She Died Without Light (1956) by Nieves Mathews

Nieves Mathews was a Scottish-Spanish author who wrote the 606-page volume Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (1996) and worked at the Food & Agriculture Organization, of the United Nations, for twenty years, but during her early years, she wrote detective novel – a now extremely obscure and hard-to-get novel. A novel that also happened to be included in Robert Adey's bibliographic work, Locked Room Murders (1991).

So, without anymore salient details to divulge about either the author or the book itself, let's dig right in!

She Died Without Light (1956) begins with clippings of newspaper articles, gossip columns and fragments of letters reporting, or speculating, about the strange death of "the invalid owner" of the Pension des Eaux Calmes, Madame Sophie Rousseau. A tattered, rundown boarding house in Geneva, Switzerland, whose only charm was the personality of its owner. Madame Rousseau was the grand-daughter of a world famous explorer, a one-time member of the Conservatoire and "universally beloved" by "her boarders, her staff" and "by half Geneva." So the press and public where all over the case when the news broke that she had died under circumstances that proved hard to explain.

On a late September morning, the milkman heard "a most extraordinary sound" coming from the boarding house. A wailing, piteous cry that came from Madame Rousseau's car, Coralie, who's caught in a broken window-pane and was struggling to get out.

Through the glass, the milkman saw the body of Madame Rousseau, "contorted into an incredible position," with her hand stretched out towards a tumbler of water, but everyone else in the house was sound asleep – presumably under "the influence of a drug." Some witnesses have commented on the unusual fact that "the old villa had all its lights on throughout Tuesday evening." However, the authorities appoint a juge d'instruction when a postmortem revealed the presence of a large quantity of arsenic in the body, but not "a single bottle or vessel" is found in the victim's bedroom containing the slightest trace of the poison. A room that had its door and windows securely bolted on the inside!

After this opening, the story back-tracks a few days to the arrival of a British boarder, Dr. Hal Phillips, who has come "the cleanest, tidiest country in Europe" for a much-needed rest. But what he found was everything but that.

Dr. Hal Phillips becoming a guest at the rundown boardinghouse and interacting with the strange people who dwell there has all the surrealistic quality of Ellery Queen's Ellery-in-Wonderland tales (e.g. There Was an Old Woman, 1943) and the works of Craig Rice, but with an oddly Galic flavor to the plot and characters. I was somewhat reminded of Gaston Boca, Pierre Véry and Noël Vindry.

Pension des Eaux Calmes was "not quite what he had expected" and, before he even crossed its threshold, Dr. Phillips spots two eyes peeping at him over the edge of the veranda roof, which were "yellow and full hatred." The eyes belong not to Madame Rousseau's cat, but to her only son, Jean Jacques. Another man, clad in black with a green tie, is crouching, like "a wild animals," on the lowest branch of a walnut tree and jumped on a stench bench – after which he run away without saying a word. A mother of two young children, who are allowed to run amok and vandalize the place, completely ignores his existence and another, bony-looking woman shut a door in his face without giving him a second look. Welcome to Pension des Eaux Calmes!

Portuguese edition
Everyone at the boarding house, except for Madame Rousseau, received Dr. Phillips with the same look of "fear and dislike" or even abject, animal-like terror. Obviously, something was not quite what it seemed and, more than once, Dr. Phillips asks the people why they continue to hang on there. And becomes determined to find out what's at the bottom of all of it.

A problem that will take up the entire mid-section of the book and concludes with the murder reported in the first chapter, but, before reaching that point, Dr. Phillips has to contend with ghostly noises, theft, tea cups, carelessly strewn bottles of medicine or tins of rat poison and a hungry electricity meter – which keeps gobbling up coins. Not to mention two attempted murders. This approach can be compared to Cyril Hare's contentious masterpiece, Tragedy at Law (1942), with the murder being committed at the end of the book and the story showing everything that happened leading up to it. However, as previously stated, She Died Without Light has a distinctly French flavor. Characters, set-pieces and story-telling take precedence over the puzzle and plot-mechanics that are central to the Anglo-Saxon detective story.

This is not to say the plot is bad or even weakly handled. On the contrary! While the plot is a little loose in its joints, the whole structure fits together logically, but it's the mad logic of a dream. So not everyone is going to appreciate the solution, because the identity of the murderer was lifted from a well-known detective novel and the locked room-trick, which is closely tied to the murderer and personality of the victim, is a little underwhelming. Personally, I thought the solution to the murder was well-done and believe Mathews succeeded in what Ulf Durling attempted to do in Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971), but I can also see why some readers might be let down by it. After all, you have to read to the end to get back to the point where you started, but with a better understanding what was going on at the boardinghouse. And some readers expect a bigger payoff than they'll get.

So, yeah, this is a difficult book to recommend, but I rather enjoyed reading this unconventional detective story that began as a tragicomedy with some surrealistic touches and slowly morphed into a bad dream ending in murder. There are, as to be expected from a first-timer, some imperfections, but the fact that this was Mathews' sole contributions to the genre is one of my two only complaints. My other gripe is that the cat in the broken window-pane has no relevance, whatsoever, on the locked room-trick. Somehow, the idea of a murder in a locked room with the only gap plugged with an angry, hissing cat is a very appealing idea.

She Died Without Light is not going to be everyone's favorite locked room mystery, but I think its rarity and well-done, if oddball, plot makes it deserving of a long overdue reprint. So maybe Dean Street Press or Locked Room International want to adopt this one?


Murder in the Dog Days (1991) by P.M. Carlson

I've always been fascinated with detective stories set in either the thick of war, the home-front or among the (societal) wreckage of their aftermath.

Whether it is the sacking of a great city in antiquity (Paul Doherty's A Murder in Thebes, 1998), inexplicable streaks of lights seen on the battlefield of the Great War (Laurance Clark's "Flashlights," 1918), a World War II prisoner-of-war camp (Michael Gilbert's The Danger Within, 1952) or the social malaise of post-war Britain (Christopher Bush's The Case of the Fourth Detective, 1951) – a well-written, war-themed mystery usually makes for an engrossing read. Sometimes having a war in the background can turn an otherwise average detective novel into a noteworthy title (e.g. Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill, 1946).

However, the war thorn detective novel seems to have been primarily come from the British and their contributions can fill out an entire bookcase, but our gun-toting, flag-waving American friends are surprisingly unrepresented. I can only think of handful of truly noteworthy examples of traditional, American war-themed mystery novels.

Darwin L. Teilhet's The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934) and Theodore Roscoe's I'll Grind Their Bones (1936) give the reader a visionary preview of the Second World War. Rex Stout wrote two excellent novellas, collected in Not Quite Dead Enough (1944), which are also two of the better World War II detective stories written during that period. Not quite as brilliant as Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940) or Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1944), but Stout has rarely written and plotted them better. Kip Chase's Murder Most Ingenious (1962) has a plot revolving around three veterans of the Korean War.

So I was intrigued when I came across Murder in the Dog Days (1991) by Patricia Carlson, who writes as P.M. Carlson, which, set in 1975, deals with the personal aftermath of the Vietnam war and the terrors of post-traumatic stress – because official declarations don't end wars for combat veterans. Another thing that attracted me to this book was Tom and Enid Schantz, of the now defunct Rue Morgue Press, praising it as "an ingeniously plotted, fair-play, locked room mystery." You know how I'm when it comes to locked room mysteries and impossible crimes!

Murder in the Dog Days is the sixth title in the Maggie Ryan series and a 1992 Edgar Award nominee/finalist. I think the Maggie Ryan & Family series would be a more apt description.

Maggie is accompanied by her "brawny, balding husband," Nick O'Connor, who's an actor periodically appearing TV commercials, her brother, Jerry Ryan, and his wife, Olivia Kerr – who works as a reporter for The Mosby Sun-Dispatch. They become personally involved when an investigative reporter for the Sun-Dispatch is murdered under seemingly impossible circumstances.

Olivia invited a colleague, Dale Colby, to take his family and come with them to the beach in order to escape the sweltering, August heat, but Dale is working on a plane crash story with political implications. So they only take his wife, Donna, and their two young daughters to the beach. Everything goes splendidly until they returned home and Dale doesn't emerge from his private office-room to greet them, which is bolted on the inside and the gauze-curtained windows were "clamped down." When the door was pried open with a crowbar, they found Dale's twisted body, "splayed on the plaid carpet," with gashes on his face and scalp!

Detective Holly Schreiner is the hard-bitten homicide cop in charge of the case and her back-story is one of the three main plot-strands that make up the plot of Murder in the Dog Days.

Holly Schreiner is an ex-army nurse who served in Vietnam, where she worked twenty-hour shifts in the operating room, but, upon her return home, she found a country hostile towards veterans. She's also haunted by horrifying images of cots filled with dead or moaning bodies, "swathed in blood-soaked bandages," and the throbbing sound of the rotors of helicopters – bringing more wounded or dead soldiers to army hospitals. This is very much a character-driven plot-thread in which Holly has to come to terms with the past and try to make peace with that peacenik, Maggie Ryan. The two other plot-threads concern the locked room murder and the plane crash story.

The plane crash story doesn't really come into play until the second half of the story when the people, who Dale wrote about in his newspaper articles, come under closer scrutiny. Dale had implied in his articles that "the survivors of the five victims were better off now than before the crash" and some of them didn't exactly appreciate his take on their personal situation. However, this is the least interesting part of the plot and primarily serves to provide the story with some excitement towards the end as some of the characters find themselves in a life-or-death situation. I was much more impressed with how the impossible murder in the locked room was handled in this very modern crime novel.

During the first half of the story, the locked room murder is giving some thought and there are even false solution proposed, such as "threads attached to the lamp, trick window frames, or mysterious screeching door wedges," but the eventual solution is pretty clever and original. One of those tricks tailor-made for a specific victim under a particular set of circumstances. Very original and satisfying! On the hand, the clueing, hinting and foreshadowing of the murderer's identity and motive were a bit iffy in key parts, because the brutal severity of the reason behind the murderer still felt like it came out of nowhere – although it was sort of hinted at. Nevertheless, the combination of a modern, character-driven crime novel with a locked room puzzle at its heart pleasantly reminded me of Marcia Muller (The Tree of Death, 1983) and Bill Pronzini (Bones, 1985).

So, all things considered, I've to honestly say not every vintage mystery reader will be able to appreciate the still very modern Murder in the Dog Days, but, if you have a special interest in impossible crime stories or army-themed mysteries, it's a title I can recommend.


Going Ashore: "The High House" (1948) by Hake Talbot

Henning Nelms was an American magician and authored a trickster's manual, entitled Magic and Showmanship: A Handbook for Conjurers (1969), but more importantly, he penned two memorable examples of the locked room mystery novel, The Hangman's Handyman (1942) and Rim of the Pit (1944) – published as by "Hake Talbot." Two very popular novels among devotees of the impossible crime tale.

Robert Adey praised Talbot in Locked Room Murders (1991) as the only mystery writer to "successfully emulate" John Dickson Carr and Clayton Rawson. A writer who combined "Carr's flair for atmosphere and the bizarre" with "Rawson's magical tricks," which endeared the books to the avid locked room reader. Not as well remembered are Talbot's two short stories.

"The Other Side" was never sold during Talbot's lifetime and remained unpublished until it was included in Murder Impossible: An Extravaganza of Miraculous Murders, Fantastic Felonies and Incredible Criminals (1990), but Jack Adrian frustratingly noted in the introduction Talbot wrote numerous short stories featuring his professional gambler and ex-convict, Rogan Kincaid – which also remained unsold and where either destroyed or lost! A similar, horrifying fate befell the third, full-length Rogan Kincaid novel, The Affair of the Half-Witness. There is, however, a second story that made it into print long before "The Other Side." It's just a little bit more difficult to find.

As far as I know, "The High House" has only appeared in the Spring, 1948, issue of the Mystery Book Magazine and nowhere else. Not in English anyway.

"The High House" begins, as you would expect from Talbot, with a dark, brooding story of a deadly, century-old curse that lies upon the house of a seafaring family. Back in the 1800s, Captain Thomas Danvers made "a voyage to the Spice Islands" and brought back a handful of natives, a father and four sons, who erected the family mansion. This explains why "the house spoke imperceptibly yet insistently of Oceania." Captain Danvers promised the natives to take them back home on his voyage, but the promise was rescinded when he got into the European trade. So the old native placed a curse on the family home and then, together with his sons, flung themselves into eternity from the captain's walk on the roof.

A curse promising that if "the heads of the Danvers family ever gave up the sea" to settle down in the ancestral seat, "the house would kill them" until "it had taken life for life" and it has lived up to its promise – killing three men over a hundred-year period. So this brings us to the present-day and the elderly, dying Admiral Nat Danvers has returned to the family home.

There are four more people in the house on that fateful evening: Everett Danvers is Uncle Nat's last living relative and the house is being manned by the son of the old Danvers' housekeeper, Steve Phelps. Anne Corwin is Everett's love interest and she brought along that adventurous-minded detective, Rogan Kincaid, who is asked by her "to lift the Doom of the Danvers from Everett." Unfortunately, Kincaid's presence is unable to prevent the Old Admiral falling to his doom from the captain's walk when he was all alone on the roof-top. Or so it appears!

However, "The High House" suffers from the same problem as "The Other Side" in that the premise was better than its ending with a solution lacking the ingenuity of the locked room-tricks from the novels. Another problem here, unlike in "The Other Side," is that the fall from the roof-top is never really presented as an impossible crime, because Talbot never showed why it should be considered a locked room murder of sorts. Something weakening a solution that already some dodgy parts in it.

The premise of "The High House" perfectly demonstrates why Talbot is always compared with Carr, eerily bringing together the lore of the sea with the superstition originating from a far-flung island, but the execution of the plot shows the short story format was not suited for Talbot's talents – who obviously needed a novel-length canvass to work his magic on. Regardless, I'm still grateful to have been able to judge this story for myself and many thanks to a certain person who kindly provided me with a copy.


The Case of the Rusted Room (1937) by John Donavan

Nigel Morland was an English editor of periodicals such as Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine, The Criminologist and Current Crime, but carved out a name for himself in the annals of crime as a highly productive manufacturer of detective, pulp and thriller stories – reputedly churning out an average of 30,000 to 50,000 words a week. Last year, Curt Evans, of The Passing Tramp, shined a spotlight on this now forgotten teller of tall tales in a series of lengthy blog-posts, "The Many Faces of Mr. Morland," "The Many Mysteries of Mr. Morland" and "The Many Fancies of Mr. Morland."

A picture emerged from those blog-posts of a man who had adopted an American-style public persona in order to bolster his profile as a crime writer.

Morland claimed to have been Edgar Wallace's private-secretary, the notorious Dr. Crippen had bounced him on his knee as a child and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had told him Jack the Ripper was "somewhere in the upper stratum," but there's not a shred of proof for any of these stories. Obviously, Morland wanted people to believe he had a finger on the pulse of the criminal going-ons, real or fictional, in society. Someone you can trust to tell the story as it is.

My curiosity was piqued by Curt's expose and Morland is represented in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) with more than one title, but don't worry, this is not going to be another review of some obscure locked room mystery – because something else caught my eye. During the 1930s, Morland wrote a short series of scientific mysteries, published as by "John Donavan," with two additional novels published in 1940 and 1952.

The protagonist of this series is a young, scientifically educated policeman, Sergeant Johnny Lamb, who has been likened by Mike Grost to E.R. Punshon's police detective, Bobby Owen. Sgt. Johnny Lamb is the son of the late Home Office pathologist, Sir David Lamb, who "spirited him away to the library or laboratory" every time his mother's back was turned. Everyone assumed he would follow in his father's footsteps, but "at twenty-two he had revolted" and enlisted as a uniform man. Lamb was determined to earn his stripes on merit, eventually attaining the rank of sergeant, which landed him an assistant spot of one of the big Scotland Yard man, Detective-Inspector Cross. So you can easily see how Grost came to compare Johnny Lamb to Bobby Owen.

The series comprises of six, tantalizingly-titled novels, such as The Case of the Talking Dust (1938), The Case of the Coloroud Wind (1939) and The Case of the Plastic Man (1940), but the title that really captured my imagination was the first book in the series, The Case of the Rusted Room (1937) – a reference to a cluster of clues found at the scene of the crime. A cluster of clues as clever as the circles and whirligigs from John Russell Fearn's Pattern of Murder (2006)!

The Case of the Rusted Room takes place in a recently erected, red-brick monstrosity of modern architecture, Sion House, which flaunted "an aggressive austerity" that "startled the quiet Victorian dreams of Kensington." One of the tenants of Sion House is an asthmatic hypochondriac and misanthrope, Samuel Wiseman, who's tightfisted with everything except doctors, patent medicines and the latest model of inhalers.

Nonetheless, Wiseman was a gravely ill man and death was always lurking over his shoulder, which is why preferred to sit all day in front "the tightly closed window" and created "mephitic clouds" even the modern devises of Sion House were unable to cope with. 

So, when Wiseman croaked during "a violent paroxysm of coughing," the doctor saw no reason to suspect foul play and wanted to sign the death certificate, but one of Wiseman's neighbors insisted on bringing in the police. Miss Prillkins is Wiseman's vigorous neighbor who overheard an argument between him and his ward, Hugh Chandler, who's a chemical engineer in desperate need of four or five thousand pounds to further develop a new process of producing oil from coal – which unceremoniously denied and a heated argument followed. This is enough reason to begin a closer inspection of the body and room, which immediately throw up all kinds of red flags!

A medical examination reveals that the whole of mucous membrane is unnaturally inflamed, apparent caused by some irritant, but there's no trace of "irritant poisons" in the organs! Lamb discovers clusters of "abnormal rusting and fading" of fabric and metal in the room, which comes with a gorgeously drawn diagram of the rusted room with all the spots of rusting/fading marked. These clues tell Lamb how Wiseman had died, but not exactly how it was done and the solution to this problem is a good example of the interest of Golden Age mystery writers in architecture. Add a little science to it and you have a lethal combination.

Scientific nature of Samuel Wiseman's murder and the mechanics behind its achievement brought to mind other so-called nearly perfect murder and how-was-it-done mysteries like W. Stanley Sykes' The Missing Moneylender (1931), Victor MacClure's Death Behind the Door (1933) and the works of the Engineer of Death, John Rhode – e.g. Death in the Tunnel (1936) and Invisible Weapons (1938). I think it goes without saying that the how, rather than the who or why, showed the most ingenuity and constituted the best aspect of the plot. A very clever, inspired idea with its only (minor) weakness that practically everything played right into the murderer's hands. However, this was hardly enough to soil my enjoyment and it was interesting to see how Lamb eroded, what was supposed to be, a perfect crime.

But the how is only one aspect of the crime. Cross and Lamb had to find a person and motive that fitted the ingenious method of the murder.

The murder is properly motivated and was given some thought, but it's still one of those age-old motives. Still, it was not badly done. There are only a handful of suspects: namely the previously mentioned Hugh Chandler and Miss Prillkins, the boorish Brigadier-General Roland Railton-Railton and the quiet, mild-mannered Mr. Charles Nimmo, who live in the same section of Sion House as Prillkins and Wiseman. And a shady financier, Walter Brimsgrove. However, the murderer, while logical considering the motive, was the least inspired aspect of the solution.

All of that being said, I was quit impressed with the overall quality of the plot and story. I didn't expect such a sophisticated, how-was-it-done-style mystery novel with a series-character who could pass as Punshon's Bobby Owen's brother and a scientifically-grounded plot, reminiscent of the Dr. Harry Mason stories by the Radfords, from a writer perhaps best remembered for his lurid, pulp-style thrillers – some of which won't sit well with a modern audience. The Case of the Rusted Room is something else all together! If you can judge the rest of the series by this one, Dean Street Press should seriously consider reprinting all six Sgt. Lamb novels. I think this series would beautifully complement their reprints of Punshon and the Radfords.


Fossils of the Universe: Q.E.D, vol. 4 by Motohiro Katou

Back in July, I reviewed the 3rd volume in the Q.E.D. series, created by Motohiro Katou, which comprised of two excellent, well-balanced novella-length stories that fleshed out some of main-characters and gave the reader a classic, puzzle-oriented detective story – set in an abandoned star observatory on a lonely, snow-capped mountain peak. I ended my review with the half-promise to read the next two volumes in the weeks ahead, but, as you probably noticed, it's 2020 now. And no further reviews have materialized over the past six months.

So, as my belated New Year's resolution, I intend to get as close to volume 10 as possible before end of the year, because I really like Q.E.D. Even though I can't quite put my finger on what exactly intrigues me about series.

The fourth volume of Q.E.D. opens with "1st, April, 1999," a story demonstrating the difference between Q.E.D. and Case Closed, Detective Academy Q or The Kindaichi Case Files, focusing on a scam coinciding with an April Fool's Lying Tournament. Curiously, the scam has a slight hint of Ruritania!

Sou Touma is the 16-year-old protagonist, a boy genius and former MIT graduate student, who won the 1998 April Fool Club's annual contest "to see who can tell the best lie or pull the best prank," but now he has to participate again to defend his title – or else "everyone will be mad." Particularly, the club member who came in second, Miss Gria Elenoar. A second plot-thread is introduced when Touma meets an old acquaintance from his days as an MIT student, Cliff Bhaum, who's Vice-Minister, of Foreign Affairs, of a developing nation, the Kingdom of Clavius. Bhaum is in Japan to entice a group of greedy businessman, who have preyed on his country before, to reinvest a big sum of money and resources into Clavius. But this time, the offer is actually a baited trap. Touma's energetic, plucky school friend, Kana Mizuhara, convinces him to help Bhaum.

Bhaum approaches the group of businessmen, representing D Corporation, with an unappealing, hardly profitable offer to invest in the development of an iron ore mine, but a simple remark gave them second thoughts. When the meeting ended, Bhaum regrettably remarked that "the Japanese are not willing to research "The Fossil" together."

The fossil in question is a tiny, magnetic stone that only has a southern pole. A compass placed on any side of the stone will always "point towards the south direction," which means the stone is made up of monopole particles that, until now, had been purely hypothetical and referred to as fossil particles – as they are considered "a remnant of the beginning of the universe." A discovery that would grant humanity access to "large amounts of energy" and "fame and fortune to the one who finds it."

So you can probably see where this story is going. It's classic con/scam story in which greedy people want to get something for practically nothing and are given practically nothing for something, but don't expect any rug-pulling or surprising reversals that cast the story in an entirely different late. What you see, is what you get. "1st, April, 1999," is a minor, but amusing, story that handily brought two very different plot-threads together in a satisfactory way. The ending was a nice, gentle touch to the characterization of Touma and Mizuhara.

A note for the curious: Mizuhara gives the businessman a demonstration of the monopole stone with a magnet, which you can classify as a quasi-impossible problem, but I can already feel JJ judging me.

The second story, "Jacob's Ladder," sees the return of two characters, Eva and Loki, who previously appeared in "Breakthrough" from the third volume, but what makes this story an interesting curiosity is that it's basically a techno-thriller with hints of a locked room mystery inside a computer-rendered environment! The story is obviously a product of its time.

Touma and Mizuhara are in the downtown area of Tokyo when all of the traffic lights go haywire, paralyzing part of the city with "large-scale traffic jams and train delays" due "to accidents," which ended with 58 injuries and no clear explanation given – suggesting to Touma that "the government is just trying to hush things up." A suspicion that is confirmed when Loki returns to Japan with the news that Eva has been arrested by the CIA in connection with the incident in downtown Tokyo.

Eva is the manager of the Artificial Life lab, at MIT, where they were researching "Artificial Life in computers" and the crash of the traffic control systems was caused by her A.I. But how did it get out? The computers in MIT's laboratory are separated from external connections by "a barrier called a firewall." So how did the A.I. bypass the firewall and ended up on a Japanese server, where it connected with the internet, to wreak havoc on the traffic control system? A second incident shows the threat is spreading with the potential to "crash all the computers in the world." A potential crisis that was on everyone's mind at the time the story was published.

This volume was originally published in September 10, 1999, when many people feared the "Millennium Bug," or Y2K, would crash the computerized world upon the rollover from '99 to '00, which makes the year 2000 indistinguishable from 1900 to computers – potentially setting humanity back to the pre-industrialist age. Touma, Mizuhara and Loki have to try to prevent this in order to clear Eva's, which provides the story with a technically fascinating, possibly unique problem. What makes a "clan" of artificially intelligent units tick? Why did this stable, harmonious and peaceful artificially-rendered world ended in an all-out war of aggression? Can an answer be found in one of the four core commands that the units have to obey, no matter what? A set of rules comparable Isaac Asimov's The Three Laws of Robotics. Just not used as fairly as in Asimov's masterpiece, The Caves of Steel (1954).

"Jacob's Ladder" is a techno-thriller mystery story with a ton of plot exposition, explaining all the technical background details to the reader, but the story has a surprisingly depressing ending that humanized "computer programs bound by a set of rules" – steeped in biblical imagery. So, a story with an interesting and even original idea, but the temptation to relay on the "secret passages" (hacking) of detective stories/plot-threads centering on computers killed it as a fair play mystery. Sadly, the reason why the blocked-by-firewall mystery didn't turn into a one-of-a-kind impossible crime. I still sort of liked it though.

On a whole, I don't think the fourth volume was as strong as the previous one with two stories that had better premises than solutions, but, in spite of their imperfections, I quite enjoyed reading them. So you can expect a review of the next volume by springtime (let's start slowly).


The Chinese Gold Murders (1959) by Robert van Gulik

Robert van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat, sinologist and writer who penned fourteen novels, two novellas and eight short stories about the 7th century Chinese court magistrate, Judge Dee – a fictionalized rendering of the historical magistrate and statesman, Di Renjie. Van Gulik was not the first writer to place the modern detective story among the vestiges of the distant past, but the Judge Dee series was pivotal in popularizing the historical mystery novel. And helped it evolve into a genre of its own.

The Chinese Gold Murders (1959) was originally published in Dutch as Fantoom in Foe-lai (Phantom in Foe-lai, 1958) and have always considered it to be the best of the Judge Dee novels. But this judgment dates back to the mid-2000s. So it was time to put my long-held conviction to the test and reread the book to see whether or not the story would hold up. Let's find out!

Set in 663, The Chinese Gold Murders is, chronologically, the first, auspicious steps Judge Dee took in a long, distinguished legal career that began with a humble magistrature and ended in the highest office of the country, Lord Chief Justice of China – recorded in Murder in Canton (1966). Only title in the series I've yet to read. Anyway, The Chinese Gold Murders begins with an vigorous, 34-year-old Judge Dee, who has grown "sick and tired" with "dry-as-dust theorizing and paper work" at the Metropolitan Court. So he requested to be assigned to the vacant post of magistrate of the district of Peng-lai.

Peng-lai is a port city on the northeast coast of Shantung Province. A dismal place of "mist and rain" where, according to the stories, "the dead rise there from their graves" on stormy nights and "strange shapes flit about in the mist." Some even say that "weretigers are still slinking about in the woods." What attracted Judge Dee to this dreary, demon-haunted district is the strange, unsolved murder of his predecessor, Magistrate Wang. An apparently impossible to solve case to the test the mettle of legal mind!

Two weeks before, a house steward reported to the senior scribe, Tang, that the bed of the magistrate had not been slept in and the door to his private library was locked on the inside, but there was no response to the insistent knocking. So the headsman was summoned to break down the door.

What they found inside was the body of the Magistrate Wang, lying on the floor in front of a tea stove, with an empty tea cup near his outstretched right hand that had traces of "the powdered root of the snake tree," but the method of administrating this poison is somewhat of a mystery – because the magistrate had been tea enthusiast with a very particular routine. Magistrate Wang fetched his own water from the well in the garden and boiled it on the stove in the library. The teapot, cups and caddy "valuable antiques" that were locked away in a cupboard under the stove. And the tea leaves in the caddy were not poisoned. So how was the tea in the cup poisoned?

Dutch edition
When I read The Chinese Gold Murders in Dutch, I was honestly impressed with both the presentation and explanation of the inexplicable slaying of Magistrate Wang.

At the time, I believed poisonings in locked, or guarded, rooms were very tricky to stage as crimes that appear to be genuinely impossible and difficult to provide such a premise with a satisfying solution, but my locked room reading lacked depth in those days – since then I've come across many innovative takes on the impossible poisoning. One of Van Gulik's literary descendants, Paul Doherty, made the poisoning-in-a-locked-room kind of his specialty, but two excellent examples can be found in the Case Closed/Detective Conan series, "The Loan Shark Murder Case" and "The Poisonous Coffee Case."

So, admittedly, the locked room-trick here is not as impressive the second time around, but still stands as a good, elegant and original solution to genuine locked room mystery. A rarity in Dutch detective fiction! Only problem is the sporadic clueing. There are clues, or hints, an imaginative reader can use to put together a general idea of how the locked room-trick was worked, but don't expect anything along the lines of Christianna Brand or John Dickson Carr. However, the murder in the locked library is merely one of the many major and minor plot-strands that make up the story of The Chinese Gold Murders.

Van Gulik honored the age-old traditions of the Chinese detective story in which the magistrate is at "the same time engaged in the solving of three or more totally different cases." The Chinese Gold Murders is crammed with crimes, danger and intrigue.

A wealthy shipowner, Koo Meng-pin, appears in court during the morning session to report "the prolonged absence" of his wife, Mrs. Koo, who never returned from visiting her father, Tsao Ho-hsien – an eccentric doctor of philosophy. A third case concerns the gruesome discovery of two buried bodies on the property of a farmhouse and a potentially missing third body. There's even a small, quasi-impossible element to this case with three people apparently vanishing into thin air from a stretch of road, but this is still only a fraction of the plot. Judge Dee has an unnerving encounter with the ghost of Magistrate Wang in the courthouse and stories are told of "a headless monk slinking about" an old, abandoned temple. A weretiger is terrorizing the district, smugglers active, shady businesses are being conducted aboard floating brothels, an ever-present Korean element, murderous attempts on officials and a bit of sword play!

I believe the sword play here deserves a special mention. The story begins with Judge Dee traveling, on horseback, to Peng-lai with his right-hand man, Sergeant Hoong, but they're waylaid by two "brothers of the green wood," Hoong Liang and Chiao Tai. A group of outlaws whose code is to only rob officials and wealthy people. They known to help people in distress and have a reputation for courage and chivalry. Judge Dee engages them with his legendary family heirloom, Rain Dragon, the Excalibur of the Orient, which was a nicely done nod at the Robin Hood lore. There's even a touch of the Arthurian legends in the back-story of the sword!

So, while The Chinese Gold Murders didn't quite shine with the same radiant brilliance on my second read, but regardless, I tremendously enjoyed revisiting the story. 

Van Gulik never allowed his readers to be bored for even a single page by packing the plot, cover to cover, but held a firm grip on the various plot-threads throughout the story and tied them all together in orderly fashion by the end – of which the locked room murder is the best realized strand of the plot. There are, however, two elements of the large, overarching solution breaking two cardinal rules of the Golden Age detective story, but they were very well done. And even Carr broke one of those two rules. But, perhaps the best thing about this series, is Van Gulik's world-building skillfully merging history and fiction. I can see how the Judge Dee series helped to legitimize the historical mystery as a (sub) genre.

Long story short, The Chinese Gold Murders is not exactly the masterpiece I remembered from my first reading, but it's still an excellent and recommendable historical detective novel.