6/21/19

Murder Around the World: A Review of Five Short Detective Stories

Exactly a year ago, I reviewed a collection of short stories, The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories (2018) by James Holding, which gathered all ten short stories about two mystery writers, Martin Leroy and King Danforth, who play armchair detectives with their wives during a world cruise – which were originally published between 1960 and 1972 in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Obviously, this series is hugely indebted to Ellery Queen falling somewhere between Queen's International Case Book (1964) and the Puzzle Club stories from Queen's Experiments in Deduction (1968). But with story-title structure of the early international series (e.g. The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1932).

So, I was a little surprise to learn that the man behind Wildside Press, John Gregory Betancourt, penned a brand new "Leroy King" story. You read that correctly. Betancourt wrote a pastiche of a pastiche!

"The Jamaican Ice Mystery" was originally published in Malice Domestic 13: Murder Most Geographical (2018) and reissued earlier this year, in ebook format, as a separate short story, in which Martin Leroy and King Danforth are reappear as two octogenarians – adding another layer of EQ lore to the "Leroy King" series. You see, Dale C. Andrews and Kurt Sercu wrote a superb pastiche, entitled "The Book Case," in which a 100-year-old Ellery Queen solves the murder of a collector of detective novels in 2007. This story is collected in a recent Wildside Press anthology, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2018).

The story opens during one of the yearly cruises of Martin Leroy and King Danforth, accompanied by their wives, Carol and Helen, who are enjoying the Caribbean sun on the deck of the Jamaica Queen. There are complaints about how the bartender doesn't know how to mix a gimlet and their disastrous Netflix miniseries. They reminiscence about "the unsettled '60s" and observe that they didn't have "a decent murder to solve in decades." And as on cue, a porter informs them a woman had been murdered and robbed in the suite next to the Danforths.

Obviously, Betancourt was having too much fun with resettling the characters into a contemporary setting, which came at the expense of the plot. They're using smartphones, Google and Twitter, but the plot is paper-thin and the two problems, a poisoning and theft of a necklace, pose no challenge to the reader whatsoever – especially when the borrowed ice bucket is mentioned. So, purely as a detective story, I can't really recommend it, but, if you're a fan of the original series, you might want to pick it up to see how Martin and King are doing.

The second story comes from one of the founding members of the shin honkaku school of detective fiction in Japan, Takemaru Abiko, who debuted last year in English with a translation of Shinsoban 8 no satsujin (The 8 Mansion Murders, 1989). A funny and clever impossible crime novel translated by Ho-Ling Wong and published by John Pugmire's Locked Room International. This time, they ferried a short story across the language barrier with a practically unique detective-character.

The Puppet Deduces from the Kotatsu
Ho-Ling Wong called "Ningyou wa tent de suiri suru" ("The Puppet Deduces in the Tent") quite good as a locked room mystery and deemed it the best of four short stories from Abiko's Ningyou wa kotatsu de suiri suru (The Puppet Deduces from the Kotatsu, 1990). The translation changed the story-title to "A Smart Dummy in the Tent" and can be found in this years double June/July issue of EQMM.

The detective of the story, or to be more precise, the vessel for the detective is a young, shy ventriloquist, Yoshio Tomonaga, whose puppet-character is the more outspoken Mario Marikōji, but this is more than merely a ventriloquist act – because Tomonaga has a split personality. And that other personality expresses itself through the puppet, Mario. Was this series the inspiration for that atrocious anime detective-series, Karakurizōshi ayatsuri Sakon (Doll Puppeteer Sakon)?

"A Smart Dummy in the Tent" takes place on the opening day of carnival, among the colored tents on large vacant lot, where Tomonaga performs in the big circus tent with Mario, but the festivities are canceled when one of the performers is found murdered. Panda Gotanda was a "slapstick magician," like Tommy Cooper, who was found beaten to death in one of the partitioned dressing rooms on the western end of the tent. The entrance to the dressing room was "under observation," until the body was found, while the hemline of the tent fabric is secured to the ground with metal anchor pins. You need a special instrument to pull them out. So this leaves the police with only a single viable suspect, Mutsuki Seno'o, who's a friend of Tomonaga. And one of the few people who know about his split personality. She encourages him to help the police solve the locked-tent murder.

The solution to the locked-tent is excellent and entirely original, which makes you wonder why nobody else came up with it before. My only complaint is the unnecessary final twist in the story's tail, but suppose it fits Abiko's tongue-in-cheek approach. Other than that, "A Smart Dummy in the Tent" is a welcome addition to the steady growing pile of shin honkaku detective stories and novels.

By the way, Abiko made a reference to "the protagonist from that famous comic by the legendary Osamu Tezuka," Jack Black, which must have pleased Ho-Ling to no end.

The next story is Paul Halter's "Le loup de Fenrir" ("The Wolf of Fenrir"), published in the double March/April, 2015, issue of EQMM, which was ranked by JJ as Halter's eighth best short story back in February – placing it above "The Abominable Snowman" and "The Robber's Grave." See, JJ, this is exactly why we had four Anglo-Dutch wars.

"The Wolf of Fenrir" opens in the winter of 1912 in the comfortable flat of Owen Burns, in St. James's Square, where he tells Achilles Stock the story of woman who was attacked and killed by a wolf in France. She was all alone in a cabin, in the wood, which was surrounded by snow and the only prints in the snow belonged to the victim and the animal she believed had been tamed. Naturally, this turns out to be a deviously contrived murder, but the solution turns out to be two very basic locked room-tricks spliced together. So not very impressive. However, the no-footprints scenario is arguably the hardest type of impossibility to plot and even harder to be original. And the rest of the plot was pretty solid.

So, on a whole, "The Wolf of Fenrir" is not a bad detective story, but Halter has written better ones. Some of those stories appeared were ranked lower by JJ.

Luckily, Halter and JJ redeemed themselves with the excellent "Le livre jaune" ("The Yellow Book"), published in the July/August, 2017, issue of EQMM and coming in third on JJ's best-of list of Halter short stories – beaten only by "La nuit du loup" ("The Night of the Wolf") and the unrivaled "La hache" ("The Cleaver"). Seriously, "The Cleaver" is one of the best impossible crime short stories ever written!

"The Yellow Book" takes place during the winter of 1938 in a small village on the outskirts of Verdun, Malenmort, where a group of people meet once or twice a month at the home of Daniel Raskin "to invoke the spirits of the dear departed." When the story opens, the group receives a message from the spirits that one of them has been murdered and they discover "the sacrificial obsidian knife in the glass-fronted bookcase" has been stolen, but nobody at the gathering has been murdered. However, one of the regular members, Captain Marc Santerre, had called earlier in the day to excuse himself. And he lives in "a small, isolated house, less than five minutes' walk" from Raskin's house.

Captain Santerre is found beaten and stabbed to death in "a chalet locked from the inside" and "surrounded by virgin snow," which had been revealed by the spirits, who accused one of the people linking hands at the table. An inexplicable crime, if there ever was one. Luckily, Dr. Alan Twist happens to be in the neighborhood and unravels this tangled skein without leaving his armchair. I love these kind of armchair detective stories!

When the yellow book and mental state of the victim was brought up, I was afraid this was going to be house-of-monkeys-style shenanigans and wanted to tar-and-feather JJ, but the explanation took a decidedly different turn with an excellent variation on a locked room-trick from an earlier Halter novel – which worked even better as a short story. So, yeah, this is without doubt one of Halter's better short stories. Highly recommended!

"The Corpse That Went For a Walk"
Finally, I have a short story from my own country: "Het lijk dat aan de wandel ging" ("The Corpse That Went For a Walk," 2019) by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of M.P.O. Books, who can be credited with having penned one of the best Dutch detective novels, De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011).

Several years ago, Books abandoned Inspector Bram Petersen of District Heuvelrug and introduced two new series-characters in 2017, Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong, who are particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators) specialized in cold cases. This series succeeded admirably in marrying the traditional detective story to the modern misdaadroman (crime novel) and littered with impossible crimes. One of my favorite stories is the locked room mystery "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018). "Het lijk dat aan de wandel ging" is not an impossible crime tale, or even an old-fashioned whodunit, but the setting makes it somewhat of a standout in the series.

Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover is located on the fifth floor of a residential tower, the Kolos van Cronesteyn, standing on the outskirts of Leiden, South-Holland. One evening, the woman living next door, Lettie Kreft, comes to them with the astonishing story that she found a body of woman, in the hallway of an apartment, on the thirteenth floor. A knife was sticking from her back. The apartment belongs to a sleazy, womanizing artist, Hans Molica, but when they arrive the body has disappeared! So what happened the body, if there was a body? And how do you dispose of a body on one of the top floors of a residential tower?

"The Corpse That Went For a Walk" is a relatively minor story, compared to some of the other entries in the series, but loved the idea of a murder-without-a-body problem with the Kolos van Cronesteyn as a backdrop. So, plot-wise, not one of the top Corbijn and De Jong stories, but still found it to be a good and fun read.

On a final note, I've some good news for all you non-Dutch speaking mystery readers: the very first Corbijn and De Jong short story, "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," 2017), has been translated into English and will be published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine – either later this year or sometime in early 2020. Hopefully, this will kick open the door to get Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) and "The House That Brought Bad Luck" translated.

6 comments:

  1. See, JJ, this is exactly why we had four Anglo-Dutch wars.

    B...because the Dutch have poor taste in detective fiction?

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    1. No! Well, yes, but that wasn't the reason. You guys always stubbornly disagreeing with us was.

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  2. Why atrocious? I thought Puppet Detective Sakon was pretty good.

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    1. The first two stories (in the anime series) looked promising, even if the plots were pretty basic, but after that the quality of the plots took a nose dive. And the episode set in the Egyptian museum would easily make my top 10 of worst detective stories ever conceived.

      By the way, there were plans in the late 90s or early 00s to make an American remake of Jonathan Creek with Whoopi Goldberg, but I always thought Otto Petersen, of Otto & George, would have been a better American Jonathan Creek. Petersen was a ventriloquist/stand-up comedian with a rude, foulmouthed dummy, George. Let them solve some locked room murder and impossible crimes, while touring the country, and you have something that will blow Sakon clean out of the water.

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  3. I loved the "Leroy King" stories back in the day, I'd like to find them again.

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    1. As noted in my review, Crippen & Landru has published a complete volume, entitled The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories, with all of the stories. I highly recommend it.

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