10/17/19

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience (2019) by Anne van Doorn

"Anne van Doorn" is the now open penname of a criminally underrated Dutch crime writer, M.P.O. Books, who made his English debut in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine with a short impossible crime story, "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," 2017) – translated by Josh Pachter. Here, in the Netherlands, we got the third novel-length detective story in the Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong series, De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019).

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience is unquestionably the strongest entry in the series with not only a technically-sound plot, two locked room murders and a dying message, but also with the revelation of a sub-plot that has run through the background of the series, like a red-thread, from the start. A revelation that honestly floored me!

Robbie Corbijn's past had been largely shrouded in secrecy from the beginning and his assistant, Lowina de Jong, found some inconsistencies in his background story. Such as his claim that he had been a policeman, but "no one by that name had ever been in the corps." However, these inconsistencies were revealed here as cleverly planted clues that Books' long-time readers, like yours truly, should have been able to put together and figure out Corbijn's identity – especially the name John in combination with a character who appeared in one of the short stories. You should be able to piece this part of the puzzle together before it's dropped into your lap.

Sadly, I'm an imbecile whose brain is encased in a thick skull, of reinforced concrete, where the light of reason can't reach it!  

So, when the identity of Corbijn was casually revealed, all I could do was dumbly gape at the page before seriously wanting to kick myself. When I learned who he really was, I couldn't help but look at Corbijn like Scrooge must have done when he clasped eyes on the ghost of Jacob Marley. Yes, to say I was pleasantly surprised is somewhat of an understatement, but this is only relatively minor part of the plot.

Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research and Discover is a particulier onderzoeksbureau (private detective agency) specialized in unsolved murders, missing persons and cases with a highly unusual character. Such as the problem of the haunted road from "Het meisje dat bleef rondhangen" ("The Girl Who Stuck Around," 2017) and the ghostly manifestations in "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018). There are many cold, but open, cases in their archive and one of these open files comprises of little more than "a thin dossier." A sad, long-forgotten case of a woman who disappeared thirty-five years ago.

Tessa Verwold had a rough time before she came to the Christian commune Caritashoeve, in Hooglanderveen, where "vulnerable and derailed youngsters were placed and guided" in order to help them find a way back into society. A place where Tessa felt appreciated and at home. She began to make friends and even got a respectable boyfriend, but there was an older man who was interested in her, named Wilco Krook, who was convinced God had brought Tessa on his path – only his infatuation may have been the root-cause of her going missing. Wilco barely survived a beating at the hands of the men of the commune and they claimed Tessa had incited them to do it, but she couldn't confirm or deny their accusation, because she packed her bags that night and left. Never to be seen again!

Corbijn once remarked to De Jong that, from all the missing people he's searching for, he felt "the strongest kinship" with Tessa, because nobody has ever really looked for her. The family called her a child with "a black, scorched soul" and were relieved when she simply disappeared, which makes them incredibly reticent to give the case renewed attention. Since the law only allows them to act "on behalf of someone with a stake in the matter," such as a close relative, the file remained open and unsolved.

One day, they receive a letter from a dying man, Zoltán Rákóczi, who's a retired psychologist that had been involved with the Caritashoeve.

Rákóczi confesses he murdered Tessa in 1983 and buried the body on the lawn of the Caritashoeve, behind a colossal stone bench, but an excavation at the spot proved him to be liar and Corbijn loses face in the eyes of the authorities – losing a lot of prestige they had garnered with the police over the years. So why did he made a false deathbed confession or was there a kernel of truth in his story? Corbijn and De Jong finally get their client that allows them to work on the case. However, the family is still mostly uncooperative, the church community has disbanded and the people involved in the beating of Krook, on the night Tessa disappeared, had scattered. This makes reconstructing that fateful night a daunting task indeed!

I don't want to divulge more about the plot than that, but there are three side-puzzles, namely the two locked room mysteries and dying message, that deserve some consideration.

Geert Eijkholt is one of the people who was involved with the tragedy on that night, in 1983, who now lives in an old, dirty caravan on the lot of a closed, badly neglected garden center. De Jong tried to get into contact with him throughout the first half of the story, but, halfway through, she finds his body hanging from a coat hook inside the caravan. An unfinished dying message has been written on the filthy surface of the floor. However, the door and the window were securely locked or fastened on the inside!

The explanation to this impossible crime is a variation on a trick that has been used before in this series, but worked much better with a locked caravan and the meaning behind the cryptic, incomplete dying message surely was interesting – because it was a clue to a different piece of the puzzle. And this obscure message only makes sense if it was meant to be read by someone actually looking for the truth, like Corbijn and De Jong. This was quite a gamble and it probably would have made more sense, if he tried to write the name of his murderer. Still, a properly done, Dutch-language dying message is a genuine rarity and I'm glad one was included in this detective novel.

As they dig deeper into the past, Corbijn and De Jong stumble across another seemingly impossible crime, but I can't give you any exact details about that one. That being said, this locked room puzzle was brilliantly handled with a false solution, a dramatic reconstruction and a satisfying solution with a touch of originality. The principle behind the locked room-trick is not entirely new, but I don't remember any examples of it being used like this! A very practical and effective way to create a locked room mystery. A second thing I appreciated is how the personality and psychological fingerprints were all over these two impossible crimes.

There is, however, one (minor) disappointment. A big plot-point is finding the body and this is not revealed until the final page of the book, which felt tacked on and a bit of a letdown. The description of the Caritashoeve made me hope for something along the lines of Arthur Porges' short story "These Daisies Told" (1962), but this is the only thing about the plot that slightly bothered me. Everything else was excellent. 

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience stands as the best and most memorable entry in the series with a strong ending that tipped its hat to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, which promises an interesting new direction for Corbijn and De Jong. Add to that two splendidly executed impossible crimes, a dying message and a personal revelation of the protagonist that was as surprising as my first AgathaChristie, you have one of my favorite Dutch detective novels. I honestly can't wait to see where the series goes from here. Highly recommended!

10/15/19

The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) by Brian Flynn

They're finally here! Earlier this month, Dean Street Press reissued the first ten novels in the long out-of-print Anthony Bathurst series by an unjustly forgotten mystery writer, Brian Flynn, but I grew tired of waiting and dipped into three novels ahead of the reprints – namely The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927), The Murders Near Mapleton (1929) and The Spiked Lion (1933). I was favorably impressed by all three of them and made me look forward to the rest even more.

So, now that I finally got my hands on a couple of reprints, I wanted to read the novel that put Flynn on his journey back to the printed page.

Some years ago, Steve Barge, who's better known as "The Puzzle Doctor" of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, received a normally hard-to-get copy of Flynn's The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) as a Christmas present. It was love on first sight. Over the next two years, Steve posted many tantalizing reviews on his blog of Flynn's often obscure, long out-of-print detective novels and probably began blackmailing pestering Dean Street Press behind the scenes to get Flynn reprinted – until they finally relented. Steve also introduced these new editions instead of Curt Evans (turf war, turf war, turf war!). So, with the intro out of the way, let's dig in!

The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye is the third entry in the Anthony Bathurst series and shows the same quality of complex, but ultimately simple, plotting that was on display in The Murders Near Mapleton and an obvious admiration for Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

The first three chapters set the stage with the introduction of three, apparently separate, events that become hopelessly intertwined when they begin to interact and disentangling all the plot-threads takes quite some work. The first act takes place at The Westhampton Hunt Ball, "the outstanding event of the season," which has been honored with "the presence of Royalty" and Sheila Delaney dances with a stranger. A stranger who prefers to stay incognito and was introduced to Sheila as Mr. X. In the next chapter, Flynn takes a page from Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" (collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892) when Bathurst is called upon by Alexis, Crown Prince of Clorania, who's engaged to the Princess Imogena of Natalia – a union that will bind Clorania and Natalia in "an irrevocable alliance." Regrettably, His Royal Highness had been indiscreet with a woman and is now being hounded by a blackmailer.

Chief Detective-Inspector Richard Bannister is one of the "Big Six" of Scotland Yard and in the third chapter "Dandy Dick," as he's known to friends, is enjoying a well-deserved holiday, but is disturbed by Sergeant Godfrey from the Seabourne Police Station. A murder has been reported to them and they immediately turned to the famous Scotland Yard detective for help.

A young lady went to the dental surgery of Mr. Ronald Branston, a posh dentist, to get a tooth extracted, but when Branston briefly went into his workroom, he was locked inside. Branston's cries attracted the attention of his housekeeper, but, when he returned to his surgery, he found that the lady was sitting dead in the operating chair. All around her mouth "hung that unmistakable bitter almonds smell." This is merely the premise of a case that becomes hard to comprehend when these three, seemingly unconnected, events begin to interact and found myself grasping at shapes and shadows without getting hold of the full truth. But the beautiful and complex layering of the plot doesn't allow me to divulge much more about the story.

What I can tell you is that Bathurst and Bannister made a great team, wonderfully playing of each other, as they tried to grapple with the problems facing them. Such as why the identity of the victim was obscured, who was the mysterious Indian who called upon the victim a month before the murder and how all of this is tied to the Peacock's Eye – a "magnificent blue-shaded emerald" of "somewhat peculiar shape." There's also a delightful series of chapters in which the detectives track down several banknotes that were stolen from the victim. And these banknotes changed hands quite a few times between suspects and side-characters in the story. Flynn knew how to pen an engrossing detective story!

However, the biggest surprise, besides the solution, came in the final chapters when the action moved from England to "the spider-web city" of the "Land of Water," Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where the chief of the Dutch police, Cuypers, lends a hand in apprehending the killer. Normally, when English detectives cross the channel, they go to France. So this was a very pleasant surprise. It almost felt like going from an English Golden Age mystery to a translation of a Appie Baantjer novel.

So, all in all, Flynn's The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye succeeded marvelously in making an ultimately simple, grubby crime appear like an inescapable, maze-like problem, but with all the clues to the very interesting solution sprinkled throughout the story – making it one of the better detective novels of the 1920s. Obviously, Flynn admired Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, but I unreservedly recommend The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye to devotees of Agatha Christie. The story has the feeling of very early Christie, like The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), but with one of those shimmering plots that defines her 1930s mystery novels.

I'll definitely tackle the other Flynn's on my pile ASAP, but not until early November, because my blogging schedule is filled until then.

10/14/19

Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective: "The Man With Nine Lives" (1914) and "The Bullet from Nowhere" (1914) by Hugh C. Weir

Hugh C. Weir was an American author, magazine editor and screenwriter who started out as a newspaper reporter for the Springfield Sun, in Ohio, when only sixteen-years-old and moved on from there to become a prolific writer of short stories, magazine articles and nearly three-hundred screenplays – together with Catherine McNelis he founded the McNelis-Weir Advertising Agency and Tower Magazines. A very industrious individual, to say the least, but he has been forgotten today and you can only find slight traces of him online.

Weir has an IMDb page listing such nuggets of trivia as his friendship with President Teddy Roosevelt or how personally wrapped "the hundreds of Christmas gifts" he gave out each year. A 2009 post on a now dormant blog mentioned Weir was an avid Charles Dickens collector and apparently had "one of the best and most complete collections of first editions" in the country.

Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective
These scraps offer a glimpse of a pleasant and successful man, but Otto Penzler revealed in the introduction to one of Weir's short stories, collected in The Big Book of Female Detectives (2018), that initial success of Tower Magazines ended abruptly in 1935 when the company went bankrupt – which was preceded by advertisers who claimed they had been "defrauded with inflated circulation numbers." McNelis was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail. You didn't see that twist coming, now did you?

Weir died an early death in 1934, at the age of 49, while still being the editorial director of Tower Magazines and the world had soon forgotten about him. There is, however, one piece of his literary legacy that's slowly coming back to the attention of mystery readers.

During the early 1910s, Weir not only created one of the more originally realized "Rivals of Sherlock Holmes," but also one of the earlier female detectives, Miss Madelyne Mack ("what newspaper reader does not know the name?"). A former college girl who was "confronted suddenly with the necessity of earning a living" and decided to become a full-time detective when she nabbed a notorious shoplifter in a New York Department Store. A simple case that was to be first of many, often highly publicized exploits, such as placing "the chief of the firebug trust" in the docks and solving "the riddle of the double Peterson murder," which were chronicled by Miss Mack's loyal friend and narrator, Miss Nora Noraker – a newspaper reporter addicted to cola berries. So this series is a relatively late addition to the Sherlockian, casebook-style detective stories that were at the height of their popularity at the turn of the century.

However, Miss Mack and good, old Nora are not mere copies of Holmes and Dr. Watson in a dress with lipstick smeared across their faces. They're own characters with their own methods, opinions and philosophy on detective work.

Miss Mack explains that there are only two rules for a successful detective, "hard work and common sense," which, unlike the "uncommon sense" of Holmes (her words, not mine!), is simple, common business sense with a dash of imagination and likens it to solving a mathematical problem – instead of figures she works with "human motives." A simple approach of building, or subtracting, on the facts given until you arrive at the correct answer. Nora is a little closer to the archetypal, Watson-like narrator, but a very likable, affable Watson.

So how did this obscure, long-overlooked series of short detective stories appear on my radar? Two of the stories were listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).

"The Man With Nine Lives" and "The Bullet from Nowhere" were reportedly first published in the July and October, 1914, issues of Macleans and collected in Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective (1914). However, I discovered "The Bullet from Nowhere" was previously published in the January, 1912, issue of The Cavalier and the Scrapbook, but was unable to find any earlier publication date for "The Man With Nine Lives." A story that was obviously the first in the series! So, not to make things needlessly confusing, I'll stick with 1914 as the accepted year of publication.

"The Man With Nine Lives" opens strongly with a good, lively introduction of the series-characters and setting the stage that begins when a letter arrives with a desperate plea for help.

Wendell Marsh is "one of the greatest newspaper copy-makers that ever dodged an interviewer" who writes to Miss Mack that no fewer than eight attempts have been made on his life during the past five months. Marsh has been dodging bullets, cars, thugs and has even found "a cunning little dose of cyanide of potassium" in his cherry pie, but believes his luck has run out and convinced a ninth attempt will be successful – imploring Miss Mack to come poste haste. But when they arrive, they're told that Marsh has been found dead in the library under inexplicable circumstances.

The library was "a wreck of a room" with shattered vases littering the ground, books were "savagely ripped apart" and the "curtains were hanging in ribbons," suggesting a violent struggle, but the only door was locked from the inside with the windows fastened as tight as a drum. So how did the murderer got out of the locked library? Even stranger, an examination showed there are no marks on the body or any trace of poison in it!

Unfortunately, the story belonged to a previous era of crime fiction and the painfully bad solution showed this in two ways. Firstly, the locked room is as dated as it's embarrassingly ridiculous and could have only been forgiven had it been written in the 1800s. But than again, I've come across exactly the same locked room setup, in a library, with nearly identical solutions in an episode of Jonathan Creek and a short story from Gigi Pandian's The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (2018). So this idea is still being used today, but "The Man With Nine Lives" is where it may have originated. Secondly, not to be outdone by the terrible locked room-trick, the revelation of the murderer's identity was an even bigger embarrassment. I can't say anything more than that.

A story that opened promisingly, but got mired in a jumble of poorly handled, badly dated and cliched tropes in the end. My advise to read the introductory pages and move on to the next story. You're not missing anything.

Notes for the curious: (1) food and drinks feature prominently in the story (cherry piece, strawberry shortcakes, chocolate ice-cream sodas and berries) and now wonder what an ice-cream soda from 1914 would taste like (2) I discovered a Dutch hoorspel (radio-play) from 1993 of this story, "De man met de negen levens," on the Internet Archive. The play was directed by Hans Karsenbarg who played the police pathologist, Dr. Den Koninghe, in the Baantjer TV-series. What an obscure link to the series that introduced me to the detective story!

The second and final impossible crime story of the series, "The Bullet from Nowhere," hasn't aged gracefully either, but, on a whole, worked much better as a locked room story with a more conventional setup and execution of the trick – one that was fairly original at the time. The scene of the crime here is the music-room of Homer Hendricks, a talented musician, whose climax to "the wild spirit" of the storm scene from William Tell is cut short by "the sudden, muffled report of a revolver." When the door is broken down, Hendricks is found huddled on the floor next to the piano with a bullet in his head. But where's the gun? And how did the murderer vanish from the locked music-room?

Lieutenant Perry believes the household is either "covering up the fact of suicide" or "trying to shield the murderer." So they call in the services of Miss Mack and Nora.

"The Bullet from Nowhere" benefits from being shorter in length and ending with a solution that probably was a bit more novel in 1914 than in 2019. Some of you probably already have an idea how the locked room-trick works, but appreciated that it was not as godawful as the one from "The Man With Nine Lives." And the place of the bullet wound even threw me off for a couple of seconds. A piece of misdirection mystery writers would come to better utilize in the succeeding decades.

All in all, "The Man With Nine Lives" and "The Bullet from Nowhere" are, plot-wise, nothing more than curios with some historical interest as possible originators of two (locked room) solutions, but the main draw of the series are the leading characters, Miss Mack and Nora – who were more engaging and original than the cases they got to solve. So the series only really has something to offer to genre historians or readers with a special interest in female detective-characters.

I probably won't read the rest of the series anytime soon, but, if you're interested, Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective is available as a dirt cheap ebook from Black Heath or as a 4-in-1 paperback anthology from Coachwhip Publications (together with three other short story collections). Or you can just grab it from the Internet Archive.

10/11/19

The Laughing Dog (1949) by Francis Vivian

Arthur E. Ashley was an English circuit lecturer, novelist and a founding member of the Nottingham Writers' Club, who penned eighteen detective novels, published between 1937 and 1959 under the name of "Francis Vivian," many of which are helmed by his cunning, orderly-minded policeman – Inspector Gordon Knollis of New Scotland Yard. One year ago, this month, Dean Street Press reissued the entire Inspector Knollis series and two titles made it onto my best-of list of 2018, The Threefold Cord (1947) and The Singing Masons (1950).

So another one of Vivian's detective novels was lined up for the beginning of this year, enticed by John Norris' twofer review "Two Cases for Inspector Knollis," but hey, my planning rarely pans out. And towards the end of the year is still within the same year as my original plan.

The Laughing Dog (1949) is the fifth entry in the series and I seriously begin to suspect Vivian modeled his detective novels on the "crime of quiet domestic life" Hercule Poirot imagined in The ABC Murders (1936) and worked out by Agatha Christie in Cards on the Table (1936). A murder with a very small, often closely-knit cast of no more than three or four suspects, which tends to complicate matters more than they clarify in an old-fashioned, deftly plotted detective story – one that asks the reader which of the four was it? The Laughing Dog easily stands as one of Vivian's tightest and tidiest plotted mystery novels to date. A novel strong on detection!

The Laughing Dog begins with a prologue, set in Algiers, where a holidaying Dr. Hugh Challoner meets a sketch artist, Aubrey Highton, who discover that each have "a string that vibrates to the same note." A mutual affinity prompting Challoner to offer Highton assistance with landing "a steady job" as a commercial artist when he returns to England. There is, however, a hint that not everything is as it seems on the surface.

Highton sees people "as birds, or animals, or even flowers" and this artistic quirk developed into a revealing, but cruel, style of caricature and depicted Dr. Challoner as a bemused English fox-terrier with its head cocked – "a laughing dog." Highton claimed the image came from "the realm of the subconscious," but the caricature clearly upset Dr. Challoner. And the laughing dog would haunt him all way back to England.

One day, not long after his return home, Dr. Challoner is found dead with a cord around his neck in his surgery and a doodle was found in his desk diary of a dog that "was laughing in human fashion." Highton was one of the last people to see him, but Inspector Gordon Knollis has three other suspects to consider. Mrs. Madeleine Burke was the last patient on the day of the murder and she came to arrange an operation for her teenage son, but Knollis quickly discovers they had more than merely a doctor/patient relationship, which, in turn, provides Dr. Challoner's daughter and future son-in-law with a motive – because Joan and Eric Lincoln would have lost a good chunk of money if they got married. So, there you have it, the entangled intimacy of a quiet, domestic murder with only four suspects that Poirot imagined in The ABC Murders.

John Norris noted in his previously mentioned review that the plot of The Laughing Dog has "a taint of an impossible crime about it," which is sort of true, but not because of any locked doors or windows. There were a number of witnesses, not all of them reliable, who had those exists under observation and there statements often acted as a counter weights to the possible guilt, or innocence, of the suspects. Sometimes these witnesses and suspects were one and the same person. So hardly a genuine locked room mystery.

I think The Laughing Dog is best described as a particular well-done, textbook example of the closed-circle of suspects detective story, which kept the circle as tight as possible, with only a handful of candidates for an early morning appointment with the hangman – each with a motive, the means and (more or less) an opportunity to commit the murder. A deceptively simple approach to the traditional detective story, but, when handled with skill, you'll be constantly second-guessing yourself. When you finally think you have figured it all out, you'll find that you have either overlooked or outright rejected the obvious. And this is exactly the kind of trick Vivian managed to pull off here.

Admittedly, there are some (minor) caveats that mainly have to do with the movements of the characters, relaying a little bit on coincidences, but other than that, it was a well-executed plot!

I have already made a comparison between The Laughing Dog and Christie's Cards on the Table, but, after a while, the story began to remind me of one of those closed-circle of suspect stories you often find in mystery anime-and manga series (e.g. Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed/Detective Conan). A short, tightly-plotted detective story set in a house with only a handful of suspects, good, old-fashioned detective work and (visual) clues. A visual clue, of some sort, here are the drawings and doodles of the laughing dog that hound Knollis throughout the story and is what keeps "the outer circle of the problem" shrouded in mysteries. Several months ago, I came across a very similar kind of clue, a drawing of a dog, in Motohiro Katou's "The Fading of Star Map," from the third volume of Q.E.D. Coincidentally, those two stories have more in common than just a visual, dog-themed clue, but let's not tread into spoiler territory.

Obviously, I liked the pure, undiluted detection-oriented and fairly clued of The Laughing Dog, but I would be selling the story short, if I didn't mention Vivian provided some background details about Knollis.

Early in the story, Knollis mentions he has "a wife and two boys." We got a bit more of a backstory in chapter XI, "The Thread of Thought," in which Knollis revealed he had studied mechanical engineering, but "the engineering trade wasn't in a healthy state at that time" and joined the police as an experiment – because he liked taking things to pieces and finding out how they worked. During this time, Knollis learned first hand that people can be "as interesting as machines" and "began to take them to pieces to see how they ticked." You can certainly see this back in the way Knollis grappled with the people and problems that faced him in this story. Knollis also voiced his disapproval of capital punishment on two occasions, but that could have been Vivian bleeding through the character. In any case, a surprising bit of characterization in this plot-focused detective story.

So what more can I add? The Laughing Dog is a solidly plotted, thoroughbred detective novel with a tricky plot, dogged police work, cleverly planted clues and well-drawn characters, which makes it one of my favorite entries in the series. Highly recommended!

10/8/19

Death in the Cup (1932) by Moray Dalton

A month ago, I reviewed The Night of Fear (1931) by "Moray Dalton," a pseudonym of Katherine M. Renoir, who was an all but forgotten author of twenty-nine "finely polished" mystery novels until Dean Street Press reissued five of them back in March – complete with an introduction by the Dean of Classic Crime Fiction, Curt Evans. The Night of Fear proved to be a huge improvement on the generously praised The Strange Case of the Harriet Hale (1936) and decided to move the second title that was recommended to me to the top of the pile.

Death in the Cup (1932) is the last of three novels about Dalton's private inquiry agent, Hermann Glide, who reminded Evans of the enigmatic Mr. Gody. A minor recurring character who was introduced by Agatha Christie in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928) and appeared in three additional Hercule Poirot novels.

Only difference between Mr. Gody and Mr. Glide is that the latter reaches the end of a case without being upstaged by a bloody little Belgian!

Death in the Cup is, like her other work, a character-driven mystery in which the desires, emotions and personalities of the people involved propel the plot and how they acted on them here had dire consequences – complicating the case before it eventually helped Glide solve two murders. A story that begins with the woes of "a professional gigolo."

Mark Armour left his home as an eighteen-year-old when he forged his father's name on a cheque and joined the army when the Great War broke out a few weeks later. When he returned, the handsome Armour began "cadging around" by "making love to silly old women" and hauling them across a dance floor, but a broken leg left him with a permanent limp. And a meager three-half pence in his pocket. So he's forced to stay with his genteel, but scandal-ridden, highly dysfunctional and isolated, relatives in the provencial town of Dennyford. A madhouse household that strongly reminded of the family in Arthur W. Upfield's Venom House (1952).

They live on the outskirts of the town, in the White House, but their chequered past keeps "the family outside the social pale" of the community and were avoided as much as humanly possible.

The roost is ruled by Mark's belligerent, domineering half-sister, Bertha, who's "given to finding fault" and everyone hated her ("nag, nag, nag, all day long"). Winnie is their odd, soft-minded (half) sister and deeply in love with a young doctor, Ian Cardew. She moons all day outside the poor doctor's practice, rings his bell, writes embarrassing love letters and pushes flowers through his letter box. George is the half-witted brother of the family and spends his days cutting pictures out of magazines and pasting them into albums. A character very similar to the mentally arrested Morris Answerth from Upfield's Venom House. Their youngest sister, Claire, is free of the family "taint of insanity" and she had endured them for years, but recently, she has fallen in love with gardener, Richard Lee – which would not have been accepted by Bertha. She not the only one in the household carrying on affair behind the back of the family matriarch. Miss Lucy Rivers is the daughter of Colonel Rivers, a local magistrate, who would certainly disapprove of her relationship with Mark Armour. A disreputable member of the local outcasts and a financial dependent of Bertha. Who would also disapprove of the relationship.

This concentration of clashing personalities, hidden-or unanswered passions, financial dependency and mental illness proved to be a volatile cocktail with disastrous results. Someone spiked the glass of milk on Bertha's bedside table with "a thundering big dose" of arsenic. She died the next day and Mark becomes the police's primary suspect.

The series-detective of fifteen of Dalton's mystery novels, Inspector Hugh Collier of Scotland Yard, is only mentioned by name and the case is officially handled by Superintendent Brisling, but Lucy's uncle and confident, Geoffrey Raynham, interferes in the investigation on her behalf – until he calls in that wizened inquiry agent, Hermann Glide. Glide appears on the scene, fumbling his lump of modeling wax, but a second death with the features of an accident, natural causes and murder takes the focus off Mark. And redirects the attention of the police to another set of suspects in the Armour household.

I thought this plot-thread was a well-done and original divergence from the customary second murder often used to liven up, or muddle the waters, of the story.

Sadly, the murderer is easily spotted and, initially, rejected this possibility as too obvious and began to suspect another character who had a similar kind of motive, but my first impression turned out to be the correct one. However, this is the only blemish on an otherwise excellently written mystery novel with strong characterization. Death in the Cup is not merely a grotesque portrait of a family of dysfunctional gargoyles, but showed, for better or worse, their humanity.

There are also a number of good, kindhearted characters who try to help the people in the story who find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. Such as Lucy's concerned uncle and the kindly Mrs. Trant. You can't but feel sorry when something bad happens to them. Mrs. Trant is carried out of the story on a stretcher with a broken leg and the consequences of the police investigation forces the family to place George with a specialized doctor, which he does bravely, but tears were in his round, childlike eyes – which was a little depressing. George was the only person living in the White House who was completely blameless, but suffered the consequences.

So, all in all, Death in the Cup is not as strong as a pure detective story as The Night of Fear, but the book stands as a fine example of the sophisticated, character-oriented mystery novels commonly associated with the literary-minded Queens of Crime. I think readers who especially appreciate the old Crime Queens, like Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers, will find in Dalton a legitimate claimant to one of their crowns.

10/4/19

Going for a Stroll: "The Stalker in the Attic" (1925) by Edogawa Rampo

Recently, I read the very first Japanese locked room mystery, entitled "D zaka no satsujin-jiken" ("The Case of the Murder on D. Hill," 1925), written by the father of the Japanese detective story, Edogawa Rampo, who penned it as a response to the critics of his time – who asserted that it was impossible to use the open, wood-and-paper houses of Japan as a stage for a Western-inspired mystery. Rampo proved them wrong by writing a short locked room story set in a traditional Japanese house with paper walls, sliding doors and tatami-matted floors.

Historically, "The Case of the Murder on D. Hill" is an important cornerstone of the Japanese detective story and handed a blueprint to both his contemporaries and successors to follow, but, purely as an impossible crime story, it's not really impressive. Rampo merely showed it was possible to stage a locked room murder in a wood-and-paper house without showing any ingenuity in the solution. Something he would rectify in another story from the same year.

"Yaneura no sanposha" ("The Stalker in the Attic") was originally published in the August, 1925, issue of Shin-Seinen and a translation was published in a collection of short stories and essays, The Edogawa Rampo Reader (2008), which gave 1926 as the story's original year of publication – which has to be wrong. The story is an inverted locked room mystery and remarkably modern in its subject matter.

Gōda Saburō is a restless, ennui-ridden and perpetual bored twenty-five year old man who left "no stone unturned in his search for amusement." A generous allowance from his parents allowed him to act with "reckless abandon" and regularly changed lodgings. There were two events that placed Gōda on the path of murder: one of them was becoming acquainted with Rampo's famous amateur detective, Akechi Kogorō, whose "wealth of fascinating crime stories" entertained Gōda. Akechi seemed to take an interest in his pathological personality.

The second event was discovering that the closet in his room, in a recently built boarding house, has a panel in the ceiling giving access to a normally inaccessible attic!

Tōeikan boarding house encircles a courtyard to form a square and the attic follows this shape, which means Gōda can walk around in a circle and return where he started, but the cherry on top is that the boardinghouse was "shoddily built" and the ceiling boards are riddled with gaps and knotholes – giving him a thrilling opportunity to spy on his neighbors. You read that right. A 1920s detective story about voyeurism and genre historians might want to take note of this story, but I'm unrepentant Golden Age detective fanboy and there were other features of the plot that fascinated me.

Firstly, there are the architectures features which are integrated into the plot in the tradition of the finest Golden Age detective stories.

"The Stalker in the Attic" solved the problem Rampo addressed in "The Case of the Murder on D. Hill" by merging the traditional Japanese houses with a Western-type building. The Tōeikan boarding house has sleek, sturdy walls of painted wood and doors fitted with "metal locks," which allowed for more privacy, but the interior of the rooms very much resembled a traditional Japanese house – especially when seen from above as "every item in the room is framed by tatami mats." Secondly, the movement of Gōda during his so-called "attic walks" is fascinating as he freely moves around the squared circle and spies on his fellow boarders in their rooms on the second floor. During one of his excursions, Gōda changes on a way to commit the perfect murder inside a locked room.

Gōda absolutely detests one of his fellow boarders, Endō, but, when he discovers the open mouth of the loudly snoring Endō lies smack dab under a knothole, he realizes the criminal potential of the situation. He can drip poison along a drawstring into his wide, open mouth and push a small bottle of poison through the knothole. Endō always locked his door and window before going to bed, which made it "impossible for someone to enter from the outside" and made his untimely death appear like a suicide.

So, purely as an impossible crime story, "The Stalker in the Attic" is not only the first truly Japanese locked room mystery, but the direct ancestor of the bizarre architecture so often found in the modern shin honkaku detective novels.

The way Rampo integrated the features of the boarding house into the plot reminded me of Soji Shimada's Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982), Yukito Ayatsuri's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), Szu-Yen Lin's Death in the House of Rain (2005) and the many stories from The Kindaichi Case Files – e.g. The Alchemy Murder Case, The Prison Prep School Murder Case and The Antlion Murder Case. I was also reminded of Max Rittenberg's 1914 short story "The Invisible Bullet," collected in The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016), which deals with an impossible murder in a fencing academy situated on the top floor of a tall building. The way in which the layout of buildings are used in service of the plot and the original locked room-tricks showed that Rampo's "The Stalker in the Attic" and Rittenberg's "The Invisible Bullet" were ahead of their time in their respective regions. I seriously wonder if Rampo, who could read English, was aware of this particular story.

Akechi Kogorō appears on the scene in the final ten pages of the story to play a little cat-and-mouse game with Gōda, but this merely to give the story, which has already been told by this point, a tidy ending.

So very much like my rereading of Akimitsu Takagi's Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1948), I appreciated "The Stalker in the Attic" a whole lot more the second time around. An important and well-done story that ought to be better known among a Western (locked room) mystery readers. Highly recommended!

A couple of notes for the curious: "The Stalker in the Attic" is the only good story collected in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, but the essays are really interesting and recommend "Fingerprint Novels of the Meiji Era," "Dickens and Poe" and "An Eccentric Idea" to every genre historian/scholar. Secondly, there's a Western hybrid of the detective and horror story, namely Ed Bryant's "The Lurker in the Bedroom" (1971), which reads like it was inspired by Rampo. Lastly, I clearly remember there was a floor plan of the boarding house, showing the attic route, but apparently, my memory deceived me. There's no floor plan.