1/19/18

The Man in the Moonlight (1940) by Helen McCloy

Helen Clarkson was the birth name of "Helen McCloy," an American mystery writer, who served as president of the Mystery Writers of America and they awarded her with an Edgar statuette, in 1953, for her literary criticism, but, more importantly, McCloy is remembered for her body of work – consisting of roughly thirty novels and a dusting of short stories. McCloy distinguished herself as a mystery novelist by incorporating elements of morbid psychology and (domestic) suspense into her otherwise traditional detective plots. And the result is usually outstanding!

I've only read a handful of her detective novels, but all but one were good to excellent reads with the late-period Mr. Splitfoot (1968) being the standout title of the lot. Regardless of McCloy's successful track record, I read her only very sporadically (only two since the inception of this blog) and decided to finally pick up her much lauded Dr. Basil Willing series again this year. My perusing eye fell upon one of her earlier titles, which is a period in her career that I have criminally overlooked.

The Man in the Moonlight (1940) is not a typical American college mystery, like Clifford Orr's The Dartmouth Murders (1929), Timothy Fuller's Harvard Has a Homicide (1936) and Patrick Quentin's Death and the Maiden (1939), because the plot is driven by the war that was brewing on the European continent at the time – which I say on the assumption that the book was written during the last days of peace. However, the book already deals with refugees from Austria and Germany who fled when the Nazis took over. And one of these refugees brought a deadly problem to a small, unassuming American college.

Assistant Chief Inspector Patrick Foyle is sitting in a park outside Yorkville University, where he plans to send his own boy to, pouring over college bulletins when he notices a piece of paper. A stray bit of paper that looked out of place in the clean, tidy park.

Out of curiosity, Foyle picks up the piece of paper and astonishing reads the following, "I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No. 1" and to "please follow these instructions with as great exactness as possible." An astonishing note for a policeman to find, but the surprises don't end there as he's addressed by Professor Franz Konradi, a research bio-chemist, who escaped from Austria. Konradi happened to be missing paperwork and assumed Foyle had found one sheet of it.

They discuss the murderous message of the note, but their conversation ends with Konradi telling Foyle that "no matter what happens" he shall "not commit suicide." An unsettling end of a conversation. Particularly, when "the academic peace was shattered by a pistol shot" emanating from Southerland Hall.

Raymond Prickett, Professor of Experimental Psychology, was conducting an experiment by firing blank pistol shots above his infant son and meticulously writing down the reactions – not believing in the "vulgar superstition" of the Freudian mythology that his experiments will saddle his son with complexes when he gets older. So not exactly father of the year material, but the stage was now properly set and Professor Konradi dies that same evening inside his laboratory at Southerland Hall. Apparently, he actually did take his own life. Or so the evidence suggests.

According to the evidence, Konradi placed the muzzle of a revolver between his teeth, in contact with the roof of his mouth, and simply pulled the trigger and blew out the top of his head.

There were no marks of violence on the body. The lips and teeth were uninjured, which is considered clear proof of suicide, because a murderer could not make such a clean shot with an unwilling victim. An assumption strengthened by the fact that there was no smell of chloroform or tell-tale symptoms of a narcotic drug, but Foyle had not forgotten about Konradi's assurance that would never commit suicide and decided to call in the help of an old friend, Dr. Basil Willing. A psychologist who acts as a medical assistant to the District Attorney and is often consulted whenever a case needed a psychologist. However, a seemingly perfect murder is not the only problem the detective-psychologist has to contend with.

At the time of the murder, Southerland Hall was used by Prickett to stage "a shame crime" as part of psychological test and he wanted to put everyone involved (willing or unwilling) through a lie-detector test, but now that Konradi has died nobody who was present wanted to be subjected to a lie-detector test – including Prickett! But that's not the only problem muddying the waters.

There's the titular man in the moonlight who was seen that night and three different witnesses gave three different descriptions of this elusive person. A policeman who was task with guarding the crime-scene swore he heard a typing machine rattling inside the empty building that was followed by an inhuman scream, which "sounded like a lost soul cursing' the devil" and "callin' on God to let him out of hell." There are two additional murders and (of course) the potential presence of Nazi spies. Even the identity of Konradi is put into question, because he only used his elaborate equipment for simple, routine experiments.

Plot-wise, I think the best part of The Man in the Moonlight is Willing separating the red herrings from the clues as he tries to figure out what happened that night and why everyone refused the lie-detector test. This part of the plot is also peppered with the kind of arcane medical, psychological and historical facts that John Norris touched upon in his review of the book, which make for interesting reading if you love these obscure tidbits of history. I never knew the preferred method of suicide for Austrians, at the time, was a bullet through the roof of the mouth or how a certain medical condition can influence the results of a word-association test.

Only downside is that, by the end of this, there's one (somewhat obvious) suspect left standing and this person is brought to heel by a psychological analyses of the various lies this person told throughout the story. I think Willing's analyses could have used a physical clue, or two, to backup his psychological analyses, but, on a whole, the plot fitted nicely together and the motive for these murders was an original one – which affected the decisions of several characters. So, when you take a step back to look at the overall story, you can see how this book could very well have been titled A Web of Lies and Willing cutting through those lies is the real attraction of The Man in the Moonlight. It's a clever, well-written detective novel with a pleasantly entangled plot.

All in all, I really enjoyed my time with The Man in the Moonlight, even if my reading of the book was plagued by interruptions, but it convinced me to return to McCloy's work more often. She genuinely was an American Crime Queen! I have already set my sights on such titles as Dance of Death (1938), Cue for Murder (1942) and The Further Side of Fear (1967), but I'll get to at least one or two of them later this year.

So... that brings this review to an end. The first blog-post since my inaugural review of Pat McGerr's Pick Your Victim (1946), back in 2011, which does not use one of those confusing post-titles and vaguely related opening quotes. Admittedly, I cranked out this review a lot quicker now those first hurdles of finding a quote and coming up with a post-title have been removed!

1/13/18

Humble Beginnings

"There are depths beneath depths in what happened last night—obscure fetid chambers of the human soul. Black hatreds, unnatural desires, hideous impulses, obscene ambitions are at the bottom of it..."
- Philo Vance (S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, 1927)
The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) is the first of five detective novels by "Roger Scarlett," a shared pseudonym of Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, who were part of the flock of American mystery writers that followed in the footsteps of S.S. van Dine during the 1930s – a following that included such luminaries as Clyde B. Clason, Stuart Palmer, Rufus King and Ellery Queen. You can hardly miss the influence Van Dine had on their maiden novel.

Blair and Page had not yet found their own voice and the result is an emulation of Van Dine, which was not badly done, but lacked the originality of the later titles I read.

The Beacon Hill Murders takes place on Boston's Beacon Hill, an affluent neighborhood where the houses are as old as the money of its dignified residents, but the newest denizens of the neighborhood were definitely not a part of the old Bostonian aristocracy.

Frederick Sutton had started life at one of the bottom-rungs of society and accumulated a large fortune as "a stock exchange gambler." So now that he has money he wants to climb to the social ladder, which is why he moved his family to an old mansion in a respectable neighborhood and threw a dinner party for a small, but not unimportant, group of people – one of them being his prim lawyer, Mr. Underwood. Underwood is aware of the fact that Sutton is preparing to "break his way into society" and wanted to use him as "a rung in the social ladder," but he was not in a position to refuse the invitation from his client. And he's quite surprise to find a well-known socialite as one of his fellow guests.

Mrs. Anceney is "a woman of great charm," whose name frequently appeared in the social columns of the newspapers, which makes Underwood wonder why, of all people, she would accept to be a dinner guest of the Suttons. A surprise that becomes a shock when, at the end of the evening, Mrs. Anceney is found standing over the dead body of her host in his private sitting room. She appears to have been the only person who could have pulled the trigger of the gun that was found in the very same room.

So the police is immediately notified and Underwood calls his policeman friend, Inspector Norton Kane of the Boston Police, but, shortly after his arrival, this straightforward murder case morphs into a genuine conundrum when their primarily suspect is brutally murdered – while alone in room with a policeman at the door. I have to pause here to point out that nobody, who commented on this book, accurately described the locked room components of the plot.

Robert Adey listed The Beacon Hill Murders in Locked Room Murders (1991) and described only the second murder as a slaying in a room under police guard. Curt Evans wrote in his introduction that "both killings are essentially clever locked room problems" that should "severely test the acuity of the reader," while Ho-Ling Wong didn't even touch upon the impossible-element of the story in his double review of the first two Scarlet novels. So allow me to clarify: only the shooting of Sutton qualifies as a proper impossible crime.

Sutton was shot when he was alone in a room with Mrs. Anceney. The four windows in the room were locked tight, which means that a third person could have only entered, or left, the crime-scene through the door into the hallway – in which case this person would have been caught in the act. The answer as to how a third person could have a fired the fatal bullet into this room is a variation on a legitimate locked room trick I have seen before (several times, in fact). On the other hand, the room in which the second murder was committed was not constantly guarded and the murderer simply slipped in-and out of the room.

However, the murder of Mrs. Anceney does turn out to play a key role in the murderer's alibi, which was nicely done, if risky.

Japanese edition
So figuring out the murderer's movement, as well as the baiting of a failed trap, takes up the first half of the book. During the second half of the story, the reader is let in on all the potential motives of the family members and dinner guests, even Underwood is furnished with a motive, which is another aspect where this inaugural novel differed from the later ones – because the familial intricacies are far less pronounced here. And that's reflected in the relatively weak motive of the murderer.

The third and fourth title in this series, Cat's Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angells (1932), had both very strong and even original motives, which were adequately clued and sprang from the (hidden) relationships between various characters that had been described in great detail.

The Beacon Hill Murders is slightly more muddled in that regard and the motive was obviously inspired by one of Van Dine's well-known detective novels. Evans called it "a surprisingly dark thread of Freudian psychology" that ran through the motive and explanation of the crimes. The thread in question is, without question, a dark one, but one that dented the fair play aspect of the story, because the murderer was not entirely sane. And a mentally unstable killer always makes it harder for the armchair detective to gauge the truth. I did had an inkling that the murderer may not have been entirely rational, but zeroed in on the wrong person based on something that happened very early on in the book and the circumstances of the second murder.

All of that being said, The Beacon Hill Murders is an imperfect, but promising, debut and could have been better had the authors not so closely imitated the plotting-style of Van Dine. Nevertheless, Blair and Page deserve credit for breaking out of that mold and finding a voice of their own, which resulted in the gem known as Murder Among the Angells. Not to mention that they would go on to exert influence of their own over the development of the Japanese detective story! So that alone makes their maiden voyage an interesting read, but, by itself, it's not that bad of a detective story. Undistinguished, perhaps, but definitely not a bad for a first try!

By the way, Ho-Ling ranks the second entry in this series, The Back Bay Murders (1930), right alongside the first one, on account of them being "quite similar in design," but everything I read about the plot reminds me of the work of Anita Blackmon. So that alone is tempting me to pick it up before In the First Degree (1933). But whichever one I'll pick next, it will not be the subject of my next blog-post. I've now reviewed three of them, back to back, which means there are only two of them left on the big pile and want to save them for the coming months. 

So I have to rummage through that big pile to find something good for my next review, but I can already tell you that, whatever I may find, I'll  be changing my blog-format beginning with that next review. No more cutesy blog-titles or opening quotes. Just the title of the book, name of the author and the usual rambling review, because finding quotes and coming up with blog-titles has become a real chore over the past year or so. Hey, it only took me about seven years to finally start blogging and reviewing like a normal person! :)

1/10/18

A Family Affair

"In tackling a criminal case... you look for motive and opportunity."
- Ellery Queen (Ellery Queen's The Player on the Other Side, 1963)
Previously, I reviewed Murder Among the Angells (1932) by Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page, who wrote under the shared penname of "Roger Scarlett," which used to be an overpriced rarity on the secondhand book market, but recently, it was reissued by Coachwhip Publications – together with the rest of the series. Murder Among the Angells proved itself to be an excellent detective novel and decided to follow it up with the second title contained within in that very same twofer volume.

Apparently, Cat's Paw (1931) is very different in structure and approach from the preceding two books, The Beacon Hill Murders (1930) and The Back Bay Murders (1930), which reportedly were entirely written in the spirit of S.S. van Dine. Obviously, Blair and Page took their cue from Ellery Queen here, but the structure of the book also differs from your standard, Van Dinean-era whodunit.

Cat's Paw is divided into four parts and begins with a short prologue, titled "The Question," in which Underwood receives a wireless message from Inspector Kane, who's vacationing abroad, asking to "get in touch with police on Greenough case" and "find out everything." The second part, "The Evidence," tells what happened leading up to the murder and "The Case" is a preliminary investigation by Kane's subordinate, Sergeant Moran. The fourth and last part, "The Solution," gives an explanation drawn from the preceding two parts and "the clues rejected by Sergeant Moran."

So the Boston inspector functions here purely as an armchair detective and reasons the truth from the information that has been brought to him by Underwood and Moran. It's only towards the end that he actually crosses the threshold of the huge, Gothic-style mansion where the murder took place.

The mansion in question was erected by a wealthy recluse, Martin Greenough, whose talebearers whisper that he made his money as a bootlegger or found "bushels of diamonds" in South Africa, but in reality he earned his money in the textile business and invested his earnings in sound stocks – which soared beyond "the wildest of wildcat ventures." So he could afford to buy a large piece of undeveloped land, within the city limits of Boston, where he erected an enormous gray-stone mansion with battlements, towers and ivy. And to complete the doom and gloom of the place, the estate was surrounded by a high wall topped with threatening "spikes of broken glass."

Greenough would have lived a withdrawn and unassuming life there, but his four, older siblings made him the legal guardian and custodian to their children. No doubt hoping that it would give them an opportunity to secure a fat inheritance and financially secure their future. However, Greenough is a capricious devil with three distinct personalities and "tyrannized over them all." He could be very kind, lavishing his relatives with expensive gifts, but often cut them a check in order to get them out of the house for an extended period of time and his word was always final – even on a very personal level. Such as his unwavering opposition to his nephews and niece making an independent living. Cousin Mart, as they called him, wanted to have control over them and the way to do that was money.

So when the family is brought together, to celebrate Greenough's birthday, things come to a head and not least of all by the bombshell he himself drops on his relatives.

However, his nephews also drag a pile of trouble into the mansion. Hutchinson has married a kleptomaniac, Amelia, who usually takes inexpensive scarves and powder-boxes from various department stores. The stores, who know of her character flaw, simply bill her husband for the things she take, but this time she has lifted a necklace worth thousands of dollars. Another nephew, Blackstone, brought a woman, Stella Irwin, who was engaged to his cousin, Francis, but Greenough had forbidden the marriage. So that made him very unhappy to have her under his roof.

Greenough has the last laugh as he drops the biggest bombshell by announcing his imminent marriage to his long-time companion and mistress, Mrs. Warden. A widow who has been with him since her husband was alive and this situation turned out to be deadly cocktail for the old miser. I know not everyone likes a long, drawn-out buildup to the murder, but the slow escalation to murder is very well done here and all of the events in this portion of the story play an important part in the plot – whether they turn out to be red herrings or actual clues. Blair and Page evidently knew how to plot a detective story!

Japanese edition
Anyway, to show their goodwill towards their guardian, the nephews put on a firework display on the lawn, while he watches from a second-floor window, but during this spectacle one of them show him through the head.

A note for the curious: during the firework-scene, Francis tells Hutchinson to be careful, because a spark from his match will put him "among the angels." So I wonder if this little scene gave Blair and Page the title for their next book.

Anyway, Sergeant Moran takes charge of the investigation, because Kane was still abroad at the time of the murder, but fails in separating the real clues from the red herrings. So this task comes down to Kane and his solution does, indeed, recall Ellery Queen's best work. Kane expertly maps out the movement of the various suspects and how they're involved, sometimes involuntarily, in the murder and explains the true meaning behind such clues as marked playing cards, a love-lorn note and the stolen necklace. And these clues work beautifully, because they play on assumptions.

There is, however, a smudge on the fair play element that should be mentioned. Ho-Ling already noted this in his review and concerns a clue that was unfairly withheld from the reader, which knocks this otherwise excellent detective story down a place or two. I really wanted to place Cat's Paw alongside Murder Among the Angells, because in every other aspect it was great.

Cat's Paw has a pleasing, labyrinthine plot with a policeman sleuth, who acts as an intuitive armchair detective, while sifting through a pile of physical clues, but the story cheated itself of a place in the first-ranks by pawning one of the vital clues and hiding up its sleeve. A real shame. However, the book is still a good read with enough twists, turns and clues to satisfy the pure, plot-driven readers, who love Van Dine and Queen, but will probably also be slightly annoyed that it (unnecessarily) withheld an important piece of information from them. So make of that what you will.

1/7/18

A House Divided

"Adding the element of impossibility only invites suspicion."
- Ruoping Lin (Szu-Yen Lin's Death in the House of Rain, 2006)
Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page were two American writers who met during their tenure, as editors, on the staff of a prominent publishing house and this meeting initiated a long, productive friendship which would bear the golden fruits of civilization – namely five detective novels written over "a short span of five years" during the Great Depression. All five novels appeared under a shared pseudonym, "Roger Scarlett," and are helmed by their series-characters, Inspector Kane of the Boston Police.

Until recently, the series was languishing in literary obscurity and secondhand copies tended to be as scarce as they were expensive. Some even came with triple digit price-tags! 

Coachwhip put an end to this intolerable, long-standing situation by republishing all five novels and our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, wrote a lengthy introduction touching on the authors, their background and work – including how they became a victim of "the most glaring piece of plagiarism ever to exist." However, the most relevant part of Curt's introduction (for this blog-post) is the influence of Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells (1932) on the development of the Japanese detective story.

In the West, Scarlett had been completely expunged from popular memory, but in Japan their work made an ever-lasting impression and influenced their yakata-mono (mansion story). An influence that can still be seen today.

Edogawa Rampo, father of the Japanese mystery story, once recommended the Japanese edition of Murder Among the Angells to then very young Seishi Yokomizo, who wrote the superb Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951), which inspired him to write (along side the writing of John Dickson Carr) to write Honjin satsujin jiken (The Murder in the Honjin, 1946). A locked room tale set in a mansion in rural Okayama and the narrator mentioned Murder Among the Angells in "his list of foreign locked room mysteries that might possibly have inspired the murderer." Rampo also recognized it as "the first novel of reasoning in the Anglo-American style in the world of Japanese detective fiction."

So while practically forgotten in the West, Scarlett continued to have a measure of name recognition in Japan and a good example of this can be found in Ho-Ling Wong's 2011 review of Murder Among the Angells, which he read in Japanese. A translation that, at the time, could be "purchased at any store for 900 yen + tax." At the same time, the book over here was only available on the secondhand market and copies were prized between 100-300 dollars!

Needless to say, that made me marginally envious of Ho-Ling, but all of that's in the past now as I was given four of the five Scarlett novels over Christmas. 
 
Coachwhip published those four books, The Beacon Hill Murders (1930), The Back Bay Murders (1930), Cat's Paw (1931) and Murder Among the Angell, as twofer volumes and reissued the last one, In the First Degree (1933), as a single volume – which will be absorbed into my TBR-pile at a later date. So I had to pick my first read from those four titles and, predictably, I went for the last one. What can I say? I'm an unoriginal hack.

Murder Among the Angells takes place within the curious walls of an L-shaped mansion, located on Boston's Beacon Street, which has been divided in two idenitical halves and the two sections are only connected by an elevator. The two halves are occupied by two elderly brothers, Carolus and Darius, who live their with their children, in-laws and servants, but a pale hangs over the household. Their father was obsessed with good health and his eccentric will placed an ever-widening wedge between his sons. He wanted his encourage his sons to live a clean, healthy life by leaving his entire estate to the son who outlives the other. A survival of the fittest where the winner takes all!

Unfortunately, Darius' health is declining and he has been tempting his brother to sign a "deed of gift," in which they agree to divide the estate equally among their four children. Darius contacted a Mr. Underwood, an attorney and close friend of Inspector Kane, to draw up the deed, but his reticent brother is not the only problem that's bothering him. Someone has been dipping his pilfering fingers into his money strong box and asks his son-in-law, Whitney Adams, how to catch this thief.

On the same day Darius decides to tackle these problems, the butler announces a visitor for Adams, but when he goes to the drawing room to see who wanted him there was nobody there – shortly followed by the first of two murders in this book. Carolus is shot to death in the dining room and the butler witnessed the shooting, but he's also the only person who has actually seen this homicidal visitor. And this would be repeated later on in the story.

Inspector Norton Kane observes that there's "a distinct element of time in this case" as if "something necessitated Mr. Angell's immediate death." He has to unsnarl such tangled clues as a fabricated track of (timed) footprints in the snow, outside of the mansion, as well as the theft of the deed of gift, but he also has to prevent Darius from signing over half of the estate to his cousins. Darius is determined, now that he has outlived his brother, to keep true to his original intentions and make sure they did not lost out on an inheritance now that their father was murdered. I think he was perhaps the only genuinely good, if flawed, soul residing in that austere mansion. And that makes his murder somewhat tragic.

Darius rolled his wheelchair into the elevator on the third floor and pushed the button, but when arrived at the bottom, where people were waiting for him, the doors remained closed and they had to pried open – which when they found him with a stab wound in the neck. The elevator cannot descend, or rise, when any of the doors of the three floors are open and the trapdoor in the ceiling opens on a thick carpet of unbroken dust. The elevator went straight down from the third floor without stopping and there wasn't even room in the elevator, entirely filled by the wheelchair, for a second person, but, somehow, someone still managed to murder the old man. Kane and Underwood do some pleasant theorizing as they eliminate the possibilities, one by one, before Kane eventually hits upon the solution. 

A solution that's pretty original and makes good use of the crime-scene, but it should be mentioned that this trick probably only works with a victim who has a very frail constitution. After all, the medical examiner mentioned that the blow was a weak one. So this particularly method would probably have only wounded Carolus.

Funnily enough, there were certain elements of this impossible murder that recalled a locked room trick from a novel that me and "JJ," of The Invisible Event, have a fondness for. The locked room situations and solutions are very different, but they share certain, uhm, principles that helped create the illusion of an impossible murder.

However, the most impressive aspect of Murder Among the Angells is not the identity of the murderer or the impossible stabbing inside a moving elevator, but the clever treatment of the ingenious, double-edged motive.

You would think this was merely a homage to the S.S. van Dine-style detective novel from the 1920s, in which murders are committed in gloomy mansions in order to secure a large sum of money, but you'll be sorely mistaken. The motive here cuts on two sides and provided a shrewd answer explaining why the brothers had to die in that specific order. An explanation that is far more satisfying than if the murders had been committed merely to secure the estate. The motive is the linchpin beautifully linking the who-and how together, which helped lift Murder Among the Angells above an average mansion murder story.

Long story short, I really liked my first encounter with Scarlett, Kane and Underwood. I tell you, it's long-lost gems like this one that remind me why I love detective stories. So you can look forward to reviews of the remaining titles in the not so distant future, because these former rarities aren't going to be permanent residents of my TBR-pile.

So only seven days into the New Year and already have an entry for my 2018 best-of list!

1/4/18

Harbinger of Death

"An investigator needs facts and not legends or rumors."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)
Sven Elvestad was a Norwegian journalist and author best known in his own country for his detective stories, published as by "Stein Riverton," who lended his (pen) name to an annual award for the best piece of Norwegian crime fiction – called the Rivertonprisen (Riverton Prize). A versatile prize that can be awarded to a novel, short story, stage play or screen play.

As a novelist, Elvestad appears to have been prolific with over a hundred titles in his bibliography, but one his earliest endeavors, Jernvognen (The Iron Chariot, 1909), proved to be the capstone of his literary career. The book came in second in "a poll of the greatest Norwegian crime novels of all time" and was translated into a dozen different languages, which makes it one of the greatest international successes Norway has had in the genre. So it was about time that this Norwegian classic got a long overdue publication in English.

The Iron Chariot received its long-awaited English translation at the hands of Lucy Moffatt and published by the Abandoned Bookshop in early 2017.

I think it's great that a relatively small, independent e-publisher took a chance on a translation of 1909 detective novel from Norway and have to admit, shamefully, that the book would have very likely passed me by had it not been for "JJ" of The Invisible Event – who posted an announcement and a review on his blog. So very grateful that he pointed my attention in the direction of the Abandoned Bookshop, because I noticed that they've reissued a number of detective novels by Clifton Robbins. A very obscure, Golden Age-period mystery writer and Dusty Death (1931), The Man Without a Face (1932) and Methylated Murder (1935) sound like they could be good reads, but they're detective stories to be investigated in a future blog-post.

The Iron Chariot takes place on an immense, rugged island, "an exceedingly popular destination for summer guests," where the nameless narrator of the story arrives at the dawn of summer. He arrives early in the holiday season and there only half a dozen guests present at the boarding house, but the sultry peace is shattered when the body of a man is found at the edge of the forest. The body belongs to Forestry Inspector Blinde and someone "smashed the casing of his brain like china."

In the first chapter, the narrator recalls two peculiar events that occurred on the night preceding the discovery of the body. One of these events happened when he decided two pay a visit to two friends, a brother and sister named Carsten and Hilde Gjærnæs, who live at Gjærnæs Farm, but, when he arrived there, the farm steward showed him the door – telling him that "the squire cannot be disturbed right now." However, the steward looked deadly pale. Obviously, they were trying to hide something. The second event occurs when, on his way back, he meets an elderly fisherman, Jan Jansen, who's a firm believer in the titular legend of the region. 
 
An "old legend" tells a peculiar story of man who used to own the farm a hundred years ago, "a reserved, eccentric type," with a passion half-crazed inventions. He had squandered his inheritance on this hobby. The last of these inventions was a horse-drawn, iron carriage and he drove it to his untimely dead one night. According to the locals, you always heard "the iron chariot rattling its way across the plain" whenever someone was about to die. The narrator and the fisherman had both heard the rattling sound of metal links on the night of the murder.

Evidently, this is not your common, garden-variety murder and requires the expertise of a specialist. So they called in a famous detective from Kristiania (present-day Oslo).

But when Asbøjrn Krag arrives, he behaved entirely like "a holidaying gentleman." Krag spends all his time taking walks, reading, eating and bathing. He's even there when a second body is found in exactly the same place as the previous one, but the Great Detective remained passive. However, the experienced armchair detective will quickly catch on that Krag is playing a cat-and-mouse game with the rather obvious murderer. Regardless, Riverton has to be commended for having the foresight, 1909, to foreshadow the murderer's guilt. Not exactly fine-tuned clueing, but ghosts of hints were dropped here and there. The plot is also very ambitious for the time.

Jernvognen (The Iron Chariot, 1909)
Krag explains that the central problem of the case is the murder of the Forestry Inspector, but through "accidental associations" other events got entangled in it. One of these events is what happened at the farm on the night of the murder and how this related to a death four years ago, which is also when the rattling was heard by the fisherman. The second plot-thread is the truth behind the ghostly chariot, but the answer to this problem will hardly excite modern readers. However, the borderline impossibility of ghostly chariot that leaves no tracks behind was a nice touch. All of these plot-threads are tangibly related to the first murder and gives the plot its complexity.

However, the most important aspect of the plot is the role of murderer in the story, because The Iron Chariot now stands as the earliest known example of a very particular trick and Riverton probably originated it. So this makes of it historical interest to people interested in how the detective developed.

As a detective novel, The Iron Chariot reads like a sultry premonition of the coming Golden Age, even if it will hardly pose a challenge to the modern reader, but the story has more to offer than an early example of the Golden Age mystery novel – namely an excellent translation of Riverton's period prose. Riverton essentially wrote a humid, stuffily atmospheric equivalent of Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Riverton simply replaced the dark, misty moors for a sunny, rugged island in the south of Oslo, but The Iron Chariot is (almost) as atmospheric as Doyle's famous yarn.

So readers who love the atmospheric detective novels by John Dickson Carr, Hake Talbot and Clifford Orr will probably be able to appreciate this story.

Riverton's writing also reminded me of the work of one of contemporaries, "Ivans," who was a Dutch mystery writer. Granted, I read only one of his books, De bosgeest (The Forest Spirit, 1926), but the plot of that one book also revolved around a forest ranger who was beaten to death in the woods. You have to wonder how many mystery writers in other European countries, like Britain or the Netherlands, were aware of their Norwegian partner in crime. Although he died in 1934 and that might have thrown him into obscurity outside of Norway.

In any case, The Iron Chariot was a fascinating, well written excursion into the genre's past and one that, until recently, had been without our reach behind that pesky language barrier. I really appreciate the people who made this historical important detective available and would like to end this review by channeling the spirit of the late President Ronald Reagan by telling the Abandoned Bookshop to tear down that barrier. There's more where this one came from!

1/2/18

Going Mental

"I see a possibility that real evil is at work here."
- Prof. Niccolo Benedetti (William L. DeAndrea's The HOG Murders, 1979)
John Russell Fearn's The Man Who Was Not (2005) was written on the heels of Robbery Without Violence (1957) and was supposed to be second installment in his Dr. Sawley Garson series, but the plot was "so complex" that the Toronto Star Weekly rejected it on account that the story could not be properly condensed – making it unsuitable for magazine publication. So the story was rewritten with a two different series-characters at the helm, Dr. Hiram Carruthers and Chief Inspector Garth, but Fearn was unable to find a publisher for the book.

Consequently, the finished manuscripts collected dust for more than 45 years until Philip Harbottle found both 50,000 word manuscripts in Fearn's effects. Harbottle succeeded in finally getting the book published and he decided to go with the Sawley Garson version, which is my only real qualm with the story. I would definitely have preferred Carruthers and Garth as the lead characters.

The Man Who Was Not was described by Harbottle as "an absolute humdinger" and "entirely original." A story that "positively bristled" with locked room murders and impossible crimes! I can say that the story, above all else, is a pure pulp (c.f. Account Settled, 1949). Pulp with the capital P.

The premise of The Man Who Was Not is the gradual extermination of the entire Dawson family by an apparently omniscient murderer, who can predict the time of death of his prospected victims, which he tells them about over the telephone. One by one, the Dawsons receive a telephone call from "a soft, mellow voice" telling them they will "die at precisely nine o'clock tonight" and the calls end with a cold "good bye" – all but one of the deadly predictions were on the money. And the murders become progressively more impossible as the killer works his way down the list of family members.

Gerald Dawson is the twenty-six-year-old son of Sir Robert Dawson, "the eminent surgeon," received the first telephone call, but he brushed it off as a prank. However, his car crashes at exactly nine o'clock sharp! The second person to receive the foreboding telephone call is his sister, Trudy, but she had the common sense to call in the police. Unfortunately, they are unable to save her life as she drops dead at, once again, exactly nine o'clock. Someone had fed her stiff dose of slow working poison!

A third telephone call informs Sir Robert Dawson of his imminent demise, but that call was intercepted by the police. They not only managed to capture the murderer's voice on tape, but they were also able to locate "the telephone kiosk" from which the call was made. And there the police bumped into the first genuine locked room mystery of the story.

1950s telephone kiosk (no WiFi)
Elmington Crescent is the location of the telephone kiosk and happens to be place where a squad car is "permanent duty" to enforce speeding laws. So they couldn't have asked for better witnesses and the policemen on duty had been in sight of booth since lunchtime, but they swear that nobody had used it at the time the call was made – which is a technical impossibility. This telephone-trick is repeated a second time later on in the story and is not the only locked room situation in the book.

Sir Robert Dawson is placed under police protection and the men stationed inside his home watch him like a hawk.

So when Sir Robert decides to take a bath, they search the bathroom and place guards in front of the door and underneath the window. Sir Robert is all alone inside a bathroom, bolted from the inside, with guards posted at the two only points of entrance or exit – ensuring that nobody can get to him. Nevertheless, the police is forced to batter down the bathroom door when Sir Robert fails to give a sign of life and what they find inside is the third body of the case.

Chief Inspector Hargraves of Scotland Yard decides this is one impossible murder too many and calls in the help of a scientific consultant, Sawley Garson, who has a reputation as "one of the Yard's most brilliant backroom boys." Garson previously appeared in the extremely disappointing Robbery Without Violence (1957) and he struck me as a bland, stripped-down copy of Dr. Carruthers, but here he was merely a colorless character who simply acted as the Great Detective. I think it helped tremendously that the scientific aspects of the plot remained within the realm of possibilities instead of venturing into science-fiction territory.

I do believe Fearn got ahead of the times when he mentioned a certain object "no larger than a good-sized matchbox," but (amazingly) the part about speech synthesis was within the scientific capabilities of the 1950s. Fearn uses these technological innovations to pit Garson and Hargraves against a ruthless killer who's "a product of the modern age." So the technological plot-strands are, as usual, the highlight of any Fearn detective novel, but The Man Who Was Not is not just a scientific detective novel. The book is largely a pulp thriller and that brings a minor problem to the table.

The murderer is not only well versed in science, but also possesses a particular talent explaining his omniscience when it comes to predicting death. An explanation that's incredible hackneyed and pulpy. I eternally groaned when reading the first chapter, when we got a strong hint about the true nature of this predictive power, but (admittedly) Fearn handles it as best as you could hope for. Actually, he handled it better than a much more respectable mystery writer, Clyde B. Clason, who (inexplicably) used a similar, hackneyed explanation for one of his locked room novels. So there's that. I'm just not a fan of it.

But, on a whole, The Man Who Was Not is a fun, unusual and very pulpy detective-cum-thriller novel with a handful of (semi) impossible crimes thrown into the mix. So this really was sundae with sprinkles for readers who love impossible crime fiction. You should not expect a stone-cold classic, but a quick, fun read that races you through an utterly bizarre murder case.

On a final note, in one of my previous Fearn posts, I noted how the plot-description of The Man Who Was Not struck me as S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1926) as perceived by Paul Halter. You can definitely say that the book reads like a cross between The Greene Murder Case and Halter's Les sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997). You can even give the story a Van Dinean book-title (The Dawson Murder Case), but, while reading, the story began to remind me of Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie's Five Fatal Words (1932), which shares some interesting similarities with The Man Who Was Not – such as warning messages preceding each death and a killer targeting a single family. Five Fatal Words also has a death inside a bolted bathroom with the same cause of death and similar kind of solution! And to top it all of, the authors of these two detective novels are better known for their science-fiction stories. So I thought that was interesting enough to point out.

Well, that's the first review for 2018 and we're off to a (relatively) good start!