City of Libraries: "The Climbing Man" (2015) by Simon Clark

Simon Clark's novella "The Climbing Man" is a pastiche of Conan Doyle's immortal detective specifically written for an all-original anthology of new Sherlock Holmes stories, entitled The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad (2015), which Brian Skupin listed in Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019) – describing a honey of an impossibility. This time, it was not the promise of an original-sounding locked room murder that attracted my attention, but the archaeology-theme and backdrop. I love archaeological mysteries and there are not enough of them. The impossible crime here is merely a bonus. 

"The Climbing Man" takes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, tasked with stamping out "a vipers' nest" of plunderers determined "to loot Mesopotamia of its ancient riches." A criminal gang who employed Arab riflemen, clad in gray, who passed themselves of as legitimate protection for travelers and archaeologists.

When the story opens, Holmes and Watson have made off with a dhow (sail boat) crammed with stolen artifacts, but the gray-shirts on the riverbank pepper the boat with bullets and they're pretty much sitting ducks – even succeeding in wounding the Great Detective. Only the hand of providence guided the boat away from the gray-shirts, down the Euphrates, "towards one of the most baffling mysteries" they encountered. Holmes and Watson end up at an dig site of two archaeologists, Edward Priestly and Professor Hendrik, where two generations have been working on excavating the subterranean tunnels, basement and vaults of the buried city of Tirrash. A once legendary city referred to as Bibliopolis or the City of Libraries.

Three thousand years ago, the city was attacked and destroyed, but, before the barbarians destroyed and plundered the city, the people emptied the libraries of the clay tablets. These clay tablets were "carefully stored in the basements beneath the houses and sealed shut," which remained intact and undisturbed under the desert sands for most of recorded history. But a perplexing, modern-day mystery is discovered in one of its sealed chambers.

A few years ago, Edward Priestly's brother, Benjamin, vanished without a trace from the excavation site and a week ago, they discovered his naturally mummified body in a place that begs for a rational explanation.

During an exploration of an underground passageway, they discovered one of the many hidden vaults, doorway sealed with stone blocks, which "has not been disturbed in three thousand years" and began their meticulous, scientific examination – cutting a small aperture in the wall to look inside. What looked back at them was Benjamin's dry, shriveled face! A second aperture gave them a better view of the body, but it deepened the mystery only further with a second impossibility. The mummified body clung to the wall, facing the stonework, arms outstretched above his head as if he's climbing or "trying to escape from his grave." So the problem is twofold: how did the body end up in a 3000-year-old sealed and undisturbed chamber with four feet of dust covering the floor and how "the devil was he glued so high up on the wall" like "a gigantic spider?" And to give the problem some urgency, the guards hired by the two archaeologists turn out to be gray-shirts. The game's afoot!

The problem of the body in the underground sealed chamber has, as to be expected from its premise, a two-pronged solution. Firstly, the explanation as to how the chamber was entered is not something that will excite many locked room readers, but how the body ended up stuck to the wall was kind of marvelous. A trick that perfectly fitted, time-wise, with the type of impossible, or weird, detective fiction that being written during the Doylean era of the genre. It's the kind of trick/solution you would expect to find in L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898). Unfortunately, "The Climbing Man" also shares the clunky, uneven clueing of the detective stories from that period. Such as when Holmes was collecting evidence and slipping it into an envelope, but Watson only caught a glimpse of "a glittering item." You have to wait until the solution to find out what, exactly, he found. So you only have some room to do some educated guesswork.

Nevertheless, neither the uneven clueing nor the anti-climatic confrontation with the gray-shirts could spoil this thoroughly entertaining and absorbing story that made excellent use of its archaeological setting. I also appreciate it when a pastiche treats someone's else creation with respect and not unduly temper with the original, which can be simply achieved with Sherlock Holmes by giving him a complicated, knotty problem to occupy "that remarkable brain of his." And that's exactly what Clark did here. 

A note for the curious: "The Climbing Man" was not Clark's first foray into the realm of impossible crimes and locked room mysteries. Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures (1997) contains Clark's "The Adventure of the Falling Star," which is not listed in Skupin, in which Holmes is asked to investigate the disappearance of a meteorite from a collection in a locked laboratory. So, yeah, that story has now been added to my special locked room wishlist. Something else that's now on my wishlist is an anthology of Sherlock Holmes locked room/impossible crime pastiches (Sherlocked!).


Death in the Grand Manor (1970) by Anne Morice

I've mentioned in the past how the sheer size and scope of detective fiction, published between 1920 and 1960, never ceases to astonish me as every time I think I've got a pretty good idea what's out there a never-heard of writer, novel or series gets unearthed – which has been the only constant in my genre excavations. This has been increasingly spilling over into other periods, regions and sub-genres of the detective story proper. 

Over the past few years, I discovered a lost generation of traditional, 1960s mystery writers in Kip Chase, Charles Forsyte and Jack Vance. I tumbled down the fathomless rabbit hole of the old-school, juvenile detective story and there's a growing tide of translations of originally non-English mysteries.

Recently, Dean Street Press reprinted the first ten mystery novels by Felicity Shaw, published as by "Anne Morice," who was completely unknown to me, but she made a splash upon her debut in 1970. Morice's maiden novel garnered praise from such luminaries as Anthony Berkeley ("a modern version of the classical type of detective story") and Edmund Crispin ("a charming whodunit"), which was encouraging and profitable enough to continue writing mysteries until her death in 1989. During those two decades, Morice wrote twenty-five mystery novels with most of them starring her actress and amateur detective, Tessa Crichton, but the series faded into obscurity upon her death – remained out-of-print for the better part of three decades. So it was a welcome surprise when DSP announced they were planning to reprint this forgotten series and their new editions come with an informative introduction by genre-historian and professional fanboy, Curt Evans. Let's take a look at her first mystery novel. 

Death in the Grand Manor (1970) introduces Tessa "Tess" Crichton as she's traveling down to an unspoiled, out-of-the-way hamlet, Roakes Common, where her eccentric playwright cousin lives with his teenage daughter, Emma, and second wife, Matilda. Toby Crichton had invited Tessa to spend a few weeks at his house, but a two-week long invitation "boded something more than normal cousinly give and take." She doesn't have to wait very long to find out what's behind the generous invitation.

There's a snake in every Eden and in Roakes Common "the snake took the form of a whole family," the Cornford, who lived in the large Manor House. Douglas Cornford had recently bought it as a home for himself, his wife Bronwen and their two boys, but their "surly manners and urban attitudes" began to grate on everyone. General opinion is that Douglas Cornford is quite harmless when left to his own devices, but they hold the foul, anti-social Bronwen responsible for all the trouble – usually perpetrated by her "wretched boys." Interestingly, the Conford boys appear only two, or three, times, but when they do it's as "humpty-dumpty figures" peeking over a wall to make "obscene and cheeky gestures" or bolting from a garden with a frightened kitty in it. Like they were two pestering demons tormenting the villagers.

I thought the Cornford boys were an effective and lively background detail, but Morice had to fade them out of this sparkling, lighthearted mystery because they likely had a hand in killing Emma's dog with a barbed-wire trap.

So an anti-Cornford League had began to form and one of Toby's neighbors want him to join, but he, always willing to be contrarian, always defended them "like a brave little Lord Fauntleroy whenever they were attacked." He finally accepted a dinner invitation to hear them out under the condition that he could bring his cousin along. Tess is there on a peace keeping mission of sorts.

While in Roakes Common, Tess gets to experience firsthand Bronwen's personal brand of rudeness and the family's little ways of pestering their neighbors with pungent bonfires or planning to ruin their garden view with the building of some hideous monstrosity. She's also one of the half-a-dozen witnesses of Douglas viciously assaulting his wife and "would have murdered her if he hadn't been prevented in the nick of time." All of this nicely sets the stage for a classically-styled village mystery with a few modern touches, but, as the story progresses, a problem began to emerge. Death in the Grand Manor is undeniably a bright, lively and polished story or, as Crispin described it,"a remedy for existentialist gloom," but Morice used it primarily to introduce her characters to the reader – relegating the plot to a secondary role. Such as Tess meeting the love of her life, Detective Inspector Robin Price, who she marries in the second novel.

So, in detective story terms, the book is mostly padding to couch and stretch out a relatively simplistic plot. Yes, it was quality padding, but padding nonetheless. The plot doesn't really begin to stir until roughly the halfway mark.

When a body finally turns up, face down in a ditch, Tess doesn't begin to act as detective until the last quarter of the story and then only halfheartedly. She tabulates the motives, opportunity and the psychological probability of the suspects, but decided to redo the list with different value when the first result revealed her cousin had "the best opportunity and the flimsiest alibi." She didn't really shine as a detective here and the fact that the story acknowledged it didn't miraculous improve a rather simple and routine plot. Now, I did think the murderer's identity, alibi-trick and motive were a nicely done nod to a very well-known mystery writer, but nothing too complicated and wouldn't recommend it as a continuation of the pure, Golden Age detective story. Just a spirited imitation of one.

However, Death in the Grand Manor was Morice's first novel and she obviously wanted to establish her cast of characters, which came at the expense of the plot, but, hopefully, Murder in Married Life (1971) will have a meatier plot. That one is already on the big pile and the premise sounds promising. So stay tuned!


Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit (2021) by P. Dieudonné

Last year, I reviewed P. Dieudonné's third novel, Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020), which spectacularly broke away from the Amsterdam School of Dutch politieromans (police novels) to present a classically-styled detective novel coated with a modern varnish – centering on no less than three fantastically done, dare devil impossible crimes. Not something you would expect from A.C. Baantjer or his followers. 

So I wondered what, exactly, Dieudonné had in store with his fourth novel, Rechercheur De Klerck en het lijk in transito (Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit, 2021). An unbreakable alibi? A dying message? Another impossible crime or locked room mystery? The story turned out to be a straightforward, Baantjer-style police novel, like Rechercheur De Klerck en het doodvonnis (Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence, 2019), but with more plot-threads, solid piece of misdirection and a genuine whodunit pull.

Alexander van Oldenborgh is the fourth-generation director of Van Oldenborgh International Movers, specialized in removals on a global scale, who came to Inspectors Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver, of the Rotterdam police, to file a report – as he has been receiving telephone calls and letters with "a threatening, insinuating undertone." The threats come from an ex-employee, Jos van Trijffel, who raped a female co-worker thirty years ago and "simply disappeared from the face of the earth." Shortly after Van Oldenborch's departure, De Klerck and Klaver are dispatched to a brothel where a man has been shot and killed before he could get back in his car.

The victim happens to be a long-time employee of Van Oldenborch's company, Wilbert de Zeeuw, who caught Van Trijffel in the act thirty years ago before he escaped and disappeared. But is there a connection or merely a coincidence? De Zeeuw was talking with a man at the club, named Eddy, who was overheard saying to the victim "don't think I'm going to save your ass." He also had more money than can be accounted by his salary. So was De Zeeuw a casualty of "a heated conflict among criminals" or the victim of a revenge killing? De Klerck and Klaver have more on their plate than just this one murder. 

Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit opened with Klaver telling De Klerck that the half-decomposed, unidentified remains of a man was discovered that morning on the Maasvlakte inside a shipping container from New Jersey. He was shot to death with the crime scene likely being on the other side of the world, which is a nightmare for both the American and Dutch police. So they're glad the case is a problem for the harbor police, but, as you probably guessed, there's a link with their investigation. However, the solution to this plot-thread is not as obvious as it appeared to be on first sight. On a somewhat lighter note is the friendly competition playing out in the background between the police of Rotterdam and Utrecht to catch a slippery lingerie thief.

Somehow, one way or another, everything is linked with the elusive, ever-present Van Trijffel in the background who might actually be responsible for thinning out the ranks of suspects as all of the murders carry the same M.O. – two gunshots to the chest. Dieudonné played a marvelous, but risky, hand in tying everything together while trying to distract the reader away from the murderer. I had my suspicions about the murderer, but this character was such a strange, oddly-behaving piece of the puzzle that I didn't know where, or how, it exactly fitted into the plot. So when that was explained, I felt a little cheated at first, but it really wasn't a cheat at all. Just a clever bit of misdirection that walked a fine, slippery tightrope with the stone cold motive being hardest part to swallow. Something that initially didn't ring entirely true, but, on second thought, it made sense and was (kind of) hinted at. Let's just say Dieudonné and De Klerck got the better of me here. 

Inspector De Klerck and the Corpse in Transit can be summed as an old school whodunit, masquerading as a contemporary police novel, which gratefully exploited the modern world to create a knottier, more intricate plot than usually found in these type of police novels of the Amsterdam School. More importantly, Dieudonné figured out how to write a Baantjer-style novel without becoming a pale, watered-down imitation. So many have tried over the decades. For example, they gave the 2000s TV adaptation of Janwillem van de Wetering's Grijpstra & De Gier a diluted, Baantjer-like formula. Even the man himself, Appie Baantjer, tried to catch lightening in a bottle twice when he co-created the Bureau Raampoort series with Simon de Waal in 2009, but they never got it down quite right. Most of them were more concerned with the recreating the superficial features that sold close to ten million copies and kept millions of viewers glued to the TV for more than a decade.

So most of his imitators and following have little more to offer than a nostalgic placebo, but Dieudonné created with Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver that can breath on its own without being weighed down by the comparison, because he did two things radically different. Dieudonné smartly moved away from Amsterdam as a setting, which has been done to death, but also the attention given to the plots makes the series standout. Very few Dutch writers who tried their hands at one of these police novels gives this much care and attention to the plot, clueing and misdirection or continually showed improvement.

Needless to say, this series comes highly recommended to all my Dutch readers and look forward to the next installment.


Lost in Space-Time: "Scenes from the Country of the Blind" (1977) by John Sladek

Back in 2017, I reviewed John Sladek's often overlooked short detective stories, collected in Maps: The Uncollected John Sladek (2002), but there are a few stray stories that, somehow, ended up in his science-and weird fiction themed collections – such as the short-short parody "The Locked Room" (collected in Keep the Giraffe Burning, 1978). Someone at the the time pointed out he wrote another, virtually unknown, impossible crime story about a town vanishing into thin air. 

"Scenes from the Country of the Blind" was originally published in the anthology A Book of Contemporary Nightmares (1977), reprinted in the August, 1983, issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and collected in Sladek's Alien Accounts (1982). So you know where to find it.

The story concerns three scientists, Latham, Corcoran and Smith, who run the Paranormal Experience Research Group and hope to "pry open a few eyelids" with their experiments. What they try to do is "test for ESP in animals" with a maze experiment involving two groups of rats, which have yielded promising results, but they have to deal with "a creature who swam in a private sea of skepticism," Dr. Harry Beddoes – who's always willing to test their theories to destruction. Dr. Beddoes wields Occam's Razor with "relentless skepticism," which began to annoy Latham. But he has something that might blunt his razor.

In their personal Library of Paranormal Experiences, they have thousands of letters on file from ordinary, reasonable intelligent people who "had some puzzling, even inexplicable experience." One letter told a story both "uncanny and evidential."

Mr. Durkell wrote the scientists to tell how he glimpsed a village, through a small copse, on his daily commute, where he knew there shouldn't be a village. There it was, complete with half-timbered houses and smoking chimneys, only to wink out of existence a few seconds later. Leaving behind nothing but empty fields! The village reappeared a week later, on the same day, which was seen by two witnesses and a road map showed the place, Mons, actually exists. But not for very long! The whole village disappeared a second time and another look at the road map showed nothing remotely close to a place named Mons!

This puzzling phenomena of a village that doesn't exist, except on Tuesdays, coincided with the disappearance of a farmer's wife in the same vicinity. So what's going on?

Dr. Beddoes naturally doesn't believe in a "rupture in the space-time fabric" or "some other universe running parallel to ours" and delivers to Latham a completely logical and rational explanation for the vanishing village and disappearing name on the road map – pointing out all the clues in Mr. Durkell's letter. I've seen variations on that map-trick before, but Sladek came up with something entirely new to make a whole village vanish like a popped soap bubble. Every locked room reader knows how restrictive this kind of impossibility really is, because a moving train, a room or even a house doesn't allow for much wiggle room or trickery. So it was impressive to see him do it with a populated village. My only gripe is that it probably wouldn't work a second time with the same witness. I can believe an unsuspecting person can be fooled by it, but, someone on the lookout, is likely to notice something.

Other than that little niggle, "Scenes from the Country of the Blind" is another weirdly overlooked, practically unknown, but excellent, short detective story by that unsung master of the post-war locked room mystery – effortlessly combining an original impossible crime with a multi-layered, story-within-a-story plot. Just like in "The Locked Room," Sladek told multiple, overlapping stories on a little more than a dozen pages. So more than deserving of your attention and to be considered for a future locked room-themed anthology.


The Chinese Doll (1946) by Wilson Tucker

Wilson Tucker was an American movie projectionist, theater technician and science-fiction writer who made his start in the science-fiction fandom as a fanzine publisher, notably The Planetoid and Le Zombie, which he did intermittently from 1932 to 2001 – coining the term "space opera" and invented "tuckerization." Tucker is considered to be one of the earliest and most influential figure in the fandom, but he put his name to something far more important. He wrote detective novels! 

Tucker's series-character is a small town private investigator, Charles Horne, who helmed a handful of novels beginning with the subject of today's review, The Chinese Doll (1946).

The series is written in the hardboiled tradition with treacherous dames, dangerous gangsters and crooked politicians or bend coppers, but The Chinese Doll has a plot praised by Anthony Boucher in The San Francisco Chronicle. Boucher applauded the sound writing, exciting plot and "the surprise ending" with "a trick which Agatha Christie might well envy." So that earned it a top spot on my wishlist and recently stumbled across a cheap, battered copy of the Dell mapback edition. Why not? And the story definitely lived up to its promise. But you won't realize it until the penultimate chapter! The hallmark of a good detective story, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Charles "Chuck" Horne is the only private investigator in the small town of Boone, Illinois, who was abandoned by the woman he loved, Louise, three years ago. Louise is a political reporter and her work brought her to the capitol, but promised to return in five years under one, nonnegotiable condition – he had to write her everyday. So every chapter is a letter to "my dearest Louise" in which Horne recounts what happened to him that day. And from these letters emerges a bizarre, complicated case that appears to be all over the place. But looks can be deceiving. 

The Chinese Doll opens in Horne's office where's killing time, trying to keep warm and working on his book, Lost Atlantis, when "the goddamnedest thing" happened. A powerful, barrel-chested, but apprehensive, man entered the office and tossed "a lovely heap" of green bills on his desk. Harry W. Evans tells Horne that tomorrow, or the next day, he'll be in jail, but has no idea why. It could be for carrying a gun, spitting on the sidewalk or ignoring a stoplight. Evans simply doesn't know, but he wants Horne to be there to bail him out or contact his lawyer. So what he expects is to be framed, but nothing like goes on in Boone and the local publications "certainly wouldn't stand for monkey business in the police department." But a job's a job. Except that this one doesn't pan out quite as he expected.

Horne watches from his office window his departing, but Evans had taken five or six steps from the curb when a sedan smacked him down and "killing him deader than hell."

So starts a typical, hardboiled roller coaster ride taking Horne from Boone to Chicago, but the plot needed, or two, coincidences to keep everything moving with one of them being a little hard to swallow – which happened when Horne met a beautiful Chinese woman in a sedan. She mistakenly picks him up and drops him off at a remote barn. A place where things happen that aren't, strictly speaking, legal and turns out to be closely-linked with his dead client. Otherwise, the story moved along nicely as it began piling on the incidents and complications. Such as a body pulled from a frozen lake with a burned matchstick stuck in its throat, a Chinese symbol connecting various characters and incidents, Horne's expired detective license which somehow cannot be renewed and Evans membership to an amateur press association. Boucher remarked in his review that the press association plot-thread was fascinating, but "badly integrated" into the story. Tucker definitely indulged himself a little, but it didn't detract from the overall story and gave it a memorable scene.

Horne travels to Chicago to meet with an amateur publisher, Joquel Kennedy, who he coincidentally meet before their scheduled appointment in front of a store window. In the window, "stomping mechanically," is "zombilike something in striped trousers and frock coat" billed as "Roboto – The Electric Man! Is He Human or is He Monster?" There was a thick electric cable snaking from an outlet to an opening in the trousers, but Horne and Kennedy are the only ones who are skeptical. After all, they argue, "a real robot wouldn't be wasted in a drugstore window selling hair oil." Horn even subtly, and very politely, hackles the robot. I liked it.

There's not much else what happens between the opening and closing chapters, but turned out to be practically identical as my recent experience with Roger East's Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935). 

Twenty-Five Sanitory Inspectors, too, began as a well written, amusing enough mystery, but halfway through, you begin to wonder if its going anywhere and whether there's enough to make the ending payoff. Surprisingly, it managed to do just that! The Chinese Doll played the same game. It gives the reader the impression that they're reading a loosely plotted, coincidence laden dime novel that belongs on a drugstore pulp rack only to pull the rug from underneath the reader's feet in the end – revealing some of sliest clueing and misdirection I've come across in a long time. Now, not everyone's going to buy that audacious ending, but it was fairly done and a marvelously tricky tightrope walking act across a slippery wire. Tucker reached traversed it without losing his balance and breaking his neck. Most satisfying of all is how it was all done in the open!

So, all in all, The Chinese Doll might look like a run-of-the-mill, pulp-style dime novel, but with a great surprise waiting for the reader at the end of the ride and marred only by the many coincidences needed to link every thing together. Beside that one caveat, The Chinese Doll deserves to be better known just on the strength and originality of its solution and clueing. Even if it may raise an eyebrow or two.


Homicide with Homework: Leonard Thompson's "Squeeze Play" (1946) and "Close Shave" (1946)

Leonard Thompson was a 16-year-old teenager when he wrote "Squeeze Play," a homage to John Dickson Carr, which he submitted to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine without disclosing his age, but the editor deduced his age from the corrections in "a decidedly youthful handwriting" – ensuing correspondence confirmed their suspicion. And came with an offer to buy the story. 

Thompson's "Squeeze Play" was eventually published in the January, 1946, issue of EQMM and introduced as "an absolutely remarkable piece of work" by a 16-year-old with a wholly original locked room-trick "completely worthy of comparison with John Dickson Carr's." But even without the introduction, it's not difficult to see on whose work the story was patterned. Thompson's short-lived series-character is William S. Gray, a drunk, rude and washed-up lawyer, who was obviously modeled on Carr's one-shot detective from The Bowstring Murders (1933), John Gaunt. The central premise and locked room situation were taken from The Judas Window (1938), but Thompson discovered a new angle to that eerie, phantom-like Judas window that only murderers can see through.

William S. Gray unexpectedly gets an opportunity to get back in the game and the prospect of a large fee when Louise Marlowe asks him to defend her husband, Nigel Marlowe, who's a mystery novelist accused of murdering a psychiatrist, Dr. Lane – who treated Louise for a neurotic condition. A jealous Marlowe suspected an affair and made an appointment to confront him, but it ended with Marlowe standing over Lane's corpse with a revolver in his hand. There are enough witnesses and evidence to prove Marlowe was alone with Dr. Lane in his office and the open window was blocked by a door standing ajar. So, if someone did shoot from the window into the office, "the bullet would have to pass through the door," but "there were no holes in the door."

A tight, complicated problem and, to make things even more difficult, Gray only has a week to prepare the case. And tells his client to write a big check to pay fines, because he's "liable to be fined for contempt of court more than once." Courtroom shenanigans and wizardry inbound!

Gray puts on a good show and Judge Thompson (very cheeky, Leo) fines him several hundred dollars for his foolishness and even has to report to his chamber, but Judge Thompson returns to gravely inform everyone that the defense counsel is, mentally and physically, "a sick man" – asking the witness to apology for calling him foolish and refrain from inciting him further. However, it's not all immature tomfoolery as Gray demonstrates how someone else could have fired the fatal show while doing decent job at obscuring the murderer's identity.

You can eventually piece most of it together, but the only thing detracting from this truly inspired piece of impossible crime fiction is that it sorely needed a floorplan. In every other regard, Thompson perfectly captured the essence of a John Dickson Carr-style locked room mystery penned with all the youthful, unpolished enthusiasm of Carr's own 1920s short stories and early 1930s novels, which he wrote when he wasn't that much older than Thompson. A very impressive diamond-in-the-rough that comes highly recommended to fanatical locked room readers and rabid Carr fans.

Thompson wrote one more short story, "Close Shave," which appeared in the May, 1946, issue of EQMM and follows the same formula as the previous story. Gray is asked by Julie Sparrow to defend her father, Edward Sparrow, "the most successful criminal lawyer in the country" who has to stand trial for the murder of an artist, Anthony Wills. A difficult case as nobody else appears to have been able to commit the crime.

Edward Sparrow wanted a portrait of himself done and turned to his friend, Wills, who decided to do the painting at his country cottage and they were accompanied by a fun, lively family party – laughing and joking as they drove to the countryside. Wills had grown a shaggy, three-day growth of beard and a target for most of the jokes. So he promised to "shave the damn thing off" as soon as they arrived at the cottage, but, when they were in the washroom together, Wills was shot while saving. Nobody else was in the room beside them. The door was shut with Sparrow standing in front of it and the window "locked, rusted into place." Gray faces a Herculean task of proving the impossible did happen and defending his client on a plea of innocence, which seems like madness.

Luckily, Gray is slightly cracked and, since attack is the best defense, charges into battle with all the grace and tact of a snorting warhorse. He tells the District Attorney that he's fat and lazy, called one of the witnesses a "loose-lipped bum" in court and the bit with his surprise witness would not have been out of place in one of Carter Dickson's Sir Henry Merrivale novels. However, the whole plot and, in particular, the locked room-trick were better than anticipated.

I suspected from the jovial, lighthearted mood of the party that the locked room-trick was a variation on that old dodge of two people staging a practical joke, like a fake murder, but the accomplice turns on the "victim" and makes it real murder – right after everyone thinks the murder had already taken place. A classic locked room technique favored by writers of the Carr-Chesterton school of impossible fiction, but Thompson came up with an entirely different kind of explanation. A trick that's a little less typical of Carr, but convincingly presented and one of Carr's contemporaries would have been proud of it. There's also an interesting sidetrack on ballistics and modified bullets.

Thompson showed much potential in his freshman detective stories and the ending of "Close Shaved" included excerpts "from your Editor's letters to Master Thompson" with constructive criticism and tips. The editor at the time was, of course, Frederic Dannay, who prophesied that the reader was "witnessing the development of a young writer" who "should, some day, be one day one of our most shining lights." A third story never materialized and, to my knowledge, never returned to the detective story as a writer. I've been unable to find out what happened to him or why he stopped writing, but, going by his age in 1946, the obituaries I came across could mean he had long and hopefully good, fulfilling and healthy life. And that's one of the very few things more important detective stories.


The Lucky Policeman (1938) by Rupert Penny

Rupert Penny's The Lucky Policeman (1938) is the fourth, of eight, detective novels in the Chief Inspector Beale series and Penny's present-day champion, "JJ" of The Invisible Event, named it his best novel in his blog-post "Policeman's Lot – Ranking the Edward Beale Novels" – praising it as Penny at his "most potent." A recommendation from Jim always need to be approached with some caution and his praise for Sealed Room Murder (1941) is dodgy as hell. But fair's fair, he was kind of right about Policeman in Armour (1937) and Policeman's Evidence (1938). 

So I decided not to cynically go with the bottom-ranked title, She Had to Have Gas (1939), as my next Penny, but blindly trust Jim's judgment on this one. What could possibly go wrong?

First of all, The Lucky Policeman turned out to be a little different from what I expected. I thought it was going to be Penny's take on the Golden Age-style serial killer story, in which the detective has to find the common-link in a series of apparently random murders, but The Lucky Policeman is played like a straight detective story with the serial killings taking place in the background. Well, more or less.

Professor Hilary Peake is an American psychiatrist and "the gold-star alienist" who came to England, in 1931, where he bought a large, old mansion in New Forest and converted it into a private asylum – only has two patients on his hands when the story begins. A religious maniac and a man, Simon Selby, who's quite normal most of the time, but, every five or six weeks, "he breaks out into mental eruptions." Strangely enough, the only thing to lessen the periodic attacks is to let his hair grow unrestricted and denied him the attentions of a barber for the past three years. Nothing else was achieved and Selby became Peake's most puzzling patient. And then he unexpectedly escaped under very peculiar circumstances!

The nurse discovered a dummy in Selby's bed, two of the outside windows bars were ripped away and missing. Selby was gone and nowhere to be found. A week after his escape, people began to disappear from the area of New Forest: a servant girl, a girl hitchhiker and a reporter, which called for a wide and intensive search. But during the search, Sergeant Lee goes missing and his body is later found lying near a tree with a stabbed with something that left a hole "as big as a two-shilling piece" behind his right ear. Even weirder is that the murderer had taken the sergeant's left boot. Over the next few days, more bodies turned up with identical wounds and their left shoe missing.

Chief-Inspector Edward Beale, accompanied by Anthony Purdon, takes on the case and the multi-faceted problem gives them much food for thought. So they're not just preoccupied with chasing an escaped, homicidal maniac.

One of the central puzzles is how Selby managed to wrench two bars from stonework, scaled a brick, twelve feet high wall in his pajamas and evaded capture without supplies – making it a borderline impossible crime. Just a shame he didn't went all out with it as the explanation for the removal of the bars could have been used in two different ways to create a tight locked room scenario. However, the story was already quite packed and another plot-thread that has to be examined is Peake's backstory and why he left America, which happened when he got caught in the meshes of a New York matriarch who led "a home-made army against half the world" in 1929. She has her own reasons to suddenly reappear. There are the finer details of the case, like the shoes, weapon and a burglarized cottage, but Penny overlooked the body the reporter. I don't recall it was mentioned anywhere that his body was found, which made me very suspicious (in combination with something else) and distracted me from the real solution.

Having now read four of his novels, it becomes noticeable how much Penny liked his backstories and background details. Penny wrote and plotted like a historian, which is a double-edged sword as it could easily kill a story. This approach did murder the pace of Sealed Room Murder to the point where even the admittedly original locked room-trick couldn't save the whole mess, but it certainly benefited Policeman's Evidence with its historical subplot and treasure hunt. Penny's fondness for locked rooms, timetables and intricate, maze-like plots probably kept him in check, but shudder to think what the result would have been had he been more interested in characterization than plotting. Thankfully, we got the Rupert Penny puzzle edition.

Penny knows how to occupy his reader's attention with the various plot-threads and then abuse it to distract them, although not always fairly, but the equal amount of attention given to the clues makes it a pardonable offense. 

The Lucky Policeman is, technically speaking, a sound piece of work with the who, why and how neatly coming together in the last chapter, preceded by a false-solution with an excellently handled twist, but I couldn't help feel a little let down – as some things turned out to be less inspired than anticipated. For example, I thought the clue of the stockings was much better than the shoe business.

So, all in all, The Lucky Policeman is a technically-sound, fair play detective novel with enough clues and red herrings to keep you busy for three or four hours, but, somehow, it wasn't quite as convincing or satisfying as it could have been. And while its light years ahead of Sealed Room Murder, I wouldn't place it above either Policeman in Armour or Policeman's Evidence. That being said, The Lucky Policeman still offers a highly unusual take on the GAD-type serial killer and it definitely helped that the murderer's identity was somewhat off the beaten path, which makes it well worth the attention of every fan of puzzle-oriented mysteries. Beale is starting to grow on me as a character ("Damn! I never thought of that"). You can expect more Penny in the future.


The Case of the Unfortunate Village (1932) by Christopher Bush

Three-and-a-half years ago, Dean Street Press began the long overdue process of bringing all of Christopher Bush's sixty-some detective novels back into a print. A mystery writer who was to the unbreakable alibi what John Dickson Carr was to the impossible crime, as demonstrated in Cut Throat (1932) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936), which gave me a whole new appreciation for ingeniously thought out, well executed alibi-tricks – quickly making Bush one of my favorite mystery writers. Bush had more to offer than merely a collection of tricky alibis. 

Bush had a knack for building complicated, maze-like plots out of double murders committed in close proximity, of time or place, in which he was practically alone. J.J. Connington is the only one who comes to mind who specialized in the kind of plots that can be found in Bush's Dead Man Twice (1930), The Case of the Bonfire Body (1936) and The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) (c.f. Connington's The Case with Nine Solutions, 1928). So he got a lot mileage out of that plot device, but what turned these plot-technical marvels into gold are his series-detectives, Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George "The General" Wharton, who played off each other perfectly. And you can never tell who'll reach the solution first. 

So the 1930s period of the series comes highly recommended to everyone who prefers the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective story, but the wartime years brought a chance to the series and Bush's home front trilogy, The Case of the Murdered Major (1941), The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942), signaled a huge shift – gradually adopting the trappings of the American hardboiled school. The plotting became less baroque and Travers, who became the narrator during the home front trilogy, turned into a genteel private investigator. A transformation that was completed when the 1950s rolled around and the post-war malaise in Britain offered a perfect backdrop for the new tone of the series (e.g. The Case of the Fourth Detective, 1951).

Nevertheless, while not every novel from this period is as good as his 1930s novels, there are still some minor gems to be found. Such as The Case of the Counterfeit Colonel (1952) and The Case of the Flowery Corpse (1956), but my preference goes to his elaborate, baroque-style 1930s novels. I've wanted to return to that period in the series for some time now and to one title in particular. 

The Case of the Unfortunate Village (1932) is the eighth novel in the Ludovic Travers series and, no matter the period, one of Bush's most atypical mysteries. There's nothing showy or particular complicated about the plot. In fact, it's a surprisingly character-driven mystery centering on a series of incidents, personality changes and accidents that have befalling the village of Bableigh.

In this early novel, Travers is still a directors of Durangos Limited, a consulting and publicity firm, who takes "the fact that every question has two sides" as "an incentive to hunt for a third" and has found two outlets for his inquisitive nature – writing books and playing detective. Usually, he sticks his nose in official police business, but this time, Travers has to act as an amateur detective in its purest form as many of the characters aren't even aware an investigation is carried out. The peculiar problem requiring a discreet investigation is brought to him by an old school friend and local magistrate, Henry Dryden, who believes "something sinister or ominous" has descended on his village. Bableigh is really "a hamlet perched on top of a ridge" with a church, post office, tiny school, smattering of cottages and a very small arts colony. Everyone got along swimmingly, until recently, when personalities began to change and the atmosphere was poisoned.

Marian Crome is an ultra-impressionist painter whose "work underwent a sudden and curious change," which Dryden denounced as "utterly repulsive and even bestial." Ashley Mound is a sculptor who "developed into a very annoying kind of hermit" following the passing of his invalid wife. There are two middle-aged living companions, avid gardener Agnes Rose and potter Harriet Blunt, but the spinsters started quarreling and separated. Miss Rose has become unbearable to be around. Lyonel Parish is the vicar and used to be "quite a jolly fellow," but "his change was the worst of all." All of his natural cheerfulness was replaced with "a false and loathsome geniality." This sudden change that has come over the village is punctuated by the death of the impoverished squire, Tom Yeoman, who was found shot with his own hunting rifle. It was ruled an accident, but what happened to his dog?

Dryden doubted the accident explanation at the time, but didn't want to make trouble for the widow and her children, because a suicide verdict would have annulled Yeoman's life insurance.

So Ludovic Travers and John Franklin, head of the Detective Bureau of Durangos Limited, discreetly begin to poke around the village and find all kind of small mysteries that thicken the plot. Who planted the mass of forget-me-nots? Who buried and dug up the dead dog and disposed of it again in someone else's garden? Who tore up Miss Rose's garden? What happened to the clay sculpture of the devil that Travers saw through Mould's studio window? Why is everyone behaving out-of-character? And is there a possibility that there's a coven of witches and satanists in the village?

Since "the whole thing is unofficial," Travers and Franklin can do little more than talk to people, theorize and stirring the pot a little, but, while they're discreetly poking around, villagers begin to die right and left – ruled as either accidents (bicycle crash) or natural deaths (heart failure). You shouldn't expect too much of them, as howdunits, except for an attempted murder very late in the story, which has a clever trick. So the who-and how is not all that important and the former becomes fairly obvious before too long. What's important is the motive and how it dovetails with the bizarre, out-of-the-ordinary happenings in the village with the characters/psychology taking the front seat. This makes the story more like a Gladys Mitchell novel than an Agatha Christie mystery. You can best describe The Case of the Unfortunate Village as Christie Murder is Easy (1938) as perceived by Mitchell. Are you still with me, Jim? Don't close that tab! :)

A warning to the reader: one aspect of the murderer's motivation is not going to be popular with some readers, but rest assured, Bush refused to use it as an excuse to have weak, barely existent motivation to let a murderer go ham on everything with a pulse that moves (I'm looking at you, Philip MacDonald). Bush handled the motive as expertly as a cast-iron alibi and showered the reader with clues. The Case of the Unfortunate Village opens with a challenge to the reader telling the reader they have all the material at their disposal from the outset that the detectives will receive in driblets. And the end of Chapter 9 even gives the reader an opportunity to cheat! It's up to you to decide to accept, or decline, that shortcut. I decided to give it a pass, but the bravado to even dare offering it! I've never seen that done before. Not even Carr was that cheeky.

All in all, The Case of the Unfortunate Village is not as tightly or intricately plotted as Bush's alibi-oriented detective novels with linked-corpses, but the quiet, unassuming plot and storytelling made it one of the more compelling and absorbing entries in the series. A first-rate village mystery!


Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935) by Roger East

Roger d'Este Burford was an English diplomat, poet, novelist and a screenwriter who made a small splash in the early 1930s, as "Roger East," with a handful of detective novels promising the arrival of a really first-class detective novelist, but practically stopped writing in the mid-1930s – sporadically returning to the genre in the '50s and '60s. So he's not all that well remembered today. This is a pity as the Roger East novels discussed online are generally positive and praised as intelligently written and characterized stories with often intricately worked out plots. 

A few attempts have been made over the years to rescue East from the purgatory of biblioblivion, but without a lasting result. H.R.F. Keating picked the brilliantly-titled Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935) for his 1980s "Disappearing Detective" series, which was an early attempt to bring obscure, long-forgotten writers and novels back into print. Back in 2017, Mad Sheep published another reissue of Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors, but that edition and publisher vanished as quickly as they appeared. I believe that 2017 edition is even harder to get now than the original or any of the other reprints!

Nevertheless, Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors is East's most well-known detective novel and the easiest one to get your hands on. I eventually lucked across a cheap copy and can understand now why his scarcity is lamented by so many of my fellow detective addicts. 

Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors is the fourth and last outing for East's series-detective, Superintendent Simmy Simmonds, who Keating described as "something of a phenomenon in crime fiction," especially in 1930s Britain, as he's essentially the hero of a series of police procedurals – a sub-genre that would not become popular in Britain until the 1950s. Anthony Abbot, Helen Reilly and I believe Lawrence Treat were already experimenting with the police procedural in America. Superintendent Simmonds retired from Scotland Yard by the time of this fourth novel, but a forceful personality and a large fee gives him one last case as delightfully outlandish as Christopher St. John Sprigg's Death of a Queen (1935) and Peter Dickinson's The Poison Oracle (1974). 

Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors is set in a fictitious island nation, San Rocco, which is "a pocket-sized republic" in the West Indies where President Miguel and his wife, Carlotta, rule the roost. But they're financed by the millionaire owner of the Acropolis Theatre, Cinema and Hotel, Pero Zaragoza.

Zaragoza invested a lot of time and money to transform San Rocco into the most talked of resort in the Atlantic, "the Jewel of the West Indies," but things begin to go south and Zaragoza believes "some unknown saboteur is at work." First they had to kill a rumor that there was an outbreak of yellow fever in the hotel and then the clean linen of every guest is cut to ribbons. Next the world famous, ticket selling headline dancer of the Acropolis Theatre, the Carnation, is kidnapped to prevent her from performing and the house detective has disappeared – probably "bribed or intimidated." So he reached out to the recently retired ex-Superintendent Simmonds, but Simmonds is of the opinion that he has "wrestled with enough problems" for one lifetime. However, simple curiosity and a check got the best of him. There is, however, a small problem.

Back in Britain, Simmonds was backed by the entire, well-oiled machine of Scotland Yard, but in San Rocco he's a one-man show and his client agrees that the task is to complicated to be handled by a single man. So he ensures Simmonds not only gets all the assistants needed to properly investigate, but creating an entirely new department to give him both authority and an official position. Zaragoza goes to the president to ask him to create a new criminal investigation department with Simmonds as its (temporary) head, which is where the splendid book-title comes into play.

President Miguel agrees and gives the new Captain Simmonds, Chief of Detectives, the defunct, largely abandoned Ministry of Sanitation and their old uniforms, which only needed a change of buttons to turn them into police uniforms. The last man on his post at the defunct ministry is the ex-Minister of Sanitation, Aubrey Wilkinson, who's an overly enthusiastic and energetic young Englishman. Aubrey doesn't let any grass grow over the resurrection of his ministry as a criminal investigation department and began enrolling his ex-sanitary inspectors as plain-clothes detective. Yeah, the uniforms didn't go anywhere. Even with an official position, his own department and a "comic opera detective force" at his disposal, things don't get any easier for Simmonds as one of his detectives is murdered in an old-world way and there's attempted murder on his client – which killed one of his pet pumas. He also has to contend with San Rocco's Chief of Police, Colonel Sixola.

Some readers will probably scratch their head halfway through as they wonder if the plot is going anywhere and if it's enough for a rewarding payoff. The storytelling and characterization is amusing enough with its fish-out-of-water situation and the snippets of San Rocco politics has a tinge of Yes, Minister. But the plot began to give cause for concern.

I don't know if it was a good idea to go all out with the misdirection to the point where a lot of readers can't see the forest for the trees, but Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors turned out to be first-class example of under promising and over delivering. First of all, two-thirds of the way through someone is murdered in a watched and guarded office. Sure, the solution is not blistering original, but fitted the circumstances of the crime. Much better was the brilliant, cleverly hidden alibi-trick that had been sneaked pass Simmonds and the reader, but these are merely the mechanics of the overall the plot. The real punch is in the who-and why. A knockout punch that doesn't come until the last chapter when the murderer is confronted and the original motive is revealed, which also revealed how deviously I had been hoodwinked. Well played, East. Well played. So you can expect it to make an appearance on my 2021 best-of list.

Roger East was not only an excellent writer, but evidently knew a thing, or two, about plotting and if Murder Rehearsal (1933), Candidate for Lilies (1934) and The Bell is Answered (1935) are anywhere near as good as Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors, he deserves to be reprinted. Is there a publisher out there who wants to adopt this unjustly neglected GAD writer? Have a heart and give him a home.


Murder at Monk's Barn (1931) by Cecil Waye

John Street was one of the more prolific mystery writers of the genre's heydays, producing nearly a 140 novels in two long-running series under two different pennames, "John Rhode" and "Miles Burton," but Tony Medawar discovered a third, previously unsuspected pseudonym, "Cecil Waye" – adding another four titles to his already impressive bibliography. Not that this revelation made copies any less scarce. 

Even during the current reprint renaissance, only a minuscule amount of Street's work has been reissued and honestly didn't expect the Cecil Waye novels to find their way back into print anytime soon. Dean Street Press decided differently and reprinted Murder at Monk's Barn (1931), The Figure of Eight (1931), The End of the Chase (1932) and The Prime Minister's Pencil (1933) back in February. Medawar provided these brand new editions with an informative introduction about this almost forgotten, short-lived series.

A noteworthy point of the Cecil Waye novels is that the detective duties are performed by a brother-and-sister team, Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, who Medawar described as private investigators in the tradition of the 1920s Young Adventurers – like Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. And, to my knowledge, there practically were no other sibling detectives during this period.

Anyway, three of the four novels are "metropolitan thrillers," but the first novel is a detective story "very much in the style of the John Rhode and Miles Burton books." What's more, the synopsis promised the unraveling of an impossible crime! There you have another title for that third, hypothetical supplement edition of Locked Room Murders. 

Murder at Monk's Barn opens on a cold, dark winter evening in the village of Fordington when Constable Burden returns to his cottage, but duty soon calls again as "a sharp report" brings him back out on the street. A parlor-maid comes running out of Monk's Barn yelling that the master's been shot in his dressing room. Upstairs, the constable finds the body of Gilbert Wynter, an electrical engineer, slumped in front of the dressing-table with a shaving mirror on it and "a bullet wound in the centre of his forehead." Someone had fired a shot from the garden through the window, which requires an "amazing accuracy of aim," but more on that angle in a moment.

The public opinion and local police, represented by Superintendent Swayne, have their sights on Wynter's second gardener, Walter Mintern, who was sacked on the Saturday before the murder. Walter took it very badly and loudly threatened in the public-house "he would get his own back," but Gilbert's younger brother and business partner, Austin, suspects "the whole damn gang" at Fordington of "a damned low-down plot" without exactly knowing why – determining him to find out who killed his brother. So he turns to two private investigators, Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, who have a knotty tangle to unsnarl.

One of the knots is that the murder is something of an impossibility. How did the murderer enter the garden, fired a shot from the shrubbery and escaped unseen with Constable Burden standing in the street within seconds of the shot being heard? How did the murderer knew where to aim? The shot was fired through a closed window with the thick, heavy curtains closely drawn and the bullet had left a small hole in it. So how could the murderer have shot Gilbert? You can't see "a shadow doesn't show through a thick curtain" much less "hit it with a rifle bullet."

You can always rely on Rhode to come up with a nifty trick, or gimmick, good enough to carry the plot and sustain the story, which is a bare necessity with Rhode as his murderers tend to be easily spotted. Murder at Monk's Barn is no exception to the rule. The murderer here is not difficult to find and a second murder removed any doubt, but, once again, you can rely on Rhode to make a second murder as distinctly interesting as the first murder. This time, Rhode used the second murder to show the reader how a plot-technician handles a box of poisoned chocolates and made a good attempt along the way to misdirect readers who had already caught on to the murderer's identity.

So the entire plot rests on how these murders were committed and they were designed to hold it up, but it should be noted that despite the strong how-was-it-done element, it's not a humdrum affair at all – much more lively than your average Rhode or Burton novel. You can ascribe that to having two 1920s-style Bright Young Things as detectives and they added another complication to the case. Austin and Vivienne began to fall in love the moment the police directed their attention at Austin's beautiful motive, ample opportunity and a non-existent alibi, which made her rush towards the solution ahead of her brother. She pieces together the solution from physical clues (e.g. pottery shards) helped by her understanding of human nature. A very well done combination of the intuitionists and realists approach and one of the many details that made this such a rich and rewarding read.

In many ways, Murder at Monk's Barn is a typical Dr. Priestley or Desmond Merrion novel with the how being more important than who-and why, but the detective-characters make all the difference here in both presentation and storytelling. So even with all the familiar touches and usual craftsmanship, Murder at Monk's Barn has something new to offer to readers already familiar with Rhode, but readers who'll be getting their first taste of Rhode can get an idea what to expect (plot-wise) from his other series. If you like what you read, I recommend you track down copies of The Bloody Tower (1938) and Invisible Weapons (1938).


Locked and Loaded, Part 2: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories

I cobbled together a hypothetical anthology in a 2019 blog-post, "The Locked Room Reader XI: Locked Out," which comprised of short impossible crime and locked room stories that were unjustly overlooked, or ignored, by editors and never appeared in any of the well-known, locked room-themed anthologies – published between 1968 and 2020. I ended the post with a personal wishlist filled with obscure, long out-of-print stories with intriguing and promising-sounding premises. Why wait for an anthologist to get the hint and get to work on a personalized anthology? 

Last year, I reviewed seven, relatively obscure, short stories under the title "Locked and Loaded: A Selection of Short Impossible Crime and Locked Room Mystery Stories," which included an item listed from my original wishlist. Alexander, of The Detection Collection, deserves all the credit for helping me in my, uhm, scholarly pursuit. This time, he helped me cross even more titles from the big list. So let's get started!

Table of Content:

Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki" (1941)

James Yaffe's "Cul de Sac" (1945)

Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (1961)

Don Knowlton's "The Room at the End of the Hall" (1961)

Edward D. Hoch's "The Weapon Out of the Past" (1980)

John Hudson Tiner's "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" (1990)


Edgar D. Smith's "Killer in Khaki" was originally published in the February, 1941, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine of August, 1948. EQMM introduced the story as "one of the most ingenious variations" on "the always fascinating theme of the invisible man," but equally fascinating is the backdrop of the story. 

"Killer in Khaki" takes place in an army boot camp, located in the Canadian Rockies, where a man who should never have been a soldier has blended with the rest of his khaki-clad comrades and is now "moving with a quiet stealth" through the camp – knifing and bayoneting soldiers right and left. Someone who can "kill in the presence of a sentry" and "then vanish under everyone's nose." The bodies continue to litter the camp grounds until Private Enly realizes they've "gone about solving this case in the wrong way" and corners the elusive killer. I don't think the solution to the how, or who, is quite as ingenious as the introduction suggests, but the overall story is pretty solid and can only be compared to John Dickson Carr's massively underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955). 

James Yaffe's "Cul de Sac" appeared in the March, 1945, issue of EQMM and is one of half dozen short stories the then teenage prodigy wrote about Paul Dawn, of the NYPD, who's the head and sole member of "an obscure office of the Homicide Squad." An office known as the Department of Impossible Crimes.

Paul Dawn is "the foremost authority" on "murderers who disappeared as if by magic, corpses in impossible positions" and "all the headaches that surround the locked room." The problem brought to him in "Cul de Sac" concerns a spy who had been trapped by two policemen in a cul-de-sac with an incriminating document on him, but the man had been searched, X-rayed and practically turned inside out without result. Nor were there any places in the cul-de-sac where the document could have been secreted. Regrettably, the solution has a glaring flaw and Robert Adey mentioned in Locked Room Murders (1991) that in a subsequent issue of EQMM, the Yaffe and the editor apologized for not knowing the trick would never work. And that makes it the weakest story of the lot.

Bruce D. Pelletier's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" was published in the April, 1961, issue of EQMM and combines the armchair detective story with the locked room mystery to craft an impossible crime tale in the tradition of Carr, G.K. Chesterton and Paul Halter – which were threatened with extinction in the sixties. The hedgehog and fox of the title are Inspector Ishikawa, of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, and a professor of Moral Philosophy, John Balfour. Inspector Ishikawa called upon Professor Balfour to sound him out on "how it is that an old man can be stabbed in full view of people," during a closed door conference, "without even one of then knowing he was dead." Let alone having seen the murderer plunging the knife into the victim.

Admittedly, the mechanics of the impossible murder can be considered as fairly routine and not very difficult to solve, but what makes it standout is the philosophical underpinnings (religious and political) of the crime, which governed the actions of both the murderer and victim. Professor Balfour understands these philosophical underpinnings are as important as the physical clues and dovetails them to reveal a beautifully reasoned, somewhat Chestertonian, solution to the murder. So very well-written short story with an excellently realized backdrop and should be considered for inclusion in a future locked room anthology.

Don Knowlton's "The Room at the End of the Hall" was published in the July, 1961, issue of EQMM and is a fine example how a changing world opened, not closed, new avenues to explore. You just have to know your way around a plot to find them. 

"The Room at the End of the Hall" was published EQMM as a Crime Story and right up until the solution it plays out like a serious crime drama with some psychological touches as the protagonist seems to be going mad – one way or another. One night, Gerald Cartright is stumbling home from a class reunion with more than one drink behind him when he comes across a house. The house is in complete darkness except for "a brilliantly lighted room at the far end of the house" and, peeking through the window, Gerald can look down into a room at the end of a hallway. And what he witnesses, sobers him up immediately.

Gerald sees a beautiful woman standing in the center of the room with a tall, sinister-looking man standing behind her and he plunges a knife, up to the hilt, between her shoulder blades. She sank to the floor and the lights went out! Gerald hastened to the local police station and they smelled alcohol on his breath, but, to be sure, a constable goes to the house to investigate and finds that everything is quiet and peaceful. There's neither a body to be found in the house or a room brilliantly lighted by a big chandelier. So what did he witnessed? The police is willing to dismiss the incident as a drunken mistake, but words get around the "overgrown village" and begins to have serious consequences for Gerald's personal and professional life. Because he's either crazy or a drunk.

I instinctively guessed the solution, but dismissed it very quickly as it didn't appear to fit the tone of the story. Nonetheless, it turned out to be correct and some might find it a touch to light as an answer as to what, exactly, caused the disintegration of Gerald's marriage and career. Still a good, well-written crime story that interestingly used the time-honored locked room trope as a framing device for a psychological crime/suspense story. 

Edward D. Hoch's "The Weapon Out of the Past" was published in the April, 1980, issue of EQMM and stars his reputedly 2000-year-old paranormal investigator, Simon Ark, who believes he's destined to do "battle with Satan himself." Until then, Ark brings light in all kinds of weird, or seemingly impossible, crimes and inexplicable occurrences. "The Weapon Out of the Past" brings one of those weird, long-forgotten incidents to the present when an old, recently discovered, diary gives an account of a raid on a farmhouse in 1755. A raid locally remembered as the Battle of Lonely Tree during which an Indian hunting knife, "hurled by a French colonel," vanished in thin air. There was a "hint of witches and dark doings" about the vanishing knife, which is exactly what attracted Ark's attention.

Two hundred and twenty-five years later, the farmhouse has become the scene of a lively pageant reenactment of the skirmish with one notable difference: someone, dressed as a Colonial officer, is struck down by an old hunting knife in the very spot where it had vanished mid-air all those years ago! A wonderful premise and Hoch nicely tied to the two problems together, but I preferred the treacherous, double-layered solution to the vanishing knife more than how it reappeared two centuries later. On a whole, it's a good and solid Hoch story with a clever historical clue and red herring. I also liked how Ark had to conduct his investigation while people dressed as soldiers and Indians were running around the place and rubber-tipped arrows showered from the sky.

John Hudson Tiner's "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" is a short-short purely focused on the locked room puzzle and has, to my knowledge, appeared only in the December, 1990, issue of EQMM. The titular, nameless preacher is "legally insane" and the ethical adviser of Freedholder Enterprise. During a weekly staff meeting, the preachers hears of their intention to sack the company's ground keeper as the person responsible for the equipment in the shed, which he closed and padlocked on Friday evening – only to discover on Monday that everything of value had been stolen. Even the garden tractor was gone! I think seasoned (locked room) mystery readers will immediately recognize the trick, as they'll probably read one or two stories with variations of the trick, but Tiner was the first one to use it... in the 1990s. Hoch has a superior version of the trick that predates this short-short by a good three decades.

Interestingly, "The Preacher and the Locked Shed" only explains how the equipment was stolen, but not who's behind it. The preacher tells the staff that he never promised "to catch a thief," but "merely show a set of circumstances" showing someone else could have looted the padlocked garden shed. So not too bad for a short-short.