Showing posts with label Pre-GAD. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pre-GAD. Show all posts

8/24/14

A Room With a Story


"There was, too, not only the past, but a sinister present. The shadow of murder and a murderer haunted the house."
- Arthur Hastings (Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, 1975) 
Wadsworth Camp is as obscure as most of the names listed on the Golden Age of Detection Wiki or mentioned in Locked Room Murders and Others Impossible Crimes (1991), but cross-searching them placed two novels by Camp on my wishlist – one of them being The Abandoned Room (1917).

The Abandoned Room was published in the same year as the United States' entry into World War I, during which Camp served as a war correspondent and probably had a brush with mustard gas. Camp most likely wrote the book before the war, but didn't feel the need at that moment to include any reference to the armed conflict that the world was entrenched in at the time. It strangely enough feels like reading a thoroughly British country house mystery as perceived by R.M. James.

Spook Central would've been a good name for the ancestral home of Silas Blackburn, called The Cedars, which he delivered back to the "swift, obliterating fingers of time." A thick and dark forest with patches of stagnant lakes surrounds the home. There's a disused, overgrown family graveyard on the rundown grounds and at the core is the abandoned bedroom, in which many generations of Blackburn's died anguish – usually of a head injury. Silas' great grandfather had been brought to that room from a "Revolutionary skirmish" and his father picked the room to shoot himself in, which are just two of the cozy family stories. However, Silas is afraid that his cousins, Katherine and Bobby, might want to prevent him from changing his will and takes refuge in the old bedroom. Both doors are locked from the inside. And, predictably, Silas is found murdered in his bed, but here is where it gets weird.

Robert "Bobby" Blackburn was on his way to his uncle on the evening of the murder, but wakes up the following morning in an abandoned, ramshackle house well-nigh The Cedars – without shoes or his most recent memories. The possible motive of securing an inheritance and a sudden memory gap makes him the prime suspect for the county detective, Howell, which is strengthened with a footprint matching his and a monogrammed handkerchief found underneath the bed. Yes. There are moments when the story shows its age. However, you probably won't mind them as much once the abandoned room has you in its spell ("I'm possessed by this house and can never leave it again!").

Anyhow, the seemingly impossibilities continue to pile on at The Cedars: Silas' body is moved mysteriously inside the death room, which becomes soon the scene of an identical and equally baffling murder. And there are, of course, more suspects to consider. Why was Katherine always the first to notice there was something happening in that room? What is the real purpose of Carlos Paredes' presence at The Cedars? Why is Dr. Groom so keen to point out the haunted history of the place and suggests they might be fighting the dead who resented the intrusion of the living? Surely, there must be something up with a butler named Jenkins! However, the main attraction remains the thick atmosphere and allusions to ghostly inhabitants of the grounds that is pulled over this story, which is really well played in the second half of the novel – and features another impossible situation or two.

Bobby wants to rifle the pockets of the second victim for important papers and the otherwise unoccupied room is being watched by Katherine, but the papers vanish practically in front of his eyes and upon touching the corpse he "felt death cease to be death" for a moment. I can imagine this particular scene could've impressed a very young and imaginative John Dickson Carr. These apparently supernatural crimes persist and they're used to great effect, but the problem is that they revolve around a gimmick that was out-of-date even by 1917 – as reasonable and convincing as it may have been brought. Camp gave a good explanation why it was missed, but I think he should've continued working on the implied solution that arose when everyone began to think "that the void between the living and dead had, indeed, been bridged." Again... Camp was evidently a master at the oldfangled art of presentation-and effect. What it lacked was an extra punch of originality (see: locked room solution) to push it as one of the early classics of the locked room sub-genre. Now The Abandoned Room only gives us bragging rights about how the Detective Story stole Camp away from the Ghost Yarn. So what do you think about that Dr. Crowe?

Finally, for those interested, the blog Bill Ectric's Place has compiled bits and pieces of information on Wadsworth Camp from around the web.

5/17/14

Days of Yore


"I am bound to tell what I am being told, but not in every case to believe it."
- Herodotus
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in Graham's Magazine in 1841, was the first to be recognized as a full-fledged detective story and locked room mystery. However, the idea of a crime perpetrated in a sealed room is even older than that. Case in point: Herodotus of Halicarnassus.

Herodotus was a historian in ancient Greece of the 5th century BC (c. 485-425) and known as "The Father of History," but the tale of "Rhampsinitus and the Thief" also qualifies him as the progenitor of the Locked Room Mystery and Inverted Detective Story! It's believed that Egyptian priests passed on the story to Herodotus as an anecdote, and while the historian questioned the veracity of the account, it was a story too good not to record – and perhaps even embellished it here and there.

King Rhampsinitus was said to possess an enormous wealth in silver, "which none of the kings born after him could surpass or even come near to," and wanting to protect his personal fortune he ordered to built "a chamber of stone." Unfortunately, for the king, one of the builders "disposed one of the stones in such a manner that it could be taken out easily from the wall," which is how his sons began to plunder to the king's treasure room after their old man passed away. The king is mortified when his wealth begins to diminish and strews the vault with booby traps, but the mystification is complete when they discover "the body of thief held in the trap without his head" and "the chamber unbroken, with no way to come in by or go out."

I can believe there's a core of truth in this portion of the story and that there have been robberies in ancient times by the very men who constructed a strong room or vault, but what follows is pure fiction in the cat-and-mouse tradition. The body of the headless thief is hung upon a wall, and guarded, much to the grief of his mother and the robbers' brother hatches a plan to retrieve the body for burial – which simply consists of plying the guards with drinks. This is, however, not the end of the tale as the king comes up with a plan of his own and his daughter is used to bait the hook. But, as to be expected, the nameless thief again outsmarts the king and eventually wins the princess' hand with the assistance of a severed arm!

On a whole, "Rhampsinitus and the Thief" was an interesting and enjoyable excursion to one of the earliest known locked room mysteries/detective stories, but I began to really appreciate the story after reading "Bel and the Dragon" from the Book of Daniel as comparison material. It's cited as another locked room mystery from antiquity.

The first part of "Bel and the Dragon" has some intriguing ideas that can be found in impossible crime stories from a much, much later vintage: there's a temple dedicated to a god named Bel, in which King Cyrus leaves food and drinks as an offering. Daniel is skeptical and sets out to prove Bel isn't real. A supernatural entity occupying a specific room or place is a popular theme for impossible crime stories, such as Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954) and Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968), and sealing the door with a signet echoes how rooms were locked in John Dickson Carr's The Sleeping Sphinx (1947) and Paul Halter's La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987). I guess the main exception is how footprints are being used as proof of human intervention instead of a supernatural agency.

Unfortunately, the second half is, more or less, what I expected from a biblical story and probably why I prefer Herodotus' anecdote, because the hero had to rely on his wits and brawn throughout the entire story – while Daniel enjoyed divine protection. And that's just plain cheating!

If there's anything to take away from these two stories, it’s a growing conviction that a place such as the library in Alexandria used to store manuscripts that, mystery fans and scholars alike, would respectfully have referred to as "The Ancient Ones." We really need to figure out how to time travel!

4/21/14

Nowhere to Hide


"The lamps are going out all over Europe...
 - Edward Grey
The first conflict of interests on a global scale, usually referred to as The Great War or The First World War, is often cited as the start of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, however, there are barely any war-time set mysteries from the period – unlike the abundance of World War II mysteries from twenty odd years later.
 
"The Signaling from Scarthoe Hill..."

Well, I found a rare World War I spy/detective story when thumbing through my copy of Locked Room Mysteries and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), "Flashlights" by Laurence Clarke, published in the May issue of The Strand Magazine of 1918. The story is illustrated by Warwick Reynolds. I had flicked pass the entry of the story before, but it was an uncollected, stand-alone story and only just noticed the publication date. It was a public domain story and available, fully illustrated, here as part of the collected issues from January to June.

The impossibility of "Flashlights" are the streaks of magnesium-lights being sent up to the sky from Scarthoe Hill, signals to German submarines, and they've cost to British navy two ships as a consequence. To stop the signals, Captain of the Coastguard, Evan Carlton, hermitically sealed off the hillside with a cordon of troops, but the flares persevere. Carlton himself witnessed, through a telescope, the flares being sent up and the barrier of soldiers closing in on the spot where the light emanated from – only to discover the place completely deserted. No. The solution has more originality than revealing the spy was wearing a soldier's uniform and blended in with the cordon sanitaire, but the answer does own some debt to ideas from its time and its predecessors.  

A Military Draft (Get it!?)

A special-agent attached to the Admiralty Secret Service, Terrence Milner, is dropped from the sea on the land in a one-man amphibious landing and takes cover in an abandoned house. Milner expects to be staking out for days or even weeks, but the flares are soon lighting up Scarthoe Hill again and the manor is suddenly everything but deserted. Laughter is heard. And Milner is confronted with an unusual homely picture. Milner's landing and investigation of the house are the best portions of the story. It's a nice bit of suspense with a wartime setting with an impossible problem lurking in the background and reminded me somewhat of John Dickson Carr's excellent Captain Cut-Throat (1955), which is a historical spy/mystery set during the Napoleonic Wars. I wonder if Carr was aware of Clarke's story.

The last part of "Flashlights" slightly diminishes the overall quality of the story with some Victorian love-friction between Milner and a woman, whom he tries to third-degree from her German husband – who's unflattering depiction can be attributed to the "Down with the Hun" position of the Brits at the time. Overall, "Flashlights" is noteworthy as both a detective-and locked room story, because of its unique setting, impossible problem and (historical) ties to the Scientific School of Detection. It's a short story that's more than worth the few minutes it takes you to read it and can be found (again) here.

I hope to back with another review before long, because I'm halfway through a very unusual (inverted) impossible crime story.

1/27/14

A Penny for Your Thoughts


"It is an historical fact. Sharing has never been humanity's defining attribute."
- Professor Charles Xavier (X2: X-Men United, 2003).  
I first learned of Timothy Zahn's "Red Thoughts at Morning" in a web article titled Locked Room Mysteries and Other Improbable Crimes on Steve Lewis' now torpid Mystery File Online, which preceded the (current) blog of the same name, compiling eight columns of stories not catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) – praising Zahn's hybrid concoction for its fair play and working as "a mystery as well as a better than average science fiction story."

There was a straightforward reason for seeking out this particular, futuristic tale of the impossible, beside the compelling premise and promise of a fairly constructed plot. The brief synopsis and commentary put a possible solution in my head and simply wanted to see if I was correct. Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time I solved a locked room story by merely reading a description or the back cover of a book! I found there were two sources available for "Red Thoughts at Morning," the original publication in a 1981 Analog Science Fact/Fiction magazine and the collection Distant Friends and Others (1992), but a cheap copy of Analog was also easily available.

Amos Potter of Euraka, California, was a renowned telepath who'd won his small community tolerance from a world eyeing them with suspicion, because telepaths can't help in this universe reading the thoughts of people in close proximity of them. The death of Amos Potter therefore comes as a shock to telepaths such as Dale Ravenhall, who read in the newspaper the commuter plane Amos was on got hijacked and instructed to fly to Cuba. They were overrun during a stopover in Las Vegas to refuel, but the body of the telepath was discovered in the unlocked lavatory of the plane – stabbed in the chest with one of the galley's steak knives. Dale is currently a witness in a robbery case and the court is debating over whether or not his testimony as a telepath could be admitted as evidence, which shows the hassle and abuse telepaths still have to go through. In a way, the world of the Distant Friends reflects the Marvel universe (if every mutant was a telepath) and Amos even invented a telepath-finder. But it's during the next day in court that Dale asks himself the one-million dollar question: "how the hell do you unexpectedly stab a telepath?" 

The rules of Zahn's Distant Friends universe on telepaths state that they can't come into close contact with each other with disastrous effects and Dale constantly communicates with his Distant Friends by telepathy, but ordinary humans are unable to shield their thoughts and intentions from a telepath – leaving open the question why Amos didn’t lock himself in. It's an impossible crime witin a reverse locked room mystery! Zahn's explanation adheres to these rules, however, it grounds the story firmly in SF/Fantasy territory and it's the complete opposite of the solution I had in mind. My solution would depend on the murdered telepath to have an assistant, because I suspected having such kind of powers would be a hassle on account of the skyjacked airplane. I envisioned the assistant (or maybe a wife) was the actual telepath, but resented the public perception and created a public avatar. The telepath receded in the background as the "assistant" and worked the public "telepath" as a puppet through telepathy, but the "assistant" panicked when they came after the "telepath" and killed him to keep everyone from finding out. Little did he know the matter would be resolved in Las Vegas. Anyhow, that's how I would've played it.

But wait, I have one more short story to review!

The English humorist and playwright P.G. Wodehouse, of Jeeves and Wooster fame, has a single locked room mystery to his credit, "The Education of Detective Oakes," published in Pearson's Magazine, December 1914 and as "Death at the Excelsior" in The Uncollected Wodehouse (1976) – rounded out by an abbreviated version set in the United States in the 1976 Argosy Special Commemorative Issue under the title "The Harmonica Mystery."

Mr. Paul Snyder of a reputable detective agency in New Oxford Street has a peculiar case on his desk: Captain Gunner was found dead in his room in a Southampton waterfront boarding-house of snake poison, however, the door was locked and the open, but bared, window too high to offer an escape for a snake. The search for the tricky serpent is as fruitless as the one for a tangible motive and the problem is deemed insoluble. Snyder sees the case as a perfect lesson in patience and humiliaty for Elliot Oakes, who recently joined the staff and has been far too conceited and self-absorbed with his own skills for his liking. Needless to say, I rather liked Oakes.

The plan to lower Oakes' self-esteem appears to work, at first, until Snyder receives a telegram announcing the case has been solved and the young detective delivers a solution from the Poe-Doyle School of Impossible Crimes. Unfortunately, for Oakes, a rival detective appears: the proprietress of the Excelsior-boardinghouse, Mrs. Pickett, who impressed Oakes as "having very little intelligence." Mrs. Pickett basically plays the Mr. Chitterwick to Oakes' Roger Sheringham (c.f. The Poisoned Chocolates Case, 1929) and I can imagine Wodehouse gave Anthony Berkeley an idea or two with this story. However, in defense of Oakes, it's not much of a victory if the actual solution is even more preposterous than the false one.

All in all, still a fun read and I finally know where this rather silly idea for an impossible poisoning came from.

11/17/13

He Came With the Rain


"We barred the windows and doors
As from an emerald ghost—"
- Emily Dickinson 
I'm still on the trail of obscurity, which is how I ended my previous review of G.E. Locke's The Scarlet Macaw (1922), and the next stop takes us back even further to the early dawn of the Golden Era of detective fiction.

A time when editions of Frederic Arnold Kummer's The Green God (1911) occupied the same shelve space and bookcases in stores, libraries and homes with the greatest and most influential mystery novels of its time. A.E.W. Mason's At the Villa Rose (1910), G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1910) and R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris (1911), but The Green God became a title known mostly to collectors and scholars – even if the plot of the story could very well have thrown fuel on the fiery imagination of a young John Dickson Carr. Yes. It's one of those old-fashioned brass affairs with a seemingly impossible crime and a suggestion of supernatural residue drifting far in the background.

Owen Morgan is braving a severe cloud burst on his way to the Half-Moon Hotel, passing through the village of Pinhoe, when an automobile picks him up and drives him to the home of Major Temple. The driver is bronzed and rugged Mr. Robert Ashton, back from an adventure in China and ready to finalize a deal he made with the Major – an emerald statuette of Buddha for his collection in exchange for the hand of his daughter. Muriel Temple has no desire to marry Ashton and during diner, Morgan, now an uncomfortable guest, notices friction between the Major and his prospected son-in-law.

Morgan decides to take Muriel after the night has passed away, but, the following morning, the household is awakened by a scream and a thump from the Green Room (supposedly haunted) and after breaking down the door they find Ashton with a peculiar dent in his skull. The wreckage of the door show it was clearly dead bolted when it was beaten down and the windows were latched, which must mean both the murderer and the statuette of Buddha dissolved from the scene as if they never even existed! The chapters investigating and discussing the circumstances of the crime are the most satisfying portions of the story, because you see a pre-GAD writer building upon the foundations laid by Gaston Leroux and Israel Zangwill – eventuating in a nifty false solution based on a bloody handprint left on the windowsill and a perfume scented handkerchief.

The eventual solution was not bad, original even, especially the first step to the trick I particularly liked, but the second part owed some debt to the weird menace/impossible crime stories from L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace A Master of Mystery (1898) – giving coincidence a little bit too much sway in the game. But altogether not bad, even if some information should've been shared with the reader in a much, much earlier stage of the story to have a fair shot at solving the locked room angle, however, I still liked the idea behind the whole set-up. It's a consolidation of what was and what was being created at the time. The solution for the vanished, emerald statuette is something that would later become a popular plot-device with Ellery Queen and their followers. Plot-wise, while it has some of what we now consider the shortcomings of its period, The Green God has a lot of rich (impossible) material. By the way, the small pool of suspects, only three, works in favor of the locked room trick.

Unfortunately, there's one problem that will probably disfigure the merits of the book for some readers today, because of the portrayal of the Chinese characters in the story. The dialogue between Major Temple's Chinese manservant, Li Min, and Sergeant McQuade would probably get a comedian or radio DJ to loose their gig, if done as a sketch, but McQuade and Morgan facing a gang of Chinese (who came to retrieve the Buddha) gives The Green God a streak of the Yellow Peril. They were basically one step removed from a lost tribe of blood thirsty Incas. However, if I'm allowed a word of defense on behalf of Kummer, I think what he was trying to tell with this crude, antiquated parable is that us Europeans should try to make an effort not to loot artifacts when we're abroad, because it could come back and bite you. And that's what really haunted the characters in The Green God: not the nameless ghost in the Green Room, but the consequences of their own deeds.

But don't take my word for it... read it for yourself. It's in the public domain and readily available to everyone, everywhere on the web. 

5/11/13

Learning from the Best: C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes


"The trouble is that as usual you are so engrossed in the fact that you are oblivious to its environment."
- Nero Wolfe (Fer-de-Lance, 1934) 
"Dupin was a very inferior fellow" and "by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine," opined Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887) after his trusty companion, Dr. John Watson, mentioned that Holmes reminded him of Dupin – remarking that he had "no idea that such individuals did exist out of stories." Holmes may not have recognized an equal in Dupin, but the trick his Parisian counterpart employed to deliver the killer in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" to his doorstep still worked for Holmes half a century later. No. I'm not referring to their first case.

First we've to go back to Paris, 1841, where the terrific shrieks rouse the inhabitants of the Rue Morgue to the doorstep of Madame L'Espanaya and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L'Espanaye, but the premise is secured from within and the gateway had to be forced with a crowbar. The cries had ceased by this time, however, when they moved upstairs they hear a pair of rough voices, but when the second and last door was broken down there was nobody there that was alive to tell them what had happened. Madame L'Espanaya was decapitated, Camille stuffed up the chimney and a crime-scene that resembles a battle field without an apparent escape route for the murderer – leaving the police baffled. All except for Dupin, who sees the plain truth in the sheer impossibility and brutality of the case as well as some great deductive reasoning on the multilingual perception of the voices that were heard from the locked, upper floor room.

One of Sherlock Holmes' cases of lesser repute, "The Adventure of Black Peter," collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903), provided the Great Detective with a problem that featured similar outré characteristics and his method echoed Dupin.

The retired Captain Peter Carey earned his nickname, "Black Peter," for his villainy and was known the flog his wife and daughter through the park in the dead of night and had a private retreat, a wooden outhouse he called the "cabin," which is where he died – pinned to the wall like a butterfly with a harpoon. Naturally, Holmes is ahead of the police, who arrest the wrong man along the way, reasoning where to look for the killer based on a pouch of tobacco and the strength needed to pin a rugged, ill-tempered seaman to the wall.

I don't want to cast any aspersions on Conan Doyle's character, but I suspect him of having had a bit of fun at the expensive of his readers who've read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." I've always got the impression from this story that Doyle wanted to put the suggestion into the readers head that he's going for a similar solution, from the background of the characters to the force needed to pull off the crime, before presenting a far more rational answer as opposed to Poe's fancy solution – which made the whole story really nightmarish. That image of the murderer wielding a razor blade like a mad barber is perfect for a Tim Burton movie. With Johnny Depp as Dupin, of course!, and Jude Law as the nameless narrator. Just to screw with the Sherlock Holmes movie franchise. But seriously, I would love to see a Burton/Depp adaptation of Poe's Dupin.

At the end of the day, Dupin and Holmes reasoned truth from different clues that told in essence the same story, but their understanding of the physical strength involved made interpreting everything else all the more easier. And based on their deduction, Holmes followed Dupin's example to place an ad that lured the culprit to their rooms. But this begs the question... was remembering that story what made Holmes dash off to the butcher's shop, in the wee hours of the morning, for an experiment (we know he read Poe) and did he acknowledge this by using Dupin's ruse to ensnarl the murderer? 

Well, I guess we simply don't have enough data to make a solid brick, but I always felt this story was as much in the Dupin/Poe spirit as "The Speckled Band," collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), and The Sign of Four (1890) - even though it does not contain a locked room or an atmosphere of horror.

5/9/13

The Great Hanaud

"It appears to me that this mystery is considered insoluble, for the very reason which should cause it to be regarded as easy of solution - I mean for the outré character of its features."
- C. Auguste Dupin (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841)
After having dabbled in the "Silver Age," which is the label I recently applied to detective stories published between 1970 and 1990 with a traditional arch, I decided to return to one of the points of origin for the mystery novel and cross a title off my list that had been on there for far too long – At the Villa Rose (1910) by A.E.W. Mason.

By the time Mason appeared on the scene, Conan Doyle had already left an inexpugnable mark on the landscape and it was the same year that G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1910) was released, but this case for Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté captured the imagination of future mystery writers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. You can easily recognize Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings in Hanaud and Mr. Ricardo, but more importantly, it's a part of what Carr referred to as the Grandest Game in the World!

The game begins for the reader at the Villa des Fleurs, situated in the small town of Aix-les-Bains, where Ricardo is studying the crowd around him staking their louis at the tables and observes two primary players: a wealthy businessman, Harry Wethermill, and a young, poorer woman named Celia. Wethermill allows Celia to gamble away thousands of his francs and shrugs the loss off as having a good time. But when Ricardo finds Wethermill on his doorstep, clutching a special edition of Le Journal de Savoie, there's not much left of the man from the night before. The paper screams about the savage strangling of Mme. Camille Dauvray and the manhandling of her maid, Hélène Vauquier, who was chloroformed and tied-up, before the house was ransacked for her famous collection of jewels and everyone's convinced that her missing companion was in on it – and that companion happens to be Celia. 

Wethermill pleads with Ricardo to ask Hanaud, who happens to be holidaying in the area, to take charge of the investigation, but every single clue and thread they uncover/examine edges the blade of the guillotine closer for Celia and the investigative part is what put this novel in the Grand Tradition with clues that indulge in double-speak. The footprints, empty petrol cans, jewelry, tear stained cushion and a statement from the maid how Celia performed séances to control the susceptible Mme. Dauvray all point to her involvement in the murder, but to the Great Hanaud, they tell a different story and I was able to follow his train of thought without difficulty.

That's a drawback when you dib into these influential stories relatively late, but being able to chuckle along with Hanaud at the baffled Ricardo made up for that and it was intriguing to see the effect this novel had on two of my favorite mystery writers. The persecution of Celia and the amount of evidence stacked against her reminded me of Lesley Grant (Till Death Do Us Part, 1944) and Fay Seton (He Who Whispers, 1946), and it's been a while since I read Murder on the Links (1923), but wasn't that one rather Mason-like in spirit – which even included a French detective named Giraud. There's also a second murder, a stabbing in a slow moving cab of a witness, which can be considered a borderline impossible crime and something that must have appealed to a young John Dickson Carr. Not to mention the séances that is of paramount importance to the plot!

However, in turn, Mason drew from Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887) to structure At the Villa Rose. In the first part of the book, we're introduced to the characters and tag-along with Hanaud and the second part is a reconstruction of that evening with an explanation of all the clues from the Great Detective himself. I'm not a fan of revealing the murderer midway through a novel, but in the context of the time, I think it was an improvement over Doyle's novelette-length prologue and something he, alas, repeated in The Valley of Fear (1915). I now wonder what that book, foreshadowing the kind of mystery novels from the Golden Age, would've been like if Doyle had integrated the second part the same way as Mason had done in At the Villa Rose – instead of ending on another prologue. Instant GAD?

I think fossilized gem is an appropriate description for At the Villa Rose. A modern mystery reader can follow the plot patterns like the spiral ridges of fossilized shells, but that won't bother the true connoisseur of the classics.

4/6/13

Cherchez la femme


"Locked rooms and mysterious disappearances smack of deliberate subterfuge."
- Sabina Carpenter (Bill Pronzini's "Gunpowder Alley")

John Pugmire is a self-published translator of French-language impossible crime tales, under the enterprising name of Locked Room International, whose résumé includes translations of Paul Halter and Jean-Paul Török – and has recently launched a website to keep us abreast of his publishing plans.

Dumas in 1855 (*)
It was on Pugmire's new website that I learned that he had translated an Alexander Dumas (yes, that Dumas) story, "House Call," for the June, 2013, issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and it's actually an excerpt from Les Mohicans de Paris (The Mohicans of Paris, 1854). The introduction notes that "House Call" is the first story since Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 inaugural locked room story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," that employed the device and according to Pugmire, this is the story were "Cherchez la femme" originated from.

Before we dig in, I would like to point out that The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000), edited by Mike Ashley, mentioned that Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "Out of His Head," a self-contained episode from an eponymous novel, was the second only after Poe to feature a locked room problem – except that Aldrich's story is dated 1862. On top of that, Aldrich might not even be third: M.M.B.'s "The Mystery of the Hotel d’Orme" was published in the same year and Dumas has a similar problem, if you consider Wilkie Collins' "A Terribly Strange Bed" as a proper impossible crime, but that's something for the scholars to mull over. I thought it noteworthy that both stories, credited with coming in second, are excerpts from otherwise non-mystery novels.

Anyway, a young woman vanished like a gust of wind from her closed quarters at a boarding school and head of the Sûreté, M. Jackal, is called up to investigate, but it must be said, for a master detective he has to work on his priorities. Jackal is informed upon his arrival that they aren't sure if there had been a disappearance, because the room hasn't been entered yet, but instead of breaking an entrance he parades everyone around the garden to look for clues – and establishing that the door and shutters are bolted and hooked from the inside. Fortunately, this does not deter the story in any way and the outdoor scene is actually quite fun, if you like these kind of deductive reconstructions, and even gave me an early example of the rival detective (e.g. Simon Brimmer in the Ellery Queen TV-series from the 1970s and should be used more often!) as M. Jackal is bested in one or two deductions by a friend of the missing girls' fiancée.

The explanation for the disappearance from the sealed room is dated and often used in later stories as a throw-away suggestion, but "House Call," if it's indeed the second locked room in modern fiction, than this is were the trick first appeared. 

Bill Pronzini, always up to something
And to pad out this post, I decided to pick an impossible crime story from a contemporary fictioneer and ended up choosing Bill Pronzini’s "Gunpowder Alley" – which appeared in the August, 2012, edition of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. You probably picked up on the opening quote that this is a Carpenter and Quincannon story, who appeared recently in The Bughouse Affair (2013), but this time it's mostly a solo-case for John with Sabina on commentary in the background, and naturally, there's a murder that looks everything but natural. 

Quincannon accepted a job from a reluctant client, Titus Willard, to put a stop to a blackmailer who's squashing him for thousands of dollars, but refuses to supply any details and with nothing much to work on, he sets a trap at the drop off – tailing the suspect to a tobacco-store in Gunpowder Alley. A talkative policeman walking his beats bumps into Quincannon when the sound of gunshots whips them into action. The door and windows are bared and secured from the inside, but they do offer a smudged view of a body sprawled on the ground of a cluttered room. 

It's one of those days that John has to relay on his noggin instead of his Navy Colt or a clenched fist. And he did it better then me this time. I was completely lost on this one and Pronzini walked a fine tight-rope, because part of the solution used a gimmick that I am not overly fond of, but once you get the overall picture, it's a nifty trick that shows that the author knows his classics. 

Well, I think if there's one conclusion  we can draw from this post, it's that I love a good locked room mystery.

6/24/11

Guest Blog: Booked for Murder

Note: this is the second installment in a semi-regular series of guest posts, which kicked-off last month with an article on the Japanese detective story, hosted on this blog spot – and this time I will temporarily hand my blog over to M.P.O. Books who transcribed one of his reviews into English. Books is a struggling author of thriller-cum-detective stories, inspired by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Appie Baantjer, Ellis Peters and Henning Mankell, who debuted in 2004 with Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia) and deserving of a more appreciative reading audience. So, if you're an American publisher questing for a new Eurocrime writer, don't look any further than M.P.O. Books!

The Black-Box Murder by Maarten Maartens  

The Black-Box Murder is probably the first detective story for adults written by a Dutchman. The novel appeared only two years after Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the world to his sleuth Sherlock Holmes. The writer was Jozua Marius Willem van der Poorten Schwarz, better known under his pseudonym Maarten Maartens (1858-1915). Strikingly enough he wrote The Black-Box Murder in English, and as far as I know it never appeared in the Dutch language. Though his through-and-through Dutch sounding pseudonym and his real name suggest something else, this writer of literary work spent a part of his youth in England. This is evident in The Black-Box Murder. This detective story takes place partly in England, partly in France.

The Black-Box Murder was released in 1889 anonymously. This wasn't due to Maarten Maartens, as a literary writer, not wanting to be associated with a detective novel. It suited the contents of the book better. Because The Black-Box Murder is written from the perspective of Spence, the "I" person in the story, who considers his book a report of his murder investigation. By hiding his own identity, the writer suggests that we are dealing with a story that truly happened. Hence the reference on the title page, that the story was written by the man who discovered the murderer. Spence is a private detective who happens to witness the discovery of a body in a box two British ladies are travelling with. With the few clues the box is offering him, he starts his investigation, until he has unmasked the murderer.

The story is varied and contains twists which keep the reader captivated effortlessly. It reminds a bit of the atmosphere of the first novels about the master sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Spence isn't a very smart detective though. Anyone paying attention will soon suspect that the perpetrator Spence is tracing, isn't the right one. The question who did commit the murder, is relevant far beyond halfway of the story. But then there are not many suspects. A surprising twist at the end never comes up. This atmospheric detective, that also contains humour and short action scenes, shows how Spence arrives at the truth step by step. By that time the reader might have guessed it. Then the question remains how he will prove he is right.

The English of Maarten Maartens is so pure that it is evident that his British roots do not betray themselves. Most of the novels he wrote, he wrote in English, even those stories that take place in The Netherlands. The anonymous The Black-Box Murder remained quite unknown compared to the rest. Maartens was better known for The sin of Joost Avelingh and God's fool, also English titles that did get a Dutch translation. The last few years of his life he lived in the same town where I come from, Doorn, where the castle-like Maarten Maartenshuis still reminds us of his life. His books are, particularly in The Netherlands, long forgotten. The Black-Box Murder ought, however, to be rescued from oblivion.

M.P.O. Books' Bibliography:

Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia, 2004)
De bloodzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005)
Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006)
De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)

4/30/11

An Ax to Grind

Yes, I know that it may be difficult to wrap your mind around it, but I'm about to review my first thriller, The After House (1914) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, for this blog!

What's next? Discussing Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett? Chatting incessantly about the "literary" crime novels on today's best seller lists? Oh, for Carr's sake, what's becoming of me? ;D I promise that the next book will be a return to the great old detective stories... well... sort of... but for now let's embark on a frightful journey aboard a blood-soaked craft that might have gone the way of the Mary Celeste had it not been for a resourceful young man posing as a sailor. 

The Cursed Ship

The story of the massacre aboard the Ella, an old coasting-vessel reequipped as a pleasure-boat by the boozer millionaire Marshall Turner, on that "terrible night of August the twelfth," is retrospectively narrated by Ralph Leslie – a newly graduated, but nearly penniless, doctor, who still hasn't fully recovered from his bout with typhoid fever. While being hospitalized, he developed a yearning for the open sea, where he hopes to regain his strength and earn some money, and upon his release he jumped at the opportunity to join the crew of the Ella and is put to work as a deck steward mainly looking out for the passengers residing in the ship's after house.

With its crew and passengers all present, the ship sets sail to sunnier climes, but even before that blood-streaked night the voyage was troubled by dark undercurrents and ill-omens of things yet to come. The ship's owner and his drinking buddy, a ship officer named Singleton, act as a menacing scourge to pretty much everyone around them, and end up passing around motives to justify a small-scale holocaust.

During the faithful night of August the twelfth and the early morning of August the thirteenth, someone emerged from his berth or abandoned his post, and, under the cover of darkness and slumber, picked up a red painted emergency ax and gruesomely hacked three people to death – including ship's captain!

With three horribly mutilated, blood spattered corpses on their hands, the aghast crew puts Singleton, who had a one-sided skirmish with the captain, in irons, strip Turner of any authority he thought he had and nominate the levelheaded Leslie as their new captain to help them get out of this mess. But how do you lead a crew of experienced, seafaring men to a safe harbor when you lack their nautical knowledge and experience, and how do you keep them, and the passengers, safe and sane when there's a very real possibility that the actual ax-wielding killer is still prowling the decks with them?

Suspicion is abound as well as loyalty to one another as some of them try to obliterate tell-tale pieces of evidence that might identity the murderer, but don't make a mistake about it, this is not a straightforward, puzzle-orientated detective story, since there really aren't any legitimate clues to look at, but an atmospheric thriller not entirely unlike Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939).

For an early thriller yarn, this wasn't all that bad of a story, and I really liked the macabre picture Rinehart painted of the Ella towing a jollyboat that's been converted to a floating crypt for the three slain victims, nonetheless, she slipped up and botched the ending. The final quarter of the book transforms from a slightly paranoia inducing thriller to a full-fledged courtroom drama, which doesn't even yield the solution in a dramatic dénouement and only serves to suck out all of the atmosphere – which was the best thing the book had going for itself.

This feels like a stylistic anomaly. The murderer, who, by the way, is a complete whacko, should've been confronted before they reached their port of call, and not after a mistrial when Leslie revisits the ship, which felt like the solution was hastily given as some sort of after thought – and it shows... badly!

To sum up the book in one sentence: some good, some bad, but overall a readable enough story if you don't expect too much from it.