about identities was cleverly handled, because the solution played out slightly different than you might first expect from the opening chapters and found the hanging-trick interesting – which came with an illustration that was (accidentally) scrambled in the RMP edition. Funnily enough, the trick not only links Murder on Wheels to Flynn's Murder en Route, but Palmer's solution was a variation on the faulty explanation I imagined for the impossible murder on the open-decked bus. I truly had no idea these two books would sync up so nicely.

So, on a whole, I can hardly claim Murder on Wheels is one of Palmer's greatest mystery novels, like The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1933), The Green Ace (1950) and Nipped in the Bud (1951), but labeling it as entirely cliched and uninspired is a little unfair – as there are dashes of originality throughout the story. Palmer handled the various plot-threads with great skill, considering this was only his second novel, which all tied nicely together. So the only real problem is that it was not quite good enough to fool any seasoned armchair detective. This is why I can only recommend Murder on Wheels to readers who are either somewhat new to the genre or have already been charmed by Palmer, Miss Withers and Oscar Piper in their later outings. And Murder on Wheels has charm to spare!

11/5/19

Murder en Route (1930) by Brian Flynn

Back in February, I reviewed a Dutch short story, Anne van Doorn's "De bus die de mist inging" ("The Bus That Went Into the Fog," 2018), in which a shady American is inexplicably strangled aboard a regio bus (regional bus) on a cold, foggy winter day in February – because neither the passengers or the bus driver heard or saw the murder happen! Ninety years ago, Brian Flynn wrote a detective novel with a similar premise, but with an entirely different explanation.

Murder en Route (1930) is the eighth entry in the Anthony Bathurst series and begins on a cold, wet and "unutterably cheerless" night in mid-November that coated the coastal line in a thick fog.

The last motor-bus of the day is the 8.33 from Estings to Raybourne. A one-hour, fourteen-mile journey in an open-decker and the conductor, Frederick Whitehead, has began to notice the same man boarded the bus every night, for a month, at the exact same spot – who always traveled on the open top "no matter what the elements is like." And this rainy night was no different. Whitehead had not been off his platform and can account for every second of the journey, but only the mysterious passenger had ascended the staircase to the open-top of the bus. There he stayed, all alone, until the bus reached its destination. But he never descended that closely observed staircase. So, when Whitehead goes up to investigate, he discovers that the bus was "a blinking hearse" carrying a corpse!

The rain-soaked man is sitting in one of the seats and slumped to floor when the conductor touched his shoulder, but the man had no died of heart attack or exposure to the elements. There were the tell-tale marks of strangulation on his throat. But how did his murderer get on, and off, the bus without being seeing by the conductor or any of the passengers. By the way, the response of the bus driver to the discovery of a murdered man ("why can't people die in their homes—decently?") is why I love the English.

Reverend Parry-Probyn is the Rector of Kirve St. Laudus and the uncle of the wife of the Divisional Surgeon and has recently made his acquaintance with "a brilliant investigator," named Anthony Bathurst, who's greatly admired by the rector's son, Michael – immediately gets called upon to help the local police. Inspector Curgenven accepts his help with the rector and his son only to willing to lend a helping hand.

Firstly, I've to note here something John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, touched upon in his own review and that's the weird narrative structure of the story. The story begins in the third person, but Chapter IV introduces manuscript excerpts written in the first-person by the Rector Parry-Probyn. And he was not present for all of the scenes he described. So you get this unusual mixture of first-and third person narration that can be a little distracting, but hardly detracts from the clever plot and the diligent detective work. And Bathurst is in fine form here.

In the even earlier novels, like The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927) and The Murders Near Mapleton (1929), Bathurst played the role of Great Detective like a stage-actor with very little of his own personality bleeding through the performance. Bathurst is still the great, oracular detective in Murder en Route, but something was different this time. This time he was what you get, if you gave Philo Vance a soul.

The victim is identified as an American, Claude Sutcliff, who confided in his landlady that he offended a native tribe, in South America, "over some treasure-hunt" and they were determined "to get even with him" before they were finished – which is why he moved to the Old Country. Bathurst methodically extract the truth behind the murder by closely examining the body, which showed strange wounds on the wrists and peculiar smudge on the back of his overcoat. The fatal bus ride is reconstructed and this leads to a photographic clue as well as a link between the seemingly impossible murder on the top of the bus and the disappearance of an American fruit farmer in the City of Liverpool. This is merely a glimpse of a very involved, clockwork-like plot with many moving parts. Something that could have easily become a complete mess in the hands of a lesser plotter.

A plot with an original, well-clued and imaginative impossible crime with a surprisingly simplistic explanation considering how complex and involved the overall plot is.

I roughly figured out the general idea behind the trick very early on in the story, but completely misinterpreted the wrist-wounds and the smudge on the back. So my idea of the impossible murder played out a little different than the more practical explanation Flynn imagined. A simplistic and practical solution that logically fitted in the overall scheme of the plot. However, the best aspect of the plot and solution is undoubtedly the way in which Flynn played with multiple identities, which came together through the blinkin' cussedness of things to form a truly baffling crime.

I've only read five of Flynn's earlier novels, but he appears to have been to the false-identity what Christopher Bush was to the unbreakable alibi and John Dickson Carr to the locked room mystery. Flynn tackled the problem of identity with the same kind of ingenuity as Bush's cast-iron alibis and Carr's impossible crimes. So I've got something new to obsess about.

Overall, Murder en Route is a solidly plotted and fascinating detective novel about a victim who's as elusive as his murderer, but all of the clues are there for you to pick up and put together, if you can – making it my favorite entry in the series so far. Highly recommended!

11/3/19

The Dead Sleep Lightly: "Blind Man's Hood" (1937) by Carter Dickson

We're steadily nearing the end of the year and the holiday season is close upon us! I already read two seasonal-themed mysteries some months ago, Brian Flynn's The Murders Near Mapleton (1929) and Moray Dalton's The Night of Fear (1931), but they were not intended as part of my annual Christmas reading. So, over the next two months, I'll try to knock the remaining seasonal detective novels and short stories off my list.

I decided to begin with rereading one of the best short stories ever written in this particular sub-category of the detective story.

John Dickson Carr's "Blind Man's Hood," published as by "Carter Dickson," originally appeared in the Christmas edition of The Sketch in 1937 and was republished as "To Wake the Dead" in the December, 1966, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine – collected (fairly) recently in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014) and The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018). The story's most well-known appearance is in the original hardcover edition of The Department of Queer Complaints (1940).

"Blind Man's Hood" opens with a young married couple, Rodney and Muriel Hunter, arriving at the home of their friends, Jack and Molly, in "the loneliest part of the Weald of Kent." A seventeenth century country house, named "Clearlawns," but the front door is standing open and nobody responds to their knocking.

So they hoisted their luggage and a box of Christmas presents inside, where they are greeted by an young, pleasant-faced woman, who explains everyone's "always out of the house at this hour on this particular date" – attending a special church service. A custom, or pretext, for more than sixty years to give people an excuse to be away from the house between seven and eight o'clock on Christmas Eve. She tells them a winter's tale in two parts that straddled the genres of the detective and ghost story.

During the 1870s, the house was occupied by a newlywed couple, Edward and Jane Waycross, but on a dark, snowy evening in February, Jane found herself all alone in the house.

There were several witnesses who saw her standing behind a window after the snow had stopped falling, but, the following morning, Mrs. Randall, the old servant, is the first to return and finds "the house all locked up." She gets no response to her knocking and decided to smash in a window. What she finds inside is the stuff of horror stories: the body of Mrs. Waycross was lying on her face in the front hall, "soaked in blood and paraffin," with her throat cut and charred from the waist down. A terrible, gruesome and inexplicable murder. All of the doors and windows were securely locked and bolted on the inside. And the only footprints in the snow outside belonged to one of the witnesses and Mrs. Randall.

So how did Mrs. Waycross' murderer entered, or left, the tightly locked house without leaving any footprints in the snow? The police were never able to provide an answer to these questions, but this is not where the story ends, because eight years later there was a Christmas party at the house and one of the attendees was someone involved with the murder case – who dies under ghostly circumstances during an unnerving game of Blind Man's Bluff. This ghost story is the reason why nobody is ever in the house between the hours of seven and eight on Christmas Eve.

Uncharacteristically, of Carr, the impossibility and revelation of the locked room-trick aren't the centerpiece of the story. You can even say that the whole locked room situation is a little underplayed. For example, there's no theorizing how the murder could have been done. This story slowly unravels itself, which can be a disappointing approach, but Carr was a master stylist and you can't help but be fascinated how seamlessly he merged the detective and ghost story without leaving the reader feeling like they were cheated. The result stands as one of Carr's creepiest and darkest story.

My fellow JDC fanboy, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, reviewed "Blind Man's Hood" back in 2016 and he made several astute observations on why Carr was practically unequaled in the genre as a stylist. One of the clearest examples is the contrast between the opening and closing paragraphs of the story. There really was nobody better than Carr.

So, purely as a semi-historical locked room mystery, "Blind Man's Hood" is merely another excellent short story by the Grand Master, but how the ghost story takes possession of the plot without damaging the detective elements makes it a (minor) masterpiece! Highly recommended to everyone who knows how to appreciate good story telling regardless of the genre.

11/1/19

Bones Don't Lie (1946) by Curtiss T. Gardner

Last year, I reviewed a little knock impossible crime story by Curtiss T. Gardner, entitled "Sorcery in the Death House" (1943), which is one of some thirty short stories he penned during the 1940s for such publications as Dime Mystery Magazine, G-Men Detective and Thrilling Detective – disappearing from the scene completely when the decade drew to a close. So the lion's share of Gardner's detective fiction comprises of short stories, but he wrote at least one mystery novel. Wildside Press reprinted that once obscure novel in The Second Mystery Novel Megapack (2015) and as a separate ebook in 2016.

Bones Don't Lie (1946), alternatively titled The Fatal Cast, was credited by Anthony Boucher with introducing "the first big-business detective on record" and called "the mechanical details" of the steel manufacturing background "endlessly fascinating."

A year before the story's opening, The Prairie Comet became "a mass of twisted wreckage" when one of the axles on the Comet's locomotive snapped, throwing it off the rails, which then fatally collided with an eastbound express – killing close to a hundred people! A disaster with political implications, because two of the old, wooden sleepers that had been "smashed to matchwood" were filled with troops. Metallurgical tests showed that the axle was "dangerously defective" and an incriminating letter places two men behind bars, Ray Locke and Glenn Cannon. However, they both claim they were framed.

So, when Locke is released from prison, he decides to return to Ironton plant of American-Consolidated Steel and beg for a job, but what he really plans on doing is clearing his name.

Leonard Tracy, czar of the Ironton Works, is an old friend of Locke and gives him his "entering wedge" with a position at the bottom of the company ladder. But his real job begins after the work shift has finished. This is where the strongest aspect of the story comes into the play, the backdrop.

Bones Don't Lie is a weird amalgamation the American Van Dine School, the British Realist School and the Pulps, but only the detailed, inside look of a massive steel plant, a feature of The Van Dine School, was fully utilized – giving an otherwise bland detective story a fascinating backdrop strewn with dangers. The story entirely takes place among the stacks of blast furnaces, smelters, testing rooms, hammer shops, laboratories and the various mills "peopled with grimy, sweating gnomes" working on "small glowing bits of iron." A place dangerous enough without a murderer prowling around.

On his first day back, Locke had a brush with the unlikable, highly punch-able assistant of the chemical laboratory, Walter Keene, who he threatened to split his head open. A threat that comes back to haunt him when Keene is found with his skull smashed into several pieces. What saved Locke from the chair is the intervention of the General, Ulysses G. Flint.

U.G. Flint is a "confidential investigator" for P.J. Gorman & Company, a big stockholder of American-Consolidated, who has to ensure "the company's dirty linen emerges in pristine whiteness." This is why some call him the head of "the Wall Street Gestapo." So this makes Flint a very unusual detective, not just for the time, but even today you don't see that many corporate sleuths. Only example I can think of is William L. DeAndrea's Matt Cobb, Vice-President of Special Projects, who has to wash the dirty laundry of a TV Network in the '80s and '90s.

Unfortunately, the setting, background details and Flint are the only good or interesting aspects of the story. The method of falsifying the steel tests, which lead to the train wreck, is something you would associate with Freeman Wills Crofts or John Rhode, but the answer is something you won't be able to piece together and thus the solution comes as an anti-climax – same can be said about the who-or why. Nothing outstanding or memorable. However, I appreciated the attempt to use the decapitation of the second victim as a red herring.

Bones Don't Lie undeniable broke some new ground with the introduction of the genre's first corporate detective-character and Gardner gave the reader a detailed tour of a 1940s steel plant, which he perfectly used for some exciting scenes, but the lackluster, uninspired plot only makes it a historical curiosity. So, purely as detective story, I can't recommend it.

A note for the curious: two years ago, I reviewed Bruce Campbell's The Mystery of the Invisible Enemy (1959), a juvenile mystery novel, which also takes place inside a steel plant, but the plot is so much better than Bones Don't Lie.

10/29/19

An Open Window (1988) by Roger Ormerod

In my review of Douglas Clark's Death After Evensong (1969), I briefly referred to a now obscure, post-WWII mystery writer, Roger Ormerod, who carried on to write detective stories grounded in the traditions of the Golden Age during the seventies and eighties – a period when the genre had moved towards realism and psychology. Somehow, I remembered reading The Weight of Evidence (1978) and More Dead Than Alive (1980) only last year, but my reviews date back to 2017. So it was high time to tackle another one of Ormerod's locked room mysteries!

An Open Window (1988) is the fourth entry in the Richard and Amelia Patton series and the story begins with an explosive opening chapter!

Richard and Amelia have been traveling around England in a fourteen-foot caravan, more out of necessity than pleasure, but they secured a regular spot on a caravan site and arranged with the owner he would try to keep plot 13 empty. When they return, they find a woman has taken their spot. Nancy Rafton had been there for three days and had been making inquiries about Amelia, but Richard learns this after Rafton's caravan explodes – which killed her and put Amelia in the hospital. However, an unexpected windfall swiftly diverts Richard's attention to an entirely different set of problems.

Amelia has an estranged uncle, Walter Mann, who recently died and his solicitor, Philip Carne, tells Richard Mann had altered his will two days before he died. A will that practically disinherited his children, Clare, Donald and Paul, who each get ten thousand pounds.

The residue of the estate goes to his niece, Amelia. This residue comprises of a furnished house, several cars, a portfolio of investments and 51% of the shares in Walter's company, Mann Optics. A factory that makes photographic equipment with an estimated capital value of around half a million. Richard is not only Amelia's acting power of attorney, but a former policeman. And he becomes interested in the circumstances under which Walter Mann died.

Two months before he died, Walter become convinced his family was trying to kill him and not only altered his will as a precaution, but began to lock himself inside a wide, lofty third-floor suite of rooms with a lock on the door that was "virtually un-pickable" – one of only two keys was around his neck on a chain. The second key was in possession of his loyal housekeeper, companion and surrogate mother of his children, Mary Pinson. So when he tumbled from the open window of the third-floor room, through the conservatory roof, everyone assumed it was an accident.

After all, the door of the room had been locked from the inside and the key was still on the chain around Walter's neck. And his dog had been with him in the room. So, if anyone had raised a hand to him, Sheba would have had "it off at the wrist."

The Weight of Evidence and More Dead Than Alive proved Ormerod had an original bent of mind when it came to constructing locked room puzzles. The former handily linked the solution for an impossible disappearance to the presence of two bodies in a bolted, long-forgotten basement room on a construction site, while the latter is a galore of false solutions to the problem of a vanishing magician from a locked tower room. And an unusual true solution. By comparison, the impossible crime from An Open Window is much more conventional and falls squarely in the tradition of John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton and Edward D. Hoch. So the locked room-trick still has some flashes of imagination, but there were parts that were slightly unconvincing and the clue of the blood in the conservatory was unfairly withheld from the reader. Richard also missed two obvious possible (false) solution for the locked room.

So, purely as a locked room mystery, An Open Window is decent enough, but hardly outstanding or noteworthy. However, I do think the trick would probably have worked better in a short story or novella.

The murder of Walter Mann was not the only death in the family. Three months previously, Clare's husband, Aleric Tolchard, fell down an iron staircase at the factory and broke his neck, but the local police are treating his death as a potential homicide – eyeing Chad Leyton as the main suspect. Chad is the son of Walter's best friend and shareholder, Kenneth Leyton, and the boyfriend of Philip Carne's sister, Heather. All three were present at the factory when Aleric fatally tumbled down those stairs, but only Chad has a strong motive. A dispute over a brand new innovation in 3D photography Chad had developed in the photographic laboratory of Mann Optics. This reminded me of the revolutionary new formula for color photography from Maurice C. Johnson's sole locked room novel, Damning Trifles (1932), but here the 3D photography was merely used to provide one of the suspects with a motive.

So probably assume by now that I was completely unimpressed and An Open Window is certainly the weakest of the three I have read, but the story was not entirely devoid of merit.

An Open Window is completely focused on disentangling the various plot-threads and Richard has to be persistent to get even an atom of truth out of the suspects, because they either lie to his face or avoid him all together. There are very little side-distractions. The locked room-trick may not have shown the same ingenuity as in his previous novels, but the way in which he handled the altered will did have that spark of originality. Why the murder was committed two days after the change, is one of the central questions of the plot. Finally, Ormerod skillfully dovetailed the solutions of the explosion, the death at the factory and the locked room murder together.

An Open Window is an unevenly plotted, slightly overwritten and not always fairly clued detective novel, but the unwavering focus on the plot and some clever plot ideas balanced out some of its flaws – making it a serviceable, instead of a terrible, detective novel. So don't make this your first brush with Ormerod, but don't cross it off your list in case you like his work.

On a final, related note, Ormerod is listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) with three titles, A Spoonful of Luger (1975), The Weight of Evidence and An Open Window, but Adey missed More Dead Than Alive and And Hope to Die (1995) was not published until four years later. Recently, I found Ormerod wrote at least two more impossible crime novels, One Deathless Hour (1981) and A Shot at Nothing (1993), and there may be more! This makes him a notable locked room novelist during a period when impossible crime mostly figured in short stories. Yes, I'm going to take a look at all of them... eventually.