4/2/20

The Art School Murders (1943) by Moray Dalton

Last year, Dean Street Press reissued five novels by the then forgotten mystery novelist Katherine M. Renoir, who wrote twenty-nine detective novels as "Moray Dalton," which our resident genre-historian and blogger, Curt Evans, described as "the finest British crime fiction" of the mid-century period – originally published between 1929 and 1951. I thought The Strange Case of Harriet Hale (1936) was overpraised, but The Night of Fear (1931) and Death in the Cup (1932) were good examples of the sophisticated, character-driven mystery novel closely associated with the Crime Queens.

So it was encouraging to see these new editions were successful enough to bring more of Dalton's long out-of-print, nigh forgotten mystery novels back in print. DSP reissued five further titles in March and, while The Black Death (1934) was not reprinted, the line-up still looked promising!

The Art School Murders (1943) is erroneously listed online as a non-series novel, but Evans reckons it's the tenth title in the Inspector Hugh Collier series. A mystery novel tantalizingly combining three popular mise-en-scènes of the Golden Age detective story: murder at a school for artists during the blacked-out nights of the Blitz.

Aldo Morosini is a well-known, celebrated Italian artist who founded the Morosini School of Art with the lofty dreams of discoursing through its hallways "surrounded by an adoring crowd of students," but the eager, hard-working students were unable to "feed his hungry vanity" and the school ceased to amuse him – still "a paying proposition." So he now only comes around at the end of each term to decide who's to be promoted to the life class and has left the teaching in the hands of two staff masters, John Kent and Mr. Hollis. Not surprisingly, the overly expensive art school is dying a slow death with more students leaving than enrolling. War isn't exactly helping, either. Nor is the presence of a femme fatale.

Miss Althea Greville used to be the favorite model of "a big noise in the art world" and went to pieces when he died, but she retained enough of her beauty and allure to continue working as an artistic model. A year previously, Miss Greville was engaged as a model at the school and turned the heads of many of the male students ("you'd never credit the harm a woman like that can do in three weeks"). At the time, one of the masters had pegged her as "potentially dangerous," but she was allowed to come back when another model canceled and this gig ended with the discovery of her blood drenched body behind the screen in the life classroom!

The local police is confronted with "a formidable list of suspects," forty-five students, two masters, one secretary and the caretaker, who all had access to the school and could have been there at the time of murder without attracting any attention – which is quite a departure from all the locked room mysteries of late. So they decide to immediately call in Scotland Yard, but, before Inspector Hugh Collier really can get to work, a second murder is reported!

One of the students, Betty Hayden, is an avid moviegoer who regularly patronized "a small picture-house," the Corona, catering to people "who would rather see a good old film than a poor one fresh from the Hollywood mint." She always sat all the way in back, on the balcony, which is where her body is found. Someone had stabbed her silently, in the dark, while Fred Astaire was singing on the screen. Betty had been hinting that she had seen someone lurking around who shouldn't have been there.

Usually, these so-called "emergency murders" of pesky witnesses or people who simply know too much add very little to the plot, or story-telling, except to help tighten the noose around the murderer's neck. But that was not entirely the case here.

This second murder places Betty's school friend, Cherry Garth, in possible danger, because the murderer might be under the assumption that Betty shared her secret with Cherry. So this second murder actually furthered the plot and story-telling, but just as interesting was the scene of the crime. Surprisingly, I can only name six detective novels and one short story that use a darkened cinema as a stage for murder and have only read four of them. You have Rex Hardinge's very obscure short story, "The Cinema Murder Mystery" (1927). P.R. Shore's extremely obscure The Death Film (1932). One of the victim's in Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936) is stabbed inside a movie theater and Gerald Verner's The Whispering Woman (1949) is on my to-be-read pile. John Russell Fearn's One Remained Seated (1946) and Pattern of Murder (2006) made the best use of the cinema setting.

If you cheat a little, you can add E.R. Punshon's Death of a Beauty Queen (1935) and Stuart Palmer's "The Riddle of the Whirling Lights" (Hildegarde Withers: Uncollected Riddles, 2002), but Dalton's The Art School Murders is a genuine, if unusual, addition to the list – using the setting more as a psychological clue rather than a convenient place to silently knife someone. The murderer is someone with "an unusual degree of callousness" and this murder showed it.

Collier whittled down the list with fifty potential suspects down to five, which is mostly done by interviewing suspects and witnesses. Brad, of Ah, Sweet Mystery, calls this approach "dragging-the-marsh," in honor of Ngaio Marsh, which can bog down a story. Once again, that was not the case here as the story never flagged, but all of the clues and hints were hidden in the statements and movements of the characters. This has always been a precarious way to clue a detective story to the full satisfaction of pesky armchair detective, but it can be done and the opportunity was present here. Only problem is that this particular murderer needed more, stronger clueing to have been an good, effective surprise. Now it felt like a wombat being pulled out of top hat. You'll understand why when you read it.

The Art School Murders is not as good as The Night of Fear, or Death in the Cup, but certainly better than The Strange Case of Harriet Hale with a plot that made interesting use of the second murder, cinema setting and the nighttime black-outs – seriously hampering the police in keeping "tabs on anyone after dark." Recommended to mystery readers with a special affinity for the (uncrowned) Queens of Crime.

3/29/20

Demons' Moon (1951) by Colin Robertson

I promised in my review of Jerry Coleman's Action Comics story, "The Super-Key to Fort Superman" (1958), that I would done with trimming down my stack of newly acquired locked room mystery and impossible crime novels by the end of the month – bringing back a little variety to the blog. This post marks the end of the deluge of locked room and impossible crime reviews that have flooded this place since February.

I've already lined up some non-impossible crime novels by Christopher Bush, Moray Dalton and E.R. Punshon, but my to-be-read pile and wishlist remain infested with locked room stories. So expect that variety to be heavily seasoned with miraculous murders and insoluble problems. But for now, I bring you a curiosity that has been hermetically sealed in obscurity for nearly seven decades.

Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) has pages filled with entries of obscure, long out-of-print titles, oddities and some apparent anomalies.

You have genuine rarities such as Eric Aldhouse's The Crime at the Quay Inn (1934), B.C. Black's The Draughtsman's Pen (1948), Nigel Brent's The Leopard Died Too (1957) and Sinclair Gluck's intriguing, somewhat familiar, sounding Sea Shroud (1934) in which a murder is committed in a locked and bolted room with barred windows – one window has "a hole from a rifle shot" in it. When it comes to the oddities, you have the previously mentioned "The Super-Key to Fort Superman" and Stephan M. Arleaux's plagiarized edition (The Locked Study Murder, 2017) of A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922). There's even some odd praise for David Louis Marsh's Dead Box (2004), an atrocity on the level of the living conditions in the trenches of the First World War, but Skupin admitted "the solution is a terrible letdown." So there's that. And there were a couple of entries that looked anomalous.

Skupin spotlighted Maisie Birmingham's The Mountain by Night (1997) in his introduction as a 1990s locked room novel "worthy of note" and was published only twenty-three years ago, but there are less than a dozen references to it on the internet. No copies! Something tells me The Mountain by Night was privately published, because she published her three previous mysteries in the 1970s and Amazon gives "M.P. Birmingham" as the publisher of The Mountain by Night – explaining the lack of copies. So perhaps an interesting title for John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, to reprint in the future as a companion for Derek Smith's Come to Paddington Fair (1997). Esther Fonseca's The Thirteenth Bed in the Ballroom (1937) is another weird one, reportedly reprinted in 2012, but only found a short review and have to assume the 2012 edition belonged to another entry. Christopher Fowler has a number of entries on the opposite page.

Lastly, we have the subject of today's rambling review. A locked room mystery novel from the early 1950s that, at first, didn't appear to exist at all!

Entry #2955 in Locked Room Murders: Supplement is Colin Robertson's Demon's Roost, published by Forge in 2004, but this time the internet came up with zero results. The book was not mentioned, or listed, anywhere on the internet and that would have made for a record-setting death plunge into obscurity, but noticed that Demon's Roost was the last entry on page 160 and Madeleine Robins' Petty Treason (2004) was the first title listed on the next page. Yes, it was published by Forge. So that cleared up that problem, but what about the title? Some detective work brought me to the profile page of a prolific, British mystery novelist, Colin Robertson, who wrote detective, pulp and thriller novels under several different names – one of the novels published under his own name is titled Demons' Moon (1951). I focused on that title and discovered that the names of the detectives listed in Locked Room Murders: Supplement were the same as in Demons' Moon. Never underestimate the tenacity and laser-focused autism of a rabid fanboy! :)

So, after all that detective work, I wanted to know what the book was about and the description of the impossibility, "a dead man seen in a room through the keyhole" and "only moments later the body is gone," had me intrigued. What I found was a little out of the ordinary for a locked room mystery.

Demons' Moon begins with a sickly, middle-aged spinster, Rowena Penhaven, who lost her domineering mother six months ago and now lives all alone behind "the grey, moss-covered walls of the Penhaven estate." Beechwood Close even has the family crypt cozily standing on its uninviting, fenced-in grounds. Rowena was "bound hand and foot" to "her tartar of a mother" as an unpaid servant, but the death of Mrs. Penhaven snapped the chains of her mind and she began to suffer from lapses of memory and hallucinations – seeing ghosts, snakes and the Thing. Every so often, the key to her mother's old bedroom goes missing and when she looks through the key-hole, the Thing is always there. A "macabre tableau" of a man lying on a bloodstained carpet with "a hideous, gaping wound in the back of his head" and "an ugly stain" on the front of his shirt. Scene is always the same!

Eventually, the key is returned and when Rowena goes into the bedroom, the dead man has "vanished without leaving a trace." Only to reappear in the locked bedroom days, or weeks, later. And this has been going on for months!

So, during one of her lucid moments, Rowena decides to call in outside help and picked a detective agency from the telephone directory, but the detective who answered the call, David MacLeod, found a crazy woman coming out of the family crypt. Rowena is rambling about a ghost "wearing a shroud" and "things in the house." But there's no ghost. No blood. No body in the bedroom. MacLeod promises to come back the next day, but reads in the morning newspaper that the body of Rowena Penhaven had been pulled from a small stream running through the estate. She had died shortly after he had left her behind!

Unfortunately, he needs a client before he can make himself "a thorough nuisance" without risking his license and one unexpectedly comes to him with a hundred a week paycheck. Sadie MacLeod soon joins her husband on his investigation.

You can't deny Demons' Moon has a solid premise. A tale of domestic suspense, in the style of Anthony Gilbert, with a strong, Gothic flavor and the problem of the ghostly scenes in the locked bedroom, but the second and third act of the story convinced me Robertson had no idea where the story would end when he penned the opening chapters – making it up as he went along. Second part of the story is pure, pulp-style dime thriller with a scheming villain who keeps cobra's as pets and idiotically wastes his time with drugging or playing games with MacLeod. Just not as good or engaging as the pulp detective/thriller yarns by, oh let's say, Gerald Verner (e.g. Terror Tower, 1935). Robertson than attempted to walk back on this second act with a horrendously botched play on the least-likely-suspect gambit, but the twist only pulled the rug from under the plot and the whole story fell flat on its face. So not a pretty ending to a story that began so promising!

Honestly, the only good things I can say about Demons' Moon is the original, strangely compelling way in which MacLeod was brought into the case and Robertson updated a locked room-trick that was famously used in a short story from the 1930s. Sadly, the problem of the locked room is not given any thought until Chapter XXIV when briefly a number of possibilities are considered and eliminated ("...and can't believe that a dummy was used either"). And they accidentally stumble across the solution in Chapter XXVI. You say about John Russell Fearn what you want, but he would have wrested a good pulp story out of this locked room-trick. A detective story that would have given the reader a hint of the possibilities of this new marvel.

So, yeah, Demons' Moon is a good example why some novels and writers are forgotten today, but, every once in a while, you have to read one to appreciate the truly talented and entertaining mystery writers all over again.

3/26/20

Death of a Frightened Editor (1959) by E. and M.A. Radford

Earlier this month, Dean Street Press revived three obscure, long out-of-print novels by a forgotten mystery writing couple, Edwin and Mona A. Radford, who collaborated on thirty-eight forensic, puzzle-driven detective novels that were originally published between 1944 and 1972 – most of them starring their series-detective, Dr. Harry Manson. A detective with the unique dual role of being "in charge of the Crime Laboratory at Scotland Yard" as "the chief of the Homicide Squad."

Back in February, in anticipation of these releases, I reviewed the Radford's nostalgic adieu to the detective story's Golden Age, Death and the Professor (1961). A standalone detective novel presented as a collection of short (locked room) stories, but the nostalgia came at the expense of the ingenuity and originality that can be found in their Dr. Manson novels (e.g. Who Killed Dick Whittington?, 1947). So my next stop was going to be, unsurprisingly, the reprint of one of the Radford's impossible crime novels, Death of a Frightened Editor (1959). I was not disappointed.

Death of a Frightened Editor is the eleventh entry in the Dr. Harry Manson series and revolves around an inexplicable poisoning aboard the first-class Pullman coach of the 5.20 Victoria to Brighton train.

Over a stretch of six months, a group of seven men and one woman traveled together in the same coach, occupying the same seats, five nights a week and the Pullman had slowly become "a traveling club" – where "conversation was mutual" and "drinks were stood round by round." A mixed company made up of a dreary general manager of an insurance office, Marriott Edgar. A wealthy and ponderous stockbroker, William Phillips. A charity worker and a prominent executive of the Unmarried Mothers' Association, Mrs. Freda Harrison. A manager of the share-buying department of a great bank, Alfred Starmer. A well-known crime reporter for a London morning paper, Edwin Crispin (no relation of Edmund Crispin). An eminent Harley Street surgeon, Thomas Betterton, and a jolly Cockney bookmaker, Honest Sam Mackie. The group is rounded out by the soon-to-be-dead Alexis Mortensen.

Mortensen is the editor and owner of Society, "a scurrilous rag-bag of gossip and pictures," whose extremely rigid body is found inside the locked lavatory of the coach. Fortunately, Dr. Manson was traveling in the next first-class coach and immediately takes charge of the case.

The cause of death is strychnine poisoning, but suicide is unlikely, because "there are other and less painful means," which is an assumption cemented by such clues as a stolen keyring and a small, crumpled piece of paper found on the lavatory floor – convincing Dr. Manson the editor had been poisoned. There's just one problem. Strychnine "acts within a quarter-of-an-hour" and Mortensen "had gone double that time without having taken anything in food or drink."

So murder appears to be a complete impossibility with the additional complication that it's "exceedingly hard to obtain." But the how is merely a single piece of the puzzle.

The whole police apparatus, headed by Dr. Manson, is set in motion to disentangle a procession of double and false-identities, play a game of three-card monte with private safes and bank deposits boxes and digging out a cache of long-buried secrets and potential motives – all tied to the reason why the victim had acted so frightened leading up to his death. There are more points that need consideration. Such as a free-for-all bottle of Bismuth that was passed around the coach, a string of unsolved burglaries and the mysterious woman who had been secretly living with the victim.

Slowly, but surely, piece by piece, the murder and its background are reconstructed until the full picture emerges. Only downside is that certain pieces of vital information arrived a little late to the story. Nonetheless, the step-by-step reconstruction, eliminating possibilities and testing theories makes Death of a Frightened Editor a pleasantly complex and engaging detective story with a well-done impossible poisoning.

Death of a Frightened Editor shows Edwin Radford was "an avid reader" of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke mysteries with its use of forensic science to find the murderer, but the solution to the impossible murder is pure John Dickson Carr. A clever, ultimately simplistic, twist on a poisoning-trick that I've only seen once before. And made for a great play on the Carrian blinkin' cussedness of things in general. I don't think many readers will have a problem with working out the motive or how that tied-in with the gossip columns in Society and the secreted content in the deposit boxes, but getting there made for some engaging and fun police work. And the murderer was a nice surprise. I didn't (quite) expect that person to have been the one who gave Mortensen the poison.

So, on a whole, Death of a Frightened Editor is a well-written detective novel with a tricky plot and a good impossible crime, but the clueing was a little shaky and this is probably why the Radford's didn't include a single challenge to the reader. Regardless, the murder-among-commuters plot makes Death of a Frightened Editor standout as an original take on the train-set mystery novel and that alone makes it worth a read.

By the way, Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) lists another impossible crime novel by the Radford's, Trunk Call to Murder (1968), in which safes are mysteriously looted. Just throwing that out there.

3/24/20

Lost and Found: "The End of the Train" (2007) by Mike Wiecek

One thing I noticed when thumbing through my copy of Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) is the increase of novels, short stories and TV episodes in which cars, houses, ships, large statues and trains disappear, or reappear, under seemingly impossible circumstances – making them a little less rare than I believed. In particular, the stories about vanishing locomotives and modern, high-speed trains.

Henry Leverage wrote an early locked room mystery, entitled Whispering Wires (1918), but Skupin listed a second novel, The Purple Limited (1927), centering on the "disappearance of a locomotive from a section of track monitored at both ends." Three years later, John Coryell wrote a Nick Carter novel, The Stolen Pay Train (1930), with a similar positioned impossibility, but there were also two modern-day writers who tackled the problem of how to make a train vanish like a burst bubble. Andrew M. Greeley lost "a rapid transit train between stations" in The Bishop and the Missing L Train (2000) and there's a short, ambitiously-plotted thriller story in which a computer-monitored train with 32 cars "disappeared off the face of the earth."

Mike Wiecek's "The End of the Train" has, as of this writing, only appeared in the June, 2007, issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

"The End of the Train" takes place around the train yards in Newark, New Jersey, where David Keegan has worked for nearly four "tumultuous decades" as a Special Railway Officer. Keegan is now close to retirement and in charge of "two thousand miles of track" crawling with "more vandals, thieves, vagrants, criminal rings, and white-collar fraud" than "anywhere else in North America" – never before had an entire train vanished! One morning, Keegan is summoned to the yard's dispatch center, overlooked by "a 360-degree glass tower," already overflowing with executive limos and police cars.

Train number 432 was en route to Tennebrul, a flat yard in Connecticut, when the GPS equipped locomotive "just blipped out a few miles past Croxton." A nearby maintenance-of-way crew checked a twenty mile stretch of track, but didn't see or find anything. Somehow, "half a mile of rolling iron" had unaccountably gone missing.

Unusually, the train was transporting a dangerous cargo of industrial tankers full of toxic and flammable chemicals to place without much heavy industry. Disturbingly, a multi-million dollar ransom note is emailed to the authorities or they'll "detonate the entire package." This package is the train with its specially assembled cargo that, when detonated with explosives, creates "a cloud of poison" that "could kill people for miles around."

Mike Grost aptly described "The End of the Train" on his website as "an impressive combination of the techo-thriller and the impossible crime tale" and the technological elements are not only the motor and fuel of the plot, but provided the story with a new variation on the one-track solution to make an entire train disappear – which, out of necessity, all run along similar lines. Wiecek's technological spin completely reinvigorated the idea and made it feel fresh again! Add the specialized setting with an inside look at a modern, largely computer operated/supervised train system and you got is a 21st century take on Freeman Wills Crofts.

My sole complaint is that "The End of the Train" is a short story instead of a fleshed-out, full-length novel that took the time to show the reader all the nuts and bolts of the plot. So much more could have been done with the characters, setting, impossible disappearance and the technical-and thriller parts of the story. Nonetheless, Wiecek's "The End of the Train" is still a good and interesting blend of the detective story and techno-thriller. More importantly, Wiecek demonstrated that even in the world of today a train monitored by computers and tracked by satellites can vanish without a trace.

3/22/20

Sleightly Lethal (1986) by Patrick A. Kelley

Patrick A. Kelley is, or was, an American magician from Altoona, Pennsylvania, who performed magic tricks at banquets and children's parties in the 1970s, but I had to dig deep to find that obscure, biographical detail in the internet archive of the Altoona Mirror – advertising as "Magician Entertainment" in the August 11, 1975, edition. Ten years later, Kelley had gone from doing magic tricks at children's parties to writing detective novels about a down-on-his-luck magician, Harry Colderwood.

During a brief period between 1985 and 1988, Kelley wrote a handful of detective novels that all have "sleightly" in their title, beginning with Sleightly Murder (1985), but these books have done very little to immortalize his name.

I stumbled across the series by pure chance! You can only find most of the book covers and a list of titles online, but barely anything about their content or any reviews with exception of a 2014 interview, "Getting to Know Tracy Revels," in which Revels names Harry Colderwood as one of her favorite detective-characters – praising the books as "really clever." So, the Colderwood series is surprisingly obscure considering it was published relatively recently and had a magician-detective as its protagonist. A normally popular figure in the traditional detective story.

So the series was probably garbage, I reasoned, but the book covers were very close in style to those of another, 1980s writer of traditional, puzzle-oriented detective novels, Herbert Resnicow (see The Gold Deadline, 1984). Some of the titles and capsule plot-descriptions suggested they could be impossible crime novels not listed in either Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) or Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). Sleightly Invisible (1986) is the most obvious example with the usual shenanigans during a séance, but the title that caught my eye was Sleightly Lethal (1986). A book with an intriguing cover showing a clown stuffed into a safe and telling the reader "it was murder, not magic, that put a dead clown in a locked safe."

Sleightly Lethal is listed online as the third title in the series, but it could just as well be the second title, because Kelley wrote two Harry Colderwood mysteries in 1986, paperback originals, and my edition only gives Sleightly Murder under "other Avon books by." No mention of Sleightly Invisible. Anyway...

Just five years ago, Harry Colderwood was a relatively successful magician, but the graph of his career "shows a steady downhill trend" and had the graph been a cardiogram, he would have been "legally dead" two years ago – a nasty rumor has it he's now doing trade shows! A poor man's Alexander Blacke who travels the country in a ramshackle van loaded with magic tricks that are starting to break down. But when he sees an old friend on TV making a dire prediction, he races with the van to an old, magic-themed hotel in Roselle, Maryland.

Marcus Spillman is known to the world as Quimp the Clown and Colderwood catches an interview with him on television, in which he says to have no believe in psychics and fortune-tellers, but predicts that "Quimp is not long for this world" and he won't be checking out of the Fitch Hotel alive. Somebody is planning to do away with him!

Fitch Hotel is owned by Jack O'Connell, "a magic-lover," who turned the hotel into "a gathering place for magicians" overflowing with conjurers "pulling bouquets from nowhere, finding chosen cards" and "burning and restoring borrowed handkerchiefs." The Fitch is a never-ending magic convention and, once a year, the hotel hosts Magicade and Quimp holds the record for the most consecutive Magicade engagements, which is "the magic world's equivalent of an Oscar nomination." Unfortunately, the municipal council has condemned the whole block without exception and the hotel is in the process of closing down.

Portuguese edition
Colderwood arrives three days after the last Magicade at a partially closed and practically empty hotel, surrounded by torn down buildings, but just in time to be there when the hotel-safe is opened to reveal the body of a clown – crammed into the safe so tightly that knees touched chin. A clown who looks like the spitting image of Quimp. However, Marcus Spillman is very much alive and he has four people with him, dressed and made up as his clown persona, who are competing to become the next Quimp. So who was the clown in the safe? The dead man is identified as "a local punk," Perry Vaughn, but Sheriff Virgil Tarrant believes Vaughn had accidentally locked himself inside the safe during a botched burglary. Just one of those bizarre accidents under peculiar circumstances. Colderwood disagrees.

So, once again, the poor magician turns amateur detective and begins to poke around with an empty hotel and a clowning competition as a background, but a background with some complications.

One of the competitors is his former assistance and love-interest, Cate Fleming, who's the only person Colderwood trusted "to fire a .537 Magnum" in his face. But she's married now. Colderwood is also entangled in a friendly game of catch-me-if-you-can with a special field agent of the IRS, Jeffers, specialized in "tracking down hard-to-find citizens" and "serving them with audit notices." The so-called treasure room of the Fitch and a local serial murderer, christened The Soda Pop Killer, lurking in the background complete the mise-en-scène of the story.

The treasure room of the Fitch is a basement storage room filled with memorabilia and souvenirs left behind by magicians, which had become a tradition over the decades ("visit the Fitch and leave a piece") and the collection had become to big to keep on permanent display. I liked the scenes in which Colderwood was rummaging through the storage room, trying to figure out The Great Halsto's Mystic Box or watching a 1930s film reel of a comedy drunk-act, but particular appreciated when he came across a photo-album of the first Magicade and a picture of a famous Dutch magician, Fred Kaps – who's "pouring buckets of salt from an invisible shaker." His trademark trick!

Sleightly Lethal is a very specific, but kind of hard to describe, type of quasi pop-culture inspired mystery novel, often taking place during a convention, which were apparently popular during the 1980s. The story has a very similar feel to it as Bill Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981), Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982) Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987), Richard A. Lupoff's The Comic Book Killer (1989) and Daniel Stashower's Elephants in the Distance (1989). I'm sure there are more.

However, Sleightly Lethal is not quite as good as some of its contemporaries and you blame that on how the plot-threads and clues were handled. Admittedly, the central idea with the dead clown in the safe was clever and somewhat original, especially how it played out, but the reader can't really piece it all together with the clues that were provided. And this took the punch out of the ending. So not exactly an example of the blazing surprise ending that makes the reader suddenly see the whole design.

I was slightly disappointed with the conclusion, lack of an impossible crime and that the story gave me no opportunity to shoehorn in a "Doink brah, you makin' kids cry, brah" reference, but Sleightly Lethal was still a fun and entertaining read. So I'll eturn to the series to see what Sleightly Invisible and Sleightly Deceived (1987) have to offer. Or what that extremely obscure, final novel, Sleightly Guilty (1988), is about.

3/18/20

Diving Death (1962) by Charles Forsyte

Last month, I reviewed Diplomatic Death (1962) by “Charles Forsyte," a shared penname of a husband-and-wife writing tandem, Gordon and Vicky Philo, who, regrettably, wrote only three, classically-styled detective novels and a standalone chase thriller that have a penchant for impossible crimes – published between 1961 and 1968. A surprisingly solid, ambitious and puzzle-oriented debut for the period that made me even more curious about their second detective novel.

Forsyte's Diving Death (1962), alternatively published as Dive into Danger, is the second appearance of Detective-Inspector Richard Left, of Special Branch, who had been "overworked to the point of exhaustion." So he was glad to finally go on a long-anticipated, much deserved holiday in the south of France.

Port-st-Pierre is a fishing village and a holiday resort where Left plans to do little more than relax, eat, swim and trying to avoid his fellow countrymen, but he's recognized by an old acquaintance, Sir Paul Pallett. A world-famous archaeologist who looks like "a more animated Churchill" and speaks (mostly) in telegraphic sentences ("Probably hopes to find a drowned city. Atlantis. Underwater archaeology. All my eye. Good excuse for undergraduates who want a holiday in the Mediterranean"). Sir Paul is not only a celebrated scholar, but a decidedly poor one as well and has to indulge the fancies of a rich, dilettante archaeologist with "intellectual pretensions," Dermot Wilson – who has assembled a respectable crew for an archaeological expedition at sea. An expedition scavenging the sea bottom around the recently uncovered, spongy remains of an ancient Greek shipwreck where Roman coins were found on a previous diving excursion.

Sir Paul was persuaded (read "cornered") to have a look at the site and arranged to have him picked the next day with a motor-boat, but nobody expected Left would be invited by the eminent scholar to come along with him. And unwittingly acts as the fuel powering the engine of the plot!

When they arrive on the spot, the crew aboard the anchored Knossos were getting ready to dive. So the three people on the motor-boat, Sir Paul, Left and the boatman, had to stay on there and watch the divers plunge below the surface to the wreck. An area marked by a couple of buoys moored about a hundred yards apart. The minutes leisurely ticked away when the body of Wilson comes bubbling to the surface with a steel harpoon projecting from a bloody patch on his chest! Left realizes that it will be hours before the French police can get to them, "evidence may have vanished by then," which prompts him to take charge of the investigation until the proper authorities arrive.

An investigation forcing Left "to follow the route that had just been taken by a corpse" and dive to "the muted two-colour world of the sea-bed" where he establishes the time of the murder and searches the bottom for clues – finding a used harpoon-gun, a weight belt and a small hole in the sea-bed. These diving scenes recall the underwater explorations from Vernon Loder's Death by the Gaff (1932) and Allan R. Bosworth's Full Crash Dive (1942), which helped make the book standout as something different from your average detective novel. And, here, it's an integral part of the puzzle-plot. But not the whole puzzle.

Left also to untie a tightly-knotted mess of alibis, motives and opportunities of the crew-members. A crew comprising of an experienced, much respected archaeologist, Edward Syce, who made "some unexpected finds on his digs." A younger, inexperienced, but brilliant archaeologist, Sidney Lockhead. The victim's "current girlfriend," the Honourable Julia Ferrers, who's the daughter of an impoverished Irish peer. A student of Wilson, Mary Lawton, who does his secretarial work and mechanic/diving expert, Joe Marshall. Only problem is that everyone has an alibi! The divers alibi each other and everyone on the surface have an alibi as unshakable as a bloodhound! So, where's the impossibility, you may ask? Diving Death qualifies as an impossible crime novel, but it's one of those stories in which the impossibility becomes apparent after the solution.

I compared Diplomatic Death with the detective novels and short stories by Clayton Rawson (stage illusion-inspired crime) and Peter Godfrey (setting), but Diving Death is more in line with Anthony Berkeley and Christopher Bush.

The multiple alibis and the importance of timing is what reminded me of Bush, but Forsyte's brilliant use of false-solutions and grand play on the fallible detective trope was pure Berkeley! Forsyte provided the reader with three false-solutions of which two are tightly intertwined, giving different perspectives to the same story, while a third accounted for the possibility of an outside killer – lovely foreshadowed in the third chapter. Even better is how Left blundered to the solution. Or, to be more precise, how his blundering affected and hampered reaching the correct solution earlier. Left has to pay the devil for his "unforgivable police sin," but, by that time, you probably feel too bad for him to laugh. The physical altercations also give the story a slightly hardboiled edge.

Nevertheless, it was his mistakes and blunders, in combination with the false-solutions, setting and technically-detailed underwater murder, that turned an otherwise routine plot into a first-class detective tale that, like its predecessor, stands out. This all makes for a very satisfying, puzzle-driven detective novel with a superb play on the fallible detective trope that helped to lift the plot above its normal status. My only piece of nitpicking this time is that it occurred to nobody that the harpoon could have been used to stab, instead of having been shot, which is what I expected until the empty harpoon-gun was found. So my expectation were thoroughly subverted.

So, yes, Diving Death comes highly recommended and particular to mystery readers who love their false-solutions, fallible detectives or picking apart alibis and stands as solid argument why these two unjustly forgotten mystery writers deserve to be reprinted.

A note for the curious: locked room murders and impossible crimes under water are relatively rare, but there are two finely-crafted examples that deserve a mention. Joseph Commings' 1953 short story "Bones for Davy Jones," collected in The Locked Room Reader (1968), in which a hard-hat diver is murdered while exploring a recently sunken shipwreck. The 15th episode of the Detective Academy Q anime-series, which deals with the body of a diver found in a locked cabin of a sunken ship and the underwater setting allowed for a new variation on an age-old locked room-trick.