Gigi Pandian is the award-winning author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt books, a series of archaeological mysteries, which have been in my peripheral for years, because Pandian is an admirer of John Dickson Carr and has been penning quite a few locked room stories – all with a historical or archaeological background. I love locked room and archaeological mysteries! So why did it take me so long to finally get around to Pandian?
The series has a cozy, girly vibe that was a little off-putting and add the seemingly never ending flood of reprints, translations and classics that kept coming my way, you have the reason why Pandian never got past my wish list. Not until last year, that is.
The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (2018) is billed as "a treasure trove of nine locked room mysteries" and Douglas G. Greene, of Crippen & Landru, wrote a foreword for this collection. Well, that was more than enough to lure this locked room fanboy in. However, my advise is to skip Greene's foreword until you've read the stories, because he reveals a red-thread that runs through them that will probably ruin part of the fun if you're a fanatical locked room – as well as laying bare a general weakness of the collection. Greene's foreword really should have been an afterword. So, with that out of the way, let's get to the stories.
The opening story is a novella original to this collection, "The Cambodian Curse," in which a former con man turned security expert, Henry North, asks Jaya Jones to help him find a statue that was stolen from a museum under seemingly impossible circumstances. A statue from Cambodian, known as The Churning Women, was the museum's centerpiece with curse resting on it. A string of anonymous letters warned the owners to return the statue to Cambodia, but the only precaution they took was moving it to a secure office on the second floor – a room without windows and security cameras outside. This office room is the scene of a seemingly impossible murder and theft.
Jaya Jones spends most of the story looking for the "missing pieces of history" and reconstructing the family history of both the victim and her museum. Unfortunately, the locked room angle is not really examined until very late into the story and the solution is a complete letdown. A type of solution I utterly despise as an explanation for an impossible crime. I hate it even more than the timeworn secreted panels, hidden passages, unknown poisons and pieces of strings or pliers. So not exactly an auspicious beginning of this collection.
The second story, entitled "The Hindi Houdini," was originally published in Fish Nets: The Second Guppy Anthology (2013) and the detective here is not Jaya Jones, but her best friend and stage magician, Sanjay Rai – who's known as The Hindi Houdini and briefly appeared in "The Cambodian Curse." Rai is preparing for a magic show in California's Napa Valley when the theater manager, "a crass womanizer," is murdered in his locked office. Suspicion falls on a former mistress, but Rai clears her name by finding an answer as to how the murderer managed to get pass the locked door. The trick, or rather the principle behind the trick, has a long, storied history in the genre, but was competently handled here. A routine affair as far as locked room stories goes.
Luckily, the third story is easily the best one of the lot and my personal favorite. "The Haunted Room" was originally published in Murder on the Beach (2014), in which Jaya Jones listens to the peculiar history of the titular room in a house dating back to "the post-Gold Rush boom in the late 1800s." The room is not so much haunted as it suffers from a serious case of kleptomania. A nifty twist on the room that kills (e.g. Carter Dickson's The Red Widow Murders, 1935). Over the decades, all kinds of items have inexplicably disappeared from the room, such as children's toys and a ring, but, during the early 1900s, "a valuable scroll" of historical importance disappeared from the room – only problem is that the room had been locked at the time. And the occupant of the room, a scholar, had placed a chair under the door handle.
I know of only one other impossible crime story that uses a hungry (locked) room that gobbles up its content, which can be found in Case Closed, vol. 66, but Pandian had the better solution of the two, because it was more elegant, original and thoroughly clued. If I had to pick a story from this collection for a locked room anthology, it would probably be "The Haunted Room." Really enjoyed it.
Unfortunately, I didn't like the next novella at all. "The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn" was published in 2017 as an ebook and even won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, but every idea from the plot was borrowed from other detective stories or series – running from Conan Doyle to Jonathan Creek. The past murder inside the inaccessible library, blocked by a table, gives away that Pandian has seen Jonathan Creek. It's practically identical to one of the episodes!
Granted, the use of a hardcover edition of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was a clever touch, but even that gimmick came from a rather well-known historical mystery. So, no, I didn't like this story at all.
The next story, "The Curse of Cloud Castle," originally appeared in Asian Pulp (2015) and returns to the exploits of the Hindi Houdini, Sanjay Rai, who finds himself stuck on an artificial island with "a storybook castle." An island that was created only ten years before by a tech billionaire who made his fortune in cloud computing and the cast of characters mostly consist of Silicon Valley people. A good way to replant the classic trope of a closed circle of people in modern times. Naturally, someone is murdered under impossible circumstances, but, once again, the solution turned out to be one of the easiest, most simplistic locked room-tricks in the book.
"Tempest in a Teapot" was first printed in LAdies Night (2015) and the story introduces yet another one of Pandian's detective-characters, Tempest Raj Mendez, who's a magician friend of Sanjay Rai and has an interesting impossible situation – a botched stage trick. A man stepped into a barrel-size wicker basket, situated in the middle of a stage, while an assistant plunged a plastic sword into the basket followed by a scream. When they opened the basket, they found the man curled up inside with "a pool of blood spreading across his stomach." The impossible situation recalls Carter Dickson's Seeing is Believing (1941), but the solution is a play on Edward D. Hoch's favorite technique. And think his fans will most appreciate this story.
"A Dark and Stormy Light" was originally published in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional (2016) and can hardly be described as an impossible crime story, but is, together with "The Haunted Room," the best story of the collection with one of the freshest take on the "gentleman thief" in the West – which should please fans of Maurice Leblanc and rogue fiction in general. Jones tells Rai the story of the second conference of historians as a grad student.
The history conference was sharing the hotel with a mystery writers' conference, "a friendly bunch," who turned out to be even "bigger drinkers than historians" and their guest of honor is a famously reclusive mystery writer, Ursula Light. She takes a firm hand in the investigation of the he disappearance of a keynote speaker of the history conference, Milton York. York claimed to have discovered a diary that would change "some widely held assumptions about why the Dutch lost their stronghold in India," but has not been seen since the pre-conference meetings. The only quasi-impossibility, at a stretch, is a discrepancy in time. However, this is hardly to the detriment of the plot and has a fun explanation for the missing speaker. And revealed a great villain who should be brought back in future stories.
The next story, "The Shadow of the River," originally appeared in Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology (2011) and is the shortest story in the lineup. The story begins with Jones being on scene when the body of Dr. Omar Khan, a professor of history, is found behind the locked bolted door of his university office – beaten to death with "a thick wooden figure" of a smiling Buddha. Recently, Dr. Khan had discovered "an ancient map depicting three sacred rivers in India," which was now missing except for a small, torn piece that was found on the edge of the desk. The solution is another golden oldie, but was nicely put to use here and this should probably have been the opening story. If only because it appears to be Pandian's earliest published short story.
Personally, I believe it's better to open a collection, like this one, with a writer's earliest work, because, if the stories are good, shows the reader the author progressed and improved over time. Sticking it at the end show the opposite.
Finally, The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories closes with a novella, "Fool's Gold," which was first published in Other People's Baggage: Three Interconnected Novellas (2012) and has interesting gimmick. Each of the novellas are standalone stories, but are finked together by having the characters from the three different writers ending up with each other's baggage. Admittedly, this is certainly a novel way to link all these characters together without having them actually meet. Hey, I love crossovers almost as much as a good locked room puzzle. Anyway, the lost baggage here is only a minor inconvenience to Jones. The real problem is the theft of a golden and silver chess pieces, which were taken from a hotel safe by blowing it open, but the thief never emerged from the room after the explosion. Jones is accompanied by her magician friend on this investigation. A fun, amusing and good story to close out the collection, but not particularly challenging as far as the impossibility is concerned.
My review has been rather lukewarm and this has to do with the problem that was inadvertently highlighted by Greene in his foreword. These stories, without giving too much away, hardly break any new ground with the exception of two stories, "The Haunted Room" and "A Dark and Stormy Light" – standouts of the collections. So you shouldn't go into it expecting a shin honkaku-style locked room puzzles that employ elaborate architecture or severed body parts to craft intricate and original impossible crimes. This is mostly written as a tribute to everyone's favorite mystery trope.
In the end, I think The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories will be more appreciated by fans of the series and modern cozies than the fanatical locked room reader looking for another La nuit du loup (The Night of the Wolf, 2000; Paul Halter), Keikichi Osaka's The Ginza Ghost (2017) or Arthur Porges' These Daisies Told (2018).
Well, so far my tepid review, but good news, I found something promising from the late Golden Age that, thematically, has something in common with this collection. And not just because it's an impossible crime novel with a murder taking place in a locked museum.