An Old Master in New Amsterdam

"Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere."
- G.K. Chesterton.
Over the past two or three months, I have been making futile attempts at pouring an equal amount of book reviews of detective stories from two contrasting eras into this blog, but the scale refuses to cooperate – and tips in favor of the classically styled, neo-orthodox mysteries instead of those that were actually penned during the efflorescence of the genre. So I have decided to even out the ratio between GAD and Post-GAD stories by reading them alternately in order to intersperse the reviews. Of course, this determination to straighten out this uneven distribution of stage time guarantees absolutely nothing and it's not an unimaginable scenario that, within a week or two, I will look back at this post and think, "well, that didn't happen," but hey, at least I tried. Sort of, anyway.

But enough of this palaver, it's time to make this spot once again pulsate with the linguistic rhythms of ritualistic drumming that will gently mesmerize you into a state of relaxation – in which you will be possessed by a dawning realization that your cluttered bookshelves feel very bare if Herbert Resnicow isn't wedged in between Helen Reilly and John Rhode.

The plot of The Gold Frame (1987) centers on a long-vanished, previously unknown, painting from the brush of one of the greatest painters from the Dutch Golden Age, Jan Vermeer, which was confiscated during the German occupation and ended up behind the Iron Curtain – before it resurfaced and was offered for sale to Mr. Daniel Belmont.

Mr. Belmont is the founder of The Fine Arts Museum of New York, which was erected out of love for his now late wife and their shared adoration for the Dutch Masters of the 17th Century, who presently has a seat on the Board of Trustees – and it has always been a dream of the old man to secure an original Vermeer for his museum. The serendipitous acquisition of this long-lost masterpiece, entitled The Girl in a Blue Kimono, seems to have fulfilled this longing as scientific testing of the paint layers and wooden panel check out and experts affirm that it's unmistakably a Vermeer. Well, all except for one of the conservators, a woman named Hanna Becker, who's a self-styled authority on Vermeer and is emphatic in her verdict that the painting is a forgery. But here's the snag: the only person who possesses the talent and skill required to forge a Vermeer that could pass for the genuine thing is Hanna Becker herself!

A pernickety job for the Golden Pair of Detection, Alexander and Norma Gold, but they can procure a six-digit paycheck if they can determine the paintings origin – whether it's an authentic Vermeer or a fraudulent imitation. However, there are two constituent elements frustrating Norma and Alexander in their investigation and one of these foils is the very man who has to sign that big paycheck. 
Mr. Belmont has an incurable affinity for playing cat-and-mouse games and found a playmate in Alexander, but you have to read their intellectual fencing match for yourself – it's cerebral art! The other complication is the murder of the detested and corrupt director of the museum, Orville Pembrooke, who was found in his private dining room with his custom-made oyster knife protruding from the back of his neck – which drove a wedge between the atlas and the occiput.

"Aha," I hear you mutter, "another one of Resnicow's ingeniously and uniquely constructed locked rooms I have read so much about!" Well, yes and no. The murder of Pembrooke is not a traditional locked room mystery, since everyone had an opportunity to walk in on him and soil their hands, but there are some other features that suggest an impossible crime – depending on what your definition of that is. First of all, according to the medical evidence, Pembrooke didn't resist his assailant when the knife was planted in his neck and this person struck with tremendous force, but left Pembrooke's fingerprints on the handle un-smudged! And no, no, no, you have to give Resnicow more credit than that! The knife was neither dropped on/or thrown at Pembrooke. I'm inclinded to declare this as an impossible murder, but it's really up to the individuel reader to decide for themselves which label they will apply to this crime.

While the murder of the unpopular director provided an intriguing how-the-heck-was-it-done situation to the plot, I must admit that I found it less enthralling than the truth behind the re-emergence of an Old Dutch Master in New Amsterdam and how Resnicow avoided one of the familiar pitfalls found in detective stories with a plot focusing on a lost Shakespeare manuscript or a previously unknown piece of art – even though the illustration on the front cover suggests otherwise.

I also appreciated the picture Resnicow painted (pun fully intended) of what goes on behind the art-strewn walls of a museum and watch characters like Freya Larsen, chief conservator, at work as well as reading how she and her colleagues squall with pleasure at the fact that their boss is en route to the city morgue. They really couldn't be happier even if they were given Rembrandt's The Night Watch, and not openly reveling at his untimely, but welcome, passing is perceived as a suspicious act!

The Gold Frame might have one or two plot threads that will fail to completely excite you, but collectively they make for another riveting read that blends engaging storytelling and deft characterization with a touch of charming, unapologetic humor – making for an excellent piece of intelligent escapist fiction. I guess a term in obscurity is his punishment for refusing to explore the dark, frightening catacombs of the human psyche and not let Alexander's recovery put a strain on his marriage with Norma. That's what you get for daring to be entertaining in this day and age. 

The Alexander and Norma Gold series:

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

The Ed and Warren Bear series:


Herbert Resnicow: Building a Career On Crime

"There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds."
- G.K. Chesterton.
Herbert Resnicow

Herbert Resnicow (1920-1997) was a civil engineer, earning his degree at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, who made a drastic career move at the age of 60 – when his first detective novel, The Gold Solution (1983), landed him a nomination for an Edgar statuette in the category Best First Novel. Resnicow was unable to secure the coveted price, but the tone was set and he wrote a score of classically-styled whodunits in the succeeding decade, featuring the wise-cracking behemoths Alexander and Norma Gold or the entrepreneur Ed Bear and his philosopher son Warren, as well as outsourcing his talent to abet Edward I. Koch and Pelé with their literary aspirations.

In spite of these accolades, Herbert Resnicow has evanesced from popular view and virtually nothing is known about his life – at least not online. Nearly every scrap of personal information I have on him was culled from his obituary, which also mentioned that he served overseas with the Army Corps of Engineers during WWII and left behind a wife, four children and four grandchildren, but a synopsis or review of one his detective stories were even harder to find before I took up his cause. This makes me feel at times as if I'm the only who cares and appreciates this neglected, modern-day practitioner of the locked room mystery who did his part in continuing a fine old tradition that is worth preserving. 

The Style

Herbert Resnicow came into this world during the same year that the 1920s were born, which has a mark in my book indicating the dawning of the Golden Era of Detective Fiction, and when you look at the style, tone and characters that populate the Alexander and Norma Gold stories, it's simple to discern the type of mysteries Resnicow must have enjoyed reading during his lifetime – and perhaps even read when they were first published during the 1930-and 40s.

The novels that have the Golden Pair at their helm are archetypical mysteries of the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection, slightly updated and resettled in the 1980s, but nonetheless feel as the genuine thing.

In my review of The Gold Deadline (1984), I remarked that Alexander and Norma could've been conceived after splicing and stitching together the genetic materials of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin with those of Jeff and Haila Troy, but that's not an entirely fair assessment of their characters. The resemblances are merely superficial and a closer inspection will reveal a set of characters that are defined by their own personalities.

Alexander Gold is a physical and intellectual heavyweight on the rebound after a near fatal brush with death, but he feels that his recovery is stagnating his massive intellect until one of his friends, a high profile criminal lawyer, who sort-of plays the John Markham to his Philo Vance, proposes that he solves complex, seemingly insoluble problems from the comfort of his armchair – with his quick-witted, Amazonian wife doing the necessary leg-work and inducing witnesses and suspects to subject themselves to one of Alexander's cross-examinations. While this may come across as a rip-off of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, spiffed up as one of those facetious husband-and-wife detecting teams with a penchant for risible banter and bouncing affectionate insults off each other, it's a resemblance that is merely familial rather than the result of cloning. But you have get to know them yourselves to see how much they really differ from Wolfe and Goodwin.

The characterization of Ed Bear and his son Warren, who find themselves forced by circumstances, rather than by boredom or the prospect of a large fee, to don a pair of deerstalker in The Dead Room (1987) and The Hot Place (1990), were done on a more serious and sober note – and their cases are less jocular in tone than those taken on by Alexander and Norma. The sobering effect in these stories is the developing relationship between father and son, which needed maintenance after the unexpected passing of their wife and mother, but this never casts a grim shadow over their personalities or the plot. This also gives it a surprising touch of realism, because the situation is handled in the same way a reasonably normal and average family, with all their faults and imperfection, would deal with such situation and in spite having lost the most important person in their life they found themselves trust back into their everyday life – which is what usually happens in real life. The situation they find themselves in is in a way very similar to that of Ellery and Richard Queen, but their relationship was never explored like this and that makes the Bear's a more interesting and rounded set of characters than the Queen's. 
However, it's not just the detectives that inhabit these stories that reflect the American detective story of the 1940s, but also the backdrops of their investigation – which either gives you an inside tour of an institution or have cultural backgrounds.

The Gold Solution is an in-depth look at a New York architectural bureau and The Dead Room takes a peek at the inner-workings of a company that produces audio equipment, while The Gold Deadline and The Gold Curse (1986) reflect a genuine love for the theatre and performance arts, which he confessed to in his preface of The Gold Deadline, and the people the Gold's or the Bear's have to deal with are usually professionals, enthusiasts or intellectuals – staples of the Van Dine School. These "behind-the-scene" looks are often as fascinating as the plot itself and in the instance of The Gold Solution, which had a conclusion that left me a bit under whelmed, it even saved the story for me.  

The solutions of these mysteries also often hinge on how the crimes were committed, but I will come back on that when I discuss the locked room mysteries.

The Formula

Formula is perhaps the wrong word, but Resnicow undeniable drew up a blueprint for his detective stories and constructed the bare outlines according to the instructions on this drawing. However, this does not mean that one book is identical to another, but more a repetition of certain writing techniques – most notable in the way he introduces and fleshes out the personalities of the victims (who are seldom the recipients of this readers sympathy). The fatalities are always introduced as if they are faceless props in a murder play, but their exit is quickly followed-up with a meticulously detailed account of their life, either in a written report or during a verbal interview, which often feel as a short story within a novel – and the best of these can be found in The Gold Solution and The Gold Deadline. This psychological analysis and in-depth look at a character's personality is another element that can be found in detective stories whose authors attended classes at the Van Dine School.

The Locked Rooms

When Herbert Resnicow exchanged his drafting pencil for a typewriter (or an early PC), he brought with him over forty years of experience and knowledge of construction and engineering – and this is reflected in his unique approach to the locked room problem.

The closed environments constructed by Herbert Resnicow are not confined to hermitically sealed studies, bolted bathrooms or inaccessible towers, but revolve around entire floors or even an entire building – fully three dimensional spaces where characters move freely from one floor, room or spot to another. Yes, I know what you think, but rest assured hat I'm aware of the difference between an impossible crime and a closed circle of suspect's situation. These stories are full-fledged locked room mysteries, but with a completely different and often very satisfying spin on them. This is also what makes Herbert Resnicow more than just a mere throwback to the glory days of the detective story. He not only picked up the threads of tradition, but also weaved new patterns with it.

The murder in The Dead Room, for example, is committed in a watched, dim and multi-level archaic chamber, designated for acoustic testing and experimentation, and offers a one-of-a-kind solution that is custom made to the interior and situation of that echoless room. The crime-scene in The Gold Solution is an entire top-floor apartment, designed as a tightly sealed fortress, while The Gold Curse stages it murder during a performance of Rigoletto, turning the entire podium in a open sealed room under constant observation, but his most daring and ingenious locked room trick can be found in The Gold Deadline. A locked and guarded theatre box may seem claustrophobic in comparison with the other closed-off spaces, but the way in which Resnicow employs the entire building is simply marvelous and even logically explains why anyone would go to such insane and risky lengths to create the illusion of an impossible murder. Its solution is also unique and tailor made to fit the setting and circumstances in which the murder was committed!

When it comes to drafting and constructing a locked room, Herbert Resnicow was one of the greatest architects in the genre, with a touch madness not entirely uncommon in geniuses, and I think John Dickson Carr would've been delighted that his beloved locked rooms were carried into the 1990s by a such a talented and expert craftsman. 

However, I don't think that Herbert Resnicow's legacy is that of a locked room artisan, but that of a risible mystery writer of logic who conclusively demonstrated that entertainment can be both lighthearted and intellectual stimulating as well as proving that there's always a place on the printed page for Great Detectives – no matter what era is we live in.

Why he's all but forgotten today, even by my fellow mystery aficionados, is beyond me and a mystery that may remain unsolved, however, I will continue to beat his drum and I just hope my little scribbles will do his name and work justice.  

Note: I have not yet to read any of his Crossword Mysteries or collaborative efforts, but expect reviews of The Gold Frame (1986) and The Gold Gamble (1989) to turn up before the end of the year. As a matter of fact, I have already begun in The Gold Frame and it's shaping up to be another excellent read – set at a museum and involving paintings from an old Dutch masters!

The Alexander and Norma Gold series:

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

The Ed and Warren Bear series:

The Hot Place (1990)


A Sanctuary for Sinners

"The light itself, Mrs. Bradley thought, looked friendly. The high walls and the gaunt, stark church threatened those without, yet gave an impression of guarding those within. But all dark deeds seemed possible--she had noticed it before--in tall buildings seen by moonlight."
- Gladys Mitchell's St. Peter's Finger (1938)
St. Peter's Finger (1938) has been cited by P.D. James and Philip Larkin as one of Gladys Mitchell's most noteworthy contributions to the genre, which was also her own opinion of the book, and this review will probably end up resonating with the echo of those sentiments.

It's very likely that Gladys Mitchell found in her sister, a Dominican nun, an untapped reservoir of inspiration and knowledge, from which sprung this story, and this also had a profound effect on her writing – as few of her flaws were able to secure a spot between the covers of this book. 

Meticulous plotting is conjugated with characterization as sharp as a flint and the backdrop is a convincingly drawn convent. The tranquility of the convent, in spite of the turmoil, also has its effect on the personality of Mrs. Bradley, whose demeanor resembles more that of a pet python, subdued after being put under local anesthesia by a vet, rather than that of a benevolent crocodile who just had lunch and unleashes shrieking noises not heard since the days when pterodactyls ruled the skies above us, but her methods are nonetheless successful – even though she's not entirely in control of what goes on most of the time.

The presence of Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley at the convent, which is alluded to by the locality as Saint Peter's Fingers, in reference of the steady flicker of light that burns in the church tower that once warned passing ships before it was released of that duty by a newly erected lighthouse, has very little to do with a spiritual crisis or to recuperate from a breakdown, but with a plea from her son, the barrister Ferdinand Lestrange, to look into the death of a 13-year-old girl. One of the students at the convent, Ursula Doyle, was found submerged in one of the bathtubs in the guesthouse, but the cause of death turns out to be carbon monoxide poisoning and since the boiler was not defect, the coroner's jury settled on a verdict of suicide.

But Mrs. Bradley finds that the verdict is, within the confines of the convent, is not thought of as gospel and that few of the nuns believe that the girl committed the cardinal sin of suicide, but an unfortunate accident seems equally unlikely and the possibility of murder as undesirable as the standing verdict of suicide.

Nevertheless, a murderer is what Mrs. Bradley is looking for and with her probing into an inheritance and religious mania, which are skulking in the background, it's inevitable that the viper at the bosom of the convent will uncoil and strike again – and this is where the excellent characterization comes into play. There's plenty of plot to sink your teeth in, but at heart this is a character-driven detective story and this is reflected in the nuns, whose uniformly attire failed to conceal the fact that they were all endowed with a personality of their own, and the eventual revelation of what really happened in the bathroom of the guesthouse.

The murderer is well characterized and the motive is grounded in the psychological make-up of this person, making the solution feel like an inevitability, but I also have to give Mitchell props for the false and more conventional, plot-driven solution that could've closed the book on this case with equal satisfaction as the eventual conclusion. But even the solutions, good though they are on their own, are improved and elevated by the characters who populate the convent. 

I also loved the fact that Mrs. Bradley, after finally getting a grip on the case, slowly turns into her old self again and startles some of the nuns with sudden, frightening cackles and has to restrain herself from poking one of them between the ribs with a yellow claw – and to top it all off the finally is set during a fiery sequence with the Grim Reaper looking them dead in the eyes. However, this harrowing, but excellent, scene also provided me with the one point of criticism that I can fire at this story and that is that the nuns are a lot less sympathetic in the face of an immediate crisis, preferring to take their sweet time to don their habits and pray instead of immediately taking action to safe their students from being burned to death, but that's just a personal annotation to this scene.

St. Peter's Finger is an excellent and outstanding novel of detection, inhabited with convincingly drawn characters placed in what I imagine to be is a realistic setting and saturated with memorable scenes, which makes it hard to argue with those who rank this book among Mitchell's best work. Gladys Mitchell may be an acquired taste, but once you've cultivated an appreciation for the unique flavor of her brand of detective stories you get enjoy something really special – even when her approach is sober and subdued in tone like is the case with this story. But it's this restraint that Mitchell shows that just might make this book the perfect introduction to readers who are new to her work instead of starting off with her other earlier, more imaginative and sometimes highly unconventional mysteries. 

Definitely recommended to both fans and newcomers!  


The Vanishing Magician

"A good magic trick is like the perfect crime. Not a loose end in sight."
- Akechi (The Magic Express, 1996)
I was inspired to pull The Magical Express (1996), which is the sixteenth volume in The Kindaichi Case Files series, from the congested shelves that give a home to my vast collection of mysteries after reading a post on Pretty Sinister Books – in which John elaborated on his past as a puppeteer and admitted to being a total magic geek. This put the cog-wheels of this Mycroftian brain of mine in motion and dredged up attenuating memories of one of Hajime Kindaichi's cases that is actually quite clever, The Magical Express, and decided to shed some light on those dimming impressions I had of the story.

The plot revolves around a wraithlike presence, emblazoned with the moniker The Puppetmaster or Hell's Puppeteer, who's in the middle of on-going magic trick to make a troupe of magicians disappear, one after another, from the grand stage called life – and one of these disappearance acts involves a brilliantly clued and ingeniously executed impossible situation situated in a train compartment under observation.

The first chapter of The Magic Express departs with the arrival of a sealed box at the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Department, containing a twisted marionette, posed like a mangled corpse, and a dire warning that a spell of death and fear has been cast on a train bound for Hokkaido. It also has some wacky embarrassing high-jinx, involving an adult videotape Kindaichi has in his possession, but these are best glanced over and banished from your mind. Anyway, the line that owns the now star-crossed express provides a bit of entertainment for their passengers with a troupe of renowned magicians, who conjured up a reputation for themselves with a trick known as The Living Marionette, which involves a doll that is magically endowed with life and cuts his own strings before cycling across the stage, but before reaching the final terminal their leader is murdered – and his body disappears under miraculous circumstances.

Gentle Yamagami, a maven where fire illusions are concerned and head of his own enchanting pack of conjures, is found with the handle of a knife protruding from his left temple in an unoccupied compartment, scattered with roses and strewn with balloons, after the train was hastily evacuated after The Puppetmaster called in a bomb thread, but the remains are spirited away in front of several eyewitnesses – including Hajime Kindaichi! The solution is inspired, even though Yazoburo Kanari probably stole a page from the book of one of his fellow brethren, and the (visual) clueing is impeccable! Various parts of the solution, from the inexplicable disappearance of the magician's body to the identity of Hell's Puppeteer, are dangled in front of the reader, like a hypnotists' pocket watch, but it's so in your face that it's easily overlooked and can effectively lead you astray.

By and large, The Magical Express follows a predetermined track decided upon in previous entries, as there's an unresolved death in the past of the magic group, which betrays another avenger-from-the-past ploy to readers familiar with the tropes of this series, but there are some unexpected and pleasant departures along the way. The aforementioned plotting and clueing is one of them, which is continued after the death and disappearance of Gentle Yamagami, as the puppeteer happily dispatches more members of the troupe – saturating the pages with even more clues! It was also a refreshing to watch the murderer, during a theatrical dénouement, slowly morph in a different breed of killer than the ones that usually put in an appearance in these stories and that Kindaichi is accompanied by both Kenmochi and Akechi. Kenmochi continues the tradition that began with Lestrade, while Akechi acts as a foil to Kendaichi, but, more often than not, ends up playing second fiddle – like Simon Brimmer who only seems to fail when he works with his rival on the same case.

Overall, this is one of only two or three volumes from this series that I would unhesitatingly recommend to any mystery fans and shows how underutilized comics are within the genre. So much can be done with visual clueing and you can come up with a lot more labyrinthine-like solutions as they are visualized for you. Shortly put, an excellent mystery on nearly all counts.

Oh, and to everyone who wants to point an accusing finger at me that I pounced on this opportunity to tempt one of our own into reading mystery manga's and hoping that this story will function as a back door introduction to Detective Conan/Case Closed... well... you're completely right! ;)


Announcement: The Bughouse Affair (2013) by Pronzini and Muller

"They're coming to take me away, ho, ho, hee, hee, ha, ha
To the funny farm..."
- Napoleon XIV
Pronzini and Muller
Consider this an addendum to the review posted on Sunday, in which I briefly discussed the stories comprising Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services (1998). John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, a former secret service man and a female ex-Pinkerton operative and widow of a Pinkerton detective, who have gone into business together and run a private detective agency during the dwindling years of the nineteenth century, are Bill Pronzini's secondary characters – both of whom sporadically roam the pages of The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

However, in a recent exchange of emails, Bill Pronzini divulged that he and his mystery-writing wife, Marcia Muller, are collaborating on a series of full-length Carpenter and Quincannon novels for Tor/Forge – and the first of them has been delivered to them and will be published in January 2013. The book has been titled The Bughouse Affair and I can reveal that part of the plot will revolve around a locked room/impossible disappearance ploy and that a new recurring character, who fancies himself to be Sherlock Holmes, will contribute to the solution of the story.

At the moment, Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller are firing up their word processors to begin working on the second entry, The Spook Light Affair, which will also contain one or two impossible situations. I, for one, can't wait to dig into these affairs!

In other news:

Marco Books, who penned, IMHO, one of the best crime/mystery novels of 2011, De laatste kans (The Last Chance), submitted another prospective masterpiece to his publisher and additional information is expected to be released in December. Now if only a foreign publisher out there would pick him up and introduce his work to an (English-reading) audience he deserves!  

Curt Evans, a mystery scholar who's actually dispelling misconceptions of the genre instead of nurturing them, in order to feed them to a pet theory, has entered the blogosphere like a comet – and you can follow him along over at The Passing Tramp. This erudite scholar is also the author of the upcoming book Masters of the Humdrum Mystery: Cecil John Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920 to 1961, in which he champions the cause of the shamefully neglected and often ill treated humdrum writers.


Back off everyone, they're professionals!

"Detective work, gentleman. That is all I can say."
- John Quincannon

Bill Pronzini has garnered most of his laurels with an ongoing series of novels and short stories, in which he depicts the personal and professional life of a San Francisco based detective and these narratives ought to be viewed as a biography in progress. The Nameless Detective, whose full name has become a public secret at this point, is one of the most well-rounded characters in the genre who single-handedly changed the way I perceived private eye stories – and gave me a whole new perspective on the genre. It therefore pains me to no end that I have to relegate him down the list of favorite characters in favor of Pronzini's secondary detectives, John Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter, but at heart I will always remain a classicist and these two plucked at the strings of that instrument.

John Quincannon used to be in the employ of the United States Secret Service as a secret agent, which seems an unlikely occupation for a man who cultivates a conspicuous, gray-flecked freebooter's beard, but gave up that government job to go into business with Sabina Carpenter – a widow of a Pinkerton detective. Quincannon would love to expend their joint partnership into a romantic commitment, but Sabina firmly turns down his advances and continues to work with him on a purely professional basis.

Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services (1998) collects nine stories, penned between 1988 and 1998, in which the titular detective duo are confronted with counterfeiters, grifters, body snatchers and even the occasional locked room murder during the waning years of the 19th century and are topped with a western flavor – making them borderline hybrid stories.

No Room at the Inn

Twas the night before Christmas, when a lone San Francisco gumshoe, chilled to the marrow with a frost-coated beard, braves a snowstorm as he cuts a track through a frozen mountain landscape – in hot pursuit of a quarry with a nice Christmas bonus on his head. The one-man manhunt reaches an impasse at the front door of an inn and its occupants seem to have vanished like Ebenezer Scrooge's ill-tempered demeanor after an intervention from three spirits. Quincannon subsequent search of the place turns up a surprise or two and the plot patterns that emerge from his findings are quite pleasing. This is as good as a Christmas story as Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle."

Burgade's Crossing

Quincannon and Carpenter are engaged to not only figure out who has been toying around with the idea of treating Noah Rideout to an early wake and funeral, but also, if possible, to upset this persons plans. It's not a bad or uneventful story, but I had to thumb back to recall its premise and solution. Not a very memorable story, I'm afraid.

The Cloud Cracker

The womanizing Leonide Zacks is a self-professed "Cloud Cracker," whose portable chemical shack and potion-filled rockets can break any dry spell and offers this service to drought-stricken towns in exchange for some of their liquid assets, but the only torrents he creates are those of voices cursing his name after a sunstroke town finds out that they've been conned. Quincannon can earn a paycheck if he exposes and captures the fraudulent rainmaker, but before he's able to complete his assignment the conman has the bad manners to allow himself to get shot inside his locked shack – and the only other person in there profusely professes his innocence. This is a very diverting tale with an original take on the problem of the locked room, but the guilty party walked a very fine tight-rope during the execution of this seeming impossible crime and must have paid-off Murphy's Law not to show up for work that day.

Lady One-Eye

Quincannon and Carpenter are on a joint undercover assignment at McFinn's Palace Saloon and Gaming Parlor, where they attempt to get a grip on the sleight-of-hand methods of a female cardsharp named Lady One-Eye. But a jealousy-driven undercurrent turns this straightforward affair into a complicated murder case when the husband of the one-eyed card shark, Jack O'Diamonds, is shot in the middle of the crowded saloon – without anyone seeing who dispatched the fatal bullet. The solution is a variation on an old ploy, but one that blends perfectly with the time and setting of the story. Overall, this is just a fun detective story populated with colorful and memorable characters. Definitely one of the standouts of this collection!

Coney Game

Long Nick Darrow is a gifted, but rancorous, counterfeiter who was thrown in the clink thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Quincannon – which earned the bearded operative a top-spot on Darrow's list of unfinished business to take care of once he's out. This is more a western than a mystery, really, in which the problem is resolved with cracking knuckles and blazing guns rather than relaying on wit and intellect. Great fun, though!

The Desert Limited

The detective duo of Carpenter and Quincannon board The Desert Limited, in pursuit of an outlaw with a bounty on his head, but as the train races through a sun-blasted wasteland the fugitive manages to shake off his pursues – and seems to have evaporated from a speeding train. The premise of the story and the semi-improbable disappearance are interesting, but the solution is silly and a letdown. However, I have to note here that this story would probably work a lot better if it were translated to a visual medium. A Carpenter and Quincannon television series?

The Horseshoe Nail

Quincannon once again accepts an undercover job, this time at a sawmill, to ensnarl a sneak thief and retrieve the loot, which he assumes will earn him an easy paycheck, but then the larcenist turns up dead in his cabin – with the only door securely barred from the inside. The answer to this locked room problem is delightfully simple, but clasping the responsible party in irons will proof to be close shave for the 19th century gumshoe. A good story, plain and simple.

Medium Rare

Arguably the best story in this collection, in which Quincannon and Carpenter, masquerading as the fictitious Mr. and Mrs. John Quinn, set-out to expose professor Vargas, head of the Unified College of the Attuned Impulses, as a fraudulent medium – who made an art out of financially draining the grieving. The professor puts on a fantastic spook show in his locked and darkened séance room, where tables move on their own accord and luminous faces from the spirit world take a peek at our plain of existence, but then the Grim Reaper puts in an appearance – and Vargas is stabbed while everyone was holding hands and the locked door prevented any outsider from coming in!

I have a sneaking suspicion that this tale was penned as a tribute to John Dickson Carr. The story has an atmospheric setting and a premise that revolves around apparently supernatural occurrences and an impossible stabbing, but there were also a few laugh-out-loud moments – as Carpenter and Quincannon were channeling the spirit of Sir Henry Merrivale when it was their turn to ask the spirits questions! Full marks for this story!

The Highbinders

This is more a thriller than a proper detective story, in which a war between different factions is brooding in China Town after the body of a Tong Leader is snatched and a lawyer is fatally wounded in the street by a bullet. The only clue are the last words of the lawyer, "blue shadow," which constitutes as a dying message, but the main focus for Quincannon is on preventing a a small-scale civil war in the streets and simply surviving this ordeal. Not a bad story at all, but this time the setting was more interesting than the actual plot.

Overall, a strong compendium of period stories, which either had cleverly constructed plots or told an exciting story combined with evocative settings and colorful characters, that left me craving for more – and I wonder if over the past thirteen years enough new stories have appeared to justify a second collection. These stories are too good to leave them uncollected! 


Vintage Mystery Challenge 2012: Dutch Delinquencies

"Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon and the gift is yours."
- Noela Evans.
Bev's My Reader's Block plays hosts to a year-round reading tournament, which throws down the gauntlet to the entirety of the blogosphere, daring anyone with a blog to take part in one or more of the themed obstacle courses and finish an X-amount of vintage mysteries before the bells that signal the end of the twelve month time-limit cease their pealing – which is a neat way to gain more converts entice readers to take a peek over their shoulders at the rich and varied history of the detective story.

You don't have to prod me with a summons to contest with the prospect of a grand prize in order to make me pick up a vintage mystery, but nonetheless decided to take part in this parkour with a Murderous Miscellany category entitled Dutch Delinquencies. I made a selection of ten eleven novels from Dutch writers whose mysteries are, more or less, in the tradition of their American and British counterparts, however, their vintage label is not determined by a publication date but by their style – which made it difficult to exclude post-1960s titles from the list. I mean, you can't line up these delinquents without Bertus Aafjes and Appie Baantjer!

Anyway, Bev graciously allowed me to enter the competition, but without having a shot at one of the prices – which was fine with me. I only need the motivation provided by this challenge to finally immerse myself in this particular nook of the genre without any prolonged distractions (like a certain blogger infecting me with his enthusiasm for Paul Doherty).

Here's a list of compatriots that I plan to take on during this upcoming challenge:

Een lampion voor een blinde (A Lantern for the Blind, 1973) by Bertus Aafjes
De moord op Anna Bentveld (The Murder of Anna Bentveld, 1967) by Appie Baantjer
De onbekende medespeler (The Unknown Player, 1931) by Willy Corsari
Voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937) by Willy Corsari
Een linkerbeen gezocht (Wanted: A Left Leg, 1935) by F.R. Eckmar
Spoken te koop (Spooks for Sale, 1936) by F.R. Eckmar
Dood in schemer (Death at Twilight, 1954) by W.H. van Eemlandt
Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders, 1959) by Robert van Gulik
Het mysterie van St. Eustache (The Mystery of St. Eustache, 1935) by Havank
Klavertje moord (Four-Leaf Murder, 1986) by Theo Joekes
Het geheim van de tempelruïne (The Secret of the Temple Ruins, 1946) by Boekan Saja


Three of these titles will be re-reads (Aafjes, Baantjer and Van Gulik) and I have to order two of them (Van Eemlandt and Havank) before I can toss them with others on my to-be-read pile. And perhaps I will read one of Eckmar's books before 2012, but I already have a replacement lined up if that happens.

Tjalling Dix's Een kogel voor oedipus (A Bullet for Oedipus, 1954) has been replaced with W.H. van Eemlandt's Dood in schemer (Death at Twilight). 

On January 2 2012, I added another book by Willy Corsari, reputedly a locked room mystery, to the list. 

Simon de Waal and M.P.O. Books are missing from the list because I made an effort not to include really recent titles.

Full instructions to participate yourself can be found here.


Sunday Mourning

"Died on Thursday, buried on Saturday, mourned on Sunday."
Helen Reilly was a copious writer of detective stories, publishing more than thirty novels and a smattering of short stories during a career that stretched out over three decades, in which she accentuated proper police work and forensic methodology – making her a progenitor of the modern police procedure. This modus operandi is embodied in her main character, Inspector Christopher McKee of Centre Street, who "never soloed" and holds "that what he did he did with the backing of a great organization and the help of disciplined and trained men," which at the time was an innovative divergence from the norm.

Mourned on Sunday (1941) reads like a hybrid between a classically styled whodunit and a modern-day police procedure, in which an efficient and expeditious team of New York policemen find themselves relocated to the small town of Silverbrook – in order to disentangle an innocent woman from an attempted murder charge.

The maiden in distress turns out to be an attractive young widow, Nora Dalrymple, who walked down the aisle into the arms of an older, well-heeled gentleman in order to replenish her fathers bank account, but this came at the expense of a broken heart – as the marriage made it impossible for Nora to be with her one true love, Roger Thew. To prevent further heartache, Nora took off with her newly acquired spouse and broke off every line of communication with her former sweetheart.

Nora endured the prolonged agony of an uneventful marriage to an older man before he croaked and the nearly broke, but reinvigorated, widow decides to move back to Silverbrook, but coming home proves to be an disenchanting experience when Roger turns out to have married Sybil Cornwell during her absence – a local girl whose mother recently came into a lot of money.

This is a situation that is ripe for a death within the towns tightly-knit community and someone is reaping its nefarious fruits, as Sybil's mother plunges from a 10th floor window of a hotel in New York City unto the glass roof of the cocktail lounge, which is credited to Nora by the towns people – and they resent her for it. They nearly succeeded in their campaign to drive Nora from their town until someone drove into Sybil Thew on the Devil's Gorge Road and the silent witnesses all seem to point an accusing finger at Nora.

Enter Inspector Christopher McKee of Centre Street, who read the news of the attempted murder of Sybil Thew and the incarceration of Nora Dalrymple in the morning papers, making his mind drift back to Alice Cornwall fatally tumbling from a hotel window, which was filed away as an accidental death, but he simply refuses to believe that mother and daughter both had brushes with the specter of death within a month of each other – especially when a large sum of money is involved and promptly reopens the New York end of the case.

Stylistically, this story bears some resemblance to some of Ngaio Marsh's mystery novels, featuring Scotland Yard's very own Roderick Alleyn, in which the opening section sets-up the background décor and introduces the main players to the reader. The first act also sets out the problem to be investigated by the detective who's waiting in the wings for his cue. Unfortunately, the second act of this story suffers from pretty much the same problems you stumble across in a lot of Marsh's novels: the first act was driven by inspiration, while the second half was bogged down by routine.

Nevertheless, this was more than made up with a smashing finale, set at an abandoned log cabin, where a clever and surprising solution was sprung on an unsuspecting reader – at least a reader who wasted his time laboring arduously on an Agatha Christie-like solution and failed epically! I still find it hard to believe that I overlooked some really, really obvious tell-tale clues!

Sure, you can argue about the fairness or feasibility of this ingeniously executed, perhaps overly ambitious, plot, but it has to be admitted that it was cleverly and skillfully handled – which makes me want to give less weight to the fluctuating quality of the overall story.

So while this book is not eligible for a landmark status within the genre, it still has one or two neat ideas tucked away between its covers with a resolution that wrapped up the story on the same high note as it embarked on.

By the way, a question for everyone with an intimate knowledge of Helen Reilly's body of work: the story ends with McKee getting a message that a man has been shot on the steps of the Public Library at Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue. Is this a set-up for the next book or one of those unrecorded cases?


The Potency of Poison

"...you and I both know that every time we investigate a sudden mysterious death, or walk through the streets of the Necropolis, Death, like a shadow, lurks not far behind."
- Chief Judge Amerotke (The Poisoner of Ptah, 2007)
The internal structure of the plot of The Poisoner of Ptah (2007), the fifth entry in Paul Doherty's Judge Amerotke series, is as clever as it simple, in which Pharaoh-Queen Hatusu, the first female monarch whose head was adorned with the Double Crown of Egypt, has to look on as her sultry kingdom is turned into a multi-layered chess board – on which she has to craftily maneuver her pieces around in order to ensnarl her Libyan adversaries.
But there's one piece on the board moving independently from the Egyptians and Libyans, a wraithlike presence referred to as The Rekhet, who becomes a third King in the game and both competitors are determined to wipe him from their playing field. The Rekhet was once a knowledgeable priest at the Temple of Ptah, where he was one of the medical clerics who dispensed potions and powders to the ailing citizenry and pilgrims, but when an alarming number of them prematurely shed their mortal coil he finds himself faced with a charge of poisoning – and threw himself at the Pharaohs mercy to save his neck.   

In exchange for his confession, The Rekhet was exiled to an oasis prison, which, in spite of its misleading designation, is not a celestial patch of lushly green and maroon blue, situated in the middle of a blazing hell, where embarrassing subjects of the empire are comfortably tucked away. It's a guarded hellhole, where you are ensconced for the rest of your life under the tormenting countenance of the radiating tyrant in the sky, but this infernal region, functioning effectively as a prison cell, gives the poisoner an unquenchable thirst for freedom – which he will eventually gain and not long after effecting his escape the city of Thebes is once again plunged into a poisonous plague.

During the signing of a treaty at the Temple of Ptah, between the nations of Egypt and Libya, three leading scribes, who drew up the terms of the covenant, also drew their last breaths on the temple forecourt – poisoned in front of a captivated crowd under what appears to be impossible circumstances! The scribes had observed the sacred rites by fasting a day before the ceremonial signing of the document and during the ceremony they had drank from the same bowl as the Libyan envoy who suffered no ill-effects from the sacred wine. Hatusu immediately grasps the severity of the situations and that mere pawns or bishops are not going to get this job done, and begins moving her dark knight: Lord Amerotke, Chief Judge of the Hall of Two Truths.

As to be expected, the Chief Judge of Thebes is confronted with a spate of violent deaths, as the narrative of his literary father slinks through the city like the bubonic plague, extinguishing life lights in nearly every chapter, enmeshing the judge in a tangle of knotted plot threads. A wealthy merchant and his wife are drowned under inexplicable circumstances in their pool, located in a garden guarded and surrounded by an unscalable wall, while back at the temple the remains of a foully poisoned temple girl, tightly clutching a dying clue, is uncovered – and these are only the deaths that have a direct bearing on the case at hand.

The body count of any Paul Doherty novel usually resembles the number of "guests" who checked into a big city morgue over the course of a busy day and his entire oeuvre could easily fill-up a second Catacombes de Paris, but in this story the soaring body count interestingly reflects the attitude of this ancient civilization towards violent deaths. In the first chapter, the signing of the treaty between Egypt and Libya is preceded with the ceremonial execution of a troupe of sand dwellers, murderers and thieves, who are brutally clobbered to death by Hatusu as sacrifice to her righteous anger and as a warning to her many enemies. This is greeted with downright hero worship from the onlookers, but when a few minutes later, on that same forecourt, three scribes clutch their stomachs and keel over everyone is outraged over this disgrace and insult to the throne of Egypt.

But with the cloaked, spectral figure of the Grim Reaper stalking the footsteps of nearly every character in the book and the wealth of historical details makes for a captivating read, which not only demands your full attention but simply taking possession of it, making up for some of its flaws as a detective story. The clueing is once again sparse and not every plot thread is tied up with equal satisfaction, such as the impossibilities surrounding the drowned merchant and the dying message left by the dead temple girl, but I liked the simplistic idea behind the impossible poisoning of the three scribes – even though that solution also has its problems. The Rekhet storyline was also adequately resolved.

The only real letdown was that none of these later books, from this particular series, seem to be able to measure up against The Horus Killings (1999), which retrospectively seems a lot better now that I have read more of his work, and The Anubis Slayings (2000), which shows this author at his scheming best and offers a clever, but simple, locked room scenario with a satisfying conclusion. I hope the final entry proves to be a return to these two earlier books.

All in all, The Poisoners of Ptah is an excellent, but flawed, detective story with a rich and multi-layered plot, but you have to take Paul Doherty's weaknesses in consideration and accept them to be able to bask in those riches.

Yes, the next blog post will be a return to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. No, it will not be another Anthony Gilbert entry. 

All the books I have reviewed in this series:

The Poisoner of Ptah (2007)
The Spies of Sobeck (2008)