5/25/22

Ripples (2017) by Robert Innes

Over the past two-three months, I discussed only three good, notable locked room mystery novels and short stories, Theodore Roscoe's Z is for Zombie (1937), Hake Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman (1942) and Barry Ergang's "The Audiophile Murder Case" (1982), which were interspersed with a few weaker impossible crime tales – like Lewis Robinson's The General Goes Too Far (1936) and Richard Deming's "The Juarez Knife" (1948). So decided to peruse my stack for a locked room mystery as solid as brick and mortar, which lead to a potentially disastrous choice. You see, I settled on a strong recommendation from Jim

Back in 2018, I reviewed the sixth entry in Robert Innes' Detective Sergeant Blake Harte series, Flatline (2018), which Jim has been promoting and championing in his blog-series "Adventures in Self-Publishing." And not without reason! Robert Innes is an impossible crime specialist and not one who's satisfied with merely stabbing or shooting his imagined victims in a locked room. 

Flatline has Blake Harte hospitalized to have his appendix removed, but has to get to work on a case when ominous figure, clad like a surgeon, begins to stalk the corridors and apparently left a dead drowned body inside an elevator without a damp patch – which had been stuck between floors for twenty-five minutes. The solution is as good and original as its premise. Unfortunately, the series has a huge drawback, if your taste in detective fiction runs in the same direction as mine. Blake Harte's private life has a big sway over the stories to the point where the series is a soap opera with puzzle plots. For example, Flatline is contentiously interrupted so Harte can argue with his boyfriend, Harrison Baxter, over why he's always working or discharging himself from the hospital. Not what you want to hear when your presented with such a tantalizing puzzle as a drowning inside a sealed, dry to the bone elevator. Same can be said about the third title. 

Ripples (2017) opens with Harte getting two weeks off and his landlady, Jacqueline, immediately rising to the occasion to ensnare him and his then still friend, Harrison, to spend a week at a spa hotel. But, as soon as they arrive, the holiday becomes everything but a relaxing rest. Firstly, Harte's ex-boyfriend and his wife turn out to be among their fellow guests. Secondly, the Manor of the Lakes, Bed & Breakfast, is under troubled ownership.

Rupert and Polly Urquhart come from two warring families, "a modern day Romeo and Juliet," whose relatives have been fighting for half a century. Fifty years ago, the Urquharts bought an old, failing steam railway station owned by Lomax family and they were apparently under the assumption they would be kept on in some capacity, but they were essentially pushed out. So there was "all out warfare between the Lomaxes and the Urquharts" with "frequent vandalism, hate mail, fisticuffs on several occasions" and continued fifty years later with Polly getting disowned when she announced her engagement to Rupert – even trying to disrupt the marriage. And ever since they got married, a hooded figure is seen stalking the grounds of the hotel. Not everything is well within the Urquhart family either. Rupert has a older, domineering brother, Duncan, who goes out of his way to be unpleasant and "has about as much say in everything as he thinks he does." Duncan becomes the sole owner of the manor under their mother's will whose now dying of cancer in an upstairs room of the hotel. There's a saying in my country that every home has its cross (ieder huisje zijn kruisje), but Urquhart has enough crosses to start its own cemetery.

Setting all of this up takes the entire first-half of an already novella-length story with the lion share's going to the relationship between Harte and Harrison, which in any other contemporary mystery would not have boded well for the plot. I'm glad to report Innes delivered the goods in the second-half. And how!

Harte and Harrison see the hooded figure staring out over the lake at Duncan sitting in a boat, but what they witness next is absolutely impossible. Whoever is under the hoodie, it took a step towards the boat and then, somehow, without any visible means of support "walked across the surface of the water" – stabbing Duncan to death. By the time they got to the lake, the figure in the hoodie had "completely vanished" and "the victim was just floating in the lake." A scene that's almost as good and certainly as memorable as the levitation-murder in John Sladek's Black Aura (1974)! A beautifully posed impossible problem with some great clues and effective misdirection, which succeeded in keeping me away from the solution. I just wonder if the wrong trails I followed were intended as such. The whole setup of the water-walking act/murder strongly reminded me of another locked room mystery with a somewhat similar setup and startling impossibility (ROT13: gur Wbanguna Perrx GI-fcrpvny Gur Oynpx Pnanel). This impression didn't diminish when another impossibility to the murder came to light, but couldn't figure out how a version of that trick could have been put to use here. Was this done intentionally to mislead a poor, innocent eyed and good as gold locked room fanboy? Another possibility that kept me away from the solution vf gung rirelguvat, sebz gur zneevntr orgjrra Ehcreg naq Cbyyl gb gur Qhapna'f zheqre, jnf cneg bs n qrnqyl pbafcvenpl ba gur cneg bs gur Ybznkrf gb ertnva gurve ybat-ybfg naprfgeny ubzr guebhtu zneevntr naq gura vaurevgnapr-ol-zheqre. There appeared to be a strong clue supporting this possibility (“oevyyvnag shzoyrq unaqf npgvat gb ohl lbh fbzr zber gvzr”). Well, it actually turned out to be a pretty strong clue, but to a very different, much better kind of solution.

So when the time came to unfurl what really happened, it came as a genuine and thoroughly pleasant surprise, but not just as an original and inspired piece of trickery, but how subtly the murderer and motive were hidden. More importantly, I really appreciated how gur zheqre vf qrfvtarq gb qverpg gur ernqref nggragvba gb gur jngre-jnyxvat npg juvyr gur pehk bs gevpx gbbx cynpr evtug va sebag bs Unegr. Naq gura nyfb cbvag bhg gb gur ernqre gung gurer ner gjb ynxrf! Harte even asks the question why the murderer would "go to the trouble of setting up some massive illusion like that, where you know you've got people watching you?" This is the kind of cavalier attitude towards plotting John Dickson Carr would have applauded. And what the contemporary genre should aspire to be.

That all becomes even more impressive once you realize how much space the plot had to share with a budding romance. Ripples is, plot-wise, a short detective story with romance padding, but you have to endure one in order to enjoy the other. So your mileage with the series may vary depending on how much characterization your willing to wade through to get to the good parts. Fortunately, I'm more than willing to slop through swamps of characterization to get to an original, brilliantly-staged and executed impossible crime. So there's going to be an earnest attempt to get to Reach (2017), Spotlight (2017) and Skeletons (2018) before the end of the decade. Stay tuned!

5/20/22

The Mummy Case Mystery (1933) by Dermot Morrah

Dermot Morrah was a British journalist for The Times, chiefly as an editorial writer, but was best-known during his lifetime as an expert on heraldry, genealogy and the Royal family who acted as an assistant on royal ceremonial occasions – notably being an aide at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Morrah reportedly had a friendly relationship with the Queen Mother, wrote speeches for George VI during World War II and a book on the early life of Prince Charles. There is, however, a biographical detail curiously absent from a lot of online sources like his obituary and wikipedia page

Morrah authored a donnish detective novel in the humorous, high spirited tradition of Edmund Crispin and Michael Innes, but The Mummy Case Mystery (1933) predated Innes' Death at the President's Lodging (1936). A book that has been credited with being the cradle of the donnish detective story. And preceded Crispin's The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944) by more than a decade. More importantly, Morrah was as good as his more illustrious literary descendants. So let's unpack and unwrap this mummy case!

Dr. Peter Benchley, Professor of Egyptology at Beaufort College, Oxford, is a research chemist turned Egyptologist and made his name with his "remarkable theory that the Greek wine god, Dionysos, could be identified with a spirit of vegetation worshipped in Lower Egypt at the time of Twelfth Dynasty" – a thesis fully set forth in his lifework, Dionysos at Memphis (1910). But the theory had a well-known, imminent detractor. A Russian-born Egyptologist, Feodor Bonoff, aggressively challenged Benchley's theory and resulted in "a warfare of print that raged for twelve years in learned periodicals." So it was unexpected when Benchley admitted defeat, buried the hatchet with Bonoff and even bought one of his valuable, very special mummies. The mummy of King Pepi I. Reputedly, the oldest Royal mummy in existence. And the long-dead king gets one last hurrah during the Beaufort College Commemoration Ball at the end of the term.

During the festivities, two young men in evening dress and top hats wheeled in a bier with a bulky coffin on it ("...old Benchley's mummy") while chanting phrases from "the funeral and penitential liturgies of several religions." A mock funeral procession was "the obvious thing to do with a mummy," but the rituals of Oxford doesn't allow for ragging at the commem ball. So the two were given a tour of the River Cherwell for their trouble and the mummy returned to Benchley's private rooms. Only to discover the following morning they gave false names to the Dean and likely not members of the Corpus Christi College. But has that anything to do with the tragedy that occurred on the same night?

While everyone was dancing, the fire alarm sprang to life ("save the hall, save the hall") and the fire is raging in Benchley's locked bedroom, which gutted the whole room and it took twenty minutes to find "a charred and shapeless mass" among the debris – identifiable as the late Benchley by a wristwatch and a bunch of keys. Beaufort College maintained its medieval right to form its own jury from the Provost and Fellows of the college to hold an inquest and they return a verdict of accidental death. Not everyone's satisfied with the verdict.

Professors Denys Sargent and Humphrey Considine, a law expert and Assyriologist, decide on a spot of "amateur dabbling in detective work" and use their position as Benchley's executors as a front. They go to work with all the enthusiasm, humor and high spirits expected from the best amateur detectives, but Chapter 4 ("The Scout") stands out as it can be directly linked to the early forensic detective fiction of R. Austin Freeman, Eric Wood and the Radfords. Considine, "trained in more than expedition to the ruins of Babylon," subjects the fire ravaged rooms to an archaeological excavation with "systematic thoroughness." The place is divided in trenches and they systematically sieve through the ashes in the hope of finding some clues. But most of their work comprises of gathering information and theory as they consider various suspects and potential motives.

Firstly, there's the American millionaire and collector, Luther Y. van Ditten, who wanted to buy the mummy from Benchley and why he was there on the night of the ball. Every seasoned mystery readers knows collectors can be classed as "a special sort of lunatic" who would gloat in private over a unique item nobody else got. Miss Daphne Carrothers is the niece of the late Egyptologist, but her uncle objected strongly to her engagement to a perfectly respectable young man, Mark Devereux, who's a commoner of New College. Benchley even added a codicil to his will placing his niece under guardianship of a court and wishes it would not grant permission for their marriage. And finally there's the long-time, hermit-like rival, Professor Bonoff, in addition to several dons who wander the hallowed halls of the college. Just as important as the question of who-and whydunit, is whose charred remains were actually found in Benchley's bedroom. Was it Benchley? But then what happened to the mummy? Or vice versa! And who were those two jokers?

Morrah laid out a pretty puzzle in The Mummy Case Mystery and the almost immaculate clueing practically spelled out the solution to the observant reader, which (admittedly) became next to impossible to miss as the story progressed – something you might suspect from the outset. A solution dulled by the passage of time. However, it turned out only to be only thrust of the overall plot with the ending having considerably more weight to it than initially suspected. This can be entirely put down to the highly unusual motivation of the murderer to put the whole, intricate and risky plan into motion. One that was almost ruined by the cussedness of all things general, but provided the story with another strong hint of what, sort of, was going on. Something you can hardly take serious had it not been for Morrah's tongue being firmly planted in his cheek when he wrote the book. What did caught me by complete surprise is how the case was resolved. Well, I honestly didn't see that turn of events coming! I think even today that ending would be considered original. 

The Mummy Case Mystery can now be counted among my favorite academic mysteries. A mystery as eccentric as it's intelligent, driven by "pure academic curiosity," but possessing enough humor to escape the dangers of taking itself too seriously. Morrah penned such a fun, enjoyable little detective story, you almost forget he glossed over one, or two, details in the summation of the case. Such as clearing up whether or not it was a locked room murder (a routine solution was provided in case it's one) or explaining how, exactly, the room was torched. I don't think (ROT13) evttvat hc “n pbagencgvba jvgu na nynez pybpx naq n pnaqyr” fully answers that question. But, when you remember those minor smudges, you're likely to either continue to overlook them or forgive them altogether. Smudges that can simply be written off against everything else that makes The Mummy Case Mystery one of the thoroughly enjoyable, delightfully British and ambitiously plotted academic mysteries from the 1930s.

5/17/22

Days Gone By: Q.E.D. vol. 19-20 by Motohiro Katou

Motohiro Katou's Q.E.D. vol. 19 suspiciously starts off with a surprisingly conventional detective story, "The Ghost of Macbeth," in which Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara find themselves attending a rehearsal of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, but the lead actor, Junzaburo Yamazaki, goes off-script – chastising his young co-star, Kiyotoshi Kawaoka, who plays Macduff. Kawaoka was originally tapped to play Macbeth, but the part went to the better, more experienced Yamazaki and he exploded Kawaoka ("you third-rate actor") when he allowed Yamazaki's performance to overwhelm him. This outburst even got some ink in the papers ("Yamazaki reprimands a young actor"). And the bullying doesn't end there. 

Kawaoka believes Yamazaki has to be removed in order to safeguard his career ("it's him or me") as he plots and carries out a drunken, poolside swimming accident. So the reader has a front row seat to Kawaoka killing Yamazaki, fabricating a cast-iron alibi and accidentally dropping clues.

While the murder appears to have been close to perfect, Kawaoka becomes haunted by both the living and dead as the ghost of Yamazaki, real or imaginary, begins to taunt him on stage, "What's wrong, Macbeth? Didn't you kill me to take my throne" – which becomes a war-of-nerves when our two detectives get involved. Sou Touma and Kana Mizuhara go full Columbo on Kawaoka by pelting him with pesky questions, pointing out mistakes and bait a trap with one of the accidentally dropped clues. So pretty much standard fare for an inverted detective story, but there are three questions that need an answer. What's the flaw in Kawaoka's alibi? Why did the box containing Yamazaki's body felt empty to the person who helped Kawaoka load it into the truck? A very nifty trick, by the way! And did the ghost of Yamazaki really came back to haunt his killer? Something the individual reader has to decide for themselves. Just note that a ghost appeared in vol. 11. On a whole, a pretty solid take on the inverted mystery.

So, while "The Ghost of Macbeth" left the supernatural element small and ambiguous, "The Legacy of the Sage" kicked the door wide open.

Touma and Mizuhara accept a little part-time job to document and photograph a weird, old and long abandoned building on behalf of a professor of architecture. The house used to belong to a so-called independent inventor, but the building has stood vacant ever since there was "an accidental explosion" during an experiment. Touma expects to photograph of just the insects living in the dusty ruins, but Mizuhara stumbles across a room with ancient machinery stored in it. When she enters the room, the apparatus is activated and a bright explosion of light transports her from 2004 all the way back to 1927! Mizuhara is found by a young scholar, Souichirou Touba, who's the spitting image of Touma (shades of Gosho Aoyama). Touba has problems of his own. A wealthy man, Torao Ryuumonji, who acted as his patron by paying his tuition fees and giving him a place to live, but he had passed away a few days ago. So now his future is uncertain as he will only continue to receive aid when solves a problem involving a hidden fortune. Ryuumonji planted three cryptic clues for his three children, which Touba has to find and decipher.

An interesting premise and puzzle which also involves the quasi-impossible disappearance of a worthless painting, kidnapping and Mizuhara trying to get back to 2004. Admittedly, "The Legacy of the Sage" is more interesting for its premise than its plot, but it's a fun and entertaining story nonetheless.

The story that opens vol. 20, "Infinite Moon," is as difficult to describe as it's hard to rate, but basically it's another story using a mathematical puzzle as a vehicle to delve into Touma's past and personality – centering on his late friend, Hu Jia Hui. A Chinese medical student with a bad heart and always accused Touma of being romanticist, while he was a realist who will "never be able to see the scenery that is oft seen by a romantic" like Touma. 

Years later, a Chinese policeman, Zhou Zhao, comes to Japan to ask Touma to help out on a case to which the key is his late friend. There's a criminal organization in China headed by four bosses, Liang Qiu Sheng, Liang Yi Jian, Huang Zhen Yu and Wu Jian Ying, who deal in everything from drugs and human organs to murder. They cleverly divided the organization in two groups and, "in order to maintain balance within the organization," never intervened with each other. So they were able to expand their organization and all the police could get their hands on were some underlings, but, lately, they began to find the bodies of these four crime bosses. And the order in which they were killed exposed a borderline impossibility.

I can't deny the story was working with some interesting, potentially brilliant material, but the execution was somehow underwhelming and the ending a bleaker than was absolutely necessary. That's not what people mean when they shoot for the moon.

This volume ends on a much lighter note with the last story, "Enari the Busybody," which marks the return of the three members of the Sakisaka Private High School Detective Club, Enari "Queen" Himeko, Nagaie "Holmes" Koroku and Morito "Mulder" Orisato, who debuted in "Arrival of the Famous Detective(s)" – collected in vol. 18. Their latest case revolves around Enari's 70-year-old grandmother, Hinae, who's a millionaire and has a boyfriend. If they ever get married, the inheritance her family gets will be severely reduced. Enari believes her grandmother is in grave danger, particularly from her cousin, Shinichi, who "has often been involved on the wrong side of the law." So she's determined to use the club as her grandmother's private bodyguard, but they first enlist Mizuhara to help them. But, when the strange incidents begin to pile on, they quite literary in rope in Touma ("your recruitment technique is too barbaric") to solve the case.

On the surface, "Enari the Busybody" is a light, uncomplicated slice-of-life mystery and it was a pleasant surprise that, when it appeared the story was over, Touma revealed there were eight more questions to be answered to fully solve the case. These questions showed there was more to the plot and one of the characters than meets the eye. Yes, this is still a fairly minor, mostly non-criminous story, but very well done for what it tried to do. Not to mention the best clued story in these two volumes.

So, all in all, Q.E.D. vol. 19 and 20 were not as great or outstanding as the previous two volumes, but the stories were either good and entertaining or toyed around with genre conventions simply to see what happens. Motohiro Katou willingness to color outside the lines makes Q.E.D. perhaps an acquired taste, but, once you get settled in, the series always something new, different or surprising to throw your way. All the while remaining firmly entrenched in the traditions of the classical detective story.

5/13/22

Z is for Zombie (1937) by Theodore Roscoe

Theodore Roscoe was an American biographer, naval historian, novelist and penned a ton of short stories and serials for periodicals such as Argosy, Action Stories, Far East Adventure Stories, Flynn's Detective Fiction and Wings – fabricating quality pulp fiction with his lush tales of exotic adventure, far-away wars and bizarre murder. Roscoe is best known to detective fans as the author of two imaginative, highly regarded locked room mysteries. Murder on the Way! (1935) is an otherworldly flight-of-fancy set in a decayed, moldering chateau on Haiti during a zombie scare and I'll Grind Their Bones (1936) is a speculative, pulp-style thriller that takes a peek at the coming World War.

Until a few years ago, Roscoe's contributions to the magazine publications of his day had been mostly out-of-print and uncollected for decades. Something that changed all of the sudden around 2017 when a number of his short stories were collected and serials republished as full-fledged novels. And those reprints revealed Roscoe's contribution to the detective story had extended beyond two locked room serials.

I reviewed Roscoe's Four Corners, vol. 1 (2015), a collection of longish short stories, in which the citizens of Four Corners grapple with invading gangs of criminals, bank robbers, small-town intrigue and the occasional impossible crime – e.g. "I Was the Kid with the Drum" (1937). The Green Capsule confirmed there's more in Four Corners, vol. 2 (2020) with his review of "Ghoul's Paradise" (1938) and that story has "impossibilities abound." Jim, of The Invisible Event, discussed another one of Roscoe's long-forgotten detective serials in 2018, entitled Z is for Zombie (1937), which returned to the "whisper of Haitian drums and a wizardish hint of resurrection" of Murder on the Way! But, as Jim noted, it's not merely "a simple, lazy retread" of his most-well known novel. Roscoe spun an entirely different story out of the premise of a zombie scare on Haiti and demonstrated why he was the John Dickson Carr of the pulps. 

Z is for Zombie was originally serialized from February 6 to March 13, 1937, in Argosy and reprinted in 2019 by Steeger Books (formerly Altus Press) as part of their Argosy Library reprint series. So let's dig up some zombies and murderers!

Dr. John Ranier is a man who did the rags to riches story in reverse. Before the Great Depression, Ranier had his own medical practice on Park Avenue where he performed "wonderful operations on wonderful millionaires." That all came to an end when the stock market crashed. So now he's a humble ship's doctor on the S.S. Cacique, Atlantic-Caribbean Line, dispensing seasick pills and "tomato juice to soused tourists who wanted to see the world through the bottom of a gin glass." Z is for Zombie opens with Ranier sitting in a Haitian waterfront dive when a taffy-haired Dutchman, or German, tosses him outside without an apparent reason.

As an aside, Jim commented in his review how Roscoe couldn't make up his mind whether Leo Haarman is Dutch or German, but, as a Dutchman, I began to sweat nervously. Roscoe evidently knew we're Germanic and, if this ever leaks out, it potentially could undo centuries of hard work in convincing the English we're not like the rest of mainland Europe – like physically distancing ourselves from the rest of the continent with our Water Line defenses. That was a lot of work. So don't tell them.

Anyway, Ranier stumbles back into the bar to give Haarman a piece of his mind and fists, but decides against it, gets a drink and observes the German (or Dutchman) as a group of cruise passengers poured into the bar. A party comprising of "an Irish sugar merchant, a Brooklyn mug, an authority on insects, a peroxide blonde, a swart Italian," who drink and discuss voodoo and "the un-dead dead who walk the jungles on silent feet" with their Haitian tour guide. Haarman was sitting at the far end of the table by himself, "pretty fogged," but nobody had come near him before they discovered he had been wounded and dying from a knife-wound to the back. So body could have stabbed him, but there's another impossibility to the stabbing. What happened to the knife? Whoever stabbed Haarman unnoticed and then made blade vanish into thin air "was not only a magician but a chap who meant business." This is impossible stabbing in a Haitian waterfront hole is as normal as the story gets. And what follows is best describes as Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) done right or Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock (1950), but darker and pulpier.

They transport the dying Haarman to the only hospital nearby run by a Dr. Eberhardt, a German, who has been there many years taking care of the natives and conducting his private experiments – believing "he could revive dead cells with adrenaline." But, when they arrive, they find that Dr. Eberhardt has gone missing, his laboratory wrecked and his adopted niece, Laïs Engles, recognizes the dying Haarman as someone she knew. Someone who had died and been buried on Haiti over fourteen years ago. This comes with a fantastical story of a secretive, long-forgotten World War I mission up the Amazon River in South America, which got lost and (somehow) ended up in Haiti carrying "the mauve death from Brazil." A disease that wiped out every member of the mission except the then child, Laïs. She can prove Haarman is the German sailor who died there in the hospital over a decade ago.

Something is rotten on the island of Haiti and what ensues is a typically, pulp-style merry-go-round the misty, overgrown cemeteries as the dead apparently abandoned their graves and members of cruise party begin to drop like flies. That takes its toll on members of the group. Meanwhile, the natives are getting angry over the rumor "a zombie is loose" and a mob is gathering in the background to storm the hospital. So most of this macabre night full of corpses and rumors of the undead to the "low, sullen throbbing of wooden drums." Roscoe really knew how to set the scene! 

Z is for Zombie is inevitable going to be compared to its illustrious predecessor, but it's hardly a fair one as Murder on the Way! is undoubtedly the better and more memorable of the two. However, the reason is not because the former is actually of lesser quality, but that Murder on the Way! is a loopy roller coaster of insanity while Z is for Zombie is a haunted house ride. One is more exciting and memorable than the other, but therefore not necessarily bad. Surprisingly, I agree with Jim that only serious flaw of the story is its repetitiveness that can, very likely, be blamed on it originally been published as a serial and the characters needed to retrace their steps to help refresh the reader's memory – which a good editor could easily fix. It would improve the pace of the story and move it closer, in terms of overall quality, to Murder on the Way! But disagree with Jim about the impossible stabbing. Sure, the trick was not terribly complicated or even all that original, but it was a lot more practical than the theory is was trying to work out. I worked on the assumption the vanishing knife was a byproduct of the trick the murderer used to cloak the knife thrust. So I figured the murderer found a way to drive, or shoot, a blade without a handle deep into the victim's back, which would have rendered the blade completely invisible. You can turn the bar inside out without finding it. When the body apparently walked out of the hospital, I thought I was on the right track, because a medical examination would have revealed the blade. Roscoe came up with trick that was a little more workable.

So, to keep a long story short, Z is for Zombie is a glorious piece of pulp with an ending that lives up to its premise and the best those much maligned pulp magazines had to offer. Roscoe's was an unapologetic, entertaining fiction writer whose intricately-plotted, darkly written (locked room) mysteries can only be likened to John Dickson Carr and Hake Talbot. Z is for Zombie is a fine example of the best the pulps had to offer. Recommended without reservations!

5/9/22

The Gutenberg Murders (1931) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning

Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning were an American husband-and-wife writing team who got their start "as Roaring Twenties newspaper reporters" working "the mean moonlight and magnolia streets" of New Orleans, Louisiana, covering everything from the Great Mississippi River Flood to "bizarre and grisly killings" – providing them with first-hand experience for their detective novels. During the early 1930s, Bristow and Manning collaborated on four novels with the least obscure one being their first, The Invisible Host (1930). 

The Invisible Host is a pulp-style thriller and the only reason why it wasn't completely forgotten is that some people have heralded it as the inspiration of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). I read a Dutch translation back in 2000s and dismissed it at the time as an awful piece of crime fiction, but, when Dean Street Press reprinted their novels last year, jubilant reviews of The Invisible Host began to pour in. More astonishingly, The Invisible Host defeated John Dickson Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) with a 16 vote lead to win the 2021 Reprint of the Year Award. So did someone stuff the ballot box or did I miss something on my first read? Maybe the problem was the translation.

Either way, the positive reactions reintroduced Bristow, Manning and The Invisible Host to my to-be-read pile to see what all the excitement is about, but decided to begin with their more formal, traditionally-styled detective novels – which happen to be part of a two-book series. The Gutenberg Murders (1931) and The Mardi Gras Murders (1932) share a small cast of characters, "both major and minor," who play the role of detectives and associates. I really was torn between the two as the introduction, written by Curt Evans, promised "a locked room killing on a parade float" in The Mardi Gras Murder. This time, I didn't want to be that predictable, chronologically challenged and obsessed locked room fanboy. So I settled on The Gutenberg Murders. Yes, it was a vast improvement on their maiden effort. 

The Gutenberg Murders introduces the district attorney of Orleans Parish, Dan Farrell, who's not a brilliant man, but he has "a good deal of respect for the sort of learning which he regarded as a mental luxury." So he's not above consulting the ace crime reporter of The Morning Creole, Wade (no first name given). They're respectively assisted by Captain Dennis Murphy of the New Orleans Homicide Squad and the Creole's impish star photographer, Wiggins.

Dan Farrell is completely puzzled by the Quentin Ulman case. Quentin Ulman, assistant librarian of the Sheldon Memorial Library, is "an unusual man" suspected of "an unusual crime" and is suspected of "robbing the library for the past six months" of its valuable treasures. The latest theft was of nine recently acquired, highly prized leaves from the Gutenberg Bible, which were the pride and joy of the head librarian, Dr. Julian Prentiss. So he brought the case to the district attorney, but he doesn't want Ulman arrested. Just the return of the stolen books and his precious Bible fragments, but complicating an apparently simple case of theft is that the library is caked in dirt.

The head trustee of the library and Dr. Prentiss' longtime rival, Professor Alfredo Gonzales, whose twenty year long squabble with the head librarian came to a head when he voiced his suspicion the Gutenberg fragment was not genuine – indirectly accusing Prentiss having been fooled into buying a forgery. But there's also talk of Gonzales charming, much younger and "not very discreet" wife, Winifred, has gotten herself involved with Ulman. This is practically public knowledge and there are "whispers that Ulman sold the damn thing to buy pearls for Mrs. Gonzales," which stung her husband "where it hurts a Cuban gentleman worst." And there are the other people who hang around the library who either hold something back or simply cause trouble. Terry Sheldon is a sculptor and nephew of the library's founder, but the impulsive sort with a short temper. Luke Dancy is the personal secretary of Dr. Prentiss and "one of the regular American-Anglomaniac school" who dressed English and speaks with London-borrowed phrases. Marie Castille is a medical student who works at the library during the summer months and a distant cousin of Professor Gonzales. All of them hold something back or have something hide.

So more than enough material to complicate a simply, straightforward case of theft and fill a front page, or two, but, before the investigation can even begin, Ulman is murdered. Ulman's "charred and smoking skeleton" is found on a dirt road near the bindery. And thus began the Bible Murder Case.

Dan Farrell takes the unusual decision to deputize Wade and gave him a "tin badge" to act like a French juge d'instruction (examining magistrate). Wade gets a free hand to act as he sees fits from questioning suspects, as he tries to pry loose their jealously guarded secrets, to handling evidence, testing alibis and rooting around for motives – even threatening to arrest people or place them under police protection. One chapter details a gross invasion of privacy when Wiggins and his noiseless camera invade a home to secretly eavesdrop on a private conversation, which is of course used. So a little improbably, but sort of works with New Orleans as a backdrop. Since everyone insists on holding back important, even dangerous information, the torch murders continues with the third murder being a quasi-impossible crime. Every suspect has "a cast-iron alibi furnished by members of the police department."

Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning came up with a fascinating solution to the torch murders that should have been used to turn the story into a full-blown impossible crime novel. Fittingly, Wade pieces together the murder method after reading Euripides and Eusebe Salverte's The Philosophy of Magic, Prodigies and Apparent Miracles (1829). Only acceptable place to the find answers in a bibliophile mystery. However, Bristow and Manning also plotted the story along a straight, narrow line that glossed over a few details and didn't ask some very obvious question.

For example, the medical and forensic examinations of the victims (i.e. how they were set ablaze) was deliberately kept vague, because a thorough examination would have solved too much too soon. In the hands of the Radfords, The Gutenberg Murders would probably have been a short story instead of a novel-length mystery. Secondly, it's established with Quentin Ulman's death that the murderer hadn't burned the body to conceal his identity. Ulman was identified by items found on the body and it was suggested the murderer wanted to make him "a hideous memory," but nobody thought of the possibility that Ulman could have staged his own death. After all, Ulman was suspected of having stolen a small fortune in antiquarian treasures. So why not try to shake everyone off his back once he realized the game was over and start over somewhere else under a new name and nice little nest egg. A possibility destroyed by the second and third murder, but it takes a while to get to them and it's just weird nobody considered the possibility until the other murders happened.

Nitpicking aside, The Gutenberg Murders is a massive improvement over what I remember of The Invisible Host. A well-written, competently plotted detective novel with an unusual piece of detective work that nonetheless logically tied together the who, why and how. A solution both logical and not wholly unsatisfying, but lacked a bit of a punch. So not a first-rate specimen of the vintage detective novel, but another good and solid second-stringer that comes particularly recommended to fans of biblio mysteries. More importantly, The Gutenberg Murders has convinced me to move The Mardi Gras Murders and Two and Two Make Twenty-Two (1932) up a few places on the big pile. Redemption might be imminent!

And on a final note, I have come across a lot of good, but second-string, mysteries lately and will try to pick a title from the top-tier next time.

5/6/22

The Rising of the Moon: "The Juarez Knife" (1948) by Richard Deming

Richard Deming was an American mystery writer, "solid and reliable," whose career began during the decline of the pulps in the 1940s, but managed to become a frequent contributor to such publications as Manhunt, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine over the following decades – reportedly producing 900 short stories and novellas from 1948 to 1984. From the 1950s onward, Deming also began to write TV tie-in novels for Charlie's Angels, Dragnet and Starsky & Hutch in addition to ghostwriting ten books under the "Ellery Queen" name in the 1960s. 

Deming had a presence in the genre and I have been aware of him, but only one of his stories, a novella, was jotted down on my wishlist. And the reason is painfully obvious. 

"The Juarez Knife" was originally published in the January, 1948, issue of Popular Detective and has not been listed in either Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) or Brian Skupin's Locked Room Murders: Supplement (2019), but two reviews from 2020 described it as "traditional locked room" like "something from an Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr novel." Say no more! Conveniently, "The Juarez Knife" has been republished as an ebook by Wildside Press in 2018. 

"The Juarez Knife" is a double debut as it was Deming's first published short story and introduces his private detective, Manville "Manny" Moon, who lost part of his right leg fighting in Europe in World War II and now has to walk around on a "cork, aluminum, and leather contraption" – which turned out to be a formidable weapon when combined with his "army judo." Deming got a laugh out of me when he described "the ghoulish humor of the ward boy who had established an amputation cemetery immediately behind the huge hospital tent" and asked Moon "how it felt to have one foot in the grave." This more, or less, sets the tone of the story. A story that begins when Moon receives a phone call from a crooked lawyer, Lawrence Randall, who wants to hire him to do a job that comes with $1000 retainer and $500 fee. Something involves a great deal of money and potentially danger for the lawyer, but he has to come to Randall's office to get the details.

Since "the private investigation business is not good enough to ignore fifteen-hundred-dollar windfalls," Moon decides to keep the appointment, but, upon arrival, the private secretary he has to wait until Randall has seen a Miss Gloria Garson. So he turns around to leave, catches a glimpse of Garson and sticks around to catch a second glimpse. Garson had left through the rear exit in the office and when Moon went in, he finds Randall's body sitting behind the desk with a knife-handle sticking out from the center of its chest "like an oversize shirt stud."

Moon and private secretary were sitting outside the office's main door, the rear exit has a spring lock that could not be opened from the outside and the open windows looked out over a fourteen floor drop with a precarious, six-inch ledge running underneath it - nothing "but a bird could get in that way." So the inference is obvious. Garson planted a knife in Randall's chest and got away through the rear door, which seems to be confirmed when Moon learns the rear door had also been under observation. But when Moon discovers she immediately went from Randall's office straight to her hairdresser. Moon reasons "no woman would stick a knife in a man and then calmly go have her hair set," but how did the real murderer get in and out of the office without being seen?

Moon finds the answers to these questions in typical hardboiled fashion as he has to deal with Randall's business associate in Club El Patio, Louis Bagnell, who's somewhat of gangster with an assortment of hired goons. Vance Caramand, Bagnell's Number One Hood, kindly provides several occasion for Moon to showcase his army judo and peg-leg karate. While maintaining a pleasantly antagonistic relationship with Inspector Warren Day of the Homicide Squad.

So the story and characters are neck deep into pulp territory, but the plot is sound enough and reasonable clues with the highlight being how the unforeseen impossibility ruined the murderer's risky scheme. Only problem is that the locked room-trick is uninspired (almost disappointing) and the murderer sticks out even more than the knife-handle in Randall's chest. So this story turned out to be somewhat of a mixed bag as it's undeniably a fun, fast-paced read with a detective you want to follow around to see what happens next, but, plot-wise, it came up a little short. For readers of the hardboiled pulps rather than locked room aficionados.

5/2/22

The Moor Fires Mystery (1938) by Harriette R. Campbell

Back in January, I reviewed Magic Makes Murder (1943) by a little-known, long overlooked American mystery writer, Harriette R. Campbell, who settled down in Britain with her Scottish husband and used her new home country as the setting for eight detective novels – published between 1936 and 1949. Black Heath reissued all eight novels in 2021 as inexpensive ebooks and sampling Magic Makes Murder left a favorable enough. So threw a few more of her mysteries on the big pile. 

The Moor Fires Mystery (1938) is the third title in the Simon Brade series, but the central character is a governess, Miss Elvira Rose "Penny" Pengold, who has "a way of turning everything into a story." The stories she has told herself could have "filled volumes," but finds herself in the middle of a detective story when accepting the post nursery governess to Lord Serbridge's two daughters. Hetty and Mavis are the children from Lord Serbridge's previous marriage, which tragically ended when the first Lady Serbridge died from an overdose of sleeping medicine. Lord Serbridge remarried less than a year later and the second Lady Serbridge, Pam, who gave birth to a baby boy, Timothy. So they needed a governess to take charge of the two older girls.

A dazzled Penny ("£100 a year and every comfort") travels to the west coast of Scotland to take her position as governess at Olachan House, "old without being ancient and vast without being impressive," but not all is as it seems. Something terribly begins to take form during a casual, after-dinner conversation.

Lord and Lady Serbridge hosted a dinner for several friends, acquaintances and employees. Sir Archibald Ferris, a press magnate, and his wife, Lady Ferris. Dr. Arnold Almaine whose "experimental research" is largely financed by Lord Serbridge who admired his work with children. A friendly, talkative and adventurous American journalist, Mark Chase. Lastly, there's Penny and the secretary/housekeeper, Marcia Hewn. After dinner, they have brandies and chat about various subjects until Marcia remarks, "it ought to be a public offense to write anonymous letters to the press," in reference to an article about the police receiving anonymous letters about the suicide of an out-of-work journalist, Colin Sleet – whose death by strychnine poisoning was detailed in the prologue. The coroner's jury brought a verdict of suicide, while of unsound mind, but the letters suggest "the case was not sufficiently investigated" and "that the man was murdered." Colin Sleet was not an unknown name to most of the people present and Lord Serbridge ("an enemy to injustice in all its forms") presses a reluctant Sir Archibald to give the case "full publicity" in the papers. This is when things begin to happen quickly.

First, the baby disappears along with his nurse and Lord Serbridge, uncharacteristically, misses an important telephone appointment and is nowhere to be found. Everyone assumes the baby has been kidnapped and were afraid to call in the police, which is why they asked Simon Brade to take the next train to Scotland. Timothy and the nurse turn up again, safe and soundly, but Lord Serbridge's body is found on the moor. He had been ambushed, shot through the heart and the body dragged in the path of the flames. At the time, the moor is deliberately set on the fire and burned down, so everything can grow better during the summer. These burning fires definitely added to the strange atmosphere of the story, even if they served no purpose to the overall plot.

When the detective finally arrived at Olachan House, Brade is confronted with a nasty murder instead of an unpleasant kidnapping. Brade really detests murder.

I glossed over the character of Simon Brade in my review of Magic Makes Murder, but Campbell genuinely tried to do something different with her lead detective. On the surface, Simon Brade is another sophisticated detective halfway between Philo Vance and Lord Peter Wimsey. Brade is a sensitive, monocle-wearing aesthetician and collector of porcelain, who was brought up in a remote Irish castle as an only child, but "his father was a devil" and had to watch his beloved mother die – which never fully recovered from. This is why he hates murder, because "he's too sorry for unhappy people" as he's been unhappy himself. So he very much plays the role of reluctant detective and openly roots for the local policeman to beat him to the solution. Just as unusual as his character is his method of detection. Brade carries around a box of ivory cubes, "yellow with age," which he calls his toys. Every brick symbolizes a value in the case, like the suspects and possible motives, but there are also cubes representing "Picture" and "Blurs." So he moves around the cubes as he fills in the details and gathers evidence until a picture of one of the suspects appears without any blurs. Brade has to turn a murder investigation into a game to get pass his aversion of murder and being responsible for delivering someone to the hangman. You can read a more detailed explanation of his method in Chapter IX ("Brade's Brick").

So, yes, Brade is basically a gimmick character who, perhaps, would have been better served as a one-shot character, but Brade's gimmick certainly helped elevate an otherwise average detective story. Particularly the investigation! While the premise and murder present intriguing problem, the investigation is mostly concerned with alibis, timetables and postage stamps. The murderer is someone you can't help but notice sticking out as suspicious. Brade's bricks put a welcome spin on what would otherwise be a pretty routine and honestly uninspired investigation.

There were some other touches that helped elevate the overall story a little. Such as the previously mentioned fires and the trouble surrounding the funeral of Lord Serbridge. Lady Serbridge forbids anyone under suspicion to bring flowers, because it's "the only way of being sure the murderer's flowers will not lie on his coffin" and there are the Highlanders. A people "so loyal to the past, so adverse to change," who were against Lord Serbridge (an outsider) being laid to rest in the stone vault that came with the estate ("a long series of lairds slept behind those doors"). There's an incident at the funeral that is sort of left unexplained unless I missed something. Campbell may have come up short here, plot-wise, but she still knew how and where to stage a good, old-fashioned murder mystery. 

The Moor Fires Mystery is a well written and characterized detective novel with an intriguingly posed problem and realized setting, but, plot-wise, regrettably a huge step down from the excellent Magic Makes Murder. A solid and serviceable second-string mystery novel.

4/29/22

The Case of the Painted Ladies (1940) by Brian Flynn

Brian Flynn's The Case of the Painted Ladies (1940) is the twenty-fifth entry in the Anthony Bathurst series and true to form it deviated from its predecessor, The Case of the Faithful Heart (1939), but, this time, the difference is not a complete 180 in style or form – like the consecutively published The League of Matthias (1934) and The Horn (1934). The Case of the Faithful Heart and The Case of the Painted Ladies are essentially Golden Age whodunits, but Painted Ladies differentiates itself by telling a story that builds towards a crossover event. A rare trope in our corner of the genre. Such an occasion demands an unusual kind of crime to bring in three of Bathurst's "more distinguished colleagues."

The Case of the Painted Ladies begins with three strange incidents on the final day of the life of a well-known, London stock exchange operator, Aubrey Coventry.

Firstly, Coventry receives an unexpected telephone call from the Napoleon of Wall Street, Silas Montgomery, who, unconventionally and unannounced, wants to make an early morning appointment for two o'clock at his place. Silas Montgomery is "a man of powerful interests and subtle influences." So it's wise not to offend him and Coventry had always wanted to meet the notorious New York operator. Secondly, Coventry attends a church bazaar and his wandering leads him to a tent with the notice, "Madame Zylphara, Palmist and Clairvoyante." This reminded him of the telephone call that morning and decided to go inside, but leaves the tent rather unsettled. Madame Zylphara tried to read his palm, but told him she can't read his future "because there is no future for you." Thirdly, the evening ends with a fancy dress ball, but before changing into his custom, Coventry decides to smoke a cigarette in the park. When he asks the only man in the park for a light, the man "simply snarled at him" and obviously tried to get away from Coventry. Surprisingly, the snarling man in blue overalls is spotted among the attendees of the fancy dress ball. Only to disappear before he can be identified.

So ends a day filled with strange, unsettling incidents as the next one dawns, but Coventry has to stay up to await the arrival of Silas Montgomery. Later that morning, the secretary finds Coventry's body in the study with rope marks on his throat and neck. The scene of the crime is practically on the doorstep of New Scotland Yard and Chief Inspector Andrew MacMorran gets to handle a case before a local police force can mess with "until that awful moment comes when they bellow for help." Nonetheless, MacMorran is faced with a complete mystery as the victim "hasn't been robbed and he hadn't an enemy in the world." On the other hand, Anthony Bathurst is intrigued by all the little, inconsistent details at the scene and the incidents that preceded the murder.

Bathurst notices Coventry had not only been strangled, but the murderer had rendered him helpless by lashing him across the chest, round the wrists and legs to the chair – before strangling him with a second rope. But why untie the body afterwords? Bathurst is also puzzled by two note-books found on the desk, "each appears to have been used," because there's "something about them that isn't right." But what? And who was the pseudo-Montgomery? The elusive, but ever-present, snarling man in blue overalls? Just as mystifying is Bathurst's visit to Madame Zylphara. She goes into a trance tells the detective that there are two women concerned in the case, but there's "no alliance between them, they oppose each other." But you won't realize how mystifying until you reach the ending (ROT13: Znqnzr Mlycunen'f cerqvpgvba naq ivfvba jrer yrsg harkcynvarq). Not even Bathurst himself realizes how closely he's getting to the murderer until a serious, near fatal attempt on his life and a late second victim is discovered. This clears the path to that crossover scene.

Bathurst baits a trap for the killer, but not your common garden variety killer traps. This trap comes in the guise of "a new parlour game for listeners." A BBC radio game show in which four well-known sleuths match wits with a BBC staff team that include Val Gielgud. I was fairly surprise to discover who the three guest detectives turned out to be as they were neither B-list names nor thinly disguised. How did Flynn get away with that? I first thought they all shared the same publisher, but that wasn't the case and suppose he had gotten permission. Perhaps the book was originally part of a BBC promotion? Either way, it was a fun and memorable scene. Now how you expect a crossover to play out. You have to read the story for yourself to discover the identity of the detectives and how the case is drawn to a close. 

The Case of the Painted Ladies has a conclusion that appears all neat and tightly wrapped up, but when you let it sink in for a minute, pick it up and shake it a little, you can hear some loose nuts and bolts rattling around inside – betraying some plot-technical and stylistic flaws in the whole design. The murderer appears to have spoiled, what could have been, a clean and perfect crime by making things needlessly complicated. Flynn tried to justify it by pointing out that the biggest obstacle the murderer faced was (ROT13) gung gur bayl jnl ur pbhyq trg va jnf ol univat gur sebag qbbe bcrarq gb uvz, but even then it seems like a risky, roundabout way to achieve something relatively simple (pbzcnerq gb zheqre). There's one particular plot-thread annoyingly left unresolved and Flynn really should have titled the book The Case of the Snarling Man, which is a much better title that doesn't give away a quarter of the solution early on in the game. 

So, while the ending doesn't entirely hold up to close scrutiny, The Case of the Painted Lady stands as another typical example of Flynn's mission to simply write good, imaginative and above all entertaining detective fiction. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, reviewed "Three Detective Novels by Brian Flynn" back in February and noted his inconsistencies, or sins, but his "inventive plots, his unceasing imagination and his absolute love for the genre" keeps him (and me) coming back for more. Whenever Flynn's shortcomings or imperfections surfaced, they rarely ruined or sank a novel. The Case of the Painted Ladies very much belongs to the category of flawed, but still good and entertaining detective novels. A treat for fans of the series and seasoned mystery readers.

4/25/22

The Tin Tree (1930) by James Quince

James Reginald Spittal was a British clergyman, born in Banbury, Oxfordshire, who was a London vicar and wrote three obscure, nearly forgotten detective novels in the 1930s – published under the pseudonym "James Quince." A writer who has been a permanent residence on my wishlist ever since Martin Edwards and Curt Evans reviewed The Tin Tree (1930) and Casual Slaughters (1934) in 2014. The Tin Tree was particularly high on the list as it intriguingly combined a quasi-historical setting with a typical, English village mystery and enough material about the Great War that "one almost could classify the book as a war novel."

But as usually is the case, James Quince has been out-of-print for close to a century and copies have become as scarce as they are expensive. That is until last February when Black Heath reissued The Tin Tree and Casual Slaughters as cheap ebooks. So on the pile it went. 

The Tin Tree stands out among the early, 1930s Golden Age mysteries as a (sort of) nostalgic throwback to the Victorian-era potboiler, but agree with Curt that the story is told with "an easy charm and emotional restraint" in comparison to those turn-of-the-century sensational novels with a tricky and gruesome murder that needs to be solved – culminating with a double-twisted, triple-decker solution. A murder mystery played out against the backdrop of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the battlefield of the Great War, which gave the story an atmosphere, or mood, all of its own. Since there are very few detective novels and short stories from this period that used the First World War as a backdrop. Enough talk. It's time for some action!

A so-called tin tree is a "bizarre fake tree observation posts" built "using steel and wrought iron" to spy on the enemy "after switching them under cover of darkness with real battle-scarred stumps left in no-man's land." The Tin Tree opens with Lieutenant Roger "Secco" Budockshed and Gunner Arthur Rachelson manning one of these twisty, leafless metallic trees when they get shelled and Rachelson screams, "O God! Again!" Lieutenant Budockshed has always been intrigued by the mysterious Gunner Rachelson. What made him refuse promotion and "why should he be so oyster-like a companion?" So he asks him what made him scream out and repeat those words. Gunner Rachelson decides to tell him the whole story.

Gunner Arthur Rachelson reveals that his real name is John Montauban. A name dominating the headlines in 1914 and captured the attention of the entire nation, which "was as yet but mildly interested in Serajevo." At the time, John Montauban pulled double duty as estate manager and babysitting his younger, troublesome cousin, Sir Juan Montauban. John is unable to babysit his cousin round the clock and is enraged when he learns he not only impregnated a seventeen-year-old housemaid, but closed the matter behind his back by giving the family a cheque for £300. Angrily, John goes to Pecheford House to confront his cousin. Sir Juan only real interest was in the combustion engines and was working in the yard/garage. Ever since he was a child, John entered the yard by climbing up the wall to the roof, slide down a bit on the other side and dropped himself. A fifteen feet drop! And that what he did on that day. When he looked over the wall, John spotted his cousin's legs sticking out from underneath a car directly below and dropped himself. Just as he made the drop, wearing "heavy nailed boots," Sir Juan poked his head out and got his skull squashed like a ripe grape.

John immediately understands the difficulty he would face in trying to explain it was an ill-timed accident. There were more than enough witnesses who saw him in "a white-hot rage" and possesses a platinum motive as he stood "to gain the baronetcy, the entailed estates, and, say, £80,000" – which is unconditionally his in the event of Juan's death. So he engineered his own disappearance and got a lucky break when a practically naked, badly decomposed body was fished out of a river and everyone agreed the "messy corpse" was that of the wanted John Montauban. Operation Mincemeat thirty years before its time! He nearly got away to begin an entirely new life in the United States had it not been for the murder in Serajevo to complicate his "sham murder." This story is told to Lieutenant Budockshed with the Great War playing out in the background with "a crackle of machine guns" and "the greatest artillery duel of the war" ("chronicled elsewhere"). 

Lieutenant Budockshed is eventually wounded and moved to a London hospital where he decides to delve deeper into the 1914 murder case, which turns the sham murder into a quasi-impossible crime. The body was still very warm when John had picked himself up and Juan must have pushed himself out from beneath the car, but, if John is innocent, who could possibly have had the time to kill him? And get away unseen from an empty garage yard? However, this is the point in the story where it begins to resemble a Victorian-era potboiler with the introduction of the villain of the second-act, Señora Zumarraga. Mrs. Antonia de Zumarrage is a well-known medium from Barcelona, Spain, who holds expensive private séances and avoids other spiritualists. She turns out, like everyone else in the story, to have a connection to the old murder case ("funny that we always seem to come up against Spaniards in this affair"). Señora Zumarraga involvement gives the second-act a touch of the turn-of-the-century thriller, but Quince skillfully used it to setup the first of two false-solutions with a marvelous play on that trite, 1800s artifice of the deathbed confession. The third and final act deals with the three solutions, two false-solutions and climaxing with the correct one.

The solutions demonstrate the author had an imaginative mind and was likely influenced by G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown (c.f. "The Hammer of God," 1910), which shows a particular richness in the unusual motivation behind the second and third solutions. But they are not exactly models of fair play. The Tin Tree stands on its storytelling and wartime backdrop. Not rigorous plotting. So plot purists beware unless you have a special interest in detective set during the World Wars.

Nonetheless, The Tin Tree is an admirable, even impressive debut and, as has been pointed out elsewhere, you can chalk most of the story's shortcomings up to an inexperienced novelist. I suspect another problem (or maybe a blessing) is that the novel is a little older than its publication date suggests and there's a clue suggesting the story might gone through a couple of different versions and rewrites. When Budockshed goes over the case, he wonders what happened to the murderer before and after John landed on his cousin. Had the murderer time enough to escape through the yard door and shut it without being seen or had the murderer hidden somewhere. Dismissing the possibility that the murderer (ROT13) jnf haqre gur pne, orpnhfr “ab tebja-hc crefba penjyf haqre n pne jvgubhg furre arprffvgl.” This foreshadows the second false-solution and suggests it may have been intended as the right one with the third solution being a final addition to the plot. I could be entirely wrong, but it would explain the uneven, patchiness between the engrossing opening-act, a sagging middle-part and the ending with its triple-solutions. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed The Tin Tree as a rare, World War I mystery novel in spite of its flaws. But I'll try to pick something more traditional for the next review.

4/22/22

The General Goes Too Far (1936) by Lewis George Robinson

Lewis G. Robinson had a long, distinguished service career as a Medical Officer in the British Army, serving during the First World War and rising to the rank of Colonel before retiring due to ill-health, who drew on his army experience to write four specialized, military-themed detective novels – all but one published under the name "George Limnelius." Under the same pseudonym, Robinson wrote three extremely obscure short stories, "The Time-Gun" (1929), "A Perfect Alibi" (1929) and "On the Ether" (1930), which were published in The Royal Magazine. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find anything about the short stories, except for titles and publication dates. 

The Medbury Fort Murder (1929) is his best remembered novel, championed by Robert Adey as an unfairly forgotten locked room mystery, who helped secure the book a spot in Martin Edwards' The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017). A place earned not only for its "insider's picture of the army" and "authentic flavour of military life," but for its "no-nonsense treatment of sex and violence" that's "hardly in keeping with the lazily conventional view of Golden Age fiction as cosy." I reviewed the book in 2019 and thought the story's true merit lies in its inversion of the inverted mystery. Somewhat reminiscent of 1930s Anthony Berkeley. The Medbury Fort Murder is definitely a cut above your average, 1920s detective novel and a portent of things to come in the decades ahead, but the other novels had been out-of-print for decades in 2019.

Last year, Nick Fuller listed Lewis Robinson in a blog-post, "Detective stories to reprint," going over some very obscure authors who "might well merit reprinting," but, unbeknownst to Nick, Robinson had already sneaked back into circulation by stealth! Black Heath reissued his four standalone mysteries, as cheap ebooks, in June, 2021. This gave me an excuse opportunity to dive into the neglected work of another forgotten mystery writer. ...Tell No Tales (1931) and The Manuscript Murder (1933) have already neared the snow-capped tops of the big pile. Since I'm chronologically challenged, I wanted to begin with his final novel. 

The General Goes Too Far (1936) in many ways resembles The Medbury Fort Murder as both succeeded in simultaneously being inverted mysteries and genuine whodunits, but The General Goes Too Far is richer in characters, storytelling and setting – which begins in 1920s Ireland and concludes years later in a West African colony. But it starts out as a messy tangle of characters and incidents, until the third and fourth chapter. This is the gist of it. Major-General Sir John Sangye is "a natural-born Puritan" with a personality forming "a pattern of all the less amiable virtues" (an ambitious teetotaler and non-smoker), but, twenty years ago, he had a secretive relation with a young stage actress, Nellie Johnson. She became pregnant with his child, but married Sangye's rich, middle-aged cousin, Captain Challoner, who accepted the child as his own. However, Captain Challoner has no intention to father his cousin's "bastards" and this comes to a head when their car breaks down in the middle of the Irish countryside. A local Shinner commando ambushes the stranded car and a firefight ensues, which Sangye uses as a cover to shoot and kill Challoner. Sangye married his widow and accepted his own daughter, Belinda, as his stepdaughter. So "he erased the memory of that cold-blooded murder from his conscious mind," but "old sins cast long shadows" and it would come back to haunt him. This is only the prologue!

The next chapter introduces another set of cousins, Major Anthony Carson and Major Reginald Heverell, who have a fabulous wealthy aunt. Aunt Edna is in her eighties, sickly and a lot to leave one or both of her nephews. Major Carson begins to play with the idea "to expedite, as it were, the slow processes of Nature" by tampering with Aunt Edna's life saving amyl drops. Simply replacing the nitrate of amyl in one of the capsules with a drop of water. And he would be on his next six-month tour abroad when she gets to the harmless capsule during a fit. Finally, the third chapter introduces a young lieutenant, Benjamin Daunt, who's Belinda's fiancé and learns from his uncle, Colonel Daunt, the truth about Belinda's parentage. But he's indiscreet with this information. And that has consequences when they all come together in a remote African outpost of the British Empire.

A remote, lonely outpost situated between the boundaries of French Gambia and the British Protectorate of Nuevas Palmas, Liberia, where a handful of outpost station were strung along the seven hundred miles of frontier – of which Makompe was the remotest outpost. An island fortress, "built on the site of a seventeenth century Portuguese fort," which constitutes the only fixed defenses of the port of Libreville. So the island fort comes under the responsibilities of the War Office and completely independent of the Colonial Office. It really irks His Excellency, the Governor, knowing that there is one spot, "only about a square mile in all," in the Colony where his writ does not run. Any crime, civil or military, done on the island would be tried by Court Martial. So there's "plenty of scope for friction." The characters who gathered there have already gotten themselves in trouble or plotting how to get themselves out of it as the past slowly comes back into focus. When someone gets shot in a restricted area of the fortress, Major-General Sir John Sangye refuses to waive his "technical right" to jurisdiction and let the Colonial Office investigate the case. And, if worst came to worst, the Governor could get the Home Government to intervene, which would look very bad, but the General stubbornly continues with "dangerous policy." What follows is a Court of Inquiry (in lieu of an inquest), a quick arrest and the suspect getting court martialed, which makes for a very unusual take on the courtroom drama.

Yes, The General Goes Too Far is all over the place as it tries to be an inverted mystery with a detective pull. A frankly written, character-driven crime novel with the General having to face the consequences of his past crime, while trying to come up with "some cunning move to deflect the impending blow at his daughter's happiness." A military courtroom drama with a last-minute, locked room murder placing another character in the docks and simply a story of military life in the Colonies. But it was not an entirely unsuccessful juggling act. You need to get through the messy, tangled opening chapters to get a good idea who's who, what they want, or do, and why. That makes what unfolds at the fort appear all the more mystifying. You have no idea in which direction the story is going or where its going to end.

Robinson managed to keep this up until the trial began, but during and after the trial it became easy to see where the story was headed and the solution began to take shape. Admittedly, the detective story elements were timeworn and second-rate. Such as the late locked room murder, which served as another dead giveaway. But, by that time, it hardly detracted from the overall quality of the story. 

The General Goes Too Far is an engrossing, well-constructed and fascinatingly told inverted detective novel enhanced by its unvarnished depiction of a far-flung, Colonial outpost of the British Empire – replete with class-and race distinctions as well as the tensions between civil and military administrators. This helped balance out some of the shortcomings revealed during its second-half. So the end result may still be a second-string mystery novel, but a first-class second-stringer with a less than conventional take on the inverted detective story. And, perhaps, in some way a little ahead of its time. But I think readers today can appreciate an obscure vintage with a slightly modern twist.