12/8/18

Stranger at the Inlet (1946) by Martin Colt

A year ago, I reviewed The Clue of the Phantom Car (1953) and The Mystery of the Invisible Enemy (1959) by "Bruce Campbell," a penname of Sam and Beryl Epstein, who cemented their legacy as the pioneers of the present-days Young Adult genre with the acclaimed Ken Holt series – which tended to be darker and more intricately plotted than most juvenile mystery series of the period. What's not as well known is that Ken Holt has a predecessor, Roger Baxter, who appeared in a couple of novels during the late 1940s.

The series comprises of three novels, Stranger at the Inlet (1946), The Secret of Baldhead Mountain (1946) and The Riddle of the Hidden Pesos (1948), which were published under two different names, "Charles Strong" and "Martin Colt." A very short-lived series, but as highly regarded by fans as the more well-known Holt series. And not without reason!

Roger Baxter is the 14-year-old protagonist of the series who lives with his 12-year-old brother, Bill, in the small, coastal town of Seaview and they were obviously the prototypes for Ken Holt and Sandy Allen.

Roger is, very much like Ken, the meticulous, rationally-minded thinker of the two. However, the difference between Ken and Sandy, who are the same age, is due to intelligence, while the difference between Roger and Bill is clearly age, because Roger has already began to mature and Bill is still in the phase between childhood and adolescence – which can make him a little bit naive at times. Roger and Bill are two very well-drawn, believable child characters on par with the children and teenagers found in the work of Gladys Mitchell.

The story opens during the summer holiday and the boys are planning to make a windmill on top of the empty cottage, owned by their parents, which they have come to regard "more or less as their private property." Unfortunately, their mother informs them the cottage has been rented for two months to a man, Robert "Slim" Warner, who wants a quiet place to recuperate from an operation. Luckily, Slim has no problem with Roger and Bill mounting a windmill on the roof of the cottage to generate electricity for the cottage. However, they soon begin to pick up hints and clues that Slim is not who he says he is.

Slim says he came to Seaview to convalesce, but carried around heavy bag, two at a time, without any trouble or pain. He drives "an old wreck of a car," but the motor in it "sounds almost brand-new." A power generator was delivered to the cottage, but Roger knows he never send the telegram to ask for it. And then there's the mysterious, late-night visitor to the cottage and they boys overheard them talking about Smugglers' Island.

An answer to all of these questions come, roughly, a quarter into the story, which plunges Roger and Bill head first into an exciting adventure that involves an elaborate smuggling operation – who use the peaceful, out-of-the-way seaside town as a clearing point. But this is all I can say about the plot without giving away too much.

What I can say about the story is that plot has a lot of nuts and bolts, which makes it a younger relative of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode. The early chapter detailing how Roger, Bill and Slim build the windmill on top of the cottage reads like a partial instruction manual and they learn how to operate "a six-volt radio." As well as getting a crash course in Morse code. A combination of the two is put to ingenious use when they find themselves in a tight corner towards the end of their adventure. Obviously, a book that was written for young boys and teenagers.

The sole weakness of this excellently written novel is that the chase was more exciting, and fun, than the eventual capture of the culprits, which hardly came as a surprise. Something that enervates most juvenile mysteries for older readers.

Nonetheless, Stranger at the Inlet is a beautifully written, characterized and adventurous mystery novel with an equally beautiful, well-imagined backdrop. The writers evidently knew and respected their young audience, which they would come to perfect in the Ken Holt series when their plots became really trick and far more serious – fraught with very real, dangerous situations and consequences. So these two series are without question a cut above other juvenile series and can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Just for that, they deserve to be rediscovered.

12/5/18

The Strawstack Murder Case (1936) by Kirke Mechem

Kirke Field Mechem was a Kansan historian, poet and playwright who, during the heydays of the genre, wrote an excellent detective novel in the tradition of The Van Dine School of Mystery Fiction, but The Strawstack Murder Case (1936) was first published under a bland, meaningless "publisher-mandated" title – namely the awful A Frame for Murder. A mistake that was corrected in 2013 when Coachwhip Publications republished the story under its original and intended book-title.

Curt Evans provided this new edition with a lengthy, informative introduction and mentioned that the publisher "didn't think strawstacks would sell books." Ironically, just three years later, Dorothy Cameron Disney published "a very well received mystery," entitled The Strawstack Murders (1939), but, in defense of the publisher, there might have been a good reason for their decision. Nicholas Blake had debuted the previous year with A Question of Proof (1935), which also had a body-in-the-haystack plot.

So, if you take that into consideration, you can understand why the publisher wanted a different title for the book, but not why they settled on such a bad, uninspired and nonsensical title. Anyway...

Mechem joined the "goodly company of traditional mystery authors" of The Van Dine School with The Strawstack Murder Case, but Mechem also stands out in this class for two reasons. Most of the Van Dinean writers come from the East or West Coast, mainly New York or California, but The Strawstack Murder Case is set in Witchita, Kansas – smack in the middle of the Heartlands of the United States. This gives the book a strong rural and regional flavor. Secondly, Mechem had a better sense of humor than most writers of this school with the exception of Stuart Palmer and Craig Rice. The best example of this can be found in the opening chapter.

The detective of the story is Steven Steele, the Philo Vance of the Great Plains, who is ranting in the opening chapter to his chronicler, Bill, about "the kind of tabloid authorship" that are turning his cases into sensational, tarted-up pulp-stories and particularly dislikes their account of The Wade Packinghouse Murder Case – re-titled in the fictionalized version to The Slaughterhouse Mystery. Steven Steele has become Vincent Veale. A gun-toting pulp hero without a hint of Steele's impressive reasoning and deductive abilities. He sadly concludes that "readers nowadays don't want reasoning mixed with their detection" and advises them to "go out and get some gangster's reminiscences." So I immediately warmed to both Mechem and Steele!

Regardless of this trend in popular fiction, Steele get to test his deductive abilities and reasoning skills when the news breaks that a prominent Wichita oil operator, Ralph "Lucky" Loundon, has been brutally murdered near his hunting lodge.

The body of Loundon was found "buried in a strawstack" by two teenage boys and this provides the plot with a quasi-impossible situation, because the stack of straw is of an "extraordinary dimension" and extended nearly fifty feet from east to west with steep sides – making it practically "impossible to climb." So how did the body end up at the top of the strawstack? A tree near the strawstack has broken branches and the discovery of "a matted bunch of coarse light-brown hairs" on the body suggests an ape! Naturally, an ape-like creature has very little to do with the murder and the explanation is far more ingenious than that the trick from that famous Edgar Allan Poe story.

However, as baffling as the physical evidence at the scene of the crime is the personal circumstances of the victim and the cast of characters that had surrounded him.

Lucky Loundon is described as "an overgrown boy," with a good heart, who had helped half "the oil men in the territory at one time or another" and pioneered the Meridian oil field by raising “a forest of greasy derricks” across the river from his lodge. There are, however, still more than enough people with a potential motive to murder Loundon.

Loundon used to be married to Lola van Roth, daughter of radio pastor Reverend Raymond Dwight van Roth, who also has a troublesome son, Jack, who may, or may, not have gotten on the wrong side of the law. And there motive is tied to a $50,000 life insurance policy that goes to Lola upon Loundon's death. On a side note, Curt Evans observed in his 2012 review that Mechem painted "a memorably withering satirical portrait" of the pastor that he wondered if the pastor had been based on "a specific Midwestern clerical radio personality," which would be Charles Coughlin – commonly known as Father Coughlin. I have no idea if this true, but the comparison is an interesting one. And, if this was the case, Mechem properly disguised him. I would not have thought of this comparison myself.

There are more suspects Steele has to consider: a potential love-interest, Dora Monest, whose uncle, Juan Monest, is an investor in Loundon's many businesses. Fielding Garnett is Loundon's partner in his oil operations and Charles Ripley is the vice-president, general manager and chief engineer of Loundon's Dragonfly Aircraft Company. I like to believe this company made the dragonfly seaplane from Palmer's The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934). Lastly, there's a surgeon, Dr. Herbert Vernon. All of them are tied together, either financially or with personal secrets, which makes for a knotty, delightful detective story. But the story even gets better after the halfway mark!

An oil well explosion provides the backdrop of a second murder, disguised as suicide, and the description of this fiery disaster was very well done and fascinating to read. Coachwhip seems to have penchant for republishing disaster-themed detective novels. Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) has a disastrous mine explosion, Allan Bosworth's Full Crash Dive (1942) has a handful of survivors aboard a sunken submarine and Carolyn Thomas' Narrow Gauge to Murder (1952) concerns a tragic narrow-gauge railroad accident – here have an oil well erupting in deadly fire killing three men and wounding numerous others. Coachwhip should seriously consider reprinting Zelda Popkin's Dead Man's Gift (1942) to add a deadly flood to the lineup. Two more and you have the Seven Plagues of Detective Fiction! :)

All things considered, The Strawstack Murder Case was more than worthy of being resurrected. The story is very well written, cleverly plotted and properly characterized strengthened by the rarely used regional backdrop of the American heartlands. I think the book will be greatly enjoyed by readers who enjoy the traditional, puzzle-oriented detective novels by the Van Dine-Queen School and especially to readers who are fond of Clyde B. Clason. From all the writers from this school, Mechem is stands closest to Clason. In any case, The Strawstack Murder Case comes highly recommended!

A note for the curious: Mechem wrote a second detective novel with Steven Steele at the helm, entitled Mind on Murder, but the manuscript was rejected by the publisher, because it dealt with a touchy subject – and, as a result, the book is now lost to history. One these days, I'm going slap together a follow up to my post on lost detective stories. Sadly, I learned of even more examples since that post went up in 2016. Some of you will be surprised to learn how many lost manuscripts John Russell Fearn has under his belt!

12/3/18

Sexton Blake Returns: "The Grosvenor Square Mystery" (1909)

Back in March, I reviewed Derek Smith's Model for Murder (1952), a surprisingly cerebral entry in the colossal Sexton Blake Library, which is probably why the novel remained unpublished for more than six decades until John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, got his hands on the manuscript – publishing it as part of The Derek Smith Omnibus (2014). A splendid volume that includes the all-time classic Whistle Up the Devil (1954) and Come to Paddington Fair (1997).

The Sexton Blake Library consists of roughly two-thousand short stories, novels, stage plays and comic books, written by over two hundred writers, but ended my review by saying I would likely never read another Blake story during my lifetime. A well-known problem with the Sexton Blake series is quantity over quality that helped it acquire a reputation of a badly dated, second-rate pulp-series.

Hardly a year has gone by since my review of Model for Murder, but I recently came across a short Sexton Blake story that actually looked promising. And the story delivered on its promise!

"The Grosvenor Square Mystery" was anonymously published on October 26, 1909, in Answers and is a bone-fide locked room mystery with a solution that cleverly moved away from the secret passages of eighteenth century detective fiction.

The setting of the story is the house of Sir George Hilton, in Grosvenor Square, which is an ancient mansion furnished "the heavy style of the early Victorian era" and has "prevailing air of solidity" with its solid doors, locks and bolts – solid shutters on all the windows. However, this was not enough to keep out a thief and valuables began to disappear from the locked apartment "sacred to the use" of Sir George and his wife.

An apartment has four interconnecting doors: two of them lead to the rooms Sir George and Lady Hilton, one to a boudoir and the last one to a bathroom, which pretty much eliminated a secret passageway or hidden trick-door. You can only enter the apartment through one of these four doors. All of the doors were fitted with "patent locks, bolts and burglar alarm," but despite these security measures valuable rings, necklaces, scarf-pins, a pearl pendant and a purseful of sovereigns were taken from that locked apartment. This culminated in the theft of "a packet of State papers."

These inexplicable string of thefts began to foster "an actual spirit of mutual suspicion" and mistrust between Sir George and Lady Hilton. So they decided to take Blake as an undercover house guest and have him bust open their locked room conundrum.

Blake makes short work of the case and the revelation of the thief doesn't come as an astonishing, gut-wrenching surprise, but, where the plot becomes interesting, is the explanation to the problem of the locked apartment – a solution that was original, inventive and clever for the period. You can say that the unknown author of this story took a locked room idea from the eighteenth century reworked it by applying some of that twentieth century ingenuity that G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr would bring to the impossible crime story in the subsequent decades.

A note for the curious: the Kindaichi series has a locked room story that uses this exact same idea, but made it even better by elaborating on it and the result was awesome.

So, considering the poor reputation of the Sexton Blake series, "The Grosvenor Square Mystery," as a second-string Sherlock Holmes imitation, wasn't all that bad and the locked room angle was surprisingly good. Particularly for 1909. The plot lacked proper clueing and the culprit was obvious, but the impossible crime and solution makes this story potential anthology material.

You can read story here.

11/30/18

Murder for Christmas (1949) by Francis Duncan

One of the more obscure mystery writers to reemerge from the shrouded mist of the past during this current Renaissance Age is "Francis Duncan," a pseudonym of William Underhill, who authored twenty detective novels over as many years and were largely forgotten for decades – until Random House decided to reprint him back in 2015. Murder Has a Motive (1947) and So Pretty a Problem (1950) were undoubtedly worthy of being resurrected.

Back in October, Dean Street Press revived the work of an equally obscure, long-since forgotten writer, Francis Vivian, whose detective stories beg to be compared with Duncan.

Most notably, they both have likable, humanist series-detectives and, stylistically, appear to be very similar. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, posted a comment on my review of The Sleeping Island (1951) saying how Vivian's Darkling Death (1956) reminded him of Duncan's Behold a Fair Woman (1954). There are, however, differences between the two. Duncan was a more polished, literary writer with a firmer grasp on characterization, but Vivian tended to have tighter, better clued and more original plots (e.g. The Singing Masons, 1950) – which makes them more satisfying as pure detective stories. And the biggest difference is that Vivian's Gordon Knollis is the consummate policeman, while Duncan's Mordecai Tremaine quintessential amateur sleuth.

Vivian made me want to return to Duncan's detective fiction for a second look and had saved one of those recent reprints for those cold, dark days before Christmas.

Murder for Christmas (1949) has all the trappings of a traditional, wintry Christmas detective story in the spirit of C.H.B. Kitchin's Crime at Christmas (1934), Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938), Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca (1941) and Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel (1972). But the writing lifts this one above your average, Yuletide mystery novel.

The stage of the story is an ancient hall, Sherbroome House, which had been the seat of the Barons of Sherbroome for centuries and sighs under the weight of history, but their descendants had not lived in the house for generations and the place became overgrown, derelict and dreary – until Benedict Grame bought it. Grame is a Mr. Pickwick of a man who loves "the atmosphere of the Dickensian Christmas" with "all of the festivities we associate with the season." So, once every year, he gathers a group of relatives, friends and associates at his house "to enjoy Christmas in a really old-fashioned way."

A new addition to the party this year is the retired tobacconist, hopeless romanticist and potent murder-magnet, Mordecai Tremaine, who has a deep-rooted passion for criminology and sentimental literature – reading the treacle-laden magazine Romantic Stories throughout the series. Tremaine always reminds me of Agatha Christie's Mr. Satterthwaite. An elderly, benevolent and sentimental soul who gets all dreamy-eyed when confronted with young people who are deeply in love. But this close ally of lovers everywhere also has a shadow-side to his personality.
 
Tremaine has an appetite for detection, "the excitement of the chase" and "the keenness of testing his brain against the cunning of a murderer," but he's aware the price of his hobby is "the destruction of a human creature." A mystery is something he simply could not resist. And the promise of a mystery is what lured him to Sherbroome House.

A postscript had been added to Tremaine's invitation by Grame's confidential secretary, Nicholas Blaise, telling him there's "something wrong" at Sherbroome House.

When he arrives at the house, Tremaine finds exactly what you'd expect from a Christmas party in an old-fashioned mystery novel: there are two young lovers, Roger Wynton and Denys Arden, but her guardian, Jeremy Rainer, is dead-set against the marriage. Grame's hermit-like sister, Charlotte, and a close friend, Gerald Beechley, who has a penchant for practical jokes. Rosalind Marsh is the cool-headed, cynical owner of a curio-and art shop and Lucia Tristam is a widow with her sights set on either Grame or Rainer. Professor Lorring is "drawn after Ebenezer Scrooge" and openly defies the spirit of Christmas. The party is rounded out by a married couple, the Napiers. Just about as unexpected, Tremaine finds that the jolly, good natured spirit of the season is only on the surface. And that the party has an inexplicable animosity towards the lavishly decorated Christmas tree.

So the snow-covered countryside provides "a seasonable background" to the apparent jolly Christmas party at Sherbroome House, but to Tremaine everything feels unreal. And has the feeling that, sooner or later, you were going to find yourself in the middle of a nightmare.

Well, the inevitable happens when the household is awakened very early on Christmas morning by screaming and they find a "fantastically clothed body sprawled under the Christmas tree" that had been despoiled of its gift. Someone had shot Father Christmas!

The policeman placed in charge of the investigation is Superintendent Cannock, a friend of Inspector Jonathan Boyce, who has been told about Tremaine and wants to use him as "a sort of unofficial observer," but his fellow guests are aware he's a detective and are as reluctant to talk to him as they are to the police – making it all the more difficult to sort out the pack of lies confronting them. However, Tremaine slowly, but surely, unravels a cruel, complicated and fascinating plot that resulted in the unfortunate murder of Father Christmas. A plot that, in some ways, reminded me of Nicholas Brady's The House of Strange Guests (1932). But the plot also has its weak points.

Duncan was a good writer, who knew how to tell a story and characterize, which is probably why all of the important clues hinge on the behavior of the characters, but these are more hints than clues. And they're not enough to help you pinpoint the murderer or the motive. There are barely any physical clues and important pieces of information are given too late into the game or not at all, which distracts from an otherwise well-written story and clever plot. A long-time mystery reader can probably half-guess, half-deduce the murderer's identity, but crossing the t's and dotting the i's is a lot harder to do. And finding out the somewhat original motive is next to impossible.

So, purely as a detective, Murder for Christmas is not going to make the shortlist of all-time best country house mysteries, but as a seasonal detective story, the book is definitely a cut above most Christmas mystery novels – a category of detective fiction that has yet to produce a genuine classic. What makes Murder for Christmas stand out is the great, often evocative writing and actually making the Christmas celebration part of the plot (e.g. the village carollers, the Christmas tree and the Santa Claus customs). Something you can't say of every Christmas-themed detective novel.

Unless you're an old humbug, Murder for Christmas comes recommended as a pleasant, leisure read for the holidays.

11/26/18

A Puzzle for Dessert: "The Recipe" (1990) by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov is a monument of the Science-Fiction genre and was a ferocious mystery reader who, together with Anthony Boucher, became one of the most important "Visitors from Science-Fiction" to the detective story – penning the stellar The Caves of Steel (1953). A novel that demolished the argument that modern forensics and emerging technologies have made clever, intricate plotting absolute decades before it was made. An undisputed top 100 mystery novel!

Asimov proved to have a versatile hand when handling the detective story format and wrote hybrids (Asimov's Mysteries, 1968), juvenile mysteries (The Key Word and Other Mysteries, 1977) and regular detective novels (Murder at the ABA, 1976), but my personal favorite will always remains his series of short armchair detective stories.

The Black Widowers is a men-only dinner club, who meet once a month, comprising of Geoffrey Avalon (patent lawyer), James Drake (chemist), Mario Gonzalo (artist), Roger Halsted (mathematics teacher), Emmanuel Rubin (novelist) and Thomas Trumbull (cryptography expert). Every month, they come together in a private-room at an Italian restaurant, Milano, and one of them has to bring a along an interesting guest.

Traditionally, the guest is grilled, all in good humor, which includes the question how the guest justifies his existence, but every time it turns out that the guest has an unsolved mystery for them answer – usually these problems falls into the category of "Everyday Life Mysteries." They occasionally get to discuss a murder (e.g. "Early Sunday Morning" from Tales of the Black Widowers, 1974), but, more often than not, they're those minor mysteries everyone can encounter in their day-to-day life. A good example of this is the missing umbrella from "Lost in a Space Warp" from The Return of the Black Widowers (2003).

However, the person who solves all of these mysteries is their waiter and honorary club member, Henry Jackson, who closely listens to the stories and false solutions proposed by the Black Widowers. And from this he reasons the one and only correct explanation for any given problem.

The Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990) is the penultimate collection in this series and the last story, "The Recipe," was the final new Black Widowers story to be published during Asimov's lifetime.

Interestingly, "The Recipe" is homage to everyone's favorite mystery novelist and the master of the locked room puzzle, John Dickson Carr. In his afterword, Asimov wrote that he was inspired to write the story after reading The Third Bullet (1953) and was at "once overwhelmed with a desire" to craft a locked room puzzle, but was faced with the seemingly impossibility of thinking up "a new gimmick" – Carr had simply done it all. Nevertheless, an idea occurred to him and sat down to put the idea to paper in one sitting. Asimov was a notorious writing machine.

Note for the curious: Asimov said in the same afterword that he had never written "a Black Widowers story involving a locked-room," but this is not entirely true. "The Redhead" from Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984) is a genuine locked room story about a miraculous disappearance. If I remember correctly, "Ph As in Phony" and "The Obvious Factor" from Tales of the Black Widowers are borderline impossible crimes.

"The Recipe" begins with a discussion of Carr and locked room mysteries in general after Trumbull casually mentioned he had just read The Third Bullet. However, I think many of us, particular my fellow locked room readers, would take exception to the opinions spouted by the Black Widowers here!

Carr's writing is criticized as being overly melodramatic so that "the reader is always uncomfortably aware that he is reading fiction." Personally, I love Carr's Baghdad-on-the-Thames or Grand Guignol novels and his ability to create tense, terror-filled atmosphere is one of the most attractive aspects of his detective fiction. However, that's completely subjective. 

But they also criticize his plotting: Carr's locked room solution take an average of twenty pages to explain, which are "so intricate that the reader can't follow it without reading it several times," but this is not entirely true – because The Third Bullet is one of those elegantly simple impossible crime. Sure, Carr has dreamed up some ridiculous, overly complex locked room tricks (e.g. The Problem of the Wire Cage, 1939). But what about The Judas Window (1938), She Died a Lady (1943), He Who Whispers (1946) and Captain Cut-Throat (1955)? These are some of his best and most popular works with good, but easy to explain, locked room tricks.

Rubin is a mystery novelist and tells the group he never tried his hand at a locked room novel, because he claims Carr "killed the market for them." And he couldn't think of "a new variation." This reminded Gonzalo of the What's the Greatest Not By. So "what's the greatest locked-room mystery story not written by John Dickson Carr?" Nobody had an answer! Nobody! I'm an unapologetic JDC fanboy, but even I can throw out numerous examples that can rival the master: W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932), Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948), Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954), Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968), Herbert Resnicow's The Dead Room (1987) and Paul Halter's La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005). Just to name but a few.

After the banquet and discussion, the guest of the evening, Myron Dynest, tells the Black Widowers he has a real-life example of a locked house mystery.

Dynest used to be plumber and moved from the city to suburbs where his wife, an old-fashioned country woman, has come back to life as she spends her time organizing church socials, picnics and neighborhood activities – as well as putting her talents as a cook to good use. Ginny is an excellent cook and someone suggested she should bundle all of her recipes into a cookbook. However, Ginny is reluctant to part with the recipe of her famous blueberry muffins and only briefly wrote down the recipe. Before she destroyed it. This happened when Ginny was babysitting a bunch of five-year-old children and the house had been completely locked at the time. Nobody had entered or left the house in the brief period between the time the recipe was written down and destroyed, but the recipe was stolen and the next day the recipe was posted on the church bulletin board. A word for word copy as she had written it. So who stole the recipe and, more importantly, how was it done?

The solution to the problem of the locked house is fairly clued, but the answer to the trick is not exactly original. I've seen variations on this trick before, which usually turn out to be incredibly carny, however, Asimov deserves credit for delivering the most believable and acceptable version of this locked room idea – which alone makes this story potential material for a future locked room anthology. I do think that the solution, especially the identity of the culprit, shows Asimov's admiration for Agatha Christie.

All things considered, "The Recipe" was a minor, but amusing, locked room story and a reminder I have to return one of these days to the Black Widowers.

11/23/18

Die Again, Macready (1984) by Jack Livingston

A strange, but fascinating, passageway in the locked room-and impossible crime genre is a dark, grimy alley that opens onto those mean streets of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. A narrow passage connecting the cerebral detective story with the world of the tough, gruff and grizzled private dicks with the locked room puzzle serving as a linchpin between the traditional and hardboiled styles – an unlikely combination that can be magical when done right. Bill Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981), Scattershot (1982) and Bones (1985) are perfect examples of blending hardboiled story-telling with a puzzling impossible crime plot.

Thrilling Detective Website has a whole page dedicated to these cross-genre composites, "And Throw Away the Key! Locked Room P.I. Mysteries," listing such titles as Jonathan Latimer's Headed for a Hearse (1935), Roman McDougald's The Blushing Monkey (1953) and Tucker Coe's Murder Among Children (1967).

There are, however, some (notable) omissions like Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941), Manly Wade Wellman's Find My Killer (1947), Fredric Brown's Death Has Many Doors (1951), Stephen Mertz's Some Die Hard (1979) and Pronzini's Schemers (2009). Recently, I found another little-known title that enjoys an equal amount of obscurity as both a locked room and hardboiled P.I. novel, but deserved some kind of recognition. More so as a dark, gritty, but well-written, crime novel than as an impossible crime story.

James L. Nusser penned a handful of private-eye novels during the 1980s, published as by "Jack Livingston," starring a stone-deaf detective, Joe Binney, who lost his hearing during the Korean War when a placed a shaped charge on an enemy gunboat with a "delay fuse that didn't delay" – practically turning his skull inside out. Binney was patched up at a Navy hospital where he learned lip reading and bookkeeping. So he could work as a free-lance bookkeeper and wouldn't have to talk to anybody, but, when he "chased down a few skips and swindlers" for his clients, Binney began to work as a private detective.

Die Again, Macready (1984) is the second of only four titles in this series and was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Mysteries (1991).

Adey summed Die Again, Macready as a "perfectly reasonable private-eye yarn" written by an author who, for some reason, "does not seem to command the attention of a lot of his peers" and appears to be largely forgotten today. And very little can be found about him online. Nonetheless, the introduction of a deaf, lipreading private-eye appeared to have made somewhat of a splash at the time. I think this one is as good as any I have read by the likes of Latimer and Pronzini.

Joe Binney is hired by a rising actor, William Macready, to track down his business manager, Arnold Pelfrey, who "absconded with about two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars" of employers money and the trail leads to a seedy, rundown Times Square hotel – where he finds Pelfrey hanging from an ancient gas pipe. The door of the room had been locked, as well as bolted, from the inside and the closed window "hadn't been dusted in centuries." So everything appears to point towards suicide, but the problem of the locked hotel room is only a minor part of the overall plot. Binney wastes no time in explaining how the murderer locked and bolted the door from the inside with an old, shopworn trick ("the impossible takes a little longer, but locked-room puzzles we solve immediately, sir, compliments of Joe Binney, Esq., Private Investigations at your service."). So this is only a very minor impossible crime novel. However, the story has more to offer than just a simplistic locked room puzzle.

The next couple of chapters are actually some of the best in the book as Binney, according to the tradition of the hardboiled crime novel, finds himself on the receiving end of a beating.

A beating that leaves him with partial amnesia and has to convalescence at the home of his client, Macready, who lives in a penthouse situated in a bad neighborhood and they have some interesting conversations – talking about how they had overcome their wartime injuries and "the TV racket." An important plot-thread in the story is why Macready turned down an important role in a new TV-series, which is neatly tied to the problem of the stolen and now missing money. And I wonder if the unnamed TV network here happened to be the same one from William DeAndrea's Matt Cobb series. I like to think so.

But these chapters also have a really strange, comic book vibe to them recalling Daredevil and Watchmen. A part of the story takes place in Hell's Kitchen, "a screwy part of the world," which Binney described as "becoming more like Hell itself." And observed how there seemed hardly “a pervert, degenerate, or miscreant” in New York who did not eventually found their way to Macready's doorstep in this bad part of the city. Funnily enough, Macready tells Binney a slight variation on the joke Rorschach told in Watchmen, but here the joke was about The Great Deburau instead of Pagliacci the Clown. However, the punchline was exactly the same.

I suppose these comic books and characters came to mind, because I always viewed these lonely, hardboiled private-eyes as these darker, incorruptible capeless crusaders who stand vastly even when the odds are stacked against them. And that is certainly the case here. Once he recovered, Binney is back on the street to find the money he had been hired to find and, along the way, he encounters some truly appalling and disgusting crimes involves children and teenage boys – as well as having a hard-to-hard with Pelfrey's murderer. Slowly, but surely, he uncovers a plot involving millions of dollars and the people responsible handed down a death sentence, which forced him to fight for his life. Or, in this case, relied on his wits and military background to outwit his would-be murderer.

This is what often makes the private-eye novel superior to their bleak, overly pretentious cousin, the literary crime novel, because they lack one thing that is nearly always present in even the gloomiest private-eye tale – namely a flicker of light and genuine humanity. A shining light in a pitch-black world. In this case, it's not just Binney who presents that light, but Macready also turned out to be surprisingly human character. And there's splendid side-character, known only as Anthony, who's a retired, acid-scarred police-detective supplementing his "well deserved police pension" as a bill collector. What a warm, human character he turned out to be. And what a shame he only appeared very late into the story. These characters are flickering lights in a pitch-black corner of the world that reminds everyone around them that not all hope is lost. And that there's always something worth fighting for.

On a whole, Die Again, Macready is not as good as a puzzle as some of the other hardboiled locked room stories, but, solely as a private-eye yard, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with its better known counterparts and how the deafness of Binney is handled even makes it standout a little bit – which is more than just a gimmick. The deafness is very well-handled and presented in a believable way, which is shown to have both its advantages and drawbacks.

So I might return to this series, because the synopsis of the third title in the series, The Nightmare File (1986) is intriguing to say the least ("deaths of men who seem to die from fear in the throes of violent nightmares").

On a final note, I noted earlier that there's scarcely any information available about Livingston on the web, but, when I finished writing this review, I found a piece of background information in a very obvious place – inside the back-flap of the dust-jacket. Livingston was "an ex-merchant seaman" who worked "as a medical editor and lives in upstate New York." A Piece of Silence (1982) was "nominated as the best hardcover private-eye novel" of '82 by the Private Eye Writers of America.