4/14/24

The X-Files: Case Closed, vol. 89 by Gosho Aoyama

The 89th volume of Gosho Aoyama's long-running Case Closed series begins, as so often, with winding up the story that started in the previous volume. Rachel, Serena and Masumi wanted to try their hands at an all-girl band and go to a sound studio to practice, where they bump into another amateur girl band, but quickly turns into a full-blown murder investigation – when the drummer of the other girl band is murdered. Strangled with a weapon that cannot be found on the closely searched and guarded premise. And, to make things even more difficult, the security camera had been partially covered with a phone on a selfie-stick at the time of the murder. Inspector Meguire humorously observed in the previous volume how every amateur sleuth in town is on hand to solve this case. Everyone from "the kid detective" (Conan) to "the barista detective" (Toru Amuro) and they make short, efficient work of this tricky murder case.

I ended my previous review with the remark the story could go one of two ways, pretty average or surprisingly good. Fortunately, the story ended up being mostly good with a plot hinging primarily on how the murderer simultaneously created an alibi and managed to spirit away the murder weapon. Only the tinkering with the motive somewhat cheapened the overall story a little bit (ROT13): gur niratre zbgvir vf n jryy-jbea, phygheny gebcr bs Wncnarfr qrgrpgvir svpgvba, juvpu V pna npprcg, ohg qvfyvxr guvf nggrzcg gb fcvpr vg hc ol univat gur zheqrere orvat jebat nobhg gur ernfba gurl qrpvqrq gb gnxr fbzrbar'f yvsr. Va guvf pnfr, gur zbgvir fhqqrayl orpnzr n pbagbegvba npg jurer abar jnf ernyyl arprffnel. That minor complaint aside, this is on a whole a pretty good story.

The background decoration on the cover already gave it away, but the second story is indeed a now out-of-season Christmas mystery story and a good one at that!

Doc Agasa takes Conan, Anita and the Junior Detective League to the department store, "all Christmassed up," to cash-in his coupon for a lunch at the gourmet restaurant at the top of the department store – before the kids scatter across the place to hunt for presents ("...texting me about presents they've found for themselves"). But while they're amusing themselves, the gourmet chef is stabbed and wounded outside the restaurant where they just ate. And the assailant ran down the staircase. Conan alerts the Junior Detective League to "get to the nearest staircase and keep an eye on anyone who emerges." The police detained three customers who were caught hurrying away, "all covered in sweat," but all have ready-made excuses. So the testimony of the Junior Detective League should settle the matter, however, when they regroup they all give a different description of the fleeing attacker ("all our eyewitnesses disagree").

Conan begins to reconstruct their movement, talk with other potential witnesses in order to prove that not only the three different descriptions were correct from the start, but "that all three testimonies point to the same person." Very well played and an excellent treatment of the one-of-three suspects-type stories that features regularly in this series, which this time felt completely fresh and invigorated. This is also how the Junior Detective League should be used.

The third story is something really special. Last year, I reviewed The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) by Mack Reynolds in which I remarked that the potential puzzles posed by flying saucers, space invaders and futuristic technology would make a nice change from haunted houses, dodgy seances and lingering curses – which normally haunt the impossible crime genre. A locked room mystery, impossible crime or simply a straightforward detective story presented as something straight out an episode of The X-Files is not entirely unheard of, listed half a dozen examples in the review ranging from Fredric Brown and Clayton Rawson to Q.E.D. and Jonathan Creek series, but the plotting potential of UFO sightings and alien interlopers remains largely untapped even today. I'm really glad I can add the third story from this volume to that very specialized list of (impossible crime) stories.

Hina Wada is a 17-year-old student and rival of Rachel in the school karate students, but now she come to ask her father, Richard Moore, to take on a most unusual case. She was out jogging in Haido Park with her karate club when she suddenly spotted a decidedly alien-looking craft in the sky ("the classic cigar-shaped model"), which she tried to pursue, but it was gone by the time she reached the top of the stairs. This is incidentally the exact same public park and stairs where the attack from vol. 84 and vol. 85 occurred. Richard Moore advertises his detective agency with the promise he'll "pursue any case to the end of the universe." So off to the park they go to investigate a potential alien presence in Japan ("Yoko Okina is playing a paranormal investigator in a new TV show... so dad's into aliens now"), but find an unexpected twist instead.

In the park, they come across Detective Chiba investigating a truly bizarre, dead end case. Kyogo Nakatsu was the editor of a UFO magazine whose body was found lying face down in recently pored concrete. There was, however, no concrete in his lungs. Nakatsu was suffocated before he fell into the concrete, but it gets even stranger. Next to the magazine editor was his freelance photographer, Yusuke Kuchiki, lying face up in the then hardened concrete. After the police cuts him out, Kuchiki swears "an alien came out of UFO, killed Nakatsu in mid-air, then got back in the UFO and flew away." Strangely enough, the hardened footprints in the concrete and absence of a murder weapon do not contradict his outrageous claim. No drag marks to suggests shenanigans with the body. The two sets of footprints are equally deep and both sets face the same direction ("...no sign that either person walked out"). Conan is not easily fooled, "this crime was committed by a human being," but how exactly was it was done? The solution is good and technically sound, but, where the story really stands out, is how effectively it put everything at work. From the UFO sighting and the suspect's claims of an alien killer to the tricks being employed, which resulted in an inverted detective story with a new take on the no-footprints impossibility that gave the murderer a rock-solid alibi. An alibi while only being an arm-length away. Brilliant stuff!

The last, full-length story from this volume is a continuation, of sorts, of the story from vol. 85 in which Shukichi Haneda, a shogi player, was on the verge of collecting all seven crown titles – seven national shogi championships of Japan. Shukichi Haneda handed his girlfriend, traffic cop Yumi Miyamoto, a sealed envelope with the request to not open it until he has collected all seven titles. Inside is a signed marriage registration to which she only has to sign her name. So, having won all seven titles, she can sign the paper, but she lost the envelope. Fortunately, Conan is on hand to help her finding it, which leads to mean, old caretaker of the building who a shogi fan. The old man finds her unworthy to marry a master of game, but gives her an opportunity to get it back by cracking a code he created. A fun enough story, but nothing particular good or outstanding. Obviously intended as a springboard to the next story.

The story ends with a reference to Shukichi Haneda's late brother-in-law, Koji Haneda, who was a master shogi and chess player before dying under mysterious circumstances during a chess tournament in the United States. Anita recognizes the name as she seen it on the same list with Conan's real name on it. Oh, the plot thickens! So the final chapter begins with Conan and Anita researching the case, which happened seventeen years ago, but they quickly become distracted by a much more recent murder case. That morning, the body of the president of a real estate company was found in the outside guesthouse of his estate holding a pair of novelty scissors Doc Agasa invented. But, as they begin to investigate, they begin to notice a resemblance to the murder of Haneda seventeen years ago. This promising story is going to be concluded in the next volume.

I think it's a fair conclusion to state vol. 89 is not only a huge improvement over the previous one, but can be counted as one of the strongest volume without a longer case, major event or crossover appearances in a long time. It almost read like a throwback to an earlier period in the series. Greatly enjoyed it! And very much look forward to beginning the countdown to vol. 100!

4/10/24

Murder Most Cold (2023) by Victoria Dowd

Victoria Dowd is a former British barrister-turned-novelist, head of the London Crime Writers' Association and author of the darkly humorous, award-winning "Smart Woman's Mystery" series – "a modern take on the Golden Age of crime fiction." The series debuted with The Smart Woman's Guide to Murder (2020) and comprises, as of this writing, of five novels. I heard about Dowd and this series in passing, but only really came to my attention last December.

Steve Barge, the Puzzle Doctor of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, picked Dowd's Murder Most Cold (2023) as the best book of the year (The "Grand Puzzly" Award). Giving it props for "the sheer originality of a locked lake mystery" and "finding a sensible way to make it work." A locked lake mystery, you say? A traditionally-styled mystery with an original-sounding take on the impossible crime story always does the trick for me. So immediately tossed Murder Most Cold on the list of the locked room novels and short stories, published between 2015-25, as material for the lengthy addendum to "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century." First let's see what this so-called locked lake mystery is all about.

Murder Most Cold is the fifth, and latest, entry in the "Smart Woman's Mystery" series and Dowd included an introduction for new readers, "The Mökki Murder Papers," answering the question "just exactly who are these Smart Women?" Ursula Smart, "your guide through this particular circle of hell," is the main character of the series and its slightly unreliable narrator. Pandora Smart is her mother and the operating brain behind their family blog/podcast, Death Smarts, where she relates their close brushes with death and numerous killers ("often exposes intimate facts about her family..."). Charlotte Smart is Ursula's somewhat eccentric aunt who recently moved in with her sister and niece. Breffni Spear ("it's an old Irish name") is only referred to as Spear for obvious reasons and is Ursula's love interest. They met on a previous case that made him a widower. Lastly, there's the self-proclaimed associate of the group, Bridget Gutteridge, who has a pet monkey fittingly named Dupin.

I should note here that Murder Most Cold contains references to previous novels without giving away key details, which I very much appreciated as series today tend to be less episodic than their Golden Age predecessors – often integrating ongoing character-arcs with the plots or use them as subplots. So stepping in the middle of a series nowadays can be a different experience than, say, cherry picking your way through the bibliographies of classic writers like Christopher Bush, Brian Flynn or E.C.R. Lorac (see my review of Dan Andriacco's The English Garden Mystery, 2022). Fortunately, that proved to be less of an obstacle with this series, however, Murder Most Cold probably would have hit differently had I been more familiar with the characters.

Murder Most Cold begins with Spear proposing to Ursula and she said yes, which turned her mother in a terrifying creature known as the wedding planner. Ursula wants to get away from the spotlight of her mother's blog/podcasting empire and they opt for a Winter Wilderness wedding holiday in Northern Lapland ("husky rides, sledges, skiing"). So the whole group bundles up and travels to the Finnish wilderness for the private wedding ceremony where they'll be staying at a group of mökkis (cabins). A small holiday retreat run by a Londoner, Tapio, who's their less than gracious host who cheats on his Finnish wife, Aino. Helmi is their unhappy, twenty year old daughter who tried elope with the general handyman and reindeer wrangler, Matthias ("carries deep-seated belief in the old spirits and myths of Finland"). Now she just mopes, calls out her father's philandering and smoking weed. And the owner apparently knows Spear from somewhere.

In this atmosphere, Ursula begins to get the wedding jitters and second thoughts, but then the situation takes an unexpected, dramatic turn. Tapio is found fatally poisoned at the same time Spear disappeared into the night. Just before, Ursula had overheard Tapio trying to blackmail Spear over past secrets. On top of that, someone "cut all the phones and smashed the Wi-Fi box" while the bodycount begins to steadily climb. Midway through the story an impossible discovery is made when someone, who had been present only hours ago, is found underneath a thick layer of ice of a small lake that had been frozen solid for weeks – a veritable ice-locked tomb! So let's tackle this "locked lake mystery at the icy heart" of the plot.

Firstly, the idea of fresh body spotted underneath the thick, icy surface of a solidly frozen lake is unquestionably original, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. If you're going to introduce a locked room murder or impossible crime, particular one that can be safely described as out of the ordinary, you're obliged to do something with it. I can see why Dowd's explanation is absolutely necessary for the overall plot to work, but (SPOILER/ROT13) vg jnf bayl znetvanyyl zber npprcgnoyr guna n gjva, qbhoyr be rira n ybbx-n-yvxr qhzzl and this story really needed a good, satisfying explanation to the locked lake mystery orpnhfr Qbjq jnyxrq onpx ba jub jnf qvfpbirerq vafvqr gur ynxr. Fbzrguvat gung zhfg unir pbzr nf n fghaavat, zvqjnl gjvfg sbe ernqref jub unir orra jvgu gur punenpgref sebz gur ortvaavat. Vs lbh'er tbvat gb tb onpx ba gung, lbh ng yrnfg fubhyq unir n qrprag fbyhgvba sbe ubj gur zheqrere znantrq gb trg gur obql vafvqr na vpr-frnyrq ynxr. Cybg-jvfr, gur sebmra ynxr fubhyq unir fgvyy cbfrq na bofgnpyr sbe gur xvyyre gb olcnff. Being a somewhat practically-minded Dutchman, I simply assumed the body had been fed into the lake through a subsurface pipe or drainage system.

What about the rest of the story? That's a mixed bag of tricks. I credit Dowd for trying to find a happy middle ground between the sugary, cozy-style mysteries and the grimmer, character-driven thrillers with various degrees of success. So you get the collection of quirky, colorful and bantering characters placed in actually dangerous situations with actual stakes. Nobody is guaranteed to live to see the end of the book. This certainly gives an edge to an otherwise traditionally-styled detective novel, which is excellently played out during the first-half as the wedding atmosphere begins to deteriorate into horror with the bodies piling up around them. During the second-half and especially towards the end, it began to feel like the story wanted to have its cake and eat it too. For example (ROT13), Oevqtrg pbzvat gb erfphr va gur raq evqvat ba gur onpx bs n ervaqrre, “ynapr uryq bhg va sebag bs ure nf cebhq nf n zrqvriny xavtug,” juvpu V nffhzr jnf qbar gb yvtugra gur zbbq, ohg vf vzzrqvngryl sbyybjrq ol n zragnyyl-jbea qbja, abj becunarq Uryzv fubbgvat gur zheqrere guebhtu gur urnq. Be grnfvat Cnaqben vf abg tbvat gb fheivir ure thafubg jbhaq (“Lbh pna'g qvr. Lbh pna'g rire qvr. Ohg fur pbhyq”) bayl gb unir ure fheivir nsgre nyy.

The characters and, more importantly, the plot failed to catch me, but there's something to be said about the evocative setting with its deep, dark and frozen wilderness populated with creatures and spirits of Finnish folklore – lit up with the ghostly green of the Northern Lights. One thing that can be leveled against the neo-GAD writers is that they either retreat into the past or go out of their way to take the modern world out of the equation, which is not entirely untrue. It makes writing and plotting a classically-styled whodunit or locked room mystery so much easier, but D.L. Marshall's John Tyler series has shown it can be more than a gimmick to turn back time for a game of Cluedo. Something the traditionalists of today should take into consideration, because I think exploring specialized, often remote settings can stamp a distinguishable personality of its own on these new GAD-style mysteries. Marshall gave a couple of extreme examples with John Tyler solving seemingly impossible murders on a germ infested island or a nuclear bunker in the Arctic Circle, but why not one set during an expedition in Antarctica or exploration to an abandoned village on a Japanese island gone wrong. Basically turning the modern detective story into an urban explorer. It has fascinating, largely untapped possibilities and one thing Murder Most Cold did very well was tying the plot to the setting.

Hopefully, this lukewarm review can be deemed fair, because I wanted to like it on account of it being the "World's Only Locked Lake Mystery," but Murder Most Cold simply didn't do it for me. I'm afraid this series just isn't for me.

4/8/24

My Late Wives: "She Wouldn't Kill Patience" (2002) by Ooyama Seiichiro

Ooyama Seiichiro is a Japanese mystery writer specialized in themes series and short story collections, best known today for the "Alibi Cracking, At Your Service" series, who debuted on the e-NOVELS website with a pastiche of John Dickson Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell – entitled "Kanojo ga Patience wo korosu hazu ga nai" ("She Wouldn't Kill Patience," 2002). The short story obviously is a homage to He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944; as by "Carter Dickson"), which was Carr's answer to Clayton Rawson's challenge to craft a locked room mystery where the crime scene is sealed on the inside with tape. Rawson provided his own answer in the short story "From Another World" (1948) and recently A. Carver tackled the problem of a murderer inexplicably escaping from multiple, tape-shut rooms with The Author is Dead (2022). Ooyama Seiichiro's "She Wouldn't Kill Patience" is a fascinating addition to this sub-category of the locked room mystery.

"She Wouldn't Kill Patience" opens one evening in the study of Dr. Fell, Number I Adelphi Terrace, where he's entertaining Superintendent Hadley, Sergeant Higgins and the solicitor Frank Morstan. Dr. Fell notices something is on the solicitor's mind.

Frank Morstan has recently gotten engaged to Marjorie Copperfield, but so has her mother and his future mother-in-law, the long-widowed and wealthy Mrs. Marie Copperfield – which came as a surprise, or shock, to everyone. The man in question is a middle-aged, French historian and lecturer, Georges Lefebvre, who's ten years her junior and viewed with suspicion ("perhaps he is after the Mrs. Copperfield's money"). Not without reason. Superintendent Hadley recognizes a French serial killer and fugitive, named Charles Raspail, in Morstan's description of Georges Lefebvre. Hadley calls Raspail "the rebirth of Henri Désiré Landru from his homeland, or George Joseph Smith of England," who had three wives die under mysterious circumstances. Only difference between him and those two is Raspail is "much more clever and cunning" as he varied his methods and techniques. An overdose of sleeping medication or a fall from a third-floor balcony. So it took some time for the authorities to catch on, but, when they finally cottoned on, Raspail fled to England and simply disappeared.

So, knowing what they know now, Mrs. Copperfield is certainly going to be targeted next. Hadley orders Higgins to keep an eye on the current M. Lefebvre, which they go get the file at Scotland Yard to convince Mrs. Copperfield. However, they arrive too late. Mrs. Copperfield is discovered dead in her bedroom with the gas-tap screwed open to a maximum with the door and windows "sealed tightly by long, thin strips of vellum pasted along the gaps." Obviously suicide. However, Mrs. Copperfield is not the only body in the gas-filled room. Near the gas-tap stood the birdcage with Mrs. Copperfield's parrot, Patience, lying at the bottom pining for the fjords. Marjorie is sure the dead parrot proves her mother was murdered as "my mother wouldn't kill Patience" ("...she hoped it would live the rest of it out in peace"). But how? Even Dr. Fell has to admit, "I know many methods to lock a room from the outside, but this is the first time I see it sealed."

The locked room-trick is a real humdinger! Sure, you can call the trick a new wrinkle on an old chestnut, but really enjoyed how this idea was applied to the puzzle of the tape-sealed room. More importantly, "She Wouldn't Kill Patience" is not an impossible crime tale where the murderer is easily spotted and the trick carrying the whole plot. Ooyama Seiichiro refused to go with the obvious throughout the story, which made for an excellent denouement as Dr. Fell exposed both the truth and pointing out the killer. My only complaint is that motive felt a trifle weak when held next to the rather ingenious and involved method, which required a weightier motive to justify it. Other than that, "She Wouldn't Kill Patience" is a first-class locked room mystery and exactly what pastiches should aspire to be. A story written with love and respect for the original.

Note for the curious: you're probably wondering where you can find and read this story. Someone emailed me this unofficial translation to read and review, if I wanted to review the story. I decided to review it simply to try and generate some attention for Ooyama Seiichiro, because I would love to see official translations of "The Red Museum" and "The Locked Room Collector" series.

4/4/24

Green for Danger (1944) by Christianna Brand

Green for Danger (1944) is Christianna Brand's second novel about her series-detective, Inspector Cockrill, which is not only regarded as her crowning achievement as a mystery novelist, but considered to be one of the best, Golden Age whodunits ever written – comparable only to the best from John Dickson Carr and Agatha Christie. Last year, I listed Green for Danger in the "Top 10 Fascinating World War II Detective Novels" and revisited Suddenly at His Residence (1946). A somewhat conventional country house mystery, but brilliant and daringly plotted. And infinitely better than I remembered from my first read. But, as pointed out in the comments, Suddenly at His Residence is not even Brand's third, fourth or even fifth best detective novel. To quote James Scott Byrnside, "she was the best." So wanted to take another look at Brand's masterpiece to see if stands up. It did!

The backdrop of Green for Danger is Heron's Park, a former children's sanitarium "hurriedly scrambled into shape as a military hospital," situated three miles out of Heronsford in Kent. Brand introduced the primary characters in the first chapter through Joseph Higgins, a postman, who pushes his old, battered bicycle up hill to deliver seven letters at the hospital. Seven letters addressed to the seven principle players.

Firstly, there are the two surgeons, Gervase Eden of Harley Street fame and the long-time Heronsford physician Major Moon, backed by Sister Marion Bates and the local anesthetist, Dr. Barnes. Rounding out this little, tightly-knit group are three VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachments), Frederica Linley, Esther Sanson and Jane Woods. A varied group of people, all with their own backstories, brought together at Heron's Park under wartime conditions and Brand ends the first chapter with the following line, "he could not know that, just a year later, one of the writers would die, self-confessed a murderer" – drawing a tightly "closed circle" before the murder has taken place. Another thing Higgins could not have imagined is that he would be the first victim of this murderer.

A year later, Heronsford suffers a heavy, nighttime air-raid, "A.R.P. centre has been hit, among other places, and there are a lot of casualties," which begins to fill up the hospital beds ("...now it’s time for work!"). Joseph Higgins is brought in with a fractured femur and scheduled for surgery the following morning. Higgins spends a long, restless night muttering in his bed ("where have I heard that voice?") before being brought to the operating theater. They ensure Higgins that the procedure is not dangerous, "hardly an operation at all," but something did go wrong. And the patient dies on the operating table. There's no apparent reason why he died before they even made an incision, "they pip off for no rhyme or reason and you never know exactly why," but the authorities have to be notified. Detective Inspector Cockrill arrives at Heron's Park two days later under the assumption he's handling "just another anæsthetic death” (“you doctors slay 'em off in their thousands"). However, the case doesn't end with that single fatal incident in the operating theater.

If Death of Jezebel (1948) is Brand trying her hands at a Carr-style locked room mystery, Green for Danger is her take on Christie's conversational-style whodunits like Murder on the Orient Express (1934).

Green for Danger takes the "mainly conversation" approach as it tells its story, fleshes out the characters and setting the scenes mostly through dialogue. So no wonder the 1947 movie adaptation, starring Alastair Sim, is commonly regarded as one of the best adaptations of a Golden Age mystery novel as the book itself almost reads like a movie script. Not even the alterations to the original story could diminish the brilliance of the novel with perhaps the biggest difference between the two is that the movie has a slightly more light-hearted, comedic tone. What should not be overlooked about the original novel is why Green for Danger is considered to be the best of the British World War II mysteries. The descriptions of its wartime surroundings act as punctuations in the narrative flow with the incessant "droning of aero-planes overhead," the hospital shaking with "the thundering of the guns in the neighbouring fields" or "now and again with the sickening thud of a bomb" – occasional glimpses of the patients who fill the hospital beds after every air-raid. From bandaged people lying in their beds or wandering around the place to the hospital comedians cracking jokes every time a bomb falls ("they've 'eard about the pudding we 'ad today, nurse, and they're trying to kill the cook").

So, all of that being said, Brand did dabble in a little bit of physical clueing in such an original and brilliant way, it deserves to be highlighted. This inspired piece of physical clueing comes in the form of a murdered nurse, "laid out ceremonially on the operating table, rigged up elaborately in a surgical gown and mask and gloves, with huge white rubber boots on her feet," who had been brutally stabbed to death. A macabre detail is that one of the stab wounds was delivered after the victim was already dead. It's always tricky to do additional murders without making them come across as mere page padding, but Green for Danger demonstrates how to make a second murder count and milk it for all it's worth. A lesson Byrnside, a devout Brandian, took to heart when he started writing his own detective novels (e.g. The Opening Night Murders, 2019).

When cobbling together "The Hit List: Top 10 Fascinating World War II Detective Novels," I feared Green for Danger was perhaps too well-known for the list and considered replacing it. I'm glad I decided to keep it on the list, because Green for Danger lives up to its reputation as the best and most famous of all British WWII mystery novels. And because of how it exploited it's wartime setting, it becomes so much more than just another, very well-done whodunit from one of the Golden Age greats. Green for Danger is simply one of the dozen, or so, best detective novels from Golden Age and can't heap more praise on it.

A Tip for the Curious: Green for Danger is Brand's best-known novel and generally accepted as her masterpiece, but there are some contrarians out there claiming London Particular (1952) is her finest piece of detective fiction. British Library is going to publish a long overdue reprint of London Particular later this month. So you can soon judge for yourself.

3/31/24

The Secret of the Pointed Tower (1937) by Pierre Véry

Last year, I reviewed the short story "Le mystére de la chambre verte" ("The Mystery of the Green Room," 1936) by Pierre Véry, "novelist of adventure, novelist of the fantastic," who believed in saving "what has been able to remain in us as the child that we were" ("...full of flaws, of changes of heart, of shadow and mystery") – essentially wrote fairy tales for grown-ups. One of his few works to be translated into English is L'assassinat du Pére Noël (The Murder of Father Christmas, 1934) and is a fine example of Véry's home blend of the formal, 1930s detective story with his brand of gentle surrealism.

I mentioned in the review that the few translations like the previously mentioned seasonal mystery novel and the now even rarer English edition of Le thé des vieilles dames (The Old Ladies' Tea Party, 1937) have since gone out-of-print. There seemed to be no plans or rumors swirling around at the time to translate Véry's other celebrated novels such as Le testament de Basil Crookes (The Testament of Basil Crookes, 1930) and Les quatre vipères (The Four Vipers, 1934). Little did I know that Crippen & Landru was putting the finishing touches to a brand new translation that was published back in December.

Renaissance man and author of Death and the Conjuror (2022), The Murder Wheel (2023) and the upcoming Cabaret Macabre (2024), Tom Mead, translated Véry's famous collection of short stories, Les veillées de la Tour Pointue (The Secret of the Pointed Tower, 1937) – which at the time caught the attention of Ellery Queen. This first English edition opens with a photocopy of a handwritten letter from Frederic Dannay to Véry thanking him for sending a copy of Les veillées de la Tour Pointue and hoped to see some of the short stories published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Something that would not happen until "The Mystery of the Green Room" appeared in the August, 2011, issue of EQMM. More than sixty years after Dannay wrote the letter and now we have the whole collection.

In addition to translating this collection, Tom Mead penned insightful introduction that presented Pierre Véry as a writer who a "unique path" through the Golden Age of the French detective story. A mystery writer enjoying "the distinction of being both an exponent and a critic of the Golden Age" whose tales of mystery and imagination "often existed outside of the strict parameters of the conventional whodunit." Véry's mystery output consists of everything ranging from everything subversive reimaginings and parodies to the traditional locked room mystery, but always distinguishable by their "often-eccentric blending of genres" and his "taste for the surreal or fantastical."

Before diving into this collection of short stories, I should note that the Crippen & Landru edition neglected to list the original French titles and publication dates. I found the original French titles, but have no idea when, or where, they first published. So, lacking the publication information, this one is going to be slightly less autistic pedantic than most short story collection reviews that can be found on this blog.

The Secret of the Pointed Tower begins with a short chapter, "A Message to the Reader," in which Pierre Véry himself is roaming the streets of nighttime Paris in search of somewhere, anywhere, to hang a man ("such is the morbid fate of mystery writers...") when he accidentally discovered a secret passage – revealing a dark, narrow passage. A passage leading to a hidden attic room in the pointed tower of the police headquarters, on the Quai des Orfevres, where he finds a pile of handwritten reports on "all kinds of crimes, burglaries, mysteries, enigmas." But written down as dry, clinical reports. These are full-fledged stories that Véry immediately began to copy to present to his audience under the title The Secret of the Pointed Tower. A near, simple little framing device to tie these vastly different stories together.

"Le menton d'Urbin" ("Urbin's Chin") is the first of these short stories following a so-called book-taker, "specialist in the theft of rare tomes," named Simonet. A bibliophile book-taker with designs on "a renowned collection of literary rarities" tucked away in the private library of a collector, Urbin. Simonet's carefully prepared burglary goes entirely wrong when coming across the bloodied, curled up remains of Urbin inside a crate, which is how the gardener finds him and the police believe him guilty. Simonet uses his imprisonment to work out whom of the potentially five suspects killed Urbin ("...by keeping quiet I might just be able to turn a decent profit out of this"). This is a fun little mystery caper and solid opening story that reads like a direct ancestor of the Bernie Rhodenbarr series by Lawrence Block. Loved it!

"Police technique" (no translation needed) concerns the murder of Yvette Lemoine and the
problem her death poses the police. Only person who appears to have had the opportunity to deliver the fatal blows is her cousin, Marcel, but he claims to be innocent and has no motive. Then the police are called the bedside of Yvette who says with her dying breath, "my uncles," but both men have "indisputable alibis." Another possible interpretation of those dying words implicates her fiancé, which again leads the police into a dead end. It's not until Véry's lawyer and sometimes detective, Prosper Lepicq, appears to confront the murderer that the case gets solved, but not in the way Lepicq had hoped. I think this story is more interesting for the style than the plot as it pulls a potential locked room mystery, dying message, unbreakable alibis and even some forensic shenanigans from the old bag of tricks – before ending as a dark, psychological crime story. Lepicq actions at the end echoes some of the practices of his American counterparts like Perry Mason and John J. Malone.

The next story "Le disparition of d'Emmeline Poke" ("The Disappearance of Emmeline Poke") is about the disappearance Miss Emmeline Poke. She was last seen by two witnesses walking home through the woods, in the company of her brother, but she never arrived home. Her brothers were both arrested, the ground around their shed dug up and the woods comb through. Not a trace of the body. A problem arises when one of the investigators points out that one of the witnesses is hard of hearing, while the other is extremely long-sighted. So what did they really see in the woods? And what happened to the body, if there's a body? This could have been a good story, but the actions of one of the characters killed it for me. I suppose the moral of the story is (ROT13) qba'g unir nppbzcyvprf jura pbzzvggvat zheqre, rfcrpvnyyl jura gurl'er fghcvq.

"Police montée," translated here as "The Tale of a Tartlet," is one of my favorite stories from this collection. A charming, playful and excellent take on both the classical whodunit and inverted mysteries. Léon Petitquartier is the seventeen year old son of a pastry chef and an arachnid collector who had been given the unpleasant task of euthanizing the old family dog, Vega ("...the animal was quite literally dying on its feet"). Léon poisoned a honey tartlet with cyanide as a final meal for Vega, but, while being distracted for a few minutes, the poisoned tartlet disappears from the kitchen table. So now Léon has to wait nervously for the news to break that someone has been mysteriously poisoned, but the events doesn't quite play out like the teenager expected. This story really benefited from being longest story in the collection and particularly liked how the village community reacted to the news or simply the simple, but excellent, explanation to the whole mystery.

"La multiplication des négres," re-titled for this collection as "The Salvation of Maxim Zapyrov," tails a penniless Russian in Paris, "stumbling from weariness and weeping with hunger, desperate and begging," who believes a black policeman is hunting for him – which has to do with a "detestable thing" that happened in a dark, narrow street. Maxim Zapyrov tells his unusual story to a M. Paul. A crime story with a predictable twist and not really my poison, but not bad for what it is.

"Le prisonnier espagnol" ("The Spanish Prisoner") is modeled on the classic and titular confidence trick, which is still around today, but changed and adapted along with the times. You might know it as the Nigerian Prince email scam. In this story, the poor Celestin Lainé who surprisingly receives a letter from someone imprisoned in Spain and needs help to collect a trunk containing nearly two million francs. However, Lainé has four very rich friends and they decide to respond to the letter with somewhat predictable results. The key word there's somewhat, because the devil is always in the details and the end result is a good, solid and fun scam story. I love good scam story and the next one is even better.

"Les 700,000 radis roses" ("The 700,000 Pink Radishes") is not a locked room mystery or impossible crime, of any kind, but this story has a delightful, utterly bizarre plot and premise that will be appreciated by fans of John Dickson Carr and Paul Halter. The great Parisian publisher M. Hippolyte Gour keeps receiving a baffling, one-sided correspondence about the purchase of 700,000 pink radishes ("they are guaranteed fresh and free of worm bites") and an equal amount of radish leaves ("these will be dispatched to your personal address"). And, before long, his personal secretaries either get attacked or kidnapped. The case kicked up so much dust that it attracted "the attention of a band of popular mystery novelists" who "were trying to apply the method of their fictional detectives," but the problem of the 700,000 pink radishes seriously tasked their wits. Until they had their storybook moment, "where the police failed, the amateur sleuths succeeded," which comes with a small, delightful twist at the end. More importantly, this is one of those few detective story that manages to do something meaningful with a kidnapping plot (of sorts).

The next short story is "La soupe du pape" ("Soupe du Pape") and reads like Véry tried to recapture the magic of "Les 700,000 radis roses" without much success. A policeman finds a dozen pearls while shelling peas. So has to figure out where the pearls came from, how they ended up in his bag of peas and who stole them. This story did nothing for me.

The next two short stories are the previously mentioned "The Mystery of the Green Room" and "L'assassin" ("The Killer"), but have already reviewed the former (see link above) and the latter is a short-short barely covering two full pages. Fortunately, The Secret of the Pointed Tower concludes with an absolute banger!

"Cours d'instruction criminelle" ("A Lesson in Crime") is not really a mystery short story, but a science-fiction musing on the distant future, somewhere around the year 2500, where crime fiction "gradually took precedence over all other forms of literature" – until they all "fell into disrepute and then obscurity." In those future years, the great mystery writers of the early twentieth century have become the classics school children study from seventh grade onward. The study and history of the traditional detective story is central in every classroom ("if locked-room Y is shaped like an isosceles triangle ABC and locked-room Z is a hexagon MNOPQR, calculate...") and children ask their mothers how they would poison their dad or quiz their father on how he would snuff out his mistress! The ending is both humorous and very perceptive as it's something I can see happening under those circumstances, but Véry's vision of the year twenty-five hundred nonetheless feels like home. But I'm stuck with you lot. What can you do?

The Secret of the Pointed Tower ends with a parting message to the reader from Véry, "when I have more stories, you will be the first to know," but no idea if a second collection ever materialized. Tom Mead also included several pages of explanatory notes, which I always enjoy to find in translated mystery novels or collections.

So, all in all, the short stories collected in The Secret of the Pointed Tower perfectly demonstrates why Véry considered the detective story to be "the brother of the fairy tale." When blended with Véry's home brewed brand of surrealism, you don't always get the most orthodox or traditionally-styled detective stories. You can hardly call any of the short stories traditional, Golden Age-style mysteries, but that doesn't mean the quality isn't there. "The Tale of the Tartlet," "The 700,000 Pink Radishes," "The Mystery of the Green Room" and "A Lesson in Crime" are all first-rate for variously different reasons. "Urbin's Chin" and "The Spanish Prisoner" are simply good, solid stories. "Police Technique" is not quite as good, or solid, but interesting in how it played with different styles and tropes. Only "The Disappearance of Emmeline Poke," "The Salvation of Maxim Zapyrov" and "Soupe du Pape" were off the mark. Not much can be said about the two-page short-short. That's not a bad return for a collection as varied as The Secret of the Pointed Tower. More importantly, the fact that it was translated by Tom Mead is very hopeful for the future. John Pugmire is no longer alone in bringing these French-language novels and short stories to an international audience and the changes of getting a translation of Véry's legendary locked room mystery novel The Four Vipers sooner rather than later has gone up! In short, The Secret of the Pointed Tower is indeed something of a lost classic and comes highly recommended to fans of the short crime fiction.

3/27/24

The Summer of the Ubume (1994) by Natsuhiko Kyogoku

Natsuhiko Kyogoku is a graphic designer, yokai researcher and mystery writer whose debut, Ubume no natsu (The Summer of the Ubume, 1994), is credited together with MORI Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni naru (Everything Turns to F: The Perfect Insider, 1996) with the starting the second shin honkaku wave – couching its traditionally-styled plots in specialized backgrounds or subject matters. The Perfect Insider takes place at what, in 1996, must have appeared as a futuristic IT research institute and The Summer of the Ubume draws on Kyogoku's research of Japanese folklore.

The Summer of the Ubume is the first in a series of nine novels and a handful of short story collections, known as the Kyogokudo series, which combine the detective story with Japanese folklore, myths and urban legends. Ho-Ling Wong called it "a wordy mystery with deep conversations on a wide variety of topics and a somewhat strange locked room mystery" that's "actually available in English." Sort of.

In 2009, Vertical published an English-language edition translated by Alexander O. Smith. A name you might recognize from the Keigo Higashino translations. Speaking of Higashino, the translation of The Summer of the Ubume was published before Higashino's Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005) became an international bestseller in 2011 and Ho-Ling's 2015 translation of Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) for LRI started the translation wave – largely went unnoticed by mystery fans. But through no fault of our own. The Summer of the Ubume was not really presented as a shin honkaku locked room mystery, but something closer to the horror genre or supernatural fiction with a rational and skeptical bend. It didn't help that translation silently went out-of-print around the time Japanese detective fiction started to get momentum. Since then, Vertigo ceased to be and was consolidated into Kodansha USA.

So that pretty much put a brake on a possible second printing or a translation of the second, award-winning novel, Moryo no hako (Box of Goblins, 1995), ended there for the time being. And used copies have become insultingly pricey. Like you're buying rare coins or something. But, every now and then, you get a lucky break. Let's finally take a look at this overlooked translation of a second wave shin hokaku mystery reputedly even more unusual than Hiroshi's The Perfect Insider.

First of all, the Kyogokudo books form a series of historical mysteries set in post-World War II Tokyo, Japan. The Summer of the Ubume takes place during its titular month of 1952 and marks the first appearance of the proprietor of a used bookstore, Akihiko Chuzenji, but everyone has to the habit to call him by the name of his bookstore, Kyogokudo. A ferocious reader and bookseller who moonlights as a priest and faith healer specialized in curing possessions and exorcising evil spirits "modified to fit the beliefs of the particular sect to which each customer belonged." You see, Kyogokudo is not a believer who looks out on a world filled with ghosts, monsters and other creatures from Japan's folklore, but acknowledges their existence as social and cultural constructs – which can have very real effects on the people who believe in them or have fallen under their spell. So the bookseller and part time exorcist is prone to hold "arcane lectures" that eat into the page-count of the book. Case in point: the opening chapter that runs for roughly one-hundred pages.

The Summer of the Ubume is narrated by Kyogokudo's long-time friend and freelance journalist, Tatsumi Sekiguchi, who traveled to the bookstore to ask his friend a very unusual question. Is it possible for a woman to be pregnant for twenty months? This question gets bogged down in the first lecture covering everything from ghosts, quantum mechanics and the perception of reality to folklore and the ubume ("...if they die in childbirth, their regrets come back to walk the earth..."). So it takes a while before the problem becomes evident, but it comes down to this: Sekiguchi has gotten wind of a rumor that a woman by the name of Kyoko Kuonji has been pregnant for twenty months with the salient detail that her husband, Makio Kuonji, vanished from a locked and watched room at the Kuonji Clinic in Zoshigaya. A clinic the family has run for generations. Kyogokudo tells Sekiguchi to get into contact with Reijiro Enokizu, "a member of a rare breed, a genuine professional detective," to investigate the case. However, it takes them a while to get to the clinic, because the introduction Enokizu takes some time.

Reijiro Enokizu is a childhood friend of the two and one of two reasons why this review has the "hybrid mysteries" tag. Enokizu is someone who can see other people's memories ("...Enokizu doesn't read people's memories, he sees them"), which makes him a very unusual sort of private eye ("I don't do investigations. I do conclusions"). So kind of like a short cut detective that has gotten him trouble in the past, but a handy gift when tackling a case in which someone "vanished from a sealed room like a puff of smoke" and a woman pregnant for twenty months. Somewhere halfway through the story, they finally arrive at the clinic that would have been a fantastic setting for a more traditional shin honkaku mystery. A writer like Seimaru Amagi could have done something with the largely abandoned building that went from a fully staffed hospital to only doing obstetrics and gynecology as the war depleted their staff and American air raids destroying part of the clinic ("wow, they really did a number on this place, didn't they?"). Enokizu quickly bows out of the case and tells Sekiguchi to call on their friend, Detective Shutaro Kiba of the Tokyo Police. Yes, it takes a while for them to return to the clinic, but the parts with Kiba are actually fun. And feel like the story was starting to get back on track. I was wrong.

All the slow, meandering developments and lectures eventually culminate with Kyogokudo going to the clinic to gather everyone around Kyoko Kuonji's sickbed for the expected denouement – dressed up and presented as an exorcism. Only for Natsuhiko Kyogoku to take a page from Edogawa Rampo's playbook of grotesque body horror, which admittedly is used quite effectively to deliver a scene as unexpected as it's unsettling. Regrettably, this memorable scene didn't signal the end of the story as Kyogokudo's lengthy explanation gobbles up the final quarter of this wordy, rambling and overlong book. I love detective stories soaked in the bizarre or arcane, but a writer has to eventually deliver something on those ideas. Particularly if you keep dragging and delaying things. That was unfortunately not the case here.

Going by what has been translated up until now, The Summer of the Ubume stands as a poor specimen of the Japanese detective story. Even if you want to be generous and only compare it to other hybrid mysteries.

First of all, the vanishing from the locked room is an important part to the overall plot and what, exactly, makes a good locked room-trick is still being debated today, but what Kyogoku pulled here is simply infuriating. A suggestion that was mocked a century ago (ROT13: n punenpgre sebz T.X. Purfgregba'f “Gur Zvenpyr bs Zbba Perfprag” fhttrfgf gung gur zheqrere tbg va, naq bhg, bs n pybfryl jngpurq ebbz ol gvcgbrvat npebff cflpubybtvpny oyvaq fcbgf bs gur bofreiref gb juvpu nabgure erfcbaqf, “nppbeqvat gb lbh, n jubyr cebprffvba bs Vevfuzra pneelvat oyhaqreohffrf znl unir jnyxrq guebhtu guvf ebbz juvyr jr jrer gnyxvat, fb ybat nf gurl gbbx pner gb gernq ba gur oyvaq fcbgf va bhe zvaqf.” Kyogoku thought that was a good idea to explain the disappearance from a locked room (ROT13: ur arire qvfnccrnerq sebz gur ybpxrq ebbz. N cflpubybtvpny oybpx ceriragrq crbcyr, vapyhqvat gur aneengbe, sebz frrvat gur obql naq gura jrag n fgrc shegure ol univat gur obql ghea vagb n jnk-zhzzl haqre irel fcrpvny, uvtuyl hayvxryl pvephzfgnaprf. And, no, Kyogokudo saying "I'm no statistician, but I'd say you're looking at chances close to zero" doesn't make it any better. I should note here Ho-Ling pointed out in his review that while not being a fan of the locked room-trick, it does work in conjunction with the themes of the story like a thematic device. Fair enough. But still rubbish. Nothing else about the plot, motives, missing babies and morbid psychology, justified its length either. So if you're looking for one of those ingeniously-plotted, delightfully subversive shin honkaku locked room mysteries, The Summer of the Ubume is going to disappoint and severely test your patience.

The Summer of the Ubume has one, very small redeeming quality. Historically, it's a fascinating read. I mentioned last year how the translation wave has largely ignored the Japanese mystery novels from the 1990s and especially that second wave of shin honkaku authors. Hiroshi's The Perfect Insider was very enlightening in that regard and The Summer of the Ubume is very similar as they both show their influence on writers like Motohiro Katou and "NisiOisiN." Even more interesting, The Summer of the Ubume might have even influenced H.M. Faust's Gospel of V (2023). It might just be one of those coincidences, but, having read both unintentionally back-to-back, I can't help but see some trace similarities. For example, the two unusual private detectives or the solution to the vanishing skeleton from the locked collection room. It's like a solution Faust came up while reading the book and decided to use it for his own locked room mystery. Rightfully so, if that's what happened! Read that one instead.

So, yeah, to cut a long story short, The Summer of the Ubume simply didn't do it for me. A historical, not unimportant curiosity, but a curiosity nonetheless. The reader has been warned! Next up, back to the Golden Age!

3/23/24

Gospel of V (2023) by H.M. Faust (a.k.a. "DWaM")

H.M. Faust is a Croatia-born mystery writer who "primarily specializes in writing impossible crime stories" and "his main goal is to push the limits of the mystery genre, merging bizarre storylines and modern narrative techniques with the tropes of the Golden Age period of detective fiction" – who previously published his fiction under the pseudonymous acronym "DWaM." Jim Noy reviewed three of his stories back in 2020 and Stephen M. Pierce compiled "The DWaM Top 5." So pretty much an underground phenomenon, but one that's beginning to claw its way to the surface.

Back in December, Faust published Gospel of V (2023) on Amazon with the intention to eventual re-release all his previous work starting with a short story collection and his longest work to date, An Odyssey to the Castle of Vampires (2023). Earlier this year, Faust dropped me an e-mail to ask if I wanted to read Gospel of V without strings attached or even expecting a review. Naturally, I wanted to the read his take on the locked room mystery. And, of course, I'm going to review it!

Gospel of V is a meta-detective novel with a dual narrative alternating between a fictitious, unpublished manuscript and two mystery fiction obsessed editors discussing the story. So a mystery novel promising to make for a fascinating read and an interesting highlight in the inevitable addendum to "The Locked Room Mystery & Impossible Crime Story in the 21st Century."

The first half of this dual narrative is the manuscripts part, titled The Fall of House Cosmigrove, which introduces the Cosmigroves headed by their dying patriarch, Joseph Cosmigrove – a genius scholar and "revolutionary voice of the century." Joseph Cosmigrove has four children with the oldest, Mundus, groomed from birth to become his successor ("Mundus' only crime was being born first"). His brothers and sisters were spared their brother's fate, but they were expected to excel in their assigned or chosen disciplines. Sofia choose music and became one of the most successful violin players in the world. Constantin took up the brush, "he, like Mundus, was forbidden from sculpting," to garner fame by "painting scenes of sculptures." Ishmael Cosmigrove became a writer, "a mystery writer of little renown," who presumably narrates the story, but curiously is never mentioned by name. Mundus remained with his father as his siblings scattered to pursue their disciplines, but returned when Joseph Cosmigrove became gravely ill. Cosmigrove told his son to sell the old house and move them somewhere more suitable to recover or die. But the moment the family reunites, strange things start to happen.

After their first night back together under one roof, the household discovers someone has dug a large, deep and rectangle-shaped hole in the garden with a human skeleton lying at the bottom of it! A garden surrounded by an electrified, ten-feet tall fence. So who buried it and why? When they bring the skeleton to the collection room for a closer examination, the door bell rings and find a young, disheveled man on their doorstep. The young man introduces himself as Lane Prospero and announces, "I'm a Great Detective." Lane Prospero urgently needs to speak to Joseph Cosmigrove, but the family immediately suspect the whole thing is a setup and begin banging on about the skeleton in the garden. But when they want to show the skeleton, it has disappeared from the locked collection room. This is not the last impossibility of the story!

The second half of the dual narrative follows Sparrow and Chariot, senior editors of "a niche venture dedicated to putting out amateur detective fiction" ("...Chief was a huge fan of Japanese writer Yukito Ayatsuji"), who are assigned to go over an unpublishable manuscript – The Fall of House Cosmigrove by Virgil Hesse. A one-day fly who made a splash a few years ago without ever writing a followup to his bestselling debut. Or so it appeared. Hesse delivered the manuscript of The Fall of House Cosmigrove to his editor with the urgent message to publish it "in case anything happened to him," before disappearing from the face of the earth. The chapters featuring the two editors are my favorite part of the book as they dissect the manuscript, throw out observations and critical comments or trying to construct their own solutions ("insert the obligatory locked room lecture here"). More importantly, they give a voice to the critical reader and armchair detective raising an eyebrow at how the manuscript unfolds. To quote Sparrow, "he's aware of the tropes. He understands the concept of impossible crimes. He understands the general flow of detective logic. But there's no – I don't know how to even describe it – mysterious events are happening, but that's about it." Those mysterious events in the manuscript begin to pile up quickly.

Most notably, the seemingly impossible murder of Joseph Cosmigrove. Stabbed to death in his bedroom, while his male nurse was standing outside the door. I also enjoyed how much Faust got out of the stabbing in the locked library and the skeleton's disappearance from the collection room by playing on some of the normally oldest, cliched tropes of the locked room mystery. A fantastic example of what can be achieved when you know, understand and are willing to built on the history of the genre your working in. Particularly if your intention is to take the detective story apart and reassemble it in a different order. In that regard, Faust delivered on the statement that Gospel of V is "built in honor and deconstruction of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction" to "keep readers guessing until the very end." Who knew you can use a deconstructionist approach to create, like cutting new shapes with a pair of hedge clippers, instead of being wielded like a sledge hammer to destroy? Purely as a locked room mystery, it's the solution to Joseph Cosmigrove's murder giving the book a future claim as one of the impossible crime classics of the 2020s! Now this specific locked room-trick is at its core-idea not brand new, but the previous examples that spring to mind are terribly basic and dressed down by comparison. Faust really went to work on it and something only made possible by the ambigious, often bizarre structure of the novel. My description of Gospel of V has so far done no justice to that important aspect of the overall story.

Just to give an idea, Gospel of V has a rather useless "A Challenge to the Reader" after the halfway mark followed by an Intermission with the subtitle "The Jesus Christ Murder Case." It's a short story within a dual narrative rewriting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as an unexpectedly good locked room mystery. Surprisingly, the sealed cave has very little to do with it! And a very intermission for a detective story with a biblical touch to the plot and characters. After all, the story begins with stating that the conception of Cosmigrove's children were all immaculate ("and so great was Joseph Cosmigrove that he had himself a different Mary for each of his four miracles'). Or the excellent chapter in which the gruesome crime scene described in the manuscript is finally discovered and the deduction chapters in which Sparrow and Chariot drag out the solution. I was immensely satisfied with the conclusion to this ambitious meta-detective novel and locked room mystery with multiple, well-handled impossibilities with one absolute standout or simply how it toyed with the role of the Great Detective. So it's almost petty to start nitpicking about a small, nagging detail, but I've to do it.

This contains a small, but not unimportant, spoiler (ROT13): gur fgbel boivbhfyl gnxrf cynpr va gur abg fb qvfgnag cnfg naq ebhtuyl jura vf, rknpgyl, n ovt zlfgrel, ohg abg bhgevtug fgngrq. Jura gur Terng Qrgrpgvir nccrnef ba gur fprar, Cebfcreb vf erzrzorerq nf univat orra “va gur zvqqyr bs Gur Erq Dhrra Zheqref onpx va '85” jvgu nabgure yvar fgngvat gung gur zheqref unccrarq guerr lrnef ntb. Vg'f riraghnyyl erirnyrq gur Fcneebj naq Punevbg puncgref gnxr cynpr va 1987 jvgu gur npghny znff zheqre qrfpevorq va gur znahfpevcg unccravat va 1985. Gung pbashfrq zr nf V fhfcrpgrq guebhtubhg gur fgbel V jnf orvat zvfyrnq nobhg gur lrne va juvpu vg gnxrf cynpr. Sbe rknzcyr, gur bcravat puncgre zragvbaf gur fvoyvatf bppnfvbanyyl r-znvyrq va gur gra lrnef fvapr yrnivat ubzr, juvpu frrzf hayvxryl sbe '85 be '87. V qba'g guvax vg jnf rira pnyyrq r-znvy hagvy gur rneyl 1990f. Va 1987, Lhxvgb Nlngfhwv'f unq whfg choyvfurq Gur Qrpntba Ubhfr Zheqref. Fb ubj pna ur rira or ersreerq gb nf n zlfgrel jevgre “jub serdhragyl rzcyblrq gur gebcr bs univat gjb cnenyyry aneengvirf unccravat va gur fnzr obbx”? Pbhcyrq jvgu gur ntrf bs gur punenpgref, V fhfcrpgrq gur fgbel ernyyl gbbx cynpr fbzrgvzr orgjrra 1995 naq 2005, juvpu sbe fbzr ernfba unq gb or bofpherq. That was a bit distracting at times as I keep looking how that could figure into the story. It didn't.

Other than that little inconsistency, Faust penned a fair play meta-locked room mystery as deceiving and ambitiously constructed as it's written with its "wishy-washy first person narration" belying its deviously original and tricky plot – expertly hidden underneath it all. Some knowledge and awareness of Golden Age-style detective fiction and locked room mysteries in general is required, because you won't fully appreciate Gospel of V otherwise. But, when you do, it's a fascinating and engrossing read from start to finish. Particularly in light of recent developments.

I'm seeing two different strains of impossible crime fiction, and writers, evolve from the current locked room revival in front of my eyes! On the one hand, you have, what can be called, the traditionalists who came out or can be tied to the reprint renaissance. These writers include Tom Mead, J.S. Savage and Gigi Pandian whose locked room mysteries aim to restore the fair play detective story to its former glory and cite John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson as their main influence. On the other hand, you have the as of now unnamed strain (mavericks?) influenced by the translation wave and especially the Japanese shin honkaku writers. A movement that revitalized the traditional detective story in Japan with their college-age detectives, corpse-puzzles, strange architecture and a fresh take on the impossible crime problem. You can find these ideas applied to the Western genre in the locked room mysteries by James Scott Byrnside, A. Carver, Faust and Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022). Interesting times, indeed!

3/19/24

Mortmain Hall (2020) by Martin Edwards

An enjoyable, underrated luxury of being hooked on Golden Age mysteries in the 21st century is the opportunity the reprint renaissance created to practically pick and choose, which is made even easier by the episodic structure of the most long-running series from the period – like giving an addict access to a pharmacy's supply of prescription drugs. One side-effect of this cherry picking habit is that it made me chronologically-challenged over time. Reading a series in order? That's too retro even for me. Funnily enough, the first flickers of a burgeoning, second Golden Age is slowly breaking that habit. Now we have to wait a year on average for these emerging, traditionally-minded mystery writers to finish their next novel instead of sampling their best, most celebrated or influential detective novels. That's a luxury future fans can take for granted.

However, I'm a little behind on recent releases and developments, which has offered opportunities for a relapse. Last year, I read Gallows Court (2018) by the Nestor of the Golden Age Renaissance, Martin Edwards, which is the first of currently four novels in the Rachel Savernake series. The temptation was there to begin with the third novel, Blackstone Fell (2022), because it featured two seemingly impossible vanishings from a locked gatehouse. I decided to learn from past experiences and start at the beginning of the series, which proved to be a good decision. A notable difference between the greats of the past and this new wave is that their novels tend to be slightly less episodic in nature and feature detectives with a backstory that gets intertwined with the plots.

Gallows Court introduces the reader to Rachel Savernake, "the daughter of a sadistic judge," who was notorious during his lifetime as a hanging judge, but "retired from the bench after his mind had begun to fail and he'd attempted suicide" – spending his remaining years on a small, isolated island with his daughter. Rachel endured a bleak, lonely childhood on the island as her father descended "deeper and deeper into a dark pit of madness." When the old judge finally passed away, Rachel inherited his fortune and returned to London with her loyal retinue ("...Trueman family supported her with extraordinary devotion"). There she's spending a solitary existence collecting surrealists paintings and the study of crime, "murder obsessed her," but her involvement in murder cases is not always, exactly, on the up-and-up ("she danced to her own tune"). This eventually attracts the attention the Clarion's roving crime reporter, Jacob Flint, when she gets involved in a string of bizarre murders.

So it sets up everything and likely would not have fully appreciated Blackstone Fell without it. Why not stick with this whole reading things in order with this series.

Mortmain Hall (2020) is the second novel in the series and as difficult to pigeonhole as the retro-GAD, pulp-style thriller Gallows Court, but suppose "a what-the-hell-is-going-on-here" is a good description. The opening of Mortmain Hall opens outside the private station of the London Necropolis Company, in 1930, as Rachel Savernake boards the funeral train to warn a "ghost." Gilbert Payne is the ghost in question, traveling under the name Betram Jones, who faked his own death and fled to Tangiers. Only returned to see his mother buried. Rachel warns Payne that if she knows he's back in Britain, others will know as well. And offers an opportunity to not end up getting murdered simply by trusting her. Unfortunately, Payne turns her down and falls out of the funeral train on the return journey ("run over by one train after being thrown out of another"). So, once again, Rachel and the Truemans are up to their necks in a dark, murky affair, but, what exactly, is not immediately clear.

Jacob Flint also returns in this second novel and finds him in court to cover the sensational trial of Clive Danskin. The man standing trial is accused of the torch-murder of an unidentified victim in order to pass the body off as his own and escape a costly divorce, numerous mistresses and countless creditors – a strong motive with a weak, unsupported alibi. Flint watches on as all the damning, circumstantial evidence and testimonies begins to form a chain, "chain strong enough to drag him to the gallows," but a surprise witness saved him neck. Clive Danskin is not the last one to appear in this story who escaped an early morning appointment with the hangman. And those murder cases appear to be modeled on famous cases from the past. For example, the Wirral Bungalow murder is unmistakably patterned after the Wallace Case that captured the imagination of so many Golden Age writers (e.g. The Detection Club's The Anatomy of Murder, 1936).

A person who appears to take a great deal of interests in these supposed and freed murderers is "one of England's foremost criminologists," Leonora Dobell, who writes under the name Leo Slaterbeck. When she spots Flint in court, she asks him to pass on a message to Rachel. Pretty soon, Flint is dragged into another dangerous, godless adventure straight from the pulps bringing him to the shady Clandestine Club and becoming the target of an attempted frame job. It takes a while before everyone ends up at the titular hall and it's hard to describe much of what happens before or after that ("...it's impossible to be clear who is doing what") without giving anything away. And the less you know, the better.

So while the plot can't really be discussed, Edwards delivered another oddly compelling, not always easy to define, take on yesteryear's crime fiction. I've seen this series described as mystery-thrillers, combining the best of both, but traditional detective novels masquerading as retro-pulp would fit as well. What matters most is that it simply works. No matter how strange the emerging patterns become or turns of events take, Mortmain Hall has an intricate, fair play plot hiding underneath what appears to be a pulpy retro-thriller. It even has a "Cluefinder" at the end of the book pointing out "thirty clues in the narrative to the principal strands of the plot."

I only wished Mortmain Hall allowed for a longer, more detailed ramble, but I'm sure Blackstone Fell is going to give me exactly that opportunity with two impossible disappearances centuries apart. I intend to get to that one presently, but until then, this series comes highly recommended as a fresh and engrossing take on the popular detective stories and pulp-thrillers of the 1920s and '30s.