7/10/20

The Devil Drives (1932) by Virgil Markham

Virgil Markham was a strange mystery writer who eschewed the common tropes and conventions in his detective novels, eight in total published between 1928 and 1932, which have been practically forgotten today and Curt Evans wrote, in a 2012 blog-post, that the books may have been "victims of their own originality" – or "to say strangeness." A writer who steered his "narratives over worn-out ruts" to find "different and exciting ways of working with the form." And it's not easy to decide whether, or not, he succeeded in cutting new pathways through the genre.

Curt referred to one of my reviews of Markham's first and most well-known mystery novel, Death in the Dusk (1928), which I described as rivaling Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) and Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock (1950) in the race for most outlandish detective story ever contrived. The outlandish plot and story-telling is also the reason why I didn't break my neck to get all of Markham's detective novels.

Death in the Dusk is a massive, nearly 400-page long, detective novel posing as a grim, blood-soaked fairy tale with bleeding portraits, levitating bones, immortal cats and an enchanted duel between medieval sorcerers, but turgid narrative makes it a slow, plodding read – requiring your undivided attention. A book that is hard to warm to and only can be appreciated for what's it trying to and not how. So was brought Markham back under my attention?

Back in 2018, The Invisible Event and The Green Capsule posted glowing reviews of Markham's third mystery novel, The Devil Drives (1932).

JJ began his review with "someone who venerates plot to the extent I do should not have enjoyed this book as much as I did," while GC praised Markham for coming up with "a completely unique solution to a locked room murder." What I gleaned of the erratic plot from their reviews, I expected something along the lines of R.H.W. Dillard's The Book of Changes (1974), but with more lucidity and substance in the writing and plotting. My expectations were exceeded, because The Devil Drives had no right to be this good and entertaining! A story that's not easily described, or defined, but absolutely wonderful to read.

The Devil Drives is narrated by the "sinfully young" warden of New Jersey's Franklin Penitentiary, George Peters, who receives a visit in the opening chapter from a representative of the Woman's Press Association, Miss Louisa Matthews Carmody – who wishes to inspect all of the parts of the prison. Peters has the unshakable feeling that Miss Carmody's primary interest was in the prisoners rather than the conditions of the prison. In the second chapter, Peters goes down to the death house to have one final talk with "a gunman with a long New York record," named Frank Holborn, who claims to have been framed. And tries to ask the warden a favor. Peters turns him down and the story really begins after the, more or less, successful execution of Frank Holborn. This is the point where the narrative becomes jittery and episodic.

Peters receives a packet of old, undated love letters written by a 13-year-old girl, "Pat," to an obviously older man, "Dubrosky," which are full of references to "the loveliest doll's house" with a pigmy tribe inside and a buried treasure that no one will ever find – except "by earth, air and water." Someone wants to give Peters the job to find that treasure, but, in order to do so, he has to burn all his bridges behind him. And descend into the criminal underworld.

Fascinatingly, Peters assumes a false-identity and uses it to set himself up as a fixer. The underworld equivalent of a private investigator and can't remember having ever come across a character who had to play detective in that role.

What comes his way is a notorious murder trial that has taken the place of the Hall-Mills and Gray-Snyder affairs in the newspaper headlines and its unfortunate aftermath. A flamboyant gangster with fresh flowers in his buttonhole, an eccentric blackmailer, a gun-wielding countess and a long-missing, Raffles-like house thief. Everything is all over the place and it takes until the last quarter of the story to follow the twisting, winding path of the plot down to a small, lakeside cabin that looked like "a pumpkin-house in fairy tale" with its sides and back bulging "a bit like the pumpkin." When Peters looks through the window, he sees the body of man laying a puddle of water surrounded by muddy footprints, but the solid, pinewood door and windows are locked, bolted or hooked on the inside. So how did a man drown, on dry land, while locked inside a cabin?

I've to agree with JJ that the locked room-trick is not wholly original and hinges on a principle that's not exactly popular among puzzle-purists (burn the heretics!), but Markham came up with an entirely new and satisfying variation on the trick – a solution that was audaciously clued and hinted at. So have to side with GC's enthusiasm over the locked room-trick, even if it's not an outright classic.

On a side note, when the body was found and it came to light he had a non-fatal head wound, I began to suspect the pumpkin-like cabin somehow had been flooded with water and drained again, which could have been done through the chimney or those suspicious weatherstrips that helped seal the place (could they have been removed to let the water in or out?). And he had sustained the wound when he bumped his head to the ceiling when he floated to the top. But what killed him was not ordinary drowning, but delayed drowning, which would explain the muddy footprints inside (he walked around before collapsing). A hypothesis I had to abandon because it didn't fit the timeline of the story, but still wanted to share that pulp-style locked room possibility with you.

The Devil Drives is a strange animal and a bundle of contradictions. A simplistically complicated story with a loose, episodic plot tried together with a string of coincidences, some harder to swallow than others, but somehow, it worked – punctuated with an ending that gave everyone involved déjà vu. There's no logical reason why it worked, but, somehow, it did and the result was very pleasing. One of the most unorthodox and curious (locked room) mysteries I've read in a long time!

7/6/20

Hoch's Ladies (2020) by Edward D. Hoch

Hoch's Ladies (2020) is the tenth Crippen & Landru collection of short stories from the master of short form detective fiction, Edward D. Hoch, which collects all the stories with Hoch's three female detective-characters, Libby Knowles, Susan Holt and Annie Sears – who share seventeen appearances between them. This collection has, as to be expected, one or two stories of the impossible persuasion!

Hoch's Ladies begins with the eleven stories with Susan Holt, a promotions manager in Manhattan's largest department store, who can be considered as the female counterpart to William L. DeAndrea's Matt Cobb. A corporate, business-minded woman who inexplicably keeps getting herself entangled in dark, murderous plots during office hours or business trips. And even the more puzzle driven stories in the series can be classified as medium-boiled crime stories.

I'll seriously try keep my discussion of each individual story as brief as possible in a futile attempt to prevent this review from bloating to the size of beached wale carcass. So let's dig in!

Susan Holt debuted in "A Traffic in Webs," originally published in the Mid-December, 1993, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM), in which Holt travels to Tokyo, Japan, to view a display of "bizarrely beautiful" spiderwebs – created by Professor Hiraoka who fed weed and LSD to spiders. Holt has to secure the exhibition as next year's Christmas display, but, upon arrival, she's nearly pushed in front of speeding car and the manager of the Japanese store is shot and killed in his office. The quasi-futuristic Japanese setting with its lifelike automatons and talking escalators is the best part of the story, because the plot makes it fairly average crime story. So not exactly a perfect beginning and it takes a couple of stories before the series starts to get really good.

"A Fondness for Steam" was published in the July, 1994, issue of EQMM and brings to Holt to Reykjavik, Iceland, to get a look at a line of quality woolen garments with new designs and colors, but she learns that an employee of the woolen mill was bludgeoned to death near one of the city's swimming pools. Unfortunately, the solution runs along very similar lines as the previous story and makes the story feel like a rewrite with the setting outperforming the plot. Thankfully, the next story is truly excellent!

"A Parcel of Deerstalker" originally appeared in the January, 1995, issue of EQMM and begins with an absolute screamer: the Mayfield's department store is planning to do a Sherlock Holmes promotion and ordered a dozen deerstalkers from Meiringen, Switzerland, but the parcel was delivered "a severed human ear" lay on top of the merchandise – a crime straight out of Conan Doyle's "The Cardboard Box" (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, 1894). Holt has to travel down to Reichenbach Falls to prevent the Swiss side to back out of the deal over the murder, but the Sherlockiana is not merely a gimmick to prop up a weak plot. This is an expertly constructed, fairly clued and beautifully executed detective story with a solution that satisfyingly tied the opening scene to the conclusion. The master has awakened!

The fourth story, "An Abundance of Airbags," was first published in the July, 1995, issue of EQMM and provided this volume with its striking cover, but, more importantly, Hoch found a new scenario and solution to the locked room mystery. Susan Holt flew and drove from Manhattan to Des Moines to organize a fall promotion around the theme of ballooning ("Values Up, Prices Down"), which is why she's meeting a balloon enthusiast, Duncan Rowe. She arrives in an open field with more than twenty, multicolored balloons, but a dark shadow hangs over the motley field of balloons. A balloonist had died the previous week when he fell out of his balloon and Holt is now on scene to witness another balloonist plunging to his death. And they were both all alone when they tumbled out of their baskets.

The story features a brief discussion of some locked room stories by John Dickson Carr and C. Daly King, which revealed one of the clues to have been a red herring, or a clue masquerading as a red herring (you decide), but the solution is delightfully original and relatively simple in theory – strenghtened with an all-revealing clue that was brazenly dangled in front of the reader. Someone was feeling confident when he was penning this story. One of the absolute highlights of this collection!

Curiously, "An Abundance of Airbags" is one of the many short stories and novels Brian Skupin missed in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). See? I wasn't being an impossible crime fiction junkie when I said we desperately needed another supplementary edition.

"A Craving for Chinese" was originally published in the December, 1995, issue of EQMM and, unusually, opens in a prison where a convicted murderer, David Feltzer, is counting down the last hours of his life. Feltzer was convicted for murdering a hostage during a botched robbery and requested Chinese food as his final meal, but they couldn't prepare that in the prison kitchen and they had to send for it. But he had barely tasted the food when he slumped to the floor. He couldn't have been more dead had they executed him. A cyanide compound was all through the food, but who poisoned the food and how? So how does Susan Holt come into the picture?

David Feltzer's brother, Simon Feltzer, is the promotions manager of Brookline, a chain of department stores headquartered in West Caroline, which has been bought out by Holt's Manhattan department store and she's there to organize a special promotion held when the store changes its name. She smells a case and decides to meddle in it. The plot sticks together well enough, but not very difficult to piece together who and why a man about to be executed was poisoned. A decent story.

"A Parliament of Peacocks" originally appeared in the June, 1996, issue of EQMM and Holt is in London, England, where she saves the life of a nightclub singer who was assaulted and nearly killed by a knife-wielding man and this incident may have a link to the murder of a parliamentary aide – who was found stabbed to death in a hotel room. A little more than a mediumboiled tale about a sordid and seedy kind of crime with a simplistic, uncomplicated resolution. So not outstanding, but not exactly bad either.

The next story, "A Shipment of Snow," first appeared in the December, 1996, issue of EQMM and has a highly imaginative premise and quasi-impossible crime. Holt is flying to Florida to see "a truckload of snow" arriving at the Gulfpalm shopping mall. A large, refrigerated truck is on a two-day, 1500 mile journey to bring some of Buffalo's recent snowfall to Gulfpalm to launch its Christmas shopping season, but it wouldn't be a typical business trip for Holt without a good murder. When the truck is being unloaded, the body of the president of Gulfpalm, Benjamin Vangridge, is found underneath the snow. However, the truck had been on the road, non-stop, for two days and people had seen the president only the day before. So how did his body end up in the back of the truck? A very original premise with an intriguingly posed problem, but the solution reveals the story to be a rewrite of "A Traffic in Webs" and "A Fondness for Steam." Although this version showed a lot more ingenuity.

"A Shower of Daggers" was originally published in the June, 1997, issue of EQMM and famously collected in Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006), which helped make the story the best known in the series and one of Hoch's iconic locked room stories – not without reason. The story opens with Susan Holt being held in police custody on suspicion of murder! Holt had flown to LaGuardia to oversee the opening of a new branch store and met with her contact there, Betty Quint, who invited Holt back to her apartment. Quint decided to take a shower with Holt sitting on the toilet seat, talking to her, when Quint screamed that was followed by a thump as her body went down in the tub.

Holt yanked back the shower curtain and stared down at Quint's body with "a slender dagger" sticking out of a bloody wound in her back and "a second, identical dagger lay in the tub near her foot," but otherwise, "the tub was empty." So the police arrested the only logical suspect. I had forgotten how close this story stands to the impossible crime stories by Carr. If you take away the modern trappings, you have a locked room puzzle that could have the graced the pages of a Dr. Gideon Fell novel or a short story in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940). I don't think you can give an impossible crime story a bigger compliment than that.

"A Busload of Bats" was originally published in the November, 1998, issue of EQMM and has a better backdrop than plot that is as American as it can get. Susan Holt is in Phoenix to secure an exclusive, two year promotional deal to handle some of the newer, higher-priced merchandise of a brand new baseball team, Tri-City Comets, but the deal is threatened when the battered body of a woman is found in an abandoned bus. A murder presented as an impossible crime, but completely deflated by plain, uninspired solution. Unfortunately, the last two Holt stories are more of the same.

Susan Holt went on an eight year hiatus and suddenly reappeared in "A Convergence of Clerics," published in the December, 2006, issue of EQMM, which finds her as director of promotions on the maiden transatlantic voyage of one the largest and most luxurious cruise ships afloat, Dawn Neptune – where she's the gauge public reaction to the opening of Mayfield's branch on the ship. The cruise ship is bound for Rome and is overrun with priests en route to a papal conference, but tragedy strikes when one of them is stabbed to death in his cabin. Holt is able to find his murderer by spotting the odd-man-out. So not a particularly clever or memorable story, but the shipboard setting was nicely realized.

The final Susan Holt story, "A Gateway to Heaven," was published in the January, 2008, issue of EQMM and centers on a recurring side-character, Mike Brentnor, who used to the buyer of Mayfield's and appeared, or was mentioned, in practically every story. Brentnor dropped off the radar towards the end and suddenly turned up again to ask Holt is she wants to invest in a racetrack. An offer she politely declines, but soon they're up to their neck hair in trouble when Brentnor is found handcuffed to a radiator very close to a fresh corpse. Solution is more than a little obvious, but it gives the series a nice sense of closure.

The next three stories follows the exploits of an ex-policewoman, Libby Knowles, who dated a crooked cop involved in a cocaine scandal and died when he smashed up his car, which made her decide to resign from the force to become a bodyguard – working closely together with her former colleague, Sergeant O'Bannion. Libby Knowles and the type of cases that come her way reminded me of the private-eye novels and short stories by Anne van Doorn, Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini.

The first story in the series, "Five-Day Forecast," originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Anthology #48 (1983), in which a meteorologist of a private weather-forecasting service hired Libby Knowles to protect his life. Bryan Metzger is afraid that he'll will follow in the footsteps of his colleague and inexplicably kill himself. A few days ago, Horace Fox had leaped out of the seventh floor window of their office and Metzger has since found himself "drawn to the window behind his desk." Libby suspects there's more to his request than meets the eye and uncovers a criminal application for weather forecasting. An interesting character debut, to say the least.

"The Invisible Intruder" made it first appearance in the Mid-December, 1984, issue of EQMM and is a good example of a story that could have easily been written by Van Doorn or Pronzini. Libby Knowles is hired by Frederick Warfer, an industrial consultant, whose home is fitted with a "highly sophisticated burglar-alarm system" that "not only wired the doors and windows," but also threw "a pattern of invisible beams across rooms and doorways" – someone keeps getting in at night and setting off the alarms. Someone who never leaves any "sign of forced entry" and vanishes without a trace. Warfer believes someone is trying to harm him. And this person is getting closer!

Libby Knowles is now spending the nights at the home of her new client, sleeping fully dressed with a snub-nosed Cobra revolver under her pillow, but it's not until the second night that she finds an answer to the titular intruder. But as she finds an answer to one impossibility, she immediately discovers a second one. Someone had found a way to the enter the locked house and slice Warfer's throat open without being seen by Knowles. An excellent and well-constructed detective story showing that Hoch knew his classics.

The last Libby Knowles story, "Wait Until Morning," appeared in the December, 1985, issue of EQMM and is a music-themed detective story in the spirit of Paul Charles' The Ballad of Sean and Wilko (2000). Knowles is hired by music promoter and manager, Matt Milton, who represents the young rock singer, Krista Steele. He wants to hire her to help him keep Krista away from drugs. An unusual, but relatively easy, case that pays and nothing that could really go wrong. Until a master tape with three songs is stolen and a fiery car crash takes someone's life. A nicely plotted little story, but what makes it standout is the original motive and the rock music background.

Hoch's Ladies closes with the only three cases starring Annie Sears, a homicide cop, who moved from El Paso to San Diego and her stories are firmly rooted in the American police procedural, but she first appeared as a passing amateur snoop in, what has to be, one of the oddest stories Hoch has ever penned.

"The Cactus Killer" was originally published in the October, 2005, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and has Annie Sears making a stop on her way to San Diego, in Cactus Valley, to watch the town's annual festival – where she learns of the oddest active serial killer in America. Over the past two years, someone has been going around with a high-powered rifle and drilling the cactuses, some over a hundred years old, full of holes. So why would anyone drive around and shoot cactuses? I can already tell you that my answer (because 'merica!!!) proved to be incorrect, but "The Cactus Killer" is a very inventive and intricate detective story. Sadly, it's also the shortest story in this collection.

"First Blood" made its first appearance in the March, 2007, issue of AHMM and covers Annie Sears first day on the job in San Diego. She immediately dispatched to Essex Jewelers, in Emerald Plaza, where the vice-president of the company was shot and killed during a robbery. The security tape showed a person, clad in a long black coat, gloves and rubber Batman mask, shooting the vice-president, but soon its proven that this was an inside job. A story easily solved, if you can spot the tale-tell clue.

Lastly, Hoch's Ladies ends with the last Annie Sears story, "Baja," which was originally published in the September, 2008, issue of AHMM and has Annie Sears accompanying Detective Sergeant Frank Munson to Baja California, Mexico, to bring back a prisoner being extradited to the United States. Dunstan Quentis killed a police officer during a robbery, but Sears makes a mistake during transport and Quentin manages to make his escape. So the hunt begins of, what appears to be, a very contemporary crime story. Nevertheless, the final part of the story and solution revealed the plot of this very modern crime story had some surprising puzzle aspects and clues hidden in it. Not a very complex or intricate plot, but good enough to close out this collection.

So, on a whole, Hoch's Ladies is a solid collection of short stories shining a light on the contemporary side of Hoch's expensive catalog of detective stories, but with most of the plots still slanted to the traditional, Golden Age-type mystery and topped with the occasional locked room puzzle – something that will always have my personal seal of approval. "A Parcel of Deerstalkers," "An Abundance of Airbags," "A Shower of Daggers," "The Invisible Intruder" and "The Cactus Killer" were the gems of this collection and completely overshadowed the handful of stories that were a little underwhelming. A welcome addition to the growing list of Hoch collections.

On a final, related note: Hoch's Ladies announced that, after twelve years or so, that Funeral in the Fog: The Occult Cases of Simon Ark is finally forthcoming in 2020! At this rate, we might get that second Ben Snow collection before 2025!

7/3/20

The Last Trumpet (1937) by Todd Downing

Todd Downing was an American advertising copy writer, novelist and reviewer who was born in Atoka, Choctaw Nation, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), who began his stop-and-go academic career as an instructor in Spanish at the University of Oklahoma and ended it as a teacher at Atoka High School – capped with his appointment to Emeritus Professor of Choctaw Language and Choctaw Heritage. But his academic achievements pale in comparison to the body of work that made him, to quote Curt Evans, "one of the most important regionalist mystery writers of the Golden Age."

When he was teenager, Downing began devouring the detective-and thriller stories by Arthur B. Reeve and Edgar Wallace at "a prodigious rate" and graduated to the Golden Age detective fiction of Anthony Berkeley, S.S. van Dine and Rufus King in the 1920s. These years formed the foundation for his career as a mystery reviewer and writer in the 1930s. Downing reviewed John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen in the literary pages of Oklahoma City's Daily Oklahoman and published his first mystery novel, Murder on Tour (1933). A novel that introduced United States Customs Service Agent, Hugh Rennert, who made seven appearances between 1933 and 1937, which are mostly set in Mexico.

So a writer who should have had more of my attention, especially since all of his novels were reprinted by Coachwhip, but mistakenly decided, years ago, to begin with his most well-known detective novel, The Cat Screams (1934) – a detective story undeserving of its reputation. Downing redeemed himself with Vultures in the Sky (1935), but, sort of, forgot about him until I recently came across my copy of The Last Trumpet (1937).

Now that I've read it, I finally understand why Curt has been gushing over Downing and devoted an entire book to him, Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing (2013).

The Last Trumpet takes place around the sun-soaked border towns of Mexico and the United States, during the Christmas season, where Hugh Rennert has retired to grow citrus fruit. When the story opened, Rennert had been on an errand to Matamoros when a friend, Kent Distant, drags him to the debut of a young matador, Carlos Campos. Everything appeared to go well, until Campos was about to deliver the golpe de gracia with his sword when "a spasm of pain contorted the man's face." And he got fatally wounded by the horn of the bull.

An unfortunate tragedy that becomes highly suspicious when it turned out that Campos was one of the witnesses in a lawsuit between Dr. Paul Torday and the Mexican National Railways, which stemmed from a horrific collision when a passenger train crashed into a sidetracked Pullman sleeper – killing four people and left the doctor crippled. Dr. Torday was not expected to survive his injuries and the railway company offered him a thousand dollars a week indemnity, but he didn't die and held them to their bargain. So now they're trying to break their indemnity by going to court. And it turns out that the witnesses in this ongoing case have been plagued by fatal, or near fatal, accidents around the same time of the year.

Over the past two years, around Christmas time, death stalked the group of witnesses with various degrees of success. One of the witnesses was killed in a hunting accident and Dr. Torday's car had been nearly forced of the road. Now the young matador had been killed in a suspicious-looking mishap and someone else was shot and wounded while on an evening walk, but, more interestingly, another man is shot and killed while crossing the crowded International Bridge, over the Rio Grande, connecting Mexico with the United States – offering a potentially diplomatic nightmare scenario. What if "the gun had been fired a foot or so inside Mexico," but "the man died in the United States?" or "if the murderer had stood on the United States side, shot across the line, and then stepped over into Mexico?"

A great idea that should have been used as the premise of a separate detective novel instead of being merely a puzzle piece.

Dr. Torday tries to hire Rennert to find out, whether or not, there's a plot against him and his witnesses, but he turns him down and accepts the position of deputy sheriff (without a pay) to find a solution to these nebulous deaths. And why they had to die. Since it's highly unlikely that the Mexican National Railways is committing mass murder to get out of an ordinary lawsuit.

So the plot of The Last Trumpet very much reminded me of the Christie's Murder is Easy (1939) and John H. Vance's The Fox Valley Murders (1966) with its series of suspicious, homicidal-looking accidents and the explanation Rennert's uncovered was immensely satisfying and pure Golden Age. One part of the solution is a variation on a trick used by two of the previously mentioned mystery writers, but Downing found an original use for it and strengthened the solution by giving the murderer a ruthless motive, which made for a memorable ending to a classic American detective novel. Only (minor) blemish on the plot is that it needed the presence of a lot of left-handed, or ambidextrous, characters in order to make it work, but a flaw I can easily forgive when learning why they were needed – showing you can stretch things a little if you have something to show for it in the end. Downing definitely delivered here in the end!

The Last Trumpet is a small gem of the American detective story with a plot that appeared to be as loose as sand when you're reading it, but the solution revealed everything stuck together like conjoined twins. So, plot-wise, The Last Trump is an excellent detective novel, but the writing and setting demonstrated why Curt considers Downing as one of the best regional mystery writers of his day. Obviously, Downing loved Mexico and that love is reflected in his writing. Most heartily recommended!

A note for the curious: one of the characters predicts that "solar heat would eventually be converted into cheap energy" and "take the place of mineral fuel," which felt a little out-of-time and wondered if the text had been "updated." But a quick search showed that people have been experimenting with solar energy since the late 1800s. Still, it was unexpected to come across a reference to solar energy in a regional mystery novel from the 1930s.

6/30/20

The Hog's Back Mystery (1933) by Freeman Wills Crofts

Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the earlier Golden Age mystery writers and he was among the first whose work was resurrected in the early 2000s, courtesy of House of Stratus, before slumping back into obscurity again – until fifteen years later when the British Library Crime Classics and Collins Crime Club began reissuing his work en masse. Collins Crime Club is going to publish six more long out-of-print titles in Crofts' Inspector French series concluding in September with the reprint of his eagerly anticipated locked room novel, Sudden Death (1932).

So I wanted to remove one, or two, older reprints from my to-be-read pile before adding new ones to it and decided to finally take a shot at The Hog's Back Mystery (1933). One of those simon-pure jigsaw puzzle detective novels with a plot that, sort of, flirts with the impossible crime story.

The Hog's Back Mystery, published in America as The Strange Case of Dr. Earle, takes place in "the heart of wild Surrey," with "the spine of that curious narrow ridge known as the Hog's Back" in the background, where the retired Dr. James Earle settled down with his wife, Julia, in a typically English cottage – all around it was the woods. Giving the cottage that it might be "the only dwelling in the world." This where the Earles have decided to life a quiet, docile existence with Dr. Earle working on his manuscript on germ cultures and Julia buzzing around the place doing the household chores.

So, to liven up the place a little, Julia invited two guests to spend a short holiday at the cottage. Marjorie Lawes is Julia's unmarried sisters who lives most of the year abroad and churns out reams of sentimental love stories as a living. Ursula Stone is their childhood friend and the honorary secretary of a children's hospital in Bath, but she's the one who discovers that there was no love between James and Julia. They merely tolerated each other "in the spirit of trying to make the best of a bad bargain." What's more, Ursula discovers that Julia is probably involved with her next door neighbor, Reggie Slade. And even the mild, elderly James seems to be involved with a much younger woman dressed entirely in gray. This little, dime-a-dozen domestic intrigue turns out to be foundation for an extraordinary and baffling string of inexplicably disappearances.

On a Sunday evening, Dr. James Earle was seen sitting, before the fire, with his house slippers on and reading a newspaper, but, three minutes later, the newspaper was on the chair and he was gone – vanished without a trace with no hint of cause or method. Dr. James Earle had been spirited away! The way in which he disappeared was like "seeing the impossible happen before one's eyes."

Granted, the disappearance of Dr. Earle is not exactly an impossible crime, but, as Inspector French soon discovers, the case is as baffling and complex as the most intricately plotted and executed locked room mystery. The first disappearance seems simplistic enough with having to decide whether Dr. Earle had disappeared voluntarily or had been murdered, which appears to be answered when French discovers the woman-in-gray had also disappeared without a trace. French is not satisfied with this answer and the way in which he reasons the pros and cons of the various possibilities showed Crofts had great respect for the intelligence of his readers.

Every possible scenario and lead is discussed, closely examined and followed to its logical conclusions, which, on more than occasion, turns out to be incorrect and the reader is shown, through French's reasoning, why he had been wrong – right down to the last detail. French might not be an eccentric scientist-detective or an amateur reasoner of some celebrity, but his performance here, alone, makes him one of the Great Detectives of the Golden Age. The way in which French tries to get a firm grasp on the problems is a sheer joy to read, if you like your detective stories pure and undiluted with any literary pretensions. The Hog's Back Mystery is an exercise in rationality and stubborn, dogged determination.

Something else to admire about The Hog's Back Mystery is that the central problem keeps developing and expending the number of combinations and possibilities. You won't appreciate the full scope of the problem until a third person vanishes from an upstairs bedroom with people sitting in the room below, but it is this disappearance that provides French with the (physical) clues needed to force a much-needed breakthrough. What he discovers makes him determined to ensure the person responsible will pay "the heaviest penalty that the law allowed."

All of that being, I fear some readers will struggle with the slower, more plodding, final quarter of the story, particularly the last chapter, which hinges on timetables and movements of the suspects used to destroy a sturdy alibi. Don't worry. You're not expected to do any math homework. French is there to walk you through it.

The Hog's Back Mystery is an intelligently plotted and surprisingly charmingly written detective story. A little plodding in parts, perhaps, but I think it helped the story here as you can't help sympathize with French as he continues to plug away at a seemingly insoluble problem using little more than clear, honest reasoning and humanity's famous, mule-headed stubbornness. Needless to say, I loved the result.

6/28/20

Food for Thought: "Dead of Winter" (2007) by Catherine Mambretti

Catherine Mambretti is a former college professor and, among other things, a scholar of 17th century literature and an expert in manuscripts and rare books, but she has also written a number of short detective stories – one of her stories should have been listed in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). A historical impossible crime story with Pocahontas as one of the characters and a Native American shaman as the detective.

"Dead of Winter" originally appeared in the December, 2007, issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and learned of its existence through our very own genre-sherpa, Mike Grost, who briefly discussed and praised the story on his website.

The story takes place in Jamestown, Virginia, during the harsh winter of 1609 and is told from the perspective of a 17-year-old white slave, Edward, who had been one of the ship boys that had been sold for corn to the Indians when they landed in 1607 – which was hardly enough to keep the settlers fed. Emperor Powhatan had prepared his people and his storehouses "were packed with bearskins, smoked oysters, char-kee, walnuts, maize" and "other riches." A treasure worth its weight in gold when all the settlers had to eat were "old boots and thrice-boiled horse bones."

Edward had been sent by his shaman master, Araparedhunt ("known as Redhunt to his friends"), to Jamestown to spy at a time when he was sure the settlers had "nothing left to eat except each other," but Edward had been sent back with a message from the commanding officer. Captain Percy had decided to content to marry the Powhatan's daughter, Princess Pocahontas, with "some corn" as a dowry. Pocahontas was already married to a warrior, Kakoum. She has to right to exchange Kokoum for Percy, but Redhunt told Edward to prepare to return to Jamestown with a polite refusal. And then she burst into his yehawkans, asking the Great Shaman to find her husbands murderer.

Kakoum's body had been found in the snow, near the Great Fertile Swamp, with a pierced skull and still clutching his bow. A hundred feet away from the body was a blood-covered boulder, which suggests he might have wounded one of his attackers, but, whoever had attacked him, they left no footprints – as "if they had wings." So rumors begin to swirl around and suspicion falls on the white, starving cutthroats of Jamestown, but Redhunt found an unexpected solution when he closely examined the scene of the crime.

This is where "Dead of Winter" changes from a historical story to a slightly unusual impossible crime story. Particularly for something that was written and published only thirteen years ago.

Firstly, Redhunt is a literary descendant of Arthur W. Upfield's half-aboriginal police detective, Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte, who are both trackers with an uncanny ability to uncover clues from their natural surrounding – drawing deductions from animals, plants or the unmarked snow around a body. Redhunt uses this method to explain how Kakoum died in that lonely place. Grost pointed out the solution is a variation on a well-known trick, but originally used here to create a no-footprints scenario, which helped give the story an old-world feeling. A solution that firmly places the story in the impossible crime tradition of L.T Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) and the stories collected in Keikichi Osaka's The Ginza Ghost (2017).

So, purely as an impossible crime story, Mambretti's "Dead of Winter" is a bit of a throwback to some of the earliest locked room mysteries and impossible crime stories, but it worked really well. Combined with the historical set, you have another good story that future locked room anthologists should keep in mind. More importantly, it shows that there's more than enough material out there to justify another supplementary edition of Locked Room Murders. Not that I need another supplementary edition, or anything, but you know, it's handy to have around when you're suffering from a crippling impossible crime addiction. My copies of Adey and Skupin constantly reassure me that my supply of locked room mysteries are still far from being exhausted.