6/15/19

The Opening Night Murders (2019) by James Scott Byrnside

Last year, James Scott Byrnside debuted with an ambitiously plotted, cleverly written historical (locked room) mystery novel, Goodnight Irene (2018), which he dedicated to one of the uncrowned queens of the Golden Age detective story, Christianna Brand – whose influence on Byrnside left a noticeable mark on the plot. Goodnight Irene was deservedly received with much acclaim and enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, in an interview with "JJ," of The Invisible Event, Byrnside revealed he had only been seriously reading classic detective fiction since January, 2017, when he came across an audio-book of A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922) on YouTube. This makes Goodnight Irene even more remarkable, because the characterization, plotting and writing showed a firm grasp and understanding of the traditional detective story.

I always assumed it took years to discover, develop and fine-tune your taste, which gives you an understanding of the genre as a whole, but Byrnside moved with prodigal speed from listening to Milne's The Red House Mystery to writing a Western equivalent of a Japanese shin honkaku mystery novel – potentially lightening the spark of a second Golden Age. I, on the other hand, can still be genuinely amazed at the sheer volume of detective fiction produced between 1920 and 1960. And the resulting endless procession of obscure, long-forgotten mystery writers who keep clawing to the surface.

So most of us where eagerly looking forward to Byrnside's second impossible crime novel, entitled The Opening Night Murders (2019), which promised to be a detective story along the lines of Brand's superb Death of Jezebel (1948). Well, I was not disappointed.

The Opening Night Murders is set in Chicago, 1935, and begins on a somewhat similar note as Goodnight Irene and Death of Jezebel.

Rowan Manory and Walter Williams are two Chicago-based private-detectives who are essentially Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but interact with each other more like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin without them really resembling any of these characters – which makes them descendants, instead of cheap knockoffs, of those famous detectives. Their next intricately-plotted, elusive and puzzling headache of a case is brought to them by "the finest actress in all of Chicago," Lisa Pluviam.

Lisa and Jenny Pluviam are sisters who been in theater, in one form or another, their entire lives. They started in high school, "farted around flops and dives in Chicago for seven years" and studied in New York, which turned Lisa into a proper stage actress and Jenny became a director/playwright. So an unexpected inheritance from their estranged father placed in the position to open The Red Rising Theater and put on their own productions. The Balcony is one of those productions, written and directed by Jenny Pluviam, with Lisa Pluviam as the lead star of this promising play, but Lisa is "a little spooked" when she receives an anonymous death threat. A note had been left in her office, in the theater, promising she'll die on opening night and there's only a window of twenty-four hours in which the note could have been left – only seven people had access to the theater during that time frame. Two of them are Lisa and Jenny Pluviam. The others include four actors, Timothy Brown, Edward Filius, Allison Miller and Maura Lewis, rounded out by the grizzled stage technician, Sam "Grizz" Thompson.

I think the opening chapter excellently showcases Manory's experience and skill as an old, weather-beaten detective as he mines the story presented to them for facts and details, which allows him to make some accurate deductions about the characters and the play – which is always an open invitation to draw comparisons with Sherlock Holmes. However, here it wasn't done in order to dazzle the client or reader with amazing feats of deductions based on a particular type of clay or scratches on a pocket watch. Manory was earnestly probing the problem and this made him come across, in spite of his verbosity, as an honestly intelligent detective.

Lisa convinces Manory to come to the opening of The Balcony to keep an eye on her and act "sort of like a bodyguard," which might convince her would-be-assassin to abandon his, or her, plan. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case.

On the right side of the stage, there's "a twenty-foot-high tower with the two balconies side by side," on which Lisa and Edward's characters meet, but, during her balcony scene, Lisa toppled over the rail and plunged twenty-feet. She landed face first with "a sharp, sickening crack of her neck." Lisa had been all alone on the balcony and there were two-hundred people in the audience to back up that claim, but Manory is convinced one of his six suspect had planned and carried out, what looked like, the perfect murder. And now the story, or rather the plot, becomes a little tricky to discuss.

Years ago, I compared the plot of M.P.O. Books' De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), one of the best Dutch detective novels ever written, to a kaleidoscopic photograph. A plot that initially appears to be a confusion of scattered, seemingly unconnected plot-threads, but, as the story progresses, the lens is slowly turned back into focus – creating a complete and coherent picture of the case. Byrnside has a similar plotting-style except with him there's never any doubt the plot-threads are connected, but the effect is pretty much the same. JJ hit the nail on the head when he called the plot of The Opening Night Murders a "mesmerizing, intoxicating performance."

The hook of The Opening Night Murders isn't simply the excellently positioned and executed impossible crime in front of two-hundred witnesses, but the way in which every single aspect and detail of the story logically dovetailed together in the end. This allowed Byrnside to play around with that beloved plot-device of puzzle-plot enthusiasts, the multiple interpretations/solutions, which is used quite effectively towards the end of the story. Simply amazing!

Once more, I can't give you too many exact details about this intricate, maze-like plot, littered with clues, but the second murder deserves a mention. A murder that's the exact opposite of the carefully planned, coolly executed murder of Lisa Pluviam. The second, gory murder was a frenzied killing carried out with a straight razor and kitchen knife. However, the murderer turned out to have a logical reason to go to town on this victim that you normally only see in Japanese shin honkaku mysteries, in which a dismembered or mutilated body often turns out to be a key-piece of the puzzle. Byrnside truly is a neo-orthodox mystery writer!

The Opening Night Murders is not simply a detective of cold, hard logic, but one that becomes very close and personal for the two detectives, which results in an unforgettable ending. Granted, I have read similar kind of endings in detective stories, but not quite like this one!

So, where the characters, plot and story-telling is concerned, I have practically nothing to nitpick about, except that the colorful vernacular of the characters seem very modern at times, but I have a piece of advice for Byrnside. Don't become a one-man tribute band by leaning too heavily on Brand as a foundation for your stories, because it's going to take away from your own ideas in the long run. Instead, you should follow the example of Paul Halter, a disciple of John Dickson Carr, who emerged from his idol's shadow to carve out a legacy of his own as a modern master of the locked room mystery. You can do it!

The Opening Night Murders has rich story-telling that logically navigates a beautifully designed, labyrinthine-like plot to its inevitable conclusion and hopefully a sign from the Gods (Poe, Doyle and Chesterton) that a second Golden Age is on the horizon. I'm eagerly looking forward to the third entry in the series, The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020), which is a prequel and will be released next summer. I'm kind of curious to see how exactly R. Francis Foster's Something Wrong at Chillery (1931) has influenced the interaction between Manory and Williams (see comment-section).

On a final, semi-related note: I crammed this review in between my planned ones (still more than a month ahead of schedule) and this came at the expense of yesterday's review of The Doll Island Murder Case from the Kindaichi series. So, if you missed that blog-post, it's there.

6/14/19

The Kindaichi Case Files: Doll Island Murder Case

Doll Island Murder Case is the sixth entry in The File of Young Kindaichi Returns, originally serialized between October 2015 and January 2016 in Weekly Shōnen Magazine, which was written by Seimura Amagi and illustrated by Fumiya Satō – who drew on the folklore of human-like dolls to dress up the plot. The dolls with their tragic, star-crossed back-stories were used very effectively.

Doll Island Murder Case begins when Hajime Kindaichi is asked by his social studies teacher, Shinobu Tokita, to help her crack a coded message found in a doll that belonged to her late grandmother.

Kindaichi easily deciphers the coded message and it simply tells them to "go to Hitogata Island." Hitogata is a small island not far from Tokyo where, once a year, a doll ceremony is held attended by people from all over Japan together with "the dolls that hide their own feelings."

So Kindaichi, accompanied by Miyuki, travels down to the island to attend the doll ceremony, but, as he reflects back, he had no idea there "an evil and terrifying motive" behind the code – which came to a bloody conclusion on the island of dolls. When they arrive, Kindaichi and Miyuki meet a couple of familiar faces. Inspector Kenmochi has a reason hovering between the personal and professional to partake in the doll ceremony. Yosuke Itsuki is the freelance reporter last seen in The Antlion Trench Murder Case and is accompanied by reporter of Queen Monthly Mystery Magazine, Karin Hoshizaka, who are there to report on three mysterious detective novelists.

Kiriko Kanda, Tomoe Benikoji and Mayako Suzuoka are a writing collective, known as "Persona Doll," who garnered popularity with both their Doll Mystery Series and writing gimmick. The true identity of the three members are a closely guarded and they only appear in public dressed as mute, life-sized dolls with masks. They don't utter a word and only communicate by writing on a small board. There are four more people, Hitomi Shimura, Kagechika Ameno, Soichiro Akagami and Tsuyoshi Tanaka, who all brought a doll with a personal story behind it. Stories full of tragic deaths, murders, suicides and broken lives. And a curse or two.

After they've exchanged the dolls for replacement dolls, miniature copies of the participants, the murderer begins to work like a butcher on piecework.

A headless, legless torso with arms and hands is found clad in the doll costume, one worn by Kiriko Kanda, whose room is spattered in blood and two life-size dolls are standing at the door, but the problem is that even her two colleagues are unable to identify her – because they wrote their novels "through the internet." So even they don't know each others real names or even faces. Naturally, they find out they're trapped on the island, unable to call to mainland for assistance, while someone begins to mutter about a long-dead village elder having returned as the "Cursed Doll."
 
A second body is found at the doll shrine, presumably Mayako Suzuoka, but this time the murderer elegantly posed the severed bottom part among the dolls. However, the real interest comes when the third body is found, which is presented as an impossible crime. And not a bad one either!

What's left of Kiriko Kanda
During the ceremony, Kenmochi looks through the observation window, a narrow slit in the wall, when he notices one of the dolls has a human ear, but, when they enter the shrine, the body of the dolls has inexplicably disappeared – leaving only a severed head with a doll mask "staked on a spear." Kindaichi points out that "everyone who followed the doll ceremony rites," including his prime-suspect, possesses an unimpeachable alibi. They were physically unable to enter the shrine, remove the body of the doll, plant the severed head on the spear and leave the shrine within the minute, or two, between spotting the body and entering the shrine.

This impossible rearrangement of the gruesome scene in the shrine is, plot-wise, the best and strongest part of the whole story. Unlike the other parts of the plot, the locked room-trick was delightfully simple, but very effective and satisfying. I expected some old-fashioned trickery with an identical or mistaken room, but this was so much better. Showing the Japanese are the undisputed masters of the corpse-puzzle.

Unfortunately, everything else manages to be simultaneously incredibly convoluted and infuriatingly easy to solve, because, logically, there was only one character who could have had a hand in it. Why the bodies were cut into pieces was not difficult to figure out. A suspicion confirmed when the mask was removed from the severed head. Granted, the idea behind the masked writers was not without merit, but the answer bordered on cheating as it unfairly muddled the case and gave me the idea the murderer had an accomplice, which would have been more convincing and appeared to be in line with an incident early on in the story – assuming it was a hint foreshadowing this part of the solution. This made me very suspicious of one of the suspects. And he turned out to be completely innocent.

So, on a whole, I would say Doll Island Murder Case is a good, but uneven, entry in the series. The story made good use of the tragedy-stained dolls and a setting steeped in doll-lore with an excellent, but ultimately simple, locked room-trick. On the other hand, the murderer was far too easily spotted with the finer details getting muddled in a convoluted plot playing three-card monte with identities. There were also times when it felt as if the plot went through the motions of a Kindaichi story. We have an isolated island with a closed circle of suspects, the avenger-from-the-past motif, the corpse-puzzle and even the dolls aren't entire new to the series (c.f. the excellent House of Wax).

Still, not too bad of a story with a couple of a good ideas, but just not in the same league as such stories as The Headless Samurai and The Legendary Vampire Murders.

6/10/19

Damning Trifles (1932) by Maurice C. Johnson

In my previous post, I reviewed a humorously written detective novel with an academic background, R.T. Campbell's Unholy Dying (1945), in which the comedic detective and avid reader of locked room mysteries, Professor John Stubbs, is confronted with "the exact opposite of the closed box mystery" – a poisoning in an unlocked room to which two-thousand people had free access. So, for today, I have found a locked room novel about a poisoning inside "a veritable fortress."

Maurice C. Johnson is an extremely obscure mystery writer, of whom very little is known, except that he wrote at least two detective novels, Damning Trifles (1932) and It Takes a Thief (1932). Both were published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Back in 2013, Damning Trifles emerged from obscurity when John Harrington quoted a blurb from The Sun, 1932, in Keeler News #82 of the Harry Stephen Keeler Society. According to the blurb, Keeler was the author of Damning Trifles, but none of "the Keeler experts who have read the book agree." Unfortunately, the link to the news letter is as dead as a door nail, but this mistake from '32 caught the attention of Keeler's biggest champions today, Ramble House, who reprinted the book regardless in 2014 – which caught my eye for a very different reason. Everything about the (surface) plot struck me as an impossible crime story by one of my favorite alternative mystery writers, John Russell Fearn.

Damning Trifles centers on an important invention (Account Settled, 1949) and the scene of the seemingly impossible murder is a photographic laboratory (Vision Sinister, 1954). Interestingly, Johnson has one of his characters say how he can't "disprove one atom of this evidence" and later utters the phrase "every atom of evidence." I remember more than one of Fearn's characters throwing up their hands and saying they hadn't "an atom of proof."

Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying Johnson could have been a twenty-four-year-old Fearn and Damning Trifles represents his first, tentative steps as a mystery novelist. Johnson was an American, while Fearn was English, but it's fascinating to see how closely (plot-wise) their work appears to align.

The protagonist of Damning Trifles is a newspaper reporter, Robert "Bob" Rollins, who "pulled off two big murders beats" for the Chicago Leader and the opening has him lecturing a colleague on the impossibility of a successfully premeditated murder – because a planned murder always "presupposes a motive." When you have the motive, in combination with those damning trifles (i.e. clues), you have your man. Rollins gets another opportunity to put his theories into practice when a murderer strikes very close to home.

Rollins is engaged to Nora Stevens and his future father-in-law, Alexander Stevens, has developed a brand new color-process for photography, which is guaranteed to make millions, but Stevens wants to give his invention to the world – intending to publish the formula in a scientific magazine. This valuable formula is safely locked away, in an office safe, in his fortified laboratory. A place with walls of solid brick and two windows, glazed with frosted glass, with heavy iron bars cemented deep into the stone. The door and transom are of three-inch oak and a massive lock, "such as is rarely seen outside of a stronghold containing treasure," was mortised into that three-inch of oak and can only be opened with a special key. A unique, corrugated key of which there are no duplicates. So not even a bed-bug could enter the laboratory unless he either had the key or sledges and dynamite.

After a brief disappearance, Alexander Stevens is found behind the solidly locked door of his hermetically sealed photographic laboratory, sprawled across his desk, with the unique key on the middle of the desk. A whiskey-glass with frosted crystals at the bottom is standing next to it and a note is found under the body saying, "I bid the world good-by." Detective Jim O'Connell quickly comes to the conclusion that Stevens has taken his own life, but Rollins refuses to believe he committed suicide. And, since he has been given a one-week notice from his newspaper, he has the freedom to devote his time to proving the police wrong.

Rollins is joined by a long-time friend, Bill Hackett, who's the police department's photographic expert and analytical chemist, but he also received a one-week notice for illegally supplying Rollins with a print of a crime-scene photograph – decided to play legman to his armchair detective. Or, as Hackett described it, Rollins scarcely left Stevens' laboratory to search for clues or evidence. And barely performed any physical labor "except for lifting the telephone off the hook" and "hanging it up again." Hackett is not entirely wrong. Rollins has to get physical, but this mainly has to do with the never-ending attempts that are made on his life.

Damning Trifles has a record "eleven attempts at murder," not all on Rollins, of which some had very creative methods. An attempt to poison Rollins with cyanide could have worked, if it had succeeded, as a locked room murder.

Yes, for the most part, Rollins functions purely as an armchair detective and draws up lists with facts and questions, which he draws conclusions from, but sometimes its more guesswork than actual deductions. Such as "deducing" where a hypothetical letter could be found. This was an educated guess, at best, but makes for some fun, purely amateur, detective work. My favorite scene of this is when Rollins performed the locked room-trick in the photographic laboratory for a blindfolded Hackett and the sounds he heard around him beautifully doubled as clues to the trick the murderer used.

The solution to the puzzle of the hermetically sealed laboratory was not bad at all and pretty satisfying, not too easy or overly complex, which was easy to visualize, but a drawing was still included – showing how the murderer found the proverbial "Judas Window," or "Unguarded Path," giving access to the room. Granted, there was an aspect of the room that was not revealed until the solution was revealed and variations on this specific trick has been used before and since Damning Trifles was published. Most notably the more modern interpretations that can be found in the Detective Conan and Kindaichi series, but, on a whole, this version of the trick was handled pretty well and liked the positioning of the impossible problem. I liked it and can recommend it to my fellow locked room readers on that account alone.

As you probably noticed, I haven't even touched on the close-knit circle of suspects. The reason for this is that there are, at a pinch, only two viable suspects and assumed this was a how-was-it-done, along the lines of Victor MacClure's Death Behind the Door (1933), but then it appeared as if Johnson was going to pull an unknown "X" out of thin air. Only to come out with a nice little surprise twist. Once again, like with the locked room-trick, not all of the relevant information was fairly shared with the reader. Somehow, that didn't really bother me here. I suppose it was the idea of reading a locked room mystery that feels like it could have been written by Fearn. This is why so many fans of John Dickson Carr love Hake Talbot.

So, my opinion of Damning Trifles is a little colored, but that has not blinded me to the obvious flaws of the plot. Such as the spotty, incomplete clueing. You should not expect a classic impossible crime novel going in, but something more along the alternative lines of the more unconventional, often amusing and even clever, locked room mysteries such as Stacey Bishop's Death in the Dark (1930), Joseph B. Carr's The Man With Bated Breath (1934) and W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1934) – which means that it will not be to everyone's taste. However, I still very much enjoyed my time with it and really liked the impossible crime.

6/7/19

Unholy Dying (1945) by R.T. Campbell

Ruthven Campbell Todd was a Scottish artist, novelist, poet and "leading authority on the printing techniques of William Blake," but towards the end of the Second World War, he was advised by fellow poet and mystery writer, "Nicholas Blake," to turn to the detective story as "a means of making money" – cautioning him to use a penname in order to avoid "ruining his name." So he rearranged his own name and came up with the nom-de-plume of "R.T. Campbell."

Under this name, Campbell rapidly produced eight detective novels, nearly all of them published in 1946, seven of which feature his botanist-cum-amateur detective, Professor John Stubbs. A wonderful character cut from the same cloth as Carter Dickson's Sir Henry Merrivale and Leo Bruce's Sgt. Beef. With a hint of John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell.

Professor John Stubbs is described as a corpulent, "shortsighted baby elephant" with a booming voice, who blows and wheezes through a frayed mustache, while wiping his glasses or blowing his nose with a large red bandana and smokes "a pipe filled with evil-smelling tobacco" – in between draining a quart mug of beer. Frighteningly, Stubbs is entangled in a never-ending struggle to tame his dangerous, hulking Bentley, of an "extremely uncertain age," by "driving as fast as he can" and "braking just in time to avoid disaster." Very much to the horror of his terrified passengers.

Just for the character of Professor Stubbs alone, I can recommend this series to fans of Bruce, Carr and the comedic mysteries by Edmund Crispin.

During the late 2000s, I read the Dover reprint from the eighties of Bodies in a Bookshop (1946), but Campbell immediately disappeared from my radar again, because his detective novels have the unbecoming habit of being "distinctly rare." Last year, John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, posted "Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of 2018" reminding everyone Dover has recently reissued four Professor Stubbs mysteries, which come with an insightful introduction by Peter Main. John recommended Death for Madame (1946), but opted for Unholy Dying (1945) instead. The first book in this lamentably short-lived series.

Before delving into that story, I have to tell you about Campbell's "Lost Detective Novels," five in total, which were announced by his publisher as forthcoming, but the company "went into liquidation" in 1948 and the books were lost to history – because no copies have ever turned up or appeared in "any specialized bookseller's list." The book-titles of these lost mysteries are The Hungry Worms Are Waiting, No Man Lives Forever, Death is Not Particular, Death is Our Physician and Mr. Death's Blue-Eyed Boy. The knowledge that there's a Phantom Library of lost and unpublished detective stories will never stop to fascinate and frustrate me in equal measures.

Unholy Dying is told by Andrew Blake, a reporter for the Daily Courier, who has been assigned to report the eighteenth Congress of Geneticists and one of the many attendees is his uncle, Professor Stubbs. So it should be a fairly easy job, but Blake notices an undercurrent of tension around a small group of people among the two-thousand attendees. And even becomes involved in the problems of this group.

The source of tension is a supposedly brilliant geneticist, Dr. Ian Porter, who got "a great deal of pleasure out of the fact that people disliked him" and "climbin' to fame on the shoulders of others," but, during the congress, he's also a bit too pressing (physically) with a female attendee, Mary Lewis – angering her love-interest, Dr. Peter Hatton. Professor Maxwell Silver is supposed to be one of the victim's of Porter's scientific thievery, but doesn't appear to really care. And even the only one who somewhat likes Porter. Or does he? Dr. Herman Swartz remembers Porter from his days in the U.S. and highly approves of Blake boxing his ears during a party at the local pub. Porter gets his lights knocked out a second time by Hatton in the demonstration room. And there his body found a short while later with a glass of cyanide standing on the table.

Professor Stubbs has been reading detective stories for donkey's years and he's even seen reading a novel by John Dickson Carr in this story (probably Till Death Do Us Part, 1944), which makes him somewhat of an expert on the topic of murders done in a locked room and murderers with cast-iron alibis. However, this murder is "the exact opposite of the closed box mystery." Porter had been alone in a room to which roughly two-thousand people had free access, but Stubbs has been waiting for years to play detective and he wasn't going to let this opportunity slip through his fingers. Even if the "murderer is not a very original person." Campbell and Professor Stubbs definitely have a touch of Bruce and Sgt. Beef!

So, he takes his first, tentative steps on the path of becoming a Great Detective and he does it with all the grace and subtlety of a stampeding elephant, which range from compiling a list of all the suspects with possible motives, opportunities and alibis ("common to many of the best detective stories") to muttering cryptic remarks about knowing who the murderer is – giving veiled hints to the works of Shakespeare and the Famous Trails Series. There is, however, a drawback to the plot.

Unholy Dying seriously lacked credible suspects, only four, which made the murderer standout like a sore thumb and deflated the ending, but it made the spotty clueing a little less obvious. However, I think the plot, as a whole, would have worked better had it been worked into a short story.

That being said, Unholy Dying stands as a promising debut novel from a writer who reads Carr, but took his cues from such comedic mystery writers as Bruce and Crispin, which made for a highly readable and funny detective story – full of banter and sly winks at the genre. So I can only recommend it to seasoned mystery readers.

6/5/19

Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence (2019) by P. Dieudonné

I hadn't planned on doing another review of a non-English detective novel, but a small, independent publisher, E-Pulp, kindly provided me with a review copy of Paul Dieudonné's Rechercheur De Klerck en het doodvonnis (Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence, 2019) – who has been billed as the pupil of the late A.C. Baantjer. A former police detective, with four decades of experience, who went on to become the most popular mystery novelist of my country and his work introduced me to the genre. So I was quite curious to see how well Dieudonné's debut stacked up against my fond memories of Baantjer. The answer: surprisingly well.

Paul Dieudonné grew up in the Netherlands, but immigrated with his family in the late 1960s to Canada and ran an antiquarian bookshop in Montreal, until health issues forced him to sell the bookstore, but through Baantjer he continued to maintain a link with his homeland. And this inspired him to follow in the footsteps of the Nestor of the Dutch politieroman (police procedural).

To use his own words, Dieudonné wanted to write "a book with the same feeling and style as a Baantjer." He described his debut novel as his "tribute to the grandmaster" and dedicated the book to his memory. Slowly, the waves of nostalgia began to form.

Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence is set not in Amsterdam, but in the second biggest city in the country, Rotterdam, which was an excellent decision, because Amsterdam has been done to death as a backdrop for Dutch police series – to the point of fatigue. So Rotterdam is a welcome change of scenery for this type of Dutch police novel which often have a strong, regional flavor to them.

The protagonist of the series is the titular policeman, Inspector Lucien de Klerck, who wears sunglasses with a uv-filter, because a genetic defect made his eyes incredibly sensitive to the ultra-violet radiation in sunlight. Personality-wise, De Klerck is the inverse of the typical brooding, cynical and troubled policeman of the contemporary misdaadroman (crime novel). De Klerck is an optimistic, good humored policeman who's married to a farmer's daughter from Friesland, Annie, who live on a house boat and they love to move around the city with it. Since a few months, De Klerck has a new assistant, Ruben Klaver, who he described as "a boisterous talent."

Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence begins with the arrest of "an alleged burglar and safe-cracker," Jacco Fonk, who had been caught by hidden security camera when he slipped into an office building of an investment company, but the details are curious to say the least – because he entered the building without picking any locks. More curiously, the security camera registered how Fonk locked the door behind him and then broke it open again with a crowbar. Even more baffling, the director of the burgled GreenDreamInvest, Bart Bovend'Eerdt, comes to the police station to request the release of Fonk. He claimed the whole burglary was a big misunderstanding and simply part of a bet he had with a friend to test his security system.

So, with the police report rescinded, De Klerck had to let Fonk go, but merely an hour later, Bart Bovend'Eerdt takes his own life in a spectacular and very public way.

Bovend'Eerdt stumbled to the Erasmusbridge, tied one end of "a blue, plasticized washing line" to the railing, placed the noose on the other end around his neck, climbed up and "fell backwards." A number of security cameras caught everything from the moment he appeared on the bridge to how "the fall jerked to a halt" as the body "dangled wildly" at the end of the makeshift noose. More importantly, the footage showed Bovend'Eerdt had been alone on that part of the bridge. De Klerck and Klaven eventually find a suicide note and evidence Bovend'Eerdt has been preparing for the end. What else could it have been than a suicide? De Klerck has his doubts. And not without reason.

A.C. Baantjer's debut (A Noose for Bobby, 1963)
Sadly, the mysterious hanging at the Erasmusbridge is not an impossible crime and the method to hang two more people from the same bridge is as prosaic as it's disappointing. Thankfully, it wasn't done by hypnoses or a mind-altering drug, but the solution was still a bit of a letdown. I was reminded of Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941), in which people are found with a broken neck, but lacked any physical signs of having struggled or resisted their attacker and appeared to have been an impossible crime – a big deal was made about the murder method. Only to be letdown by a very simplistic, uninspired solution.

However, while the how behind the murders was disappointing, to say the least, the who-and why were impressively done and a delightful throwback to the great detective stories of yore! Particularly the choice of murderer is a tip of the hat to the classics. Very well done!

Appie Baantjer preferred to work with a tiny, closed-circle of suspects of four or five credible suspects, but Dieudonné used a slightly larger cast of characters from the victim's private and professional life. There are former employees of the victim's struggling company. Such as a disgruntled bookkeeper and a missing deputy director. An older brother who throws shade at his sister-in-law and refers to her as "the witch." Evidence has come to light linking the victim to a group of hard-bitten, ruthless criminals from Amsterdam and this brings De Klerck to the old capital where he meets a thinly disguised replica of Baantjer's well-known police-detective, Inspector Jurriaan de Cock, who's only referred to as "Jurre." Still a spot-on imitation and love the idea De Cock is still dragging his tired, old feet through the streets of Amsterdam as he patiently hunts down thieves and murderers. This country hasn't been the same without him.

Well, Dieudonné more than delivered on the promise of writing a police novel that felt like it could have been written by Baantjer. Not only is the storytelling and style very reminiscent of Baantjer, but De Klerck and Klaver are typical Baantjer characters. You can see a reflection of De Cock, Vledder and Van Opperdoes in them.

However, Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence is not an outright pastiche of Baantjer. There are many obvious nods and winks to Baantjer, but this series can clearly stand on its own two legs as it basically plays Monk to Baantjer's Columbo. Or should that be Paul Halter's Dr. Alan Twist to John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell? Add to this an engrossing, if slightly imperfect, plot, clueing and the rushes of nostalgia, you have a promising debut of a series that might actually fill the gaping hole in my soul left by Baantjer's passing. Hey, he was my first mystery writer!

So, while the snobby, puzzle-plot purist in me was disappointed by the lack of ingenuity when it came to the tantalizingly-posed bridge-murders, I can easily forgive that when put against the overall quality of the story. For example, the murderer and motive were both very well handled, clued and delightfully classical. This made Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence a good, satisfying and, above all, warm tribute to one of the most important mystery writers I ever picked up and eagerly look forward to Dieudonné's second novel – which is scheduled to be published sometime in 2020. But until then, I have a short story, "Rechercheur De Klerck and de doodsteek" ("Inspector De Klerck and the Death Blow," 2019), to carry me over.

6/2/19

Journey to the West: Four Detective Stories from the East

Back in March, I posted a comment on a blog-post by John Pugmire, announcing "A New Paul Halter Short in EQMM," in which I suggested he used the, as of now, uncollected translations that have only appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine to compile an anthology of locked room stories – appended with some new material. Pugmire responded there were enough stories in the pipeline that "a second anthology is distinct possibility." Eventually...

So, not content with having to wait until the 2020s roll around, I decided to treat myself to an appetizer and read the remainder of the LRI impossible crime stories from Asia.

EQMM, August, 2014
Szu-Yen Lin is a philosophy scholar at the University of Auckland, who studied aesthetics and philosophy of the arts, but, more importantly, he the representative of the Japanese shin honkaku school of detective fiction in his native Taiwan. Lin has written eight mystery novels and nearly thirty short stories, of which three have found their way to the West. Death in the House of Rain (2006) is a brilliant locked room mystery with strong overtones of Grand Guignol, while "The Miracle on Christmas Eve" (collected in The Realm of the Impossible, 2017) is a disgustingly adorable story about a father who proves to a group of children that Santa Claus exists, but Lin's first short story to appear in English has always eluded me – until now. So let's get started!

A translation of "The Ghost of the Badminton Court" was published in the August, 2014, issue of EQMM and is a very old-fashioned locked room murder in a new setting.

Szu-Yen Lin series-character is Ruoping Lin, an assistant professor of philosophy, who has made a name for himself as an amateur detective. This brings Captain Jhang, of the Hualien County Police Bureau, to his doorstep. Captain Jhang has been investigating a murder committed in the gym of Pacific Ocean University, but the case "features a rather bizarre and inexplicable puzzle" preventing the police from reaching a satisfying conclusion. So his superior advised him to consult the philosopher-detective.

The body was found in the badminton hall, on the second floor of the four-story building, on the morning after the badminton team had their weekly practice and locked up the place. Syu Jhiming, the court manager, walked around the courts, checked the windows and locked the door behind him – depositing the keys in a lock-box under supervision of Mr. Chen. A new employee without a shred of a motive to commit the murder that was discovered when the door to the badminton hall was opened the following morning. One of the team members, Jiang Weisin, lay face-up near the door "surrounded by three lines of shuttlecocks" forming "a white triangle."

Evidently, the only person who could have feasibly committed the murder is the court manager, Jhiming, but evidence suggests he had been nothing more than a pawn in a carefully contrived murder. So who did it? And how?

A long-time, semi-obsessive reader of impossible crime fiction will immediately know the crux of the locked room-trick when they see the floor plan. A trick very familiar to locked room readers, but how it was executed is a different problem altogether. The result is a pleasantly knotty problem with many moving parts and a new variation on an old locked room-trick.

I think it's to Szu-Yen Lin's credit, as a mystery writer, "The Ghost of the Badminton Court" is still the weakest of his three detective stories published in English. So I hope more will follow in the hopefully not so distant future.

EQMM, August, 2015
Earlier this year, Pushkin Vertigo published the eagerly anticipated translation of Soji Shimada's second detective novel, Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982), which is a modern locked room tale that felt like a genuine Golden Age mystery – a more than worthy successor to Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981). Even if it missed some of its macabre grandiosity. However, these are not the only works from the hands of the doyen of shin honkaku. There are two great short stories!

"The Executive Who Lost His Mind" ("Hakkyō-suru jūyaku," 1984) was published in the August, 2015, issue of EQMM and is a bizarre, not easily defined impossible crime story, but a modern take on John Dickson Carr's classic radio-play "The Dead Sleep Lightly" (collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly, 1983) would be a fair description. In any case, the story is a minor tour-de-force.

This story doesn't feature his astrologist-detective, Kiyoshi Mitarai, but his secondary series-character, Takeshi Yoshiki, who's (as far as I could gather) an interpreter of alternative facts and here he listens to a story that could have come "right out of a tale by Poe" – which is told to him by a policeman, Yoshiki. A story that begins long before the executive director of the K Trading Company is found in his private-office "staring wild-eyed at a high-heeled shoe perched on the desk in front of him."

Shintaro Inudo is the absolutely ruthless, forty-one-year-old executive director of the trading company and he has cultivated a reputation "as something of a womanizer." This is why his private-office was so plush, because he liked to bring woman back there after his regular late-night drinking sessions. Oh, he has a wife and kids at home, but the most shameful, ongoing episode from his double-life is when he raped a young woman, Ikuko Koike, who he then continued to blackmail. Forcing her to sleep with him and giving him money. What he really got off on was the control he had over her. Their one-sided affair culminated in his private-office when Inudo took away Koike's clothes and forced her to stay there until he returned, but she had to get home before her husband returned.

So she simply vanished under inexplicable circumstances from the private-office on the top-floor of the trading company. Koike was never seen again.

Several months later, Inudo is visited by a young woman who not only like Koike, but is dressed exactly like her on the day he raped her, which twenty years ago, but this ghostly visitation is a human being of flesh and blood. Someone who knows too much and has to be silenced. So he throws the woman out of the window of private-office, on the fifth floor, but this is when the absolute impossible happened, because the body he finds below is that of a mummified woman with a completely emaciated face – two black holes where the eyes had been. Somehow, the body had rapidly deteriorated at a supernatural speed during its fall from the fifth floor window!

The solution to these series of unlikely and downright impossible occurrences is brilliantly daring and came about during "a set of amazing coincidences" stretched across several months. 

This story is not one of Shimada's intricate jigsaw puzzles (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) or three-dimension locked room enigmas (Murder in the Crooked House), but an elaborately laid-out pattern of domino stones, linking everything together, which is revealed when all the domino stones have fallen. A pattern formed by the Merrivalean blinking' cussedness of things in general. This story is the absurdly bizarre done right. Just like Carr's The Hollow Man (1935) or Hake Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman (1942), which also deals with a body decomposing at a supernatural speed. Shimada really is a modern-day Carr or Talbot.

The third story of this review is another impossible crime story by Shimada, "The Running Dead" ("Shissou suru shisha," 1985), which was published in the November/December, 2017, issue of EQMM and has one of Shimada's grand-style tricks. One that kind of reminded me of those you often find in Detective Conan.

Kiyoshi Mitarai is back here as the story's detective and is a guest at the apartment of Genji Itoi, the owner of the jazz bar Zig-Zag, who entertains jazz players and music aficionados every other Saturday. One of the guests, Namura, performs a mind-reading act involving numerous items, mainly watches, a ring and a pearl necklace, after which they play music together and this scene has Mitarai playing the guitar – which is suddenly interrupted by a power outage. Another guest, Kubo, enters the darkened room and snatches the pearls from the table. They decide to pursue Kubo and Namura saw him climb over at one end of a T-shaped corridor, on the eleventh floor, which has no emergency staircase. Just a sheer drop to certain death, but where did the body go? Nothing is found on the street below. As if he "disappeared in midair."

The body of Kubo is found a short time later on an elevated, three-story high railway track, run over by a train, but the medical examiner found strangulation marks on his throat. 

EQMM, Nov/Dec, 2017
So how did a dead man manage to steal a string of peals, vanish miraculously from a dead-end corridor on the eleventh floor and cover the distance between the apartment and elevated railway track, in the middle of a storm, to be just in time to be run over by a train? This is patently impossible, but still happened and the problem of the running corpse reminded me of the impossible resurrection from my favorite Jonathan Creek episode, The Black Canary (1998).

Admirably, Shimada dazzles the reader with a solution as complex and involved as its premise, but, as fantastical as it may seen, it's compelling and strangely believable. I think you can put this down to human cunning and a fluke of circumstances coming together to create a truly baffling brainteaser. There's a reason why Japanese mystery fans refer to Shimada as "God of Mystery." Seriously, if more of his work gets translated, Shimada might become a serious treat to Carr when it comes to the #1 slot of my favorite mystery writers. Shimada is the iconic mystery novelist of our time and it's a crime only two novels and three short stories have been translated into English.

By the way, I loved the maps, challenge to the reader and the casual, almost bored way in which Mitarai rushes through the "obvious" solution, because he doesn't want to miss a concert on TV. And then he tells the policeman to get back to him when he has "a case that’s more complex than today's." What a way to put your detective over!

Finally, I have a short story from the 1930s to close out this review, namely "The Spider" ("Kumo"), which was first published in English in the December, 2015, issue of EQMM and collected in Foreign Bodies (2017). The story was written by Saburō Kōga, a contemporary of "Edogawa Rampo," who debuted with Shinjuto no himitsu (The Secret of the Pearl Tower, 1923) and seems to have been, like Rampo, a follower of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Spider" is a detective story masquerading as a turn-of-the-century horror story and centers around the bizarre, isolated laboratory of Professor Tsujikawa.

EQMM, December, 2015
Professor Tsujikawa used to be a leading authority on physical chemistry, but he gave up his seat as a university professor and started research on a completely different topic, spiders, which is why had a tube-like laboratory constructed on the outskirts of Tokyo – resembling "a misshapen lighthouse" or "a time-worn fire watchtower." The bizarre laboratory was filled with "the strangest spiders from all over the world." Every time the world had forgotten the professor, the laboratory was brought back to everyone attention by two particular events. A friend and colleague from university, Professor Shiomi, fell to his death from the laboratory. Four weeks later, the professor is bitten by "a poisonous tropical spider" and is rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Where he died a week later.

Slowly, the narrator discovers that there was a cunning, but disturbed, mind behind these deaths. A mind that went to extreme lengths to commit the perfect murder.

"The Spider" is a detective story in the tradition of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) and Keikichi Osaka's The Ginza Ghost (2017), but with a grotesque touch of Poe and Rampo. Not a classic by any means, or even baffling, but I still enjoyed it for what it was.

So, all in all, these were all good to excellent short stories with "The Executive Who Lost His Mind" as the standout of the group. I would even say it's a minor classic and they all deserve to be gathered in a brand new locked room anthology, but, hopefully, with a ton of new material. Because, you know, I have already read these ones (sorry, John). What more can I say except that I hope will be flooded the coming years with translations of these ingenious Japanese detective novels and short stories.