"The night is darkest just before the dawn"

"Because most people will never know anything beyond what they see with their own two eyes."
- Nightcrawler, X2: X-Men United (2003)
Yeah, I know. In my prior blog post, I promised to recommence discussing impossible crime stories, but it was easier to first finish up Bill Pronzini's Nightcrawlers (2005) before starting on a new book – and I was in the mood for a gritty private eye novel anyway. That last part has me worried, though. There has to be something up with me when I pick a modern PI story over an old-fashioned locked room mystery. At first, I thought my personality was finally showing the tell-tale markings of maturity, but that suggestion was met with mock and ridicule by everyone who knows me personally – so I guess writers like Bill Pronzini, William DeAndrea and M.P.O. Books actually managed to shift my fundamentalistic negative opinion on contemporary fiction a little bit closer to the middle. 

Nightcrawlers is a very recent entry into this long-running series, published for the first time a little over six years ago, and there have been a lot of changes since I left Nameless after he suffered and fought through one of his most arduous ordeals in Shackles (1988). First of all, he isn't The Nameless Detective anymore, but Bill (no surname yet), and he's married with an adopted daughter and has given up his existence as a desolate lone wolf op. Instead of running a one-man detective agency he has now gone into business with a young woman, Tamara Corbin, and employed a third detective, Jake Runyon, as a field operative. Unfortunately, these changes resulted in exactly the kind of problems I was afraid of when I read of them in a review of Schemers (2009).

What I admired about the previous Nameless books I read, Hoodwink (1981) and Shackles (1988), was how Pronzini succeeded in making Nameless a fully developed, three dimensional character and still told a good story without sacrificing its plot. The character developments were snippets sprinkled over an entire story, but that's a lot harder to do when you have to flesh-out three different protagonists – and as a result, storytelling and plotting were sacrificed in favor of characterization.

Nevertheless, it's commendable how most of their personal predicaments were still intertwined with the cases at hand and Jake Runyon's story left a favorable impression on me. His estranged son, born out of his first marriage, reluctantly reestablished contact with him after his lover was on the receiving end of brutal beating at the hands of two gay bashers – and there were more victims before him. Runyon promises to get to the bottom of these late-night beltings, not only as a way to reach out to his son but also because the police isn't particular interested in finding the perpetrators themselves, and quickly determines that there's a pattern in what appeared at first to be random attacks. It's not as complex or ingenious as similar type of plots that were popular during the Golden Age of the Detective Fiction, but it's very much in the same tradition and as close as you can possibly get to dropping off the classic detective story in the real world.

Nameless and Tamara also chip-in, but their workload for this book is of secondary concern to the overall plot of the story. The senior partner of the new detective firm, whom we now know to be named Bill, is summoned to the death bed of former pulp-writer Russell Dancer, who played a big part in the locked room novel Hoodwink, and asks him deliver a message and package to Bill's mother-in-law – another former pulp-writer who he has been lusting after for the better part of half-a-century and casts a grim shadow over that previous novel. Pronzini seems to have a penchant for stripping his locked room stories of all their romantic trappings by a shocking revelation in a later story (c.f. Shackles).

The junior partner, the enterprising Tamara, tries her hands at some good old legwork and bumps into a psychotic kidnapper who carries her off to a remote cabin – and the only prospective of escaping is into an early and shabbily dug grave. The main purpose of this plot thread is to give the book an exciting finale as Tamara and a little girl try to escape from their captor.

It's interesting to see how The Nameless Detective shed the imagery of the lonely gumshoe in a shabby office and succeeded stepping into a new era, but I'm afraid I prefer the image of that solitary, capeless crusader of the previous century. Hey, what can I say? I'm a difficult person and a classicist at heart. 

The next update will consist of a review of an impossible crime novel. Cross my heart and hope to die!


Trouble Always Comes in Threes

"Some people bear three kinds of trouble - the ones they've had, the ones they have, and the ones they expect to have."
- H.G. Wells.
I'm taking a short detour from insatiably consuming impossible crime stories, which will commence soon after publishing this piece, to finally post the planned follow up to my little critique of Craig Rice's The Wrong Murder (1940) – a review of its aptly entitled sequel, The Right Murder (1941).

To shortly recapitulate, in the previous novel, The Wrong Murder, the newlywed and unemployed Jake Justus makes an unusual bet with Mona McClane, who stakes her far-famed casino on the presumption that she can get away with gunning someone down on a packed street and getting away with it. At first, everyone takes it as a joke, but then a murder is committed that conforms to the rules of the bet and the sporting woman was seen near the scene of the crime! Jake, Helene and Malone go out of their way to pin this murder on Mona, but the inevitable conclusion is that they have been solving someone else's murder and their prime suspect confirms their fruitless pursuit of the wrong corpse. 

The Right Murder picks up the story not long after the point where The Wrong Murder left off, and we find a very lonely John J. Malone, on New Years Eve, trying to get drunk at Joe the Angel's City Hall Bar – when his sentimental musings are broken by a man who staggered into the barroom. He asks for Malone, thrusts a key in his hands and dies on the spot! Someone had poked him in the back with a knife. But a dead man, stumbling into a bar room and unburdening himself of an inquisitive item before collapsing, is a relatively sane thing to happen contrasted against the other events in this story. 

Yeah, this another one of Craig Rice's booze fuelled madcap mysteries, in which Chicago's trinity of trouble kidnap and plaster a witness, who claims to have killed two men when he's piss-drunk but draws a complete blank when stone cold sober, to help him jug his memory – and even hook him up to a polygraph machine after a drinking binge! You really tend to feel sorry for the poor psychoanalyst conducting the test and will no doubt be haunted by this consult for the rest of his professional life.

The second victim, by the way, dies at the home of Mona McClane, dispatched in a way that suggests the same hand at work as the one that cut-short the life of the man in the bar, and that puts her right back in the crosshairs of Jake, Helene and Malone. But will the heap of bizarre events and clues, which includes an extraordinary coincidence concerning names and two disturbed graves, lead them to a solution that will earn them the deed of Mona's casino or is their aim once again off-target – and following the wrong stiff to another murderer they weren't trying to find?

This story takes you on one heck of a ride and has nearly everything you come to expect and love from the Queen of Screwball Mysteries. Unfortunately, the solution does a poor and unconvincing job at explaining all the rummy occurrences and doesn't entirely adhere to the rules of fair play. There are a few clues that make it possible to make an educated guess at some parts of the solution, but when it comes to motive and relationships, between murderer and victims, we're pretty much left in the dark until Malone's revelation – and that left me completely dissatisfied.

The Right Murder may be typical of all things Ricean, but as a detective novel it fails to live up to its predecessor. Still, to be fair, the race towards the final chapter was fun and with Helene driving even exciting. Deadly, but exciting! So if you're already a fan you might as well pick this one up, and find out if they're successful in finally pinning a first-degree murder charge on Mona McClane, but if you're new to her work it's advisable to begin elsewhere – e.g. Home Sweet Homicide (1944) or My Kingdom for a Hearse (1957).

And, as a closing thought: has anyone else ever wondered, imagined even, what would happen if Jake and Helene Justus and Jeff and Haila Troy would enter the same bar room one after the other? Yes, I think that's why one series is set in Chicago and the other in New York. :)


Hey Presto!

"We mustn't confuse what's impossible with what's implausible. Most of the stuff I cook up for a living relies upon systems that are highly implausible. That's what makes it so difficult to solve. No one ever thinks you'd go to that much trouble to fool your audience."
I don't want to make a habit out of publishing two blog posts in one day, but I'm bored out of my mind and I just finished reading a fairly interesting impossible crime novel – so why not ramble on for a bit here, eh?

First off, you should know that Patrick seems to be the instigator here as it was his series of excellent reviews of Paul Halter's locked room stories that kick-started a minor discussion about his strength and weaknesses as a mystery writer – and eventually trailed off in a conversation about French detective stories in general. This prompted me to wring a few names through a search engine and discovered that one or two of them were within reach of my covetous claws! The first one I snatched up was Martin Méroy's Meartre en Chambre Noir (Murder in a Darkened Room, 1965), which I had seen described as a locked room mystery and the ever-helpful Xavier Lechard, who's a walking encyclopedia on the French detective story, beefed up that meager piece of information with the following description:

"Not much is known about Martin Méroy except that he was a prolific writer of
softboiled fiction in the early sixties, writing in particular about a private detective named... Martin Méroy. These are fast, fun reads with interesting, inventive plots often involving locked rooms. I haven't read this particular one, but I'm confident it's quite readable if not revolutionary

Martin Méroy is without doubt a hardboiled gumshoe in the tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, who takes no guff from nobody and knows how to land a punch and fire a gun with equal skill, but at the same his misses that lone knight attitude that is so typical for these kind of private eyes. For example, when a woman asks him to retrieve a letter for her he tells her she can pay him with her body! That's just something I couldn't see private ops like Nameless or Lew Archer doing to their clientele. They can hold their own in a bare-knuckle fist-fight with street thugs or in all-out gun fight with a gangster or two, but never turn a potential client into a private prostitute. 

Oh well, his main client of this book, a famous and world renowned stage magician, The Great Zambini, is allowed to pay his fee in cold hard cash and the job description consists of guarding him against any attempts made on his life. The magician has a vague notion that he might be in mortal danger, but can't give the exact details as to how and why to his short-term employee. However, during one of his most acclaimed illusions, which he dubbed The Secret of the Darkened Room, he fails for the first time to emerge from a sealed bank vault – and when they swung open the heavy steel door he was still tied up in a locked trunk with a knife handle projecting from his chest! But how could anyone have slipped unseen into a solidy welded steel and sealed vault, plunge several inches of steel between the ribcage of a man who was still locked up in a trunk wrapped with chains, and vanish before the door was opened again?
The solution is actually a slightly more complicated variation on one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it was done with enough skill and aplomb to warrant some appreciation and Méroy also explains how the trick would've normally worked as well as how an on-stage transformation was pulled off – which are nice little extras for us aficionados of the impossible crime story.

But I have to honestly say that I preferred my own solution of the sealed vault trick to the one that was given, which I imagined involved doctoring with the trunk and turning it into a single-spiked iron maiden by fastening a hidden knife to the inside of the lid. I'm sure it's possible to rig up some sort of deadly contraption with a knife, spring and a strap. It would also give the story a nice, but exceedingly dark, twist by making the person who closed the lid an unwittingly accomplice to the murder. Yes, I'm brilliant like that.

Xavier Lechard was justified in assuming that the book would be quite readable, you burn through the chapters at breakneck speed, but it's not exactly a revolutionary locked room story. It's combination of hardboiled story telling and orthodox plotting definitely makes it an above average effort, but it's not on par with such staggering masterpieces as John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935) and John Sladek's Black Aura (1974).

The Sound of Detection

"This is The Man in Black, here again to introduce Columbia's program, Suspense... If you've been with us on these Tuesday nights, you will know that Suspense is compounded of mystery and suspicion and dangerous adventure. In this series are tales calculated to intrigue you, to stir your nerves, to offer you a precarious situation and then withhold the solution... until the last possible moment... we again hope to keep you in... Suspense!"
John Dickson Carr, to me, was simply the greatest detective writer who ever lived. Who else, but Carr, was able to combine a gripping narrative with an eerie, often menacing, atmosphere, first-rate plotting and dexterous clueing? Name one other writer in the genre who was able to walk as easily that fine tight-rope between sheer terror and utter farce without reducing the impact of either? Who of my readers, who haunt this blog with a certain degree of regularity, can claim they weren't swooned off their feet by the unapologetic manner in which basked in the fact that he didn't write great literature or any such nonsense? He freely admitted that he merely wrote daring tales of mystery, adventure and romance and their only objective is to lead you by hand into his beloved, fog-enwrapped London of Sherlock Holmes – "where high adventure awaits all who would seek it, in hansom cap or under a gas lamp in an Inverness cape." 

In short: how can you not love an unapologetic romanticist who continued the grand tradition of Edgar Allan Poe, Gaston Leroux, G.K. Chesterton, R.L. Stevenson, Jules Verne and Conan Doyle – and absolutely revelled in it? However, this doesn't mean that his books, stories and plays haven't left us without any valuable lessons and observations. They've enriched my life by showing that simply being alive and having dreams is something worth fighting for!

The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983) is a collection of radio plays that are great examples of this attitude and exhibits the talents that earned him his reputation as the undisputed master of all things impossible!

The Black Minute

The opening play of this collection perfectly demonstrates how effective his ability in conjuring up a spine-chilling atmosphere, to function as the backdrop of a seemingly impossible murder, actually was – as listeners were encouraged to turn-off the lights. This not only assisted in setting the mood, but also placed them in the same darkened, windowless chamber as where the story is set and the gargantuan Dr. Gideon Fell effortlessly solves the baffling murder of a disreputable medium during a séance. The spiritualist was securely tied to an armchair, preventing any trickery on his part, while the other occupants of the room formed an unbroken circle by linking hands, but when the lights were extinguished someone, within the room, managed to stab him in the throat – and, needless to say, the only door was dead-bolted from the inside. The ease with which Carr puts forward a maddening impossible situation and then explains it away as if it was nothing is a testament to his talents both as a natural storyteller as well as one of the shrewdest plotters the genre has ever seen!

The Devil's Saint

As the preface of the play notes, this is one of Carr's several takes on a cursed room that kills everyone daring enough to venture pass its threshold. The man who's brave enough to take on the challenge in this story is a young nobleman who plans to marry a girl, but has to convince her ward, a Hungarian count, that he's sincere – and makes a bet with him that will earn him his niece's hand if he can survive a night in the accursed Tapestry Room at his estate. This is, however, not a locked room problem, like The Red Widow Murders (1935), but more a remarkably well-told suspense story with an howdunit angle thrown into mix and a neatly done twist ending. I recommend you listen to the original broadcast before reading this story and marvel at Peter Lorre's performance as Count Kohary.

The Dragon in the Pool

This play, in essence, is one long dénouement, in which a young woman assembles all the key players in the unresolved death of her father – and extracts a particular brutal revenge by giving the responsible person a dose of his own medicine. The method for concealing a knife in plain sight won't stump many readers today, but it was a pretty novel idea at the time. A decent enough story, but not the best of the pile that makes up this collection.

The Dead Sleep Lightly

The tale of a man who's being haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife has always been one of my favorites of John Dickson Carr's shorter works, and the initial version he wrote for Suspense is very well-known, but this extended adaptation of that story is even better than its original! First of all, he had more time to tell the story and these extra minutes were put to use to add Dr. Gideon Fell and Superintendent Hadley to the cast of characters. It also has everything you come to expect from him: gripping story telling, eerie atmospheric touches and a clever, spooky impossible crime presenting itself as a spectral voice, speaking from beyond the grave, through a disconnected telephone, but the solution is, interestingly enough, more typical of John Rhode than of Carr himself.  

By the way, I absolutely love this line: "But the dead sleep lightly. And they can be lonely too." These simple words were uttered by the ghostly voice over the dead telephone, but carry the eerie implication that the big sleep does not necessary mean internal slumber and that the dead can stir from their long nap in search for companionship. 

Death Has Four Faces

A young man lost his shirt in a French casino and is approached by a shady character to sneak a bottle of pills pass customs service in exchange for a wad of money, but later that night everything collapses as he witnesses how his new "employer" is stabbed to death in an empty street by an apparent invisible assailant. The trick that made the murderer imperceptible to onlookers is a good one, but devotees of Carr have probably seen him put this gambit to use before.

Vampire Tower

The theme of this play is trust and that of Harvey Drake is put to the test when Dr. George Grimaud, the Home Office Pathologist posing as a palmist and crystal gazer at a country bazaar, informs him that he suspects his fiancée of being a feared poisoners – and his him marked as his next target. There's also an impossible angle, hovering in the background, as to how poison could've been introduced in the food and drinks of pass victims, but that's, once again, a clever ruse we've seen before. However, it's still overall a pretty good story with a neat little twist at the ending.

The Devil's Manuscript

Here we have Carr reworking a ghost story, Bierce's "The Suitable Surrounding," into a thrilling tale of suspense with a naturalistic conclusion, and propounds the following question to the readers: can words that make up a manuscript of a horror story induce enough fear to kill its reader? Well, in Carr's stories you can practically have everything, and teaches us the invaluable lesson to never accept any challenge proposed by a writer of ghost stories. They're creeps!

White Tiger Passage

This story is very much in the tradition of the slapstick approach of some of the Sir Henry Merrivale stories, in which a journalist and his female companion stalk the blood streaked trail of a notorious serial killer from Paris – and it's littered with "coincidences worthy of P.G. Wodehouse, combined with the subtle clues worthy of John Dickson Carr." This is how farce should be combined with a proper detective story. You can chalk this one up in the column of favorite stories by the best detective writer this genre has ever known!

The Villa of the Damned

The impossible premise of this story, in which not only an entire suburb disappears but also, for a brief moment, an entire century, is probably one of his most daring ones – and in combination with a solid plot makes for a pretty memorable story all around. However, like miracle problems involving houses and trains being spirited-away, the range of possible solutions are very limited and you don't have to be Dr. Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale to immediately stumble to the mechanics of the trick. 

All in all, a pretty strong collection of plays that merge the golden eras of both the detective story and radio drama, and the only (minor) complaint I can make is that I knew most of the stories from previous incarnations or have seen certain gimmicks before in other stories. But if you're, like me, hopelessly devoted to Carr, than you definitely have to fill in an empty spot on your shelves with a copy of this book. I also highly recommend this collection to people who enjoyed Ellery Queen's The Adventure of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries (2006) and Anthony Boucher's The Casebook of Gregory Hood, Radio Plays (2009).


Nothing is Impossible!

"The human mind; what a magnificent mechanism! Properly applied it creates miracles. Nothing, basically, is impossible..."
- Brooke (The Newtonian Egg).
Open any anthology of detective stories, published in the pass thirty years, and chances are that most of them contain one or more stories penned by the unequalled Edward D. Hoch – one of the last giants of the genre until he passed away in 2008. He wrote over 900 (!!!) short stories and appeared in every issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine from May 1973 until several months after his death. That's an unbroken streak of publications lasting nearly four decades! But his real legacy will be that of the modern master of the impossible crime story.

He was probably more prolific than John Dickson Carr himself, the acknowledged master of all things impossible, and was just as original as Joseph Commings when it came to finding new ways to dispatch people to the great hereafter that completely flies in the face of reality.

Hoch put his prodigious mind and diabolic creativity to use to create such baffling situations as a man jumping from a skyscraper on the top-floor, disappears in mid-air, and hits the ground several hours later; fresh corpses turning up in recently unearthed coffins and time capsules; an old haunted oak tree with branches that strangles everyone going near it; a man sitting alone in his car is murdered while stuck in a traffic jam and a shower that miraculously starts spitting daggers are only a few examples.

In All But Impossible! (1981), however, he gives the stage to his fellow composers in crime and allows them to show what tricks are hidden up their sleeves. Unfortunately, this collection turned out to be the usual mixed bag of treats and subsequently touches on all the weak and strong points of a short story collection. There are a handful of stories that you'll absolutely love, some will make you want to chuck the darn book across the room, a couple you've probably seen one time too many in other collections and a few of them have no business being there.

But enough of this palaver, let's take them down from the top:

The Shadow of the Goat by John Dickson Carr

This is one of the first impossible crime stories that John Dickson Carr put to paper, for his school news sheet during his undergraduate days, and introduces the first of his recurring detectives: M. Henri Bencolin. He's a cunning prefect of the Parisian police whose coal black eyes, pointed beard and hair parted in the middle and turned up like horns gives him a Mephistophelean appearance – and his menacing ambience strikes fear in the heart of many. However, he has not yet morphed into the theatrical devil of the novels here and merely provides the answer as to how a man could've vanished from a watched room, commit a murder, and disappear a second time during a disturbed attempt at a second murder. The story has all the familiar elements of later day Carr, but misses its refinement. 

There are more of John Dickson Carr's earlier forays into the mystery genre collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections (1980) – a posthumous compilation showing him grow as a writer from infancy to adulthood. Highly recommended!

The Little House at Croix-Rousse by Georges Simenon (translated by Anthony Boucher)

The literary father of Inspector Maigret wasn't really known for honoring the traditional detective story, but one of his first tales was a full-fledged locked room mystery – in which a man is shot in an empty house surrounded by an observant battalion of policemen. The solution, easily deduced, anticipates John Dickson Carr by nearly a decade, but the whodunit angle leaves its reader with an unnecessary sense of disappointment.

The Problem of the Emperor's Mushrooms by James Yaffe

Paul Dawn, the only member of the Homicide Squad's Department of Impossible Crimes, listens to Professor Bottle's historical account of the murder of the Roman Emperor Claudius – and the impossible angle to his demise. A poison was administered in his favorite dish of mushrooms that didn't affect the Emperor's food-taster, but threw him in a violent convulsion. I reveled at the double layered structure of the story, that runs for only 14 pages, and James Yaffe, who was only sixteen at the time he wrote it, should be commended for it. A thoroughly enjoyable and sagacious story! 

Douglas Greene had the following to say about this series when I asked if the stories were ever collected in a book: "Emperor's Mushrooms is far and away the best of the lot" and "the others have their moments but I don't think the series as a whole is worthy of being bookformed."  

Still, I wish stories like those from the Department of Impossible Crimes were more easily available for sampling to us that represent the next generation of enthusiastic mystery addicts.

From Another World by Clayton Rawson

This story was the result of a sporting challenge between Clayton Rawson and John Dickson Carr, in which they competed against one another to see who could come up with the best possible solution to the following premise: a murder has taken place in a room that's not only locked from the inside, but also completely sealed shut with tape! It's one of Rawson's finest tales and I think it won him this little wager with the grandmaster himself.

You can find John Dickson Carr's answer to this challenge in He Wouldn't Kill Patience (1944) – published under the byline Carter Dickson.

Through a Glass, Darkly by Helen McCloy

A carefully crafted persecution story, in which a young woman lost two great teaching jobs because students and staff were frightened by her ghost-like doppelganger haunting the school grounds. It's an innovative approach to the impossible problem, but like vanishing houses and trains the possible solutions are limited – and every observant reader will stumble to the identity of the perpetrator and motive before the end of the story. However, you can't help but take pleasure in how expertly all the plot threads are tightly woven together. Helen McCloy was an excellent plotter!

This story was extended into a full-length novel and published under the same title in 1950. 

Snowball in July by Ellery Queen

As far as I can tell, finding a logical and rational explanation as to how an entire train, including its cargo of passengers, could've evaporated in between two train stations hasn't been attempted since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle broached the idea in his 1898 short story, "The Lost Special." The solution in this story isn't as spectacular as the one in Doyle's story, but it's one of the few, if not the only, alternative solution to this problem – and it's a workable one at that! 

The Newtonian Egg by Peter Godfrey

The smallest of all locked room mysteries, in which a terminal ill man lectures from his hospital bed on Jacques Futrelle and John Dickson Carr – eats a spoonful of egg, after cracking its perfectly sealed shell, and almost immediately succumbs of cyanide poisoning. So how could poison be introduced in a sealed egg without penetrating its exterior? The answer isn't half as clever as you might expect from such a tantalizing premise and left me a little bit disappointed. The problem required a grander solution.

The Triple-Lock'd Room by Lillian de la Torre

Dr. Sam Johnson and James Boswell try to protect a woman who has confined her concerns regarding the safety of her jewels to them and fix her door with a triple lock, but that didn't stop this apparently invisible prowler from slipping into the room and stabbing her to death. The idea and characters were promising, but the solution De la Torre flings at her readers is one that should've only been uttered by a very dense Hastings-type of character, before being laughed out of the room, or at best proposed as a tongue-in-cheek false solution.

The Brazen Locked Room by Isaac Asimov

This is one of those gimcrack stories that makes you scratch your head in utter amazement at what the anthologist was thinking in adding it to the lineup. It's a pure fantasy tale, in which a miserable man makes a pact with a demon for 10 years of happiness in exchange of becoming a demon himself, and as a final test he has to escape from a solid bronze room – using his newly acquired demonic powers. I kid you not!

The Martian Crown Jewels

The third real dud in a row and another complete waste of space, that could've been used to reprint one of the many uncollected impossible crime stories by such short story specialists as Joseph Commings and Arthur Porges. But instead we get a pseudo-futuristic acid hallucination about a giant talking space chicken, who fancies himself the Martian equivalent of our Sherlock Holmes, looking into a bunch of purloined stones – and a failure to retrieve them may threaten relations between Earth and Mars. Yeah, I'm tapping out on this one.

The Day the Children Vanished by Hugh Pentecost

Hugh Pentecost picks up the slack in this fascinating story, in which a small town is thrown into panic when a school bus of children drives into a dugway and never comes out on the other side – and the solution is as clever as it is simple. But it's not just another cannily plotted locked room mystery, it's also a very well told story in its own right with a smashing end. I also dug the character Pentecost casted for the role of detective and the way in which he confronted the culprits. Possibly my favorite story of the collection!

As If by Magic by Julian Symons

Well, I learned something from this story: Symons wasn't only a first-class prick but also a hypocrite of the first water! You can't go around passing judgment on your contemporaries, for lacking a sense of realism, and than churn out a two-bit short-short, in which a typical amateur detective just so happens to be present at the same amusement pier where a murderer, before disappearing in the masses, starts stabbing away at someone and is invited by the police to help solve the case. Oh wow, that surely gave the genre a much-needed dose of reality, eh? 

I could've forgiven him this blatant hypocrisy, if he had shown Carr and Talbot how the impossible crime story should've been done and came up with something dazzling. But this is just petty and amateurish at best.

The Impossible Theft John F. Suter

This really pains me to say, but I'm developing a slight aversion for this wonderful story. It's a clever little nugget about a bet that involves the theft of a document from a tightly secured vault. The solution is brilliant and can be explained in one short sentence and the first time you read it you probably want to kick yourself, however, I have seen this story too often – and anthologists really aren't doing us a service by continues reprinting it (clever though it is). We're all very familiar with Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," Doyle's "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13," and Chesterton's "The Oracle of the Dog." Now give us something we haven't read before and haven't already, at least, a dozen copies of in our collection!

Mr. Strange Takes a Field Trip by William Brittain

This pleasant, but minor, diversion tells of a very improbable disappearance of a valuable golden mask from a museum, and the only ones who were swarming that floor at the time was a school teacher and his class. At first, everyone assumes it's a pranks from two boys who sneaked off on their own, but when a search of the floor fails to turn up the missing artifact their protest starts to carry some weight – and there teacher turns detective and comes up with a solution that is both original as well as amusing.

No One Likes To Be Played for a Sucker by Michael Collins

Michael Collins is apparently one of those authors who effortlessly blends hardboiled story telling with a classic locked room puzzle. Here his one-armed private eye, Dan Fortune, is hired to keep taps on someone's business partner, but murder rears its ugly head and it involves a locked room angle. However, Collins takes a turn on that well-trodden path that leads to a slightly different hermitically shut door. The ending involves a particular kind of tough justice fitting for a story about a hardboiled gumshoe.

I really enjoy it when writers like Bill Pronzini and Michael Collins let their private eyes take on a good old-fashioned locked room mystery. It's a nice change of pace from the usual haunted mansions, harboring a boarded up room that kills its occupants, and other supernatural menaces who apparently run amok on this plane of reality.

The Arrowmont Prison Riddle by Bill Pronzini

Bill Pronzini himself also provides a story for this volume of locked room riddles and his impossible problem boosts one of the most convoluted solutions I have ever come across in a short story of this kind, but what a firework display of ingenuity and imagination! The quandary the reader has to ponder over here is how a convicted murderer, a mere minute after his execution, could've vanished from a locked and watched execution shed after being dropped through its roof with a stiff rope pulled tight around his neck. Like I already pointed out, the solution is very convoluted and even knottier than its premise, but you really have to admire anyone who can dream up such a plot. John Dickson Carr would've definitely approved!

This one competes with Huge Pentecost's "The Day the Children Vanished" as the standout story of this anthology.

Box in a Box by Jack Ritchie

This story, in which a man is discovered unconscious next to his dead wife, inside a locked bedroom, and the solution the detective comes up with is only acceptable because Jack Ritchie had his tongue firmly placed in his cheek – and that's how it should be done if you're going to present the reader a hackneyed explanation like that. Yes, I'm looking at you Lillian de la Torre!  

The Number 12 Jinx by Jon L. Breen

I don't know the first thing about baseball, but this story has me intrigued and from what I gather, it’s part of an entire series of puzzle-orientated sports mysteries featuring Ed Gorgan – a major league umpire who regular sheds his sports cap for a deerstalker. In this story he look into a baseball player who, after insisting on playing as the club's jinxed number 12, disappeared under baffling circumstances. Good story, but not the most solvable one of the collection if you're absolutely clueless about the game – like yours truly.

Crippen and Landru (who else?) put out an entire collection under the title Kill the Umpire: The Calls of Ed Gorgan (2003). I think I might take a swing at this collection in the near future. It could be fun and at leasts provides a change of pace

The Magician's Wife by J.F. Peirce

The titular magician makes the equally titular wife disappear in front of a captivated crowd of policeman and their assistant, his sister-in-law, accuses him of having murdered her sister. Nothing really special, but fun enough to read.  

The Problem of the Covered Bridge by Edward D. Hoch

This is the first recorded case of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, a small town medical practitioner who constantly runs into seemingly impossible murders in the small town of Northmont (Jessica Fletcher has nothing on him!), and this story has him arriving in town and setting up his practice. But the problem that requires his attention the most is the inexplicable vanishing of a horse-and-buggy from a covered bridge. The story is OK, but Hoch hadn't found his stride yet with this series. He threw some really good and even more baffling miracle problems at Dr. Hawthorne as the series progressed. I'm particular fond of "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery," which was also the first Hoch story I ever read.

There are two collections from this series available: Diagnosis: Impossible (1996) and More Things Impossible (2006). A third collection, Nothing is Impossible (20??), is planned for the very near future.


"Nameless here forever more"

 "Your chains are forged by what you say and do..."
- Marley & Marley, The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Well, I haven't been entirely faithful to the tagline scrawled across this blog, "dedicated to the great old detective stories of yore," but the contemporary mysteries I have discussed up to this point were at least defensible because they were written very much in the same vein as the enduring classics of their predecessors. I'm not sure how to justify slipping in a review of Bill Pronzini's Shackles (1988), though. It's not a detective story at all. It's a thriller, plain and simple, but a good one at that! 

He Who Whispers

It's bizarre how, up to this book, I never really saw Bill Pronzini as the present-day grand master of the hard-bitten private eye novel. More like another Edward Hoch with a hardboiled edge to his stories. This is, of course, entirely my own fault as a reader, limiting myself solely to his locked room mysteries – as if he only wrote tough cozies. Yes, I deserve everything, and more, that Nameless had to endure in this book for even thinking of a term like that – let alone publishing it!

Shackles does nothing to reinforce the illusion I had of Bill Pronzini and shows a much darker side of his work, which is really what one should be expecting from a novelist of modern private eye stories and a ardent pulp fan.

The story opens with a prologue, in which Nameless is seized in front of his girlfriend's apartment, weeks before Christmas, by an unrecognizable, whispering man – handcuffed, chloroformed and roughly transported to an isolated mountain cabin in the dead of winter. When the unnamed gumshoe regains consciousness, he finds himself fettered with a leg iron to the wall and his masked captor wises him up on his precarious situation. He will be left there to die, chained to the wall, with just enough provisions, blankets, a dying heater and radio, and some reading and writing materials to prolong his suffering for three long, agonizing months – and cheerfully assures him that suicide is the only means of escape from his diabolically constructed prison cell.  

Captured and sentenced to die, Nameless starts a seemingly hopeless battle to hold a firm grasp on his sanity while he tries to find the tiniest of crack in his escape-proof cell to squeeze through and the reader follows his struggle through diary entries. Nameless' dramatic soliloquy is the best part of the book, in which we don't only learn how he manages to claw his way to freedom, but also a little bit more about himself and how he became the person he was before being snatched away from his regular life and the person he will become if he survives this ordeal.

Pronzini once again demonstrated that good story telling shouldn't be sacrificed in favor of characterization, but that a balance should be established between the two and I think more writers should take notice of that if the thriller crime novel wants to have a chance with a new generation of readers. Perhaps I'm wrong, but from what I can discern they aren't all that popular with us. 

The second part of the story deals with the aftermath of Nameless' solitary weeks in captivity and the hunt for the man who put him there, but these events didn't grab me as much as the first half of the book – with exception of the big reveal of the identity of his jailer and his motivation for putting Nameless through hell and back. Critics are fond of books that humanizes the detective story, well, take notice of this book, because that's how you make an effective statement regarding the detective story. I don't want to give away too much, but suffice to say the antagonist Nameless faces here is someone whom he, and the reader, has met before and effectively shows what happens to the culprit after The Great Detective has done his dramatic dénouement and is lead away by the police to get his just desert. It's dark, it's bleak, and it stripped that previous impossible crime story of all its romantic trappings, but if you want to take that route this is the way it should be done. 

Once again, I'm not a fervent reader of modern thrillers, too many bitter disappointments, but if more of them had even been half as good as this one, I would've picked up a lot more of them along the way – and I will definitely delve deeper into Bill Pronzini's impressive body of work.  

Briefly put, this is a captivating read that will bind the reader to the pages until the end of the final chapter (I wonder how many reviewers before me made those awfully bad puns?).

Note: the next book on my mountainous pile of unread books is the anthology All But Impossible!: An Anthology of Locked Room and Impossible Crime Stories by Members of the Mystery Writers of America (1981), and contains one of Pronzini's short stories that I haven't read yet! :)


Trouble is Their Business

I have often professed my undying love for American detective stories from the hands of such artisans as Ellery Queen, Kelley Roos, Patrick Quentin and Stuart Palmer, but there's a special nook in my heart that glows for the animated, alcohol fuelled, soft-boiled screwball mysteries dreamed up by the very offbeat Craig Rice. Her books are unapologetically fun to read, vigorously plotted, populated with off-the-wall characters and linkup the puzzle orientated mysteries of S.S. van Dine and Ellery Queen with the tougher, hard-bitten private eye tales of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

The Wrong Murder (1940) is a particular good example of her taking the traditionally constructed detective story by the scruff, and force enough booze done its throat to make even the reader feel tipsy – and overrun it with feisty mobsters, speeding cars, tight situations and occasional fisticuffs.

The Big Gamble

The story picks up where the previous one left off, namely The Corpse Steps Out (1940), which I, by the way, haven't read yet, and Helene just left Jake at the after party of their wedding to rush her father to the airport – when Mona McClane enters into the picture. She's a betting woman who won a casino from a notorious mob boss, Max Hook, who's a semi-regular character making his first appearance in this book, and she wants to stake her priced casino in a bet with Jake Justus. What are the terms of the wager? Well, she's going to knock someone off, "(...) in broad daylight on the public street with the most ordinary weapon I can find... promise you plenty of witnesses," and if he can pin the murder on her the casino is his.

Nobody at the party takes her very seriously, but they begin to have second thoughts when the next day news headlines carry the story of a shooting, at a busy street corner during a shopping rush, that left the unidentified remains of a nondescript man on the pavement – and Mona McClane was seen near the scene of the crime! Here's Jake Justus, recently married and unemployed, presented with an opportunity to earn himself a well-run, money making casino simply by tagging its current owner with a first-degree murder charge.

Simple, eh? Well, not really. With Helene and her dad in tow, who never made his flight due to being arrested and thrown in the can with his lovely daughter, there's bound to be trouble along the way – and their friend and drinking buddy, the unscrupulous criminal lawyer, John J. Malone has to drag them from a police jail on more than one occasion. They also have to shake a few gangsters off their tail, guaranteeing a few amusing sequences in which you slowly start siding with the poor thugs, who really never stood much of chance against Chicago's terrible trio, while also trying to make sense of a whole bunch of coincidences, tramping about for clues and plenty of rest stops along the way for drinks. 

There's a second murder, committed under identical circumstances, later on in the book and throws a fairly original impossible problem at the reader: how's it possible that the body was miraculously stripped of all its clothing during the ambulance ride from the crime-scene to the city morgue? The solution isn't overly ingenious and it's only a single strand in the plot, but it added a little extra to the overall story – and shows how adept Rice was at intertwining certain, contrasting elements of the mystery genre.

The book has some disadvantages, though. First of all, the title of the story and the fact that there's a sequel to this book, The Right Murder (1941), exonerates Mona McClane from the outset and its plot isn't the cleverest one she has ever conceived. It's not bad, far from it, but it suffers from the same problem as Carr's Till Death Do Us Part (1944) and Christie's After the Funeral (1953): you tend to think less of them because they sprouted from the same, ever-inventive minds that turned out several novels that became landmarks of the genre. They are excellent detective stories in their own right, but are dwarfed when compared to monuments like The Hollow Man (1935), The Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Home Sweet Homicide (1944).

If the name of a lesser author was slapped across the front cover, this book would've received a standing ovation, but now you just shrug and say, "meh, not bad, but I've seen her do better than this." And it's really a compliment, when your readers mark a well-crafted and briskly told story as an average effort only because your other books were even better.

This book is as a good a place to start as any, but if you want to know what Craig Rice was capable of doing, when she really was swinging for the fences, you should begin with Trial by Fury (1941), My Kingdom for a Hearse (1957), the Bingo Riggs and Handsome Kusak trilogy and the aforementioned, non-series masterpiece, Home Sweet Homicide. I'm also fond of Having Wonderful Crime (1943), which reads like one long love-letter to Ellery Queen and seems to have drawn its inspiration from The Egyptian Cross Mystery (1932). The book even drops off Malone, Jake and Helene in New York.

On a final note, I was hoping to read The Wrong Murder and The Right Murder back-to-back, but I sort of promised someone a review of Bill Pronzini's Shackles (1988) and yesterday the first pile of specially selected impossible crime books arrived – which I will be dipping into after the next review. 

So that's what in store for this blog in the weeks to come. Stay tuned!