4/18/19

Modern Myths: "An Urban Legend Puzzle" (2001) by Rintaro Norizuki

Rintaro Norizuki is a Japanese mystery writer, a founding member of the shin honkaku (neo-orthodox) movement, who began, like so many writers in this movement, as a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club – before officially debuting with Mippei kyoshitsu (The Locked Classroom, 1988). One of many Japanese detective novels I would like to see translated in the future.

The Exploits of Rintaro Norizuki
Norizuki is the current President of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan and has won several awards for his short stories and novels, which are heavily inspired and indebted to Ellery Queen.

The protagonist in most of his novels and short stories is his mystery writing namesake, Rintaro Norizuki, who forms a father-and-son detective team with his dad, Chief-Inspector Norizuki. However, this is only a superficial resemblance. Norizuki has garnered a reputation as a purveyor of extremely logical puzzles that can only be solved by logical reasoning. So no wonder our very own Ho-Ling Wong is quite a fan of the series.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, only two of his short stories have been translated into English in the past fifteen years. The most recent translation was the brilliant "Midori no tobira wa kiken" ("The Lure of the Green Door," 1991), published in English in the November, 2014, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and collected in The Realm of the Impossible (2017), which presented the reader with a brand-new solution to the locked room problem – making it the crown jewel of that anthology. Back in 2000s, "Toshi densetsu pazuru" ("An Urban Legend Puzzle," 2001) was translated and published in the January, 2004, issue of EQMM. The story was very well received and was later included in two anthologies, Passport to Crime (2007) and The Mammoth Book of International Crime (2009).

Somehow, "An Urban Legend Puzzle" has always managed to elude me, but finally decided to track down the story in order to relieve my insatiable hunger for more shin honkaku detective stories.

"An Urban Legend Puzzle" has a plot-structure I can't help but associate with G.K. Chesterton's "The Dagger with Wings," collected in The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), in which the plot is slowly unfolded and dissected during a conversation between two characters. In this instance, Chief-Inspector Norizuki tells his son about a homicide case he has under investigation.

A second-year student in the Sciences Department at M-University, Matsunaga Toshiki, was stabbed to death with an ice pick in a one-room apartment in Matsubara, Setagaya Ward – shortly after a drinking party with other university students broke up. One of the students, Hirotani Aki, forgot her cell phone and returned to the apartment, but she found the door unlocked and the apartment was pitch-black. Aki assumed Toshiki had gone to bed and forgot to lock the door. So she didn't want to wake him up and searched around the apartment in the dark for her phone, before leaving quietly. 
 
On the following morning, a delivery man found the body of the student lying in "a pool of blood on the floor of the 8-tatami-mat-sized room" and a disturbing message was left in blood on the wall: "Aren't you glad you didn't turn on the light?" Rintaro Norizuki recognizes the phrase from "a popular urban legend" and together they go over who of the students benefited, or were disadvantaged, from embellishing the murder with the urban legend motif. This makes for an interesting and original backdrop. They also test the alibis of the students and go over every possible scenario, which results in various false solutions getting smashed to pieces. And this is a very satisfactory approach to fans of detective stories that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

"An Urban Legend Puzzle" is a cleverly contrived, extremely logical story with a solution hinging breaking apart "a solid alibi," but the story is so logical and fair that an observant or long-time mystery reader can easily put the whole thing together – which is the only flaw in this otherwise great story. So not in the same league as the locked room classic "The Lure of the Green Door," but still an excellent specimen of the pure puzzle-plot detective story and the shin honkaku movement. I hope more of Rintaro Norizuki gets translated in the future.

On a final, somewhat related note: I've noticed for a long time that schools, universities and student characters are staples of shin honkaku, but Ho-Ling mentioned in his review of The Locked Classroom (linked above) that they're mainly staples of anime, manga and light novels – because they geared at a younger audience. However, you can still find them in your regular shin honkaku novels. Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) and Alice Arisugawa's Koto pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989) has characters that are members of university mystery clubs. Katsuhiko Takahashi's Sharaka satsujin jiken (The Case of the Sharaka Murders, 1983) is a scholary-cum-historical mystery with a university setting. One of Keigo Higashino's series-detectives is an assistant professor of physics.

So I have begun to wonder if this has anything to do with the influence from all those university mystery clubs that have produced so many of shin honkaku writers. Add the Japanese school-culture, with all its problems and ghost stories, and you have all the material you need for a detective story.

4/15/19

The Complete Cases of Inspector Allhoff, vol. 1 (2014) by D.L. Champion

Back in January, I reviewed D.L. Champion's "The Day Nobody Died," a richly plotted locked room mystery from the pages of Dime Detective Magazine, which resembled one of those clever short stories by Ellery Queen, but as good as the plot were the cast of series-characters – spearheaded by an angry, bitter and unhinged former police detective. Deputy Inspector Allhoff of the New York Police Department was "the NYPD's ace detective" until "bullets from a mobster's machine gun robbed him of his legs."

Allhoff was too good a detective to lose and the department creatively doctored the books to keep him, unofficially, employed and refer to him "such cases as the department couldn't or wouldn't handle." Lamentably, the consequences of that botched arrest and shootout would continue to extract a heavy toll on everyone involved.

Deputy Inspector Allhoff lost not only his legs and a promising career, but had to move into a filthy, cockroach infested flophouse across from headquarters. As a result, his sanity buckled under the traumatic injuries to both his mind and body, turning him into "a bitter misanthrope," who delighted in verbally abusing and mentally torturing the man he personally holds responsible for his situation, Patrolman Battersly – who Allhoff demanded be assigned to him as his personal assistant. Battersly is routinely bullied by Allhoff with "grotesquely embellished" accounts of his "momentary cowardice." This has left the young policeman in a constant state of anxiety.

Stuck between this rock and a hard place is the narrator of the series, Sergeant Simmonds, who had been "dragged down from a good desk job" to take care of the paperwork, but is to ensure Allhoff and Battersly don't kill each other. And he was slowly going nuts as he had to watch Allhoff's "cunning mind devise new methods of torturing the younger man."

A few years ago, Altus Press began reissuing this series, seventeen of the twenty-nine stories, which were collected in The Complete Cases of Inspector Allhoff, vol. 1 (2014) and The Complete Cases of Inspector Allhoff, vol. 2 (2018) with an introduction by Ed Hulse. I'm not overly familiar with the pulps, but, going by what little I have read, this series was certainly better than "the typical penny-a-word prose found in the Bloody Pulps." So let's take these stories down from the top.

I'll try to keep the reviews of the individual stories as brief as possible to prevent this blog-post from becoming a bloated mess.

This collection opens with "Footprints on a Brain," originally published in the July, 1938, issue of Dime Detective Magazine (hereafter, DDM) and brings Detective-Sergeant Carrigan, of the Chicago Police, to New York when the person he had been assigned to protect died under suspicious circumstances – which could have either been a suicide or murder. Richard B. Hadley was dying of cancer and had been working on a tell-all memoirs, but, when he had completed the manuscript, he apparently turned a gun on himself and pulled the trigger. However, Carrigan believes he had been murdered. Allhoff agrees with his opinion and deduces part of the truth from such clues as a pack of razor blades, a postage stamp and the chattering of Chimney Swallows. The other part, namely ensnaring the murderer, requires the setting of a clever little trap.

So, as the introductory story in this series, Champion had to establish his series-characters and their bizarre, borderline sadomasochistic relationship. This means there's more abuse here than normally. Allhoff really goes to town on poor Battersly and, by the end of the story, he's reduced to a broken, sobbing mess of a human being. Allhoff deserves sympathy for having lost his legs, but makes it impossible to give him any, because he's a first-ballot Hall of Fame piece of shit.

The next story, "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead," originally appeared in the September, 1938, issue of DDM and this time it's not Battersly who takes the brunt of Allhoff's abuse, but one of "the smartest and crookedest lawyer" in town, Philips – who had "bought more juries than Jim Brady had diamonds." Philips made the mistake to call Allhoff a legless, smug little gnome and proceeded to throw coffee in his face. So now he's determined to nail the lawyer for the murder of his business partner, Gregory L. Somers, who was found with a bullet in his head on the floor of his office.

Don't worry, this is an inverted detective story, of sorts, in which Allhoff plays a risky game of cat-and-mouse with a crooked, but highly influential, lawyer. Sergeant Simmonds even remarks that, if he can think his way out of this mess, he'll "go down in history as Machiavelli, the second." Allhoff undeniably has a Machiavellian streak and a complete disregard for the rule of law, which is a fatal combination that planted Philips in the electric chair. So a good how-to-catch'em type of crime story.

The third story, "Lock the Death House Door," was originally published in December, 1938, issue of DDM and is the second impossible crime in this series listed by Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991). But I hope there are more in this, until recently, incredibly obscure and hard-to-get series.

Battersly has had a date with Ruth Manning and she happens to be the daughter of a convicted murderer, Morris Manning, who Allhoff put on death row and is less than twelve hours removed from his execution, which Allhoff sadistically use as cudgel – telling Battersly to remember he put her father on the chair when he's wiping away her tears. However, Battersly has an unpleasant surprise for Allhoff. The D.A. office is “digging out a pardon for Manning” on the strength of evidence Battersly has uncovered. Someone even confessed to have been the murderer. Allhoff is beyond himself with fury and vindictively sets out to destroy the newly surfaced evidence, because Manning must and shall burn in the hot seat – a problem complicated when the man who had confessed is murdered in locked and guarded prison cell. This is another how-to-catch'ems with a simplistic locked room mystery thrown in the works.

So not quite the classic locked room story, like "The Day Nobody Died," but still a good story.

The next story is "Cover the Corpse's Eye," first published in the July, 1939, issue of DDM, which began on a positive note for the downtrodden, browbeaten Battersly. He was instrumental in the arrest of a notorious murderer, Ronnie Regan, who appears to have shot and robbed a well-known banker, Alfred Sontag. Allhoff was livid and relentlessly started to rain on his parade by finding someone else to put in the electric chair. The solution is not entirely original and very pulpy, but it was adeptly handled here by Champion.

"Dead and Dumb" was originally published in the October, 1939, issue of DDM and opens with the absolutely impossible, not a murder in a hermetically sealed room, but peace and tranquility reigning in the slum office of Allhoff, which has miraculously persisted for five days. Sergeant Simmonds even heard him singing fragments of The Missouri Waltz! This changes the moment a cab-driver staggered into the room, supporting a mortally wounded man, who had demanded to be brought to Allhoff instead of the hospital.

Unluckily, the victim is a deaf mute and he dies before he can communicate with them, but Allhoff is clever enough to link this murder to a reported suicide at the Rickerts Institute, on Long Island, which is an asylum for deaf mutes – where a third murder is committed right under Allhoff's nose. A suicidal move when you're faced with an unforgiving, vindictive and merciless opponent, like Allhoff, who only finds pleasure in cornering people. And watch them squirm. Another good story with an interesting background and a clever take on a very EQ-like motive.

The next story, "A Corpse for Christmas," was originally published in the December, 1939, issue of DDM and is, without question, the standout story of the collection.

The story opens two days before Christmas and Allhoff is bah-humbugging the merriment of the season. A merry period in which "a million morons get drunk" and go home "to beat their wives" or the Nazis who'll "undoubtedly blow thousands of British into little pieces," but the demented Ebenezer Scrooge in deerstalker is visited by his very own Ghost of Christmas – who becomes one of his most formidable opponents in this series. A breathtakingly beautiful woman visits the slum apartment on behalf of the Society League's Holiday Aid Organization. She brought a covered basket with "a real old-fashioned Christmas dinner to the worthy poor."

Allhoff is furious at this kindly offer, but exploded when the woman tells him not to let his "foolish pride" stand in the way of a delicious turkey, because why would he deprive himself of "two fat legs." That remark was the proverbial match that lit the powderkeg. However, Allhoff has not seen the last of this unflappable woman. She turns up again in a bizarre murder/suicide case on Long Island, but she possesses a cast-iron alibi. At the time of the double shooting, she was in the apartment getting yelled at by Allhoff. So, if she did it, how could she have been in two places at the same time. An excellent detective story with an alibi-trick worthy of the alibi-breaking stories by Christopher Bush
 
The next story is "Sergeants Should Never Sleep" was originally published in the March, 1940, issue of DDM, which turned out the be only dud in the collection. The story began promisingly with Sergeant Paul Hamtrack requesting to be temporarily assigned to Allhoff, in order to study his method's first hand, but Sergeant Hamtrack is notorious career yes-man. Adding an additional strain to the torturous, daily routine of Battersly and Simmonds. Unfortunately, the apparent problem of "a killing done by a sneak thief" degenerates into a World War II spy tale with an obvious solution.

The next story, "Turn in Your Badge," was culled from the pages of the June, 1940, issue of DDM and opens with the news that the body of Lieutenant Mike Arnold, of the Racketeering Squad, had been pulled out of the river with his feet in a block of concrete and his tongue cut out – complemented by nine bullet holes. Allhoff is shocked by the news and annoyed that his daily reports from Headquarters are late, but this has a very good reason. Acting Commissioner Blakely has decided to sever their "unofficial connection" and gives him a week to sort out his affairs. Allhoff was fucking furious.

Blakely arrested a well-known gangster for the murder of Sergeant Arnold and Allhoff is convinced the murderer disguised his work as a mob killing, because it was complete overkill. So he wants to find the real murderer and uses the life of an innocent man to mercilessly destroy Blakely and secure his unofficial standing within the department. Battersly and Simmonds were not happy with this outcome, to say the least. And they were so close to freedom they could actually taste it.

"There Was a Crooked Man" is the penultimate story, originally published in the August, 1940, issue of DDM and has Allhoff rudely turning down a huge fee to privately investigate a murder, but accepts an offer to investigate the very same murder when a crippled man asks him to. Champion used a lot of handicapped characters in his stories and, in this volume alone, there are blind characters, deaf mutes and cripples, which also play some part in the solution. So I was able to foresee which direction the plot was taking. Still a very well put together story, but the solution was not difficult to anticipate.

Finally, the collection closes with "Suicide in Blue," first published in the October, 1940, issue of DDM, which is a quasi-impossible crime about a series of threatening extortion letters demanding money and refusal to pay has fatal consequences – accurately predicting the date and time of their date. One of the victim's a policeman, Sergeant Wheeler, who apparently committed suicide with his own Service Revolver. Obviously, this turned the suicide into a murder, but Allhoff disagrees and sets out to prove a suicide and find a murderer. And, of course, he pulls it off. However, Allhoff pulls one of his nastiest trick to date on poor Battersly. Something that could have easily pushed him over the edge. What can I say? Allhoff is a bit of a dick.

So, all in all, The Complete Cases of Inspector Allhoff is an excellent volume of high-quality pulp detective stories full with grotesque, broken characters, sordid murders and often clever plots, but not every reader today will be able to put up with the vindictive, acid-tongued Allhoff. A truly sadistic, mentally unhinged character and the ultimate anti-hero. In my opinion, the only true weaknesses is that every single story goes over the series origin story, which becomes repetitive after the third or fourth story. You can easily skip these endlessly rewritten passages after the first story. My second complaint is that only one of the stories, "A Corpse for Christmas," came close to the superb "The Day Nobody Died." Most of the stories here were pretty good, but not anywhere near that classic short story.

However, this will not deter me from getting the second volume. Despite the sadistic, broken and weary main-characters, Champion created an original and unforgettable series like no other in the genre. Simply fascinating and highly recommended, if you think you can stomach Allhoff.

4/12/19

The 3-13 Murders (1946) by Thomas B. Black

Thomas B. Black was an American writer who began his career as a jack-of-all-trades, working in a refinery, a credit institution, a bakery and a munitions factory, but he also tried his hands at writing crime-fiction and his first novel was The Whitebird Murders (1946) – which was rapidly followed by two more novels in 1946 and 1947. His fourth and final novel, Four Dead Mice (1954), was published seven years later.

Black has been pretty much forgotten today, but during his short-lived career he had no less a figure than the lauded mystery critic and writer Anthony Boucher in his corner.

In his short, but snappy, reviews for The San Francisco Chronicle, Boucher praised The Whitebird Murders as "one of the better recent hardboiled debuts" and marked The 3-13 Murders (1946) as "a far above average hardboiled novel" with "good dialogue, credible toughness, solid plotting" and "plentiful excitement." I'm an aficionado of, as Boucher calls it, the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective story, but Rex Stout and Bill Pronzini have given me an appreciation for that stylish, incorruptible voice of the hardboiled gumshoe – who prowl those mean streets in fedoras and trench-coats. I remember someone describing them as a modern-day knight's quest or realistic superhero stories about capeless crusaders, but I believe this genre is at its best when there are plots to go with the stories.

So, needless to say, Boucher's review, short as it was, caught my eye and he didn't overstate the merits of the book. The 3-13 Murders proved to be one of the best, if not the best, hardboiled detective novels I have read.

Al Delaney is a private-detective for the Redman Detective Agency in the fictitious Chancellor City, but when his boss, Giles Redman, was murdered he took over the agency. However, Delaney had refused to remove his name from the frosted glass door and honored his memory with "a wall-hung Indian head" and a large photograph of Redman. The picture and wooden head are flanked by "photostatic copies" which explained "the fate of the persons responsible for his death." And this unfortunately spoiled the name of his murderer.

Delaney has the looks of a streetwise, hardboiled gumshoe, whose nose had been beaten crooked with a blackjack and "one cheekbone was scarred" where "a hopped-up knife artist" had tried "to carve his initials," but behind this face is a brain. And there's even a decidedly Sherlockian element present in this series. Delaney has his very own Wiggins. A newsboy, Bill Smith, who helps him here with proving an alibi. Delaney tells to the reader that, if ever had a kid, he hoped the child would have "a full measure of Bill's quickness, loyalty, born-in-the-bone courage and honesty."

The 3-13 Murders begins when Ray Vance, a news hawk, phones Delaney from the brownstone of a prominent member of Chancellor City's upper-crust society, Fred Tolsi, who has a dead dame in his home with her throat cut – only problem is that nobody has any idea who she is. Tolsi claims to have been at the theater at the time of murder and gives Delaney a two-thousand dollar retainer to get him out of this jam. So he begins by trying to prove his alibi, but also follows various leads that bringing him from a low-end, crime-ridden neighborhood, simply known as the Row, to the thickly wooded hills of the city limits. Delaney always takes a Yellow Cab.

One of the leads brings him to a Yogi-ish cult, headed by "The Great I-Give," who promotes flexibility as a mean to salvation, because Delaney found a copy of their newspaper, The Prophet, in the brownstone. There was also a drab-looking woman walking up and down the street to peddle the newspaper at the time of the murder. Or what about the fat, yellow-faced man in a long green coat who Delaney bumped into when he arrived at the home?

However, this merely the beginning of his problems. Fred Tolsi's elderly neighbor, Mrs. Brant, is brutally murdered with a shotgun blast to the face and Delaney gets another client, Helen van Nesst, who hires him to retrieve a diamond her husband, Sheridan, lost when a card game erupted in a brawl – most of these leads are directly tied to the criminal activities in the Row. Fascinatingly, the story is set during a period when there was a stigma on illegal narcotics even among the common criminals of the Row. They are terrified of what could happen to the Row, if the Fed ever gets wind of it.

Naturally, they hardly allow this possibility to hamper their activities, but Delaney has become a liability and eventually has to deal with a hired gun from out of town. A girly-faced hit-man, "The Boston Kid," who has a final confrontation with the gumshoe that could have been a scene in a Western.

The 3-13 Murders is, until the ending, an expertly paced, well-written and characterized, but fairly regular, hardboiled detective novel. And then Black begins to unravel the solution to the whole case, layer by layer, which turned out to be more complex than it appeared on the surface. When I was trawling the web for background information on Black, I came across a review of The 3-13 Murders that ended with the advice to "take a deep breath." Oh, boy, he was not wrong.

The identity of the murderer took me by complete surprise and one of the murders was revealed to have been a gimmicky, quasi-impossible crime reminiscent of John Rhode. You can even make a case that the first murder was somewhat of a locked room mystery. There were more clues here than I have ever seen in a hardboiled novel and that included Pronzini!

So, all things considered, The 3-13 Murders is one of the finest and cleverest hardboiled detective novels ever written, which I recommend, unreservedly, to all. Whether you like the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective story or the hardboiled narrative of the lone crusader. You'll get both for the prize of one! So expect it to make an appearance on my best-of list at the end of the year.

4/10/19

A Melee of Miraculous Mysteries

Years ago, I compiled a list, entitled "My Favorite Locked Room Mysteries II: Short Stories and Novellas," which covered, as one of the comments pointed out, impossible crime tales from the well-known locked room anthologies amalgamated with a handful of more obscure stories – such as Robert Arthur's unsung classic "The Glass Bridge" (collected in Mystery and More Mystery, 1966). I wanted to update this list for years, but simply had not enough material at my disposal to expend on it.

So I have been discussing more short story collections and single short stories on this blog, which has brought some gems or interesting curiosities to light. I'll be drawing on these reviews when I have read enough to finally update the list. This blog-post is meant to reduce the glut of single short stories clogging my pile of unread detective stories. I'll be going through them in the order I have read them.

Craig Rice's "...And Be Merry" is a short-short story of three pages, originally published in the January, 1954, issue of Manhunt and confronts John J. Malone with the impossible poisoning of Alma Madison. She was found dead in a locked dinette, but Captain von Flanagan, of Homicide, told Malone they had been unable to find even "a trace of cyanide in that whole apartment." The victim was under treatment of a psychiatrist and the explanation hinges on her eccentric behavior. An unusual short-short impossible crime story, but, sadly, also a very forgettable one.

Charles Larson's "Mail Me My Tombstone" appears to have been only published in the April, 1943, issue of Ten Detective Aces and is not listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).

Jim is a happily married writer of detective stories, but "the mad jangling" of the telephone briefly turns his life upside down. An old flame, named Rita Manning, has been arrested for the murder of her husband, Steven Loring, who was "a big-time gambler," but Rita tells him she was with her mother when three witnesses heard gun shots from inside the house – she wants Jim to solve the murder by posing as her lawyer. A complicating factor is that the house was securely locked and bolted from the inside with the sooth in chimney undisturbed. A minor, but pleasant, story with a solution obviously derived from a famous short story and the locked room-trick is a slight modification of an age-old trick.

Ed Bryant's "The Lurker in the Locked Bedroom" was originally published in the June, 1971, issue of Fantastic and blends fantasy, horror and contemporary crime fiction with a psychic detective and a classic locked room scenario – which was somewhat reminiscent of Edogawa Rampo (e.g. "The Human Chair" and "The Stalker in the Attic"). Aleister Houghman is called to the Swithit Hotel for Young Ladies where three young women have been assaulted and raped in Room 491, but the door of the room has "a latch, a safety chain and two bolt-type locks." So how did the perpetrator managed to get to the women? The solution is a pure, undiluted fantasy with a great and darkly humorous take on a classic trope of the horror genre, which kind of disqualifies it as a locked room mystery. However, it certainly is a memorable treatment of the impossible crime story.

E.C.R. Lorac's "Remember to Ring Twice" is one of the few short stories she produced, originally published in 1950 in the Evening Standard, which was finally reprinted in the anthology The Long Arm of the Law (2017).

Police Constable Tom Brandon overhears a conversation in the bar of The Jolly Sailor about five hundred pounds, an elderly aunt and being "fed up lookin' after the old lady." A week later, P.C. Brandon is walking his beat when this conversation comes floating back to him when, behind the locked front door of a house, he hears "a faint scream and a series of heavy thuds." The front door is unlocked and they find the elderly aunt at the bottom of the stairs with a broken neck. Unfortunately, the story was way too short to play and the solution too technical to be completely fair with the reader, but it certainly was a good police story. I liked it.

The next story I read was Harry Kemelman's "The Man on the Ladder," collected The Nine Mile Walk and Other Stories (1968), which everyone appears to like, but I didn't care for it at all. The quasi-impossible situation is a man falling to his death from a roof and the murderer has an iron-clad alibi, but the solution was infuriatingly obvious. And this made the second half a drag to read.

Finally, Eric Ambler's "The Case of the Overheated Service Flat," originally published in the July 24, 1940, issue of The Sketch and is one of only half-a-dozen short stories about the refugee Czech detective, Dr. Jan Czissar – who's a thorn in the side of Assistant-Commissioner Mercer. In this story, the police is trying to hook a notorious wife-killer, Thomas Jones, who prematurely buried three wives after they tragically died from carbon-monoxide poisoning. These deaths have left him a man of independent means, but the first two deaths have been shelved as unfortunate accidents. And the police really want to nail him for the murder of his third wife. Only problem is how to proof it.

The premise of the story is very similar to Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Wife Killer," collected The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009), which even has a clever, science-based solution that you would expect from Porges! I really liked this tale and you can expect me to return to this series at some point in the future.

So, all in all, this medley of impossible crime stories was the expected mixed bag of tricks, but I'm glad I can now cross them off my locked room column of my to-be-read list. I'll try to pick a non-impossible crime novel for my next read.

4/7/19

The Bloody Moonlight (1949) by Fredric Brown

Fredric Brown was an American pulp writer who "crossed genres like a demon, plotted like a madman" and "continually stretched the boundaries of any given genre," such as in the phantasmagorical Night of the Jobberwock (1951) and the tongue-in-cheek Martians, Go Home (1955), which are mostly standalone works. However, Brown also created a popular pair of private-detectives, Ed and Am Hunter, who are an uncle-and-nephew team appearing in seven novels and two short stories.

Ambrose "Am" Hunter is a former carnival barker turned private-eye, working for the Starlock Detective Agency, who became a mentor to his young, inexperienced nephew, Ed Hunter, when his father was murdered on his way home from work – which is a story Brown told in the often praised The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947). So that's quite an origin story for a detective-character!

I've only read two Am and Ed Hunter novels, The Dead Ringer (1948) and Death Has Many Doors (1951), but they were good enough to keep the remaining titles on the big pile. Not to the mention the delightfully bizarre short impossible crime story "The Spherical Ghoul" (collected in Death Locked In: An Anthology of Locked Room Stories, 1987).

The Bloody Moonlight (1949) is their third outing and John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, recommended it as "an innovative blending of science-fiction, horror and detective novel plot devices" with a "subtle twist." I agree!

The story begins when a wealthy client of Ben Starlock, Justine Haberman, engages his agency to figure out whether or not "a new gadget" is worth a five-thousand dollar investment and he puts the Hunters on the case – telling them to keep expenses at a tidy twenty-five bucks. But this assignment has a peculiar angle from the start that rapidly begin to multiply involving "strange signals" and werewolves!

Stephen Amory is Justine Haberman's half uncle and an inventor with a steady income from things he has invented and patented. Lately, he has been tinkering with a new device that can receive signals, which has been picking inexplicable clicks. A repeated series of four clicks. So could these signals be coming from the fourth planet, Mars? Amory has said the signals probably aren't coming from one of our neighboring planets, but then why has he been trying to buy a star globe and borrowing books from the library on astronomy?

I know of two mystery writers who used a radio to make their characters believe they were listening to voices from beyond the grave (i.e. EVP). John Rhode's The House on Tollard Ridge (1929) and Agatha Christie's short story "Wireless" (collected in The Hound of Death and Other Stories, 1933), but an "interplanetary radio" receiving possible signals from Mars is a new one to me, which is why I loved it when they come down from the stars to visit the detective story – because they often bring something unusual or innovative to the table. Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954) is a classic example of this.

Anyway, Am and Ed Hunter travel down to the small town of Tremont, where Amory lives, but Am immediately recedes into the background of the story as Ed takes the lead. You can say that The Bloody Moonlight is a hardboiled coming-of-age, or a baptism by fire, for the twenty-one year old detective who has been on the job for less than three days. And, before too long, he's finds himself neck deep in a murder case.

On his way to Amory's home, Ed is stopped dead in his tracks by the growl of an animal, "a bestial, vicious, murderous sound," which came from the edge of a thick underbush to his right and caught a glimpse of a white, oval face – standing man-high and growling like an animal. Something that "straight out of a horror program on the radio." 

So he hightailed it out of there, but when he got to a bend in the road he saw a man lying in a ditch between the road and an orchard. His throat had been torn out. But this is still only the beginning of his troubles in Tremont.

Sheriff Jack Kingman hates Chicago hoodlums and the only thing he hates even more is "a Chicago private dick."

So he's not exactly enamored with Ed Hunter when he reported the murder only to discover that the body has disappeared without a trace. Not even a drop of blood is found in the ditch! Sheriff Kingman is not amused and works over the rookie detective in the privacy of his own office, which results in cracked ribs and Ed left the police station a changed man. To use his own words, "the first time you're ever beaten up, especially when it's unjustly and through no fault of your own, does something to you. It's like when your parents die; it's like the first time you ever sleep with a woman. It does something to you; you aren't quite the same after that." Ed is determined to settle this business with the sheriff before leaving the town or part of him would be left lying on the floor of the police station.

A second distraction comes in the form of a beautiful librarian, Molly, who makes Ed feel a little weak in the knees, but this plot-thread comes to unexpected and slightly embarrassing end. I told you this was a hardboiled coming-of-age story of a young detective. Justine Haberman even commented that he appeared to have matured a good three years since the last time they talked, because Haberman had the idea she had been talking with an eighteen year old that time.

Ed still has to determine the veracity of the interplanetary radio and Amory's opinion on the radio signals he has been receiving is even more fascinating than the rumors that he's been listening in on a Martian civilization. Not to mention the werewolf murder.

John noted in his previously mentioned review that this story is one of those rare detective novels that treats lycanthropy "as a mental illness," rather than "relying on the usual mythology and legends found in werewolf movies that threat the phenomenon as real," which is actually more terrifying – because the criminally insane exist outside of the printed page. Unfortunately, the answer to the werewolf is not exactly, what you call, a rug-puller. However, every single plot-thread is dovetailed so beautifully that you can't possibly be left disappointed when you turn over the final page.

If there's anything to complain about, it's that Brown completely overlooked the possibility to blow his readers away with a tragic and devastating epilogue.

It's not a spoiler to say that the signals didn't emanate from Mars, or any other celestial body, but what if an epilogue had been added taking place on that planet. A scene depicting an elderly Martian overlooking his devastated and dying planet, which used to be the home of a great civilization, but a disaster has reduced them to a small, dwindling nomadic tribe traveling from one shallow watering hole to another. Just trying to survive in this extremely hostile environment. This elderly Martian looks up to the stars and wonders if they could have been saved, if they had the means to send out a distress signal to that blue planet where an advanced species had slowly began to emerge when a comet had ended theirs. Admit it. This would have been a great note to end the book on.

So, all of that being said, The Bloody Moonlight is still a pretty good, hardboiled detective story with a stacked plot, chuck-full of eerie and blood-curdling murders, which doubled as a tough coming-of-age story. I recommend it!