8/13/18

The Art of Deduction: "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" (1959) by Theodore Mathieson

Theodore Mathieson was an American schoolteacher from Oregon, who taught in the public high schools of California, but turned to writing during the late 1950s and published a number of novels, which include the historical mystery The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961) and two juvenile detectives featuring The Sleuth Club – entitled The Door to Nowhere (1964) and The Sign of the Flame (1964). So those titles have been jotted down for my future explorations of the juvenile mystery genre.

Mathieson also penned a score of short stories that were published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. The first of these short stories, "Captain Cook, Detective," spawned a twelve-part series of historical standalone stories starring famous figures from history as detective. Galileo, Alexander the Great, Hernando Cortez, Alexandre Dumas and Florence Nightingale were all fitted with a caped mantle and deerstalker hat by Mathieson.

The most-well known and frequently anthologized story from this "Great Detectives" series is "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective," originally published in the January, 1959, issue of EQMM, in which Da Vinci is tasked with finding an explanation for an impossible murder – committed in front of witnesses by an apparently invisible killer. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, recently reviewed The Devil and Ben Franklin and mentioned that this short story was described Mike Ashley, a prolific anthologist, as "one of the most ingenious" of the series with "its step-by-step unravelling of a seemingly impossible crime." So I decided to take down one of the anthologies with this story and see how good this story really is.

I read "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" in Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits (1993) and takes place on a late spring afternoon in 1516 when Da Vinci, now in his sixties, has left Florence to life in France.

Da Vinci is in the favor of the King of France, Francis I, but "the regal French beauty," the Queen, has never liked him. One afternoon, Da Vinci is sketching in a rose garden when a messenger from the Queen summons him to come to Amboise at once. Da Vinci is brought to an amphitheater where "a fine demonstration of marching formations" by "troops from the Netherlands, from Spain, and from Scotland," but, as the exhibition closed, Monsieur Philip Laurier, approached the empty center of the field – to blow a trumpet signaling the end. But when he began to raise his trumpet to his lips, Laurier began to stagger and crumple.

The witnesses who saw this happen caught the glimpse of a knife-hilt as he dropped to the ground, but "the knife could only have been thrown by someone standing at the level of the arena floor." Philip was the only one who stood in the empty arena! Queen is very anxious that this problem is solved as soon as possible.

I think "Leonardo da Vinci, Detective" is better written than plotted. Not that the plot was bad, not at all, but the clues were clumsily handled. Mathieson deserves praise for sticking to the principle of fair play and placed as many as the short story form would allow in the hands of the reader. However, they all stuck out like rusty nails. Norris has criticized John Russell Fearn's clues tend to stick out like sore thumbs, but, compared to this story, Fearn has the subtlety of John Dickson Carr. I initially felt underwhelmed by the explanation for the invisible murderer until thinking about it a little more. The trick gels perfectly with the military background and the period in which the story is set works like a red herring, because the principle idea behind the impossible stabbing is associated with modern warfare. A similar piece of out-of-time misdirection was cleverly used by Carr in Fire, Burn! (1957). I needed some convincing, but ended up liking the impossible crime trick.

So, all things considered, this was not a bad story at all, either as a historical mystery or an impossible crime story, but the clumsily handling of the clues keeps this one from a first place. Nevertheless, I find it surprising that this often anthologized story never found its way in any of the specialized locked room anthologies. The detective, plot and setting are certainly original enough to be included in a line-up.

Anyway, my next post is going further back into the post when I'll be looking another of Paul Doherty's historical locked room mysteries. It's like the best of two worlds!

8/9/18

This is the House (1945) by Shelley Smith

Nancy Bodington was an English novelist who, under the penname of "Shelley Smith," wrote fifteen novels of crime, detection and suspense in "the malice domestic and "badass biddy" subgenres" – debuting with Background for Murder (1942) and ending with A Game of Consequences (1978). I likely would have remained ignorant of Smith's detective-fiction had it not been for Martin Edwards and John Norris regularly praising her work to the skies and back.

Edwards described Smith as "a writer of genuine ability and intelligence" and Norris has been "completely under the spell of this fine writer." They certainly aroused my curiosity with enticing reviews of Death Stalks a Lady (1945) and An Afternoon to Kill (1953), but, as to be expected with these two reviewers, the books they discuss tend to be hard to get by and Smith was no exception – until very recently, that is. Over the past two years, Endeavour Media reissued all of Smith's crime fiction as ebooks and can now be easily accessed by everyone.

So I decided to finally take a crack at one of her novels and picked one of her more traditionally-structured detective novels.

This is the House (1945) was described by Norris in his 2016 review as "a Carribean homage to the British claustrophobic village murder mystery" and the description of the plot struck me as Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935) as perceived by Christianna Brand. Well, I was not far off the mark!

The backdrop of the story is the most southerly island of the Windward Isles, Apostle Island, which has a dusty, ramshackle capital, Wigtown, that's overlooked by the titular house on the mountaintop – which is, strictly speaking, not a house. The place is nothing more than "a plain, square, two-storied villa" standing within the walls of an abandoned, 16th century Portuguese fortress. A fortress that had began to crumble into "a picturesque ruin," but Antoine Jacques, Premier Justice of Apostle Island, used the place as a foundation for his modern villa.

Jacques settled down in his fortified villa with his family, but tragedy struck when his wife, Julia, was struck by a crippling illness that left her almost completely paralyzed. Julia is a living, bedridden corpse who can barely move or speak and she wishes to die in order to end the suffering. A death wish that came true when a visitor came to the house.

Quentin Seal is a writer of "surprisingly intelligent" detective stories with a high reputation among "the more sober and scholarly fans" of the genre and has come to the island for a well-deserved holiday, but a friend has given him a letter of introduction to the Premier Justice of Apostle Island, Monsieur Jacques. Normally, Seal refused these banal entries in polite society, but the friend who gave him the letter promised his visit would be an interesting one and he was not wrong, because, when he climbed the seemingly endless steps leading up to the house, Seal makes an unsettling discovery – Julia lies dead in her room. On the surface, it appears Julia had been accidentally suffocated when the family cat had entered her room and had fallen asleep on her face.

However, the postmortem examination failed to find any cat hairs or fur in either the nose or mouth of the victim. So the doctor concludes Julia had simply died from a second stroke, which was to be expected, before the cat had entered her room and the jury entered a verdict of death by misadventure. An open-and-shut case, but, as Seal becomes involved with the Jacques family, he observes the ugly aftermath of Julia's death. An aftermath that turns out to be a prelude for a second, unmistakable murder.

Raoul Jacques is the only child of Antoine and Julia, an 18-year-old Lothario, who's furious when he learns that his mother has left all of her money to the church and holds Father Xavier personally responsible – accusing him of having taken advantage of his position to worm his way into her will. Raoul is egged on and encouraged by his depraved aunt, Miss Hattie Brown, who believes in "wickedness for its own sake." Father Xavier suffers a lot of slings and arrows at the hands of these two devils. The relationship between aunt and nephew, especially after the death of Julia, becomes a bit creepy at times.

Then there are the people who live in the house or are, in some way, connected to the people who live there. Such as Miss Brown's secretive secretary, Prudence Whitaker, who develops an unusual relationship with a vagrant beachcomber, Boris Borodin. Lastly, you have the bailiff of the estate, John Foley, along with his gossipy wife, Evelyn.

One of these characters is fatally knifed in a usually unoccupied bathing-hut and is found, partially undressed, on a shabby, chintz-covered bunk-bed, which is very suggestive and the answer to this aspect of the plot was definitely very daring for the time – resulting in a sequence of events that would probably have shocked some readers at the time. This murder and its use of sex is what made Norris label the book as "one of the earliest transgressive detective novels." However, I remember a mystery novel from the 1930s that was as risque as this one and believe it was John Dickson Carr's The Four False Weapons (1937), but it might have just as easily been yet another novel from the thirties.

Seal is asked by the family to use his talent as a professional plotter to assist the local police in their investigation and the police on the island is represented in the figure of Brigadier Napoleon Orage, a black policeman, who must be a nod towards Arthur W. Upfield's half-aboriginal policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte. I refuse to believe that the given name of the Brigadier is a mere coincidence. Anyway...

Seal plays his role as amateur detective to perfection and, towards the end, gathers all of the suspects in a room where, one by one, he begins to eliminate them before revealing the true identity of the murderer. I think this gradual process of elimination by showing why most of the suspects couldn't have committed the murders is a very satisfying way of lifting the veil. Particularly when the author has conceived a cunning plot with a cleverly positioned clues and misdirection, which was definitely the case here. All of the clues were present and the plot was very clever. The death of Julia Jacques turned out to be a canny, medical-based murder on par with the central murder from Brand's Green for Danger (1944) and part of the murderer's scheme reflected a certain the plot-element from Roscoe's Murder on the Way! So my (instinctive) comparison with Brand and Roscoe was right on the money.

This is the House is a first-class detective novel with a bodacious plot and written in the best tradition of the (alternative) Crime Queens, which comes especially recommended to mystery readers who're enamored with the work of Christianna Brand. You can bet this title is going to appear on my best-of list of 2018 and I'll try to return to Smith before this year draws to a close.

8/6/18

The House of Death (2001) by Paul Doherty

Back in 2016, I reviewed Paul Doherty's splendid A Murder in Thebes (1998), originally published as by "Anna Apostolou," which is one of only two titles in a short-lived series that began with A Murder in Macedon (1997) and are set during the rise of Alexander the Great, but Doherty rebooted the series in the early 2000s – penning three additional titles that are collectively known as the Telamon Triology. I'll be looking at these three historical mysteries this month.

There is, however, one difference this time around: I'm not going to read The House of Death (2001), The Godless Man (2002) and The Gates of Hell (2003) back-to-back, but spread them out all over August. My reason for this is that the first entry in this reboot showed that this series probably doesn't lend itself to binge reading. So I'll be interspersing my reading of the Telamon Triology with some mystery novels that have recently been added to the big pile.

This triology (sort of) continues where the previous, two-part series ended and the events from those earlier novels play a not insignificant role in the shadows of The House of Death.

Only difference between the two series is that the detective-characters from the first two novels, Miriam and Simeon Bartimaeus, were replaced by a physician, Telamon, who is a childhood friend of Alexander and they spend their early days together in the Groves of Mieza – where they were both tutored by no less a figure than the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Telamon is a completely fictional characters, but one who was modeled on an actual historical figure, Philip the Doctor, who's associated with Alexander.

The House of Death takes place in the Spring of 334 BC and Alexander the Great has amassed his troops at Sestos, poised to cross the Hellespont, which is the crossroads between Greece and Asia, where he plans to take the sprawling Persian Empire of the King of Kings, Darius III. And march "to the edge of the world" to "win the vindication of the gods."

However, Darius III and Lord Mithra are already plotting the downfall of the Macedonian upstart. General Memnon of Rhodes, a Greek renegade, has been attracted by the Persians to fight Alexander III of Macedon, because they reasoned that "it takes a wolf to fight a wolf," but the Persians also have dangerous spy in the Macedonian camp, "Naiphat" – who's murdering people left and right! Particularly those who are important to Alexander when it comes to entering Asia.

One of Alexander's scout is found at the foot of a cliff with a winged dagger, of Celtic origin, sticking out of his body and a scrap of paper tightly clutched in his dead hand, which had a quote from the Delphic Oracle scrawled on it. Alexander's father had been assassinated with a Celtic dagger and, in combination with the Delphic Oracle, the murderer is obviously aiming at provoking memories, stirring guilt and playing upon Alexander's superstition. An attempt strengthened when two of the murders appear to have been of the impossible variety. 
 
A young handmaid, a Thessalian, who had been send across the Hellespont by her people to go to the city of Troy, in order to appease the goddess Athena, has apparently lost her wits and is brought to Alexander for questioning, but all he can do is hand her over to his friend, Telamon – who treats her with a sleeping drought that will allow her mind and body to rest. And chase out the phantoms. They leave her "in a closely guarded tent" with "its leather sheets lashed tightly together," only a ghost could get through that, but the unknown murderer manages to poison the maiden. This miracle repeated later in the story when Critias, the map-maker, has his throat cut in his tent, which was also guarded and tightly lashed together.

These sealed tent murders have fairly simple explanations and the throat-cutting barely qualifies as an impossible crime, but, simple as it may be, I liked the poisoning-trick. Simple, but workable. Sadly, you can guess where and when the trickery was done, because the identity of the murderer is pretty obvious.

I think the simplistic detective-elements are the only weakness of The House of Death. Doherty rebooted this series and therefore not only had to retell Alexander's story, but also had reintroduce a new series-character, Telamon, who had his own back-story that needed to be told. A second back-story is that of a secondary-character, named Cassandra, who Telamon rescued from the slave pens and took her on as his medical assistance. And then there's the impending battle between Alexander's forces and Memnon's mercenaries.

The House of Death is more of a historical thriller with an origin story at its heart than a proper detective story, but Doherty knows how to spin a yarn around historical events and the result is an engrossing historical novel. So now that the introductions are out of the way, I have good hopes for the last two titles in this series and have read some good things about the second title. I'll get around that one after my next read.

So, yes, this one definitely comes recommended, but only to readers who're already more than familiar with Doherty's work. Readers who are new to him might want to look somewhere else first.

On a final, semi-related note: I seriously suspect A Murder in Thebes and The House of Death might have been (partially) inspired by John Dickson Carr grossly underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955). I think we can safely assume that Doherty is more than aware of Carr's historical (locked room) mysteries and Captain Cut-Throat would probably appeal to him the most, because the plot resembles so many of his own historical detective stories (i.e. an enigmatic murderer going around killing soldiers). So I can easily imagine he wanted to give his own spin to the bare bones premise of Captain Cut-Throat.

8/2/18

Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) by Rex Stout

Last month, I reviewed three war-themed novels by Christopher Bush, The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1941) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942), which together form a home front trilogy that put Ludovic Travers back in uniform and solved three murder cases within the ranks of the military – praised by Curt Evans as "the most notable series of wartime detective fiction" published during the Second World War. This trilogy reminded me of two excellent, but often overlooked, novellas by Rex Stout with a similar war-theme and plots. So I decided to revisit them to see if they stood up to re-reading. They absolutely did.

Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) collects these two novellas, entitled "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Booby Trap," which were originally published in The American Magazine.

These two novellas represent, in my opinion, the best the series has to offer, because not only are they very well-written, fast-paced and tightly plotted detective stories, but the societal upheaval of the war provided Stout with an opportunity to deviate from series' formula – allowing him to cast his series-characters in a different light. I think this brought out the best in both Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

An abridged version of "Not Quite Dead Enough" was first published in the December, 1942, issue of The American Magazine and begins with a meeting between Major Archie Goodwin and "the top mackaroo of United States Army Intelligence." They need Nero Wolfe "to work on a certain matter of great importance," but he flatly refused. So they want Goodwin to go and see him, because he's the only one who knows how to handle him. However, when Goodwin returns to that famous brownstone on West 35th Street, after being away for two months, he gets "the worst shock" of his live.

The dusty desks and stacks of unopened mail in the office made him fear that either Wolfe or Fritz had died, but when he entered the kitchen he became convinced that they were both dead. Pots and pans were dusty and had not been used for weeks, if not months. Goodwin only found a dish or oranges and cartons of prunes in the cupboard, while the refrigerator only held lettuce, tomatoes and a dish of applesauce, but when he went up to the roof-top greenhouse he finally finds one of the residents of the brownstone, Theodore Horstmann – an orchid-nurse who looks after Wolfe's prize collection. Goodwin learns from Horstmann that Wolfe and Fritz placed themselves on a rigorous training schedule, because they intend to enlist and fight in Europe. Just like Wolfe did in the First World War ("I didn't kill enough [Germans] in 1918").

So getting Wolfe back into the game, this time with the U.S. army as a client, is easier said than done. Luckily, Goodwin bumped into a familiar face on his way back to the brownstone.

Lily Rowan has a friend, Anne Amory, who's desperately needs sound advice. She had found out something about somebody and wanted to know what to do about it, but she refused to give any details. Amory lives in an apartment building with a "goofy assortment of specimens" and a roof-top pigeon coop, which plays a part in the murder committed there shortly after Goodwin gets involved. And he uses this murder in an ingenious, if risky, way to ensnare Wolfe.

However, this novella is not just about Goodwin luring Wolfe back into the game to start working for the army intelligence, but the plot surrounding the murder is arguably one of Stout's best. Stout is not a mystery writer known for his ingeniously constructed, maze-like plots that brim with clues. Dialogue and characters were his forte, but the plot here is as clever and devious as the best short stories or novellas by such American mystery writers as Ellery Queen and Edward D. Hoch with a cast-iron alibi and a shrewd piece of misdirection – which I have only seen once before in an impossible crime story. Combine this cunning plot with the wartime backdrop and the unusual circumstances of the series-characters, you have one of the richest and most rewarding stories in the entire Wolfe corpus. I can't recommend this story enough.

The second and last novella in this collection, "Booby Trap," made its first appearance in the August, 1944, issue of The American Magazine and is a direct sequel of "Not Quite Dead Enough."
 
Armed Services Edition

In the previous story, it was mentioned that the army wanted Wolfe to work on a matter of great importance and here it is revealed that the matter concerns the secrets entrusted to army of various industrial processes – a trust which is, according to an anonymous whistle-blower, "criminally abused." Some of these industrial secrets, without patent or copyright protection, are being betrayed to those "who intend to engage in post-war competition of industries involved." A dirty, underhanded business that could rob tens of millions of dollars from their rightful owners.

The anonymous letter writer also hinted that there might be more behind the accidental fall of Captain Albert Cross, of Military Intelligence, from the twelfth floor of the Boscombe Hotel in New York. A second death occurs shortly after the Wolfe meets with the military brass and this death is most definitely a murder: Colonel Ryder is blown to pieces in his office by "a new kind of grenade." Not only new in construction, but in its content. It is, however, never explained why these grenades were painted pink. I suppose this has something to do with them being test samples or something. Anyway...

Plot-wise, "Booby Trap" is not as intricately plotted or involved as "Not Quite Dead Enough," but the tense and brutal ending makes more than up for that.

I have seen Wolfe disposing of murderers before (e.g. Black Orchids, 1942) and would later do so again (e.g. In the Best Families, 1950), but never as brutal or remorseless as here. Wolfe psychically breaks the cowardly murderer and then forces this person to commit suicide with a pink grenade, which makes him comparable to H.C. Bailey's Reggie Fortune and Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley – who both played avenging angels in their respective series. The disposal of the murderer is justified here by the fact that the truth, if it came to light, would seriously harm the war effort. I guess all is fair in love and war.

Not Quite Dead Enough gathered two excellent novellas with one of them being a gemstone of the Wolfe corpus and the other ending the collection on a dark, but unforgettable, note.

I noted at the beginning of this post that these novellas are often overlooked, or even ignored, when it comes to lists of World War II mysteries. A list traditionally dominated by British mystery writers. I suppose this has to do with American detective novels from this period having the war play out in the distant background or have their plots diluted by spy material. However, this is not the case with these two closely-linked novellas and can stand with the best British wartime mysteries, which includes Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940), Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1944) and Christopher Bush's wartime trilogy. Unreservedly recommended!

7/30/18

The Straw Men (2013) by Paul Doherty

The Straw Men (2013) is the twelfth title in Paul Doherty's "the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan," a series of historical mysteries that originally appeared under the name of "Paul Harding," which emerged from a decade-long dormancy with Bloodstone (2011) and a red-thread runs through these novels – culminating in The Great Revolt (2016) of 1381. Normally, I tend to skip through these series without paying too much heed to chronology, but the Great Uprising brewing in the background made me decide to read these later novels in the correct order. You have to respect history.

The Straw Men takes place in January, 1381 and begins when Sir John Cranston, Lord Coroner of London, is waiting with a comitatus of mounted men-at-arms in "the bleak-white wilderness" of winter. Cranston has been tasked with escorting the Flemish allies of the self-styled Regent of England, John of Gaunt, to the Tower of London, but the Flemish have brought a prisoner with them. A hooded woman on horseback with a masked face. As to be expected, this retinue with escort is ambushed by the Upright Men, members of the Great Community of the Realm, who plot "to root up the past" and "build a New Jerusalem by the Thames" – only to fail in their objective. And this is not the only setback the Upright Men suffered.

Brother Athelstan is the parish priest of St. Erconwald's in Southwark, secretarius to Sir John Cranston and is the Father Brown of the 14th century.

Several days after the attack, Cranston fetches Athelstan and asks him to accompany him to a tavern near the Tower of London, called Roundhoop, where he has trapped some of the Upright Men, but they've taken hostages and threaten to fight to the death – unless they can speak with the Dominican friar. Probably to negotiate a safe passage out by river. However, the situation dissolves into a bloodbath and Athelstan can only listen to the dying words of their masked leader ("tell my beloved to continue gleaning"). These last words were not meant as a dying message, but it became one by the end of the story. I thought that was an interesting use of the dying message that I had not seen before.

So the opening of The Straw Men is packed with battles and bloodshed, but all of this was only the prologue. After these events, a murderer begins to stir within the bulwarks of the Tower. The result of this is a handful of seemingly impossible murders!

The first of these miraculous crimes occurs when John of Gaunt is entertaining his guests with his personal troupe of stage actors, known as the Straw Men, when two arrows, out of nowhere, cut down two of the guests as two heads inexplicably appear on stage. However, the unseen loosening of these arrows and planting the severed heads on stage turned out to be more of a quasi-impossibility. But the next impossible murder is a genuine locked room mystery.

One of the Straw Men, Eli, is murdered in a tower room by a crossbow bolt to the face, but the door was "locked and bolted" from the inside, while the eyelet in the door was immovably stuck in place by old-age and the window was tightly shuttered – both from within and without. The solution to this locked room conundrum is not bad at all. It's as simple as it's elegant and deftly combines technical trickery with human psychology to create the illusion of an impossible murder. Even more importantly, it was fairly original in its execution.

There are two more locked room slayings in the second half of the story and they were cleverly linked together: two men are found dead in their respective tower rooms, one room is situated directly above the other, in which one man appeared to have hanged himself and in the room below someone was stabbed to death. The two-pronged solution to these two locked room murders aren't terribly original or have the same level of synergy as The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room from Detective Conan, but liked them nonetheless. They were a nice little extra.

This is still only a fraction of the entire plot. Athelstan and Cranston have to contend with spies, conspirators, political secrets and a litany of gruesome murders. A hangman is brutally slaughtered and an entire family, except for a baby, is wiped out. So you can forgive an overworked Athelstan that only caught sight of the murder long after the reader has identified this person.

Everyone who pays a modicum of attention and has a passing acquaintance with Doherty's detective fiction can spot the murderer long before the end, which is my sole problem with this otherwise solid entry in the series. The Straw Men is a fast-moving, intricately plotted historical detective novel packed with impossible crime that fascinatingly inches closer to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 – only slightly marred by the obvious murderer. I find it fascinating how Doherty is slowly, but surely, shepherding this series towards the Great Revolt and plan on returning to Athelstan sooner rather than later.

7/27/18

The Other Bullet (1930) by Nancy Barr Mavity

Nancy Barr Mavity was an American biographer, reviewer and journalist, who wrote for such publications as The San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and Sunset Magazine, but between 1929 and 1933 she produced six detective novels about her series-character, Peter Piper – an ace reporter for the Herald. A final, non-series, mystery appeared in 1937.

I was recently reminded that one of her detective novels, The Other Bullet (1930), was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) and the book happened to be on my shelves. I left it there to collect dust after my disappointing 2012 read of Mavity's The Case of the Silver Sandals (1930), but that was nearly six years ago and the time had come to give her work a second look. However, Adey had incorrectly labeled this book as an impossible crime story. So the string of non-impossible crime reviews continues for now.

The Other Bullet is set in the Californian village of Hangtown in the Sierra foothills where Peter and Barbara Piper are spending their holiday panning an exhausted stream for its last crumbs of gold, but a "tragedy that had crushed in upon them" put a halt to their holiday fun – beginning when an out-of-breath housekeeper, Mrs. Coak, announces that a man had been shot at the ranch-house office. Don Mortison had been hired by Max Everett, a construction engineer, to manage the ranch when he's away to work on an irrigation dam project. This meant he was away from home most of the time and left his urban wife, Aline, behind in Hangtown like an Englishman in the jungle.

So, naturally, Aline felt attracted to the well-read, equally out-of-place ranch-hand and they got involved with one another, but a witness claims he saw Aline shooting her loves. She does not even deny that she killed Mortison. However, Aline claims she only shot Mortison once. Not twice.

On a side-note, the aspect that earned The Other Bullet its spot in Adey's Locked Room Murders is the early onset of rigor mortis shortly after Mortison was shot. So I expected trickery where the time of death was concerned or perhaps even something along the lines of the rapidly-decaying body from Hake Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman (1942), but the problem of early rigor mortis turned out to have simple, natural explanation – which came to light during the postmortem examination. I've no idea why Adey included it in Locked Room Murders.

Anyway, there are a number of potential suspects and one of them was criminally underused. Hermann Schnitzler is a retired farmer from Pennsylvania and he's convinced that Mortison had hexed him, preventing his crops from growing, which is a superstition that was once rife in Pennsylvania and was used in Alexander William's The Hex Murder (1935).

Aline Everett is put on trial for Mortison's murder and the courtroom scenes constitute the best parts of the story. One scene in particular was very memorable. As an outsider, Aline was not very popular with the people of Hangtown and she came to court dressed like "an advertisement out of Vanity Fair" flourishing a "cigarette-holder at the jury the minute court adjourned" – an action that was akin to "a red rag to a bull." So her own lawyer felt compelled to wrench the cigarette-holder from her hand and "grind it under his heel on the courtroom floor." A great scene! Sadly, the story went rapidly down hill after Aline was acquitted of murdering Mortison.

The first half is undoubtedly the best part of the book, but there were also hints in this portion that the plotting was as shoddy as the police work.

Mortison had two bullet-holes in him: a fatal shot in his neck and a bullet in his lung, which was fired after he had already been shot and killed. This should have come to light during the postmortem examination and should have prevented Aline from going to trial. This was shoddy plotting, to say the least.

The Other Bullet is best described as a tale of two bullets with the victim as the only link between the two stories. So, once the trial is over, Piper tries to figure out who really shot Mortison and follows a trail of clues that includes a mutilated photograph, a signet ring and an 11-year-old murder case. The plot of the second story struck me as an imitation of some of the Sherlock Holmes novels (e.g. The Sign of Four, 1890), but an imitation that was as pale and poorly done as Joseph Bowen's The Man Without a Head (1933) – only difference between the two is that Mavity was better writer than Bowen. You should not expect too much from the eventual solution, which was hardly fair and the only surprise is that neither of shooters turned out to be legally murderers.

My impression is that Mavity constantly wanted two different things at the same time, but failed to deliver on any of them. The story of the first bullet had potential, but ended with a disappointing, anti-climatic acquittal and the second bullet-story simply harked back to the works of Conan Doyle. I think this part was not half as interesting as the first leg of the story. Another example is the forensic aspect of the plot. Mavity made a point of ballistics and the early onset of rigor mortis, but completely ignored that an autopsy would have revealed that Aline's bullet was not the fatal one.

If you look to whom Mavity dedicated the book (Edward Oscar Heinrich, scientific crime analysis), I suspect she willfully ignored the postmortem gunshot wound, because she wanted to write those courtroom scenes.

So, as said, my impression of The Other Bullet is that Mavity wanted to have her cake and eat it to. Unfortunately, this resulted in a mess of a detective story that began promising, but ended up frustrating and annoying me to no end. I can't really recommend this book to anyone. I'll probably abandon this series altogether unless someone can give me a recommendation with an iron-clad guarantee that the plot can pass the muster.

Well, I try to dig up something good for my next post to make up for this. Probably a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery. So stay tuned!