2/23/19

The Affair of the Scarlet Crab (1937) by Clifford Knight

Clifford Knight was an American author of more than twenty detective novels, published between 1937 and 1952, whose debut came when he emerged as "the winner of the $2000 Red Badge Mystery Prize." A contest in which over "three hundred new manuscripts were entered," but The Affair of the Scarlet Crab (1937) came out on top and with good reason, because the setting alone makes the book standout even during the height of the Golden Age – a scientific expedition "to that bizarre, isolated archipelago," the Galapagos Islands. More importantly, the story has a technically sound plot and even opens with a challenge to the reader!

The first page has a footnote, of sorts, telling the reader "the shadow of the murderer is cast across the page" at least twenty times. There's an index of all these clues, better known as a clue-finder, at the back of the book reminiscent of C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High (1935) and Elspeth Huxley's Murder on Safari (1938). I really wish the clue-finder had been a staple of the period, because they're fun and would enforced the fair play principle. So, without further ado, let's explore, what's perhaps, the only detective novel in existence (partially) set on the Galapagos Islands.

Carlos Lanfrey is a wealthy, versatile and talented man whose hobby is leading "small scientific expeditions into out-of-the-way places on a palatial yacht," named Cyrene II, but preparations for his latest voyage haven't gone so smoothly.

The curator of a San Marino museum, which is never named, has an incomplete Galapagos collection and the scientific expedition is tasked with collecting various specimens of flora and fauna. They'll also be examining the problems presented by "the odd assortment of wild life to be found on the various islands" and in "the seas round about." However, Lanfrey had to find a last minute replacement for his ornithologist, Dr. Charley Risner, who was hospitalized and reeled in "something of an amateur," Benny Bartlett – describing himself as "a hunter of birds." Bartlett also narrated the story and agreed to come aboard when he learned an old friend is part of the expedition, Professor Huntoon "Hunt" Rogers.

Huntoon Rogers is an overworked professor of English and needed a much deserved rest, which is why Lanfrey attracted him for the expedition and simply made him a supercargo on his luxury yacht. You can almost say Lanfrey is the Fizziwig of this story.

Rogers is not exactly one of those gifted amateur detectives, who roam the halls of academia and dabble in police business as a hobby, but is forced by circumstances to don the deerstalker, because, as one character remarks, "there's no Sherlock Holmes on board" – betraying that the book was originally intended as a one-shot and not a series. But winning the contest allowed him to bring back Rogers in an additional seventeen mystery novels. So the book became an origin story as Knight began to expand the series.

The other members of the expedition are Dr. Gorell, "an outstanding naturalist," who brought along his wife, Mrs. Gorell. Dr. French is another naturalist with a special interest in marine life and Dr. Ardleigh is an elderly, but respected, geologist. There are two people to document the expedition: Alice Wilmer is a scientific artist and a photographer from one of the film studios in Hollywood, Jack Quigley, who was also a late minute replacement. Finally, there's Lanfrey's right-hand man and a former prize-fighter, Starr, and the millionaire's troublesome nephew, Jay Cranston. And as they set sail to those islands, they gamble, get into fist fights and argue over a scientific problem dating back to the days of Charles Darwin.

Interestingly, their argument has a link to another obscure, little-known detective novel that was published in the same year as The Affair of the Scarlet Crab.

The problem concerns the question how those islands were supplied with life. Some believe there was a land bridge in ancient time over which "the flora and fauna of the islands came," while others, like Dr. Gorell, believe prehistoric men put animals on the islands as "a future food supply" – similar as to how modern navigators, like Captain Cook, left goats, pigs and goats on islands in the South Sea. Now here's the interesting part. Robin Forsythe's Murder on Paradise Island (1937) tells the story of a group of shipwrecked survivors, marooned on a deserted island, but the previous occupants left behind pigs and had cultivated sweet potatoes, yams and taro-root. This helped them survive their ordeal. Funny how both books were published in the same year, but lets get back to the story.

As the group is en route to the Galapagos Islands, Jack Quigley vanishes from the yacht without a trace and must have gone overboard, but was it an accident, suicide or was he shoved?

The last possibility is not seriously considered until a member of the expedition attempted to climb a lava ridge on Indefatigable Island, slipped and fell to his death. Or so it appeared. This time the possibility of murder is mentioned, but it becomes undeniable when the expedition is put on hold and they set sail to Panama, in order to get the body repatriated back to America, when a third and unmistakable murder is committed – a savage case of throat-cutting. Shockingly, the crushed carcass of Jimmy, the scarlet rock crab, was found on the floor next to the body.

I was becoming quite fond of that little, brave-minded rock crab who liked humans enough to greet them with "a snappy salute." An animal with a personality of its own is as difficult and tricky to write as a convincing child-character, but Jimmy was shaping up to be as good an animal-character as the foul-beaked parrot from Gret Lane's The Guest with the Scythe (1943) and the schizophrenic cat from Edmund Crispin's The Long Divorce (1951). So his untimely death felt as the most tragic of them all.

As mentioned at the beginning of my review, the plot is technically sound, but has the flaws you can expect to find a debut novel. First of all, there's the pacing of the story, or lack there of, because the story, while interesting, lacks excitement. This could have been made up by putting more emphasis on the background, but their time on the islands only cover a brief period of the book. Most of the story takes place on the yacht. Secondly, the clues are plentiful and present through out the story. However, they're a trifle weak and can be better described as hints or foreshadowing rather than clues, which require a bit of educated guess work to fit together – reason why the solution I had pieced together turned out to be completely wrong. You see, the structure of the plot resembled another well-known shipboard mystery, namely Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940), which I modeled my solution on. They even have two identical murders (man overboard and a throat-slashing).

The link between the three victims appeared to confirm my suspicion and thought I had seen through the murderers cover, but was baffled how the murderer managed to accomplish his trick. And had I been right, The Affair of the Scarlet Crab would have featured an alibi-trick that could be measured against the best by Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts. Not to mention that the plot would have anticipated Nine-and Death Makes Ten by three years! Unfortunately, the actual explanation was not as inspired as my own and the murderer's alibi-trick was pretty mundane.

Nonetheless, The Affair of the Scarlet Crab is a competent and interesting debut novel with some good ideas, but Knight hadn't learned yet how to use them to their full potential. So I want to see how he further developed and there are intriguing-sounding detective novels in repertoire. The plot of The Affair of the Limping Sailor (1942) sounds like a winner and the book-cover of the bizarrely titled The Affair of the Skiing Clown (1941) is simply fascinating. And will probably give Ho-Ling Wong, who believes clowns are part of Satan's demon horde, nightmares for weeks! :)

So you can expect more of Clifford Knight and Huntoon Rogers later this year. 

Note: this review was originally scheduled for earlier this month, but had to move it up to make room for Soji Shimada's Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982). And this is why it followed so soon on my previous review. 

2/22/19

Murder in Texas (1935) by Ada E. Lingo

Ada E. Lingo was a journalist, writer and physician who penned her first of only two detective novels, Murder in Texas (1935), while she was the Society Editor of the Daily Herald and completed a second manuscript, entitled Murder by Minims, reflecting her medical training at the time – only the book was never published and "the fate of the manuscript is unknown." Fortunately, Lingo's first mystery novel has been reissued by Coachwhip and their reprint edition is introduced by resident genre-historian, Curt Evans.

First of all, I have to mention that my reading of Murder in Texas has been fragmented with many stops and goes. Even putting it down to read The Legendary Vampire Murders. However, this was mostly due to circumstances than with the quality of the story, but it has made it more difficult to properly review. So this probably going to be a short review. The reader has been warned!

The protagonist of Murder in Texas is a young journalist, Joan Shields, who's the Society Editor of the Fordman Daily News and the story begins with Shields doing a write-up of Mrs. Shaw's Laff-a-Lot Bridge Club party, while the paper was held up as it awaited confirmation on the story of a strike – when a bombshell hit the office. John Fordman had been shot and killed!

John Fordman was an oil millionaire, rancher and a newspaper owner and the small, West Texan town of Fordman was named in his honor. Fordman was bringing in a new gusher to the town, but, during the shooting of this oil well, he was shot and killed inside his luxury limousine. There's a good map depicting the crime-scene with the gusher, Fordman's limousine and the positions of various cars. I don't believe you need the map to solve the murder, but maps, floor plans and diagrams are practically a lost art of the detective story. As Ho-Ling Wong said on the subject in a 2018 blog-post, "The Quest of the Missing Map," there's something romantic and exciting about these old maps and diagrams. This map was no exception.

Daily News is one of the newspaper Fordman owned and Shields decided to play detective, which is more exciting than slaving away on society columns, but she has two men at her side who nearly earned this review the "juvenile mystery" label.

Shields had known a private-detective, Dick Field, when she briefly worked in New York as "a refined sob-sister and feature writer" and summoned him to Fordman to help her capture the murderer. Fields is a detective of the modern age and has "a small leather-covered box" with a microscope, a fingerprint kit, a Bunsen burner, test tubes and a dozen of carefully labeled phials – which he affectionately calls his "traveling lab." And he gets to play CSI, when the murderer strikes a second time. Another shooting clumsily disguised as a suicide and the gun was found in basin filled with hot soapy water, but Fields manages to pull prints from it. Interestingly, one of the characters refers to Fields as "the boy detective from St. Louise."

Secondly, there's Shields' high-school aged kid brother, Jimmie, who tags along with his sister and stole the show in the final chapters. This is, together with the newspaper background and regional, small town flavor of the story, why Murder in Texas reminded me of the more mature juvenile mysteries by Bruce Campbell (The Clue of the Phantom Car, 1953) and Norvin Pallas (The Locked Safe Mystery, 1954). Why I nearly labeled this review as a juvenile mystery.

As an aside, Murder in Texas has one of those bookshelf scenes, in which the detective browses through the bookcase of a suspect and notices a host of mystery novels. Usually, these are shout-outs to their own favorite mystery writers or show an allegiance to a certain type of crime fiction. Lingo had some very interesting and unusual choices: Shields saw the "latest thriller" of Kay Cleaver Strahan (probably The Hobgoblin Murder, 1934), Mignon G. Eberhart's The White Cockatoo (1933), Francis Iles' Before the Fact (1932) and Leslie Ford's "delightful" Murder in Maryland (1932). She felt cheated that she could not take with her Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Album (1933), because she had been unable "to keep up with it in the Saturday Evening Post." These bookshelf scenes, like maps and diagrams, is another one of those small treats you find, from time to time, in these classic mysteries.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story struck me as fairly bland with a by-the-numbers plot, in which Shields and Field talk with people and test alibis, but nothing really inspired.

However, the ending was very well and even daringly handled! The murderer eludes capture and hightails it out of town, but not before taking along two hostages and one of them is Jimmie! The entire manhunt is played out in a series of police and news bulletins send over the teleprint, which are read by Shields and Field. So the whole climax to the story took place off-page, but it worked for, what I assume, exactly the same reason as why everyone in America was watching the O.J. Simpson car chase in 1994 – once the news broke, you simple had to keep watching to see it unfold. And to use this aspect of the modern news cycle, in 1935, is almost visionary. This is all I have to say about the plot.

Murder in Texas has a good, regional setting and lively (main) characters, but Lingo was not as adept when it came to the plot. My impression is that it was a pretty standard, humdrum plot without much to make it standout, but this could be my fractured reading of the book speaking. Yes, the absolute state of this review. It's completely useless. Good news is that I have dug up something for my post that looks promising, but not nearly as obscure as most of the detective novels reviewed this month. So stay tuned!

2/19/19

The Kindaichi Case Files: The Legendary Vampire Murders

Last month, I reviewed a two-part episode of the enduring Detective Conan anime-series, The Dracula Villa Murder Case, in which a revered writer of vampire stories is impaled and crucified under apparently impossible circumstances in his locked study with the body lighted up by a running film projected – playing a movie-reel of a classic vampire flick. These episodes reminded me of another vampire-themed detective story, a manga, that has been languishing on the big pile for ages.

The Legendary Vampire Murders was originally serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in 2004 and the story has convinced me that Seimura Amagi is the present-day master of the unbreakable alibi. Amagi is so much better at plotting seemingly impregnable alibis than he's at devising locked room-tricks (e.g. the elaborate, grand scale alibi-trick from The Prison Prep School Murder Case).

Hajime Kindaichi is on a bicycle tour of Japan and decides to invite his childhood friend, Nanase Miyuki, to spend a few days with him at his next stop. An almost entirely abandoned village in the middle of nowhere!

The name of the place, Buran Village, originates from "Bran Village in Transylvania" and, according to the legends, Romanian immigrants had been chased out of the village on "the suspicion that they might be vampires," but there appears to be no historical basis for this story – as the countries didn't even appear to have a formal, diplomatic relationship until 1902. So this was purely done to transplant the legend of the Transylvanian vampire to Japan. A legend that appears to be very much alive in the deserted village.

Six years previously, the vampire legend had stirred back to life when villagers witnessed "a strange scene in the middle of the night." A cloaked man with a black hat was seen walking towards the abandoned hotel and appeared to have mental control over a woman in a white dress, who sleepwalked behind him, but when a group of young man, armed with wooden crosses, investigate the hotel they make a gruesome discovery in the basement – a body of the woman with two bite marks in her neck. The coroner didn't find "a single drop of blood" in the body. As if she had been sucked dry by a vampire!

This incident was the death knell for the already struggling, partially depleted village and the place would have been a ghost town had it not been for the presence of a peculiar boardinghouse.

Hirakawa Tooru bought the abandoned hotel and turned it into a boardinghouse, fittingly named "Ruins," which looks like a derelict mansion, but the guest rooms were refurbished, comfortable and clean. A childhood classmate of Kindaichi and Miyuki, Kifune Youhei, is working part-time at the boardinghouse and hopes to make the place a haunt for "ruin maniacs" (i.e. urban explorers). His presence is one of the reasons why Kindaichi stopped in Buran Village.

There are more people who found there way to this reclusive, empty place. Nagareyama Shintarou is a novelist who's writing a book with the boardinghouse as a setting and Nekoma Junko is a freelance writer collecting data on abandoned ruins. Futaganu Ikuo is a physician and Kaitani Asaka owns a boutique, both guests of the "Ruins," who were found poking around the abandoned hospital. And their behavior and obvious lies were suspicious to say the least. Hiiro Keisuke is a young man who was stranded at the hotel, but his appearance and complexion has a suggestion of the grave. Finally, there's Minato Aoko, a staff member of the boardinghouse, who fancies herself to be somewhat of an amateur detective and Inspector Kenmoichi – asked by Kindaichi to accompany Miyuki.

So the stage is set for murder, but there's a prelude when Miyuki is kidnapped by the murderer. The killer is dressed in a long, dark coat and has bandaged face with what appears to be fangs. This doesn't happen all the time, but the Kindaichi series has seen more than one costumed murderers (e.g. The Alchemy Murder Case). Sometimes this series really is a blend of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and a 1980s slasher movie.

During her captivity, Miyuki had been tied up and had to look on, helplessly, as the vampire murdered one of the guests, Kaitani Asaka. Just one of the perks of being friends with Kindaichi!

Miyuki and Asaka are eventually found in one of the guest rooms on the first floor of the boardinghouse. They both have bite marks in their neck, but only Miyuki lived to tell about it. The problem this murder presents is that nearly everyone possesses a perfectly acceptable alibi, because the only way to reach is the first floor is by either climbing a spiral staircase or crawl into a small dumbwaiter with a weight-limit – which are eliminated as possible entries to the first floor. A brilliant and bone chilling alibi-trick that's eligible to be considered an impossible crime as it involves a physical impossibility. I commented on Dan's 2017 blog-post, "But is it a Locked Room Mystery? The case of the impossible alibi," when an alibi-trick qualifies as an impossible crime and I think this one makes the cut. The chilling explanation of the impossible alibi is another good example of how closely related Japanese mystery writers are to the horror genre. And they often put their horror material to good and practical use. Great stuff!

Miyuki had also been found with bite marks in her neck and, according to the legend, "anyone who's attacked by a vampire will become a vampire." There might be a grain of truth in it when a murder happens that only Miyuki could have committed!

A pool of blood with a body is found in Miyuki's locked guest room, bite marks in the neck, but Miyuki had been in constant possession of the room-key and there are no duplicates. So how did a murderer manage to leave a body inside a locked room? The explanation to this problem is a relatively simple one, but the idea felt fresh and original. I've seen a similar locked room setup in another detective story, but the ending in that was, on a whole, unimpressive as the solution turned on an age-trick. Amagi here cleverly reversed that solution and the result is possibly new variation on the locked room mystery. So, once more, this is great stuff!

The identity of the murderer was better hidden than usual, but you might want to write that down to me stubbornly giving the obvious red herring the fish-eye throughout the entirety of the story. I refused to let go of that one possibility and overlooked a hint or two. Amagi even gave the shopworn motive, carted out in nearly every volume, an additional layer of depth with the horrific back-story of the past murder. The back-story would make for a great horror or thriller story when told from the perspectives of the victim and her killer. As I said before, Japanese mystery writers tend stand closer to the horror genre than their Western counterparts. The Legendary Vampire Murders is a good example of that.

So, all in all, The Legendary Vampire Murders has one of the strongest plots in the series with an ingenious alibi-trick, as classic as it's sickening, and an excellent impossible crime. The rest of the plot, especially the motive, were well handled, but the murderer's alibi and locked room illusion are the main draws of the story. A pure puzzle-plot detective story that comes recommended to mystery readers who love busting alibis and explaining miracles.

2/17/19

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936) by Moray Dalton

Katherine M. Renoir is the author of twenty-nine detective novels, published as by "Moray Dalton," which Curt Evans described as "finely polished examples of criminally scintillating Golden Age art," but she has long since slipped into obscurity and her legacy has become a "tantalizingly elusive treasure" to mystery readers – like "the fabled Lost Dutchman's mine." Well, I have some good news.

On March 4th, Dean Street Press is going to republish five of Dalton's best detective novels from her early period. These titles are One by One They Disappeared (1929), The Body on the Road (1931), The Night of Fear (1931), Death in the Cup (1932) and The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936). Rupert Heath was, as always, kind enough to provide me with a copy of the book Evans called "one of the finest detective novels" from the genre's Golden Age.

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall begins like a domestic suspense story, not entirely dissimilar to Anthony Gilbert, but, after the opening chapters, the plot begins to fall in line with the more literary, character-based mysteries by other obscure, long-forgotten female writers – such as Dorothy Bowers and Maureen Sarsfield. But with a strong hint of Gladys Mitchell.

Amy Steer is a nineteen-year-old woman, without immediate relatives, hopelessly looking for work, but nobody had any use for her. So her situation was becoming an impossible one. Until she noticed an advertisement in the personal column of a newspaper, asking any "relative of the late Julius Horace Steer" to come forward, because they "may hear something to their advantage."

Julius Horace Steer is Amy's late father and the person who placed the advertisement turns out to be her aunt, Harriet Hall.

Amy meets her Aunt Harriet for the first time in the waiting room of a train station and her "blatant personality" makes a "rather alarming" impression on Amy in spite of her friendly generosity. Harriet gives a dazed Amy a hundred pounds to splurge on a new wardrobe and expect her at her cottage, in West Sussex, on the following Monday, but, when Amy arrives at the cottage, Harriet is nowhere to be found. Curiously, the brick floor in one of the corners looked quite wet, "as if it had been recently washed," while the oil container of the stove was still warm. Someone had been in the cottage shortly before she arrived. But who? And where's her aunt?

Over the next couple of chapters, the reader learns that the remote cottage belongs to an old friend of Amy's aunt, Mrs. Mary Dene, who inherited an immense fortune from her brother-in-law and bought the Dower House, at Lennor Park, where she settled down with her three children – Tony, Mollie and Lavvy. Mary Dene had purchased the house to give her favorite child, Lavvy, a proper background. She succeeded in getting her engaged to marry a local nobility, Sir Miles Lennor. Something that has never sat very well with his regal mother, Lady Louisa Lennor.

However, the constant presence of the vulgar Harriet Hall at Dower House, who helped herself to everything in the home, which was resented by family and friends alike. Harriet was spoiling life for everyone around her and appeared to have some kind of hold over Mary. Amy learns first-hand how unpopular Harriet is when she had a nice conversation with Tony on the train, but he bolted as soon as she mentioned that Harriet Hall is her aunt. So there you have a nice premise for a good, old-fashioned murder and the police gets involved when Harriet's remains are found in a disused well, but a bombshell revelation at the inquest draws Dalton's series-detective, Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard, into the case.

I mentioned that Curt Evans, who wrote an introduction and afterword for the DSP edition of The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, praised the book as one of the finest detective novels the genre had produced and, when I read this, I was reminded of the praise heaped on Bowers' Fear and Miss Betony (1941) by Rue Morgue Press – claiming the book had "one of the most original and ingenious plots" in the history of the genre. Funnily enough, I turned out to have exactly the same reaction to both stories: goddammit, I love Agatha Christie. Yes, this is hardly a fair comparison, but Harriet Hall and Miss Betony aren't anywhere near the top of the heap of great detective novels.

Sure, this book has an unforgettable character in Harriet Hall, whose backstory will fascinate many readers today, which also made effective use of the epilogue by showing justice is not always found in a courtroom or at the end of a rope, but the ending is reached by delving into the past of characters. The most important revelations are given to the reader, towards the end, and combined with the lack of any physical clues the story felt rather thin as a mystery.

All of that being said, the peculiar characteristics of The Strange Case of Harriet Hall unquestionably makes it standout in the crowd of 1930s mysteries, however, readers should approach the book as a precursor of the modern crime novel of P.D. James instead of the Golden Age mysteries of Dorothy L. Sayers. So, while the plot didn't quite measure up to my expectations, I still found it to be an interesting read and will return to Dalton when DSP publishes the rest. One by One They Disappeared and The Night of Fear look promising. Hopefully, DSP decides to reprint The Black Death (1934) in the future, because I would very much like to read a detective novel that "merges the murder mystery with post-apocalyptic science fiction."

On a final note, DSP is reprinting more long-forgotten mystery writers in March, such as Joan A. Cowdroy, but the writers who currently have my full attention are a husband-and-wife writing tandem, E. and M.A. Radford, who have dabbled in impossible crime fiction – producing two novels and a collection of short impossible crime stories (Death and the Professor, 1961). Unfortunately, the short story collection has been out-of-print for a long time, but the two novels, Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) and Who Killed Dick Whittington (1947), will be reprinted by DSP in March. My original plan was to review one of them for this blog-post, but Curt's introduction and praise for Dalton lured me away from the Radfords. So I'll get around to them later next month.

2/15/19

The Glass Spear (1950) by S.H. Courtier

During the early days of this blog, I posted an uncommonly short review of a fascinating, imaginative and anthropological mystery novel, Death in Dream Time (1959), written by an Australian school teacher and principle, S.H. Courtier – who wrote a colorful, dream-like story by combining a traditional detective plot with Aboriginal folklore. Courtier is hardly remembered today, but curiously, two of his mysteries, Death in Dream Time and Ligny's Lake (1971), were reprinted by Wakefield Press in the 1990s.

After this unexpected, short-lived revival, Courtier drifted back into obscurity alongside with most of his work. Annoyingly, a majority of his detective novels have developed the pesky tendency to be either very rare or a little bit expensive. This is what kept me from returning to Courtier.

So it was slightly frustrating to read a glowing review from John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, who praised Courtier's The Glass Spear (1950) as "an excellent example of an anthropological detective novel" spiced with "a generous amount" of Gothic atmosphere, Australian tribal mysticism and an impossible crime – impressing me as an Arthur W. Upfield novel as perceived by John Dickson Carr. I was finally able to procure a copy and the story truly is "unusual and bewitching."

The Glass Spear fits snugly with the work of other Antipodean mystery writers. The plot has the theatrical touches of Ngaio Marsh with a rich, vividly described Australian background reminiscent of Upfield and the locked room puzzle of Max Afford and Norman Berrow.

The story begins with the recently discharged Major Dick Thewan returning to the cattle and sheep ranch where he grew up as an orphan, named "Klinie Ger," but has not returned to that peculiar household since he enlisted – nearly eight years ago. An urgent letter from a childhood friend had summoned him back.

Jacqueline "Jay" Lensell pleaded him to come home quickly, because he was "wanted badly." When Dick left eight years ago, Herman Carpenty had been "in jail for stealing Kinie Ger sheep," but now he had been made manager of the ranch. The person behind this is easily one of the more memorable "woman of mystery" characters that populate the genre. Huldah is the matriarch of the Klinie Ger and dominates the ranch from those "rooms of hers on the end of the east wing." She never left those rooms. Only two people were ever allowed to pass their threshold, Burton Lensell and Lucy Danes, but to everyone else, Huldah became "a voice on the automatic interroom telephone system."

 
Although Huldah was "invisible, untouchable, unapproachable," she had "a remarkably accurate system of espionage." Huldah was resented by the children and their resentment increased with the year, because they were dying to know why Huldah was in exile or why nobody was allowed to see her – not even her own son, Clifford. An intriguing throwback to the days of Victorian-era sensational novel and the sheep ranch worked surprisingly well as an absorbent for the story's Gothic atmosphere. Courtier wonderfully described the strangeness that had always been a characteristic of the range in this brief, almost Carr-like passage: "Kinie Ger was the kind of house that should have never been silent, never dark. It should always have been lighted brightly, pervaded with cheerful noise, so that there was no space for the intuitive fear that dwelt in the long, carpeted passages and empty rooms." I honestly would not be surprised if The Glass Spear had inspired Upfield to write his own Gothic-style mystery novel (Venom House, 1952).

Anyway, this unusual household is populated with exactly the right characters. There's the previously mentioned Burton, an anthropologist, reluctant sheepman and "bewildered guardian to a set of children." All of whom were orphans, except for Clifford, who might as well have been one. Burton has a private museum that would have been at home in a S.S. van Dine or Clyde B. Clason detective novel. A private museum housed in a room as big as a lounge where the walls are hung with aboriginal weapons: spears, throwing sticks, boomerangs, waddies, stone knives and stoneheaded axes. The tables were given to ornaments, a ceremonial dress and various implements, while the bookcases were crammed with volumes of anthropological textbooks, but a key piece of the collection is "a fine set of kurdaitcha shoes" – believed by the Aboriginals "to render the wearer invisible." And prints of the kurdaitcha shoes are discovered before and after the murders!

Lucy Danes is in charge of running the household and the only other person allowed to see Huldah. Steve Danes grew up with Dick on the ranch and had been a prisoner-of-war in Burma, which left their marks on his personality. Oscar Flegner, the station bookkeeper, whose legs were crippled by polio and devoted to Lucy in a shy, reversed fashion. Lastly, there's the convenient presence of Superintendent Ambrose Mahon, Criminal Investigation Branch, who's an old friend of the family and is reluctantly placed in charge when the murder begins.

During an Easter carnival, Burton is staging an Aboriginal corroboree, a ceremonial ritual with costumes, masks and dancing, which is staged on a sacred island. The ceremony ends with a spear being driven down a mound of sand, but the spear struck something and the crumbling mound revealed the featured of Herman Carpentry through the sand. A great scene anticipating the Morris Sword Dance murder from Marsh's Off With His Head (1957).

The second murder is equally well staged: one of the people is locked inside the private museum, but is unresponsive and every entrance is locked or bolted from the inside. Dick even went out onto the veranda and checked the museum window, but, when he returned to the corridor, everyone was starring down at the bottom of the door – where a dark-red stain was ominously widening over the yellow carpet. Unfortunately, the locked room was only an atom of the whole plot and Mahon solved it immediately.

Going into the book, I had hoped the locked room-trick would hinge on one, or more, of the items from the collection. This is really is a shame, because a stronger impossible crime would have made it an interesting title for John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, to reprint. The Glass Spear deserves to be reprinted. The locked room is disappointing, but this is the only smudge on this fascinating detective novel with an excellently handled plot.

The solution to the murders is, unsurprisingly, tightly intertwined with the Huldah's secret and her reclusive existence is one of the best built and sustained story-lines in a detective story, ever. A high-light of this plot-thread when Mahon and Dick are allowed to speak with Huldah in her private-rooms, but this long-anticipated meeting only deepened the mysteries surrounding her. This was so very well done and the resolution to the Huldah story-line most definitely delivered. I also like how Mahone gleaned the solution from watching the blacks doing "a death sing" in honor of one of the victims.

John rightly observed in his own review that The Glass Spear is a detective novel that can only have taken place Down Under.
  
The Glass Spear is an engrossing detective novel with a well-imagined background and memorable characters that succeeded admirably in being original within a very traditional framework. So you get the best of both! Hopefully, Courtier will one day find his way back into print. Going by Death in Dream Time and The Glass Spear, he deserves it.

2/13/19

The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (2018) by Gigi Pandian

Gigi Pandian is the award-winning author of the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt books, a series of archaeological mysteries, which have been in my peripheral for years, because Pandian is an admirer of John Dickson Carr and has been penning quite a few locked room stories – all with a historical or archaeological background. I love locked room and archaeological mysteries! So why did it take me so long to finally get around to Pandian?

The series has a cozy, girly vibe that was a little off-putting and add the seemingly never ending flood of reprints, translations and classics that kept coming my way, you have the reason why Pandian never got past my wish list. Not until last year, that is.

The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (2018) is billed as "a treasure trove of nine locked room mysteries" and Douglas G. Greene, of Crippen & Landru, wrote a foreword for this collection. Well, that was more than enough to lure this locked room fanboy in. However, my advise is to skip Greene's foreword until you've read the stories, because he reveals a red-thread that runs through them that will probably ruin part of the fun if you're a fanatical locked room – as well as laying bare a general weakness of the collection. Greene's foreword really should have been an afterword. So, with that out of the way, let's get to the stories.

The opening story is a novella original to this collection, "The Cambodian Curse," in which a former con man turned security expert, Henry North, asks Jaya Jones to help him find a statue that was stolen from a museum under seemingly impossible circumstances. A statue from Cambodian, known as The Churning Women, was the museum's centerpiece with curse resting on it. A string of anonymous letters warned the owners to return the statue to Cambodia, but the only precaution they took was moving it to a secure office on the second floor – a room without windows and security cameras outside. This office room is the scene of a seemingly impossible murder and theft.

Jaya Jones spends most of the story looking for the "missing pieces of history" and reconstructing the family history of both the victim and her museum. Unfortunately, the locked room angle is not really examined until very late into the story and the solution is a complete letdown. A type of solution I utterly despise as an explanation for an impossible crime. I hate it even more than the timeworn secreted panels, hidden passages, unknown poisons and pieces of strings or pliers. So not exactly an auspicious beginning of this collection.

The second story, entitled "The Hindi Houdini," was originally published in Fish Nets: The Second Guppy Anthology (2013) and the detective here is not Jaya Jones, but her best friend and stage magician, Sanjay Rai – who's known as The Hindi Houdini and briefly appeared in "The Cambodian Curse." Rai is preparing for a magic show in California's Napa Valley when the theater manager, "a crass womanizer," is murdered in his locked office. Suspicion falls on a former mistress, but Rai clears her name by finding an answer as to how the murderer managed to get pass the locked door. The trick, or rather the principle behind the trick, has a long, storied history in the genre, but was competently handled here. A routine affair as far as locked room stories goes.

Luckily, the third story is easily the best one of the lot and my personal favorite. "The Haunted Room" was originally published in Murder on the Beach (2014), in which Jaya Jones listens to the peculiar history of the titular room in a house dating back to "the post-Gold Rush boom in the late 1800s." The room is not so much haunted as it suffers from a serious case of kleptomania. A nifty twist on the room that kills (e.g. Carter Dickson's The Red Widow Murders, 1935). Over the decades, all kinds of items have inexplicably disappeared from the room, such as children's toys and a ring, but, during the early 1900s, "a valuable scroll" of historical importance disappeared from the room – only problem is that the room had been locked at the time. And the occupant of the room, a scholar, had placed a chair under the door handle.

I know of only one other impossible crime story that uses a hungry (locked) room that gobbles up its content, which can be found in Case Closed, vol. 66, but Pandian had the better solution of the two, because it was more elegant, original and thoroughly clued. If I had to pick a story from this collection for a locked room anthology, it would probably be "The Haunted Room." Really enjoyed it.

Unfortunately, I didn't like the next novella at all. "The Library Ghost of Tanglewood Inn" was published in 2017 as an ebook and even won the Agatha Award for Best Short Story, but every idea from the plot was borrowed from other detective stories or series – running from Conan Doyle to Jonathan Creek. The past murder inside the inaccessible library, blocked by a table, gives away that Pandian has seen Jonathan Creek. It's practically identical to one of the episodes!

Granted, the use of a hardcover edition of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) was a clever touch, but even that gimmick came from a rather well-known historical mystery. So, no, I didn't like this story at all.

The next story, "The Curse of Cloud Castle," originally appeared in Asian Pulp (2015) and returns to the exploits of the Hindi Houdini, Sanjay Rai, who finds himself stuck on an artificial island with "a storybook castle." An island that was created only ten years before by a tech billionaire who made his fortune in cloud computing and the cast of characters mostly consist of Silicon Valley people. A good way to replant the classic trope of a closed circle of people in modern times. Naturally, someone is murdered under impossible circumstances, but, once again, the solution turned out to be one of the easiest, most simplistic locked room-tricks in the book.

"Tempest in a Teapot" was first printed in LAdies Night (2015) and the story introduces yet another one of Pandian's detective-characters, Tempest Raj Mendez, who's a magician friend of Sanjay Rai and has an interesting impossible situation – a botched stage trick. A man stepped into a barrel-size wicker basket, situated in the middle of a stage, while an assistant plunged a plastic sword into the basket followed by a scream. When they opened the basket, they found the man curled up inside with "a pool of blood spreading across his stomach." The impossible situation recalls Carter Dickson's Seeing is Believing (1941), but the solution is a play on Edward D. Hoch's favorite technique. And think his fans will most appreciate this story.

"A Dark and Stormy Light" was originally published in Malice Domestic: Murder Most Conventional (2016) and can hardly be described as an impossible crime story, but is, together with "The Haunted Room," the best story of the collection with one of the freshest take on the "gentleman thief" in the West – which should please fans of Maurice Leblanc and rogue fiction in general. Jones tells Rai the story of the second conference of historians as a grad student.

The history conference was sharing the hotel with a mystery writers' conference, "a friendly bunch," who turned out to be even "bigger drinkers than historians" and their guest of honor is a famously reclusive mystery writer, Ursula Light. She takes a firm hand in the investigation of the he disappearance of a keynote speaker of the history conference, Milton York. York claimed to have discovered a diary that would change "some widely held assumptions about why the Dutch lost their stronghold in India," but has not been seen since the pre-conference meetings. The only quasi-impossibility, at a stretch, is a discrepancy in time. However, this is hardly to the detriment of the plot and has a fun explanation for the missing speaker. And revealed a great villain who should be brought back in future stories.

The next story, "The Shadow of the River," originally appeared in Fish Tales: The Guppy Anthology (2011) and is the shortest story in the lineup. The story begins with Jones being on scene when the body of Dr. Omar Khan, a professor of history, is found behind the locked bolted door of his university office – beaten to death with "a thick wooden figure" of a smiling Buddha. Recently, Dr. Khan had discovered "an ancient map depicting three sacred rivers in India," which was now missing except for a small, torn piece that was found on the edge of the desk. The solution is another golden oldie, but was nicely put to use here and this should probably have been the opening story. If only because it appears to be Pandian's earliest published short story.

Personally, I believe it's better to open a collection, like this one, with a writer's earliest work, because, if the stories are good, shows the reader the author progressed and improved over time. Sticking it at the end show the opposite.

Finally, The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories closes with a novella, "Fool's Gold," which was first published in Other People's Baggage: Three Interconnected Novellas (2012) and has interesting gimmick. Each of the novellas are standalone stories, but are finked together by having the characters from the three different writers ending up with each other's baggage. Admittedly, this is certainly a novel way to link all these characters together without having them actually meet. Hey, I love crossovers almost as much as a good locked room puzzle. Anyway, the lost baggage here is only a minor inconvenience to Jones. The real problem is the theft of a golden and silver chess pieces, which were taken from a hotel safe by blowing it open, but the thief never emerged from the room after the explosion. Jones is accompanied by her magician friend on this investigation. A fun, amusing and good story to close out the collection, but not particularly challenging as far as the impossibility is concerned.

My review has been rather lukewarm and this has to do with the problem that was inadvertently highlighted by Greene in his foreword. These stories, without giving too much away, hardly break any new ground with the exception of two stories, "The Haunted Room" and "A Dark and Stormy Light" – standouts of the collections. So you shouldn't go into it expecting a shin honkaku-style locked room puzzles that employ elaborate architecture or severed body parts to craft intricate and original impossible crimes. This is mostly written as a tribute to everyone's favorite mystery trope.

In the end, I think The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories will be more appreciated by fans of the series and modern cozies than the fanatical locked room reader looking for another La nuit du loup (The Night of the Wolf, 2000; Paul Halter), Keikichi Osaka's The Ginza Ghost (2017) or Arthur Porges' These Daisies Told (2018).

Well, so far my tepid review, but good news, I found something promising from the late Golden Age that, thematically, has something in common with this collection. And not just because it's an impossible crime novel with a murder taking place in a locked museum.