7/17/24

The Tragedy at Freyne (1927) by Anthony Gilbert

"Anthony Gilbert" was the penname of Lucy Malleson, an inventive, productive and a shade unconventional mystery writer, who wrote over sixty novels, dozens of short stories and a number of radio-plays – mostly starring her series-detective, Arthur Crook. A London-based lawyer of ill-repute and dubious ethics who lived up to his name. So a tremendously fun character deliberately made vulgar to counter the popular image of the debonair, sophisticated and meddlesome sleuth a la Philo Vance. However, the first novel published under the "Anthony Gilbert" name introduced her first, short-lived detective-character, Scott Egerton.

Scott Egerton is "a member of the least democratic body on this earth, the British House of Commons," who's predicted to have a bright future in politics ("he's the type that's cut out for leadership"). Beside being a rising young politician, Egerton got to play detective in ten novel before getting replaced by Crook. That's one of the reasons why Crook eclipsed his predecessor, but not the only one as nearly the entire series had been out-of-print for decades. Even today, the likes of The Mystery of the Open Window (1929) and The Night of the Fog (1930) remain out-of-print and somewhat elusive. Nor does it help that the easiest accessible, most well-known title in the series, The Body on the Beam (1932), reputedly is a dud ("do people really enjoy this sort of the book?"). So never paid much attention to the Scott Egerton series except for the first novel.

The Tragedy at Freyne (1927) introduced both the "Anthony Gilbert" penname and the Scott Egerton character mystery readers, which has an entry in Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019). So, on the special impossible crime wish list it went, but The Tragedy at Freyne was one of those annoyingly obscure, long out-of-print and scarce titles – hard to come by until recently. The Tragedy at Freyne was reprinted twice in the past two years. First by a small, independent outfit named Spitfire Publishers, but their editions aren't available in my country. If you ask me, that reeks suspiciously of Dutchphobia! Fortunately, Dover Publications added their own edition of The Tragedy at Freyne to the Dover Mystery Classics last April.

Alan Ravenswood, narrator of the story, is one of the people who make up the house party at Freyne Abbey. The home of his cousin, Lady Catherine Chandos, and her husband, Sir Simon Chandos, who are entertaining a small crowd. There's Sir Simon's ward, Rosemary St. Claire, who's about to be engaged to the rising young politician, Scott Egerton. Guy Bannister is a well-known war correspondent, scientific journalist and generally considered to be a charming party guess. Captain Rupert Dacre is the Chandos' reclusive, shell shocked neighbor who lives at Dacre Court "like a monk, with three ex-servicemen." Lastly, Sir Chandos' odd secretary, Miss Althea Dennis. Ravenswood finds everyone at Freyne Abbey on edge. Not without reason or consequences.

After the house party, Sir Simon Chandon apparently retreated to his study to commit suicide by taking an overdose of morphine. The door was locked from the inside with the key found inside his pocket and the windows were securely shuttered. A rambling suicide note is found on the desk with Sir Simon still tightly holding a pen in his right hand, which Egerton knows is the wrong hand. Sir Simon was left handed. So murder cleverly disguised as suicide and the police pounce on Dacre, because he was having an affair with Lady Chandos.

The Tragedy at Freyne has all the hallmarks of a fairly standard, 1920s mystery novel, but even this early in her career, Gilbert tried to mix different styles and upturning certain conventions – which resulted in a very different type of twenties locked room mystery. First of all, the victim is not a tyrannical patriarch who commonly end up murdered in these type of mysteries, but a tragic figure and truly blameless victim. Sir Simon is an immense ugly man, "a shambling, inhuman figure," who moved with "a leaning-forward pose of body that suggested the ape" and features that were "a throw-back to monkey ancestors." Before he was murdered, Sir Simon was already “dying by inches of cancer.” However, the story is still streaked with "inexcusable melodrama" from the Victorian-era, but Gilbert already showed a talent for handling dramatics and employed the dramatics to weave some pleasing patterns into the plot. It's almost a shame the arrest of Dacre didn't explode into a full-blown courtroom dramatics. Another notable difference is how the introduction of the detective is handled.

After pointing out the murderer's mistake, Egerton is largely absent and only spoken about until reappearing during the final leg of the story. Egerton is given something of a backstory during his absence concerning a sordid episode from his youth that could cast a dark cloud over both his career opportunities and engagement. So, if you read The Tragedy at Freyne in 1927, you can't be blamed for thinking Egerton is just one of the more suspicious characters in the cast of suspects. When the police arrested Dacre, the defense hires a private detective, "Stuart will get the truth if any man can," to ferret out information. The detective work through out the story is mix of humdrum detection and Sherlock Holmes (donning disguises) with the highlight being Gilbert's brilliant take on the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.

The Tragedy at Freyne presents Gilbert as a mystery writer full of promise and potential, but how she handled the ending shows she still had some work and fine-tuning to do. Egerton returns to the story with an admittedly pretty good and satisfying solution in hand, which then turns into "a race against time" to gather evidence before the murderer boards a ship. It deflated and undermined the clever, twisty solution when it follows by evidence collecting. Regrettably, the locked room-trick is simple and routine, but enjoyed the police being convinced the murderer exited the locked room through a secret passage they were unable to find. So don't get it solely for its impossible crime element.

So while the ending could have been handled better, The Tragedy at Freyne is still a cut, or two, above the average, 1920s mystery novel and stands as a promising debut from a diamond-in-the-rough full with potential – only needing further cutting and polishing. Which is fortunately exactly what happened as Gilbert would go on the pen the Agatha Christie-worthy The Clock in the Hat Box (1939) and the late, but excellent, She Shall Die (1961). The Tragedy at Freyne comes recommended as a herald of the 1930s Golden Age detective novel.

Note for the curious: Amazingly, The Tragedy at Freyne was published in the same year as Robert Brennan's The Toledo Dagger (1927). One of the worst Golden Age detective novels ever written and likely the book that drove Ronald A. Knox to write down "The Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction" (1929).

7/14/24

Date for Murder (1942) by Louis Trimble

Louis Trimble was an American academic and, as noted elsewhere, "a forgotten writer of the post-World War II," who wrote science-fiction, westerns, detectives and penned two science-fiction mystery hybrid novels, Anthropol (1968) and The Noblest Experiment in the Galaxy (1970) – forming the short-lived Anthropol Detective Agency series. Trimble also has an impossible crime novel to his credit, Fit to Kill (1941), which "follows in the well-worn footsteps of Philo Vance and the early copy-cattish Ellery Queen." Believe it or not, Trimble's dalliance with the locked room mystery is not what attracted my attention.

In The Anthony Boucher Chronicles: Reviews and Commentary, 1942-47 (2009), Boucher briefly describes Trimble's Date for Murder (1942), "service station man Mark Warren solves lurid killings on Coachella date ranch, featuring unique collection of bedroom-and-bath alibis." Summing the story up as a "spicy-detective."

Trimble definitely tried to go for the pulp aesthetics in Date for Murder, but by today's standard, the story's as tame as a neutered tomcat. For starters, "date ranch," is not a euphemism for a desert brothel, or something sleazy, but simply a date farm producing packages of the sweet fruit from the date palm ("Manders' finest") – which makes it still a seedy enough place for murder or two. Date for Murder stands closer to S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen than the pulps. Or, to be more precise, the Van Dineans from outside New York like Anthony Boucher, Clyde B. Clason and Kirke Mechem. More on that in a moment.

Mark Warren is an ex-crime reporter on borrowed time, "six months, a year at most," whose health forced him to move to the date country of the Coachella Valley in the Californian desert. There he works as a part-time country correspondent and mans an out-of-the-way gas station, which is where the story begins. One morning, Idell Manders pulls into the station, filled her tank and went off again when a car came off the Palm Springs highway as she drove past it and shot at her – other car turned and started chasing her. Mark naturally followed and found her hiking half mile from Coachella. She managed to shake them off by driving the car over a cliff ("she set the throttle and jumped out"). I don't know if it's commendable or a missed opportunity that Trimble didn't title the story Fill Her Up. Anyway, Mark accompanies her back home, to the Manders' Range, where they find a drinking party in full swing. The car she was riding in belonged to one of the guests, James Link, who appears to be "frightened half out of his senses."

Next morning, Idell calls Mark to ask him to return to the ranch, because she found Link's body at the bottom of the swimming pool. And it wasn't an accident. A rope was "lashed around his waist, holding him against the ladder, tied to a rung." When the body is pulled from the pool, she notices "the apparent appearance of strangulation" and "that faint, bitter smell" associated with cyanide poisoning. There you first echo of the Van Dine-Queen School.

First of all, there's the bizarre situation of the crime scene itself ("why should he be poisoned and then drowned?") or why the murderer found it necessary to carry the victim to the pool and fix him to the bottom rung ("...a pretty big risk"). Mark Warren is only there on invitation and basically an outsider/amateur detective, but knows and closely works together with the policeman in charge, Sheriff Tom Rourke – who know each other from Mark's days as a crime reporter. Naturally, the movement of the characters around the crime scene plays a key role, patterned into that collection of bathroom-and-bed alibis, complemented by some modest, but bizarre and colorful, clues. Such as poisoned dates, a dead canary, a private pet cemetery, a stopped clock, a suicide buried as natural death and two additional murders. And, of course, there's a spot of blackmail hovering in the background.

Those additional murders deserve a brief comment. I picked Date for Murder with the express purpose to not have to tag another review with the "locked room mysteries" toe-tag, mix things up a little, which is why my heart sank when the second victim locked herself into a room where the murderer, somehow, appeared to polish her off. The door even had to be broken down like a proper locked room murder. Who would genuinely believe I had no idea the story had an impossible crime and only picked it for the collection of unusual alibis? Well, the locked room angle was quickly dispelled to return to the other, more pressing questions. Such as the alibis. The third murder happens late into the story and now almost everyone appears to have a perfectly good alibi. Starting the whole alibi game from scratch with less than a quarter left to go. The ending comes when Mark Warren and Sheriff Rourke gather all the suspect in the living room to expose whodunit, but does it all hold together? Yes... and no.

Date for Murder is a typical, so-called second stringer batting in the minor leagues of the American detective story and the ending betrays it. There are one, or two, things which "played into the murderer's hand" that are just second-rate (SPOILER/ROT13: Gurer ner gjb zheqreref jbexvat gbtrgure, ohg Yvax'f obql jnf erzbirq naq svkrq gb gur obggbz bs gur cbby ol n guveq crefba jbexvat vaqrcraqragyl sebz gur zheqreref). However, it's impressive how Trimble used everything from the date farm setting and the morally untethered characters ("seems they all roam around like a bunch of wild animals") to the odd clues and bedroom-and-bath alibis to punch up, what's ultimately, a simple and somewhat routine plot. However, while no Christopher Bush, Trimble's handling of those various alibis Boucher highlighted is not bush league. So everything appeared to work out better than it perhaps had any right to.

Louis Trimble obviously was not the most stylish mystery writer or best plotter of his day, but judging by Date for Murder, he tried to be the best mystery writer he could be and put more work into the plot than some other second-stringers encountered on this blog. I'm looking at you, Dana Chambers! Date for Murder can hardly be called perfect, however, I enjoyed it as a scrappy, mostly solid second-string detective story trying to punch above its weight.

7/11/24

The Hit List: Top 10 Beneficiaries of the Reprint Renaissance

After the frustrating "The Hit List: Top 5 Intriguing Pieces of Impossible Crime Fiction That Vanished into Thin Air" and the depressing homage to John Pugmire, "The Hit List: Top 10 Best Translations & Reprints from Locked Room International," I promised to pick an upbeat topic for the next hit list – instead of dwelling on what has been lost. There's enough to be positive and upbeat about.

Over the years, decades even, people like Philip Harbottle and Tony Medawar have resurrected obscure or never before published detective novels and short stories. Such as Christianna Brand's obscure, serialized short novel Shadowed Sunlight (1945) and John Russell Fearn's criminally underappreciated, posthumously published Pattern of Murder (2006). Not to mention the ongoing reprint renaissance that started small in the early 2000s, turned into a deluge around 2015 and only slowed down due to the untimely passing of Rupert Heath of Dean Street Press. Heath succeeded with DSP in filling the giant hole left behind by closure of the Rue Morgue Press by reprinting obscure, long out-of-print and unjustly forgotten authors en masse. They were not the only publishers who wanted to get in on the burgeoning Golden Age revival. And that gave me an idea.

So, with close to twenty-five years worth of reprints, who have benefited the most from their return to print? I thought a hit list with the ten obvious beneficiaries of nearly three decades would be a fun, easily compiled list, but, after the first few obvious examples, the lines began to blur a little – facts becoming mixed with personal tastes and view points. A beneficiary is not always about simply returning to print or selling copies. In that case, J.J. Farjeon deserves an entry solely for the British Library Crime Classics reprint of Mystery in White (1937) becoming an unexpected, runaway bestseller in 2024. There are writers who had both their work neglected and reputations in shambles, which in some cases entirely undeserved. A lot has been done to correct both by simply reprinting their (best) work.

The list turned out to be not as standard as fist imagined. However, it's rife with omissions whom, for one reason or another, should be on the list. So, whoever it's you're missing on the list, you probably have a point, but had to keep it limited to ten or would have ended up with another lumbering mammoth lists.

 

1. ANTHONY BERKELEY

Anthony Berkeley is acknowledged today as one of the most original, innovative minds of the Golden Age whose traditionally, but subversive, detective novels fueled the minds of his contemporaries and as "Francis Iles" predicted/pioneered the psychological crime-and thriller novel. John Dickson Carr considered Berkeley "the cleverest of us all," but, at the start of the century, he had been practically forgotten and out-of-print for decades – remembered mostly for "The Avenging Chance" (1928), The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and his psychological crime novels. During the early 2000s, Berkeley began to slowly reclaim his status as a Golden Age luminary when House of Stratus reprinted most of his obscure, long out-of-print titles like The Layton Court Mystery (1925), The Second Shot (1930) and Panic Party (1934). These editions descended into obscurity themselves to become over priced collector's items, but they already done their job and Berkeley has since received numerous reprints from various publishers. Notably, the 2021 Collins Crime Club reprint of The Wintringham Mystery (1926/27), which had not appeared in print for nearly a century. So, over the past two decades, Berkeley has slowly, but surely, regained his status as one of the brightest and original mystery writers of his generation.

 

I recommend Jumping Jenny (1933).

 

2. CHRISTIANNA BRAND

This entry is as last-minute alteration to the list and with good reason. Christianna Brand is not exactly obscure, not as well-known or appreciated as Christie, but she's always been highly regarded by fans of Golden Age detective fiction. Green for Danger (1944) was considered for decades as both one of the best World War II mysteries and the definitive Brand novel, but that's about to change. Green for Danger never had to duke it out with Brand's extremely scarce, out-of-print Death of Jezebel (1948). Now that it has finally returned to print, it appears to be on track to claim the title of "the definitive Brand novel." What's more, Death of Jezebel might unseat Carr's The Three Coffins (1935) as the iconic locked room mystery novel! Alexander, of The Detection Collection, is currently hosting a project to compile and put together a "New Locked Room Library." And mentioned in "New Locked Room Library: Second Round, Go!" how Death of Jezebel "absolutely dominated" the first round ("...being the only work that had been introduced by almost every single participant").

Death of Jezebel dethroning The Three Coffins would be an amazing, posthumous accomplishment, but there's also the growing list of excellent, previously unpublished short stories and novels – like Shadowed Sunlight (1945). I'm sure the as of now unpublished The Chinese Puzzle and the novella "The Dead Hold Fast" will join there ranks. Almost like Brand decided to ignore the fact that she's been dead for over thirty years to participate in the Golden Age revival. I think that more than warrants her inclusion on this list.

 

I recommend Death of Jezebel (1948).

 

3. FREEMAN WILLS CROFTS

If you told GAD fans in the 2000s that Crofts would not only find his way back to print, but that those reprints would be stacked in regular bookstores and appreciated by regular people who don't obsessively consume Golden Age detective fiction, they would have laughed you off the forums. Christie or Sayers? Sure. But not Crofts. The writer whose novels were tarred-and-feathered as the cure for insomnia and an early attempt by House of Stratus to reprint his work left no impression outside the then very niche fandom. Yet, that's exactly what happened, surprising even his own fans, when the British Library and HarperCollins began reprinting his work in earnest. More importantly, Crofts revival nearly lead to a TV series recasting the thoroughly competent and dependable Inspector French as an outcast policeman banished to the mean streets of Belfast with a dead or dying wife hovering in the background. Inspector French fortunately dodged that bullet or it would have been one of the most grievous cases of character assassination of a Golden Age detective character on record. I think what matters most is that the reprints allowed Crofts to rehabilitate his reputation as a sound plotter and somewhat underrated writer.

 

I recommend Mystery on the Channel (1930).

 

4. JOHN RUSSELL FEARN

I doubted whether, or not, to include John Russell Fearn. A writer whose roots are in the science-fiction pulp magazines of his days, but Fearn loved detective stories to the point where he simply started writing them himself and not wholly unsuccessful – albeit with varying degrees of quality. Nevertheless, Fearn's once obscure, almost forgotten detective fiction is widely available today, however, that would have happened regardless. The reason why Fearn's work is back in print is not due to a renewed interest in classic detective and impossible crime fiction, but the efforts of a single man. Philip Harbottle spent years navigating Fearn's maze-like bibliography of magazine publications, serials, unpublished material and enough pennames to populate a small village in order to restore Fearn's work to print (see the guest-post "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn"). So, regardless of the reprint renaissance, Fearn's best detective novels like Except for One Thing (1947), Thy Arm Alone (1947), Flashpoint (1950) and Death in Silhouette (1950) would have been available no matter what. However, I decided it would be criminal to leave such an amazing resurrection of a distinct voice of the list.

 

I recommend Pattern of Murder (2006).

 

5. BRIAN FLYNN

I don't remember Brian Flynn ever being discussed or mentioned prior to 2017, which is when Steve Barge posted his review of The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (2018) on In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and began to obsessively collect Flynn's obscure catalog of detective novels – which proved to be incredibly contagious. The late Rupert Heath, of Dean Street Press, started reprinting Flynn's novels in 2019 and it was like opening a treasure room. A cache of virtually unknown classic mysteries and thrillers, because Flynn could turn his hand at every type of crime fiction. Most of Flynn's novels feature his series-detective, Anthony Bathurst, but in his casebook you find everything from Gothic thrillers and courtroom dramas to whodunits and the occasionally impossible crime. Even some excursions into pulp territory. So not everyone is going to like everything he wrote, but the overall quality of Flynn's fiction doesn't justify his baffling obscurity. People agreed as The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye defeated Carter Dickson's She Died a Lady (1943) for the 2019 Reprint-of-the-Year Award.

 

I recommend The Padded Door (1932). 

 

6. E.C.R. LORAC

In 1936, the critic "Torquemada" (The Observer) said that Lorac would soon find herself "an accepted member of that very small band which writes first-rate detective novels that are also literature." During her lifetime, Lorac garnered praise from all corners with her own, admittedly uneven, home brand of detective fiction ("we're not reinventing the wheel, but we are putting a different treat on the tyres"), but her work rapidly dropped out-of-print upon her death in 1958. And her reputation suffered. When your reputation hinges on relatively easy-to-get, secondhand copies of Murder by Matchlight (1945), you can understand why people dismissed her as dull and pedestrian. Martin Edwards and the British Library have gone a long way in recent years to correct that perception by cherry picking some of her best, out-of-print novels to reprint. I think it worked.

 

I recommend Death of an Author (1935).

 

7. GLADYS MITCHELL

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Gladys Mitchell was like an obscure, little-known cryptid you heard about every now and then, but the only reported sightings came from Nick Fuller and Jason Half. That's how deep Mitchell had descended into obscurity when the 2000s rolled around. Most of her novels were either difficult to obtain or impossible to find, which lasted until 2005, when the Rue Morgue Press reprinted some of Mitchell's highly regarded novels – like Death at the Opera (1934), Come Away, Death (1937) and When Last I Died (1941). In the same year, Crippen & Landru published a complete collection of short stories, Sleuth's Alchemy: Cases of Mrs. Bradley and Others (2005), edited by one Nick Fuller. After that Mitchell's work passed through numerous publishers until everything was widely available again in hardback, paperback and ebooks. Gladys Mitchell's detective fiction has been called an acquired taste and she has her fair share of critics, but her rise from total obscurity is second only to the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes from his water grave at Reichenbach Falls.

 

I recommend St. Peter's Finger (1938).

 

8. KELLEY ROOS

William and Audrey Roos were a husband-and-wife writing tandem who collaborated on a series of humorous, lighthearted, but often shrewdly plotted, mystery novels about a husband-and-wife detective team, Jeff and Haila Troy. Tom and Enid Schantz, of the Rue Morgue Press, called the Troys "funnier than the Norths, livelier than the Abbots, often more involved in doing the actual detection than the Justuses" and "a more convincing couple than the Duluths." Sadly, the Troys were not as well remembered as the Norths, Abbots and Duluths and the series practically forgotten until RMP reprinted a good chunk of their best work. One of them not only being the best of the series, but a masterpiece of the American detective story and murder-can-be-fun school that deserves to be reprinted (again).

If this entry strikes you as a little dubious, compared to the others on this list, you'd be correct. I had a ton of dubious, borderline cases (Harriette Ashbrook, Roger Scarlett, etc.). So decided to go with a personal favorite.

 

I recommend The Frightened Stiff (1942)

 

9. DEREK SMITH

Derek Smith was a book collector and detective fan who wrote, what many consider to be, one of the dozen best locked room mystery novels of all time, Whistle Up the Devil (1954). A second, reputedly classic impossible crime novel existed, but Come to Padding Fair (1997) was published in a limited print-run of a hundred copies in Japan. So not many people got to read it. Not until the late John Pugmire, of Locked Room International, published The Derek Smith Omnibus (2016) containing both novels. We have been arguing over which is the better impossible crime novel ever since. And, as a bonus, the omnibus include a previous unpublished Sexton Blake novel. Model for Murder (1952) apparently was too cerebral for its intended audience, which very likely makes it the best title in the Sexton Blake Library. Not a bad return on a single reprint.

 

I recommend Whistle Up the Devil (1954).

 

10. SEISHI YOKOMIZO

Seishi Yokomizo was one of Japan's most famous and still celebrated classical mystery novelists whose detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, is as iconic and recognizable as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. A hugely influential honkaku writer. The current run of Yokomizo translations from Pushkin Vertigo feels like it struck a vein of previously inaccessible Golden Age detective fiction, unless you can read Japanese. But for us non-Japanese speaking mystery fans, the Yokomizo translations is like opening King Tut's tomb. I certainly appreciate the opportunity to read classics like Honjin satsujin jiken (The Honjin Murder, 1946) or Gokumontou (Death on Gokumon Island, 1947/48), because never before had (locked room) mystery fans/readers access to such wide, diverse selection of classic detective fiction from all across the world. It really enriches and added to the GAD period. And the list continues to grow. I see Yokomizo as the flagship author of those international writers falling between the reprint renaissance and translation wave. So, yes, this entry is more beneficial to us than Yokomizo, but I think he would been dissatisfied with seeing his novel going on a journey to the West.

 

I recommend Inugamika no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951).

 

The (Other) Hit Lists:

"Top 10 Favorite Reprints from Dean Street Press"

"Top 10 Favorite Cases from Motohiro's Q.E.D. vol. 1-25"

"Top 10 Fascinating World War II Detective Novels"

"Top 10 Non-English Detective Novels That Need to Be Translated"


7/9/24

Inspector De Klerck and the Veil of Death (2024) by P. Dieudonné

Five years ago, P. Dieudonné debuted with Rechercheur De Klerck en het doodvonnis (Inspector De Klerck and the Death Sentence, 2019) and since Dutch politieromans (police novels) à la A.C. Baantjer are as a rule shortish novels, Dieudonné has written two novels every year since then – even updating the tried and tested Baantjer formula. So what happened to the first of two releases of 2024 that should have been out for months now?

Rechercheur De Klerck en de sluier van de dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Veil of Death, 2024) is the tenth entry in the Inspector De Klerck series and, to mark this milestone, E-Pulp Publishers told Dieudonné that "the tenth book could be a bit thicker." The delay was due to Dieudonné having to write a longer novel and was very curious to see what was done with the roughly hundred extra pages. Was it going to be a police-thriller with a hunt for a serial killer, another impossible crime extravaganza like Rechercheur De Klerck en de ongrijpbare dood (Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death, 2020) or returning to the first novel with a homage to Baantjer? However, the "most complicated case" in the careers of the inspectors Lucien de Klerck and Ruben Klaver turned out to be something different altogether.

De Klerck and Klaver, of the Rotterdam police, are called to a thrift store where a gruesome discovery was made inside a newly arrived, secondhand freezer.

A customer who wanted to inspect the freezer found the battered, partially dressed body of woman inside who bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn Monroe, but no identification, phone, money or jewelry – except for the red dress used to cover the body. The red dress is identified as an abaya that came with a hijab or veil. De Klerck notes that "both garments formed a dissonance in her appearance" as the victim's resemblance was deliberate. Right down to a cheek tattoo to replicate the tiny pigment spot. But without a name or solid clues as a starting point, De Klerck and Klaver turn their attention to the freezer.

The freezer was donated by Emir's Ice Palace, but the owner, Emir Çelik, denies any involvement ("it's not my habit to hide corpses in freezers") or knowing the victim. But when they go over CCTV footage of the ice salon, they see a veiled woman reasonable fitting the description of the victim enter the salon. And going to the backroom like she had done it before. Almost like she belonged there. Only she never came out. The old freezer was standing out back, waiting to be picked up, which can only be reached by a boat. So things begin to look grave for Emir Çelik when De Klerck and Klaver learns his marriage is going to rough patch. Zeynep Çelik has left their home and taken a room in Hotel Hollywood, "each room inspired by one of the major productions from Hollywood's Golden Age," which provides them with another lead. The hotel security footage shows the veiled lady going into the hotel with luggage and leaving without it, but why did the hotel denied she was a guest?

De Klerck and Klaver peddle between the hotel and ice saloon as the complications and contradictions pile on to the very end, which once again shows Dieudonné has knack for spinning a good deal of complexity out of ultimately simple situations and sordid crimes. I can't divulge much more about the plot details without spoilers. So let's take a different track to round down this review.

In many ways, Inspector De Klerck and the Veil of Death is a typical Dutch politieroman as formulated by Baantjer. A style of crime fiction a little bit different from the customary detective novels and police procedurals, because they tend to be more about what-happened-and-why than who and how – former decides how much of a sway the latter has over the plot. That's why you won't find many impossible crimes, dying messages or unbreakable alibis in the novels by Baantjer and his many imitators. Generally, they try to keep things clear, uncluttered and readable without too many unnecessary complications like locked rooms or dying clues. Last year, I returned to Baantjer by rereading one of his late period novels and one of the comments said it book sounded fun, but probably out of their wheelhouse. Fair enough, especially for the detective fans who follow this blog. After all, we're an eccentric lot who have certain demands when it comes to the plot.

Practically everyone who tried to be next "Baantjer" only copied his style with a few tweaks and cosmetic changes, but Dieudonné is the first who took the formula and developed it further. Such as loosening the tight formula, depicting the world of today and injecting some sorely needed plot complexity. I've said this before in previous reviews, but Baantjer never could have written, or plotted, novels like Inspector De Klerck and the Elusive Death and Inspector De Klerck and the Veil of Death. Inspector De Klerck and the Veil of Death pleasingly creates "an endless labyrinth of possibilities" out of very simple complications. Not what I expected from the tenth, double-sized De Klerck novel, but neither am I complaining and it's always a special treat to read mysteries with substantial plots in my own language. So imagine how pleased I'm with this excellent series as a whole. Just needs another locked room-centric novel with a meaty impossible crime plot to continue this run of success! :D

So, in closing, Dieudonné is the pupil who surpassed the master and hope it won't take forever for the rest of the country to catch on. Until then, I look forward to the eleventh outing of De Klerck and Klaver. Fingers crossed it will be out before the end of the year!

7/7/24

Gotta Knock a Little Harder: "Knockin' On Locked Door" (2014) by Aosaki Yugo

Recently, this blog went through another period in which the locked room mystery and impossible crime reviews crowded everything else out, which I always correct after a while until it happens again – starting the correction this time with a review of Agatha Christie's Peril at End House (1932). So wanted to stable my hobby horse to focus attention elsewhere, however, someone decided to put together the "New Locked Room Library." In May, I received the list with selected titles, "the result is exquisite," to be voted on for inclusion in the new, updated Locked Room Library. Surprisingly, there's enough exotic material included I either hadn't read yet, were unknown to me or had no idea they were even available.

So this not an excuse to jump right back on my hobby horse, but simply doing homework to be an informed voter when the time comes to cast my ballots.

I wasn't exaggerating when saying the first selection has some "exotic material," which ranges from the expected novels and short stories to games, game segments, radio-plays and fan fiction – even a handful of so-called fanlations. I reviewed a fanlation of Ooyama Seiichiro's short story "Kanojo ga Patience wo korosu hazu ga nai" ("She Wouldn't Kill Patience," 2002) and today's subject is another one. But is it a short story that belongs in the 21st century locked room library? Let's find out!

Aosaki Yugo is a popular, award-winning mystery writer who debuted with the novel Taiikukan no satsujin (The Gymnasium Murder, 2012) and has since produced two collections of short stories in the "Knockin' On Locked Door" series. "Tokuma shoten" ("Knockin' On Locked Door," 2014), originally published in Dokuraku magazine, introduces the reader to the two private investigators of the Knockin' On Locked Door Detective Agency, Gotenba Tori and Katanashi Hisame. A specialized agency with the specialized detectives who split "responsibilities according to the nature of the puzzle." Tori is a specialist in the seemingly impossible ("...strong in elucidating tricks"), while Hisame's "forte is in searching for motives and reasons." So a series intertwining the puzzle plot, or howdunits, with equally puzzling motives (whydunits). Their first client who comes knocking ("...no intercom is provided") presents them with exactly such a case.

Kasumiga Mizue's husband is the well-known painter, Hideo, nicknamed "The Poet of the Sky," who has been murdered under inexplicable circumstances. Hideo was remodeling his attic room into a studio and spent entire days there, until the previous day. Hideo had not come down from the attic room/studio nor does he respond to the knocks on the locked door, which is when they decide to force their way inside and find Hideo's body lying in the middle of the room – a knife planted in his back. The only way in, or out, of the locked studio is the door as the skylight was fixed and solid in place. One of the six paintings in the studio was completely over painted with red.

So how was it done? Because the locked room specialist quickly finds out the lock on the door leaves precious little room for manipulation ("...this 'pin-and-thread' thing would be hard to implement"). Why even bother creating a locked room scenario when there's no question of suicide? The victim was stabbed in the back with a knife that was wiped clean and rarely locked the door behind him. There's always the question of whodunit. Was it the wife, the son or the visiting friend and art dealer?

While not playing entirely fair, the explanation delivers as the locked room-trick is completely original and beautifully balances on the double motive. The motive for the murder and the reason why the murder was turned into a locked room mystery. Only thing holding "Knockin' On Locked Room" from a status as an instant impossible crime classic is that you have no shot at figuring out the reason behind it all, which is a shame, because the way in which the how and why are put together is incredibly pleasing. Not to mention that I expected something much simpler and less original from the premise, which fortunately turned out not to be the case.

So, all in all, "Knockin' On Locked Door" is a solid introduction to the series with a plot standing on the threshold of being a minor impossible crime classic and sports a truly original locked room-trick. Not a perfectly executed detective story, but a really good one deserving to be translated and would love the read the rest of the series.

Note for the curious: If you're wondering in which direction I expected the solution was headed, I thought the locked room came about by accident. Sort of. Hideo rarely locked himself into the studio ("...disliked the lock and rarely used it"), but he might have done this time. Why? Someone had to paint red all over one of the canvases and Hideo was already in the studio. So why make things more complicated than needed, but why would he deface one of his own paintings? More on that in a moment. First, the problem of the locked attic room: the room is described as surprisingly large, presumably high, where "the fierce rays of August sun" coming through the round skylight light the room – which gave me an idea. It's possible for those fierce rays of sunshine to hide a small, round cutout in the glass when looking up. A small, round cutout through which a knife can be dropped, but that might not have even been its original purpose. The culprit could have used the cutout to drip red paint on one of the paintings and remained up there to gloat, but saw Hideo (for some reason) painting over the vandalized painting (like trying to cover it up and why he locked the door) and that (again for some reason) angered the culprit. And dropped a knife, while Hideo was bending over. Not a particular good solution, or a very well developed one, but that's the idea I was toying with while reading. Rest assured, Aosaki Yugo came up with a far superior solution.

7/3/24

Peril at End House (1932) by Agatha Christie

Peril at End House (1932) is one of Agatha Christie's often overlooked novels forever standing in the shadows of her famous, widely celebrated genre classics like Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937) and And Then There Were None (1939) – which holds true for nearly all of her so-called "second tier" mysteries. If another name had graced the covers of such titles as Lord Edgware Dies (1933), Murder is Easy (1939), Towards Zero (1944) and After the Funeral (1953), they would have been hailed as classic whodunits "Worthy of Christie."

I always viewed Peril at End House as the poster child of otherwise excellent mystery novels eclipsed by their author's more famous works. John Dickson Carr's The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939), Carter Dickson's The Reader is Warned (1939), Clayton Rawson's The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939) and Christianna Brand's Suddenly at His Residence (1946) all belong to this category. Peril at End House is admittedly not Christie's best detective novel, but I always liked it and wanted to see if can stand up to a fresh read. This time in English as I previously only read the Dutch translation, Moord onder vuurwerk (Murder During Fireworks).

Hercule Poirot is on the Cornish coast with his chronicler and long-time friend, Captain Arthur Hastings, enjoying both a holiday and a well-deserved retirement, simply content with sitting in the sun – proclaiming "I am not a stage favourite who gives the world a dozen farewells." Hastings warns him "such an emphatic pronouncement will surely tempt the gods." Just moments later, Poirot twists his ankle in the hotel garden and is helped by a woman, Nick Buckley, who owns the nearby End House. A "tumble-down old place" going "to rack and ruin" lacking a family ghost or curse, but she tells them she had "three escapes from sudden death in as many days." After saying goodbye, Poirot becomes very worried as she didn't swat away a wasp when they were talking. Poirot shows Hastings a spent bullet he picked up from the ground and the accompanying bullet hole in the hat she left behind. Someone is obviously trying to kill her!

So they go to End House to return the hat and warn Nick Buckley of the impending danger. There they find the usual, tightly-knit group of potential suspects. Mrs. Frederica "Freddie" Rice is Nick's greatest friend and confident who had a rotten life married to a beast of a man who abandoned her. Nick wishes she divorced him in order to marry their friend and Bond Street art dealer, Jim Lazarus. Commander George Challenger is another friend who wishes to marry Nick Buckley, but she sees no future in such a marriage ("...neither of us got a bean"). The gatehouse lodge is rented to an Australian couple, the Crofts, who Hastings labeled as friendly, pleasant and typical Australians. Poirot suggests they were, perhaps, playing "a part just a little too thoroughly." Charles Vyse is Nick's cousin and solicitor, but disapproves of her mode of life and hopes to reform her one day.

However, Poirot has a hard time convincing Nick her life is actually in danger. Nick finds the whole idea very amusing, "I'm not the beautiful young heiress whose death releases millions," but Poirot eventually convinces her to take it somewhat seriously and call down a friend to stay with her – she asks one of her Yorkshire cousins, Maggie. Unfortunately, the murderer mistakes Maggie for Nick, wearing her red shawl, shoots her during a firework show. So whodunit? And, more importantly, why? The motive really is the crux of the story.

The reason why Peril at End House has a poor reputation is that the murderer is not very well hidden, which is something you come to expect from the Queen of the Whodunit. This is true. I clearly remember from my first reading stumbling to the murder rather effortlessly, because even as a complete neophyte some things were so obvious they're impossible to miss and arouse suspicions. I think this was done on purpose as the real puzzle is not the identity of the murderer, but piecing together the cleverly hidden, fairly clued motive. Poirot himself remarks, "we must find the motive if we are to understand this crime." Peril at End House is a whydunit and not a bad one either. I love plot-oriented tropes like impossible crimes, unbreakable alibis and dying messages, but always dislike it when a detective story tacks on the motive as an after thought. If you want a good, solid plot, you also need pretty good motivation, not only to commit murder, but a reason to rig up a locked room scenario or an apparently air-tight alibi. So appreciated to see Christie applying her plotting skills to the why, for once, rather than the who and how.

That being said, Peril at End House could have worked as a whydunit with a stronger whodunit angle had Poirot (SPOILER/ROT13) sbbyrq rirelbar vapyhqvat Unfgvatf naq gur ernqre vagb oryvrivat gur svany nggrzcg ba Avpx jnf fhpprffshy, orsber gebggvat ure bhg ng gur fénapr sbe gur ovt erirny. N perfgsnyyra Cbvebg, orfgrq bapr ntnva ol n obk bs cbvfbarq pubpbyngrf, jbhyq unir arngyl qrsyngrq gur fhfcvpvba ntnvafg ure.

Peril at End House seems to be one of Christie's shortest novels, certainly read like her shortest novel, which might not have allowed for enough room to do justice to both. So all the attention went into the better idea. Namely the motive. I liked it. I can also see why Peril at End House comes up short for many compared to other Poirot novels as the plots feels slighter and rather obvious, in some ways, than most entries in the series – not to mention it lacks that hook to grab your attention. In that regard, Peril at End House is no Death in the Clouds (1935), The A.B.C. Murders (1936) or Cards on the Table (1936), but still a very well done, soundly plotted mystery novel in its own right. A mystery novel with a great idea at its core and brazenly clued. It's just that the name Agatha Christie demands something more than Peril at End House can deliver. A little unfair as it's still an excellent detective story and had it been written by someone like Christopher Bush (The Case of the Fatal Fireworks), it would have ranked as one of the five best Ludovic Travers novels. But that's the curse of being a so-called "second stringer" in the oeuvre of one of the best, most successful and famous authors the genre has produced in its 183 year history.

Note for the curious: the universally praised A Murder is Announced (1950) is next on the AC reread pile, because everyone keeps defending it and don't remember it being that good. But then again, I'm not a fan of Miss Marple. Even less so back then. So who knows what a fresh read might reveal. However, I might first return to the much neglected (on this blog, anyway) Dorothy L. Sayers.

6/30/24

Welcome to the Wünderkammer: C.M.B. vol. 1-2 by Motohiro Katou

Motohiro Katou's C.M.B. is a companion to his Q.E.D. series starring Sou Touma's younger cousin, Sakaki Shinra, who's an orphan, of sorts, spending his childhood in England as a ward of three secretive curators of the British museum – gifting him three rings bearing the letters "C," "M," and "B." The letters could be the initials of the blessing Christus Mansionem Benedicat or of the names of Three Magi. History is not, exactly, clear on that matter. However, the rings provide Shinra with plenty of financial funds to do research and collect items for his museum. In addition to providing a certain level of authority to those who understand what it means to possess not one, but all three, rings.

A 14-year-old Shinra returned to Japan to start his museum, or wünderkammer, on the second-floor of a building, which is practically inaccessible except by climbing a tree branch leading to the balcony ("...entrance way got blocked off"). Just like his cousin, Shinra has a knack for cracking complicated, seemingly impossible problems and puzzles. So has to play detective, from time to time, but Shinra asks an admission fee to hear his solution. This is usually an item connected to the case or simply visiting his museum. It should be noted that the main difference between the two series is the subject matter. Q.E.D. has characters and plots couched in science, math and engineering, C.M.B. is more concerned with archaeology, anthropology and biology.

C.M.B. was originally serialized from 2005 to 2020 in Monthly Shonen Magazine and collected in 45 volumes, which appear to have started out following the same structure as Q.E.D. with two complete stories in each volume. From what I spotted, there are several volumes early on in the series comprising of one long story and more volumes apparently consisting of multiple, shorter stories – unless they're chapter titles to the same story. I'll find out soon enough.

"Mimicry" is the story opening the first C.M.B. volume and introduces the reader to the second lead character of the series, Nanase Tatsuki. A tomboy-ish student of Meiyuu Private High School, run by her illustrious grandfather, who's destined to play the Kana Mizuhara to Shinra's Sou Touma. It begins with a deadly incident in the biology class room of the school. Someone, presumably the biology teacher Tazaki, spontaneously combusted into flames and left behind a pile of ashes with two partially in tact arms sticking out. However, the arms prove the victim is not the missing biology teacher and now primary suspect. Tazaki happens to be the brother of one of her friends and classmate. What's more, Tatsuki spots a strange boy sitting on a tree branch opposite the biology class room with a pair of binoculars. So immediately begins to pursue him.

Tatsuki's chase ends when she finds the entrance to Shinra's museum to confront him, but Shinra claims he has nothing to do with the incident and invited her to return to his museum soon. Tatsuki continues to help her friend trying to figure out what happened to her brother in the hopes of proving his innocence, which eventually brings her right back to the museum. While he had nothing to the spontaneous combustion case, Shinra tells her Tazaki wanted to show him a rare butterfly from his collection. But never kept his appointment. Shinra offers to solve the case in exchange for the rare butterfly as an entrance fee to his wünderkammer (i.e. solution).

First of all, "Mimicry" is a setup story tasked with introducing the characters and setting up the premise of the series, before attention can be given to the individual plots. So the plot is not terribly complicated, however, I appreciated the solution to the spontaneous human combustion problem. I'm not sure SHC counts as an impossible crime without it being witnessed or happening in a locked room, but the method sure feels like a typical, shin honkaku-style impossible crime-trick – which deserved to be used in a story with more attention for the plot. Other than that, the introduction and portrayal of Shinra stands out. A genius when it comes to history and biology, but where the normal, everyday world is concerned, Shinra appears to be even more oblivious than his cousin on his first appearance. Shinra has no idea how vending machines work or that you can open a can of Coca Cola without a blowtorch. All in all, a good, fun introduction to the characters and series with a very decent plot to boot.

The next story, "Ghost in the Museum," is another fun, light story in which a nighttime security guard at the Museum of Natural Science has an encounter with the resident ghost. Tachibana Yoshiko hears disembodied sounds of banging, moaning and people crying as the lights begin to flicker. And that begins to take a toll on her. But she needs the job in order to take care of her newborn. Fortunately, Yoshiko knows Tatsuki from their aikido classes. Tatsuki knows a so-called "museum expert" who might be able to help. Shinra is only too pleased at the prospect of visiting a museum and curator is impressed with his knowledge, but astonished when Shinra shows him the three rings ("I never saw them directly, so I thought it was just a legend"). The situation takes a serious turn when that day's earning is stolen from the curator's locked drawer and Yoshiko's job security is in jeopardy.

From the ghostly occurrences in the basement room and their natural explanations to the stolen money, "Ghost in the Museum" reads like something straight out of The Three Investigators series (The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy, 1965) and other similar juvenile mystery series. The solution to the ghostly sounds is a little crude, or would have been in any other story, but here the setting complemented the trick. So a very slight, but fun enough, story with the ending setting up the next story.

The first story of the second C.M.B. volume, "Blue Building," continues setting everything up and introducing an important series regular, Inspector Takeshi Kujirazaki. Inspector Kujirazaki is naturally playing the Inspector Mizuhara, who has a walk-on cameo, to Shinra's Tou Souma.

Kujirazaki is investigating an assault at a four building apartment complex with their sides painted in the colors red, white and blue, but the case is getting nowhere until an anonymous letter arrives, "the culprit of the Blue Building case is the person who lives in the room on the bottom floor on the right side." Meanwhile, Shinra, who has never been to school, is doing an entrance exam and ends up becoming Tatsuki's classmate. Very much to her surprise. Shinra's exam went so well ("his social subjects scores, except for history, were terrible... apart from that, his scores were perfect") that he got tested again in an interview ("...maths, physics and chemistry knowledge is at the same level as a university student... history, geography and biology are even higher than that"). Other than that, there's not much that can be said about the story except that the solution to what the anonymous witness saw seems a better fit for Q.E.D. than C.M.B.

The last story from the second volume, "The Cursed Mask," is a good, old-fashioned and classically-styled locked room mystery and the best story from these first two volumes. Yamagishi Keiko, an ethnologist, turns to Shinra for help concerning a Noh mask with a deadly curse placed on it. The "mud stone" mask represents a woman who has been betrayed and Keiko has been searching for it, which recently resurfaced and man who bought it died of a blood cloth – infuriating his relatives who contacted the police ("...because they believed selling something like that was equal to murder"). Inspector Takeshi consulted Keiko and she turned to Shinra. And she knows someone else died because of that mask fifteen years ago. So the mask is back up for sale with two interested parties. Firstly, the previous seller and antique merchant, Iida Shigekazu. Secondly, the famous Noh dancer, Emoto Seimei. The negotiation takes place at the studio of the artist who sculpted the mask, Awa Saemon, who considers the mask "a failed piece of work" that needs to be destroyed ("my evil intention are attached to that mask"). Shinra, Tatsuki and Keiko travel to the studio to get a glimpse of the mask and to get information, but then the sculptor is found stabbed in his locked studio. Locked from the inside with the only key to the studio found on the victim and undisturbed snow on the outside window sill.

"The Cursed Mask" is an excellent shin honkaku locked room mystery in miniature reading like a modern take on Akimitsu Takagi's recently discussed Nomen satsujin jiken (The Noh Mask Murder, 1949). The locked room-trick is simple, but elegant, satisfying and brazenly clued. It's daringly alluded to before the murder is committed and discovered, which is the hallmark of every great detective story. Not merely a sound one. Even better is the backstory of the cursed mask and how it's very existence actually ended up destroying a man all those years before. A great story to close out this first excursion into the C.M.B. series and an early contender for that future post "The Hit List: Top 10 Favorite Cases from Motohiro Katou's C.M.B. vol. 1-25" (see my Q.E.D. version).

So the crossover from Q.E.D. vol. 41 and C.M.B. vol. 19 is getting closer and the current plan is to do Q.E.D. vol. 39-40 and C.M.B. vol. 3-4 next, before finally tackling that long anticipated crossover. Stay tuned!

6/26/24

Doctors in the Isolated Room (1996) by MORI Hiroshi

Last year, the BBB finished the e-serialization of MORI Hiroshi's celebrated debut work and first ever Mephisto Prize recipient, Subete ga F ni naru (Everything Turns to F: The Perfect Insider, 1996), translated by the second winner of the Mephisto Prize, Ryusui Seiryoin – published as a complete ebook in February, 2023. The Perfect Insider is credited with starting the second shin honkaku wave that moved away from the traditional, Seishi Yokomizo-like trappings of the first wave by placing the puzzle plots in specialized areas rather than bizarre mansions, isolated islands and remote villages. The Perfect Insider certainly represents a departure from the works of first wave writers like Takemaru Abiko, Alice Arisugawa and Yukito Ayatsuji. A locked room mystery set at an IT research institute run by computers where the hermit-like group of researchers communicate via email, chat or VR meetings. In 1996, The Perfect Insider must have read like a science-fiction mystery hybrid recalling Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun (1956/57).

I was a bit more measured in my praise. The Perfect Insider definitely is a fascinating, mostly
well put together and fresh treatment of the classically-styled detective story, but not the best Japanese mystery translated so far. A mystery novel high on ideas, but not executed with rigor we have come to expect and associate with those first wavers.

However, The Perfect Insider is only a first for both MORI Hiroshi and the second shin honkaku wave. So wanted to read more. Fortunately, the e-serialization of the second novel, Tsumetai misshitsu to hakase tachi (Doctors in the Isolated Room, 1996), was already in progress and the final chapters were released last March – together with the complete ebook edition. Doctors in the Isolated Room is more my kind of detective novel than The Perfect Insider.

Doctors in the Isolated Room is the second title released in the S&M series, but it was actually the first of three completed and unpublished novels with The Perfect Insider being intended as the fourth book in the series. Hiroshi's editor made the call to make it the first in the series, because it worked better as an introduction to the series with a plot that would leave an impression on the reader. And, well, he wasn't wrong. The Perfect Insider turned Hiroshi into a bestselling novelist and kickstarted the scientific period of the second shin honkaku wave, which seems to have inspired personal favorites like Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. series and Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002) by "NisiOisiN." So, for me, that was one of the more interesting aspects of The Perfect Insider, but Doctors in the Isolated Room is exactly the type of detective story I was hoping to find last year in its predecessor.

Before diving into the story, I should note that the BBB edition concludes with a new interview in which Hiroshi calls Doctors in the Isolated Room "an embarrassing piece" and "one of the bitter experiences I don't really want to re-read myself." This can be dismissed as an author balking at his earlier work. It might not be as ambitious, or "transcending," as the celebrated The Perfect Insider, but as an intended "update" of Yukito Ayatsuji & co, it's a success story – which is impressive for a first try. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Doctors in the Isolated Room takes place a year after the events of The Perfect Insider and finds assistant professor Sohei Saikawa and his first-year student, Moe Nishinosono, embroiled in another "mysterious incident."

Two weeks previously, Hokuto Kita of the civil engineering department invited the two over to the Polar Environmental Research Center (PERC) for a tour of the low-temperature laboratory ("it's 20 degrees below zero here"). And to observe one of their experiments. What, exactly, they're doing is a long, technical story that needs not to be recounted here, except that it requires some patience to get from the first mention of the incident to the actual incident. However, if you can appreciate a well developed/specialized setting as much as a sound plot or engaging characters, the tour of the PERC building with its low-temperature laboratory is not going to disappoint you. Nor is the demonstration of the experiment, which is bound to plant certain ideas in your head. Afterwards, the instructors and graduate students of PERC have a little drinking party during which Kenjiro Niwa and Tamako Hattori, two grad students, go missing. A search ensued without results until they decide to unlock the preparation room and find Hattori's body. The body of Niwa is found moments later lying at the bottom of the stairs giving access to the loading room. Both stabbed in the back.

So begins, what the media would come to refer to as, "the PERC locked room murder case." Just like the premise, the locked crime scene is too detailed to describe and not as easy as simply every door and window being locked or watched. There several potential exits, ranging from doors, emergency exits and a defective shutter, which all appear to be blocked and prevented the murderer from escaping (unseen) from the locked portion of the PERC building. This is one of those large scale, architectural locked room murders that Herbert Resnicow specialized in a decade earlier. And no wonder. Hiroshi and Resnicow both had backgrounds in engineering. Doctors in the Isolated Room recalled Resnicow's The Dead Room (1987) where a deadly stabbing occurs in the anechoic chamber at a Hi-Fi company under impossible circumstances. Like the low-temperature laboratory, the anechoic chamber is a controlled environment used for specific experiments and opens the door to do something very different with the locked room puzzle. Resnicow conceived of a truly original, perhaps even unique, solution to the impossible stabbing in The Dead Room. However, while Resnicow concentrated solely on that one problem, Hiroshi turned the locked area of the PERC building into one giant puzzle box.

Firstly, the police search of the building uncovers another startling surprise adding another complication to an already tangled situation. Secondly, the PERC facilities sees several additional, seemingly impossible, incidents when Moe attacked and a fresh body is discovered in the loading room – bringing the noisy mass media to PERC ("Three Locked Rooms and Four Bodies"). Fascinatingly, it's not just the physical environment of PERC hosting a genuine mystery, but it's digital environment as well as Saikawa finds a ghost account hidden deep in PERC's UNIX system with Root privileges. Sure, it clearly dates the story, but it also adds some now historical charm to it. One of these days, we really should compile a list of these 1980s and '90s computer/internet detective stories (early internet access mysteries?). Anyway...

I didn't mention the majority of characters in Doctors in the Isolated Room, numbering well over twenty, because the majority of those characters came across as little more than numbers in a math problem. Saikawa is not an overly emotional person ("besides, I don't care much ... you know, about living things") whose initial surprise at the deaths near him turned into "a puzzlement, like a math problem" he was struggling to solve. So don't expect the usual routine of tackling a murder case or even a locked room mystery of this magnitude, which has both an advantage and a disadvantage. Well, depending on your personal preference and demands from a detective novel.

On the upside, the locked room aspect of the plot is given the space it needed. I feared the locked room-trick(s) would turn out to be either disappointingly simple or ingeniously messy and overly complicated. Neither was the case. The explanation of how the two grad students were killed is tricky, but clearly explained, easy to follow and visualize. Even better is the answer to that age-old question of the classically-styled detective story, "why did the criminal need to make it a locked room?" The other impossibilities are smaller, far less complicated parts in the overall plot, but all neatly dovetailed into the final explanation. So, plot-wise, Doctors in the Isolated Room is a small, technical marvel. However, if you demand engaging characters and some emotional depth to the plot/solution, Doctors in the Isolated Room is going to disappoint as it's consistently the weakest aspect of the plot. The clever locked room-trick also demands a pretty good and convincing reason to use it to kill two people, which tries to go for an emotional gut punch, but came across as very unconvincing in this academic, mostly clinical locked room mystery. So the motive behind the murders landed like a damp squib. I can forgive the lack of characterization, but the human element behind the murder falling flat is admittedly a smudge on an otherwise engrossing take on the impossible crime story.

Doctors in the Isolated Room is not a perfectly-rounded detective novel and perhaps too specialized/technical for some readers, but, purely as a densely-plotted locked room mystery with a research facility, it's an excellent and impressive first stab – better than The Perfect Insider. Hiroshi is a fresh new voice (for us, anyway) in the shin honkaku translation wave and look forward to the third entry in the S&W series. The BBB has already started the e-serialization of Warawanai sugakusha (Mathematical Goodbye, 1996), which should become available as a complete ebook sometime in February or March, 2025. Until then, I have Seishi Yokomizo's Akuma no temari uta (The Little Sparrow Murders, 1957/59), Tetsuya Ayukawa's Kuroi hakuchou (The Black Swan Mystery, 1960) and Ayatsuji's Meirokan no satsujin (The Labyrinth House Murders, 1988), to carry me over.