12/6/19

They Walk in Darkness (1947) by Gerald Verner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12/4/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12/2/19

Portrait of a Murderer (1933) by Anne Meredith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11/29/19

Noose for a Lady (1952) by Gerald Verner

Back in June, I looked at the second detective novel from the short-lived Simon Gale series, entitled Sorcerer's House (1956), which Gerald Verner unmistakably intended as an homage to one of John Dickson Carr's most celebrated mystery novels, He Who Whispers (1946) – without becoming too derivative or having to lean on a locked room gimmick. Surprisingly, the book actually succeeded in being an obvious tribute that told its own story and that piqued my curiosity about the first title in the series. A mystery novel that has consistently been compared to the work of Agatha Christie.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, left a comment on my review of Sorcerer's House saying Noose for a Lady (1952) is "very much like a Christie novel" just as Sorcerer's House is "like Carr." I agree. Personally, the book reminded me of Christie's Sad Cypress (1940) and Ordeal by Innocence (1958) with a hint of Cards on the Table (1936).

Noose for a Lady opens with the conclusion of the trial of Margaret Hallam, who has been found guilty of the murder, by poison, of her husband, John Hallam.

John Hallam died at his home, Easton Knoll, from "an overdose of barbitone" administered in a glass of hot whiskey and milk. A mixture prepared by Mrs. Hallam. There were only two set of fingerprints found on the glass, which belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Hallam, but, even more damning, is that she had been taking a preparation of barbitone for insomnia and kept her supply in a locked drawer in her bedroom – she kept the key in her purse. Two days before the murder, Mrs. Hallam had bought a new bottle containing "containing twenty-five five-grain tablets," but the police only found three tablets in the bottle. Mrs. Hallam was unable to account for the missing tablets.

So the jury returns with a unanimous guilty verdict and the judge, who gets the square of black silk draped over his wig, announces that Mrs. Hallam will be "taken from this place to a lawful prison" and "thence to a place of execution" where she'll be "hanged by the neck until you are dead." Mrs. Hallam continues to proclaim her innocence, but the only person who believes her is her stepdaughter, Jill Hallam.

Jill Hallam last hope is enlisting a childhood friend of her stepmother, Simon Gale, who recently returned from Italy and has read "one of the scurrilous rags" for the past eight months. So, when he learns her execution is scheduled to place within a week, Gale thunders "do you mean these blundering, incompetent numskulls are going to hang her?" and is determined to reverse the verdict before that seven day time-limit. But his approach and even personality noticeably differed from his second appearance.

Sorcerer's House was written as a homage to Carr and called Gale in my review a store-brand Dr. Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale, because he constantly smoked vile, acrid smelling cigarettes rolled from black tobacco and booms odd, classically inspired phrases – such as "by the golden apples of Hesperides" and "by the cloven hoofs of Pan." These Carr-like personality traits were entirely absent here. Gale still has a loud, boorish personality, but now he stands much closer to either Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple than to Dr. Fell or H.M. A detective who hunts for psychological clues in the personalities of the suspects.

Gale is a professional portrait painter and admitted he knew nothing about "as cigar ash, fingerprints, alibis, and tangible clues of that kind," but knew Mrs. Hallam didn't poison her husband because it was "psychologically wrong." Mrs. Hallam has an infernal temper and she would have used a poker or bread-knife, but not poisoning his nightcap with a dose of sleeping pills. So he descends on the village of Wickham Green to find out who, of its inhabitants, fits the psychological profile of "one of the most dangerous types of murderer," the sly poisoner.

This proves to be somewhat of a Herculean task. Not only have they less than a week to find this unknown murderer, but the victim, John Hallam, is revealed as "a mental sadist." Someone who liked to find out people's dirty secrets and torture them, privately, with the threat of exposure and there were quite a few people in the village who were caught in his torturous web. There's a malicious village gossip, Mrs. Ginch, who poses as a pious church lady. A collector of some exquisite pieces of china, Robert Upcott, whose spirit was broken when his wife ran away with another man. An ex-military man, Major Fergusson, who has seen things in the war that keeps him awake at night. A tartar of a woman, Mrs. Langdon-Humphreys, who's always accompanied by her niece, Vanessa Lane. Lastly, there the typical country physician, Doctor Evershed, who's the only one in the village that has threatened Mrs. Ginch with lawsuit for the lies she told behind his back.

Noose for a Lady largely comprises of ferreting the long-held secrets from this closed-circle of suspects, but they're incredibly reticent and Gale compared his task to turning on "a bright light in an old, damp cellar" as "all kinds of nasty, crawling things go scuttling away to their holes" – in order "to get out of the glare." All the while, the clock is rapidly ticking away the days that Mrs. Hallam has left to live.

So I can understand why the story has been described as an Agatha Christie-style novel and Verner took many of his cues directly from some of her detective stories. I already mentioned Sad Cypress and Cards of the Table, but one piece of psychological clueing tore a page directly from Christie's widely praised masterpiece, Death on the Nile (1937). However, the ending betrayed the fact that Verner was not quite in the same league as Christie.

John Norris wrote in his blog-post, entitled "Neglected Detectives – Simon Gale," that "the ending is histrionic in the extreme" with too much "explained away as madness" and made "the entire story seem prosperous." Santosh Iyer was a lot nicer, but his one complaint was "the unnecessary melodrama at the end." I mostly agree with them, but the reason why melodramatic ending didn't work, in my opinion anyway, is the vulgar motive to get rid of John and Margeret Hallam. A more personal and emotional motivation would have made the ending more acceptable. An incident was mentioned that could have been turned into a motive that, psychologically, fitted the murderer.

So, in spite of the slightly botched ending, Noose for a Lady is a well-done, much appreciated attempt at a classic, cleverly-done whodunit, a la Christie, which made for an exciting and intriguing detective story, but Christie would have handled the surprise ending so much better. Just compare Noose for a Lady to Peril at End House (1932) and Lord Edgware Dies (1933), you can't help but to appreciate her lesser-celebrated novels all over again. However, it isn't really fair to compare Verner to Christie and, by his own standards, Noose for a Lady is as good a second-string mystery as Sorcerer's House. Purely recommended for readers who either want to read something like Christie or readers who love obscure detective stories.

A note for the curious: Noose for a Lady began as a radio-play and was adapted in 1953 for the movies. You can watch the trailer here.

11/26/19

The Orange Axe (1931) by Brian Flynn

When you're a wholesale consumer of detective fiction, like yours truly, you inevitably come to appreciate originality and, as Steve Barge stated in his introduction to The Orange Axe (1931), Brian Flynn made "an effort to do something original with each of his books" – which should explain why I've been enjoying his work so much. The Orange Axe has an original premise that allows the story to be told as both an inverted mystery and a fully realized whodunit.

André de Ravenac is an unmerciful blackmailer and likely the Parisian serial killer, known as "Le Loup de Poignard" (The Dagger Wolf), who murdered "nine of its most worthy citizens" with "a dagger through the victim's heart." Unfortunately, the French authorities were too late to apprehend him and he had cleared out of the country before they could get to him. Now he has turned up in England as a high society blackmailer with the wife of a British minister as his latest victim. However, Josephine Pelham counts a number of "certain men of honour" among her inner circle who are more than happy to remove De Ravenac from her life.

Major Daniel Wyatt summoned these men to a private-room of a restaurant, in Soho, where he unfolds a plan to them to commit the perfect murder.

This group comprises of Lady Pelham's brothers, Dick and Robin Blaker, their cousins, Gerald and Nick Twining, and journalistic friend of Major Wyatt, Martin Pierpoint – who are told about De Ravenac's bloody past in France. So they all agree that he has to be removed, but, as one of them ask, is "a beetle worth hanging for?" The answer is clearly no, but Major Wyatt has plan that should prevent them from meeting the hangman.

Sir Beverley Pelham is the newly appointed British Minister at Santa Guardina, the capital of the fictitious Republic of San Jonquilo, in South America. A bal masque is scheduled to take place at the Pelham house in honor of San Jonquilo's President, Sebastian Loredana. De Ravenac has secured an invitation to the carnival ball.

So the plan is to, anonymously, assign everyone a random role to play in the murder by drawing lots. The person who draws "the slip of paper that means 'direct' action" may be any one of them and only one "will ever do more than suspect who it actually is." A very original premise, especially for the time, which appeared to have gone off without a hitch when De Ravenac's body is found, lying across the threshold of the refreshment-room, with a long, ivory-handled knife in his chest and clutching a torn piece of black and orange silk – which are the national colors of the Republic of San Jonquilo. This murder brings an honored guest at the ball to the scene, Sir Austin Kemble of Scotland Yard, but President Loredana, angered by the murder, tells him to call upon the "finest English detective" he knows. And that brings Anthony Bathurst into the case.

Obviously, the readers knows a little more than Anthony Bathurst, but this is hardly any help as another original bit turns up in his investigation: two "absolutely different sets of clues." Not a set of false and true clues, but two sets of "thoroughly authentic and genuine" clues. Such as strange discovery they made in the bowl of claret cup and the inexplicable fact that Señor Miguel Da Costa, the Chancellor of San Jonquilo, was apparently in two different places at the same time. These complications, in combination with the masked ball, gives Flynn an opportunity to indulge in his beloved Doylean disguises and false-identities. Something he was hesitant to fully utilize was the impossible crime element.

There were locked room and seemingly impossible murders in The Case of the Black Twenty Two (1928), Invisible Death (1929) and Murder en Route (1930), which were clearly defined as impossibilities, but the murderer in The Orange Axe apparently managed to escape from a place a rat couldn't get out of without being seen. So, technically, this would qualify as a locked room mystery, but, the semi-inverted nature of the plot, made me decide against labeling this review as such and that's a shame – because the answer to this impossibility helps Bathurst demolish a number of alibis. However, this is just nit-picking on the part of a chronic sufferer of miraculitis and the main tricks of the plot are the two sets of clues and the breaking down of alibis. Not just the previously mentioned cast-iron alibis, but also "an absolutely perfect alibi" the murderer concocted.

If there's anything to honestly complain about The Orange Axe, it's that the semi-inverted approach allowed to reader to catch on what really was happening way too early. The clues become less mystifying and the murderer is not the surprise it could have been. That being said, Flynn did his damnedest to mislead the reader until the last possible moment, which actually made me second guess myself. Something I can always appreciate in a mystery writer.

Flynn was evidently experimenting with the possibilities the detective story has to offer in these first ten novels and The Orange Axe is a good example of this. The story and plot are not entirely flawless, but has good story-telling with a complex and innovative plot that coherently sticks together. Add to this a galore of fabricated alibis and you have a detective novel that comes particularly recommended to fans of (early) Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts.

Well, I only have three more reprints, from Dean Street Press, left to go, The Five Red Fingers (1929), The Creeping Jenny Mystery (1930) and The Triple Bite (1931), which makes me really hope there will be more next year, because I want to see where Flynn goes from here. So I'll try to save at least two of them for early next year.

11/23/19

The Rat-a-Tat Mystery (1956) by Enid Blyton

Enid Blyton's The Rat-a-Tat Mystery (1956) is the fifth of six novels in The Barney "R" Mystery series, the only series she wrote for children over the age of eleven, which follows the exploits of "a down-at-heel circus-boy," Barney – whose sole companion used to be his pet monkey, Miranda. A rather lonely existence that ended when he befriended two siblings, Roger and Diana Lynton, along with their mischievous, trouble-making cousin, "Snubby," in The Rockingdown Mystery (1949).

So now they're spending their holidays together and these sleepovers generally result in the Lynton home resembling a disaster-stricken area.

The Rat-a-Tat Mystery opens with Mr. Lynton putting down his newspaper, as a crash came from upstairs, asking his wife "how long do these Christmas holidays last." Christmas had been "a mad and merry time" in the house with a drizzling rain keeping the children indoors and Snubby's always enthusiastic black cocker spaniel, Looney, sweeping through the place "like a hurricane" – slowly driving Mr. Lynton to his limits. Luckily, an unexpected telephone call from Barney invited Roger, Diana and Snubby to come and stay with him for the remainder of their holiday at a big lakeside house that his grandmother owns. Apparently, Barney found his long-lost family in The Rubadub Mystery (1952).

Rat-a-Tat House is an old, remote place with turrets, towers and tucked-in windows, where "Oliver Cromwell once stayed" and "a celebrated Spaniard" was imprisoned, which lays at a now frozen lake. The house also has a ghost story to tell.

Originally, the place was named after the lake and village, Boffame House, but 250 years ago, someone began hammering on the front-door with "the enormous lion's head knocker." When the footman hurried to answer the door, nobody was standing there. This phantom knocker went on for a hundred-and-fifty years and people believed it was a warning that there was "a traitor in the house," but it has been over a hundred years since the ghost "hammered at the door" with the lion-headed knocker. So why would it start it now, right?

Well, the first few days at Rat-a-Tat House were pure bliss with them playing card games, ice skating, snowball fights, tobogganing and building a huge snowman, but the silence of the second night is broken by a strange, eerie knocking sound ("RAT-A-TAT-TAT! RAT-A-TAT-TAT!") – someone was hammering on the front-door with the knocker. When they go investigate the following morning, they discover a singe track of heavy boot prints going to the bottom of the front-door steps. There were, however, "no footmarks showing that he walked away again." Whoever this person was, he could not have entered the house through the front-door, because it was securely locked on the inside with two great bolts, top and bottom, two locks that were stiff to turn and "a heavy chain." So how did this person manage to vanish into thin air? And this is not the only impossible situation of the story.

Mrs. Tickle is the sister of Barney's grandmother's cook and the adult supervision at Rat-a-Tat House. She witnessed how the big snowman the children had made, which has now disappeared, shuffled pass the kitchen window and had looked inside! Add to this that the snowfall has cut them off from the outside world and the presence of two of unsavory characters with an interest in the cellar, they once again find themselves up to their necks in trouble. Sadly, this charming and intriguing premise is as good as The Rat-a-Tat Mystery is going to get.

I've praised Blyton's superb handling of the clues and red herrings in The Mystery of the Invisible Thief (1950) and the warm, lively characterization and sparkling humor of The Rilloby Fair Mystery (1950), which also had a clever innovation on an age-old locked room-trick, but none of those qualities were present here – as the plot is largely uninspired and razor-thin. The solution to the single track of prints in the snow is another oldie, but this time without a touch of originality and the answer to the peeping snowman was disappointingly simple. And those two shadowy villains lurking around the house? They only briefly appeared, but mostly remain in the background and the conclusion to these main plot-threads, which tied everything together, was concluded off-page.

The Rat-a-Tat Mystery still has some wintry charm and a lingering Christmas spirit, but lacked the lively, sparkling humor and characterization of The Rilloby Fair Mystery. It didn't exactly helped that the plot was uninspired and starved of even an ounce of ingenuity. So you can say this was a bit of a letdown.

However, I don't want to end this review on a sour note and so decided to give you my own two alternative solutions to the two impossible situations from this story. If only to prove why I'm everyone's favorite locked room fanboy (right, guys?).

Firstly, we have the puzzle of the single track of boot prints in the snow, but my answer depends on a third, mini-locked room puzzle: how where the villains able to enter the kitchen when Mrs. Tickle had locked and bolted the kitchen-door? The answer to this little side-puzzle is quickly found and I would have used as both a clue and as the key to the ghostly knocking on the front-door. In my scenario, one of the villains would enter the house through the kitchen and unlocked the front-door, while the other walked towards it, knocked and entered – locking the door behind them and vanishing from the house with their kitchen-door trick. This would make it appear as if the knocker had impossibly vanished from the front-steps. You only have to come up with an explanation as to how they got their hands on a (duplicate) key to (un)lock the front-door.

My alternative solution to the wandering snowman may seem obvious, but there were certain items present in the story offering a way to make the situation appear to be truly impossible.

I would have tightly wrapped a piece of tarpaulin, taken from the boathouse, around one of the toboggans and remade the snowman on top of it, because one snowman looks very much like the other – especially if you dress him up with the ornaments from the original snowman. And then you drag it across the kitchen window. Why wrapped the toboggan in tarpaulin, you ask? The tarpaulin helps make the track-marks of the toboggan look (slightly) different from the track marks the children made with the unwrapped toboggans. More importantly, it would give the impression that the snowman had actually come alive and had dragged himself through the snow.

So what do you think of my two alternative solutions? Would you accept them as solutions to these, admittedly, originally posed impossible problems?

Anyway, The Rat-a-Tat Mystery was a huge disappointment after being pleasantly surprised by the unexpectedly good The Mystery of the Invisible Thief and The Rilloby Fair Mystery, which I didn't expect from Blyton, but if you're looking for a harmless, wintry mystery with a little charm, you can easily throw this one on your holiday reading-list. Other than that, I can't really recommend it.