4/25/17

Only Death is Immortal

"There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, 1887)
During the previous century, the detective genre became a holiday residence, or even a second home, to a number of science-fiction writers that included Isaac Asimov, Anthony Boucher, Fredric Brown, John Russell Fearn and John Sladek. One thing they have in common, as mystery novelists, is that they tended to write plot-oriented detective stories with a predilection for impossible crimes. So imagine my initial enthusiasm when discovering a modern author who appeared to have continued this tradition.

Eric Brown is a British science-fiction author, whose career took off in the late eighties, but several years ago Brown tried his hands at a detective novel and wrote Murder by the Book (2013), which is set in the mid-1950s and introduced his series-characters, Donald Langham and Maria Dupré – who reminded me of Richard Forrest's Lyon and Bea Wentworth. The second book in the series, Murder at the Chase (2014), was billed as a "classic locked room conundrum," but this claim borders on false advertisement. And what remained was not all that good either.

Murder at the Chase began promising enough and the premise of the book could have easily come from one of the better Jonathan Creek episodes, but the plot never delivered on the promises it made to the reader in the opening chapters.

The book takes place during the summer of 1955 and begins at a garden party given by a London publishing agent, Charles Elder, who has Langham as one of his clients. Langham writes violent "thrillers set in the underworld" and at the party he's introduced to the son of an old acquaintance, Edward Endicott, who's known for his "tough-guy no-nonsense stories," but the shy Alasdair is a complete contrast to his old man. And from him they learn Endicott is currently obsessing over a reputedly immortal Satanist.

Vivian Stafford was a Victorian-era Satanist, "a cohort of Crowley," who was born in 1835, but the present-day Stafford claims to be the same Stafford as the one from Victorian times, which would make him around a 120-years-old – a claim supported by an old photograph depicting a dead ringer for the present-day Stafford. He also demonstrated his occult powers that allowed him to summon the dead. During two gatherings, called "Evening of the Occult," he summoned several ghostly apparitions. Stafford's demonstrations were enough to convince old Endicott and he decided to write about a book about him, but Alasdair is afraid this plan may have lead to his father's seemingly impossible disappearance from his study. So he called the ex-detective he met at the garden party for assistance.

The door to the study, "as solid as rock," was locked from the inside and the French windows were latched, but Langham solved this extremely simplistic, incidental and very disappointing locked room mystery upon his first inspection of the room. What really annoyed me is not only how the impossibility is completely identical to minor locked room problems from such detective stories as Anthony Berkeley's The Layton Court Mystery (1925) and Agatha Christie's "Dead Man's Mirror," collected in Murder in the Mews (1937), but also that it was obviously tossed in to market the book as a locked room conundrum – because the plot would have worked just as well if Endicott had vanished from an unlocked room. Endicott and his papers simply had to disappear. This locked room angle added nothing to the story except disappointment.

So, merely five chapters into the book and my initial enthusiasm was already on life-support, but decided to trudge on. After all, there were other plot-threads that could still deliver in the end, right? Well, I was very naive and really should learn to bail on these modern monstrosities. If they suck in the beginning, they suck in the end. They never, ever, improve after a while.

I'm going to give this one a pass
First of all, there are the ghostly apparitions witnessed by the group of people attending the occult evenings. Not only would the method for making the ghosts appear be more at home in an episode of Scooby Doo, it has been used in such Scooby Doo episodes as Hassle in the Castle and The Fiesta Host is an Aztec Ghost! So not really all that believable for a historical mystery set in the 1950s. Secondly, there's the identity of Stafford, which is half-decently handled, but nothing particular clever or noteworthy. I think something more could have been done with the murder of a self-proclaimed immortal. Just think what someone like John Dickson Carr or Hake Talbot could have done with such a premise.

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that, around the halfway mark, Stafford's body is found in the woods around the Endicott home. But who cares. This potential interesting plot-development degenerates into an old, tired and uninspired blackmail/murder plot.

Brown provided the story with a second body, which showed some imagination in its staging, but also revealed he's hardly a top-notch plotter as far as this genre is concerned. I can only conclude that the reason for introducing this second corpse was in order to shoe-horn in a false solution, which needed an innocent person who could not object to being accused. So this person simply had to die.

On top of the poorly, disappointingly conceived plot, the book was also mind-numbingly boring and I couldn't care less about any of the characters. Simply did not care about any of them. I eventually began to skim through the book, because I wanted it to be over. Hence why I'm dragging myself through this equally poorly written review.

At the beginning of this blog-post, I name-dropped a fairly recent discovery of mine, John Russell Fearn, who, admittedly, was a second-stringer, but that hardly seems fair when you compare his work to such modern-day equivalents as Richard Hunt's Deadlocked (1994), David Marsh's Dead Box (2004), Frederick Ramsey's Stranger Room (2009) and Eric Keith's Nine Man's Murder (2011) – or the subject of this blog-post. Yes, I know. Our beloved Golden Age also produced raw sewage pressed between two book covers, but their modern counterparts are usually so much worse.

Well, sorry for having brought this one up and really wish I had something more substantial to tell about the book, but I had not much to work with and, honestly, lacked the interest. I'll try to dig up something better for the next blog-post. In the meantime, I recommend my reviews of Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) and Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956), which were both excellent mystery novels for very different reasons. 

4/23/17

Ghost in the Light

"...there is evil everywhere under the sun."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, 1941)
During the 1950s, the celebrated and incredibly prolific science-fiction author, Isaac Asimov, wrote "a series of six derring-do novels" about the ace investigator of the Council of Science, David "Lucky" Starr, which is a gig that brought him to every world in our Solar System – all of them colonized and inhabited by humans. As they should be!

The stories fall into the category of juvenile fiction and were initially published under a pseudonym, "Paul French," but the name was dropped when plans for a television series fell through. So the series always impressed me as an action/adventure stories in a science-fiction surrounding, but, according to Mike Grost, there's one Lucky Starr title offering "a fully fair play mystery." One that has clues and "a dying message delivered by a non-human character," which should give the observant reader a couple of strong hints as to who the culprit is. So how could I possibly resist?

Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956) is the third book in the series and brings David "Lucky" Starr and his small, Martian-born sidekick, John Bigman Jones, to the smallest and innermost planet of the Solar System – a two-faced celestial body called Mercury. Since the planet is the next door neighbor of our Sun, it's not the most hospitable place for permanent human settlement. However, the planet had been mined in the past for precious metals, such as silver and platinum, and recently became the location of an expensive research project.

At the Solar Observatory at the Mercurial North Pole, they're testing a completely new branch of science, called Sub-etheric Optics, which would allow them to intercept sunlight, guide it through hyperspace, and spread it evenly over the Earth – effectively giving them full control over the seasons. The "distribution of sunlight" would turn the Earth into a "conditioned paradise," but, recently, the project is plagued by a series of accidents. And they're taking a toll on the engineer in charge of Project Light, Scott Mindes.

Upon their arrival on Mercury, Mindes tells Lucky and Bigman there are "two-legged ghosts" on the Sun-side of the planet. Mindes has been scouting the Sun-side in a small rocket-scooter and observed "something that moved under the sun," something wearing a metallic spacesuit, who was seen standing still in the Sun for minutes at a time – as though it didn't care "a thing for the heat and radiation." Something that would be even ill-advised to do in a special insulated spacesuit.

So is the metal-clad ghost a fragment of the engineer's unstable imagination? An unknown Mercurian life-form? Or a saboteur from the Sirius star system?

After the opening chapters, the red-thread running through the plot splits into several sub-threads, which are still tightly connected to one another, but allows for some of the spotlight to be shown on Starr's right-hand man. Bigman got himself into a feud with Jonathan Urteil, a "roving investigator" for Senator Swenson, who stands in opposition to the Council of Science. A dispute that would eventually lead to a duel fought in low-gravity to make up for the weight difference between both men and resulted in a simple, but original, murder involving a gravity lock.

However, the murder is committed relatively late into the story and before they dueled in low-gravity, Bigman and Urteil had a close brush with death in the dark, disused mines that has a backstory that could be used as the premise of a science-fiction horror movie.

Bigman and Lucky Starr
The mines were slowly being abandoned fifty years ago, when the observatory was constructed, but the only thing that never died down were the stories the miners left behind for the astronomers. Stories about miners who were inexplicably frozen to death in the shafts. In those days, the mine shafts were fairly well heated and the power units of their suits functioned normally, but miners kept dying from an inexplicable and intense cold – eventually only entered into the main shafts in gangs. Bigman and Urteil stumble across the answer to "the freezing death in the mines," but the answer in question is pure science-fiction. However, the problem gave the book some nice and imaginative scenes.

Yes, I realize this is the third mystery in row about a mine, having previously reviewed Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) and M.V. Carey's The Mystery of Death Trap Mine (1976), but was unaware Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury had a sub-plot about an old, abandoned mine when picking the book from the big pile.

Meanwhile, Lucky is exploring the Sun-side of Mercury with an ergometer and comes across the tall, metallic figure glanced by Mindes, but all I can really say about this plot-thread is that Asimov had really stopped hiding his identity at this point in the series. Something is revealed in these chapters that makes no bones about the fact that these books take place in the same universe as (some) of his other science-fiction/mystery stories. And this figure gives Starr an incomprehensible dying message, "er—er," when asked who was behind the acts of sabotage.

It's a rudimentary and simplistic dying message, but one that makes perfect sense when explained and beautifully complements the other clues pointing the murderer/saboteur. Asimov really showed his then brand new credentials as a part-time mystery novelist. Granted, the story does not translate into a genre-classic, or even one of Asimov's best hybrid mysteries, but the plot was sound and all of the plot-threads tied up satisfactorily. And the Mercurial backdrop was great.

Even though Asimov had to admit in his introduction, written for Fawcett editions, that "the advance of science can outdate even the most conscientious science-fiction," because his "astronomical descriptions are longer accurate in all respects." But that will only annoy readers who are well versed in astronomy, I suppose.

On a last, semi-related note: Ho-Ling, JJ and yours truly appear to be the only who occasionally review these science-fiction mysteries and thought a list of all these hybrid-mysteries, reviewed between the three of us, would be a nice way to pad out this blog-post.

My list: Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942), David Reed's Murder in Space (1944), John Russell Fearn's The Lonely Astronomer (1954) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).

Short stories: Miriam Allen Deford's Space, Time and Crime (1964; anthology) Isaac Asimov's "Mirror Image"(1972) Timothy Zahn's "Red Thoughts at Morning" (1988).

Ho-Ling's list: Poul Anderson's After Doomsday (1962) Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1983) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).

Short stories: Sonoda Shuuichirou's "Dakara dare mo inaku natta" ("And That's Why There Were None").

Audio drama: Hiroshi Mori's "Meikyuu hyakunen no suima" ("Labyrinth in the Arm of Morpheus").

JJ's list: Peter F. Hamilton's A Quantum Murder (1994), Adam Roberts' Jack Glass (2012) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).

As you can see, we all love Hogan's book!

4/20/17

You Are Mine Now

"In attempting to conceal a fact one may point still more markedly to its occurrence."
- Prof. T.L. Westborough (Clyde B. Clason's Blind Drift, 1937)
One of the drawbacks of devouring detective-fiction at the same rate a mine fire consumes oxygen, is that you'll eventually ran out of such monumental classics as Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935), Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile (1937) and Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1945) – to name but a few of the genre's masterpieces. Or so it seems.

You only have to glance at the webwork of blogs, dedicated to the classic detective story, to realize there's a gem-rich soil beneath the genre's surface. Several layers of hidden treasures requiring some time and work to find, but can uncover such golden nuggets as Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935), Harriet Rutland's Bleeding Hooks (1940), Kelley Roos' The Frightened Stiff (1942) and John Sladek's Black Aura (1974). Or absolutely precious authors like Pat McGerr, E.R. Punshon and Cor Docter.

Thankfully, there are a number of small, independent publishers who make collecting and reading rare, long out-of-print mystery novels embarrassingly easy. One of them found and reissued a genuine gem of a detective novel.

Lately, Coachwhip has been making some collector's items available again for us commoners, like the intriguing-sounding The Rumble Murders (1932) by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr., but I had the misfortune to pick Alexander Williams' rather unwhelming The Hex Murder (1935) from this batch of new editions – which remains a risk when rooting around for obscure mysteries. Even when they're reprinted with the seal of approval from the likes of John Norris and Curt Evans. However, there's one book among their recent offering that can only be described as a minor masterpiece along the lines of the previously mentioned titles by Roscoe, Roos, Rutland and Sladek.

Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) should be used as a textbook example of how to integrate a plot complexity, clues and moments of foreshadowing in, what is essentially, a very character-driven story. You can play with the puzzle pieces as you move from chapter to chapter, but Perry did not underestimate her readers and did a sterling job at misleading them. She kept tossing me between potential solutions like a new prisoner is passed around in the showers. Loved it!

The story takes place in the small coal-mining town of Genesee, Colorado, which begins with the kind of tragedy that was only all too common in those days: an explosion rips through "the subterranean maze" of Haunted Mine, which resulted in a growing number of casualties – starting with the eleven bodies retrieved during the first hours of rescue work. Additionally, there are seventeen mine workers who are still trapped in the dangerous, smoldering underground passages and their prospects are not looking good. However, the nephew of the mine's owner, Anthony "Tony" Sheridan, wants to make a last ditch effort and is the last one to be lowered into the mine, but he never makes it back to the cage-lift. And the situation has gotten to such a point that they had to seal up the mine air-tight for an undetermined period of time. Since a fire in a coal mine can rage for years (e.g. Centralia mine fire).

Well, there were only five weeks between the disaster and the moment when the mine was declared safe again to enter, but what they find upon their descent is the scene of a seemingly impossible crime!

Someone, somehow, has fatally shot Tony Sheridan in the back! The straight, horizontal angle of the bullet and the absence of a gun excludes the possibility of suicide, but even more inexplicable is that the only people present were the trapped miners – all of them died long before Tony descended into the mine. So who was in a position to fire the shot and how was it done?

After the discovery of the body, the narrative is picked up by one of Tony's brothers, Henry "Cappy" Sheridan, who retreats into the past and begins to tell about their childhood in Genesee. And this excursion takes the reader through the years and up till the moment when the body is discovered. Usually, this means that the author has place the plot in the backseat in favor of characterization, but The Owner Lies Dead is a glaring exception to that rule.

These early chapters are loaded with important information, scenes and clues that are of paramount importance to the solution. One of them being the troublesome relationship between Tony and a childhood friend of the Sheridan brothers, Regina, who ends up marrying a local boy, Pat Brace, who has personal reason for hating the uncle of the three Sheridan brothers – which, as one would expect, did not sit well with Tony. Cappy's narrative also describes several curious events leading up to the mine explosion and its direct aftermath. Such as the wounding of the local physician by a stray bullet, the theft of the pay roll of the mine workers and how his other brother, Rush, swears he saw Tony's ghost after the mine was sealed.

As you can imagine, when such a series of apparently incomprehensible events are put together with some care and logic, you can have a lot of fun in attempting to pull them apart. And try to rearrange them in the correct order of sequence.

Arrogantly, I assumed I had (roughly) pieced together the explanation for the entire problem, which was somewhat conservative in nature, but, despite correctly identifying some components of the actual solution, Perry kept me from reaching the complete truth – something I find to be incomprehensible in hindsight. In the end, everything clicked together with logical inevitability. From the childhood incidents and the local legend of Haunted Mine to the explosion and bizarre circumstances of the shooting. It all makes sense without taxing the readers credulity too much, because the explanation is not as complex as the premise suggests it to be. And those often tend to be the best kind of detective stories.

But you can find a plot between the pages of The Owner Lies Dead

As the resident locked room fanboy, I have to give a note of warning to everyone who might want to buy this book purely on the strength of its impossibility. The premise is definitely promising, but the sealed mine angle is only a small cog in the overall machine of the plot and has a relatively simple explanation. I still liked how it fitted in the overall plot. And, therefore, you should not read The Owner Lies Dead as just an impossible crime novel, because the book is not a one-trick pony. You should read as a detective story with an impossible situation as the cherry on top of the excellent plot.

So, as you can read, I really, really liked The Owner Lies Dead. I will now always refer back to this review when pointing to a mystery novel with perfect balance between a clue-rich plot and adequate character development. And I really hope Coachwhip decides to republish Perry's second and last mystery novel, The Never Summer Mystery (1932), which was also listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991). It's actually surprising Coachwhip did not reissue The Owner Lies Dead and The Never Summer Mystery as a twofer volume like they did with Clifford Orr and Donald Bayne Hobart. I would have loved to own that set! Anyway...

On a final, somewhat related note: the small mining town setting was a reminder how much I would love to read a detective story set in Neutral Moresnet. I'll even settle for a thriller, spy or adventure story, but, as far as I know, the place never produced any crime-fiction or caught the attention of writers outside of its borders. Something that can only be described as a missed opportunity, because this unique "dwarf-state" (i.e. a semi-sovereign mining village) had all the material to furnish the plot of a first-rate detective or thriller novel.

4/18/17

Do Not Enter!

"Fear isn't in our vocabulary..."
- Jonny Quest (TRAJQ: S02E10: Ghost Quest)
Since 2015, I discussed nearly a dozen books from The Three Investigators series, mostly those written by Robert Arthur and William Arden, but also one of the many titles penned by M.V. Carey. Between them, they imagined countless alluring problems and tight spots to occupy those three lads from Rocky Beach, California, but rarely did they allow the boys to stumble across a body – certainly not a really well preserved one that could be a homicide victim.

Over their many adventures, Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews uncovered long-hidden skeletons of people who died (e.g. The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, 1968) or were murdered (e.g. The Mystery of the Headless Horse, 1977) over a century ago. A past murder in a Cairo bazaar was mentioned in The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) and the boys dealt with the legacy of a dead man in The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972), but Carey's The Mystery of Death Trap Mine (1976) places them squarely in Case Closed territory when they make an unsettling discovery in an abandoned mine-shaft.

The Mystery of Death Trap Mine begins when they receive a surprise visit in their secret headquarters from a character who previously appeared in The Mystery of the Singing Serpent (1972), Allie Jamison, who's the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Rocky Beach. Jupe, Pete and Bob helped Allie's family with getting "rid of a sinister house-guest" and "exposed a diabolical blackmail plot," but this time she wants to keep her uncle, Harry Osborne, from having "the wool pulled over his eyes" - which has, according to her, something to do with his suspicious next door neighbor.

Osborne has bought a Christmas tree ranch in Twin Lakes, New Mexico, which used to be a mining town. There's an exhausted silver mine, called Dead Trap Mine, because "a woman once wandered in there" and "fell down a shaft." Some say she still haunts the place.

So the mine is an extremely dangerous place and locals sealed the opening when a missing five-year-old nearly got herself killed in there, but Osborne sold the mine and a chunk of land to a returning local, Wesley Thurgood. One of the first things Thurgood did was to remove the iron grill from the entrance and bought a guard dog to watch the place. He also puttered around the site in brand-new jeans, a hard hat and manicured nails! All of this makes Allie mighty suspicious and deviously gets her uncle to offer Jupe, Pete and Bob a summer job, pruning Christmas trees, but their real task will be helping Allie getting to the bottom of the mine business.

Surely, not long after arriving at Twin Lakes, Allie does seem to have grounds for suspicion, because Thurgood appears to have lied about something. And why did he fired a shotgun inside an empty mine?

Of course, they're going to do exactly what any kid or teenager would do in their place: ignore Osborne's warnings, trespass on Thurgood's property and descend into the forbidden mine, but, "about fifty yards into the mountain," Thurgood suddenly appeared behind them, while Allie started to scream in front of them, pointing to the bottom of a dark pit – where a body "lay strangely twisted on the rocky floor of the shaft." The well-preserved, mummified corpse belongs to a convicted criminal, Gilbert Morgan, who had been released from prison five years previously and then simply disappeared. So there you have two problems that may, or may not, be intertwined.

On the one hand, you have the strange behavior and protective attitude towards "a played-out silver mine" on Thurgood's part, while on the other you have the presence of a dead parole-jumper in that same mine.

Allie is rattled!
The problem of the dead body in the mine is tackled by going through some back issues of the local newspaper, Twin Lakes Gazette, which chronicles absolutely everything that happened in that small and remote town. And there they learn about the placing of the iron grill and the discovery of a stolen car near the mine. However, it is the accidental discovery of a five-year-old Phoenix newspaper that tells them about a crime that appears to have a connection with both the body and the abandoned car. The other problem has an interesting geological clue, the appearance of "a bit of gold in a played-out silver mine," which eventually explains the gunshots, the underground explosions and Thurgood's behavior, but not in the way you might assume. I liked this aspect of the plot the most.

In between snooping, Jupe, Pete, Bob and Allie have to dodge newspaper reporters, curiosity seekers, midnight prowlers, guard dogs, rattlesnakes and adult supervision. And the latter seriously hampered their movement on one or two occasions. However, they still got around to playing detective and they even visited a ghost town, called Hambone, which received a deathblow when their mine closed, but made for a great backdrop for an excellent and one of the more memorable scenes from the book – which will culminate in the obligatory spot of danger when a couple of criminals show up. Pete and Allie find themselves at their mercy and that of the scorching sun of a stretch of desert land, while a helicopter is desperate searching for them.

So, all in all, The Mystery of Death Trap Mine was a very readable, well-characterized and competently plotted entry in the series. Granted, the plot was not stellar, however, all of the plot-threads hang together coherently. They were just a bit commonplace. You could partially blame this on the author not daring to make the death of Morgan a full-blown murder. Carey said in an interview that they had not "any murderers in the series," but she could see "where the life-is-not-fair-so-I-think-I'll-hold-up-the-bank type of thinking can lead to murder." I think the plot of this book would have been a perfect vehicle to tell exactly such a story. And hey, she already supplied the body, so why not go all the way, right?

Secondly, Carey seems to have been a very character-driven writer and you can see this in how she treated all of the characters. Even the minor ones seem to be more than just background decoration, but the most eye-catching here is how Allie interacted with the boys. I got the distinct impression that Carey was setting Allie up as a counterweight to Jupe and planted the seeds of a potential romantic relationship between her and Pete, but the series publisher probably told her not to pursue this angle. Because Allie made no further appearances in the series.

Well, that brings us to the end of this review and I can already reveal that the next one also has a mining backdrop. So you can probably guess which mystery novel that's going to be.

4/14/17

Wanton Wonders

"How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four, 1890)
Martin Edwards is a decorated crime novelist, genre-historian and author of the award-winning The Golden Age of Murder (2015), which I still haven't read, but currently he's also engaged as the resident anthologist of the British Library – compiling such themed anthologies as Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015) and Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries (2016). Last week, the greatest title in the series yet rolled off the printing presses.

Yes, that's my personal, opinionated bias bleeding through. I love locked room mysteries. Deal with it.

Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017) gathered sixteen short stories that were never, or rarely, collected in similar themed anthologies. A good portion of the stories came from the hands of such luminaries as Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, but Edwards complemented their work with several obscure, long-overlooked impossible crime tales by Grenville Robbins, Christopher St. John Sprigg and E. Charles Vivian – resulting in a pleasantly balanced collection of short stories. So let's take a closer look at the content of this newest anthology of miracle crimes.

However, I gave the following handful of stories a pass, because I didn't feel like re-reading them or discussed them previously on this blog: Conan Doyle's "The Lost Special," William Hope Hodgson's "The Thing Invisible," R. Austin Freeman's "The Aluminium Dagger," Nicholas Olde's "The Invisible Weapon" and Michael Innes' "The Sands of Thyme." Even with these stories eliminated from the line-up, this is still going to be one of those bloated blog-posts that grows at the same speed as Erle Stanley Gardner's bibliography. Strap in, everyone. This is going to be a long ride!

So that makes the first story under examination Sax Rohmer's "The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room," originally published in the April 1913 issue of The New Magazine, which starred one of his obscure, short-lived series-character, Moris Klaw – whose cases were collected in The Dream Detective (1920). Klaw is an antique dealer and an occult detective who prefers to spend the night at the scene of a crime, which reproduces clue-like images of the victim's last thoughts in his dreams (hence the book-title). Scene of the crime in this series-opener is the Greek Room of the Menzies Museum.

A night attendant got his neck broken in the Greek Room, but how an outsider could've entered and left the premise is a complete mystery. There are only two entrances to the room, a public and a private one, which were both securely locked and the windows were fitted with iron bars. And there was no place where even "a mouse could find shelter." Klaw is allowed to camp out in the room and received a psychic photograph "a woman dressed all in white," but also got the impression the night watchman had a "great fear for the Athenean Harp" - a gemstone in the museum's collection. Honestly, I did not expect too much from this story, but, while dated, the plot was fairly decent and well-put together. Granted, some of the finer details about the exact cause of death and murder method were as ridiculous as they were dated.

However, as much as some aspects of the explanation stretches credulity, they were still surprisingly down to earth for a detective story from an occult mystery series. I also have to earmark the impossible problem, and its solution, as an early example of a particular type of impossibility that would turn up again in the works of John Dickson Carr, Ken Greenwald and David Renwick.

The next entry is one of favorite stories from G.K. Chesterton's celebrated Father Brown series, "The Miracle of Moon Crescent," which came from a collection of short stories saturated with impossible crime material – aptly titled The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926). I've always been fond of this story on account of the originality and brilliance of its locked room problem.

A problem concerning the miraculous disappearance of an American philanthropist, Warren Wynd, who vanished from a watched room on the fourteenth floor of the apartment complex called Moon Crescent. Equally inexplicable is his reappearance at the end of a rope in the garden below. Luckily, Father Brown is at hand to alleviate the minds of the baffled, "hard-shelled materialists" that were present outside of Wynd's room and explain this apparent miracle. The priest based his explanation on a madman he had seen firing a blank at the building, which told him how the philanthropist was whisked away from a closely observed room and why he was found hanging from a tree branch. Absolutely ingenious! Only weakness of the plot is the rather silly, far-fetched motive, but even that was somewhat original.

Marten Cumberland's "The Diary of Death" was first published in The Strand Magazine of January, 1928, which has a premise that should've been explored at novel length: a once popular musical singer, Lilian Hope, had disappeared from the spotlight into "obscurity and direst poverty" - where "she died in a miserable garret." During her waning years, Hope kept a diary in which she poured out "vindictive and bitter accusations" against her former friends. Naming everyone who she felt had abandoned her and refused any kind of help. Someone got a hold of this diary and begins to extract revenge on everyone mentioned in it. Leaving behind a torn page from the diary after every murder.

So the police have their hands full with the "Death Diary Murders," but the one who gets an opportunity to put a stop to the killings is an amateur criminologist, Loreto Santos. At a house party, Santos is approached by the person who's "next on the list," Sir George Frame. He used be a friend of Hope, but the money he mailed to the poor woman was intercepted by his wife. So she never received an answer or a penny and dedicated some bitter words to Sir George in her diary. And now he has received a torn page in the mail.

Sadly, Santos is unable to avert Sir George's impending doom, because the following morning they've to batter down the locked-and bolted door of his bedroom door with a Crusader's mace and they find his body in the middle of the room – a knife-handle protruding from his back. A story with an intriguing and solid premise, however, its resolution was a bit too simplistic. I easily spotted the murderer and the problem of the locked room hinged on an old trick (c.f. "The Locked Room Lecture" from Carr's The Hollow Man, 1935), but still found it an enjoyable story.

Grenville Robbins' "The Broadcast Murder," originally published in Pearson's Magazine of July, 1928, which is one of the earliest examples of a detective story set in the world of radio. I think the story also demonstrate that mystery writers from the first half of the twentieth century had no problem incorporating new technologies into their plot. In this case, hundreds of thousands listeners heard how the radio announcer suddenly yelled "help!" followed by "the lights have gone out" and "someone's trying to strangle me," but the fate of the announcer remains unknown – since his body disappeared from "a hermetically sealed studio." The trick is relatively simple one, using old-fashioned misdirection, but the reason for staging such an illusion at a radio studio shows the Golden Age was about to go in full bloom.

Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) lists a second short story by Robbins, "The Broadcast Body," which was published in the June, 1934, issue of 20-Story Magazine and deals with a professor who vanished from a guarded room "in which he was carrying out a matter-transference experiment." So that might be a potential candidate for inclusion in a future anthology of this kind.

The next story, "The Music Room," was lifted from the pages of the pseudonymous Sapper's Ask for Ronald Standish (1936), which reportedly collects some of his more detective-orientated crime-fiction and features his second-string sleuth, Standish.

Standish is a guest at a, sort of, house warming party during which the host, Sir John Crawsham, entertains the party by telling about an unsolved mystery that came with the property. Nearly half a century ago, the then lodge-keeper found the body of an unknown man in the music-room, "lower part of his face had literally been battered into a pulp," but the real mystery is how his assailant could have entered or left the room – because the door had to be broken open and the key was on the inside of the door. As to be expected, someone else dies inside the locked music-room, crushed by a chandelier, before too long. 

However, the explanation is hardly inventive and even a bit disappointing, but appreciated how the potential presence of a hidden passage was used. Otherwise, it's not really a remarkable story at all.

Back in 2015, Christopher St. John Sprigg's Death of an Airman (1935) was republished as a British Library Crime Classic and this brand new edition was as well received as the original edition. So readers might be glad to know that this anthology contains one of his obscure short stories.

"Death at 8:30" was salvaged from the pages of the May 25, 1935, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly and can be classified as a sensationalist thriller with a mild puzzle plot, similar to Anthony Berkeley's Death in the House (1939), but superior in every way imaginable – one of them being is that this story does not overstay its welcome. A murderous blackmailer, known only as "X.K.," demanded exorbitant sums of money in exchange to be left alone, but, when a victim refused, they would be swiftly dispatched to the Great Hereafter. There were three men who refused to comply with the demands and they were all murdered under mysterious circumstances. The fourth person who refuses to pay is no less a figure than the Home Secretary, Sir Richard Jauntley, which demands extreme and extraordinary security precautions.

The vaults of the Bank of England was put at their disposal and the Home Secretary was encased in "a cell of thick bullet-proof glass," surrounded by armed men, but, at the time announced by “X.K.,” the Home Secretary began to writhe in agony and died within mere seconds – poisoned! However, there were no apparent ways of how the poison could have been introduced inside the sealed, bullet-proof and air-filtered glass tube. One that was located in a sealed and heavily guarded bank vault. I suppose I've been reading too many impossible crime stories, because I immediately spotted the tale-tell clue that told me how it was done. But how the murderer was dealt with was something else all together. So, yes, not bad for a sensational thriller story.

G.D.H. and Margaret Cole's "Too Clever by Half" was included in The Detection Club's Detection Medley (1939) and is a semi-inverted mystery, in which the narrator, Dr. Benjamin Tancred, tells about a clever murderer he once met. 

Samuel Bennett was the brainy licensee of the "Golden Eagle," an inn in the remote Willis Hill, where he was in the process of murdering his brother-in-law when Dr. Tancred turned up. The victim was found in an upstairs bedroom, locked from the inside, with a bullet-hole in his head. On the surface, it looks like a simple case of suicide, but Dr. Tancred suspects murder based on the inn-keepers behavior, a lighted keyhole, the angle of the fatal bullet and the smell of gun powder in the corridor.

This is not really a story that allows you to puzzle along with the detective, but it's fun to watch the detective dismantle, what could have been, a clever and near perfect murder without breaking a sweat.

E. Charles Vivian's "Locked In," originally collected in My Best Mystery Story (1939), was a disappointing and forgettable tale of a supposed suicide in a locked room. I did not care for it. Moving on...

Dorothy L. Sayers' "The Haunted Policeman" was first published in the February, 1938, issue of Harper's Bazaar and was posthumously collected in Striding Folly (1971), but remains one of her most criminally underrated pieces of fiction. The story represents one of her most imaginative and strongest puzzle-plot, which could easily have been a Carter Dickson yarn in The Department of Queer Complaints (1940)!

The story opens on the night when Lord Peter Wimsey's first son is born and, shortly thereafter, meets a confused policeman. One who has a very interesting ghost story to tell. P.C. Alfred Burt was pounding pavement in Merriman's End, "a long cul-de-sac," where his eye fell upon "a rough-looking fellow" in "a baggy old coat" was lurking suspicious in the shadow, but when he was about to ask the character what he was doing when someone yelled bloody murder – which seemed to come from Number 13. Nobody answered the door. But the policeman did take a peek through the letter-flap and saw a man laying the hall with a carving-knife in his throat. However, when he returned, alongside a colleague, all of the houses in the street have even numbers. There's no number 13! And none of the house they visited have an interior that resembles what he observed through the letter-flap. The house, alongside the body, vanished into the dark of the night.

The explanation for this apparent impossibility is as satisfying as it's cleverly simple. And, as noted here above, the plot of the story is very Carrish in nature and could have easily been a case for Colonel March of Department D-3. After all, he handled a similar kind of problem in "The Crime in Nobody's Room."

The next story is Edmund Crispin's "Beware of the Trains," originally published in The London Evening Standard in 1949, which has Gervase Fen assisting his policeman friend, Detective-Inspector Humbleby, when a motorman disappeared from a moving train. At the same time, the police had surrounded the small station to collar a burglary. So nobody could have slipped out unobserved. A well-known and competent enough story, but hardly one of Crispin's best impossible crime stories. There are a pair of lesser-known, but far stronger, locked room stories in Crispin's repertoire, namely "A Country to Sell" and "Death Behind Bars," which appeared in a posthumous collection – entitled Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979). Hopefully, one of them will be considered for a future anthology of locked room mysteries.

Finally, we have the youngest story in the collection, Margery Allingham's "The Villa Marie Celeste," which was first published in the October, 1960, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Personally, I'm not really a big fan of Allingham, but this has to be one of the niftiest domestic mysteries I ever came across. A young couple, married for three years, disappeared from their comely home in Chestnut Grove. They apparent vacated a half-eaten breakfast on a washing-day, took some sheets and vanished "like a stain under a bleach." Technically, this story does not really qualify as an impossible crime, but the quality of the story makes that a forgivable offense.

Some of you might want to know that the unusual, but original, motive makes it a close relative of a genuine locked room mystery from the 1980s, "The Locked Bathroom" by H.R.F. Keating, which I reviewed here. Funnily enough, both stories have a solution that involves laundry.

Mercifully, that brings us at the end of this bloated, drawn out and badly written review!

All in all, the short stories collected in Miraculous Mysteries were very consistent in quality. There were only two real stinkers, Freeman (ripped off a well-known story) and Innes (completely ridiculous), but skipped those two and that left only one (minor) disappointment (i.e. Vivian). All of the other entries were either decent, good or historically interesting. So no real complaints about the overall quality of the collection. 

However, it was a small let down that this anthology did not collect any new sparkling classics that were completely unknown to me, but that's the price one pays for consuming ridiculous amounts of impossible crime-fiction. That being said, this anthology is a welcome addition to the slowly growing row of locked room themed short story collections of which there can never, ever, be enough.

So, despite my annoying nitpicking, I do hope this will not be the last locked room anthology Edwards will compile for the British Library, because I really do love impossible crime stories. And I'm only, like, halfway through all of the novels and short stories listed by Adey in Locked Room Murders. I really, really need more anthologies to complete that task and reach full enlightenment. 

And, as always, I'll try to keep my next review a whole lot shorter.