12/13/19

Murder Makes Murder (1937) by Harriette Ashbrook

A closed circle situation, not to be confused with the locked room mystery, is a trope beloved of Golden Age detective readers and, in its purest form, confines its cast of characters to a single location, such as a country house or train, which are often cut-off from the outside world – traditionally due to a freak blizzard or an ungodly rainstorm. Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) made the lonely, isolated island an emblematic setting for closed circle detective stories. Or, at least, that's the perception.

Over the years, I've come to regard the isolated island setting more as a staple of the Japanese shin honkaku (neo-orthodox) movement than of the Western, Golden Age detective story.

The Kindaichi Case Files series is littered with these tiny, isolated islands, where grisly deeds are done, but you can find them in practically every anime-and manga detective series like Detective Academy Q and Case Closed – a notable example is "The Koshien Murder Case" from the latter. But even among the translated novels there are three classics, Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), Alice Arisugawa's Koto pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989) and NisioisiN's Zaregoto: Kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002).

On the other hand, I can only think of a handful of (truly good) Western examples with an isolated island setting from the genre's golden era: Anthony Berkeley's Panic Party (1934), Robin Forsythe's Murder on Paradise Island (1937), Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun (1941), Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) and Herbert Brean's The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954). So I'm glad to report that I can now add Harriette Ashbrook's Murder Makes Murder (1937) to the list!

Murder Makes Murder opens in 1921 with a passel of newspaper reporters en route to the Long Island estate of a multi-millionaire, Thaddeus Culver, on the shore between Brooklyn and Montauk.

Thaddeus Culver is a "president or director of some twenty-odd corporations in the chemical world" and has the astronomical sum of $50,000,000 to his name, which, adjusted for inflation, is close to $650,000,000 in today's money – making him quite a catch. However, Culver was "a notorious bachelor" and the world was surprised when he married, at the age of sixty, his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Sarah Martineau. And legally adopted her five-year-old daughter, Elise. This meant that his sister and nephew, Mrs. Florence Anson and Maxwell, lost "a big slice" of that multi-million dollar pie.

The next two chapters skip eleven years ahead and Culver has passed away. Mrs. Culver and Elise, who has become a budding poet, live a reclusive existence on an island somewhere off the coast of Maine. A stroke forced Mrs. Culver to return to their Long Island estate, but, when Elise meets a charming young man, she promptly tells her daughter to pack her bags. And they return to Hallett Island. Finally, the story moved forward, to 1936, Elise has garnered recognition as an emerging poet with a slim volume, entitled Sky Song, but, more importantly, she's secretly engaged to her New York publisher, Hamish Hurd – a friend of playboy and amateur detective, Spike Tracy. Tracy is going to be his best man when he marries Elise on the Maine island in a few days time.

Hallett Island is a small, wooded island with Mrs. Culver's estate and a tiny village, whose only connection to the mainland is a ferry, but the wedding guests arrive on the island around the same time as a big storm. There are things going on the normally quiet, peaceful island that will prove to be a sinister prelude to brutal and shocking murder.

A few days before the wedding, Mrs. Culver came stumbling back from her evening walk in the woods, scared and shivering, after which she ordered her personal maid to lock up the house at night. Something that had not been necessary before. Somehow, the newspapers got wind that something was about to happen and "a swarm of reporters" tried to get to the island, but the storm prevented them from making the crossing. Only one of them was brave, or stupid, enough to steal a boat and make the dangerous journey. So the stage has been set!

On the eve of her wedding, a ruthless murderer entered Elise's bedroom and goes to town on her with a pair of scissors in a frenzied attack, but why would anyone want to butcher the lovely, kindhearted and innocent poet? Someone had seen "a ghostly figure" coming out of Elise's bedroom in the middle of the night and it had left a trail of muddy tracks that mounted a stairway, which led up to the third step from the top and then "vanished in thin air." Sadly, this aspect is not treated as a full-fledged impossible crime and the explanation pretty disqualifies it as such, but the rest of the story is as engrossing as it's baffling.

An observant reader, who pays close attention, is able to catch a glimpse of the truth early on in the story, but complete, fully-realized picture will probably elude them until very late into the story when they're in possession of all the known facts – only for Spike to turn around to a spring a surprise on them. A well-done twist with an original and powerful motive as the coup de grâce!

My only misgiving is Ashbrook waited until the last acceptable moment to divulge two relatively important pieces of information. Not late enough to make it unfair, but they took their time in getting to the reader. More importantly, this little smudge didn't weaken the plot or took anything away from the strong ending.

I've mentioned in my review of The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933) that Ashbrook was a mystery writer from the Van Dine-Queen School, as A Most Immoral Murder (1935) can testify to, but The Murder of Sigurd Sharon and Murder Makes Murder stand much closer to Helen McCloy. There's more emphasis on the psychological than the physical clues and they just struck me as something McCloy could have written. Just compare The Murder of Sigurd Sharon with Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) or Murder Makes Murder with The Man in the Moonlight (1940). I wonder if this has anything to do with Spike being away from usual stomping ground. So my next read is probably going to be one of Ashbrook's New York set mystery novels (likely The Murder of Cicely Thane, 1930).

So, all in all, Murder Makes Murder is a cleverly constructed, but very human, detective novel filled with tragic characters, anxiously kept secrets, obsession and a shockingly original motive. A highly recommendable detective novel. One that has left me seriously baffled why Ashbrook was so thoroughly ignored or dismissed in her days. She was great!

12/10/19

The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933) by Harriette Ashbrook

Harriette Ashbrook was an American mystery novelist who embarked on her underappreciated literary career as a writer of plot-oriented detective stories, penned in the tradition of The Van Dine-Queen School, but she abandoned the puzzle detective in the early 1940s to write suspense fiction – which were published under the penname of "Susannah Shane." During her short-lived career, Ashbrook received "short shrift" from reviewers and was "never taken seriously in the mystery arena."

So, as a consequence, she was ignored by the paperback publishers of the day and her untimely passing, in 1946, ensured her novels would be consigned to obscurity. Not a single one of her detective or suspense novels were reprinted in nearly seventy years!

But was this deserved? Not on your life! I've only read three of her novels and agree with John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, that Ashbrook not only was a good writer and smart plotter, but her ideas were "often very original for the time they were written." I believe it was John who brought her back to everyone's attention with his 2013 blog-post, "The Detective Novels of Harriette Ashbrook." Since that blog-post, she has been slowly clawing her way back onto the printed page.

A small, equally obscure publisher, Jerry Schneider Ent., reissued the fascinating A Most Immoral Murder (1935) in paperback in 2016 and this was followed by a couple of reprints from a dodgy publisher of ill-repute, Resurrected Press – known for altering the original texts of their reprints. A year later, Coachwhip Publishers republished one of her Susannah Shane dames-in-danger suspense novels, Lady in Lilac (1941). These were the first reprints in nearly seven decades, but, after they were published to little fanfare, everything quieted down again. Until a few months ago!

Back in late September, Black Heath Editions reissued all seven titles in the Philip "Spike" Tracy series and this includes one of her more expensive, hard-to-get detective novel, which is the subject of today's review.

The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933) is the third novel about Ashbrook's Philo Vance-inspired series-detective, Spike Tracy, who's the smart aleck, playboy brother of the Manhattan District Attorney, R. Montgomery Tracy. This personal relationship allowed Spike Tracy to cultivate a reputation of someone who "goes around nosing into affairs" that aren't his and unearthing closely guarded secrets that doesn't make him exactly popular with "certain parties." This is opinion held by the murderers he helped bring to justice and Inspector Herschman of the New York Homicide Squad.

However, The Murder of Sigurd Sharon finds Spike Tracy stranded in rural Vermont with a dead car battery and there he watches a young woman rushing down a hill in a futile attempt to catch the last train out of the village.

Jill Jeffrey is a woman with a fluctuating personality. One minute she's "a charming, delightful creature" and the next moment she turns into "the most cold blooded, heartless hussy" you'll ever meet – especially for the time. A fascinated Spike is torn between "a desire to kiss her" and "break her neck," but quickly catches on something is going on back at her house. A lonely, isolated house occupied where she lives with her ill, bedridden twin sister, Mary, who she seems to loath. There's also their guardian, Dr. Sigurd Sharon, who used to be a Methodist preacher and a frigid live-in nurse, Miss Wilson. And their only contact with the outside world is their only neighbor, Jerome W. Featherstone, and Mary's physician, Dr. Carmack.

Jill tells Spike that Dr. Sharon is trying to kill her, when the only thing she wants to do is to live, but what he's trying to do is "just plain murder." Spike meets a household who greets him with "frigid politeness" and they resent his presence, but he's stranded there for the night.

During that night, Dr. Sharon is fatally stabbed in his bedroom and Jill is carried out of the room by Featherstone and Wilson muttering that he can never hurt her again, because he's dead. Murdered! However, the case soon becomes increasingly complicated with a false confession and impossible disappearance from the house with all the exists either locked or guarded by policemen. So nobody could have left the house unseen and place is searched, top to bottom, without result. This is followed by an equally inexplicable reappearance and this person tells them that even "Houdini himself would have given millions" for the secret. I think shows how obscure and little-known Ashbrook had been for the better part of a century, because The Murder of Sigurd Sharon is not listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991). And this impossible disappearance/reappearance functions as a clue of sort.

However, this is the point where the plot becomes tricky to discuss as time, alas, not been kind to the primary plot-thread of the story, which was very innovative and original for the time, but has since been done to death – robbing the story of the effect of its bewildering premise and surprise ending. A reader today will have no problem figuring out a large chunk of the plot. Fortunately, this came with one (plot-technical) upside. You get to admire how fairly Ashbrook played with her readers throughout the story.

All of the clues and red herrings are present. Some strange, illogical remarks with one line being as good a clue as the verbal-clues from Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile (1937) and Five Little Pigs (1942). Why everyone in the household was against Jill. The impossible disappearance from a guarded house. There's even a bookshelf clue and in particular a hefty, Danish tome they can't read and gets stolen. Most of these clues spell out a very clear solution to the modern read, but Ashbrook, who knew how to plot a detective story, actually managed to add a twist in the tail of the story that averted an ending now considered cliché!

So even with time completely obliterating the novelty of a truly innovative and original idea, Ashbrook still turned it into a good, old-fashioned Golden Age detective novel towards the end – complete with an unbreakable alibi and surprise ending. And that, my friends, is talent.

The Murder of Sigurd Sharon has most of the hallmarks of the Van Dine-Queen School and could even be given the Queen-ish book-title The Danish Tome Mystery, but I thought the book had a closer resemblance to the work of Helen McCloy than either S.S. van Dine or Ellery Queen. An early foreshadowing of Ashbrook's switch from detective to suspense fiction in the 1940s. So I think admirers of McCloy will get a little more out of this book than the adherents of Van Dine and Queen, but I believe The Murder of Sigurd Sharon is still recommendable as an original piece of crime fiction, possibly a first, from a long, unjustly ignored mystery writer.

I'll return to Ashbrook with my next read, which is going to be a three-cornered fight between The Murder of Stephen Kester (1931), Murder Makes Murder (1937) and Murder Comes Back (1940).

12/9/19

A Devil on the Court: Case Closed, vol. 71 by Gosho Aoyama

The 71st volume of Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed, originally published in Japan as Detective Conan, is an unusual entry in the series as the only two stories in it, a short and a long one, focus entirely on breaking codes and finding hidden messages – only hint at murder is tucked away in the grim back-story of one of the characters. So, if memory serves me correctly, this is one of only two volumes without a single murder case.

This volume opens with a short, so-called slice-of-life mysteries and takes place in the audio/visual storage room of Teitan Elementary.

Ms. Kobayashi recruits Conan and the Junior Detective League to help her find a videotape in the A.V. storage room, crammed with thousands of tapes with faded or hard-to-read labels, but they also find a former student of the school rummaging around in there. Detective Chiba, of the Metropolitan Police, was a member of the A.V. club and had a crush on a girl who was about to move away. So he wrote her a love letter. She wrote cryptically wrote back that she left her answer in the A.V. storage room and hoped it leave on a mark on him, but Chiba "searched the room from top to bottom." And he couldn't find anything. Now a class reunion is just around the corner and Chiba is determined to find that 13-year-old reply.

A charming story, as most these slice-of-life stories tend to be, with Aoyama's favorite trope (long-lost) childhood friends with a romantic interest. My only problem is that the hidden message seems a little bit too clever to have been concocted by such a young child. And on such a short notice.

The second story covers the remainder of the volume, nine of the eleven chapters, which begins with a hint of the Had-I-But-Known School. A story that "began with a strawberry" and Conan "never imagined that this would set off an adventure" – both "sweet and sour." A lucky incident with a strawberry and cat gave Conan, Rachel and Richard Moore to visit England during a school holiday. Conan is a huge Sherlock Holmes fanboy and he can't wait to visit all the places from Conan Doyle's stories. There are, however, some obstacles to overcome. Such as the pesky problem of his double identity. Just read the series and you'll understand.

Conan eventually makes it to London to embark on his "Sherlock Holmes pilgrimage," something only mystery fans will understand, but he finds several hurdles on his path.

On the doorstep of the Sherlock Holmes Museum, on 221B Baker Street, Conan meets an eight-year-old boy, Apollo Glass, who's the kid brother of tennis-star and "the top-ranked Queen of the Grass Court," Minerva Glass. Earlier that day, Apollo was at the tennis court when he was approached by a man telling him that he'll get "a greater thrill" than he would expect. Someone, somewhere in London, will be murdered in front of him and to tell Scotland Yard – if it doesn't make any sense to "leave it to Holmes." So this mysterious event plunges Conan in hunt around London for Holmesian-themed clues and codes. This part of the story almost reads like a travelogue with the characters hunting around all the London landmarks for clues.

As to be expected, not everything goes smoothly and Conan forgets himself for a moment and makes a mistake. One of several mistakes in this volume. In the first story, he talks as if he was a long-time student at Teitan Elementary, but officially, he has been there for only a year or two. At the start of this story, Conan starts speaking fluently English in front of Rachel and Richard Moore. Conan's third mistake convinces Rachel that Jimmy Kudo is London and has purposely avoiding here.

I've said this before, but I'll say it again, the relationship story-line between Jimmy/Conan and Rachel has become stagnant and a weakness at this point in the series.

I concede that it made absolute sense keeping Jimmy's predicament from Rachel when the series started, but, in the series, nearly two years have passed since the first volume and continuing to keep the secret is now only used as a story-telling device – in order to create these needlessly complicated situations. Logically, Rachel should have been told by now as she would have been valuable alley/cover for his Conan identity. Seriously, I begin to suspect that the final volume will reveal that all these stories were told by Jimmy and Rachel on the coach of an incredulous, harassed-looking relationship counselor. Mark my words!

The penultimate chapter of this story, which will be concluded in the next volume, takes place on the court and the tennis match is one that could only be played in an anime or manga series (e.g. The Prince of Tennis). And even for this series, or anime/manga in general, the code cracking in this part of the story stretched credulity a little too far.

Still this was a fun, if somewhat weird, story and look forward to the last chapter, but don't think it will stand as a classic story-arc in the series. However, I do think this volume, as a whole, stands as a notable example of the code cracking detective story and a Holmesian homage to boot!

12/6/19

They Walk in Darkness (1947) by Gerald Verner

Gerald Verner's They Walk in Darkness (1947) is the second novel in a very short-lived series about a thriller writer and his wife, Peter and Anne Chard, who debuted in Thirsty Evil (1945) and rapidly descended into the catacombs of obscurity after their second outing – which was only dimly remembered as a locked room mystery. Astonishingly, this obscure, barely remembered detective novels reprinted three times in the past ten years!

Ulverscroft published a large print edition in 2011 as part of their Linford Mystery Library and Ramble House reissued the book in hard-and paperback in 2016, which was followed this year with an ebook version from Endeavour Media.

Regrettably, these various reissues seem to have done precious little to bolster the profile of the book and that's a shame, because honestly, it's one of Verner's best detective/thriller stories – certainly of the handful of titles I've read to date. I believe this has to do with the fact that Verner gave himself the space to tell the story. They Walk in Darkness is twice as long as, for example, The Royal Flush Murders (1948), Noose for a Lady (1952) and Sorcerer's House (1956), which showed Verner was closer aligned with the pulp-style thrillers than with the pure Golden Age detective stories. Verner evidently attempted here to write something more in line with the traditional mystery novel. Something that's more evident in the first than the second half of the book.

They Walk in Darkness opens on a cold, snowy evening, in late October, when the Chards are traveling to a small, East Anglia village to visit a close relative of Peter, Aunt Helen.

Fendyke St. Mary used to be "a hot-bed of witchcraft in the Middle Ages" and "the abominable orgies of the Witches' Sabbath," attended by Satan himself, were regularly practiced at a place known as Lucifer's Stone. There's also an old, derelict cottage, Witch's House, which used to belong to leading light of "a particularly virulent coven" and was burned to death in 1644. So with such a long, ancient history and tradition in devil worship, it's hardly surprising many villagers are only too ready to explain anything "strange and inexplicable" as witchcraft. A belief they apply to the terrors that has plagued the village for the better part of two years.

During a dinner party, Peter and Ann learn that a child murderer is roaming the village, but "the prelude to the baby murders" was the theft of several lambs, at various intervals, which were found back as cadavers – all of them had their throat savagely cut. And then the children began to disappear. One of them was taken from his pram in the garden and another never returned home for tea, but their bodies were eventually found in clumps of reeds somewhere on the edge of Hinton Broad. Only suspect the police has seriously considered is a mentally undeveloped man, Tom Twist.

However, the dinner party's response to the wanton child killings going on in the village is extremely cool, level-headed and very British. They shake their heads in disapproval, mutter something about a maniac and chide the local police for their lack of progress.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, reviewed They Walk in Darkness back in March and commented on the British stoicism of the characters "this wholesale murder of helpless children." I left a comment suggesting he read Paul Halter's L'arbe aux doigts tordus (The Vampire Tree, 1996) and compare it with Verner's They Walk in Darkness, but had no idea at the time how apt my comparison really was.

The Vampire Tree is also set in a small village with a dark, bloody history and has become the playground of serial killer targeting children. This killer has pretty much the same modus operandi as the child murderer from Fendyke St. Mary and the characters have the same cool, detached response to the murders as they do here. I remember the children in Halter's story were allowed to continue to roam the woods, where the bodies were found, but Verner was even colder and had one of his characters suggest they use one of the village children as living bait ("like the old hunter's trick, eh?") by leaving the child in a lonely spot under discreet observation – a "tethered kid to attract the lion." One of those subtle hints that the English are, in fact, completely insane. The only reason they have been able to hide it so well is that they happen to share this continent with the French and Germans.

There's also the curious coincidence that both They Walk in Darkness and The Vampire Tree have characters named Twist and an impossible crime of the no-footprint-in-the-snow variety.

After the Eve of All-Hallows, a group of four people from Fendyke St. Mary briefly go missing from their home and their bodies are found, seated around "a very old worm-eaten table" laid for five people, in the dirty Witch's House. They sat "strangely contorted" with their eyes turned towards the empty chair at the head of the table with an "expression of horror." A considerable quantity of cyanide was found in the wine glasses and one of the bottles, but the cottage had been locked and there were four tracks in the snow outside. However, the tracks only went in the direction of Witch's House, but there was none coming back!

So, this situation presents the Peter and Ann with two possibilities, which are both utterly impossible: the four people either committed suicide and the door magically locked itself, before the key miraculously vanished, or there was a fifth person present in the cottage – who somehow managed to lock the door and disappeared with the key from "a house surrounded by snow without leaving any tracks." An intriguing premise and the solution was only slightly soiled by the clumsily handling of an important clue, which has always been weakness of Verner. Yes, "the snow trick" is not terribly original and have come across a very similar solution recently, but, somehow, I didn't mind that here. That has very much to do with the identity of the murderer and strong motive.

I thought I would never come across characters more deserving of murder than the "victims" from Nicholas Brady's The Fair Murder (1933) and Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Orient Express (1934), but Verner served his reader four of such human abominations. This aspect reinforced many of the weak points of the overall plot and held the story together in the end.

The no-footprint-in-the-snow is, as mentioned above, hardly a classic of its kind and the second half of the book is written in the lurid style of the sensational, pulpy occult thrillers littered with adjectives (beastly, blasphemous, diabolically, horrible, etc), but the murderer and motive made up for a lot. I thought the vigilante mob scenes and the Biblical event that ravaged the region towards the end was a nice touches to the story.

They Walk in Darkness stands as one of the darkest, highly unconventional and spellbinding village mysteries, written by a professional story-teller, but not everyone is going to appreciate what Verner tried to accomplish here – either because the plot has its weaknesses or the unpleasant subject matter. This makes hard to unhesitatingly recommend the book to everyone. That being sad, if you liked Gladys Mitchell's The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935) and Ellery Queen's The Glass Village (1954), both equally unconventional, you'll probably find They Walk in Darkness a fascinating and rewarding read.

And on a final, related note: when reading the book, I came up with an alternative solution to the impossible murders in Witch's House. An alternative solution that in no way resembles the actual explanation and wanted to share it with you. My solution placed two people inside the cottage, before the snow began to fall, which are the murderer and one of the four victims. They are preparing the cottage for their devil's banquet. When the snow stops falling, the other three arrive and, when they're dead, the murderer leaves the cottage by walking backwards – creating a fourth track of prints in the snow. Yes, I know walking backwards in the snow is an old, tired and hacky trick, but, usually, this trick is done by retracing a previously created trail of footprints. In this case, the murderer leaves an untempered track that's simply misinterpreted.

12/4/19

The Music Box: "Serenade to a Killer" (1957) by Joseph Commings

Robert Adey wrote in his introduction to Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner (2004), a collection of short stories, that the author, Joseph Commings, began his writing career against "the unlikely backdrop of a pup tent in Sardinia during the Second World War" – where he penned detective stories for "the amusement of his fellow soldiers." But when he returned home, Commings discovered there were magazine editors willing to pay money for them.

Commings almost exclusively wrote short stories published in such magazines as 10-Story Detective Magazines, Ten Detective Aces and Mystery Digest, but, where he left his mark on the genre, was as a specialist in locked room murders and miraculous crimes. A writing career somewhat comparable to those two giants of the short impossible crime story, Edward D. Hoch and Arthur Porges. More importantly, Commings brought a large quantity of ingenuity and originality to the impossible crime story.

A famous glassblower is found murdered inside a sealed, room-like glass case ("Murder Under Glass," 1947). Another man is shot in an office room, under observation, while the smoking gun is delivered to the receptionist inside a sealed envelope ("The X Street Murders," 1962). A dodgy art-dealer is run through by large, burdensome sword that could not have been wielded by human hands ("The Giant's Sword," 1963). An old-fashioned, hard-hat diver is fatally knife while alone in a recently sunken shipwreck ("Bones for Davy Jones," 1953). This makes it all the more depressing only a tiny fraction of his work is currently in print.

Besides the short story collection, Banner Deadlines, you can find "The Glass Gravestone" (1966) in the massive anthology The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries (2014), which I reviewed here, but a year before another one of Commings' stories was anthologized, "Serenade to a Killer" (1957) – reprinted in The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries (2013). So it was about time I got around to reading it.

"Serenade to a Killer" was originally published in the July, 1957, issue of Mystery Digest and Adey noted in Banner Deadlines that critics consider this story to be one of Commings' handful of masterpieces.

The story opens at the Cobleskill Orphanage, at Christmas, where Senator Brooks U. Banner, who began life as "a parentless tyke," is handing out toys and tells the children "a fruity true crime story" about a lonely-hearts killer who he helped capture. Scandalizing the two old maids who run the orphanage. This festive scene comes to an end when Banner is approached by a local newspaper reporter, Verl Griffon, who has read about his handling of inexplicable, often seemingly impossible murders. Exactly such a kind of murder had been committed early that morning.

A well-known pianist and local celebrity, Caspar Woolfolk, lives at a manor house on the outskirts of the town and on the grounds stands "a little octagonal house," called the Music Box, where he kept his piano and music library – which is where he's found shot to death at close range. Ora Spires is the governess of Woolfolk's ten-year-old daughter, Daisy, who claims to have committed the murder. However, the doors and windows were closed and the structure was surrounded by a thick blanket of snow with only Ora's footprints leading up to the front door. So how did the murderer escape across "a hundred yards of snow without leaving a mark on it?"

Just as baffling as the murderer vanishing inexplicably from the scene of the crime is Ora's fear that she might have shot her employer or why there were incriminating diary entries she has no memory of writing. She also has no recollection, whatsoever, of attending a concert the previous day with her friends, which was briefly hinted at as a doppelgänger reminiscent of Helen McCloy's Through a Glass, Darkly (1950). I guess this story can, sort of, be described as a pulpy reimagining of McCloy.

You see, the most impressive aspect of "Serenade to a Killer" is not the mechanics of the locked room or its explanation, which lacked the ingenuity and originality of his better-known work, but the fact Commings wrangled an acceptable, entirely fair detective story from an array of hacky, outdated tropes. Abnormal psychology, hypnosis, sleepwalking and the sheer madness of the murderer all form part of the puzzle. So the story could have easily degenerated into a painfully bad, second-rate hack work that belonged to a different era, but Commings was an expert plotter and, somehow, he found a way to make it work!

So, personally, I wouldn't rank "Serenade to a Killer" as highly as "The X Street Murders" or "Bones for Davy Jones," but the story was better than it had any right to be considering the normally atrocious plot-ingredients – a testament to Commings' talent and skills as a plotter. The fact that so much of his detective fiction is currently out-of-print is nothing less than a gross violation of my human rights!

12/2/19

Portrait of a Murderer (1933) by Anne Meredith

Lucy Malleson was a fertile mystery novelist best remembered today as the author of the long-running series about a morally flexible defense attorney, Arthur Crook, published under her most well-known pseudonym, "Anthony Gilbert," but there were two other pennames that have fallen into obscurity – namely "J. Kilmeny Keith" and "Anne Meredith." Between 1927 and 1935, Malleson produced ten novels, as Keith, featuring a Liberal MP, Scott Egerton, as the series-detective. Egerton was abandoned as soon as that rogue elephant among lawyers appeared on the scene.

The name Anne Meredith mainly appeared on the covers of Malleson's straight novels, twenty in total, but there was a dark, highly-praised seasonal crime novel published under the Meredith byline.

Portrait of a Murderer (1933) was praised by Dorothy L. Sayers as a "powerful and impressive" story with a "tragic quality," while Carolyn Wells called the book "a Human Document" crammed with "interest and personality." Regardless of their praise, the book was soon forgotten and remained in complete obscurity until it was republished in 2018 by British Library/Poisoned Pen Press.

Portrait of a Murderer is with its emphasis on psychology, instead of detection, not your typical 1930s Golden Age detective novel and the story can best be described as the mirror opposite of Philip MacDonald's experimental detective novel, The Maze (1932) – in which any hint of characterization was barred from its pages. The characters only appeared as names in a court transcript. But, from the very first page, Portrait of a Murderer sets off in the opposite direction with character exploration supplanting the detective work.

The story begins with a brief announcement that the life of an elderly curmudgeon, Adrian Gray, ended violently at "the hands of one of his own children" at Christmas, 1931. An "instantaneous and unpremeditated" crime that left the murderer as "incredulous and dumb" as the victim.

After this primer, the story goes back a day to introduce the various relatives of Adrian Gray arriving at their ancestral seat, King's Poplars, which painted a picture of a family that "had come down in the world" as the cost of the modern world had rapidly evaporated their old money – forcing them to part with much of their property. Once life in the village had centered round the stately manor house and now it "swept past its doors." Even the family had broken up with many of them migrating to the towns or going abroad. The "generations of Grays" littering the churchyard would have scarcely recognized their descendants and would have been "reluctant to acknowledge their kinship," because they're either broken husks of human beings or up to their eyeballs in trouble. And three of them have come to ask Adrian for money.

Richard is Adrian's eldest son and an ambitious politician, who has invested a lot of time and money in obtaining a peerage, but now he's being blackmailed by his mistress for "an absurd sum." Hildebrand is one of Adrian's more troublesome sons, a passionate artist, who wants to money to escape from his harridan of a wife and scraggy-looking children. Some of whom aren't even his own. Eustace Moore is Adrian's son-in-law and a well-known financier, but his financial schemes is about to place him in the docks and desperately needs ten-thousand pounds to straighten things out. Only problem is that he also lost a lot of Adrian's money!

German edition
However, with exception of the murderer, these character portraits are, for someone who prefers plot over characterization, quite unnecessary. The only characterization that has any relevance to the story is that of the victim and his killer.

All of that being said, I thought the two-tier aftermath of the murder was very well done and fascinating to read. Firstly, you have the murderer's journal, whose name will not be revealed in this review, in which he detailed what happened directly after he struck down his father and his reluctance to forfeit his life on account of his father – whose life he considered to be "quite worthless." And the steps he took to lead the trail away from himself. Secondly, there's the discovery of the body on Christmas morning and how the family responded to the news.

Unfortunately, there was very little in the remainder of the story that held my interest with exception of the snippets of social commentary and the unsettling portrayal of the murderer's squalid home life, which included child neglect and outright physical abuse. Something you rarely find in a Golden Age mystery. Towards the end, there was a spot of detective work, in order to wrap up the story, but reader already possessed all of the answers. So there was nothing to sink my teeth in and all the characterization, of even minor characters like Sergeant Ross Murray, just felt like padding to me.

I've to be honest here and acknowledge Portrait of a Murderer is not my kind of crime fiction, which negatively tainted this review, but I couldn't help but think how much better this psychology-driven, character-oriented crime novel could have been had there been an element of mystery about the motive – a mystery along the lines of "Rosebud" from Citizen Kane (1941). During their stormy argument, Adrian Gray could have uttered a cryptic remark or word that made his son pick up a paperweight and swing at him in blinding anger. This would place the reader in a position to piece together the significance behind that cryptic and deadly remark. I think this could have made it one of the few truly classic whydunits.

So, on a whole, I can't say I particularly enjoyed my time with Portrait of a Murderer, but keep in mind that my personal presence strongly lies with the labyrinthine-like detective story and my personal dislike for character-heavy crime novels takes nothing away from Malleson as a talented writer. I just prefer her Arthur Crook mysteries. However, if you want a second-opinion, Kate, of Cross Examining Crime, positively reviewed the book some years ago.

A note for the curious: coincidentally, my previous read, Gerald Verner's Noose for a Lady (1952), contained a line that aptly described the story of Portrait of a Murderer: "A portrait of the murderer... not the portrait of a face, but the portrait of a mind — a mind that thinks and acts in a certain definite way." If I were still using opening-quotes, I would have definitely used it for this review.