4/18/18

The Theft and the Prophecy: Two Fictional Impossible Crimes

In my previous blog-post, "The Ghost and the Canary," I covered two real-life examples of the impossible crime story and decided it would be a nice touch to follow it up with a look at two fictional locked room problems. There happened to be two, relatively short, works lingering on my big pile. So let's dig in!

Barry Ergang is the former editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and received a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society for the best flash story of 2006, titled "Vigilante," but on the web Ergang is perhaps better known as a reviewer and member of various mystery-themed groups – such as the now sadly erstwhile JDCarr messageboard. You can find his reviews all over the web, like the GADWiki, which also hosts his parody of "Dr. Gideon Fell, Hardboiled Sawbones" (2003).

I think Ergang's hardboiled take on one of detective fiction's foremost experts on the locked room puzzle foreshadowed a short story he would come to write only a year later.

"The Play of Light and Shadows" was originally published in Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, vol. VII, Issue 35: Autumn 2004 and Patrick Ohl accurately described this short story as "a traditionally-told hardboiled story" in his 2011 review. The story is narrated by Dr. Alan Driscoll, a university professor, who's on a sabbatical to escape from department politics and "the hermetic insularity of academia" at the City University of Philadelphia. So to re-familiarize himself with the real world he takes job as a bartender and there he strikes up an acquaintance with a private-eye.

Darnell is a stern man who has no time for small talk, but "discussions about books pierced his reserve" and "evoked a veiled passion." When the story opens, Darnell is sitting at the bar reading The Sound and the Fury. This reminded me of Bill Pronzini's popular private-eye, "Nameless," whose undying love for pulp magazines has even driven the plots of some of his most well-known, highly praised cases – like Hoodwinked (1981) and Bones (1985). Interestingly, they're are perhaps two of the best known examples of the hardboiled locked room story.

However, this story is only indirectly influenced by Darnell's veiled passion for literature and comes about when Driscoll asks how business is going. Darnell simply taps his book and says that he has "lots of time to read."

Well, Driscoll got a phone-call from a colleague, Dr. Barton Gaines, who's the Chairman of the Art History Department and he could really use a detective.

Dr. Gaines is hosting a party the following Saturday afternoon to celebrate the acquisition of a painting by Charles Riveau, entitled Nomad, but the painting came with a back-story and concerns the criminal past of its creator – who once acted as a master forger to an Arséne Lupin-like thief, Paul Marchand. Riveau forged masterpieces, but, instead of selling the forgeries, Marchand "stole the originals from private collections or museums" and "substituted the fakes." However, the police eventually caught up with Riveau and did a spell in prison. After his release, Riveau continued to paint and his original work started to gain a reputation. So he turned down Marchand when he wanted to revive their old partnership, but this disagreement ended with Marchand promising he would destroy all of his original work "to prevent him from attaining the fame he desperately wanted."

Ever since, paintings have disappeared from galleries, museums and the homes of collectors. And this is exactly what happens during the party.

The gallery is a long, wide, white-walled and marble-floored room without windows and the door offered its only way in or out of the gallery, which can only be opened with a set of specially-made keys that can't be duplicated. After the gallery is searched, the door is locked from the outside and Darnell takes his place guarding the door, but when the gallery is unlocked and guests stream in they make a startling discovery – someone, somehow, spirited Nomad from a hermetically sealed and guarded room! But this is not their only problem.

A photographer who was present at the unveiling of the painting, Derek Trevor, is found with a camera-strap looped tightly around his throat and the murderer has taken a 3.5" disk from his photo camera. On a side-note, these diskettes were the predecessor of memory cards.

The writing and characterization clearly shows the influence the private-eye genre had on Ergang, who holds Raymond Chandler's The Long Good-bye (1953) in very high regard, but the plotting also betrays a weakness for cleverly clued, puzzle-oriented locked room mysteries. Ergang planted clues and hints throughout the story subtly nodding in the direction of the solution, which is always a pleasant discovery in a modern detective story, and the excellent writing and dialogue makes "The Play of Light and Shadow" anthology material.

There is, however, one (minor) problem I have with the premise and explanation for the impossible theft, which seems to be indebted to the Jonathan Creek episode The Scented Room (1998). An episode that had lifted its plot directly from Edgar Wallace's "The Stolen Romney," collected in Four-Square Jane (1929), which had been spoofed before by Robert Arthur in The Mystery of the Vanishing Treasure (1966) – all four deal with a very similar impossible theft and the explanations play around with the same ideas. Only difference between the Jonathan Creek episode and the novel and short story by Arthur and Ergang is that they put their own spin on the ending of "The Stolen Romney."

So I was glad to discover Ergang took a different direction with his solution, but the close resemblance of the plot to those other impossible crime stories took some of the shine off the story. Regardless, "The Play of Light and Shadow" is a well-written, tightly plotted detective story and a welcome addition to that lamentably short list of hardboiled locked room mysteries.

The second story, or rather a novella, comes from the hands of an incredibly prolific British writer of detective and thriller novels, named Gerald Verner, who was frequently compared to the previously mentioned Edgar Wallace and was noted for his "exiting, fast-action plots" – some of them "recognized as classics of the locked room and impossible crime genres." I don't remember anyone ever hailing Verner as a long-overlooked locked room artisan, but any mention of an impossible crime arouses my curiosity. And one of his impossible crime stories just happened to be in print!

A warning to the reader: my review necessitated something that can be construed as a spoiler, because the plot warranted a comparison with a fairly well-known detective novel by a very famous mystery writer. So, if you have read that fairly well-known mystery, you can probably guess the central idea behind the impossible murder from this novella. The reader has been warned!

The Beard of the Prophet (1937) was originally printed in a November, 1937 issue of Detective Weekly No. 246, later collected in Mr. Budd Again (1939), but was curiously enough reprinted separately in 2011 by Borgo Press. I believe our friend, Philip Harbottle, had a hand in getting Verner's work back in print.

One of Verner's series-character is Robert Budd, an obsese Detective-Superintendent of Scotland Yard, who has deceptively sleepy-eyes, a plodding mind and a taste for beer. Budd is assisted by the melancholic, slow-witted Sergeant Leek and is often "the butt of Mr. Budd's biting sarcasm." These two unassuming, now long-forgotten detective-characters had a long shelf-live. Butt and Leek appeared in more than twenty novels and short stories between 1934 and 1966.

The Beard of the Prophet begins with a series of threatening letters addressed to a celebrated archaeologist, Reuben Hayles, who claimed to have discovered the tomb of Mohammed. One of the letters warned Hayles that his "sacrilege will bring violent death in its train," while another say that "every passing hour brings your doom nearer," but the last letter told the archaeologist "death will come to you on the night of the full moon" – signed The Prophet. After this very specific threat, Budd and Leek are installed in the household. A household filled the usual, and some very unusual, suspects, but their protection proved to be ineffective.

Budd stationed himself in front of the bedroom door and Lees was standing guard outside of the house, underneath the open bedroom window, but, shortly after Hayles wished Budd a good night, a scream and a thud is heard inside the room. Budd flung open the door and greeted by "a deafening crash of thunder," which is hoary, but nice, atmospheric touch. Hayles lay in the center of the room on ancient rug, a gaping wound on the front of his head, clenching a false beard in one of his hands!

Funnily enough, The Beard of the Prophet shares exactly the same strength and weaknesses as "The Play of Light and Shadow." After the opening chapters, it becomes patently obvious Verner had looked at Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) for inspiration and the locked room trick here mimics Christie's (semi) impossible alibi-trick. There's even an archaeological background in Verner's story.

So I doubt this was a mere coincidence, but Verner made the trick his own by tinkering with it and giving it a nifty twist. You can almost say this is the impossible crime version of the ingenious alibi-trick from Christopher Bush's Cut Throat (1932). And this alteration of the nature of the trick neatly tied-in with the identity of the murderer. So this definitely saved the novella from being nothing more than a shameless ripoff.

The Beard of the Prophet is perhaps not very original as a detective story, but Verner's treatment of the idea was transformative enough to make for an enjoyable read with a new variation on a trick we've seen before.

A note for the curious: the trick from Murder in Mesopotamia was also used in a 1950 short story by Charles B. Child, titled "All the Birds of the Air," which was collected in The Sleuth of Baghdad (2002). There you have a short story, a novella and a novel, which toy around with variations of the same (locked room) trick and have a Middle Eastern theme. I'm convinced Verner borrowed from Christie, but wonder how much of an influence she had on Child's short story. In any case, I find it fascinating that this particular trick turned up in stories with such similar backgrounds.

So, a short story and novella, written in two very different periods of time, but, when read back-to-back, turned out to strangely reflect one another. They both resembled more well-known impossible crime stories, which had preceded them, but the well-handled treatment of these older ideas pulled the stories away from being disappointing – especially the more original "The Play of Light of Shadow." Only thing you can hold against these two stories is that they failed to break new ground, but hey, I can easily forgive that.

4/16/18

The Ghost and the Canary: Two Real-Life Impossible Crimes

During 2013 and 2014, I put together a short series of blog-posts with examples locked room mysteries and impossible problems appearing in our seemingly normal, everyday world.

A short series consisting mostly of common, everyday miracles such as a notoriously drunk actor who was locked into his dressing room without a drop of liquor, but emerged an hour later absolutely hammered – leaving everyone baffled as to how he got his hands on enough booze to get properly drunk. Another impossibility deals with the inexplicable leakage of information from a sealed and soundproof betting room, while in another example a magician (unwisely) gives step-by-step instruction on how to create a disgustingly simple locked room trick. A locked room gag best played on unexpected hotel guests.

You can read all five blog-posts about these real-life impossibility by following these links: I, II, III, IV and V. I wanted to do further installments, but my backlog of good examples had dried up and the ones I missed were recently printed as part of John Pugmire's marvelous anthology, The Realm of the Impossible (2017).

So I probably would not have been able to do this post were it not that I recently came across two interesting examples, which allowed me to cobble together another one of these long anticipated filler-posts.

The Knocking Ghost of Boise

I came across this very unusual account of a faked poltergeist on a website dedicated to recording hoaxes throughout time, which covers hoaxes from the middle ages all the way up to the 21st century, but the story of the ghost that rapped messages to puzzled policemen caught my attention – because it read like a spoof of John Dickson Carr done by Anthony Boucher. You'll know why when you learn the solution.

"They're heeere..."
Peggy Zimmerman was a 53-year-old woman who lived with her 12-year-old daughter, Shelley, in Boise, Idaho, but in late September of 1973 she called in the police to investigate the rapping coming from underneath the floorboards. An intelligent knocking that could rap out answers and appeared to be attracted to Shelley, because he could only communicate when she was present in the room. However, the girl was "merely standing quietly in the room" and could not have produced the rapping.

So four policemen arrived at the house, headed by a police lieutenant, who set up traps “to make sure that no one was entering the crawl space” and began to ask questions to the knocking ghost.

How many people were in the room? Six raps! How many policemen? Four raps! And so on. The policemen observed that raps were felt as well as heard and "the sounds vibrated through the soles of their shoes," but the traps were empty and Shelley passed a clever test by the policemen. One of the policemen asked the ghost how many guns they were carrying and the question was answered with five raps, but only two of the officers were openly carrying a firearm and Shelley could not have known they also had three concealed weapons on them – which forced the police lieutenant to admit he had "no logical explanation for the phenomena." However, the mystery was solved the very next day when a news team dropped by the haunted house.

A newsman noticed that the ghost only rapped when Shelley was standing in "a certain, rather peculiar way" and passed this information on to the police. When confronted by the police, Shelley admitted she was the ghost and the answer to the knocking ghost lay in the abnormal condition of her ankles. It allowed her to make a loud knocking sound whenever she flexed her leg muscles, but this prank was reported to the juvenile court. What can I say? Little kids and poltergeists will always be a troublesome pairing.

You can read the full account here.

The Canary Who Could Sing, But Couldn't Fly

The second example I found of a (semi) impossible crime unexpectedly turned up in the ruthless, cut-throat world of American, prohibition-era gangsters and deals with the questionable death of a prominent mobster who became a stool-pigeon – an unhealthy life decision in the underworld.

Abe “Kid Twist” Reles was a well-known figure in the Jewish mafia of the New York underworld and a feared member of a group of contract killers, Murder Inc., who worked for the National Crime Syndicate, but by the early 1940s the authorities were closing a new around Reles. So he turned state evidence and became a witness whose testimonies sent a number of his former business partners to the electric chair. Reportedly, Albert “The High Executioner” Anastasia placed $100,000 bounty on Reles' head and Frank Costello reputedly raised another one-hundred grand to bribe guards to kill Reles in police custody. I think this piece of information could help explain his peculiar death.

The sixth floor plunge of Abe Reles
On the morning of November 12, 1941, Reles plunged to his death from the sixth floor window of Room 623 at the Half Moon Hotel. The evidence suggested Reles had tried to lower himself on to the window below by tying two bed sheets together, but the wire knot came undone and he fell to his death. However, this poses the interesting question why he tried to escape. Reles became a witness to escape the electric chair and the only one who could protect him from retaliation was the government, who had a vested interest in keeping him alive, because he was set to testify against Anastasia in a murder case. And it has been suggested that Reles didn't even wanted to be out of earshot of a policeman. So why voluntarily dangle out of a sixth floor window?

The door of the hotel room was guarded police officers and a possible answer could be that Reles overheard referencing his impending murder.

There could have been a bribe and this knowledge would have left the window as Reles only escape, but rumors claimed he was murdered by being pushed out of the window and the bed sheets were arranged to make it look an accidental fall during an escape attempt – which would make this somewhat of a locked room mystery. Unless the police officers were bribed, you have a murderer who entered a guarded hotel room on the sixth floor without being seen, committed a murder without being heard and threw the bed sheets after him to make it look like an accident, before vanishing into thin air.

There is, however, a possible explanation for the murder scenario and the method is exactly the same as the one used by G.K. Chesterton in "The Miracle of Moon Cresent" from The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926). This is the only way an outsider could have circumvented the police guards at the door and flung Reles out of his hotel room window.

So, in a nutshell, this is the story of a canary who could sing, but not fly, and whose death is full of questions, false solutions and was perhaps a cleverly disguised locked room killing. Surprisingly, this case took place against the genuinely hardboiled background of ruthless, trigger happy gangsters.

I wish I had more to pad out this post, but this was all that was left in the tank. If come across any other real-life locked rooms in the future, I'll do another one, but we might be living in the middle of the 2020s when that happens.

4/12/18

What Happened to Hammond? (1951) by John Russell Fearn

Robert Adey observed in Locked Room Murders (1991) that there were only two mystery writers, John Dickson Carr and John Russell Fearn, who regularly produced impossible crime novels during and after the Second World War. While Fearn was not as prolific as Carr, he was able to match the master when it came to the sheer ingenuity of his impossible situations and the answers he conjured up to explain all those criminal miracles – which is a contribution that deserves to be acknowledged. Fearn is a fun, pulpy second-stringer with a repertoire of (scientific) locked room stories that should delight fans of Arthur Porges, Paul Halter and Jonathan Creek.

A ghost and a demonic entity physically manifest themselves inside a cursed room in "Chamber of Centuries" (1940) and Within That Room! (1946). A house that kills appears in Account Settled (1949) and a whole laboratory vanishes from a watched room in Vision Sinister (1954). The Silvered Cage (1955) has a woman gradually fading into nothingness during a stage performance and Pattern of Murder (2006) uses the inverted mystery format to show how an impossible murder is engineered, which is unusual, but the method is brilliant. And there are a host of regular locked room mysteries such as Black Maria, M.A. (1944), the Halter-like The Five Matchboxes (1946) and Death in Silhouette (1950). 

What Happened to Hammond? (1951) plays with a rarity of the impossible crime genre, a possible case of teleportation, of which I only know one other example: the Kaito KID heist story from Case Closed, vol. 61.

Before taking a crack at this book, I have to point out that the splendid cover of the 2006 Borgo Press edition was commissioned by Philip Harbottle during the 1980s from Ron Turner, because he had done covers for Fearn in the 1950s and Harbottle envisioned new editions of Fearn's work with old-school Turner covers – placing the commissioned art work in cold storage for when he was able "to get the books reprinted in the future." Harbottle also provided me with a scan of the book cover of the original and rather rare edition of this book. Yes, I'm using the poor man as my personal, interactive encyclopedia on all things Fearn. Just try to stop me! :) 

What Happened to Hammond? was originally published as by "Hugo Blayn" and begins with a shipping-yard tycoon, Benson T. Hammond, consulting Chief Inspector Mortimer Garth of Scotland Yard on a string of weird notes he has received. The latest note read, "Any Moment Now," implying without being actually threatening, but Hammond has a good reason to fear "the lingering threat" of physical violence. Hammond suffers from fragilitas ossiumtarda, an abnormal brittleness of the bones, which makes him "a walking glass ornament" and a series of blows could make him a bedridden invalid for life – or end him permanently. So Garth decides that the strange complaint and his standing in the community entitles him to police protection. Hammond also has trouble brewing at home.

Harvey Dell works as a senior electronic engineer at the Noonhill Teleradio Combine and wants to formally ask Hammand permission to marry his daughter, Miss Claire Hammond, but as soon as he consented to the engagement Dell asked him for a business loan of two million pounds! A quarrel erupted and Claire caught snippets like "some high-flown notion," a chance "to beat the airlines at their own games" and "cuts in shipping rates." The quarrel ends with Hammond branding Dell as a fortune-hunter and kicks him out of the house. Later that evening, Dell sends a letter to Claire, asking her to come to 9 Stanton Street and to destroy the letter, but she only tears it up and throws it in the waste basket – where her father finds it and pastes it together. And, naturally, he goes after her.

When Claire arrives at the house in the dilapidated Stanton Street, the door is answered by a servant who tells him he has never heard of Harvey Dell and closes the door in her face. However, the next part of the plot took a sudden, unexpected turn into the Twilight Zone.

Hammond arrives at the home with two policemen on his tail and they, alongside with Hammond's chauffeur, witness how he entered the 9 Stanton Street, but he never came back out again. But when they enter the house, they found it completely empty. Not "a stick of furniture" and dirty, defaced walls. Even more astonishing is that the place is covered with "a thick, even layer of dust on the floor of the hall" and nowhere was it broken by the marks of where furniture might have stood – nor where there "a trace of a single footprint." Previously, lights have been seen in the house and the door had been answered twice by a servant. So how did a house that had been occupied only moments previously turned into a rundown, abandoned home with a thick carpet of unbroken dust on the floor?

This apparent miracle is compounded when the body of Hammond is found lying on a road between Shoreham and Worthing, sixty miles away from Stanton Street, but only ten minutes had passed since Hammond was seen entering the house and his remains being found on the road! A gruesome detail is that every bone appears not only to be broken, but shattered, which make the body like a partially deflated inner tube.

Chief Inspector Garth has his work cut out for him and the investigation by the police takes up three quarters of the story. This part of the book reads like an early police procedure and has Garth, alongside with his men, doing all of the legwork as they attempt to put together all of the pieces of this complicated puzzle. They figure out the dust-trick and find all of the bigger pieces of the puzzle, but the insurmountable wall they keep bumping into is the problem of a body traveling sixty miles in a mist-enshrouded winter night. So they call upon Dr. Hiram Carruthers, who looks like the bust of Beethoven, to help them figure out scientific end of the investigation.

I think the first three quarters make up the best parts of the story, because the last quarter exposes the same mistake that ruined Robbery Without Violence (1957). I like it when a pure, fair play detective story is placed in a science-fiction setting, but hate it when a science-fiction solution is used in a regular looking detective story. It's plain cheating!

There are, however, mitigating circumstances. Firstly, there's proper foreshadowing and even clueing that the plot is slowly inching towards science-fiction territory (e.g. the autopsy report). Secondly, the science-fiction element, weirdly enough, didn't feel like a cop-out explanation and this probably has to do that the method, like most new sciences, was in its infancy – therefore imperfect and unrefined. Something that needed fine-tuning. This treatment was very different from the way the science-fiction element was handled in Robbery Without Violence, which even had a bad, comic book-like villain who talked about getting delivering the world into the palm of his hand. However, this didn't diminish my disappointment that the teleportation problem didn't have really clever and original solution.

This makes the problem of the empty, dust-covered house bare of any footprints the only real impossible problem of the story. Interestingly, the idea behind this trick is not entirely new and have come across two variations on this trick, but Fearn applied it here to an entire house.

So, on a whole, I was not too let down by What Happened to Hammond? The first three solid quarters read like an early police procedural without the troubled cop trope and a good stand-in impossible crime, but hated that the second impossibility relied on pure science-fiction – which simply does not work for me. I'm too much of a purist to go along with it. Still, I appreciated Fearn clued his way to this U-turn and the book is a decent, middling effort in his body of work, but not one you'll find on my inevitable list of favorite Fearn mystery novels.

On a final note, you might also be interested in reading John Norris' take on this book, which he reviewed here.

4/9/18

The Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle (1974) by William Arden

The Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle (1974) is the twenty-second book in The Three Investigator series and the sixth title penned by "William Arden," a penname of Dennis Lynds, who has become my favorite contributor to this series and this fast-paced, cleverly concocted story demonstrates why. A near classic example of the code-breaker.

Traditionally, the book begins with an introduction by the reluctant mentor of the three boys, Alfred Hitchcock, who denies any involvement in the shenanigans of the late Marcus "Dingo" Towne. Hitchcock tells the reader that "the old scoundrel" had no right to involve him "in his scheme from beyond the grave," but humbly points out that without his cunning the problem would have remained unsolved, because he handed over the case Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews – known locally as "the junior detective team" of The Three Investigators. And they tackle the problem with a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and determination.

Marcus "Dingo" Towne was an old Australian, "who made his pile by hard work," but sees no reason to it all to his "shiftless, greedy, stupid and otherwise useless" family. So he only left his daughter-in-law, grandson, niece and nephew "the sum of $1.00 each."

What remained of Dingo's hard-earned pile was turned into gemstones. A million dollars worth of opals, sapphires, rubies and emeralds, which belongs to the person clever enough to find it – which can be done by cracking a six-part riddle. Dingo was a cunning man who laughed to taunt and laugh at people. This is reflected in his complex, multi-layered riddle that's loaded with hidden riddles, double clues and even "a shortcut clue" that can only really be spotted by readers with an encyclopedic mind with a storage capacity for arcane knowledge.

Dingo had appointed Hitchcock ("who likes mystery") as one of his executors and he's contacted by Dingo's daughter-in-law, Molly Towne, who's worried that her almost 8-year-old son, Billy, is getting cheated out of his inheritance. Her fiance and lawyer, Roger Callow, plans to challenge the will in court, but, by that time, the gemstones might already be found. And the finder has no reason to come forward. So the famous movie-director advised them to give Jupe, Pete and Bob a chance to crack the code.

However, they soon find out that this is not going to be one of those ordinary, dime-a-dozen treasure hunts of popular juvenile fiction, but an out-and-out rat race.

When they arrive at the saggy, dilapidated house of Dingo, there's a crowd "swarming the property like ants" and fighting over a collection of empty bottles in the yard that are being mistaken for clues – one of the treasure seekers is their long-time nemesis, "Skinny" Norris. Unsurprisingly, Norris acts like a proper nuisance throughout the story and is responsible for the thrilling scene depicted on the covers of practically every edition of this title. This time, his actions aren't merely motivated by his dislike for the three detectives, particularly Jupe, but by an opportunity to upstage them by finding a small fortune in precious stones. And this is one of the many aspects that makes The Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle standout in the series.

There are, however, more people who try to get their hands on the gems or appear to be very interested in the movements of Jupe, Pete and Bob.

Cecil and Winifred Percival are Dingo's niece and nephew from England and they're proper pair of Disney-like villains who come within inches of getting the treasure, but the boys are also shadowed by two men in a blue car – one of them being a giant of a man. But they also have a loyal ally in Billy Towne. The 8-year-old wants to be a detective, who even appears at one point wearing a cape and deerstalker, but Billy proves to be a burden during the first half of the story. However, he's able to redeem himself by solving one of the riddles and used their Ghost-to-Ghost Hookup to help the trio out of a real jam. A great example of how to use such a young character in a mystery story.

These characters are roaming around Rocky Beach, California, which is fantastically employed here by Arden and constantly moving these characters across the map is what this such a fun, fast-paced novel. One of my favorite scenes is when they take the bus out of town to followup on a clue, based on fare zones and the travel habits of Dingo, but on their way back they see the Percivals are on their track. And a sweaty, red-faced Norris is seen digging holes around a billboard. This really gives you an idea that this is a race and not a leisure treasure hunt.

But the absolute highlight of the story is how every event and character are either directly linked or interconnected, which means that everything has a reason without a single side-distraction to pad out the plot – something I feared would be the case when the two gangsters turned up. Even they had a reason for being present that linked up with the main plot. This also goes for the people who witnessed the will and were assigned executor to the quaint tea shop Dingo used to frequent. There are puzzle-pieces all over the place!

So the plot is pretty tight and the only thing that can be said against it's not a solve-it-yourself type of detective story. I guess you can compare the plot-structure of The Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle with G.K. Chesterton's "The Blue Cross" from The Innocence of Father Brown (1911).

As impressive as the tricky plot of this juvenile mystery is how Arden made the lingering presence of Dingo's forceful personality emerge as an omniscient puppeteer by the end of the story. Dingo came out on top as the undisputed winner and he did it without even taking a breath. What can I say? Beware the Eternal Aussie!

So, all in all, The Mystery of the Dead Man's Riddle is a well-written, fast-paced and nicely characterized entry in the series with a code-breaker plot that makes it rank alongside The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965), The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966), The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972) and The Mystery of the Headless Horse (1977).

4/7/18

Detective Conan: The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly

Recently, our guide in the land of the Japanese detective story, Ho-Ling Wong, posted an enticing review on this blog of an old episode from a long-running anime series based on the popular manga often raved about on this blog, Detective Conan, which has been running since 1996 – culminating in 26 seasons and 900 episodes at the time of this writing. Understandably, the source material proved insufficient to keep the anime running for over twenty years and original stories had to be produced.

However, the TV originals are generally considered to be the poorer episodes and one of my reasons for sticking with Gosho Aoyama's original work. The other one is the frightful prospect of a backlog of hundreds, upon hundreds, of episodes!

The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly is episode 184 from season 7 and originally aired on March 13, 2000 as a one-hour special. According to Ho-Ling, this episode has not only been "lauded as one of the best anime original episodes ever," but is considered to be "one of the best episodes" period. So my curiosity got the better of me and decided to give the episode a shot. I can already reveal that the plot has a ghoulish gem of a locked room trick! An absolute work of art!

Anyway, in order to stay consistent with my on-going review of the U.S. publications of Detective Conan, re-titled Case Closed, I'll be calling the characters by the names used in the English version. Yes, I know. Heresy and all that. You may vent your purist anger in the comments.

The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly begins with Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan driving to the imposing mansion of Beniko Suo, President of Mahogany Promotions, which is a charity organization for children who lost their parents in a car accident, but they nearly crash themselves into a tree trunk that had been placed on the road – a note had been pinned to the trunk. It told them to turn around or "you'll regret it." The warning was signed with The Phantom of the Cursed Mask.

Not deterred by this threat, they arrive at the mansion and, upon entering, they're greeted by walls decorated with masks. There's even a mask room, or Chamber of Masks, which is the only room in the house connecting the east and west wings.

One part of the collection in the mask room are two-hundred, identical-looking masks that were made by a Spanish artist, Julio González, who was consumed by his work and committed suicide when he had carved the last mask. All two-hundred masks were found around his body and the blood made it look as if "the masks themselves had sucked it out of him," which helped them acquire the reputation of being cursed objects. As a precaution, every night at the stroke of twelve, the mask room is locked from both the east and west side, because "the masks like to do pranks" and after midnight "they will start to walk" – terrifying everyone unlucky enough to encounter them. And against this backdrop the other participants of the upcoming charity event arrive.

This group consists of a rock star, a well-known photographer, a popular baseball player and tarot prophet. The cast of characters is further rounded out by the assistant of the president and a pair of twin sisters who work at the mansion as maids. So the stage is properly set for some good, old-fashioned shenanigans.

During the night, Conan gets a phone-call from inside the house and the caller is nobody less than the Phantom of the Cursed Masks. The Phantom tells Conan that "the Cursed Masks are high for blood," a sacrifice and to hurry, or they won't make it, but there's a lot of confusing and running around – because the locked doors of the mask room separates the house in the east and west wing. However, they eventually arrive at the bedroom door of Beniko, but the door is double-locked from the inside. One of these locks is a big, sturdy padlock. So the window above the door is shattered and Conan climbs through the opening to open the room from the inside.

The "Case Closed" Look

The bedroom is littered with the González masks and Beniko is on her bed, a knife-wound to the throat, but nobody else is found in the room! A second door in the room was sealed years ago with bolts and the windows were shut air-tight. You couldn't fit an arm through the narrow bars of the grill above the bolted door. So how did the murderer enter and leave this tightly-shut bedroom?

I accidentally stumbled to the first step of the locked room trick, because the divided layout of the mansion and the bloodstained handle of the knife recalled Roger Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells (1932). You can say that these stories handle the knife in a somewhat similar way, but the comparisons end when the murderer of this story elaborates on this idea by creating a diabolic and nightmarish way to kill inside a locked room – an original idea complemented by the visual medium. You get to see the locked room trick unfold in front of your eyes and this ensures the explanation of this seemingly impossible murder is played-out to full effect, but the natural, down-to-earth solution does nothing to diminish the nightmarish quality of the murder's work. Some would probably argue that the trick is more terrifying than an unsolved murder with hints of the supernatural. Edgar Allan Poe would have approved.

The murderer and motive were easier to spot, but you only need a passing familiarity with a certain trope of these mystery anime and manga series to be able to do that. Somehow, the writers of these series have a fondness for a particular plot-motif, which tend to make the murderer standout in a crowd of suspects. Yozaburo Kanari mastered that like no other.

But the main attraction of The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly is the ingenious, nicely clued impossible murder and the combination of originality, execution and presentation makes it a (minor) classic of the locked room genre. Highly recommend!

I'll end this post with a thank you to Ho-Ling for bringing this delightfully macabre locked room mystery to my attention. Now we'll wait and see how long it will take me to get back to the Detective Conan movies!