7/29/21

Murder Among Actors (1963) by Ton Vervoort

This year, I began exploring the work of an unjustly forgotten, long out-of-print Dutch mystery writer, Peter Verstegen, who wrote a handful of lightly written, but smartly plotted, detective novels during the early and mid-1960s – published as by "Ton Vervoort." Just two of his detective novels were reissued, in 1974, as part of Bruna's Zwarte Beertjes pocket series. So none of his detective novels has been in print for half a century and have since disappeared from the public's memory. And the pool of secondhand copies is beginning to dry up. 

Fortunately, the copies that still float around don't cost an arm and a leg or a spare kidney, which made it both urgent and easy to begin collecting them now. Who knows how rare and difficult to obtain some of these titles will become ten years down the road. Not much gets reprinted in my country unless its fashionable or really, really profitable. That hasn't done the Dutch detective genre any favors.

So it was a pleasure to come across Vervoort's Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologists, 1963), which seemed like an interesting book to contrast with W.H. van Eemlandt's astronomical-themed detective novel Dood in schemer (Death in Half-Light, 1954). 

Amazingly, the detective story centering on the pseudoscience of astrology turned out to be so much better than the whodunit staged during a minutely-timed, scientific observation of a solar eclipse. Murder Among Astrologists under promised and over delivered that came with one of those rare, Dutch-language takes on the Ellery Queen-style dying message, which I read as an open invitation to come back for seconds, thirds and fourths – revealing a top-tier, second-string mystery novelist. Having read three of them over the past few months, I've noticed Vervoort's detective series can be summed up as a bicycle tour through the genre and the Netherlands. 

Murder Among Astrologists is set in the millionaire's enclave of Bloemendaal with a plot that pays homage to the zany, Ellery-in-Wonderland mysteries complete with strange architecture and a dying message. Moord onder de mantel der liefde (Murder Under the Mantle of Love, 1964) started out as a closed-circle of suspects situation in a 17th century canal house until a serial killer cut loose and goes ham on the invalids of Amsterdam. Striking everywhere from the Rijksmuseum to the rowdy Zeedijk. Moord onder maagden (Murder Among Virgins, 1965) combines a convent school setting with the festive, seasonal holiday mystery beginning with the strange death of a student playing Saint Nicholas and moved from Amsterdam to Maastricht where the story concludes during the annual, three-day carnival celebrations. Vervoort even threw in a (minor) locked room problem that doubled as a (late) clue.

So he took a different approach in plotting and storytelling in each novel that regularly
ventured outside of the Amsterdam canal belt. This certainly is true for the subject of today's review. 

Moord onder toneelspelers (Murder Among Actors, 1963) is the second novel in the lamentably short Inspector Floris Jansen series and, as the title suggests, takes place among the members of a traveling theatrical company with a big role for his friend and narrating chronicler, Ton Vervoort – who gets to shine as a detective rather than as a Dr. Watson. Vervoort also falls in love here with one of the actresses, Sannah Wigman, whom he married in Murder Among Virgins. This time, it's Jansen who comes to Vervoort to ask him to go undercover as an extra in Erik Le Roy's theatrical company in a quasi-official investigation.

Until two years ago, Erik Le Roy was "one of the top actors who played the municipal theaters," but got too few starring roles to his liking and decided to start freelancing. A disastrous decision that reduced him to doing television bits and only turned his situation around when he began a theatrical company, which traveled "the provinces to bring art to the countryside" and claimed "principled motives" to turn down state subsidies. Although the truth is that the company doesn't qualify for state subsidies. But by doing production in-house, everything from translating and directing to lighting playing dual roles, they managed to turn a profit. Le Roy's financial success and his stance against drama schools acting as gatekeepers to the stage-lights made him popular with both actors and the always hopeful extras.

So who could possibly have a reason to send Le Roy threatening letters saying "you will die soon," "you will be dead very soon" and "it won't be long now." Jansen hopes it's a practical joke, but fears it could be a war of nerves to mentally whittle down the actor or even a murderer-to-be with plans to remove him in a more permanent fashion. Vervoort goes from Watson to independent detective ("quite a promotion") and travels with the company to Winschoten, Groningen, as an extra. But as the opening line of the story betrayed, Vervoort didn't succeed in stopping the anonymous letter writer from becoming a killer.

Someone fired two shots at Le Roy while he was driving and his car ended up in a canal, but only his passenger resurfaced and news of the incident resulted in an attempted suicide and a second murder. This is the point where the story becomes difficult and tricky to discuss.

We all dislike it when an author, or detective, plays his cards too close to his chest, but not Vervoort (the author), who boldly plunked down his cards that suggested a solution that was hard to accept – a solution that thumbed its nose at Father Knox without committing a cardinal sin. But it was so on the nose, I refused to believe it and subsequent information seemed to agree with my skepticism. Or did it? What can be said about the plot is that Vervoort performed a juggling act with multiple alibis, identities and motives to create a detective story that's halfway between an inverted mystery and a whodunit. Or did he? I can't say much more about the plot except Vervoort performed a juggling act with alibis, identities and motives to keep the reader guessing whether they're reading an inverted howdunit or a genuine whodunit. I think fans of Brian Flynn would love this mystery.

Vervoort playing bluff poker with the genre-savvy mystery reader, while playing a more than fair hand, earned Murder Among Actors a place next to Murder Among Astrologists as the strongest entries in this short-lived series. Even if the eventual explanation doesn't exactly leave the reader slack-jawed, Murder Among Actors stands as a good, old-fashioned and technically sound piece of detective fiction that makes it all the more regrettably Vervoort bowed out of the genre so quickly. My country needed a mystery writer like him!

Luckily, I still have Vervoort's Moord op toernee (Murder on Tour, 1965) to look forward to and discovered it's not a standalone novel, but part of the Floris Jansen series without Ton Vervoort as the narrator. I've also tracked down one of his short stories and want to reread Moord onder studenten (Murder Among Students, 1962), which I read and reviewed (poorly) some years ago. And have been looking into a few other, long-forgotten Dutch mystery writers. Don't worry. I'll try to smear them out as far apart as possible.

7/26/21

The Case of the Climbing Rat (1940) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Climbing Rat (1940) is the 22nd novel in the Ludovic Travers series, written and published 1926 and 1968, which formed with The Case of the Flying Donkey (1939) a two-book arc and "a heartfelt tribute" to the French nation – a nation that would soon be invaded and occupied. Curt Evans noted in his introduction that the "glimpses of a peacetime world" in these Tour de Frances of Bush brought back "better and far less jaded days" when "death could still be treated as a game." This is true enough in spirit. But they also standout as unconventional in plotting and storytelling that makes them hard to recommend to anyone who isn't already a fan of the series. Something that's even more true of The Case of the Climbing Rat than The Case of the Flying Donkey. 

The Case of the Climbing Rat begins interesting with two, apparently unrelated, problems with one of them sending Ludovic Travers to France to confront the black sheep of the family.

Gustave Rionne is a disgraced Harley Street surgeon and the uncle of his wife, Bernice, who once made a name as "the very first plastic surgeons who really did anything worth while," but an abortion and a botched skin-grafting operation got him stricken off the list. Some of these were done while practicing under a false name, which lead to his expulsion from Luxembourg and Switzerland. Rionne went, "or escaped," to France where lived on a small pension bequeathed by Bernice's late Aunt Emily, but she warned Bernice that Rionne might begin pestering her for money, which is exactly what has happened and the second letter was horrible – raking up things and "hinting at making trouble." Travers is travels to Hótel de Sud, Carliens, to have a word or two with Uncle Gustave.

The second problem is of an entirely different magnitude: Inspector Laurin Gallois, of the Sûreté, receives an anonymous phone call telling him that the reports Armand Bariche's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Armand Bariche was, or is, a notorious slippery serial killer and not even the grisly career of Henri Landru was as "horrifying than that of Bariche." A serial killer who, unlike Landru, picked his victims from "a superior class" whose scandal-shy relatives would do everything to avoid publicity, which is why the police believe most of his victims were still unknown. Gallois believes there are likely many people "who guessed that some daughter or female relative had been a Bariche victim," but would never dare risk "scandal in their own localities." Everything the police knew about Bariche came out when he supposedly died in a fire together with his last victim. So all Galois knew about the serial killer came from words on paper and secondhand impressions, but he always believed he was still alive. And here he finally had a potential lead.

So two very different, unconnected problem concerning a pesky relative who spends too much money and the potential presence of an active serial killer in the South of France, but Gallois and Travers cross paths when Rionne is stabbed to death in a public lavatory. You can see the hardboiled influence creeping into Bush's writing with this murder, because I don't remember another detective novel from this period in which someone was murdered in a public lavatory while in "the act of urinating." Not exactly the libraries or private studies commonly associated with the classic detective story.

Anyway, there's a second murder of a Swiss national, Georges Letoque, who was shot and killed at the villa he rented in the Rue des Pins, which was preceded by a suspicious-looking car accident involving Gallois' secretary and right-hand man, Charles Rabaud – who was on his way to meet the anonymous informant. But the story becomes a little muddled and slower once everything has been setup. Only to become remarkably clearer in the final chapter. 

The Case of the Climbing Rat is more of a rambling shaggy dog story than a normal, conventionally structured detective story with clues and suspects to examine. It more about who's exactly who or what their part in the story really is with the only constant being the possible presence of Bariche and three masked trapeze artists rumored to be either German anti-Nazis or relatives of the late Tsar. What's exactly the role of their little small white rat who, "brave as a lion," climbed the rope to the top of the tent to fly through the air with trapeze artist? Why did it refuse to climb the rope one night and died shortly after? Regrettably, The Case of the Climbing Rat is one of those novels where having France as a setting is an excuse to slacken the pace and loosen the plotting (e.g. E.R. Punshon's Murder Abroad, 1939). It's not until the last chapter that most of the loose, fuzzy plot-threads are pulled tight to reveal that there was something good and clever hidden underneath it all. Such as one of Bush's patent alibi-tricks, but some structure and substance to the middle portion would have been bigger benefit to the overall plot than a surprisingly clear and stronger ending closing an otherwise pretty muddled detective yarn.

So, yeah, The Case of the Climbing Rat is, plot-wise, not a highlight of the series and can only be recommended to readers who are already fans of Bush and Travers, but they'll be able to appreciate the dynamic between Travers and Gallois – who's a very different kind of foil than Superintendent Wharton. While they have mutual admiration and respect, there's a hint of rival-detectives between them. A plot-device not always appreciated by Western mystery writers, but Bush excellently made us of it here to give the story a good and solid ending.

If you're new to Bush and not prejudiced against cherry picking, I recommend you begin with The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936) or his 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). You can also go for some old-fashioned, Golden Age baroque with Dead Man Twice (1930) and Dancing Death (1931) or his John Dickson Carr-style impossible crime novel, The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935). I also liked Cut Throat (1932), but practically everyone disagrees with me on that one.

7/23/21

Golden Rain (1980) by Douglas Clark

In my previous two blog-posts, I reviewed Douglas Clark's The Libertines (1978) and Roger Ormerod's An Alibi Too Soon (1987), two British genre conservationists, who attempted to modernize the great detective stories of yore during the post-WWII decades and why I grouped them together as modern, neo-traditionalists – which may need a small correction or footnote. Having read two of their novels back-to-back, I noticed a subtle difference in the way they tried to mix the traditional with the modern. 

Ormerod evidently was closer aligned to the modern, psychological and character-driven crime novels (e.g. The Key to the Case, 1992) than Clark, but with unmistakably traditionalists bend. And reveled in the use of double-edged clues, red herrings, twisted alibis and locked room mysteries (e.g. A Shot at Nothing, 1993). Clark was much more covert in his approach and his novels not only masquerade as modern police procedurals, but apparently tend to underplay the traditional elements of the plot a little. Or, to be more accurately, disguising his plots as pharmaceutical mysteries and poison-puzzles. You can do and get away with a lot of trickery that involves poisons, medicine or the victim's medical condition. An approach that allowed so much room that Clark was even able to wrote something as incomparable as The Longest Pleasure (1981).

However, I've only read a handful of Clark's novels and my observation could be completely wrong. So why not read another one to see if the pattern repeats and what better to use than one of his reputed, uncatalogued locked room mystery novels? 

Golden Rain (1980) is the thirteenth title in Clark's Master and Green series and takes place at Bramthorpe College for Girls, "always referred to simply as Bramthorpe," where Miss Mabel Holland reigns in her double role as beloved headmistress and benevolent dictator – as "discipline was strict and punishments were few." She reformed the school most diplomatically, economized without austerity and was very cross when learning one house had saved money on catering one term. Because "the school was not in business to make a profit out of the girls' food fees." Everything was done under her watch to ensure the girls could realize their full potential that, in turn, raised the academic standard of the school. So nobody could have possibly have had a reason to kill her, but Miss Holland becomes the subject of a precarious murder inquiry. An inquiry in which even Scotland Yard has to tread carefully.

Miss Holland lives in the School House and shares the place with a housekeeper, Mrs. Gibson, who has Tuesday as her day off, but, upon her return, she smelled vomit. A trail lead to the bedroom where she discovered the body of Miss Holland. An autopsy revealed she had been poisoned with laburnum seeds, which grow from a poisonous plant with pea-like, yellow flowers commonly called Golden Rain. Miss Holland was "chock full of the seeds," but the local police is more than willing to settle on an accidental poisoning or suicide. She was alone the house, locked up tight, with "no signs of forcible entry," but some people close to her have good reasons to believe she neither committed suicide or accidentally poisoned herself.

Miss Holland was a level-headed, cheerful and happy woman who looked forward to her holiday in Malta and had written her mother to tell she had "a lovely surprise" that would overjoy her, which hardly suggests a suicidal frame of mind. Secondly, Miss Holland was a biologist and botanist who would be able to identify laburnum seeds and know of their toxic qualities. But how do you force a spoonful of crushed laburnum down someone's throat in a locked house without a struggle or a trace of poison anywhere? So what they needed was a big bug from Scotland Yard to clear up this messy case.

Funnily enough, I've read some recent reviews criticizing Clark's overstaffed cast of police characters as a massive waste of resources and manpower, which made me wonder if he faced similar criticism during his lifetime – because it becomes kind of plot-thread in the first-half of the story. The local police is divided with Detective Inspector Lovegrove intending to squash the case at the inquest to get a verdict of suicide or accidental death. Detective Superintendent George Masters and Detective Chief Inspector Green with Detective Sergeants Reed and Berger arrived less than a day before the inquest, which gives them precious little time to come up with evidence to the contrary. And the prickly, autocratic coroner wants plain facts to bring in any other verdict. The presence of a specialized Scotland Yard team "cost money and time," which makes an exhaustive investigation hard to justify without a shred of evidence in "the face of a coroner's unfavourable verdict."

Unfortunately, this angle is only used to pad out the first-half with Clark holding back all the good and clever bits for the second-half.

First of all, the locked room situation is, as expected, completely underplayed and barely acknowledged, but the locked doors and windows were, sort of, incidental. Some of you likely would not even label it as a locked room mystery or impossible crime. Miss Holland was poisoned in a locked house, but the deviously clever piece of plotting is in the poisoning-trick that's almost as good as the one from Detective Conan's "The Loan Shark Murder Case." But it's not merely a trick. Clark skillfully dovetailed the poisoning-trick with all the other facets of the story and employed something common in schools as an original piece of camouflage. Something that threw me off the scent and was initially a little disappointed as it introduced an until then unknown character into the solution. There was no reason to be disappointed. Clark used it to give the murder something "strange for a major crime" like murder, which revealed the camouflage the murderer draped across the poisoning-trick.

I was equally impressed with the late problem of three sets of fingerprints discovered at School House and particular the third set poses a tricky problem, but the explanation either makes you want to slap Clark's shoulder like a good sport or strangle him with his own necktie – nicely fitted the setting and period. Only problem is that it didn't give enough room to be used to its full potential and give the solution more of a punch. But, other than that, the ending and solution placed Clark back on the same footing with Ormerod as a top-tier, neo-traditionalist mystery writer.

Where they differ is Clark's clandestine alliance to the classics as he tries to sneak all the good stuff pass the reader (or critics?) without trying to draw attention to them like a closeted alcoholic lacing his coffee with booze. Almost like he felt it was necessary to lure the reader in with the premise of a contemporary police procedural before hitting them with the more traditional stuff disguised, or presented, as a pharmaceutical or poisoning mystery. Death After Evensong (1969) appears to be an exception to the rule, but than again, there's nothing subtle about shooting someone point blank with a magic-bullet. However, it showed that his work could have been even better had he continued to embrace and indulge in the traditional, plot-driven side of his detective novels.

So, all things considered, Golden Rain begins slowly and delays the most important plot developments and clues until the second-half, but the end result is an excellent, first-class take on the classic, college-set mystery novel and an admirable dovetailing act. Recommended to everyone who appreciate a good, old-fashioned puzzle plot or detective stories that take place in the world of academia.

Just a heads up, I might bookend these two Douglas Clark posts with reviews of Ormerod. So the next one might be one of Ormerod's 1990s mysteries, but haven't made up my mind yet. However, I'll will return to the Golden Age in one of the next two posts. So don't touch that dial!

7/21/21

The Libertines (1978) by Douglas Clark

In my previous review, I mentioned several modern classicists like the pharmacist of crime, Douglas Clark, who specialized in medical mysteries and ingenious, sometimes impossible poisonings that were quite popular in the 1970s and '80s – only to disappear into obscurity upon his death in 1993. Strangely enough, these retro mystery writers tended to vanished quicker and more thoroughly from popular culture than their Golden Age counterparts. But they, too, are being rediscovered today. 

Douglas Clark has been fortunately enough to have all twenty-six of his Detective Superintendent George Masters and Detective Chief Inspector Bill Green reprinted over the past five years by Lume Books (formerly Endeavour Media).

So, technically, the series is available again to the public, but they're very much hidden in plain sight. Lume Books is a small indie publisher that pumps out novels ("...over 3000 books written by 800 authors"), but settled on a bleak, unimaginative style of generic and uniform cover-art that gives the impression Clark wrote dark, psychological crime thrillers – which couldn't be further from the truth. Clark wrote traditional, fairly clued detective novels posing as a police procedurals with a pharmaceutical gimmick. And eschewed cheap thrills or plunging the murky depths of the human psyche. For example, the most rounded and fleshed out character in The Longest Pleasure (1981) is the botulism bacteria. Clark simply wrote pure, Golden Age-style detectives and howdunits.

The Libertines (1978) is the tenth title in the series and takes place on Samuel Verity's Ravendale Farm, situated in Ravendale Bridge, Yorkshire, which hosts a yearly cricket fortnight during high summer. Versity is one of the founding members of a cricket club, the Libertines, when none of the members had much money. So they were determined that it should not become a rich man's club, but "a cricket club anybody could afford to join" with everyone contributing something to hold the Libertines' fortnight. A tradition that began right after the war ended.

Three decades later, there are only three original members left. Samuel Verity and his long-time friend and London solicitor, William Dunstable, whose family will become intertwined as his son, Stephen, is dating Sarah – who's the daughter of Samuel and Sally Verity. But not everything is roses and sunshine. Old Tom Middleton, "an irascible old devil," is the third surviving member whose behavior is tolerated because he's a wine-shipper and furnishes the bar for the fortnight at wholesale rates. But he has become worse as his health declined. And very venomous.

Last year, Tom advised Sally Verity to keep "a motherly eye" on her daughter, because he had witnessed Sarah and Stephen "misbehaving at nights in the copse" when he was out on a light night walks. She called him "a dirty old peeping-tom" and Sarah not only denied it, but she was "quite willing to have old Dr Michaelson examine her to prove she was still intact." Stephen is less than pleased when he learns of this a year later and her brother, Teddy, also gets the Middleton treatment. Soon the younger members of the team are talking among themselves about "breaking the old bastard's neck" and that "the best place to dispose of the body would be the dung tank," which sets the stages for murder. Tom is not the first to bow out of the story with his nose in the air.

Nick Larter is an elderly, ailing and retired window cleaner who's not a Libertine, but he's been barman for the fortnight ever since it began. A fun, exciting summertime job that earned him a few extra pounds, but his health has been deteriorating rapidly and, while shaking Middleton's customary three drops of bitters in a gin glass, he collapses behind the bar – dying a few minutes later. A death that hardly surprises his doctor and unhesitatingly signed the certificate, but, three days later, Middleton dies in the wake of the first cricket game. So the local authorities order post mortems on both bodies, which revealed the presence of the quick-acting poison nicotine.

Superintendent George Masters and Detective Chief Inspector Bill Green are dispatched to Ravendale Bridge to untangle this poisonous puzzle.

A double poisoning Green described as "one by a chance which is mathematically impossible" and "the other by a means which is physically impossible," but whether or not they count as impossible crimes depends on your generosity. I don't think Middleton's death has any claim to it, but Larter's poisoning is a different story. While serving behind the bar, Larter slipped with the bottle-opener and snagged his right forefinger on the serrated edge of the crown top, "a trifling cut," but he died minutes later with "a qualified doctor and a score of others as witnesses." But nobody could daub nicotine on a crown top expecting the victim would touch it, "let alone scratch his finger on it." However, the trick here is figuring out how the two poisonings can be linked together. Don't read it solely for the impossible crime element.

Clark excellently contrasted the death of the "poor old retired window cleaner" with the murder of the "well-heeled wine importer who lived hundred of miles apart" and "the only possible link between those two was this annual cricket lark." This makes it a double murder that could have only taken place at Ravendale Farm during those two weeks of summer. A very well done and convincing closed-circle of suspects situation.

You can say contrast is the overarching theme of the story with the older characters struggling to keep up with a changing world and social mores, while the younger generation try to live up to the standards of the old-world while trying to find their own way and voice. Good examples of this are the conversation between Sally and Sarah concerning Middleton's accusation and Sam and Teddy trying to balance traditional and modern methods to run the family farm. I thought that made for a more interesting backdrop than the cricket scenes, which I don't understand and everything related to it completely went over my head, but I know it's supposed to be a boring, excruciating slow-paced game with older players taking naps – which doesn't seem like a sport that can be played with "a savage intensity." Playing cricket savagely sounds like a brutal game of curling or a grueling round of golf. Anyway...

So the characters, setting and setup are good and sound, but what about the plot, you ask? Not too bad. Admittedly, the clueing is a little sparse, but Clark's approach here wasn't without interest. Masters and Green begin to hunt for "anomalies in the conversations" conducted with the club members in lieu of physical clues to see if they can "explain away that which is odd or out of character." When they've sniffed out such anomalies, they "look very closely at those involved." Not wholly unlike Agatha Christie with one remark unmistakably echoing one of her 1940s mysteries ("Guvf qevax vf svygul"), but Masters and Green also have to search for a piece of physical evidence hidden somewhere on the farm. Where this piece of evidence was hidden points straight to the murderer, because only the murderer could have hidden it there. You can figure out where it's hidden and, in combination with the anomalies, identity the murderer with only the motive requiring a bit of educated guesswork. The whole puzzle is pretty solvable without being too obvious from the beginning. If you pay attention to what's being said and done, you can see where and how all the puzzle pieces fit.

There are, however, two (minor) drawbacks. The ending felt a little flat with Masters cutting a deal with the nonthreatening and even sympathetic murderer, but rather liked the final lines of the story. I already said Clark created a murder mystery that could only have taken place at Ravendale Farm during those summer weeks, which turns out to have been 100% preventable. Secondly, I don't think The Libertines is a good title for this kind of detective story. I don't think it really fitted the story. The Libertines' Fortnight or the more genre-driven Sudden Death would have been better titles. Looking at a glossary of cricket terms, Contrived Circumstances or Farm the Strike would have been even better titles for this cricket-themed detective novel.

But all things considered, The Libertines stands as a good, rock-solid and competently plotted continuation of the British Golden Age detective story with a poisoning-trick that would have received the nodding approval of the Queen of Crime herself. However, if you're new to the series, I still recommend you begin with the excellent Death After Evensong (1969).

7/18/21

An Alibi Too Soon (1987) by Roger Ormerod

Together with Kip Chase, Douglas Clark, Charles Forsyte and Jack Vance, Roger Ormerod belonged to the Lost Generation of detective novelists who attempted to conserve the genre's past as a foundation for a modern interpretation of the traditional, more plot-oriented, detective story – enjoying varying degrees of success and longevity. But they all arrived on the scene a good three, four decades too late. And they're practically forgotten today. 

Ormerod would never have appeared on my radar, if it weren't for Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) listing three of his impossible crime novels. Well, you know me. I dived down that rabbit hole head first and found not only a criminally forgotten, unexpectedly prolific writer of locked room mysteries, but a writer who perfected the modernization of the traditional, Golden Age period mystery with his best novels feeling like a natural continuation of that era. The Key to the Case (1992) and A Shot at Nothing (1993) are two great examples of Ormerod building on the past with a distinctly contemporary touch. That's not just me saying it.

John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, succumbed to the temptation of my previous reviews and tracked down a copy of Ormerod's The Hanging Doll Murder (1983), which he praised as "an engaging and devilish bit of detective fiction" and "a throwback to the heyday of detective fiction" – when plotting and storytelling superseded "character study and grim psychological probing." John has since joined me on an genre-archaeological expedition to unearth this too quickly forgotten, retro GAD author. So keep an eye out for his reviews.

I've previously read six of his nine, perhaps ten, confirmed locked room titles and wanted to keep the remaining three on the pile, for now, to see what else Ormerod did with the genre. Since I appreciate a good alibi-puzzle as much as a deviously-plotted impossible crime, An Alibi Too Soon (1987) was a logical place to start as I cherry pick my way through his work. 

An Alibi Too Soon is the third entry in the series about ex-Detective Inspector Richard Patton and his wife, Amelia, who are two highly reliable murder-magnets.

This story finds Richard and Amelia Patton in Welshpool, Wales, where they've come to view a converted water-mill with an option to buy it, but Richard remembered a former colleague, ex-Detective Chief Superintendent Llewellyn Hughes, retired to his beloved Wales to write his memoirs. And he decides to give him a call. Richard is surprised when he hears Llew Hughes has frantically been sending letters to his cottage on the south coast, while Richard was within a few miles of him "admiring a water-mill." Hughes has come across something in his memoirs about "a most important case" and believes they might have gotten it wrong, but he can't make any sense out of it.

So he promises to drop by with Amelia, but, when they arrive, the wooden barn house is ablaze and Richard only just managed to drag out a badly burned, dying Hughes clutching a manila envelope – name "EDWIN CARTER" printed cross its face. The envelope contained his notes on the Edwin Carter case. A case that was closed a decade ago and ended with a conviction, but Hughes spotted something in his notes that provides the story with its central puzzle. I think it's save to assume An Alibi Too Soon was intended to be Ormerod's take on the so-called "Humdrum" detective school of Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode.

Edwin Carter was a playwright who made a lot of money with his social-comment comedies, but flopped as a stage director and lost all of his money. Carter was an eccentric manic-depressive, "way up one minute, way down the next," who threw a party, "a kind of wake," to celebrate his failure and ruin. During the party, Carter announced he was going to drive out to get "a fresh supply of booze." Later that evening, Carter's body is found in one of the two closed garages, belted into the driving seat, with a crate of beer and bottles of spirits on the backseat. So everyone presumed he committed suicide upon his return, but the police figures it was murder. This is where a technical piece of the puzzle comes into play.

There are two garages on the estate with up-and-over doors that can be either opened, or closed, with a radio transmitter or manually with the two buttons between the two doors. One of these garages was Carter's and the belonged to his niece and secretary, Rosemary Trew. But, for the system to work, "they had to keep to the correct garage for the correct car." And that's where the suicide became a murder. Another car had been parked in his garage and he was found in his niece's garage. So he had to push the outside button to close the door, run back under the door as it came down and belt himself into the driving as he waited for the car fumes to overtake him – which comes on top of an ugly bump on his forehead. However, the local police doesn't have to look very far to find someone who fitted the role of murderer like a glove.

Only person at the party without one of those "positive alibis" and a hint of a motive was Carter's nephew, Duncan, who came out on parole a few months ago. Duncan served ten years and is keen on getting pardoned in order to claim damages.

Richard Patton first has to figure out what incongruity Hughes had found that placed the case in a new light and he does notice something in a crime scene photo, which would give Duncan an alibi while removing all the others. But would his late colleague be driven half-crazy by a reversal of those "blasted alibis" or is there something else in the evidence? A stone cold, long-closed case is not the only problem he has to overcome.

Detective Chief Inspector Grayson was one of the original investigators of the Edwin Carter case and has diligently worked on his inflexible career ("he succeeds, you see"), which he's determined to protect by presenting Hughes death as an accident and frustrating Richard's private investigation. So they lock horns a few times over the course of the story, but he also comes across another, murky death of a blue movie actress, Glenda Grace, who had falling from the balcony of Carter's London flat during a house party – apparently sozzled and high on drugs. Some people believe she had been pushed. Several blackmail attempts had been made on various party guests. Richard also come to respect one of his suspects, Rosemary, who still lives at her uncle's estate where she used her "paltry inheritance" to produce plays and hold dress rehearsals. The theatrical crowd who hangs out there hasn't changed all that much from the time of those two tragic deaths.

So how well does Ormerod's An Alibi Too Soon stack up as a modern interpretation of the Crofts and Rhode-style detective story? Well, that's a bit of a mixed back of tricks.

Firstly, the two past murders of Carter and Grace were easily the best aspect of the plot with all the clues in place to give the reader a fair opportunity to figure out who, why and (mostly) how, which admittedly is not too difficult to do. Just like with Crofts and Rhode, the tricky part is putting all the pieces in the right place to get a complete and correct picture of the case. Something that was nicely complicated by the technical monkeying with the garage doors, a single word on the side of a beer crate and the premature alibi that gave the story its title. Ormerod gave some much needed weight to this part of the plot and his reputation as a retro GAD writer with a double-reversal of how the alibi-trick was perceived. A double-reversal nicely tied together with these other past plot-threads.

Unfortunately, the two present-day murders (a second body is found in a millrace) felt inconsequential and unnecessary. I think this story would have worked as well, perhaps even better, had Hughes not died. Grayson told Richard that Hughes' brain was going and Richard gently probing Hughes failing memory would have allowed for more engaging storytelling. This would have introduced a vital clue much earlier into the story. Now we have a murder that came about by pure change that's quickly shoved aside as an side-plot and used only as a reason to have Richard cross swords with Grayson. Oh, the Pattons become the new owners of Hughes' dog and they rename her Cindy (short for Cinders). I don't know why the second murder was necessary except to add some darkness to the story, but you can put down to the rushed ending giving the impression that a lot was left unanswered. 

An Alibi Too Soon is not one of Ormerod's best or strongest detective novels, but the story has a solid, competently plotted core with a clever play on the always tricky problem of arranging an alibi which makes it a worthwhile read to fans of Crofts and Rhode. But perhaps even more important that that, An Alibi Too Soon is another confirmation that Ormerod may have been one of the most anomalous mystery writer to have ever appeared on the scene. Not only was he a mystery writer who was both out-of-time and with the times, but his plots became stronger and his storytelling clearer as he neared the end of his career with his earlier novels, like The Weight of Evidence (1978) and More Dead Than Alive (1980), coming across as clunky compared to the previously mentioned The Key to the Case and A Shot at Nothing – published during his last active decade. I know writers are supposed to improve over time and maintain a certain standard, but, more often than not, there's an inevitable drop in quality in the work of prolific mystery writers. Not so with Ormerod.

I know my reading of Ormerod has been very limited to date, but my impression is that he spend his whole career honing and sharpening his skills. Beginning to show drastic improvement in the mid-to late 1980s and reaching his zenith in the 1990s. That's why When the Old Man Died (1991), Third Time Fatal (1992), Mask of Innocence (1994) and Stone Cold Dead (1995) have moved up a few layers on the big pile. So, yeah, expect more Ormerod in the coming months!

7/14/21

The Forbidden House (1932) by Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl

Michel Herbert and Eugène Wyl were French authors of whom little is known outside of their short-lived collaboration in the 1930s, producing three detective novels of "varying quality," but their locked room mystery novel, La maison interdite (The Forbidden House, 1932), is considered "a minor classic" with a courtroom denouement – praised by Roland Lacourbe as "a triumph of Cartesian logic." So a long out-of-reach classic of the French detective story that was finally made available in English by John Pugmire's Locked Room International

On first glance, The Forbidden House appears to be a fair representative of the type of impossible crime novel that was written in France at the time. The Forbidden House takes place in a castle-like mansion surrounded by a large, "entirely walled," garden similar to the almost fortified settings in Noël Vindry's La bête hurlante (The Howling Beast, 1934) and Gaston Boca's Les invités de minuit (The Seventh Guest, 1935). A place that proved to be insufficient to protect one, or more, of the characters from being pestered and picked off by an invisible menace, which recalls Boca's The Seventh Guest and Marcel Lanteaume's La 13e ball (The Thirteenth Bullet, 1948).

There is, however, one very important difference: Herbert and Wyl's The Forbidden House is the superior detective and locked room novel, which has a plot and unusual story structure made possible only by the French judicial system – weirdly anticipates a well-known, non-French classic of the genre. No. I'm not talking about one of John Dickson Carr's famous locked room fancies, but more on that in a moment.

Marchenoire Manor is a splendid manor house, close to Compiègne, equipped with all the modern comforts, a small guardhouse and a walled park of five hectares situated right in the forest of l'Aigle. But over the years, the place has garnered an unsavory reputation.

Five years ago, the founder of the Société du Crédit Continental, Abraham Goldenberg, built Marchenoire Manor, but, one day, he absconded with twenty-five million francs. A swindle that ruined both "magnates of finance" and "a multitude of small investors," which earned him seven years of hard labor. But he died two months after starting his prison term. So his home was sold and changed hands multiple times over the years, because the owners were either murdered or frightened away by an anonymous letter writer. M. Desrousseaux ignored the warning letter and his body was found in the park "dead from a rifle shot," but succeeding owners cleared out before the second, or third, letter arrived. However, the latest owner refuses to surrender "the residence of his dreams."

Napoléon Verdinage is the founder and executive director of a grocers' association and grocery chain, which made him a multi-millionaire, whose only relatives are some distant cousins. So he moved into Marchenoire Manor with his small, tightly-knit domestic staff. Thérèse Chapon was M. Verdinage's wet nurse who calls him Napo and acts as the steward of the manor. Her husband, Charles Chapon, is the negligent butler who gives more attention to the stock of vintage Pommard in the cellar than performing his duties. Another husband-and-wife team on the domestic staff are the chauffeur and cook, Edmond and Jeanne Tasseau. Adhémar Dupont-Lesguyères is M. Verdinage aristocratic secretary and head of protocol to his nouveau-riche employer on everything from dress conventions to social behavior, which he tends to do with an ironic smirk. Lastly, there's the young, misanthropic valet, Gustave Colinet, who spends his leisure hours shut away in his room and "the vigilant watchdog of the property," Jacques Bénard, who took a cripple, Clodoche, under his wing out of charity – both came with the property. But before the contract could be signed, the first letter is delivered under mysterious circumstances.

The letter warns to not purchase "THE FORBIDDIN HOUSE" (yes, mispelled), if he wants to live. M. Verdinage reasons that "only a prankster would use a fireplace as a letter box" and buys the house with the intention to move in as soon as possible.

A month later, a second warning is delivered under somewhat impossible circumstances. The letter is discovered on the first step leading down to the cellar, but the door was locked and "a very tight fit at the bottom" that "you couldn't thread a hair under it." Let alone a letter. A warning, once again, ignored and another month passed before the third letter is delivered. This time it announced the time his executioner would arrive, but M. Verdinage is not planning to back away from a fight.

M. Verdinage instructs Clodoche to wait at the gates and bring the visitor to him. After which he has to stay on the front steps, "like a good guard dog," whacking everyone with his crutch who leaves without his masters consent. Clodoche is seen escorting a figure to the house with his hat jammed down on his head and his coat collar up around his ears, which made it impossible to see his face as Clodoche's lantern provided only a moving circle of light – casting the figure's upper-body in semi-darkness. Shortly after crossing the threshold, the sound of a gunshot and an agonized cry shakes up the house. M. Verdinage had been shot and killed in the library!

Due to a fault in the construction, the manor "only has one door leading to the outside" and Clodoche was banging on it from the outside and yelling to be let in. So the murderer had nowhere to escape, or hiding place, with every exit either locked or guarded and several witnesses around. Some way, somehow, the murderer had vanished from the house in a puff of cordite smoke! This locked room problem is a lot more trickier and original than the premise suggests.

However, the murderer's vanishing act is not the main attraction of the story, but provides the main act with all the material to make it a main event. This is where the story becomes a treat to every mystery readers with special place in their heart for the multiple false-solution gambit, because The Forbidden House has them in spades!

There are several detectives, official and unofficial, who enter the case with their own ideas and theories, but, as one of them points out, "even the best of their hypothesis explains absolutely nothing" as they can make a case who and why it was done – except explaining "how the murderer left the scene of the crime." So they spend the lion's share of the story building up and tearing down each others theories. Some of the proposed solutions were quite clever while others were a little flimsy ("...he became agitated... that's indisputable proof of his guilt"), but always stamped with the personal motives or personality of the detectives. Lieutenant Taupinois wanted to show the inspector of the flying squad "the gendarmerie was every bit as capable as they were of carrying out an important investigation" and comes to a hasty conclusion (see quote). Paul Malicorne (Substitut du Procureur) and André Pruvost (commissaire divisionnaire de la brigade mobile) come up with more practical answers, but they, too, are unable to explain how the murderer disappeared. Claude Launay, juge d'instruction, is a headline chaser interested only in "celebrity, glory and rapid promotion," but he eventually has to accept the solution of a British private detective, Tom Morrow. And he has a financial stake in the matter as he represents the victim's estranged and disinherited cousins.

Now if any of this sounds vaguely familiar, you're right, because it's pretty much the same approach Leo Bruce took in his comedic masterpiece, Case for Three Detectives (1936). Something that can be boiled down to a group of troublesome, competing detectives who make things unnecessary complicated and difficult. Surprisingly, The Forbidden House has a line echoing a Sgt. Beef quote from Case for Three Detectives that I've never been able to forget.

Halfway through Case for Three Detectives, a tired Sgt. Beef exclaims "because these 'ere private detectives can't mind their own business... with their stepsons, and their bells, and their where-did-the-scream-come from. Why, they try to make it complicated." I always hear those words running through my head when a fictional detective is acting too much like a fictional detective. But before those lines had time to haunt me again, M. Launay gave his opinion on the gendarmes "who serve no other purpose than to send investigations on the wrong track, so as to complicate the simplest situations." Not that he was in any position to criticize any detective or policeman. I think it shows how close both novels are in spirit with one of the two only differences being that one was typically British and the other unmistakably French.

The other difference can be found at the end of the story as both end with the real detective revealing a much simpler, more elegant solution that beautifully contrast with all the fanciful theories that preceded it, but The Forbidden House is not only a who, why-and howdunit – also a who'll-be-the-detective. With the final line promising more adventures from this newly-minted "amateur detective."

There is, perhaps, a third, not unimportant difference between the endings of The Forbidden House and Case for Three Detectives. The latter has sometimes been criticized over its fourth and final solution, which some deemed as routine, unimaginative or disappointing (that's the joke). Herbert and Wyl avoided that pitfall and came up with a locked room-trick that's both better and simpler than all the proposed theories, but also didn't completely destroy the mystic and intrigue of the setup. A kind of locked room scenario and resolution that the master himself could have dreamed up.

So, needless to say, The Forbidden House is a tremendously enjoyable detective novel with a first-class locked room conundrum, which stands head and shoulders above the other French '30s and '40s mysteries published by LRI. Pugmire's tireless to ferry all these non-English impossible crime stories across the language-barrier has given me a better appreciation and understanding what the French were up to at the time. Some of those French mystery writers were a few years ahead of their British counterparts. I hope that statement won't lead to a fifth Anglo-Dutch War. Sorry, my British friends, but facts are facts.

On a final, related note: The Forbidden House has two appendixes on the French judicial system and the French GAD, which Pugmire ended with the comment that "several of the foregoing novels may well be candidates for future LRI publication." So why not tack my personal wishlist of French-language locked room mysteries to this review. The following titles/writers are criminally absent from my bookshelves: Stanislas-André Steeman's Six homes morts (Six Dead Men, 1931) and La nuit du 12 au 13 (The Night of the 12th and 13th, 1931). Pierre Boileau's Six crimes cans assassin (Six Crimes Without a Killer, 1935), which I want more than a lost manuscript by Joseph Commings or Hake Talbot. René Réouven's English-titled Tobie or not Tobie (1980) and Jean Alessandrini's La malédiction de Chéops (The Curse of Cheops, 1989). Any of Vindry's remaining locked room titles.

7/11/21

The Stolen Gold Affair (2020) by Bill Pronzini

Last year, I posted a short story review under the title "The Nameless Detective: "The Hills of Homicide" (1949) by Louis L'Amour," which is best described as a western-flavored, hardboiled locked room mystery solved by a Los Angeles private eye – whose name is never revealed. So labeled the story as a curious ancestor of Bill Pronzini's "Nameless Detective" series, but recently stumbled across a much more fascinating link with Pronzini's historical private eye novels. I'm not talking about the handful of Carpenter and Quincannon short stories that originally appeared in Louis L'Amour Western Magazine during the mid-1990s. 

"The Hills of Homicide" mentioned in passing miners, or high-graders, smuggling gold ore out of a mine under seemingly impossible circumstances, but it was an anecdote without an answer. I closed out the review with my own solution to the problem of the pilfering miners. Not a bad solution, if I say so myself. However, I was less pleased with past Tom's cleverness when coming across an identical impossible situation in one of the latest Carpenter and Quincannon novels. Did I inadvertently spoil a locked room mystery by coming up with the best possible explanation for a rather one-of-a-kind locked room problem? Only one way to find out! 

The Stolen Gold Affair (2020) is the eight, of currently nine, novels about John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, Professional Detective Services, who operate in 1890s San Francisco when the glory days of the Old West began to wane and fade – as a new century dawned. A time when the line between the American frontier and the settled states blurred and motorcars, or horseless carriages, began to replace "horse-drawn conveyances as the primary method of transportation." One of the constants in this ever-changing world is the always adaptable criminal.

John Quincannon is summoned by one of the city's wealthiest businessmen, Everett Hoxley, to his social club to discuss a particular vexing and costly problem.

Hoxley is the head of a large mining corporation that "owned several gold and silver mines in northern California and Nevada," but the production of high-quality ore in the Monarch Mine has dropped noticeably and there have been rumors of high-grading. So he wants Quincannon to go undercover as a newly hired timberman to "identify the individuals responsible for an insidious high-grading operation" and "to put a satisfactory end to their activities," which comes with a generous fee, expensive and a possible bonus. Only obstacle is that it's likely a four-week assignment and his marriage to Sabina Carpenter is planned three weeks from then. But that's the life of a detective.

Quincannon arrives in the small mining settlement of Patch Creek, northeast of Marysville, under the alias J.F. Quinn where's confronted with multiple, quasi-impossible crimes and a full-blown "locked room" murder – twelve-hundred feet underground! Firstly, he not only has to identify the gang of high-graders, but figure out how they were refining gold-bearing ore to produce pure gold dust in "a mine operating with mostly full crews twenty-four hours a day." Secondly, the method used to smuggle the gold out of the mine. Thirdly, he has to do all that while doing eight-hour of backbreaking, mining labor in "the dangerous bowels of the earth." A place where cave-ins, premature detonations, rock gas and runaway cages or tramcars were greater threats to his health than "the actions of a gang of gold thieves." Quincannon believes there's "no better detective in the Western states" and gets some quick results, but, having stumbled across an important piece of evidence, he is knocked out in a abandoned, dead-end crosscut. He's awakened by the sound of a pistol shot and is found next to a dead body. There's only one way in and out of crosscut, which was in sight of several miners when the shot sounded. Nobody else entered or left the crosscut. So "as pretty a frame as ever had been set around an innocent man."

The passages of the story that takes place in the mine are the best part of the book, but the solutions to the various problems vary enormously in quality. The locked room-trick used for the shooting is good and simple, which nicely fitted both the underground conditions and the circumstances in that crosscut. Indubitably, the best plot-strand of the Monarch Mine case. Quincannon more or less stumbles across the refining process, but a clever little criminal operation nonetheless. Regrettably, the method used to the smuggle out the gold was a huge letdown, because I expected something a little more ingenious rather than a gross oversight on the part of the shift inspectors. But they remain the best and most memorable parts of the whole book.

So, while Quincannon is playing the Sherlock Holmes of Agartha in the Earth's crust, Sabina is holding down the fort, but the detective business experiences one of its slack periods and only has two minor cases on her hands.

Firstly, Sabina is doing a background check on an unsavory character who turned up in Quincannon's case and how to get that information to him, because Patch Creek didn't have a Western Union office. Secondly, she unofficially and unethically ended "the criminal careers of a confidence man and an embezzler" without a paying client or earning "so much as one thin dime," which is a cardinal sin – to "John's way of thinking." They meet up again in the last quarter to hunt down the last high-grader as the story becomes a charming, well written period railway mystery with an impossible disappearance as their quarry vanishes from a moving train without a trace.

One thing to remember is that the novels in this series are rewrites and expansions of the short Carpenter and Quincannon stories that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Louis L'Amour Western Magazine from 1994 to 2018. The Stolen Gold Affair is an expansion of "The Desert Limited" (LLWM, Nov. 1995) and "The Gold Stealers" (EQMM, Sep/Oct. 2014), but had previously only read "The Desert Limited" in Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Servives (1998) and hoped the solution would be better in a novel-length treatment. There are some clever touches to it (how Sabina solved it and why Quincannon missed it), but not everything holds up. I thought (ROT13) Zbetna hfvat “fbzr fbeg bs ehfr gb trg gur onttntr znfgre gb bcra hc” was a cop-out answer and too easily glossed over. That was suppose to be a legitimate obstacle in closed, moving locked room and presenting it as "an educated guest" doesn't make it any less unfair.

That being said, my opinion of the short story at the time is that the whole trick and setting would probably work better in a visual medium, which is also true for its expanded version in The Stolen Gold Affair. I believe this series, particular its novel-length treatments, would make perfect source material for a television series as it has everything on the ready. A beautiful, striking period backdrop during a time of great change with two great, memorable lead-characters who came with their own personal, and intertwined, storylines – culminating in their marriage. There's also the ongoing storyline with the crackpot Sherlock that ran through multiple novels (beginning with The Bughouse Affair, 2013) and ready-made plots that are neither overly complicated or insultingly simplistic. Some of the impossibilities from this series would translate beautifully to the small screen like the ghostly apparitions in The Spook Lights Affair (2013). Not to mention Pronzini and Marcia Muller's time-crossing crossover, Beyond the Grave (1986), can be adapted to give such a TV-series a strong and memorable ending.

So, on a whole, I did enjoy my time with The Stolen Gold Affair with the chapters that take place underground and the impossible shooting in the crosscut standing out, but the problem is that they were noticeably better done than the other plot-strands. So it's the Monarch Mine case that's the main attraction of The Stolen Gold Affair and comes particular recommended to locked room readers as there are not that many impossible crime stories that use the woefully underutilized mine setting. Pronzini demonstrated what you can do with a deeply buried, rock-solid locked room situation. Just one question remains... did that throwaway anecdote from "The Hills of Homicide" gave Pronzini the idea for the "The Gold Stealers" or was it Clyde B. Clason's Blind Drifts (1937)? An impossible crime novel with a mine setting Pronzini fanboyed all over it.

7/9/21

The Devil is Everywhere: "Triangle at Rhodes" (1936) by Agatha Christie

Last time, I revisited Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun (1941), a classic of the simon-pure jigsaw puzzle detective story, which served as a reminder why Christie towered above so many of her contemporaries and made me want to take another look at an earlier, shorter version of the novel – generally considered to be one of her better short stories. So did it stand up to rereading? Let's find out! 

Christie's "Triangle at Rhodes" was originally published in the February 2, 1936, issue of This Week, reprinted in the May, 1936, publication of The Strand Magazine and finally collected in Murder in the Mew and Other Stories (1937). 

"Triangle at Rhodes" takes place on the titular, sun-soaked island where the celebrated Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, had come to for a much deserved rest and holiday. A hopefully non-criminal, corpse-free holiday and he had booked his holiday during a period when Rhodes would be nearly empty. So the island resembled "a peaceful, secluded spot" outside of the tourist season with only a small group of guests staying at the hotel, but, even within that "restricted circle," Poirot noticed "the inevitable shaping of events to come." The internal triangle!

This small circle of holidaymakers comprises of Miss Pamela Lyall, a student of human nature, who's "capable of speaking to strangers on sight" instead of "allowing four days to a week to elapse before making the first cautious advance" as "is the customary British habit" – acting, more or less, as the female counterpart of Arthur Hastings. Pamela is there on holiday with a friend, Miss Sarah Blake. Old General Barnes is "a veteran who was usually in the company of the young" or boring other guests with anecdotes military career in India, but the foreboding, triangle-shaped patterns take shape among two married couples, the Chantrys and the Golds.

Valentine Chantry is a "man-eating tiger" who widowed one husband, lost three in the divorce courts and recently married a navy officer, Commander Tony Chantry. Douglas Gold is a good looking, golden-headed man who there with his mousy-looking wife, Marjorie, but becomes infatuated with Valentine. So the familiar, age-old pattern of murder begins to take shape and ends with Valentine drinking poisoned gin and an arrest.

Poirot and Pamela were the only ones who observes the eternal triangle take shape, but Pamela saw it "the wrong way round" and here the story turned out to be weaker than I remembered. There's no meaningful clueing or misdirection with its only strong points being its geometrical plot-structure and how beautifully the ending reversed the whole situation, but the conclusion played out off-page with Poirot being an eyewitness to the murderer's handiwork – telling the reader about it afterwards. So plenty of good ideas here, but not very satisfying as a detective story nor anywhere near as good as its novel-length treatment. That's a shame as I used think "Triangle at Rhodes" would easily make my top 10 of best short detective stories. Don't worry. Christie will still be represented on such a hypothetical, future list with the massively under appreciated "Wireless" (1926).