11/25/21

The Case of Alan Copeland (1937) by Moray Dalton

Looking back over my recent blog-posts, it became very evident I have been overly indulgent of everyone's favorite detective sub-genre, locked room and impossible crime fiction, but, every now and then, you need to dismount from your comfy hobby-horse. So it seemed like a good idea to pick as my next read something that's the complete opposite of a trickily-plotted locked room mystery. 

The Case of Alan Copeland (1937) is the seventeenth mystery novel by "Moray Dalton," penname of Katherine Renoir, who wrote twenty-nine mysteries between 1929 and 1951, but despite her productivity she had been entirely forgotten for the better part of a century – until Dean Street Press started reprinting her novels in 2019. Over those few years, Dalton reemerged from obscurity as a precursor of the modern crime novel with her "criminally scintillating," character-oriented mysteries with attitudes or subject matters that were sometimes a few decades ahead of their time. This could possible have contributed to Dalton's obscurity.

Curt Evans, of The Passing Tramp, who introduced the new DSP edition is Dalton's most well-known champion today, praising her ability to "plot an interesting story and compose an intriguing sentence," but it's her strong, vivid characterization that makes her work standout. Curt commented on my review of The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936) is that what makes Dalton unique to him is that she actually makes him worry about her characters, which made her unusual during a period "when so many mysteries are drier academic exercises." The Case of Alan Copeland holds a similar attraction being "an emotionally gripping and credible tale of murder" with "genuine detection" and indications to the murderer's identity laid throughout the book. That's what attracted my attention to the book. 

The Case of Alan Copeland distilled the village mystery to a closed-circle situation with the cast of characters comprising of the only handful of notables populating the tiny hamlet of Teene.

Mabel is the cruel, sharp-tongued and tightfisted older wife of former artist and now struggling poultry farmer, Alan Copeland, who felt obliged to marry her after she nursed him back to health, but has become completely depended on her and made him give up painting – determined "he should not waste her money on paints and canvas." She knows how to wound her husband with mean-spirited, carelessly uttered comments. Miss Emily Gort is "one of these ultra prim and proper old maids" who's Mabel confidante and actually enjoys some of her charity. She also dotes on the vicar, Reverend Henry Perry, who's wholly consumed by his meticulous study of the Byzantine Church in the fourth century. Old Mrs. Simmons is an "ex-barmaid grown monstrously fat" who presides over the village from her a wayside garage and petrol station where she reads people's fortune with a pack of greasy cards. She runs the place with her flapper daughter, Irene, whose supposed to marry her cousin, Ern, but she's in love with Alan. Miss Getrude Platt is the local schoolmistress with an unconventional taste in art and literature, but she used to be a fellow art student of Alan before becoming "an instructress of youth."

This small community receives a delayed shock when the vicar's niece, Lydia Hale, comes to stay with her uncle to recover from the flu. After a fortnight, she leaves again without realizing she's pregnant with Alan's child. Remember this was still a controversial and touchy subject at the time, which usually meant ruin to a woman's character and reputation. But, as Curt noted in the introduction, Lydia doesn't suffer from any "recriminations against her character" except from the people who the reader is supposed to dislike. So I can understand why Dalton has a click with crime-and mystery reader's of today. Not their little moment of weakness is without some terrible consequences.

When they're unexpectedly reunited in London, Alan is wearing a mourning band on his sleeve as he recently became a widow. Mabel had passed away after a very brief, but not unexpected, sickbed and she left him all her money. Alan "arranged for the sale of his stock, shut up the house and left the neighborhood for a while" and agreed to immediately marry Lydia when he learns she's pregnant. Nine months later, they return to the village, but hardly anyone approves of Alan remarrying before the year of mourning was over. It wasn't long before tongues began to wag. The police started receiving anonymous, spitefully worded letters accusing Alan of murder.

A discreet investigation provides the police with ample justification to exhume Mabel's body and Alan is indicted for murder, which is where the story shifts from a character-driven crime story to an investigative legal drama – culminating in the trial of Alan Copeland. Strangely enough, this second-half reminded me of the style of crime novels from the late 1800s, like Fergus Hume's The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886), as there are several investigative characters involved with the case. There's the official police, represented by Detective Ramsden, who unearthed all the incriminating evidence. Alan's country lawyer, John Reid, who engages Hugh Barrymore to defend his client in court and advises Lydia to not talk to the press, because Barrymore isn't cheap. She might need to sell her story later on to cover all the legal costs, which is one of those sobering realistic touches that makes Dalton's work standout. John Reid also hires a private detective, George Hayter, to go over the case again and track down the anonymous letter writer. Hayter began his investigation believing Alan was guilty as hell, but changed his mind in spite of everything.

Needless to say, the second-half is my favorite part of the story, but can't deny the buildup to the murder was not expertly handled and particularly liked Dalton showing the characters saying one thing and thinking another. I actually liked the entire story right up until the murderer's identity is revealed, which failed to impress me. I half-suspected this person, but a small, important piece of information was withheld from the reader (ROT13: gur nhag jub qvrq bs gur fnzr fhccbfrq vyyarff nf Znory) which made the dramatic court room revelation possible. However, I hold a minority opinion on the ending and The Case of Alan Copeland is not about cast-iron alibis, dying messages or impossible crimes. It's a character-driven, legal crime drama focusing on the impact of a murder on a small group of people and it does that very well. Even if the ending didn't live up to my personal standards, but I have little doubt Dalton will come to be known in future years as one of the Crime Queens of the detective story's Renaissance Age.

That being said, Dalton's The Night of Fear (1931) and Death in the Cup (1932) were more to my taste with the former being an excellent, highly recommended Christmas-themed mystery. One of the earliest examples of such holiday mystery. I'm eagerly looking forward to a reprint of her post-Apocalyptic detective novel The Black Death (1934).

11/21/21

The Murder of Nora Winters (2016) by Robert Trainor

Robert Trainor's The Murder of Nora Winters (2016), the subject of today's review, was recommended by "JJ," of The Invisible Event, who discussed the book back in 2018 as part of his "Adventures in Self-Publishing" blog-series – calling it "an imperfect but extremely game swing at the toughest task going." With December being just around the corner, I wanted to return to the seasonal detective story as I neglected them last year. The spirit of Christmas looked too much like the specter at the feast in 2020 which ruined the mood. So let's see what can be done about that in 2021! 

Trainor is an independent, self-published author whose "novels are very dissimilar from one another and have all sorts of different plots, themes and attitudes." Covering everything from love stories, Gothic tales and fantasy to courtroom dramas and a locked room mystery! 

The Murder of Nora Winters has, as to be expected from most self-published mysteries, some rough, unpolished patches that left plenty of room for improvement, but three things make the book standout with two being (minor) triumphs. First thing that stood out to me occurred in the first chapter that interestingly updated the type of characters who traditionally populate these Christmas family party mysteries.

The story opens on Christmas Eve in the large, ramshackle house of Chad and Nora Winters, in Connecticut, where the whole family has gathered for the first time in five years, but the Winters are a modern dysfunctional family – each burdened by their own and each others various problems. Nora is diagnosed with acute schizophrenia and her symptoms, "an increasing tendency to isolate oneself and an irrational anger or fear directed toward loved ones," worsened when she stopped taking her medication. She's openly hostile to her own children, but in particular to her husband. Chad is a yes-man who "always bent over backwards to please her," but nothing seemed to please her and he sought refuge in an affair. Nora found out about his "little indiscretion" and she moved out of their shared bedroom to a now fortified guest-room. Ken is the oldest son and has been borrowing money from his father to expand his travel agency, which his mother wants to put a stop to during Christmas. She calls him a sponger and "a sexual cripple." Eileen is the oldest daughter and moved to Oregon where she secretly lives with her girlfriend, but her mother figured it out, lost her mind and the ensuing row nearly fractured the family. Jimmy is a 15-year-old teenager who keeps to himself in his room playing video games, listening to grunge rock on max and secretly smoking weed by an open window. Alyssa is the youngest daughter and a good-looking, straight A student who assured her parents she knew how to fend-off boys and looked forward to college, but her younger brother calls her "a little con artist." Jim prophesies to his father that, one of these days, "she's going to slip up, and when she does, you and Mom are going to go crazy."

Unsurprisingly, the Christmas gathering begins to deteriorate with arguments, stuff getting smashed, suicide threats and Nora being told that the best present she could give her family that year is terminal cancer. Chad flees the situation to visit his parents, but things go from bad to worse back home.

A now gin soaked, "totally bombed," Nora discovers a boy in Alyssa's bedroom and actually fired two shots into the room, which brought the other children to the corridor who witnessed a naked boy bolting down the stairs as Nora tossed his clothes out of Alyssa's bedroom window – before retreating to her fortified bedroom. So they called their father who immediately returned, packed three of them off to a motel and decided to wait until morning to deal with the situation. But the next day, Nora doesn't come out of her bedroom or gives any sign of life. Chad uses a ladder to look through her bedroom window and saw her body lying in front of the dressing table with a lot of blood.

She had been shot in the right temple at very close range and everything appears to indicate suicide. The bedroom door is two-inch thick, solid oak wood secured with two sliding-bolts and a keypad operated dead-bolt, which were all securely in place. The locks on the window "were probably as old as the house," slightly rusted and difficult to turn, which were all securely locked from the inside. So, apparently, Nora has committed suicide, but "the very puzzling position of the gun" proves it was murder.

Detective Nick Slater, of the Framingham Police Department, has to figure out why a murderer would "go to the trouble of mysteriously exiting a room and yet leave a very telltale sign that he had been there," because "the placement of the gun and the locked room" didn't go together. A neatly posed impossible crime puzzle with "Chapter 7: Nick Slater's Report" reading like a dressed down locked room lecture. Slater reports to his superior how went over the crime scene with a fine tooth-comb as he experimented and eliminated every possible trick that could been used to enter, or exit, the room without leaving it unlocked. A very enjoyable chapter, if you're fond of impossible crime fiction.

A breakthrough happens when Slater has a flash of inspiration and googles "solutions to locked-room mysteries" with "practically at the top of the page" something that had never occurred to him. Something that suddenly revealed some very incriminating evidence against one of the family members and the police makes an arrest, which briefly turns the story into a full-blown courtroom drama. There's an excellent piece of courtroom wizardry (i.e. Perry Mason-style shenanigans) leading up to an unexpected twist and an original play on the false-solution gambit! Not that the game was played entirely fair with the reader, but kind of loved how the false-solution was put to use here. Yes, it's the second thing that makes this self-published mystery novel standout.

There are, however, some very rough patches and in particular the long, repetitive and sometimes confusing descriptions of Nora's bedroom. Jim is right that these descriptive passages slowed the story down to a crawl and this could have easily been fixed with a diagram. A detailed diagram would have allowed the descriptions to be whittled down to a bare minimum, creating some much needed space to reinforce the plot (like the clueing), but, more importantly, it would have handed Trainor an opportunity to make the payoff to that false-solution ever better – by propping it up with another false-solution. You have to excuse me as I play armchair plotter for a second (ROT13): Fyngre fubhyq unir tbggra gur vqrn sbe uvf snyfr-fbyhgvba sebz n pbyyrnthr, yvxr Zngg be Wnavpr, jub fubhyq unir fhttrfgrq gung gur zheqrere onaxrq ba gur snpg gung onggrevat qbja gur orqebbz qbbe jnf gbb zhpu jbex naq znavchyngrq gur cbyvpr gb qrfgebl rivqrapr ol oernxvat n gnzcrerq jvaqbj – yvxr n zntvpvna sbepvat n pneq. Guvf vf, bs pbhefr, cebira jebat, ohg tvirf Fyngre na vqrn. Guvf unf gur nqqrq orarsvg bs gur svefg snyfr-fbyhgvba fbhaqvat orggre guna frpbaq, fhccbfrqyl pbeerpg naq zhpu zber zhaqnar snyfr-fbyhgvba. Bayl gb unir vg qrzbyvfurq va gur zbfg uhzvyvngvat jnl vzntvanoyr qhevat gur gevny. I think even Jim would agree that it would elevated the book a little above a very game swing at the traditional detective story with a locked room puzzle.

So we arrive at the ending of the story and, once again, the story shifts gears a third time with the introduction of an unexpected detective, Miss Irene Knight, who strongly reminded me of Kay Cleaver Strahan's Lynn MacDonald. She appears like a deus ex machina to explain "something that an eight-year-old could solve in eight minutes." Solution to the whole locked room-puzzle is the third standout of the story. Normally, I'm not a big fan of this type of locked room-trick as it's too often used as a cop out solution to get out of a locked room and destroying it in the process. I can count the stories that used it correctly on one hand and you can count The Murder of Nora Winters among them. Not only did the solution left the locked room principle in tact, but added a twist (ROT13) ol erirnyvat gur ybpxrq ebbz ceboyrz npghnyyl pbaprearq gur cbfvgvba bs gur tha. Only things holding the book back is the shoddy clueing and the overly descriptive, sometimes even sloppy writing (e.g. Nick suddenly being called Luke). Nothing that can't be fine-tuned with a little polish and some rewriting. 

The Murder of Nora Winters certainly stands out as a self-published locked room mystery, despite some of its obvious imperfections, but perhaps even more impressive is that it was likely written by an outsider. I don't think Trainor is a devout reader of impossible crime fiction and suspect he got the idea for the false-solution by actually googling "solutions for locked-room mysteries." That would be an amazing piece of genre awareness compared to some of his self-published colleagues. Just read Jim's review of Steve Levi's The Matter of the Duct Tape Tuxedo (2019) and don't skip the comments. So, yeah, I very much enjoyed my time with this interesting and spirited piece of amateur detective fiction.

A note for the curious: I slapped together the first cover in a few minutes, because the official cover is an atrocity on the eyes.

11/17/21

About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (1931) by Anthony Abbot

"Anthony Abbot" was the pseudonym of Charles Fulton Oursler, an American journalist, editor, playwright and writer, who Mike Grost rightfully called "one of the most of the "little known" mystery writers" and, like Ellery Queen, "an early follower of S.S. van Dine" – distinguishing himself by presenting the traditional Van Dine-Queen detective story as a modern police procedural. The detective in Abbo's detective novel is not an amateur dilettante with police connections, but the Police Commissioner of Greater New York, Thatcher Colt. A well tailored policeman who resorted "to no magic except applied intelligence" and "relying invariably on strict police practice" with the invaluable cooperation of "scientists and their laboratories."

So take Abbot's interest in the latest, cutting-edge police techniques and his skillful handling of  intricate, maze-like plots with a penchant for misdirection, you can understand why so many consider him as one of the more important American mystery novelists of the 1930s. Despite his credentials, Abbot's work has been out-of-print since the fifties. You really need a bit of luck to find reasonably priced copies, especially those from the early thirties.

During the past year, I was lucky enough to come across two novels and a short story, "About the Disappearance of Agatha King" (1932) and About the Murder of the Circus Queen (1932), which were both glittering examples of the Golden Age detective story – demonstrating a deft hand at both clueing and misdirection. Recently, I got my hands on a cheap, hardcover copy of About the Murder of the Night Club Lady (1931) in poor condition, but still perfectly readable. A novel that came with the warning that the story showed far less of the colorful storytelling and imaginative plotting than "the best of Abbot's writing," but has "an original impossible crime" as its central puzzle and "this impossibility is the best part of this work." There's actually a second impossibility that's even better!

Firstly, I need to point out that About the Murder of the Night Club Lady strongly reminded me of the detective novels of another little-known writer of the Van Dine-Queen School, Roger Scarlett. Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells (1932) helped shape the Japanese yakata-mono (mansion story) mystery and this novel can be categorized as one with most of the action taking place in the Night Club Lady's spacious penthouse on the twenty-second floor of a New York skyscraper. More on that in a moment. 

About the Murder of the Night Club Lady opens in the Crystal Room of the Ritz, on New Year's Eve, where the District Attorney, Merle Dougherty, has summoned Thatcher Colt and Tony Abbot to discreetly discuss "a highly secret criminal investigation" he has been personally conducting. Something the Police Commissioner not wholly approves of ("the functions of police of the police were too often usurped by the District Attorneys"), but Doughtery apparently discovered a breakthrough in a string of jewel robberies. The D.A. believes the thieves are in cahoots with somebody "who hob-nobs with the swells and plans the jobs." Someone who freely moves around the upper-crust of New York City. Doughterty believes the higher-up is no less a figure than the Night Club Lady.

Lola Carewe is "the most mysterious woman in New York," a "dangerous beauty" better known as the Night Club Lady, who got her break as a cinema performer and became a widow a year after her sensational marriage to a cotton millionaire, Gaylord Gifford – who barely left enough money to pay the undertaker. Yet, she continues to live in luxury and spend money like water. Doughtery wanted to meet Colt at the Crystal Room to get a close-up look of the famous Night Club Lady, but they are in for a surprise! Lola arrives at the Ritz in the company of Vincent Rowland, a well-known, sharp-eyed railroad attorney, who "loved to play Crœsus to modern young painters." The three men observe the two having "a spirited discussion" as Lola scribbles a note, which is passed to their table. Lola wanted to talk serious police business with Colt.

A week ago, Lola's dog unexpectedly died and the day before her parrot died under similar circumstances, which is to say that the animal hospital were unable to determine the cause of death. They could "find no trace of any poison at all." Only an hour ago, she received a threatening letter promising she was going to die before three o'clock that night.

Colt dispatches several detectives to the top floor penthouse on East Fifty-Eighth Street, "an aerie perched high in the New York skyline like the nest of some predatory bird," which Lola shares with several other people. There's her elderly mother, Mrs. Carewe. A close friend of Lola, Christine Quires, who has been living with them for the past few months. They employ a Chinese butler, Chung Wong Duk, whose backstory, as an Oxford educated "civilian observer" in the service of his government, could very well have served as the model for one of C. Daly King best characters, Katoh – who's the Japanese valet/spy of King's gentleman detective, Philip Tarrant (The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant, 2003). Lastly, there's the maid, Eunice James, who has done a bit of domestic spying herself. So, when the police arrives, all the rooms are thoroughly searched and guards posted at every door and window "except the ones that open on a sheer drop to the street." The terrace and rooftop were not overlooked or left unguarded. Everything appears to be secure, but an unguarded moment of carelessness proved fatal.

Lola says she's going to get her cigarette case from the guest-room, ignoring Colt's warning not to go in alone, but, before anyone could go with her, she went inside. Almost immediately followed by piercing scream and the sound of a body falling to the floor. What they find inside is a dying Lola, "contorted almost into the form of a question mark," but without a single suspicious mark or scratch on her body. And she was all alone in the room.

So the entire New York police apparatus is put into motion and "a corps of specialists was being organized and dispatched to the scene," which range from the Medical Examiner and police photographers to the Captain of the local precinct. Detectives who arrived from Headquarters began to search the penthouse again, while others were dispatched to delve into the past histories of persons considered important or check out alibis, but this is merely background chatter compared to a few genuinely interesting pieces of early forensic detective work. Firstly, two young detectives arrive from Centre Street arrive at the penthouse with a special vacuum cleaner and meticulously go over the guest-room collecting "every particle of dust in the room where the crime had been done," which may contain, "somewhere in the multitudes of particles," the vital clue to puzzle. The vacuum cleaner bags and the victim's clothing are send to a retired scientist, Professor George Luckner, who's "at heart a great detective," but "regards detective work as degrading to a scientist" and devotes himself to criminal research only as a special favor to Colt. And he does find the key-clue. Secondly, Colt is very interested in a photograph of a young Frenchman and has it sent to the Paris police by telephoto (wirephoto). A still very new, time consuming and expensive technology that were large machines and required a untied telephone line. The reader gets a brief description of how it exactly works. I love finding these little time-capsules in my vintage detective stories!

While his men doggedly pursue every lead, Colt has to try and make sense out of such bizarre clues as a wrongly-buttoned bathrobe, a small, unpainted wooden box and a missing suspect who was seen by the elevator boy returning to the penthouse – except this person is nowhere to be found. What happened? There are also two outsiders who have to be considered. Lola's former physician, Dr. Hugh Baldwin, was called to her bedside when she was dying and told the police she had a history of heart trouble. But they apparently had a falling out. Guy Everett is a young actor who escorted Christine Quires that evening to a New Year's party, but he also might have had a motive. And his speakeasy alibi is very shaky. But the case becomes even deeper and more perplexing when a second impossibility occurs inside the closely watched and guarded penthouse. Practically under the nose of the police!

A body miraculously appeared in the boudoir, twisted and contorted like a question mark, but, this time, there are terrible welts on the throat. However, the doctor tells Colt that those monstrous marks were put on the victim's throat after death. Not to mention the problem of the body materializing out of thin air in a previously thoroughly searched, closely guarded premise.

So how well does About the Murder of the Night Club Lady stack up as an impossible crime novel? Pretty well, actually, but with some minor qualifications. I don't think many readers today will be too impressed with "the instrumentality of death" as it seems more suited to a pulp thriller instead of a traditional detective story. Abbot used it expertly and smartly didn't wait until the very with revealing how death was delivered. Apparently, it might have actually been employed in a real-life murder as Colt references "the Falk case in Vienna" and mentioned their killer might have knowledge of that case, but the wise, all-knowing internet was unable to find anything. So no idea if this trick was inspired by a real murder case. The impossible appearance of the body in the boudoir is shockingly brilliant! I sort of figured out how it must have been, but that took nothing away from it and added a delightful, creepy afterthought to everything that had previously happened at the penthouse. Very fitting for a Japanese-style mansion story! 

About the Murder of the Night Club Lady is arguably even better as a whodunit with Abbot demonstrating the skillful agility of a practiced card mechanic when dealing the reader their clues and red herrings. Abbot beautifully hid his murderer among a small cast of characters, but giving the reader enough clues, hints and tells to spot this person before arriving at the explanation. And, if there's anything to complain or nitpick about, it's Abbot wasting a brilliant and daring clue. Had he told the reader the name of the dance early on in the story, I would have stood up to applaud his guts and cunning as a mystery novelist. Nevertheless... About the Murder of the Night Club Lady is a very game, boldly executed 1930s detective novel crammed with inexplicable death, impossible situations, strange clues and treacherous red herrings in camouflage. Not every aspect of the plot has aged particularly gracefully, but the pleasingly complex plot retained enough of its radiant, Golden Age ingenuity to make it a worthwhile recommendation.

I hope About the Murder of the Clergyman's Mistress (1931) and About the Murder of a Man Afraid of Women (1937) will find their way into my hands as easily as the last two.

11/13/21

The Kindaichi Case Files: Ghost Fire Island Murder Case

Back in August, I reviewed the last of four translated "light novels" in The Kindaichi Case Files series, written by Seimaru Amagi, which ended my exploration of that part of the franchise as the rest of the often promising-sounding novels remain frustratingly untranslated – like Yūrei kyakusen satsujin jiken (Ghost Passenger Ship Murder Case, 1995) and Onibijima satusjin jiken (Ghost Fire Island Murder Case, 1997). I considered to get to the third Opera House case or the new 37-year-old Kindaichi next, but an anonymous comment directed my attention to the anime adaptation of Ghost Fire Island Murder Case. Saying it's "one of the most underrated and overlooked mysteries in the series" that "received the greatest improvement in its anime adaptation" compared to the novel. So why not? It's been a while since I visited the anime series. 

Ghost Fire Island Murder Case, alternatively titled The Murder Case of Will-o'-the-Wisp Island or The Will-o'-the-Wisp Isle Murder Case, originally aired as a four-episode story on Nippon TV between October 12 and November 2, 1998. So let's get started!

The story begins with Hajime Kindaichi being accompanied to the hospital by his childhood friend and hopeful love interest, Miyuki Nanase, to have a gastric examination when they spot a notice for a cram school/training camp for medical students – asking for part-time workers to help out over the summer course. Since they can use some pocket money, they sign up as part-time workers and travel to Eikou Hostel situated on a remote island in the South Sea of Japan.

Shiranui Island is rumored to be "a gathering place for wandering and revenge-taking spirits," where ghostly will-o'-the-wisps roam at night, but the hostel has ghosts of its own. The hostel used to be sanatorium in the past where tuberculosis patients were treated and has a dusty, unused room with "an interesting history," but there's also a more recent tragedy looming over the summer seminar. Following a previous trip to the island, a student attempted suicide and ended up in a coma. Now the students who were involved have returned to the island. And it doesn't take very long for things to go south!

On the first evening of their two-week stay, there's an annual midnight test of courage, which is intended to "make some good memories" before everyone begins cramming for exams, but it involves "a little ghost story" concerning the vacant room and an otherworldly entity – simply known as the Midnight's Evil Spirit. When the sanatorium was converted into a medical training camp, nobody was to use the Sarusuberi Room as it's "an intersection for wandering spirits of the dead." Ten years ago, a student committed suicide in that room after failing an exam and his ghost appears every year on the anniversary of his death. You can see his ghost hanging in the room with an eerie will-o'-the-wisp floating outside the window by peeking through the keyhole.

Kindaichi is new to the island and has to be first that night to look through the keyhole, but the grave image he sees is a little too realistic to be ghosts! What he sees is one of the students being hung by a figure, whose face is obscured by the darkness, dressed in a hospital gown and he even hears the rope creaking. But when the hostel manager opens the door with a spare key, the room is completely empty. There's dust on the windowsill and a connecting door was nailed shut years ago. So the manager wants to brush the incident away as over excited students imagining seeing ghosts, but one of the students is indeed missing. Their lines of communication to the outside world are destroyed, which effectively maroons them on the island for the next three days. Before they know it, they have two bodies on their hands with one of them found hanged from a very high beam in an abandoned church with a lack of footprints in the sand muddling the question of alibis.

So the story (mostly) adheres to the familiar formula of the series, but it's very noticeable the episodes were adapted from a novel instead of the usual manga (comic book), which came at the expense of the visual element of the plotting and clueing. There was more said in the episodes than shown. What it showed (blatantly) was no doubt easier to hide or slip by the reader in a novel, but here it gave away an important part of the solution. I believe one particular scene, early on in the story, would have been presented a little different to the reader had the story originally been written/drawn as a manga. For example (ROT13), vg jbhyq unir orra orggre unq Xvaqnvpuv'f zrqvpny rknzvangvba gnxra cynpr oruvaq pybfrq qbbef jvgu gur svore fpbcr bayl oevrsyl fubja ba fperra nf gur qbpgbe jnf gvqlvat hc. How it was done in the animation was too in your face.

Nonetheless, there are still some pretty good twists and turns to be found. Such as the excellent locked room-trick, which has a setup designed to arouse the suspicion of well-read, seasoned mystery readers – as we have seen these type of keyhole-tricks before. The moving figures, sound of rope being stretched and that peculiar thump suggested something different was at the back of this locked room. Amagi delivered with a completely new solution to the impossibly vanishing scene observed through a keyhole. The second murder has a less original, two-part answer (Qblyr'f Oveyfgbar Tnzovg naq n snxrq unatvat), but necessary as it served a very specific purpose. I thought the clue of the missing stepladder and its true meaning an inspired piece of plotting.

I've called Amagi the Soji Shimada of the anime-and manga detective story in previous reviews, specialized in majestic, grand-scale locked room mysteries and alibi-tricks, but the light novels demonstrated he could work on a much smaller scale. However, they did expose that he wrote his stories around the locked room and alibi-tricks to ensure everything was on hand without making it feel too contrived. Ikazuchi matsuri satsujin jiken (Deadly Thunder, 1998) is a perfect example of a story written around a plot like silly putty stretched over a classroom skeleton. It worked quite successfully in Deadly Thunder, but here it directed even more unwanted attention to the one thing that should have been subtly sneaked pass the reader/viewer. And, if you spot it, you can easily work out whodunit and what's going on with the second murder. But, on the upside, one of Amagi's drawbacks that crop in these original light novel cases worked splendidly here. Amagi has the tendency to go one twist too far with last-minute revelations about either the murderer or motive, which tend to be either pitch-black, or outright cruel, but here it gave the ending a genuinely tragic touch. I particularly liked where and how the murderer learned all those deadly tricks. You can't help but feel a pang of sympathy when you learn the precise motive.

So, yeah, a pretty mixed bag this time around. Ghost Fire Island Murder Case is, on a whole, a fairly standard Kindaichi tale with some good plot-ideas, but noticeably weaker visually. Saying more than it shows or showing more than it should. You can put that down to the anime adapting the story from a novel instead of a comic book. I'm sure everything worked better and is less obvious in its original form, which I very likely would have appreciated a little more than this adaptation. Sorry anonymous commentator.

11/10/21

The Logic of Lunacy: Ronald A. Knox's "The Motive" (1937) and Isaac Asimov's "The Obvious Factor" (1973)

It seems that today Father Ronald A. Knox is mostly remembered as someone who helped shape the genre, codifying "The Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction" (1929) and becoming "a pioneer of Sherlockian criticism," whose only well-known piece of detective fiction is a short story, "Solved by Inspection" (1931) – collected in The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (1990). This does Knox a great disservice as a not untalented mystery writer in his own right. The Three Taps (1927) can testify to this. A sparkling novel full with rivaling detectives, false-solutions and clues that possibly had a bigger hand in shaping the British detective story of the 1930s than it has received credit for over the decades. 

So I wanted to return to Knox's detective fiction before too long, but, before delving into his novel-length mysteries, I wanted to tale a look at his second, practically forgotten, short story. A satirical story-within-a-story published at the height of the genre's Golden Age. 

"The Motive" first appeared in The Illustrated London News, November 17, 1937, which was subsequently reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, MacKill's Mystery Magazine and The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018). Story begins in the Senior Common Room, or the smoking-room, of Simon Magus college where a "boorishly argumentative" drama critic, Penkridge, contrived to put Sir Leonard Huntercombe on his own defense. Sir Leonard is a defense lawyer and "probably responsible for more scoundrels being at large than any other man in England," which he considers to be "a kind of artistic gift" as you need to be imaginative "to throw yourself into the business of picturing the story happening as you want it to have happened" – always figuring a completely innocent client. So he tells them the story of a former client by the name of Westmacott.

Westmacott is a middle aged, restless and unhealthy looking man who retired early with more money than he knew what to do with and surprised his friends when he decides to spend Christmas holiday at "one of those filthy great luxury hotels in Cornwall." A place that attracts a modern, cosmopolitan and rather Bohemian crowd. Such as a modern novelist with a penchant for scandal, Smith, whose work "looked as if it was meant to be seized by the police." So not exactly the kind of holiday destination you expect someone to pick who's "well known to be old-fashioned in his views and conservative in his opinions." There's certainly something out-of-character about what happens next.

During the Christmas celebration, Westmacott suggests to play blind man's buff in the hotel swimming pool, but Smith and Westmacott eventually stayed behind to settle an argument with "a practical try-out and a bet." Westmacott argued that you couldn't know what direction you were swimming in when you were blindfolded, while Smith bragged it was perfectly easy. Smith is blindfolded and has "to swim ten lengths in the bath each way, touching the ends every time, but never touching the sides." So, when Smith did his ten lengths, he tried to touch the handrail, but it wasn't there! The whole place was dark and he pretty quickly figures out a lot of water had been let out of the pool, which effectively trapped and left him to drown when he got too exhausted to swim. A very observant night watchman saved him from potentially drowning over night. This naturally landed Westmacott in some hot water, but the lack of motive, the difficulty of proving he had tampered with the water supply and a handsome compensation ensured the case was hushed up. Sir Leonard had not seen the last of his curious client.

Less than a week later, "a seedy-looking fellow calling himself Robinson" became a regular visitor of Westmacott's home, always wearing dark spectacles, who evidently "got a hold of some kind over Westmacott" that frightened the wits out of him – arming himself with a revolver and even poison. Robinson even accompanies Westmacott on a train trip to his friends to celebrate the New Year, but Robinson mysteriously disappears from his (locked) sleeper compartment with the only entrance being the communicating door in Westmacott's compartment. Yes, this is kind of a locked room mystery. Sir Leonard has to defend Westmacott on an actual murder charge this time and he both confesses and denies to have murdered Robinson, but his motivation and behavior remain murky and incomprehensible. This is where the story becomes a minor gem!

You can easily poke through the locked room-trick in the sleeper compartment, but leaves you with an even bigger question of Chestertonian proportions! Why? Why in the hell would anyone do something like that? It makes no sense whatsoever. Sir Leonard explains "the logic of lunacy," which sounded perfectly logical, behind these two lunatic schemes. Only to pull the rug underneath the reader's feet with a very brazen, final twist. A twist that was beautifully clued and foreshadowed. I'm just left with one question: why, in God's name, did I neglect Knox for all these years?

I originally intended to only review Knox's "The Motive," but its final twist reminded me of another detective story, written more than thirty years later, which tried to do something very similar. So decided to pull my copy of Isaac Asimov's The Return of the Black Widowers (2003) from the shelf to reread that somewhat controversial impossible crime story. 

"The Obvious Factor" was originally published in the May, 1973, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and first collected in Tales of the Black Widowers (1974). Story is the sixth recorded meeting of an exclusive, men-only dinning club, the Black Widowers, who meet once a month in a private dinner room of an Italian restaurant in New York – discussing various subjects, solving puzzles and grilling the guest. Each month, one of the members brings along a guest who's always pestered with the same question, "how do you justify your existence?" However, this question always reveals that the guest has a problem or puzzle to solve, but it's always their personal waiter and honorary Black Widower, Henry, who comes up with the solution. Henry is the only armchair detective in fiction who never sits down as he works out a problem.

Thomas Trumbull is the host of "The Obvious Factor" and his guest of the evening is Dr. Voss Eldridge, Associate Professor of Abnormal Psychology, which turns the conversation from pulp magazines and Roger Halsted writing "a limerick for every book of the Iliad" to parapsychological phenomena. Dr. Eldridge tries to shine a light on telepathy, precognition and even ghosts. Not a month goes by without something crossing his desk that he can't explain, but the club of rationalists are naturally more than a little skeptical. Dr. Eldridge decides to tell them "a story that defies the principle of cause and effect" and thereby "the concept of the irreversible forward flow of time," which is "the very foundation stone on which all science is built."

Dr. Eldridge tells of young woman, Mary, who never finished school and worked behind the counter of a department store, but despite her odd, anti-social behavior, she kept her job. Mary has an uncanny knack to spot shoplifters and "losses quickly dropped to virtually nothing in that particular five-and-ten" despite being in a bad neighborhood. She eventually came to the attention of Dr. Eldridge and discovers "the background of her mind is a constant flickering of frightful images," occasionally lit up "as though by a momentary lightening flash," allowing her to see near future. During one particular session, Mary had a particular eerie premonition as she began to scream about a fire. And the details match a deadly house fire in San Francisco. Even more eerie, "the fire broke out at just about the minute Mary's fit died down" in New York.

Dr. Eldridge tells the Black Widowers that "a few minutes is as good as a century" as "cause and effect is violated and the flow of time is reversed," but the Black Widowers refuse to accept precognition as an answer. So they try to poke holes in the story, but every reasonable, logical answer is eliminated and the club members find themselves backed into a corner. If it wasn't precognition, what was it? Henry quickly comes to their rescue and explains what really happened as effortlessly as flashing a smile. The most obvious solution of all!

If I remember the comments on the old, now defunct Yahoo GAD list correctly, not everyone was particular charmed, or amused, with Asimov's solution/twist. I found it amusing enough to go along with it, however, there's an important and notable difference in quality between Asimov and Knox's stories. Knox's "The Motive" can still stand on its own, as a detective story, without that last, delicious twist, but Asimov's "The Obvious Factor" slyly used a very similar twist for somewhat of a cop out ending – which can strike some as lazy plotting or just plain unfair. But decide for yourself.

So, all in all, I very much enjoyed "The Motive," a glittering specimen of the short British detective story, which toyed with the same idea as "The Obvious Factor," but they came away being vastly different detective stories. It was a pretty good idea to read them back-to-back.

11/7/21

Glittering Prizes (1942) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn wrote in the Crime Book Magazine, in 1948, that he believes "the primary function of the mystery story is to entertain" and "to stimulate the imagination," but "it pleases the connoisseur most" when it presents "genuine mystery" – an "intellectual problem for the reader to consider, measure and solve." Flynn himself had an incredibly varied approach to ensure his detective fiction presented a stimulating and entertaining mysteries that took on many different shapes and designs. Covering everything from your standard whodunit and impossible crimes to courtroom dramas and pulp thrillers. And everything that can be fitted in between or stacked on top of it. Not all of his mysteries are so easily pigeonholed. 

Glittering Prizes (1942) is the twenty-eighth title in the Anthony Bathurst series and, according to the introduction by Steve Barge, the only time Flynn used the war as a backdrop. Typically, Flynn grabbed the opportunity to experiment with the wartime spy-thriller, but the reader has to figure out whether there's a private motive or a Nazi conspiracy behind "a peculiarly horrible double murder." Something you can never be quite sure of with the man wrote wildly different crime, detective and thriller novels like The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928), Invisible Death (1929), Murder en Route (1930) and The Edge of Terror (1932). 

Glittering Prizes opens with Anne Assheton, a famous Hollywood film star, docking in England, where she's swarmed by reporters and photographers, but she tells the gathered pressmen that one of the richest woman in the world crossed with her on the Myrobella, Mrs. Warren Clinton – a Nebraskan widow whose husband left her an immense fortune ("worth x million dollars"). Mrs. Clinton is an American "who had the honour to be born in England" and returned with the purpose of placing her "entire fortune at the disposal of the British Empire" to fight the menace that's threatening their freedoms and way of life. Mrs. Clinton tells in an interview she has plenty of ideas on how to put her fortune to good use, but nothing definite and a fortnight would pass before her name was plastered across newspaper headlines. So what happened during those weeks?

Mrs. Clinton booked a particular suite of rooms at the Royal Sceptre Hotel, Remington, which the habitual patrons knew as the 'Nonpareil' far beyond the financial resources of most. There she gathered a group of handpicked nine talented men and women with outstanding public records and personal qualities.

Admittedly, the introduction of all these characters slows down the opening chapter considerably, but absolutely necessary to setup one of Flynn's most audacious plots. Something to rival the barefaced cheek of The Padded Door (1932)!

So here they are, more or less, in order of appearance: Mr. and Mrs. John and Angela Ramage who are respectively a barrister with "an absolutely outstanding reputation" and a doctor as well as an M.P. for West Markham. A famous Shakespearean actor, Wilfred Denver, who's "exceedingly well read" with "a perfectly marvelous memory." Captain Ronald Playfair is an ex-Secret Service agent whose "exploits during the War of 1914-1918" won him a Victorian Cross and "was in Berlin in the February of 1933 when the Reichstag went up in flames." Sir Edward Angus, Conservative Member of Parliament for the Rigby Division of Holme, is "the coming man in British politics" whose "fighting speeches in the House" caught the attention of Mrs. Clinton. The Very Reverend Dean Theodore Langton, of St. Sepulchre's Cathedral, is a silver tongued preacher whom modern critics ranked as one of "the greatest preachers of all time." Lord Esmond Curte is both "an isolated, aloof figure" and a strongly opinionated orator whose views usually gets him labeled a reactionary or a ruddy Fascist. Rosamund Kingsley is a well-known explorer and Mrs. Clinton regards her as "the foremost woman of our times," which is why she was selected as one of the people whom Britain sorely needed at this "most critical moment in her history." Cedric Garnett is "a superb physical specimen" who shined in rugger, rowing and cricket who reminded Mrs. Clinton of the "thousands of robust young men" marching through Germany with "unflagging energy and boundless enthusiasm."

So this group of carefully selected, outstanding individuals were royally wined and dined upon arrival, but the after dinner conversation turned serious as their host explained she was going to subject them all to a test to rank their intelligence, initiative and quick-thinking – in order to pick the best two of the litter. Firstly, they have to find the counterpart or associate word to a list of mostly obscure words: Orpheus, Edyrn, Ulema, Roup, Iphicles, Reldresal, Eagle (two headed), Mazikeen and Premonstratensian. Secondly, Mrs. Clinton privately interviewed everyone and asked them seemingly irrelevant questions like if they had any knowledge of jiu-jitsu or bred canaries. When the results were tallied, Mrs. Clinton picked two names and the others were left wondering whether they had been the victim of an elaborate practical joke or had simply wasted their time. So they slowly retired to their rooms only to awaken the next morning to a sensational horror show!

Mrs. Clinton and her two handpicked defenders of the British Empire are nowhere to be found. So the hotel manager was fetched to open the door of the suite of rooms and discovered the nude bodies of the two winners, each had been shot through the left eye, but not a trace of the American widow! The local police immediately recognized they were out of their league and a call went out to Sir Austin Kemble, the Commissioner of Police, who dispatched Chief Inspector Andrew MacMorran and Anthony Bathurst to the scene of the crime. After questioning everyone involved, the story returns to the surviving members of the party as they begin receive threatening warning letters, mockingly signed "Auf wiedersehen! Heil Hitler!," promising to give a demonstration of their far-reaching powers. Like sending ticking packages with an alarm-clock inside or tempering with cigars. I loved the universal, unmistakably British response of the characters to these threats.

There are additional problems like the discovery of a third body and the "appallingly trivial" incident of "a big red china dachshund" in a basement flat window that keeps changing color. So it takes a while before Bathurst can sit down "to marshal on paper all the facts which he had so far been able to amass." A great and fun piece of armchair detective work as he reconstructs and cracks the code of the word association test, weighs the relevance of the questions and eventually retracing Mrs. Clinton's footsteps in England. All of this is beautifully complemented by a bit of cheeky, in-your-face clueing, but misdirection is where the plot truly excelled as a detective story. Glittering Prizes perfectly muddled the waters without mucking up the whole plot or dulling the clues. I spotted the clues and correctly identified the murderer, but Flynn kept me second guessing and a particularly slippery, carefully placed red herring briefly convinced me I had been on the wrong track the entire time. 

Some readers will probably accuse Flynn of stretching things again, but my only complaint about the plot (HUGE SPOILERS, SWITCH TO ROT13!) vf gung guerr zheqref vf dhvgr na rfpnyngvba sbe jung'f ernyyl abguvat zber guna n fuvcobneq ebznapr. Other than that minor quibble, I enjoyed Glittering Prizes tremendously as Flynn kept me second guessing about the solution and what, exactly, I was reading, but delivered with a clear and perhaps a little overly ambitious solution that lived up to its fantastically bizarre premise. A pure, unapologetic and delightful flight of fancy.

11/3/21

Blind Man's Bluff (1943) by Baynard Kendrick

Baynard Kendrick was an American mystery novelist and the spiritual father of the most influential of all blind detectives, Captain Duncan Maclain, who lost his eyesight in World War I and forced him to rigorously train his remaining senses to pull double duty – unwittingly becoming a member of the ancient Pythagorean sect whose adherents "considered numbers the supreme concept of existence." The universe is "an orderly composition of geometric figures" to Captain Maclain and geometry governed his movement aided by a sharpened hearing that can make "a map of sound" in his clear, uncluttered mind. This allowed him to become one of the best private investigators in New York City as he sees things other people tend to overlook. 

Captain Duncan Maclain is also somewhat of an anomalous character within the American detective story. A character who connects the traditional detective to the heroes from the pulp magazines and comic books. Captain Maclain's office building is crammed with high-tech gadgets and the building has a subbasement, four floors below street level, which serves as a Batcave. He trains there with his assistant, Spud Savage, whose wife, Rena, acts as his secretary. Captain Maclain also has two German shepherds, Schnuke and Driest, who each played a very different role in his life. Schnuke was trained as a capable, lovable and gentle guide who clung to her master with "a loyalty deeper than death." Driest is a weapon trained to defend and "looked upon the world with a hostile, suspicious canine eye" ready to hurl himself at any adversary at command or suspicious movement. Basically a sentient, medieval spiked mace with fur and a plucky attitude.

So no wonder Captain Maclain served as a model for some other blind characters, such as the blind insurance investigator from the 1970s TV-series Longstreet, Mike Longstreet, but, more importantly, Stan Lee cited Captain Maclain as the model for Matt Murdock – a blind defense attorney better known as Daredevil. Lee stated that he wanted to create "a hero who would start out with a disability" and remembered reading Kendrick's mystery novels about his blind detective years ago, which made him reflect that "if a man without sight could be a successful detective" what "a triumph it would be to make a blind man a comicbook superhero."

I've never understood why Kendrick and Captain Maclain never fully reemerged from the shadows as the character not only has a fascinating backstory and linage, but Kendrick was a consistent writer and plotter. He never used Maclain's blindness as a gimmicked crutch for his plots to lean on, which are either solidly plotted affairs (The Whistling Hangman, 1937) or interesting, pulp-style hybrids (The Odor of Violets, 1940). Kendrick regularly applies his skills to the impossible crime and how-dun-its. The subject of today's review has a strong hint of John Dickson Carr. 

Blind Man's Bluff (1943) is the fourth entry in the Captain Duncan Maclain series and confronts the blind detective with a string of seemingly impossible crimes rooted in the fairly recent past.

Blake Hadfield had served as the President of the Miners Title and Trust Company during the most opulent years of the once successful bank and real estate mortgage company, until the company horribly crashed in 1932, but was personally cleared of any criminal negligence – a charge which the State Insurance Department tried "industriously to prove." But there was still a tragedy waiting in the wings. James Sprague, a ruined depositor, "had taken matters into his own hands and tried to settle accounts with a gun." Sprague shot Hadfield through the head in his office at the M.T. & T building before turning the gun on himself, but the bullet had failed to kill Hadfield. However, it left him completely blind and somewhat isolated. Hadfield lived separate from his wife, Julia, who tried to divorce him, but he fought it successfully in court. Because he knew she one day would want to marry her lawyer and family friend, Philip Courtney. So, for the past few years, Julia scraped and struggled to put their son, Seth, through school and college to show she didn't need her husband. Lieutenant Seth Hadfield, home on a short leave from the army, is engaged to Sprague's daughter, Elise, who worries that her father's attempted murder and suicide will cloud her future with Seth in "an unhappy pall."

So a relatively normal and functioning family by detective story standards, but it's weird that, one day, Hadfield decides to take his son back to the M.T. & T building and summoned several people to join them.

M.T. & T building is a large, gloomy and ponderous structure from the 1890s resembling a prison from that era and, while largely abandoned, is still partially in use by the company's appointed Comptroller, Carl Bentley, who tries to sell the real estate which M.T. & T took over in foreclosed mortgages. Trying to salvage all he can for the investors who lost their money with Elise Sprague acting as his secretary. So the sudden return of Blake Hadfield to his office placed his defunct company back into "unwelcome notoriety" of newspaper headlines as his body was hurled from his office floor to the lobby eight floors below. Just at the moment his wife arrived. Only person with him was his son (boozed out of his mind) and the night watchman has "an unshatterable record of his movement punched every five minutes from the time he started his rounds." So the police find it impossible to present a convincing murder case and the now supposed accident/suicide finds its way to the blind detective, Captain Duncan Maclain.

Captain Maclain is approached by Harold Lawson, of the State Insurance Department, and a friend of the victim, Miss Sybella Ford, whose company redecorated his apartment after he lost his sight. Neither of them believe his son threw him over the railing and ask Captain Maclain to look at Hadfield's strange death "through a blind man's eye," but the case becomes increasingly complicated when the apparently nonsensical clues and bodies begin to pile up.

A sleazy, ambulance chasing lawyer, named T. Allen Doxenby, attempts to subtly blackmail Courtney into "helping" him handle the Hadfield estate, but he's unceremoniously shown the door and, shortly thereafter, he jumped out of a window – or so it appeared. A man and his wife who live in the apartment opposite of Doxenby heard him scream when they arrived home and stood in front of the door until the janitor opened it, but "there was nobody in the room but an open window." So, if it was murder, the police should "get out a warrant for Superman." There is, however, a curious piece of evidence linking Doxenby to the Hadfield-Sprague shooting years earlier. An initialed, custom-made highball glass that went missing from the office at the night of the shooting and is found in Doxenby's apartment "signed with the fingerprints of two dead men." This is not the last murder or even the first two murders as there might have been a third person who shot both Sprague and Hadfield. This time, Captain Maclain is seriously hampered in his investigation as the war deprived him of Spud Savage, but, even more dangerously, he has fallen in love with Sybella Ford. A briefly appearing Spud (on leave) warns him "the brain of a man in love is never quite crystal-clear," especially to a man who loved by his brain and hadn't experienced love in ages, which might prove lethal when "playing with a killer who has stood the Police Department on its ear."

Captain Maclain not only needs a clear and uncluttered mind to tangle with a very dangerous and clever killer, but also to make sense of wild array of strange, seemingly intelligible clues. Such as a misplaced ball of twine. A bottle of good whiskey thrown down an air shaft. A missing fountain pen and small change. A lowered Venetian blind and a vanished paperweight. A hallucination of someone falling down an elevator shaft. A smashed braille wristwatch and a heavy round watchman's clock that the watchman carried on his rounds. So, yes, there's a definite touch of Carr to the plotting and clueing recalling The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941) and Carr's dark obsession with timepieces.

However, Blind Man's Bluff is a Carr-style novel in the way Christopher Bush's The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935) is a Carr-like impossible crime novel. The Case of the Chinese Gong and Blind Man's Bluff both have an impossible crime as the central puzzle full of Carrian ingenuity and worthy of Dr. Gideon Fell, but Bush and Kendrick lacked the master's showmanship and magical touch when it came to the solution. Bush took the humdrum approach of John Rhode and Kendrick showed his pulp credentials by letting Maclain set a trap with himself as bait, which went about as well as you would expect. Not that the more pulp-style ending took anything away from Blind Man's Bluff as a cleverly contrived, mostly fair play and not unoriginal impossible crime novel with the spotty clueing, regarding the question of opportunity, standing as the plots only real weak spot – which is why it's only almost as good as The Whistling Hangman. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed Blind Man's Bluff as a well written and plotted specimen of the American Golden Age detective story helmed by a detective who deserves more recognition by today's mystery readers.

11/1/21

Pink Silk Alibi (1946) by Bruce Sanders

Leonard Gribble was a founding member of the British Crime Writers' Association and a prolific writer of detective and thriller fiction, best remembered today for The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939), who occasionally dabbled in Westerns and non-fiction – employing a whole retinue of pennames. Sometimes a penname can get lost in the crowd and be overlooked. 

This seems to be the case with one of Gribble's lesser-known pseudonyms, namely "Bruce Sanders," which is not listed on his GADWiki page, but appeared on the covers of a dozen novels. The Bruce Sanders Library comprises of four novels in the Ward and Sally Digburn spy-series, three presumably non-series titles and a handful so-called "colour crime" novels. A series of standalone stories linked together by their color-themed book titles, which seem to cast Bruce Sanders as a quasi-true crime writer who fictionalizes sensational and headline grabbing murder cases. Appearing as a character in the prologues and epilogues to setup the plot and tidy up the loose ends.

Some time ago, I came across a cheap copy of the third "colour crime" novel, Pink Silk Alibi (1946), but assumed Sanders was one of those unknown, completely forgotten authors. Just like the time I stumbled over John Hymers. I began to seriously look into him while reading the book and only then figured out the man behind the name was not that obscure at all. Funnily enough, Aidan, of Mysteries Ahoy!, had a similar experience with the final "colour crime" novel, Madame Bluebeard (1951).

The prologue of Pink Sink Alibi opens with Bruce Sanders "looking around for the right kind of material" with "a certain pattern" and human interest, some meat and fascinating background – which is handed to him at the Press Club. Peter Meehan, of the Balance Sheet, has in his possession a manuscript with the full, unedited truth about a sensational, big money murder case. A case that had slowly fizzled out due to a lack of developments. So the time was ripe to finally tell the public the full story. However, you're advised to skip the last line on page 7 ("the whole thing had fizzled out, as it seemed, when [REDACTED] was killed in the Paris boat-train smash") as it gives away in which direction to look for the murderer. The reader has been warned! So let's get to the story.

Philip Naughton is a public relations agent, currently a salaried employee of the Argento Mining Syndicate, who accompanies the company's English representative, Manuel Dagos, to the home of shady financier. Gordon Murrell made "a fortune running dubious Continental sweepstakes" and "the sort of man that gets South American companies into bad odour," but money is needed urgently and not many people are prepared to sink money in South American mines at the time. So with the "season's crop of lunatics" being limited, Naughton and Dagos grab a taxi to Murrell's flat.

When they arrive, Naughton and Dagos hear a piercing scream coming from Murrell's apartment as the door flung open by his well-known wife, Penelope, who's "had pushed her way up from the chorus of a second-rate Paris music-hall" and became a famous stage actress – known to the theatrical profession in London and Paris as Pretty Penny. Gordon Murrell is lying inside "as dead as the shares of a cerain South American mining syndicate were likely to prove in a few hours" as the result of a bullet to the head. Penelope Murrell took her cue and made a quick exit before any questions could be asked, but Naughton spots a another woman suspiciously tiptoeing around the corridor and crime scene. Sally Heston lives at the end of the corridor to keep an eye on her brother, Tom Heston, who's fooling around with Penny. But why was she washing out the titular garment? Tom Heston shares rooms with his big, burly American friend, Greenly Matherson, who not only has a finger in the financial pie, but jammed his entire fist in it. So events begin to pile up with "a fantastic suddenness that would have been decried by the veriest amateur writer of sensational fiction" and forces Naughton to play detective. This also places him at odds with the policemen in charge, Chief Inspector Hayward and Sergeant Fuller, who really should have been the true detectives of the story.

However, if the two Scotland Yard men had been cast as the headline detectives, Sanders would have robbed Pink Silk Alibi of a very curious, but interesting, historical footnote. 

Anthony Boucher credited Curtiss T. Gardner's Bones Don't Lie (1946) with introducing the first big business detective on record, but Pink Silk Alibi now has a claim on that purely historical honor. So I poked around to see if I could find exact publication dates for both books and guess what? Only date that comes up for both books is January 1, 1946! This can easily be explained as a default date created when the pages were made, but it's interesting to note that an American and British writer came up with the idea of a corporate detective at practically the same time. But very differently handled. Unfortunately, it's the only real claim the book has to historical relevance as the story, plot and most of the characters are not particular good or very memorable.

Now, to be fair, Pink Silk Alibi certainly wasn't a chore to read as it's amusingly enough written full with bantering, smart aleck dialogue and humor, which admittedly felt a good decade out-of-date – belonging to the pages of those posh thrillers from the late 1920s and '30s. I suppose some credit has to be given to Sanders for creating the illusion his paper thin, see-through plot had substance, but he did it with a very simple and cheap trick. Nearly every character is double-crossing someone, devising counter-plots or hedging their bets. So that keeps everything moving on very little fuel. But not very impressive, plot-wise. And made most of the characters unconvincing stage props. Occasional fuzziness in the details didn't help either. For example, Chapter III (A Murder) mentioned "there were no powder marks" on Murrell's face, but Chapter XIX (A Dénouement) states "he was shot deliberately by someone who could approach him and push a gun in his face" near enough "for the powder burns to show on his skin." Sometimes it's not difficult to see or understand why a writer descended into obscurity or why a book never got an extended print-run.

So perhaps an interesting curiosity for genre historians with a special interest in uncommon detective-characters to study, but, plot-wise, Pink Silk Alibi is nothing more than a bit of fluff.