Along Came a Spider

"The cautious murderer, in his anxiety to make himself secure, does too much; and it is this excess of precaution that leads to detection. It happens constantly; indeed I may say that it always happens -- in those murders that are detected; of those that are not, we say nothing..."
- Dr. John Thorndyke (The Eye of Osiris, 1912).
According to the unwritten policy of this place, I should refrain from posting a succession of book reviews that riffles through the work of one particular author, but then again, nothing was really etched in stone – giving me leeway to indulge in a reading spree targeting the detective novels penned by Anthony Gilbert.

Anthony Gilbert was the masculine nom-de-plume of Lucy Malleson, a novelist with close to a hundred books to her credit, from mysteries to straight fiction, and part of the second wave of members to join the prestigious Detection Club, who nevertheless found herself consigned to biblioblivion. As far as I am able to determine, her stories have been out-of-print for decades and she's rarely referred to in the literature – most notably, perhaps, in recent publications. I think there are two, very common, reasons to explain this neglect of once popular mystery writers: a gross misconception of the genre or simple ignorance.

In case of the former, a writer is condemned to languish in obscurity as a punishment for something that is branded as a mortal sin in the eyes of the current establishment, such as a compulsive worship of the upper-class that mirrors their own preoccupation with the lower classes or an overemphasis on plotting, which are not strikes that can be held against Gilbert. 

The novels I have read, Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1942) and The Scarlet Button (1944), are not over plotted stories that dote on the upper classes – quite on the contrary! Money and a position in society are not the cloaked harbingers of a care free, prosperous life and even good people, such as the female protagonist from Something Nasty in the Woodshed, are not spared any hardships – in spite of a financial status. Not to mention the occasional, cynical observations on society that are stealthily dropped on the characters. There's also a willingness to experiment with the structure of the detective story, such as blending atmospheric suspense with police detection, which should speak to the interest of a contemporary reading audience.

So I think it's a safe, tentative conclusion that Anthony Gilbert was simply lost from popular view, after tripping over and slipping through the cracks of time, instead of being unjustly disregarded and scorned with malice aforethought – such as was the lot of John Rhode, Austin Freeman and Henry Wade. Ah, if only she had known that writing under a male pseudonym would proof to be a handicap in the 21st century.

Anyway, I have droned on long enough and it's time to take a look at The Scarlet Button, which is an interestingly constructed detective story as well as an exhibition of Gilbert's strengths and weaknesses that also gave acte de présence in the previous novel.

At the center of this carefully spun web of deceit, extortion and eventually murder sits James Chigwell, a master blackmailer in the tradition of Charles Augustus Milverton, who took a sadistic pleasure in taunting whoever he ensnarled in his web – and "clients" unwilling or simply incapable of playing along were faced with certain ruin and a trip down to grand central station to catch the final train of their lives. It was therefore only a matter of time before one of his regular contributors had enough and armed with a heavy walking stick young Kenneth "Ken" Jardine sets-out to squash the human spider, who fattened himself with the blood and misery of his clientele, but after sneaking into the abode of his tormenter he discovers that someone has beaten him to it – quite literarily!

Jardine escapes unscathed and unnoticed from the crime-scene without leaving traces of his presence, but still ends up in the docks facing a murder charge after courageously saving an innocent man from an uncomfortable fitting session with the hangman by divulging to the police that he was at the home of the now defunct spider not long after he was squashed – which proved that the hands of one Rupert Burk were unstained. But what he did was merely exchanging one equally innocent head for another to the public executioner and as a result one of his friends decides to consult a noted criminal-lawyer, Arthur Crook.

Arthur Crook is an amusing character, who's halfway between John J. Malone and Sir Henry Merrivale, with methods that are either somewhat questionable, highly unorthodox or downright amoral – which consists here of duplicity and supplying the murderer with enough rope to hang himself. In a way, this story can be read as a mockery of the assiduous, stereotypical storybook killer who only got caught because he had done too much, however, this is not a macabre send-up of the genre. It's a fairly dark story set against the blackouts of WWII and the brutal murder of Jardine's friend, a local working class girl, drives home the point that Gilbert was not an author of cozy mysteries.

The main problem and solution offered here are engaging and allowed for an interestingly constructed plot, but unable to fully deliver on its resolution due to a lack of an extended cast of viable suspects. This aspect of the solution could've been improved if simply more victims of Chigwell were introduced to do a danse macabre around his corpse and distract your attention away from the murderer. I actually dismissed this person out of hand (because it was too easy) and began to suspect a clever narrative device that would implicate an unknown X in a satisfactory manner – which made the actual solution a real letdown.

The Scarlet Button can be summed up as a nice try, in which the mismanagement of the central plot idea, which was not entirely without merit, crippled any chance it might have had at achieving some sort of status within the genre. However, don't assume that this is a thoroughly bad detective story, which is not the case as the build up to the solution was quite good, but the execution of the grand finale leaves a lot to be desired.

I hope that the next Arthur Crook novel will have a second-half that carries over the creative quality of the set-up, but first I will take a brief excursion into the dark middle ages of Paul Doherty's Hugh Corbett.


The Deceitful Cupid

Debbie: "Isn't he a lady killer!"
Gomez Addams: "Acquitted."
- Addams Family Values (1993).
Between the closing years of the 1920s and the start of the 1970s, Lucy Beatrice Malleson produced a torrent of detective and thriller stories under an array of different pennames, but the most successful ones appeared under the byline of Anthony Gilbert – and usually starred the criminal lawyer-cum-detective, Arthur Crook. Great name, eh? I have been wanting to sample them for a while, and had enough of them laying around the place to do so, but only just took a first crack at them after serendipitously stumbling over a copy of Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1942). It was simply impossible to let a book with such a spellbinding title languish on my to-be-read pile for even a single day!

Something Nasty in the Woodshed interlocks the plot of a suspenseful thriller, in which a predatory lady killer hunts the lonely hearts columns in search for inexperienced spinsters and gullible widows, with elements of detection – which in this particular case has nothing to do with uncovering the identity of the murderer, determining motives or figuring out how the foul deed was done, but what this individual has stashed away in the titular woodshed.

The characters who take center stage in this story are Agatha Forbes, a spinster, rapidly approaching middle-age, with a private income who gave up youth to take care of her father, and Edmund Durward, an attractive, charming young man and a professional seducer – who frequently trots overgrown pathways that usually lead to a cemetery where he disposes himself of yet another spouse who met with a unfortunate accident. It's never explicitly mentioned in the book how many wives he buried, but there were definitely more than one of them.

When the reader is introduced to Agatha Forbes, we meet a spinster of independent means who lives an emotionally isolated life ever since her father passed away. She fills some of her time with club activities, where she found one or two companions, but these shallow commitments failed to chase the loneliness from her heart – which prompts her one day to respond to a matrimonial advertisement in the lonely hearts column. The lonesome writer, who turns out to be Edmund Durward, is looking for a gentle woman, aged 35-42, of independent means who's not averse to a quiet life in the country and family ties are not essential in a prospective marriage. This description seems to have been written with the unsuspicious spinster in mind and naturally she receives an invitation to come visit this self-proclaimed lonely heart.

What ensues is an excellent suspense story, in which the deceivingly charming Edmund swoons the inexperienced Agatha off her feet to carry her into a wedding chapel and the couple installs themselves in his desolated house, which is habitually haunted by the ghost of a woman, in a remote village – where the blushing bride expects to spend a long, but uneventful, life with a loving husband at her side. However, as one month after another recedes from the calendar, her husband's tender caresses slowly turns into a strangle hold and as his control over her money increases the moment that a doctor will scrawl his signature on her death certificate creeps nearer with each passing day. 

I don't want to give away too much of what exactly went down in the first half of the story and how that part will be concluded, but it's easily the best portion of the book. It's a very disquieting account of a human predator stalking its prey before hungrily pouncing on it and the bleak, desolated setting contributed a lot to the unnerving atmosphere. There's also a fantabulous scene with the ghost that will play an important part in the final resolution of the novel.

The second part of the story deals with the surprising aftermath of what happened at that deserted house, but the resolution isn't nearly as gripping as the set-up, nevertheless, it's not entirely without interest, either. Edmund engages in a clever cat-and-mouse game with the local authorities and Arthur Crook tramples around in the background as an all-knowing deity, in the earthly guise of a tawdry, scarlet beetle, who reminded me, at times, of Sir Henry Merrivale. I wonder if Arthur Crook was a conscious homage to the Old Man seeing as Lucy Malleson was deeply in love with John Dickson Carr.

But this portion of the book also suffered from a few notable problems. Somewhere around page 150, when the story had run its course, a new element is introduced to the plot by simply contrasting two opposing solutions – which is a nifty and crafty plot device to rejuvenate a plot except when the reader is already aware of the entire truth. Therefore it did nothing for the story. It was also a bit of a let down to see how easily Crook let a careful, meticulous and cunning killer like Edmund Durward slip up in less than ten pages. Especially when the eerie pond, enclosed by mourning trees whose branches drip with the suggestion of ghosts, was simply imploring to be used as a backdrop for a dramatic dénouement. Oh well...

Despite the ending, which left me a little bit under whelmed, this is an outstanding novel of suspense, "calculated to intrigue you, to stir your nerves, to offer you a precarious situation," while also throwing one or two surprises at you along the way. Yes, the story lacked the extra two or three paces required to reach a first place position and qualify as a five-star masterpiece, but four, well-deserved silver stars is nothing to be ashamed of!

Something Nasty in the Woodshed is a very rewarding crime novel and an excellent introduction to Anthony Gilbert. I recommend it without reservations and expect more of her books to show up on this blog in the weeks ahead of us.



"It's a pity," he said, "the walls can't talk. They could tell us a tale of a bold and intricate woman. A clever woman too—a woman who had figured the last evening of her life to the minute and second, a woman who thought she had covered everything."
- Inspector Chant (The Strawstack Murders, 1939).
After an extended excursion to explore the unfathomed nebulas of classically styled, post-1950s detective stories, I decided to take a well-deserved break from that period and head back home – to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.

Dorothy Cameron Disney's The Strawstack Murders (1939) showed itself to be an exemplary specimen of that prosperous, illuminating era – in which a rich and complex plot is expertly constructed around a fair distribution of clues and red herrings. And if I were still unenlightened about the contributions made by contemporary, neo-orthodox mystery writers, such as William DeAndrea, Marco Books and Herbert Resnicow, I would've been tempted to lament the fact that detective stories like these followed in the pawprints of the dinosaurs. 

The moving spirit of this novel is a spinster, Margaret Tilbury, who lives with an assortment of relatives at a Maryland estate, known as Broad Acres, and lends her voice to the narrative of this bloody tale of murder and intrigue. The events Miss Tilbury depicts in the opening chapters, from an intensive bout with typhoid fever and the arrival of her nephew to in-law relationships and the entry of an unpopular nurse in the household, have the appearance of unimportant, domiciliary episodes and problems. But in true "Had-I-But-Known" fashion, these purely domestic events form in reality a cleverly disguised prelude to murder!

Dorothy Fithian, an unlikable live-in nurse who temporarily took up residence at Broad Acres to look after Miss Tilbury when she was struggling with the specter of death, becomes the first stiff to be carted-off to the city morgue when, one fateful evening, the household notices a glow emanating from the fields behind the house. When they go out to investigate, they discover the straw stack burning like a friar's lantern and during their attempts at dowsing the fire they drag Dorothy Fithian's limp body from underneath the smoldering stacks – where her nightly assailant left her to die an agonizing death after chocking her into semi-unconsciousness.

But when they return to the house, they find that someone has cut the telephone wires and drained the gasoline from their cars – effectively delaying the proper authorities from taking charge of the crime-scene and gaining valuable time for other nefarious activities. This makes it very clear to the members and friends of Miss Tilbury's family that they have a murderer among them and do everything within their power to sabotage the official investigation, from simply withholding information to burning possible evidence, much to the chagrin of Inspector Chant.

Crime Map on the Back Cover
Back in April, Disney favorably impressed me with her debut novel, Death in the Backseat (1937), which I delineated as a big knotted ball of plot threads that slowly unravels in front of a captivated reader, but during her second outing into the genre she crafted a novel that is nothing less than a minor masterpiece of plotting and misdirection. The plot simply bursts with activity, as characters are constantly moving around and bumping into more trouble as they go along, while clues are inconspicuously dropped along the way – which results in new developments in every odd chapter that ramifies the problems facing them and the reader.

But the greatest achievement here is perhaps the clever and original treatment of a stock-in-trade situation of the detective story that is cleverly hidden at the core of this book. I can't go into exact details, without giving away a vital part of the solution, but it makes you want to stand up and applaud the author for this ingenious display of creativity!

I've become a bit fearful at this point that I might have over praised this story, but I find the flaws, IMHO, negligible. Yes, the HIBK allusions can be annoying or even intrusive at times and most of the characters function more as chess pieces on a playing board than as actual human beings, but these are trifles compared to the quality, ingenuity and originality of the overarching story.

Dorothy Cameron Disney has completely faded away from popular view, which can be partly attributed to the fact that her mysteries are standalones, but that's hardly a justification for this criminal negligence on the part of the reading public. A good detective story is a good detective story, even if it lacks a catalyst such as Hercule Poirot or Dr. Gideon Fell, and The Strawstack Murders is an exempli gratia of the Golden Age Detective novel – in which Disney spun fine meshes from the multitude of plot threads and ensnared both characters and reader in it.

Simply put, The Strawstack Murders provides you exactly with the type of plot that you hope to find when opening a detective story from the 1930-and 40s. A (minor) masterpiece, plain and simple!


Death in the Backseat (1937)
The Strawstack Murders (1939)
The Golden Swan Murders (1939)
The Balcony (1940)
Thirty Days Hath September (1942)
Crimson Friday (1943)
The Seventeenth Letter (1945)
Explosion (1948)
The Hangman's Tree (1949)


Guest Blog: Polish Plots

Note: welcome to the third installment of this ongoing, but highly irregular, series of guest posts, in which fellow mystery enthusiasts temporarily usurp this blog for their own devices – and playing the role of supplanter for this entry is Patrick who blogs over At the Scene ofthe Crime. When I first bumped into Patrick, he was still going over the works of John Dickson Carr and was unfamiliar with even some of the more well-known GAD writers. So we made a few suggestions, nudged him in the right direction and you can read the result almost daily on his blog. Yeah, I know I should feel a pang of guilt for my part in the creation of this monster (he didn't know Rex Stout less than two years ago and is now reading Christopher Bush!), but I comfort myself with the thought that we gained a valuable ally and a future scholar to help us defend the detective story in the decades ahead of us. For this article, Patrick will be our guide in the world of the Polish mysteries.
When the Golden Age of Detective Fiction was in full swing, Poland was not really partaking in it. The reason for this is simple, as a quick history lesson will show. Between 1772 and 1795, Germany, Austria, and Russia partook in the Three Partitions of Poland, where they basically divided the country between themselves and made it disappear from the map until the end of World War I. After over 120 years of oppression, Poland was busily trying to build a country again, and thus, the detective story was not particularly popular.

And then World War II began, when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. World War II was another turbulent period in Polish history, as an effort was made to suppress Polish culture. A not-so-well-known item on Hitler’s agenda was to get rid of the Polish people and colonize Poland with Germans. Polish culture was once again under attack, and amidst all the fighting, the detective story quite obviously wasn’t about to flourish.

When World War II ended, one dictator was effectively replaced with another, as Stalin took Hitler’s place. The war on Polish culture waged on, as the Soviets basically attempted to suppress Polish identity, religion, etc. An excellent film on the turbulent period is Katyń by legendary filmmaker Andrzej Wajda about the massacre of Polish officers by Soviets in Katyń Forest. It’s a film that would have gotten Wajda killed if he’d made it 30 years earlier.

Obviously, after such a cycle of various oppressions, it would take time for the detective story to flourish in Poland, and for a long time, the only detective stories really published there have been those with an overt political flavour, involving corrupt governments and the like. But in recent years, Poland has seen a sort of rebirth in terms of the detective stories—Agatha Christie has been massively translated, as has been Erle Stanley Gardner. (John Dickson Carr, unfortunately, hasn’t been quite so lucky—in Warsaw’s public library, only a translation of The Devil in Velvet can be found in the catalogue.) With this rise of interest in the classical detective story is linked a rise of interest in Polish people writing their own detective stories.

The first sign of this movement might be seen in the work of Zbigniew Nienacki, who in 1957 began writing his series starring Pan Samochodzik (which can literally be translated as “Mr. Small Automobile”). In total, he wrote 15 novels. Two were completed after his death, and the series proved so wildly popular it’s being continued to this day with the last novel being released in May 2011. I hold this series dear to my heart because it’s influenced my tastes in mysteries very much.

Pan Samochodzik is like a Polish Indiana Jones—his real name is Tomasz N. N., and he holds a position in the Ministry of Culture. His adventures usually involve a hunt for some sort of artefact or other, but this formula allows for many variations. Sometimes Pan Samochodzik is doing the hunting, sometimes it’s the villain, but every time, a rollicking adventure is guaranteed. He is named after his remarkable car, which seems like an old piece of junk, but has a fine engine from a Ferrari on the inside. His inventor uncle also managed to give the car gadgets right out of a James Bond movie, making it a marvellous machine indeed.

When recently revisiting the series, I was struck by just how much it’s influenced me without my realising it. Pan Samochodzik I Fantomas (Pan Samochodzik and Fantomas) is a case in point. There, Pan Samochodzik investigates a mysterious series of thefts in a museum. An art thief calling himself Fantomas announces his thefts beforehand, naming the painting he will steal and the date by which he’ll do it, and he defiantly challenges museums to stop him. Naturally, security is upped, but Fantomas manages to strike again and again, stealing paintings under apparently impossible circumstances.

The situation itself is wonderful and I realized how it’s in the very finest tradition of the impossible crimes I love now. Unfortunately, the solution is in typical Nienacki style very underwhelming. The problem is that Nienacki rarely had a single culprit that you’d have to pick out among a set of suspects. Instead, a gang of international thieves is usually involved, and that suddenly makes everything easy going. The solution to the art thefts is remarkably slapdash, depending on a psychological improbability in order to work.

Another one of my favourites is Pan Samochodzik I człowiek z UFO (Pan Samochodzik and the Person from the UFO). It’s not even a proper mystery per se; Pan Samochodzik basically comes to Bogota to crush an international gang of thieves. But the novel is a fine adventure story, with mishap after mishap occurring. Throughout the proceedings, Pan Samochodzik must deal with a mysterious stranger who claims to be an alien, and he performs several miraculous, seemingly impossible feats—one in particular is impressive, where he puts on a suit that gives him powers of invisibility! Not to be outdone, Pan Samochodzik puts it on and… he gets the same powers! Unfortunately, the ending to this angle is not a particularly good one. Nienacki, instead of explaining the impossibilities, goes with an “ambiguous” ending where you’re not sure what just happened—was the man an actual alien? Or was Pan Samochodzik just high on cocaine?

Translations of these books into English seem very unlikely, but since you never know, I’ll avoid spoilers just in case. Far more interesting is an excellent Polish comedy from 1976, Brunet Wieczorową Porą (literally “Dark-haired man at evening time”, though “Brunet will call” conveys the title’s actual meaning far better). It is my favourite Polish comedy, and as you can tell from the date, Communism was still around in Poland, but the Polish identity was in full rebellion, trying to establish itself. The story’s hero is Michał Roman, a Polish editor who is alone at home— his wife and children have gone on vacation. A Gypsy knocks at the door, having apparently injured her hand, and Michał helps her. In return, the Gypsy tells his fortune—she tells him his lucky numbers, for instance. Then, her face clouds over, and she tells him that the very next day, a brunet will call in the evening… and Michał will kill him!

The next day, strange things begin to happen. The milkman finds Michał’s watch, just as predicted. The “lucky numbers” turn out to be the winning lottery numbers. As prediction after prediction is fulfilled, Michał gets uneasy and tries to isolate himself for the day, but the strategy doesn’t work. A brunet walks into the house and Michał, terrified, gets rid of him. Then, happy that he’s messed up the prediction, he goes to bed. But in the middle of the night, he wakes up, and stumbles to the hallway, where he accidentally knocks a box of knives off of the staircase. When he goes downstairs, he stares in horror: the brunet who came to the house earlier is there, stabbed to death!

Michał turns to his friend Kazik Malinowski, played by Wiesław Golas. He manages to explain the miracle of the Gypsy’s predictions brilliantly— I particularly marvelled at the simplicity of her prediction for the winning lottery numbers. But one question is left: who is the culprit? To solve this, Kazik and Michał rely on a clue of extreme stupidity, but to be fair, that’s the point. The movie is after all a comedy, and the “clue” that gives the killer away is a hilarious generalisation about American crime films that was made earlier in the movie. This all sets up a brilliant final joke, when the milicja asks Michał how he figured it out. He gives them a piece of advice, and as the credits role, they stop a random, perfectly harmless person on the street based on the advice!!!

The sense of humour is very Polish indeed, and jokes are made at the expense of Polish people, Americans, and (especially) Russians. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes takes place in a museum, where all the artefacts are bottles that Russians have used throughout the ages to get Polish people drunk! With a little more work, the film could’ve been had sublime impossible crime while being an excellent comedy, but as it stands, the movie is perfectly fine.

That’s all very well, you might say, but I’ve mentioned some rather old things! What is going on in Poland right now on the mystery front? Well, I discovered that some of our novels are actually crossing the language border, with Zygmunt Miłoszewski getting translated. I have yet to read one of his books (which are proving to be harder for me to procure than I expected). However, although the books are being billed as “Polish noir”, considerable emphasis is placed on his sense of humour and wit, as well as the plotting. Also, I haven’t heard the words “gritty”, “unflinching”, or “transcends the genre” in connection with these books. That raises hopes quite a bit.

Another interesting achievement is Anna Kańtoch’s Diabeł na Wieży (The Devil on the Tower) and Zabawki Diabła (The Devil’s Toys). These are short story collections that combine the classic mystery with the fantasy genre—at least, that’s how it’s understood in Poland! These are wonderfully atmospheric tales that invoke the supernatural, and I have finally managed to get copies of both books. I hope to be able to review them soon on my blog; the arrival of several obscure Interlibrary Loans has unfortunately delayed my reading much more at the moment. However, what I’ve read is brilliant—Kańtoch has a gift for creating atmosphere and for coming up with macabre imagery and situations. In the first story of Diabeł na Wieży, her characters come across a well that is filled with children’s toys… and all of them have their eyes gouged out!!!

Finally, there is a promising television series airing on TV Polonia called Ojciec Mateusz (Father Mateusz). These are blatantly influenced by G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown tales. Ojciec Mateusz is a kind man who has recently been kicked out of Belarus by the authorities, who don’t consider him in a positive light. Mateusz is assigned to a new parish in Sandomierz by the bishop, where he meets a colourful cast of recurring characters, including Peter, the snarky organist, and the housekeeper Natalia, who insists on cooking meals for the priest. (Unfortunately, she has yet to show talent for the subtle art of cooking, and would undoubtedly give Nero Wolfe indigestion!) Mateusz is simply a man of strong faith trying to do what is right and good, and in the process, he comes across several mysteries that he resolves using common sense.

Father Mateusz
The first episode in the series is Obcy (The Stranger). Father Mateusz comes to his new parish, and almost immediately comes into contact with violent death. A member of the Arab community has died, and his wife simply does not believe that he has committed suicide. Mateusz investigates and manages to make the local chief of police very unhappy in the process (although he befriends one of the officers who keeps him up to date). The suspects are not very numerous and the ending is not all that surprising, but unfortunately, it isn’t fairly clued at all. When confronting the culprit, they reply that the priest has no proof, to which he answers he doesn’t need any—that’s for the police.

Episode 2, Eksperyment (The Experiment) is far better. A doctor has apparently botched an operation on a little girl who is now in critical condition, and her father is understandably irate. When the doctor is found dead in the parking lot, the police first suspect an accident—after all, he died when he slipped down a set of dangerous stairs in pouring rain. Mateusz is not convinced, though, and he brilliantly deduces murder in the finest tradition of Golden Age mysteries, with the clue that isn’t there. Unfortunately, this leads to the arrest of the obvious suspect, who protests he is innocent. The ending is excellent, because it manages to be fairly clued and have a very good motive at its core.

Episode 3, Dług (The Debt) is interesting. Father Mateusz tackles ruthless loan sharks who are terrorising parishioners of his, threatening the life of their child. Unfortunately, not much is done with this premise— Mateusz figures out who the leader is (not much of a surprise) and from then on, it’s a game of Ring Around the Rosy until the victims are persuaded to denounce the culprit.

However, even if the mystery is not much good, every episode in this television series is quite watchable. The religious angle is not overplayed, but it is prominent— Polish people are very Catholic after all, and thus, this move is quite understandable. The characters are a true delight and the main character, Mateusz, manages to be a likeable, honest man whom you want to see succeed. Because the main character is so good, the rest of the series follows suit. However, if you look it up on IMDb, it has a shocking low rating of 4.5 stars!!! I have no idea why—the series is not 10-star material, but it is worth at least 6 stars. The low number of votes has probably got something to do with it, and I also can’t find English subtitled versions of the episodes online.

Perhaps the day will come where the Polish imagination is exploited to its full potential in the realm of detective stories. It’s coming soon, I hope—the genre is growing more and more popular in Poland. And after all, don’t the Polish people deserve a mystery craze? The “political” sort of mystery is still very popular in Poland, but the appearance of new forms and excellent authors are promising. The market is youthful and full of potential— let’s just hope it doesn’t get corrupted by the noir craze that has turned the modern mystery novel into character angst combined with graphic violence.

Foreign mysteries discussed on this blog spot:

The Trampled Peony (Bertus Aafjes, 1973)
The Last Chance (M.P.O. Books, 2011)
Death in Dream Time (S.H. Courtier, 1959)
Murder During the Final Exams (Tjalling Dix, 1957)
Elvire Climbs the Tower (Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe, 1956)
Romance in F-Dur (Ben van Eysselsteijn, 19??)
The Black-Box Murder (Maarten Maartens, 1898; reviewed by M.P.O. Books)  
Lead for the Family (Martin Méroy, 1959)
Murder in a Darkened Room (Martin Méroy, 1965)
The Sins of Father Knox (Josef Skvorecky, 1973)
Case Closed, volume 38: On the Ropes (review of Case Closed) 
The Melody of Logic Must Be Played Truthfully (discussing Spiral: The Bonds or Reasoning)
Kindaichi: The Good, The Bad and The Average (dicussing The Kindaichi Case Files)


Everybody Loves a Good Mystery!

"You know I speak from experience
I live it each day
It's something she does, it's something she'll say
It's the maddest kind of love."
- Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
Before I began working on this post, I excavated the previous Case Closed / Detective Conan reviews from the archives and came to the dispiriting conclusion that this will only be the third volume, thus far, discussed on this blog – which threw me back to that wonderful period when every year six new volumes were released. Sadly, that was reduced from one new release every two months back to three months after the series was re-branded as a Shonen Sunday manga.

I still have absolutely no idea what that exactly entails, but suffice to say I don't like it one bit and prefer the old schedule. Yeah, I know, the old schedule wasn't as profitable as the new one, but I like to believe that making me happy should be a bigger concern to Viz than something as banal as paying their employers or providing for their families.

The Drug Known As Love

The fortieth volume opens with a Metropolitan Police Love Story, in which Sato and Takagi are laboring under the naïve assumption they have arranged a surreptitious date for two at Tropical Marine Land, a popular amusement park, but their colleagues have them under close surveillance and under the guiding hand of Santos make a serious attempt at wrecking their little tryst – which is easy enough with a drug runner on the loose and Conan unexpectedly turning up with his buddies. As you probably deduced from this brief synopsis, we're dealing here with a lighthearted, risible caper fraught with incredible coincidences, such as Takagi's bag pack accidentally being swapped with the one from the drug mule or when all of the suspects turned out to be athletes, making this somewhat of a madcap chase story. Simply amusing from start to finish.

Justice vs. Crime: 15-Love

Conan is feeling a bit under the weather, but nonetheless insisted on accompanying Rachel to Serena's summerhouse, where they want to spend a weekend on the tennis courts, but an unheralded cloudburst soaks their plans – and the party eventually ends up at a desolated house in the woods occupied by a young tennis instructor and his old father. Needless to say, this inauspicious day ends appropriately when Conan and Rachel discover the body of the old man in his room, suspended from the ceiling with a stout rope coiled around his neck, and everything indicated that took his own life. But our little gumshoe finds himself to be only person who really listens to the story that the silent witnesses are trying to tell the investigators. This story is basically a successful cross between an inverted detective story and a how-dun-it. We know who killed the old codger, but not how it was done, however, there are plenty of clues to work out the method and destroy the murderers craftily build-up alibi. A very satisfying story.

Lost Love

In this story, Doc Agasa takes a central role as Conan and The Junior Detective League offer a helping hand with cracking a code. This numerical cipher was left to Doc Agasa by a girl he was very fond of and refers to a special location where she'll be waiting for him once every 10 years, but the poor professor never managed to break it. Is Conan up to the task to pick the lock to the heart of the Doc's long-lost first love and will she still be waiting for him after all these years? A sweet and touching story, but you have to be a super genius to solve this conundrum (Aoyama admitted this in his after word).

Anyway, it's interesting to notice how Aoyama insists on connecting nearly every (recurring) character in his universe with one another – no matter how superficies that connection turns out to be.

The final chapter is a set-up of a new story, in which the Great Sleeping Moore bungles up a case and runs up a huge tap and both Rachel and Conan's mothers put in an appearance. But more on that in the review of volume 41, which will be released in early January of 2012. Can't wait!


Tomb Raiders

"Go West, into the Far West. May you land in peace in western Thebes. In peace may you proceed to Abydos and across the Western Sea to the islands of Osiris and their green, eternal fields."
- A lamentation for the dead.
I'm afraid that this review may turn out to be a repetition of the previous notice, which conveyed a garbed discontent over the fact that a favorite of mine wasn't up to his A-game, but I will attempt to maintain an upbeat pace – even though Paul Doherty's The Assassins of Isis (2004) proved itself to be the first dud in the Chief Justice Amerotke series.

The Assassins of Isis was published after a dormancy of three years, which could be offered as a convenient excuse to explain the sheer drop of quality and utter failure to deliver on all, but one, of the many plot strands that were so firmly grasped in a tight grip in the preceding stories. The first of these threads leads Judge Amerotke into the Houses of a Million Years, in the Valley of the Nobles, where a band of mercenaries, known as the Sebaus, are raiding the tombs of their valuable artifacts and committing sacrilege to the mummified remains of Egypt's aristocratic forbearers – one of them that of a former, disgraced vizier, named Rahimere, whose sarcophagus contains a book that holds information worth more than any human life.

After this promising opening, the tome that was pried loose from Rashimere's custody drops out of sight and is not mentioned again until the end – where its disappointing content is divulged during a mostly predictable and anticlimactic dénouement. Meanwhile, the Sebaus are dispatching assassin's left and right to remove the Pharaoh Queen's most valuable chess piece, namely Judge Amerotke, from the playing field.

Admittedly, watching the judge dodging these mercenaries make for a few enlivening scenes, during which death is literarily just a heartbeat away, but not that exciting to draw your attention away from the clues – which are conspicuous by the absence.

The introduction of a second plot thread gave rise to some hope, but the seemingly impossible murder of General Suten, bitten to death by half a dozen horned vipers on his terrace roof, was perhaps the biggest let-down of the book. Doherty sketches a thought-provoking situation that encapsulated the ex-army hero's death and the apparent impossibility of introducing a bag full of agitated serpents on the terrace roof, but the explanation for this fairly original miracle problem was dull, unimaginative and enraging – especially when a simple, but satisfying, solution is staring you in the face.

Why not carefully suspend the bag above the bed with a looped twine, leading out of the window, and when it's pulled the bag opens, showering the general with venomous, rattled vipers poised to strike, after which the murderer could simply retrieve the tell-tale sack by giving the piece of twine another pull. It's perhaps a bit too simplistic, but still a lot better than the one that was presented here. The plot also throws a second locked room problem at the reader, when a captured mercenary is found stabbed to death in a locked and guarded prison cell at the House of Chains, but that solution was just as dissatisfying and enraging as the one put forward to explain the other murder.

But I will stop here to lecture an acclaimed mystery novelist on how to properly device and construct a locked room mystery.

Finally, there's a third, major plot thread spanned through the book and this particular strand turned out to be strongest, as well as the cleverest, from this entangled yarn – and ties together the dark doings at the Temple of Isis. Over the period of one month, four temple maidens have disappeared and their chief guard is brutally murdered. There are also tongues wagging in Amerotke's ear that the priests help the sick and dying, which stay in their House of Twilight, on their way to the Far West. This part of the story still lacks the proper clueing needed to anticipate even part of the solution, but at least it evinced some cleverness and what happened to the moribund after twilight was the best part of the book – and should've been more of a focal point in the story.

Overall, this was a depressingly bad detective story, which is a melancholia strengthened when you think of the four outstanding novels that preceded it – two of them excellent locked room mysteries. On top of that, it entombs, buries and hides its one really good idea better than the crypt of King Tut! The only thing you can really say in its favor, is how everything tied together in the end. That, at least, was done well.

Recommended to completists only.

For the next Paul Doherty novel, I will probably take an excursion to the dark Middle Ages. But first back to the Golden Age! 

All the books I have reviewed in this series:

The Assassins of Isis (2004)
The Poisoner of Ptah (2007)
The Spies of Sobeck (2008)


Too Hot for Comfort

"You're going about this wrong, Ed; trying to fit a normal motive to an abnormal situation in a straightforward way. Have you tried Warren's way of backward thinking?
- Iris Guralnick (The Hot Place, 1991)
When I read the first chapter of The Hot Place (1991), I fully expected that at the end of the book another opportunity was waiting for me to force a link in the chain of laudatory reviews praising the neglected and undervalued Herbert Resnicow, but his sixteenth detective novel turned out to be a surprisingly routine affair – lacking the effulgence of its predecessor, The Dead Room (1987). 

The Hot Place starts off strong when entrepreneur Ed Bear strides into the main entry lounge of the sumptuous Oakdale Country Club, to which he and his son pay a Prince's ransom in membership fees, only to find it occupied with policemen – and a few of them are scowling down at his son, Warren, while scribbling in a notebook. Only a few hours before, Warren had entered the steam room, around eight in the morning, after an early workout and stumbled over the remains of Barney Brodsky.

Brodsky was a miserable old curmudgeon, who could only derive solace from needling and aggravating everyone unlucky enough to wander into his peripheral vision, but this hardly seems like an adequate motive for a murderer to plead a case of justifiable homicide to his or her conscience – and so everyone assumes the old geezer was merely overcome by the heat and density of the vapors that cloud up the steam room. But Warren believes it was murder and when a medical examiner takes a look at the body the diagnosis is death by asphyxiating. Murder, plain and simple!

The murder of Barney Brodsky appears to be closely entwined with the dealings of his business associates, who also form a closely-knit network within the club, and a big investment deal – which is interlocked with one of the Bear's latest commercial endeavors. As a result, father and son find themselves taking on the roles of Ellery and Richard Queen as they probe through the fog enshrouding this case, however, this time they have less than a week to clear everything up and safe an enterprising young man from ruination.

You'd think that after such a set-up that the plot had build-up more than enough steam required to effortlessly charge through the chapters towards the final dénouement, but after the opening the book becomes sedentary and takes it time to position all the pieces on the playing board before resuming again. As a result, intricate and ingenious plotting was sacrificed in favor of characterization – and it shows when compared to Resnicow's previous efforts. The clues are there, but they border dangerously close on the green tie variety, especially the central hint, and the solution mainly hinges on the movement of the murderer at the time of the deed. It's not an entirely uninspired solution, but it would've been better suited for the pages of a short story.

I was also somewhat disappointed that the crime-scene barely had any significant role in the execution of the murder. The exploitation of the architectural features and functions of a crime-scene was his specialty and I structured a fairly clever, but false solution, around that expectation. 

Brodsky always used the steam room from eight to nine and was usually its only occupant, since nobody could take it when he turned the thermostat all the way, and I reasoned that the murderer used the combination of this habitual visit to the steam room and high temperature to craft a convincing alibi for the police. Everyone expected him to be in that room between eight and nine and when his body was found it would be assumed that he was killed within that hour, but what if he was murdered before that time? Lets say 15-20 minutes before eight. Body dumped in the hot room, making it impossible to determine the actual time of death, while the murderer makes sure he can account for every minute during eight and nine. Yes, I know, I should write detective stories myself. 

On the other hand, the father-and-son team of Ed and Warren Bear do make up for some of the shortcomings found in the plot. They're not only excellent as a pair of enterprising amateur sleuths, but they also come across as a genuinely warm, but imperfect, family – as Ed is still grappling with the lost of his wife and worrying that he still hasn't any grandchildren, while Warren is wrestling with insecurity issues. But this never casts a grim shadow over their personalities and it's handles very realistically, IMHO, because in spite having lost their wife and mother, they find themselves trusted back into their normal, everyday life – which is what usually happens in real life. All of a sudden, you find yourself back in your old life again and that you can still laugh or worry about things that seemed trivial only a few weeks ago.  

So while The Hot Place is not Herbert Resnicow's magnum opus, it's still a very readable yarn with two enduring characters at its helm and I thought it was interesting to see him handle a closed circle of suspects situation for a change – although I hope to encounter another intricately plotted locked room problem in the next novel. I still recommend it if you're looking for a fun little mystery, but don't expect a masterpiece from it.   

On a final note, towards the end of the book there's a reference to Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe and Alexander Gold, but does this mean that Alexander and Norma Gold are fictional characters in the Ed and Warren Bear universe? Or do they share that space with Ellery Queen, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin? 

The Alexander and Norma Gold series:

The Gold Frame (1986)
The Gold Gamble (1989)

The Ed and Warren Bear series:

The Hot Place (1990)