2/25/17

The Renaissance Era: Returns from the Bowels of Obscurity

"By a route obscure and lonely..."
- Edgar Allan Poe (Dreamland, 1844)
I've several ideas for blog-posts (read: filler-posts) on the back burner, such as my favorite impossible crimes from Case Closed or updating the best-of lists, which has actually been requested numerous times, but they require actually time and preparation ("show prep") - placing them at the back of my priority list. So I decided to finally start cleaning out the Augean stables.

You should not expect them to appear all at once over the next couple of weeks or months, because I plan to spread them out over the entirety of 2017. And that probably means that some won't get written and posted until 2018. However, I'll make a genuine effort to get around to as many of them as possible and particularly my best-of lists, but still haven't decided on whether I'll update the old posts or simply re-post them as new lists.

Anyway, we'll eventually see how long it will take for this ship to crash on the rocky shores of broken promises. But for now, I actually have something for you that came from the backseat of my priority list.

Back in December of 2014, I posted a blog-post about the revival of the traditional detective story, entitled "The Renaissance Era of Detective Fiction," which commented on the smash success of a reprint edition by J.J. Farjeon's obscure Mystery in White (1937) – becoming a runaway bestseller that sold over 60.000 copies! I said in my post how this change had been in the air for over a decade. When the advent of the internet reestablished a middle market where secondhand book dealers and small, independent publishers found a willing audience for the long-neglected detective stories of yore.

Since that post, we've been buried in an avalanche of reprints and thought the time was ripe to write an addendum to it, because there was another important side-effect to the internet opening up a new and open market place – namely making it easier for the casual readers to explore the never-ending rabbit hole that's our genre.

Before the internet, you could easily get your hands on such writers as Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout. They never really went out-of-print and their work saturated the secondhand book market, but going beyond the usual suspects required specialization, serendipitous luck and some money. Basically, you had to be a fan with the fanaticism of a true believer. Just look at the slew of new names and book titles regularly excavated by Curt Evans and John Norris. I'm not exactly a casual mystery reader and consider myself to be a fairly knowledgeable fan, but I never cease to amaze at what has been lost and how rich a history our genre has. So imagine how unlikely it must have been for a casual readers to get an easy opportunity to read Robin Forsythe, Kelley Roos and Joseph Commings in the pre-internet days. The changes were very, very slim.

I wanted to do a post looking at the authors who were (IMHO) most successful in riding the wave of this Renaissance Era and succeeded in either reclaiming their past glory or even proved to be more successful than they probably were in their own lifetime. And the first name might surprise you know.

Anthony Berkeley was, arguably, one of the most important British mystery writers of the 1930s and some of his work has definitely inspired some of Christie's most celebrated novels (c.f. The Silk Stockings Murders (1928) with The ABC Murders, 1936). His share to the first round-robin novel by the Detection Club is what made The Floating Admiral (1931) surprisingly successful, because he tied everything logically together in the final chapter. He also predicted the rise of the psychological thriller, but, by the 2000s, Berkeley had been all but forgotten. Until a publishing outfit, The House of Stratus, started to reprint his mystery novels.

I always got the impression from browsing the archives of the old GAD Yahoo Group that Berkeley found a whole new audience in the early 2000s. Many of the readers on that group, whose opinions and reviews were my guidebook through the genre, acquired there first Berkeley's through HoS and avid collectors were able to add or even complete the series. I believe the new editions of The Layton Court Mystery (1925) and Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927) were welcomed with open arms.

The House of Stratus were very important with helping kick-start the Renaissance Era by bringing this historically important writer back in print, but they also brought back other, once big-name, writers: Michael Innes, Freeman Wills Crofts and Edgar Wallace. However, I think Berkeley is the big winner of the lot, because he was the first big name to make a return and his work may have been as instrumental in bringing this new era about as he was during the Golden. Hey, you know what they say: a classic never goes out of style.

On a side note, "JJ," from The Invisible Event, placed a crown on Berkeley's brow as one of the Crime Kings. The post is titled "The Kings of Crime – III: Anthony Berkeley, the King of Diamonds."

A second name I have pointed out before, but must noted, is that of the Empress of the Renaissance Era, the Great Gladys Mitchell. Down, JJ. Down! Allow me to explain. Nobody has made a return as big and thorough as Mitchell. She was one of the most obscure writers of the genre in the early 2000s. Most of her books were never reprinted as paperbacks and were mostly available to collectors who were willing to spend money to possess rare hardcover editions. One of the few titles that were relatively easy to get was a paperback edition of Watson's Choice (1950) and some Green penguins.

There were two names during that time who helped kept her work alive: Nick Fuller who now infrequently blogs at "Escape to Adventure" and the man behind "The Stone House, a Gladys Mitchell Tribute Site." They made a great case for Mitchell and were very honest about her flaws, but pleaded that she was an acquired taste who deserved a chance. Personally, I'm very glad I did, because Mrs. Bradley is one of my favorite detective characters and when her creator had a firm grasp of all her plot-threads the books were often excellent. She made a good impression when the now defunct Rue Morgue Press reissued such titles as Death at the Opera (1934) and When Last I Died (1941), which Crippen & Landru compiled a collection of all her short stories under the title Sleuth's Alchemy: Cases of Mrs. Bradley and Others (2005). Soon, Mitchell's rarest titles, such as Brazen Tongue (1940) and The Worsted Viper (1943), were reissued by the Minnow Press as hardcover editions and they apparently had a limited print run – because they went out-of-print within a blink of an eye. Eventually, she was picked up by Vintage/Penguin and they reissued all of her mystery novels. I think she has been more read in the past few years than during her own lifetime.

Let's continue with two more odd-ones-out: the first is the previously mentioned Farjeon, who was the least likely writer to reappear from obscurity, but Mystery in White came at the right time and was read more than during its original publication – ensuring further reprints. Farjeon is, like Mitchell, an acquired taste, but his comeback was amazing! Maurice Leblanc is the other odd name, one of the leading lights of the Rogue School, but I don't think his name was well-remembered outside of the Francophone world before the 2000s. But then Wildeside Press began to reissue translations, which consisted of the marvelous The Exploits of Arsène Lupin (1907) and 813 (1910). Leblanc is still not one of the most widely read names in the genre, but he probably would not even have been known about without these editions.

I already mentioned the Rue Morgue Press and their role in Mitchell's return, but they had an extensive catalog that included Nicholas Blake, Glyn Carr, Clyde B. Clason, Kelley Roos and Craig Rice. However, the one that seems to have really stuck around, after they closed down for business, is Stuart Palmer. The run of reprints by the RMP saw the return in print of the extremely scarce The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and a good swath of Palmer's mystery novels are still available as ebooks. So I found it interesting Palmer is the one who emerged as sort of a mainstay, because his competition included the great John Dickson Carr, Craig Rice and Delano Ames. But it is good that he's being read again.

Leo Bruce also deserves a mention as pretty much all of his mystery novels, featuring either Sgt. Beef or Carolus Deene, were brought back into circulation by Chicago Press, which included the much touted Case for Three Detectives (1936) and the obscure Case with Four Clowns (1939) – once considered as one of the scarcest books by a well-known Golden Age authors. Curt Evans also made him the subject of an essay, “The Man Who Was Leo Bruce.” A name who's (justly) well-regarded among connoisseurs of detective stories and glad to see his work is easy to get nowadays. Particularly, the Sgt. Beef series.

Lately, we have seen an outpouring of reprints from such publishers as the British Library Crime Classics-wing of the Poisoned Pen Press, The Detective Club from HarperCollins, Coachwhip Books, Ramble House and the Dean Street Press. A profusion of once well-known and completely obscure, long-forgotten writers were republished by them in the past few years, which makes it hard to say who will end up leaving a somewhat lasting impression, but there already some remarkable comebacks in this tsunami of reprints. 
 
E.R.Punshon is one of those familiar names from a bygone era and was highly regarded among both his readers and peers. Sayers once famously asked, "what is distinction," followed by holding up one of Punshon's mysteries and pointed to it, but he fell quickly from public memory after his death in the 1950s. 

Over the past few years, his work has been brought back into by print on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean by two different publishers – one of them printing paperback editions and the other ebooks. My regularly readers are well aware of my high opinion on Punshon and regard his return to our bookshelves as important as the rediscovery of Berkeley. I would have loved to know what "kindly Mr. Punshon" would have thought of the renewed interest in his work in that far-flung year of 2016.

Dean Street Press, who did digital end of Punshon's comeback, has also brought back a number of unjustly neglected woman mystery writers. Some who could have easily claimed the title of Crime Queen had they written more of some novels that currently found their way back into our hands. Ianthe Jerrold wrote the traditionally-styled classic Dead Man's Quarry (1930) and Harriet Rutland was the authoress of the delightful Bleeding Hooks (1940), but all of the books from their small body of work is well wroth a read and sincerely hope they will stand the test of time – because they could have been serious rivals to the other Crime Queens. But time will tell.

The British Library also did their fair share in bringing a host of long-forgotten mystery writers back in the limelight, but the most interesting reprints were Anthony Wynne's The Silver Scale Mystery (as Murder of a Lady, 1931) and Christopher St. Sprigg's Death of an Airman (1935), because we all want to see more from these authors – as they are obscure and secondhand editions of Wynne come with a hefty price-tag. So, hopefully, they'll break through as well. But we're drifting away from the purpose of this overlong, rambling blog-post that begins to eerily begins to resemble sponsored content. Badly written sponsored content. But rest assured, I do this for free.

Wow, this "addendum" is really about the size of a Van Dinean footnote! Anyhow, let's get going.

One of the strangest appearance on the scene is a Golden Age-style writer who's still alive, namely Paul Halter, who was known in the early 2000s as the second coming of Carr, but John Pugmire had trouble finding a publisher for his translations – since nobody wanted to touch a live GAD writer. So he went into business for himself and founded Locked Room International, but we, as the thoroughly spoiled children that we are, began to pick like a child at the English editions. Going, "well, this is not what expected." And then to think we sacrificed children to get the translations.

However, we're all very grateful to finally get an opportunity to read his locked room novels. Pugmire is still diligently working on a catalog of impossible crime fiction from France, Sweden, England and Japan.

Japan gave us another peculiar, living specimen from Japan's neo-orthodox movement, Keigo Higashino. The first novel to be published, Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), was chosen by the American Library Association as Best Mystery Novel of 2012. On the cover was affix "A Novel," but it was a mystery novel at heart. Even though that point was heavily debated. But some of the subsequent translation were more purer mystery novels and I think Higashino garnered the most mainstream recognition from all the writers mentioned thus far.

Well, I feel as if I lost the thread of this blog-post halfway through, because I wanted to write about the successes of some returns, but churned out a simple, drawn-out rundown. Not one that's even all that complete, but this one gone long enough. Well, I never claimed to have been anything more than your resident hack reviewer. I'll try to keep future blog-posts of this nature shorter and keep them on the intended course. Next blog-post will be regular review. So you can keep an eye out for that.

2/23/17

There's a Reason for Everything

"People kill other people... for all sorts of reasons that don't seem to make sense to anyone else."
- Chief Inspector Jonathan Boyce (Francis Duncan's In at the Death, 1952)
Over the past three months, I've been working my way through a small stack of detective novels by Francis Duncan, which were reprinted last year by Vintage and counts now five of (reportedly) nine titles from the author's series about a retired tobacconist, Mordecai Tremaine – who's also an amateur criminologist and professional murder-magnet.

Regardless of his attraction to violent crimes, Tremaine is a hopeless romanticist and a "sworn friend of lovers." A sentimental soul whose "chief delights" is reading the bright, "refreshingly idealistic fiction"  published in Romantic Stories and this colors his role as detective. So you can basically sum him up as a literary relative of Agatha Christie's Harley Quin and Mr. Satterthwaite (who are also described as friends of lovers). Simply a delightful and sympathetic character, but one who, somehow, got tossed on the trash heap of obscurity and waned there until 2015 – when the previously mentioned published reissued Murder for Christmas (1949). A success that lead them to reissue four additional titles in 2016.

I mentioned in my previous reviews how Duncan evidently knew how to put a plot together, but he also had an eye for the backdrop of his stories and this is illustrated in the bright, eye-catching covers of the new editions. Three of the four recent reprints were all set near the sea: an isolated house on the cliffs (So Pretty a Problem, 1950), a seaport town (In at the Death, 1952) and a sun-soaked island (Behold a Fair Woman, 1954), but one of the earliest books in the series has a far more traditional setting – a quintessential village in the English countryside.

Murder Has a Motive (1947) reminded me of Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy (1939) and Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952) with a slight touch of the gloomy lunacy of Philip MacDonald's Murder Gone Mad (1931).

The backdrop of the book is a small, snug and seemingly idyllic village, named Dalmering, but there's a dark, disturbing undercurrent beneath the surface of ordinary, everyday village life. A "shadow of evil lay heavily over the loveliness of Dalmering." The idea and aesthetics of the treacherous tranquility of village life has been run into the ground on the Midsomer Murders, but when Duncan tackled the subject it was still fresh enough. And he even had a somewhat original take on it.

Dalmering's population is divided into two camps: one of them consist of the permanent, long-time residents ("the older Dalmering, the true Dalmering") who've lived there for many generations, while the second camp, known as the "Colony," are only temporary residents of the place from London – who had discovered "its unspoilt beauty." Tremaine travels down to Dalmering to spend a holiday with two old friends, Paul and Jean Russell, who run a busy country practice and invest a great deal in the social life of the village, but tragedy has struck the place on the eve of his arrival. A member of their community has become the victim of a "dark, brutal murder."

Lydia Dare moved around in the circle of the Londoners and was engaged to Gerald Farrant, but, on the evening of her death, she had dinner with Martin Vaughan. A self-made man with archaeology as his hobby and it was known he was in love with Dare, which gave one of the strongest motives when she was murdered on her way back to home. She was found stabbed to death in the early hours of the morning on a well-worn pathway through a small copse.

As said before, Tremaine sympathies were "on the side of romance" and the fact that the victim was about to be married "weighed with him the most." To strike at the young and happy was "to arouse him to wrath" and awakened "the smouldering, deep-seated chivalry of the Galahad who dwelt within him," but the case is far more complicated than it first seems. For one thing, his friends and hosts received a small, but useful, legacy as a result of Dare's death. Giving them a ghost of a motive. However, there are also the intertwined, often hidden relationships and potential motives of the other villagers, which all seem to be connected to the local amateur dramatics society. They're rehearsing for an interesting stage play in three acts, Murder Has a Motive by Alexis Kent.

Well, from here on out, it becomes difficult to discuss the plot in close detail, because Murder Has a Motive is Duncan's most descriptive and character-driven mystery novels to date, which also has some very nebulous clueing. There are some physical clues, such as a pair of "roomy, wooden-soled Somerset clogs," but the solution is reasoned from what certain characters knew, did or must have done. So, technically, the reader has a shot at solving the crimes, however, this is not an easy task since the murderer is batshit crazy, which makes the book-title a bit ironic.

All of that being said, the book still worked as a detective story, albeit more along the lines of Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails (1949), which also gave a glimmer of the real-life effects a homicidal maniac can have on a community.

The killer from Duncan's tale committed three murders (last one was particular gruesome) and this placed the village in "the blinding glare of frightening publicity," which begins to worry the police after the second and third murder – because the press-hounds will be showering the investigators with scorn, accusations and bitter criticism. You also get a taste of the vivid newspaper prose from some of Fleet Street's most colorful writers after the second body is found. So, in that regard, the story really gave you the feeling that a large, outside world had cast its eyes on this small, secluded place when the murders started to happen.

I also want to point out the opening of the third chapter, in which Tremaine and Inspector Boyce bump into each other near the scene of the crime. Boyce immediately hurls an accusation at his old friend that, "whenever anyone gets killed," he discovers the body or is nearby. And how he should be called "the murder magnet." Tremaine defends himself by pointing out that the murder was all over when he arrived, but it's interesting to see how this series used that exact term. Other GAD-period writers have pointed out how their characters attracted murders wherever they went, but Duncan actually used the term "murder magnet." It's something worth pointing out.

Well, I wish this review had a bit more substance to it, but, suffice to say, Murder Has a Motive is an unconventional village mystery and a fairly solid entry in a wonderful series of detective novels. A genuine rediscovery worthy of our current Renaissance Era. I sincerely hope Vintage decides to complete this series by reissuing the remaining titles. Here's hoping!

2/20/17

The Bigger Picture

"To Hollywood, city of screwballs! Drink 'er down."
 - Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen's The Four of Hearts, 1938)
My previous blog-post was a review of John Russell Fearn's Death in Silhouette (1950), which was the last entry in his series about Miss Maria Black, who I compared to Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers and thought reviewing a title from the Withers series would be a nice follow-up. So I airlifted The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941) from the desolate, snow-capped peaks of Mt. To-be-Read.

Palmer was a Hollywood screenwriter and one of my favorite American mystery writers from the genre's Golden Age. A first-rate writer whose bibliography consists of fourteen Miss Withers novels, a handful of short story collections and non-series mysteries as well as numerous credits as a screenwriter – penning scripts for such famous B-movies series Bulldog Drummond and The Falcon. However, the books about his beloved series-character, Miss Withers, usually are top-drawer stuff and counts such classics as The Puzzle of the Pepper Tree (1934) and Nipped in the Bud (1952).

The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan is not one of Palmer's masterpieces, but it's a pleasant, mildly humorous detective story with a plot and setting that draws on his background as a Hollywood screenwriter.

Miss Hildegarde Withers is on a six-month sabbatical from her job as a third-grade teacher at Jefferson School and she was looking forward to a Mediterranean cruise, but then Hitler started blitzkrieging across the European continent – which required rescheduling her vacation and she ended up exploring the West Coast of the United States. She's in Hollywood to be precise and an unusual meeting at a restaurant landed her consulting gig.

A talent agent, by the name of Harry Wagman, recognized the schoolteacher from her picture in the newspaper and asked her, accusingly, whether she was "the Murder Lady." He also asked if she was interested in a well-paid job as a technical adviser on a movie about the infamous Lizzie Borden case. One of the big Hollywood producers, Thorwald L. Nincom, plans to make a film epic in technicolor based on the case and Wagman wants to sell her expertise in criminology to the producer, which would net her three-hundred dollars a week. Wagman only wants "a measly ten per cent."

Usually, Miss Withers' presence, as an amateur criminologist, was neither requested or wanted. It always was "in spite of hell and high water" that her "insatiable curiosity had managed to get her into a case," which made her go along with her new agent and meet the famous producer. Even though this was far from a proper murder case. However, she soon finds herself in her familiar role of an unwanted snoop when an inexplicable death occurs on the premises of Mammoth Studio.

Saul Stafford and Virgil Dobie are "one of the highest-paid writing teams in the business," who also garnered a well-earned reputation as the biggest pranksters in Hollywood, but, when Miss Withers meets Stafford, the self-styled comedian suffers from "a mild case of paranoia" - plagued by strange accidents and funny-tasting drinks. Two hours later, she found him sprawled on the floor of his office with a broken neck, next to an overturned chair, with a giant poster on the ceiling hanging from a single thumbtack. It has all the hallmarks of a freak accident, but Miss Withers is convinced she has stumbled across, what she called, an "impossible murder."

Sadly, this is not an impossible crime story and the way in which Palmer handled this angle of the plot is, somewhat, incomprehensible.

There are several broken necks throughout the story and a big deal is made about the apparent impossibility of these deaths. A police-surgeon even mentions he doesn't believe "it physically possible for any person to break another's neck," because "the neck muscles are too strong." So, since there were no signs of a struggle or any noise was heard coming from the office, I began to suspect the victims died by the hangman's drop and the poster on the ceiling and the location of the offices gave me that idea – because, I suppose, offices on a studio plot aren't as solid constructed as a brownstone building.

I figured that, perhaps, panels or parts of the ceiling could be removed and create an improvised trapdoor to drop someone through with a (padded) rope around his neck. This would explain why nobody heard a thing, because the victim was dropped into his office from the floor above and reeled back in, to cut the rope, and then dropped back again in his office – which would also explain the New York victim who was found beneath a window in a soft flower bed. The hangman's drop seemed to be the obvious explanation, but, when the method was revealed, I was baffled that Palmer made such a big deal about the cause of death. Even trying to make it seem like an impossible crime.

It's akin to writing a story in which someone is found murdered inside a locked room and the key to the door was found in the victim's pocket, which is made a focal point of the plot, but then explain it away that the murderer used a spare key. Why bother dressing up the crime as a seemingly impossible murder if that's the angle you're taking? Simply baffling!

On top of that, the murderer was fairly obvious. So this could have easily translated into a rare disappointment in the series, but the book still had some solid, well-done plot-threads and moments. First of all, there's the plot-thread about a mysterious individual, known as Derek or Dick Laval, who appears to have been neck-deep in the New York murder, which was skillfully tied to the overall plot and was a high-note of the book – showing that Palmer could do better than the business about the broken necks. I also loved the touching and sad scenes that placed Miss Withers in genuine danger and had her friend, Inspector Oscar Piper, rushing down from New York to help. I think fans of these two characters will particular appreciate this portion of the story.

Befitting a movie-themed mystery novel, the plot has several fun Easter eggs, nods and winks. At one point in the book, Inspector Piper describes Miss Withers suitcase to a cabdriver and mentions it has labels from London and Mexico City on it, which are subtle references to The Puzzle of the Silver Persian (1935) and The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937). Miss Withers is also mistaken for Edna May Oliver who played her character in the movies based on the earlier books in the series (e.g. The Penguin Pool Murder, 1932).

So, all in all, the overall plot was not one of Palmer's strongest, but the writing and characters were up to his usual standards and made for a fun, fast-paced read. However, I would recommend new readers to start somewhere else and save this one for later, because I think fans of the series will be able to appreciate it more than new readers.

2/18/17

Death's Shadow

"We can't say for certain this is murder. Not at the present stage of the game."
- Superintendent Hadley (John Dickson Carr's Till Death Do Us Part, 1944)
Last year, I began to exhume the work of an incredibly prolific British pulp author, John Russell Fearn, whose legacy consists of an enormous pile of science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, which were published in various magazines under a number of different pennames – such as "Thornton Ayre," "Frank Russell" and "John Slate."

A good, sizable chunk of Fearn's detective stories are locked room mysteries and this should come as no surprise, because he was a self-admitted fanboy of John Dickson Carr. However, Fearn never really played in the same league as the great master himself and was very much a second-tier mystery writer, but he has become a personal favorite among the second stringers. One of his series, saturated with impossible crime material, managed to touch the ceiling that separated the second stringers from the top-tier writers. Only one of the books from that series seems to have managed to break through that ceiling (i.e. Thy Arm Alone, 1947).

I'm talking about the Maria Black series, which sadly, covered only five books and commenced with Black Maria, M.A. (1944), in which the Principal of Roseway College for Young Ladies, Miss Maria Black, got an opportunity to put her knowledge as an amateur criminologist into practice by solving the murder of her own brother – who was shot to death inside his locked library. The book can best be described as what would have happened if Carr had written one of Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers mysteries.

It was an auspicious and promising start of a series that appears to have peaked with the previously mentioned Thy Arm Alone, but, luckily, there are still three titles left to enjoy. Well, now that I'm writing this review, there are actually only two left.

Death in Silhouette (1950) is the fifth and last entry in the Maria Black series, which has a weird whiff of realism lingering in its opening chapters. The story introduces the reader to a young working class couple, Patricia "Pat" Taylor and Keith Robinson, who respectively work modest jobs as a restaurant cashier and a costings clerk at the railway goods station, which does not allow for a lavish wedding or lifestyle, but they sealed engagement before the end of the first chapter – running off to their families to spread the happy news. Pat's parents could not be happier, but her brother, Gregory, was less enthusiastic with congratulating his sister and future brother-in-law. But the father of the groom-to-be was even less celebratory.

Ambrose Robinson is a religious fanatic, who spouts "yards of memorized scripture," but his objections fall on deaf ears. So he eventually finds himself attending an engagement party at the home of his future in-laws and one of the invitees is Pat's old head mistress, Miss Maria Black, but car troubles delayed her arrival and when she finally pulled up on the curb of the Taylor home "she felt an old-fire horse" which "has heard the bell" - as there was a police-car outside the house. 
 
During the party, Keith went missing and he was not found until someone noticed the door to the cellar was not only locked, but it was locked from the inside. Nobody responded to the knocking. So the door was broken down and they Keith hanging from a rope tied to the staple in a beam that crossed the ceiling.

According to the evidence, Keith went down to the cellar, lock himself in, and then hanged himself. Right in "the middle of celebrating his engagement to Pat."

Maria Black's "singular gift of walking into tragedies" has not deserted her and, initially, does not want to get involved, but Pat wants to know what was behind her fiances sudden death. Naturally, this quickly turns into a full-fledged murder inquiry and one that has some interesting aspects. One part of the investigation concerns Keith's character and background. Keith had some jealously issues and was prone to mood swings, who could be "up in spirits one minute" and "down in the dumps the next," which is a mental complexion he might have inherited from his mother – who died in a rest-home were she was staying for mental problems.

However, the most intriguing part of the plot is the step-by-step reconstruction of what happened in the sealed cellar and how a potential murderer could have been involved.

Slowly, Miss Black gathered the pieces of the intricate jigsaw puzzle around the Taylor home, which consist of a shadow cast on a whitewashed wall, traces of candle grease and a torn cover from an American pulp magazine (Super Crime Stories). She also calls on her hardboiled legman/bodyguard from the States, "Pulp" Martin, who tasked with tracking down a lamp that was thrown in the trash, but also has to use his fist on a couple of occasions. I guess his presence is one of the reasons why this series always feels like reading an American-style mystery, but the role the pulp magazines played in the murder also helped and recalled some of Bill Pronzini's impossible crime stories (e.g. "The Pulp Connection" from Casefile, 1983).

So the plot of Death in Silhouette offers a genuine detective problem, but where the book really excels is the double-barreled solution that manage to co-exist simultaneously. One part of the solution is very clever and complex, which might not even have worked. Something that is fully acknowledged, but then the Merrivalean cussedness of all things general intervenes and throws an alternative explanation into the works. A solution that is simpler and far more elegant than the previous one, which may disappoint some readers, but it works.

How this solution can simultaneously exist is something you should discover for yourself, but the how of the crime gelled marvelously with the who. Fearn had me playing ring-around-the-rosies with the small pool of suspects and still missed the actual murderer. I came very close to the correct murderer, but not quite close enough.

So Death in Silhouette demonstrates why Fearn is becoming one of my favorite mystery writers among the second-stringers and why this particular series deserves to be better known among mystery readers. They're pure detective stories that are tremendously fun to read with plots that always try to give the reader its absolute best. I might pick off another one of Fearn's mysteries from the big pile before too long, but whether it's going to be another Maria Black novel or one of his locked room standalone is something I still have to decide on. So stay tuned!

2/16/17

Putting Down the Dog

"The impossible, the possible, and the probable were sorted into groups, and from the kaleidoscopic jumble of evidence was formed a pattern."
- Ngaio Marsh (Death at the Bar, 1940)
Joanna Cannan came from a family with a high concentration of published authors and took her first, tentative steps in the world of literature at age ten, when she helped her sister edit The Tripled Crown: A Book of English, Scotch and Irish Verse for the Age of Six to Sixteen (1908), but, as a novelist, she would garner success as a writer of children books and detective fiction.

Cannan is perhaps not one of the best remembered figures in the world of detective fiction, however, she has enjoyed a longer print-run than many of her contemporaries. Several of her mystery novels, such as Body in the Beck (1952), were reissued as large print editions in the Linford Mystery Library and she rode the first wave of the current Renaissance Era when the Rue Morgue Press reprinted two of her books in 1999 – namely They Rang Up the Police (1939) and Death at the Dog (1940). They must have been eagerly picked up at the time, because they were both out-of-print again halfway through the previous decade.

I guess that's why she, sort of, receded into the background again, but something put her back on the top of my list. I don't actually remember what, but some comment here or a blog-post there made me move her to the top of the pile.

Death at the Dog takes place in the countryside village of Witheridge Green during the first months of the so-called "Phoney War," which began with the British and French declaring war on Germany and ended with the invasion of the Low Countries – which took place between September 1939 and May 1940. The opening chapter mentions "it was only six weeks since the beginning of the war" and this places the events of the story in the second and third week of October.

So only six weeks since war was declared, but so far, the only noticeable effects were the rigidly enforced blackouts, the mobilization of the army, petrol shortages and Londoners who were fleeing to the safety of the countryside. All of these problems did not bypass Witheridge Green and in particular Eve Hennisty, licensee of the local pub, called "The Dog," who worries about the black paper that has already began to warp, tear and split. As well as the disastrous effect it has on the amount of visitors who enter the more exclusive lounge bar of the pub, but they also have lingering, old-world problem hanging out in the bar.

Old Mathew Scaife is the local squire and the largest landowner in the county, but, during his stewardship of the ancient estate, the family home had "decayed into a ruin" and "thistles and nettles advanced like armies" on the surrounding grounds – constantly appearing in court for his neglectfulness and ignoring regulations. He was also an unpleasant character who has been called "that begotten old reptile" and "foul old beast." And his latest scheme involved evicting long-standing tenants from their cottages and let them to London evacuees at a much higher price.

So there are more than enough suspects when Mathew Scaife is found slumped over his table in the lounge bar. Dead as mutton. One of the pub's patrons had jabbed the old man in the back of the neck and injected him with a deadly dose of nicotine!

I've to point out here that Death at the Dog was published in the same year as Ngiao Marsh's Death at the Bar (1940), which also concerned a very unusual poisoning of a prominent person at a bar and a game of darts played a role in both murders. However, it's unlikely that one influenced the other, because they must have been written around the same time, which is what makes the resemblances all the more amazing.

Secondly, isn't it baffling that there are so few mysteries with a pub-setting? You'd think it would figure more prominently in detective stories from the British Isles, but I could not think of any other example. Anyhow...

Detective-Inspector Guy Northeast is put in charge of the case and quickly comes to the realization that "two-thirds of the population of Witheridge Green" had a motive to murder the unpopular squire, but only a handful of them patronized the lounge bar on the night of the murder. And this gallery of suspects includes the victim's two sons, Edward and Mark Scaife. An architect, by the name of Adam Day, who "had been too young to fight in the Great War" and was now, frustratingly, "too old to fight in Hitler's War." He was in the lounge bar at the time of the murder with his wife, Valentine. There are also the Franklands: David is on the staff of a struggling newspaper, while Bridget is a fervent farmer and naturally came into contact with Scaife. But the most likely suspect of the lot is "a lady novelist," Crescy Hardwick.

Crescy Hardwick is an unpredictable, somewhat eccentric woman you either liked or disliked, who lived in a rented cottage with several dogs, cats and a one-eyed pony, but Old Scaife has given her a month's notice to vacate the premise she has come to regard as home – which lead to a confrontation in the pub. Hardwick called him an a "bloody old profiteer" and confessed she had been "planning murder" ever since she received his letter. But there's also physical evidence pointing in her direction: she possesses a book on toxicology with the page about nicotine poisoning dog-eared, possessed the poison and she used powdered pumice to clean the harnass of her pony. There were traces of powdered pumice found inside the needle-wound in Scaife's neck.

However, Northeast is reluctant to take the easy route and tag her as the murderer of the old man. So he has to piece together an alternative explanation from such clues as an electric fan, a dud dart and a stolen bicycle, which reveals a well-hidden murderer. But this explanation has also one notable weakness: it's too clever for its own good and a trick that simply might not have worked. For one thing, Northeast admitted, in the final chapter, that the murderer probably had tried to kill Scaife before, because the method was depended on the right set of circumstances and (as it turned out) even sheer chance. So this puts a strain on the believability of the overall solution and you can't help but wonder if it had not been easier for the murderer to engineer an accident in the dangerous, rundown surroundings of his own home.

That being said, Death at the Dog was still a fairly competent and interesting detective novel in the vein of such literary Crime Queens as Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Bowers, which comes recommended to readers who love that particular mode of crime-fiction and those who are fascinated by mysteries that take place during World War II.