Memories of Brick and Mortar

"Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy; I should never hear the end of it."
- Gervase Fen (The Case of the Gilded Fly, 1944)

A while ago I wrote a post titled "Dutch Detectives: An Observation," in which I observed that the characters assuming the role of sleuth in Dutch-language mysteries were rarely, if ever, bumbling amateurs. The popular detective figure in Dutch crime-literature is a normal, hardworking policeman who usually has a wife and/or children hovering in the background and they show the influence Georges Simenon had in this niche of the genre.

You can find them all over the place, from Willy Corsari's Inspector Lund and Tjalling Dix's Inspector De Corthe during the Golden Age to Appie Baantjer's Inspector DeKok during the second half of the previous century and M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug novels in this era. Robert van Gulik and Bertus Aafjes adopted historical characters for their tales, Judge Dee from China and Judge Ooka from Japan, but their portrayal aligns with the image of the conscientious, hardworking policeman with a family in the background. I was convinced I had accurately pinned down and defined the Dutch detective story, but I also ended the post with this prediction:

"That last part will probably proof itself to be an eerie foreshadowing that, somewhere in the future, I will have to come back on every word put down here. Every time I think to have a firm grasp on the genre, I stumble across new information or obscure titles that turn my perception of the genre upside down."

Archilles Fell?!
Ted O. Sickens' De man die 'n paar maal vermoord was (The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times, 1942) demoted the official representative of the police, Commissioner Dijkman, to a Lestrade-like figure and threw the mantle of Sherlock Holmes on Ulysses P. Bibber – a mumbling old man who nibbles on the handle of his umbrella when he's thinking. The old man is a doctor in philosophy, who dislikes the idea that people think of him as a detective, but that's what you get if you successfully meddle in murder cases.

Bibber is well acquainted with the technique of asking irrelevant questions and driving Dijkman up the wall with cryptic and untenable remarks as he sits on a chair "gathering wool" all around him. But as atypical as Ulysses P. Bibber himself, is the presence of his biographer and narrator, Mr. Ted O. Sickens himself, strewing footnotes all over the pages that directly challenge the reader – as well as extending a helping hand. Sickens gives his readers an edge over Bibber by informing them (in chapter II) that one of the persons, mentioned in the first chapter, is the murderer. And that's what this story is: a detective story that is a very aware of what it is and one that is more than willing to play along with the reader. A game, basically, between the reader and the author without any literary pretententions. But what's the game about, you ask? 

The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times is Fernand Dumar, an impoverished nobleman, who lives a solitary existence at "Het Steen," a lavish country estate that is slowly falling into decline, and writes his former sister-in-law, Maria Reedingh, is she and her daughters wants to take charge of the home while he's away. Maria is a "lovely fool" and dreamt of returning to the home of her first husband, but a puzzled housekeeper and a foul odor emerging from an empty nursery foreshadows a less then perfect homecoming.

S.S. van Dine Ted O. Sickens
A local carpenter is asked to pry loose the floorboards and remove the dead animal that they presume is stinking up the place, but when the planks are lifted, it's the battered and decaying remains of the baron that emerges from the hole. Bibber and his entourage, consisting of Dijkman, Sickens and Bibber's granddaughter, Monica, who's also married to our narrator, uncover tangled family relations (everyone appears to be related to everyone else in one way or another) in order to find out why, when and how many times the baron died. The solution is fairly clued, but even without the hints, a seasoned mystery reader can anticipate the correct explanation, because they will recognize that the plot is a variation on a time-honored trick that is still being used today – except that it was not as well hidden as it should've been. Perhaps Sickens played the game a little bit too fair? Am I even allowed to label that as a drawback in a Golden Age detective story?  

However, the outdated spelling did manage to annoy me almost as much as the never ending stream of "Ach gunst" and "O gut" flowing from Bibber's mouth (Dr. Fell has nothing on this guy when it comes to uttering ambiguities), but then again, I have to be grateful that they didn't keep referring to the murder as a treurspel – and that is something to be grateful for after suffering through a 1930s translation of a Philo Vance story. It was sort of cute the first few times, but after the umpteenth time I wanted to throttle the translator.

All in all, The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times was an interesting, if somewhat predicable (or even simple?), detective story that played the game with so much enthusiasm that I find it hard to care about its imperfections – 'cause I just love playing the grandest game in the world.

Ted O. Sickens was the penname of Theodor Oscar Louis Sikkens, born in Amsterdam in 1910 and died in Italy in 1979, who wrote for newspapers and magazines before he began writing novels. He apparently also wrote a Christmas story that was translated in 52 languages, but I have no idea what the title of this story. During the war he joined the resistance and according to De Spanningblog he "saved a very large number of fellow Jewish citizens." Understandably, these experiences left their mark on Sikkens and he wasn't able to produce another book until the mid-1950s. I'm not surprised that someone who tried to write in the spirit of John Dickson Carr, G.K. Chesterton and Gladys Mitchell turned out to be a bona-fide hero. Not surprised at all! :)

Oh, each chapter also contains beautiful illustrations from J.F. Doeve, who also did illustrations for Bertus Aafjes, and they also give you that old-time detective feeling you get when you read Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin stories that come with the original drawings. I might add one or two later.

The Great Detective!

Ted O. Sickens bibliography: 

Loetje en de gentleman in de jacht op een baby (Loetje and the Gentleman in the Hunt for a Baby, 1941) 
De man die 'n paar maal vermoord was (The Man Who Had Been Murdered a Few Times, 1942) 
De man die de sleutel had (The Man Who Had the Key, 1954) 
De man die er niet was (The Man Who Wasn't There, 1956)

Oh, so you thought I forgot about him, huh? Well, here's a link to all my reviews of Cor Docter's Commissioner Daan Vissering series.


Disturbing the Peace

"Of all the ghosts, the ghosts of our old loves are the worst."
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If the Ghostbusters had been practicing their craft during the Dark Ages, they would've inevitably concluded that the abbey of St. Martin's-in-the-Marsh was situated in the middle of spook central. The region teems with tales of the ghost of Sir Geoffrey Mandeville, a feared robber baron in life, who prowls the Lincolnshire fens with a retinue of phantom horsemen after death – blasting their hunting horns with the ghost of their breath.

Naturally, the brothers of the monastery do not concern themselves with phantom horsemen from Hell, ghostly lights that foreshadows death and other superstitions that plague the locals. After all, they've more pressing matters on their hands: like exhuming and tearing down the burial mound in the Bloody Meadows that is said to contain the remains of an ancient king named Sigbert, who was martyred when he refused to renounce his faith. The plan is to erect a lavish guesthouse on the spot to attract pilgrims, but Abbot Stephen, who also happened to be a celebrated exorcist, considers the mound inviolable and refuses to give permission for its destruction. A decision that may have cost him his life!

One day, Abbot Stephen is stabbed to death in his private chamber, with the door and windows locked and secured from the inside, and King Edward I, who counted the abbot among his few friends, sends Sir Hugh Corbett and Ranulf-atta-Newgate to exorcise this demonic killer from the monastery.

Paul Doherty's Corpse Candle (2001) is much more a crime than a detective novel and characterization is more a focal point here than the actual plot. The revelation of the solution comes as Corbett and Ranulf slowly, but surely, undrape the abbot's past and even though you can anticipate snippets of the solution – it’s impossible to get the complete picture before Corbett does. It's not a bad plot, not bad at all, but it simply does not qualify as a detective story and the impossible situation was unnecessarily disappointing. I understand it was done to exclude any of the unsavory elements from outside the abbey, but by that same logic, shouldn't that also exclude anyone from the inside? So, either a trick was used to lock the door and/or windows from the outside, which can be done from either side of the grounds, or they didn't. I think this part of the story would've made more sense and been less of a disappointment if the door of Abbot Stephen's chamber had been ajar.

That being said, I enjoyed the story. It wasn't Doherty’s finest effort, but I enjoyed it. Doherty has a knack for poking and stirring a dormant era from its slumber and I begin to become interested in the relationship between Corbett, Ranulf and Edward I – and the effect the latter has on the friendship of the former two. Edward I seem to like the role of "the man behind the curtain" in these books and I want to see how it develops. There's also plenty of action, when Ranulf goes up against a local band of wolfheads. In short, what's not to like here if you're already a fan of the series? 

Is it me or are my Doherty reviews getting very summary

A list of all the Paul Doherty novels reviewed on this blog:

Corpse Candle (2001) 
The Plague Lord (2002)
The Assassins of Isis (2004)
The Mysterium (2010)


Leverage: Let's Go Steal a Show!

"Grifting is the aristocracy of crime."
- Albert Stroller (Hustle)

Back in August of 2011, I was already a fan of the BBC series Hustle when I learned that there was an American counterpart (of sorts) to the series, entitled Leverage, which followed the same basic format – except that everything was done bigger and faster. 

Sometimes bad guys are the only good guys you get

Leverage, for those unfamiliar with the series, follows the exploits of a group of criminals, each a specialist in their own particular field (grifting, hacking, retrieval, etc.), who turned on the lowest of their own kind to provide leverage to their victims. I noticed in the previous post that I made on this series that my main objective, when comparing it to their overseas colleagues, was the lazy plotting – when they're faced with a hurdle, Hardison strokes his keyboard and problem solved! This was hardly a problem in the third season. They were even working long cons in a more traditional way. 

The Jailhouse Job has the brains of the outfit, Nathan Ford, locked up in a privately owned, maximum secured prison that functions as a cover for a money making scheme and they've decide to take down the corrupt warden as they pull Ford from prison. Hacking into the facility won't cut it and we even get to see them map out the prison the old-fashioned way. As a classicist, I could not but recall The Thinking Machine's prison caper in Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" (1905). You can put a great mind behind bars, but that won't always lull them into inactivity. 

In The Reunion Job, they work what is perhaps a bit of an overly ingenious and emotionally deep con to pry loose a password from a powerful software mogul, but in order to do so, they have to "hack" and "take over" his personality. The Inside Job puts Parker in a tough spot when she botches a solo job and is trapped inside a building with an intelligent security system. They have to con their way in to get Parker out, before the system finds her. The Boost Job and The Ho-Ho-Ho Job featured a high-tech gizmo that briefly brought back that one annoyance from the first season. That said, it was interestingly used in The Boost Job, but too SciFi for my taste.

My favorite episodes of the third season were definitely The Three-Card Monte Job and The Rashomon Job, in which the teams' adversaries are respectively Nate's father, Jimmy Ford, and themselves!

Jimmy Ford is an old-school crook, who did time for one of the families as a favor and wants to get back in the game as a fixer for the big guys. There's just one problem: his son is sitting on his spot and one of them has to go. Nate not only has to go up against the man from whom he got his intellect, but also a hardened criminal who got experience on his side. It's episodes like these that show that the otherwise playful characters have their darker sides and their fair share of emotional baggage. The Inside Job did the same with Parker, perhaps the most popular character of show, reminding the reader that her funny quirks and anti-social behavior have a serious origin. But we also have comedic capers, like The Rashomon Job, in which the team are sharing memories of past jobs and discover that they all tried to steal the same artifact on the same night – five years before they officially met in The Nigerian Job. Their vague memories of that night and their perception of each other, especially Sophie's fake accent (Elliot's version was hilarious), were often very funny.

I thought these episodes were better than the final two-parter, The Big-Bang Job and The San Lorenzo Job, which began at the end of The Jailhouse Job when they were blackmailed by an Italian woman in taking down Damien Moreau, an untouchable crime lord, and most of the jobs they took in this third season was in order to get closer to Moreau (have the writers been reading Detective Conan?). They were not episodes, but the combination of a mob boss and a rogue president of small country didn't felt like the threat it should've been. Like Sterling was in the first two seasons.

That being said, it was a pretty solid season with overall better stories, character development that added to the stories instead of intruding on them and recurring characters (like Agent McSweeten and a rival hacker) that gave the series that real world feel – which is one of the things I love about Detective Conan and the Wolfe Corpus.

 I noticed something of interest: In the third episode, The Inside Job, Richard Chamberlain plays Archie Leach, a legendary thief, which happens to be a very similar role he played in a third season (and also the third) episode of Hustle. A mere coincidence or a cleverly hidden nod to that crew on the other side of the pond? Pity that they'll never meet, now that both series are taken off the air. Ah, the road not taken.

Well, I still have two seasons left to go, but first, I have to get back on track with these regular reviews.


Murder in Retrospect: The Best Reads of 2012

I've got a little list, I've got a little list!”
- Stewie Griffin

If it were not for a dilapidating flu, which felt like a resurgence of the Bubonic plague, I probably would've had another review up, alongside this best-of list, but I found myself unable to focus on any story – even if it was just a short one. So now that I'm back, but without a book to discuss, I have nothing else to post except this annual list of detectives that I enjoyed reading over the past twelve months.

This year, I wanted to elaborate on my picks, perhaps even divide them up in special categories, but I'm running low on creative juice and settled on the same model as last year – an accumulation of links to the individual reviews. Compiling the list was even easier, which I attribute to the fact that I emerged myself in unnoted, second (or even third) string mystery writers. It proved to be an enormous help in separating the wheat from the chaff.

My top 30 of favorite mysteries read in 2012 (in alphabetical order):

Murder Points a Finger (David Alexander, 1953)
The Death of Callista de Vries (M.P.O. Books, 2012)
The Emperor's Snuff-Box (John Dickson Carr, 1942)
The Bride of New Gate (John Dickson Carr, 1950)
Killed in the Act (William L. DeAndrea, 1981)
The Department of Queer Complaints (Carter Dickson, 1940)
The Spies of Sobeck (Paul Doherty, 2008)
The Mysterium (Paul Doherty, 2010)
Holiday Express (J. Jefferson Farjeon, 1935)
Dead Skip (Joe Gores, 1972)
The Demon of Dartmoor (Paul Halter, 1993)
The Devotion of Suspect X (Keigo Higashino, 2005)
The Blushing Monkey (Roman McDougald, 1953)
The Seven Deadly Sisters (Pat McGerr, 1948)
Follow as the Night (Pat McGerr, 1951)
Dead Men's Morris (Gladys Mitchell, 1936)
The Tree of Death (Marcia Muller, 1983)
The Moonflower (Beverley Nichols, 1955)
The Stingaree Murders (W. Shepard Pleasants, 1932)
Verdict of Twelve (Raymond Postgate, 1940)
Scattershot (Bill Pronzini, 1982)
Suspicious Circumstances (Patrick Quentin, 1953)
The Gold Gamble (Herbert Resnicow, 1989)
Murder on the Way! (Theodore Roscoe, 1935)
The Sleeping Bacchus (Hilary St. George Saunders, 1951)
Whistle Up the Devil (Derek Smith, 1954)
The Riddle of Monte Verita (Jean-Paul Török, 2007)
A Light in the Darkness (Simon de Waal & A.C. Baantjer, 2012)

Special Awards:

The Worst Mystery Read in 2012: Appointment with the Hangman (T.C.H. Jacobs, 1935)

The Best Impossible Crime Story Read in 2012: Whistle Up the Devil (Derek Smith, 1954)

Honorable mention: The Stingaree Murders (W. Shepard Pleasants, 1932)
(the book is, unfortunately, tinged with 1930s racism, but the three impossible situations and their solutions are wildly original)

The Best Short Story Collection Read in 2012: The McCone Files (Marcia Muller, 1995)

The Greatest Discovery of 2012: Cor Docter

Well, this won't be my last post of the year, but probably the last one to go up before Christmas. So, I want to wish every visitor to this blog a Merry Whatever It Is That You Celebrate, and hopefully, I'll see you all back for a third year reviewing classic mysteries, discussing neo orthodox detective stories and obsessing over locked room mysteries.


A Most Dangerous Pastime

"The whirligig of time brings in his revenges."
- William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (Act IV, Scene I)

Originally published and circulated as an advanced review copy under an inquiring title, What Shall We Call This New Mystery, offering fifty bucks for a fitting book title, Jesse Carmack's The Tell-Tale Clock Mystery: Stonewall Rountree's First Case (1937) rolled from the printing press into obscurity – and it appears that no further cases of Rountree were recorded.

The Tell-Tale Clock Mystery intently studies the peculiar circumstances in which Miss Agnes Turnbull, an "investigative" journalist with a penchant for blackmail, died in her room at Brock's Haven Inn on the Fourth of July. A key was on the inside of the door in the locked position and the only adjoining door had been nailed shut for years, but the absence of a gun makes suicide an untenable answer for this impossible situation. The local authority decides to call in the help of "Stonewall" Rountree, a former football player who switched careers and studied with the FBI, who makes quick work of the problem of the sealed hotel room only to stumble upon another problem – how did the murderer know when and where to strike?

What truly amazed me about the plot were the similarities it bore to another, all but forgotten, detective novel from the 1940s, Kelman Frost's Death Registers at the Eagle Arms (1947), in which a seaside hotel during the blackouts of World War II became the playing ground for spies and detectives in a deadly game of hide-and-seek. It also featured a simplistic impossible crime and The Tell-Tale Clock Mystery, even though it takes place during peacetime, it does have a militaristic subplot. One of Miss Turnbull's victims, Commander Bacon, lost something very important and a second murder may involve a foreign agent. Another suspect, importer Hector Defresne, has rumors of illegal gunrunning tailing him. Both stories also involve a bit of strychnine poisoning.

And then there's the enigmatic mystery of the sequels that never were. The subtitle of this book, "Stonewall Rountree's First Case," suggests the start of a series and Frostman's novel mentioned Something Scandalous at Lilac Cottage as "in preparations," but if they exist, they are as elusive as a shadow at night.

Back to the story at hand, which moves along at a nice, steady pace, however, once I reached its conclusion it felt like most of it had been padding. I liked Carmack's idea to exert a plain-and-simple locked room mystery to present a slightly more complicated problem and to put over Rountree with his readers, but the frame was, IMHO, too slight to support a full-length novel – and should've been trimmed down to a short story or novelette.

I feel like I'm doing The Tell-Tale Clock Mystery an injustice here, because it wasn't all that bad, except that it hovered between top and bottom drawer stuff and that appears to be true for a lot of these unheard or even completely forgotten mysteries I dug up recently – with one or two exceptions (I rather liked Arthur Rees' dated The Moon Rock, 1922). I guess it's time to take a break from digging around for these really obscure ones and focus my attention on other (by me) unexplored regions of the genre.


The Naughty List: A Modest Selection of Lesser-Known Holiday Mysteries

"But where are the snows of yester-year?"
- F. Villon.

I have an irregular tradition of reading holiday and winter themed mysteries around this time of the year, depending on what's easily available and how far I planned this ahead of time, and this could've been one of those off-years were it not for a few new releases and a lucky purchase. Simon de Waal and Appie Baantjer's Een licht in de duisternis (A Light in the Darkness, 2012), M.P.O. Books' Dodelijke hobby (Deadly Hobby, 2012) and Mike Resnick's, Stalking the Unicorn: A Fable of Tonight (1987), taking place on New Year's Eve in an alternate Manhattan, were well written nuggets of criminal ingenuity wrapped up in the magic of the season – making this officially not an off-year. I have my wish list of Christmas mysteries not yet fully worked through, but that's something for when the New Year begins to wane.

So, what then is the purpose of this blog post? Well, the idea is to compile a list of seasonal yarns of suspense and mystery that aren't all that well known, and perhaps offer one or two alternatives to (re-reading) Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938) and Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel (1972).

Pierre Véry's L'Assassinat du père Noël (The Murder of Father Christmas, 1934) was ferried across the language barrier in 2008 and this entry on the GADWiki, penned by fellow blogger Xavier Lechard from At the Villa Rose, identifies Véry as a literary visitor from the mainstream – who nonetheless preferred gentle surrealism over cold, stark realism. The Murder of Father Christmas attests his opinion that "what counts for an author (and for a person) is to save what has been able to remain in us as a child that we were, of that person full of flaws, of changes of heart, of shadows and mystery" and the story unfolds like grim, but benevolent, fairytale involving stolen gems, missing relics, Cinderella’s slipper and a murdered man in a Father Christmas costume. A lawyer on hard times, Prosper Lepicq, only two months behind on his rent for an office space crammed with impressive looking filing cabinets filled with blank dossiers and old newspapers, is requested to look into the mess. The Murder of Father Christmas has a magical, fairy tale-like quality reminiscent of Gladys Mitchell's most imaginative tales, but also their weaknesses. On the other hand, this was obviously not written as an affair of cold reasoning, but an attempt at enticing the reader to participate in a delightfully childish game of Who-dun-it? in the snow. 

DeKok en het lijk in de kerstnacht (DeKok and the Corpse on Christmas Eve, 1965) is an early (and translated) entry from A.C. Baantjer's long-running DeKok series and dribs, more than usually, with influences from Georges Simenon – making it notably different in tone and structure from the rest of the series. It’s a straight up, character-driven crime story that swirls into motion when the body of a woman emerges from the cold, murky undercurrents of the Herengracht on Christmas Eve. A grumpy DeKok, wrapped in his rumpled raincoat and formless head, joins his then even younger and more inexperienced partner, Vledder, to stalk the deserted, lantern-lit streets of Amsterdam on Christmas Eve to find the killer who ended the life of a young woman and her unborn child. Baantjer advances the plot here through character sketches, police interviews and posing moral problems, which resulted in one particular Christmas scene when DeKok has a sober (and possibly illegal) Christmas diner with a prostitute, a criminal and his victim. It's a darker story than Véry's benevolent pipedream, but if you like crime novels with a human element than you might want to pick this one up. But take note, it's not representative of the series.

The next title on the list was reviewed on here this past summer, but it was nonetheless a mystery novel draped in the traditions of the Yuletide season – mixed up with rural legends, folks dancing and ghost yarns. Gladys Mitchell's Dead Men's Morris (1936) packs everything her fans have come to love about her imaginary tales and wrapped everything up more neatly than usual. Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley travels to Oxfordshire to spend the holidays at the pig farm of her nephew, Carey Lestrange, where a local country-lawyer of ill repute was apparently hounded to death by the local legend – a headless horseman known as the Sandford Ghost. It's nearly always a guarantee that you're getting something different from Mitchell, but when the plot is as clear as the writing, it becomes a rare treat indeed!

An English Murder (1951) is a standalone effort from "Cyril Hare," a penname for Judge Alfred Gordon Clarke, who drew on his knowledge and experience to pen a stack of detective novels. His series detectives were Inspector Mallett and the barrister Francis Pettigrew, but in An English Murder, also published as The Christmas Murder, it's a Hungarian historian, named Dr. Bottwink, who has to unravel what appears to be a fairly typical, British drawing room murder. The only real drawback I have found in Hare's books is that his plots tend to hinge on obscure laws or nearly forgotten passages of history, making it harder to completely solve them before the detective does.

Finally, I want to recommend Paul Halter's Night of the Wolf (2006), a collection of short stories, as it offers quite a few stories set during dead of winter. "The Flower Girl" and "The Abominable Snowman" are perhaps the best of the lot, entailing a homicidal snowman killing in front of witnesses and Santa Claus who may have used his magic to bump of an unpleasant, Scrooge-like figure, but also includes "The Golden Ghost" and the titular story – all set during those dark, snowy days of December.

I could extend this list further, but Micheal Innes' Lament for a Maker (1938) and Nicholas Blake's Thou Shell of Death (1937) and The Corpse in the Snowman (1941) are probably well-known titles among the readers of this blog – and how much can you order and read in less than two weeks. Hm. Perhaps I should've put this one up a lot sooner.


Down the Rabbit Hole

"I just want to say that in the Other Reality things happen to you that you will never experience in your reality."
- Eddy C. (De Griezelbus 3, 1996)

Back in October, I reviewed Mike Resnick's Stalking the Dragon: A Fable of Tonight (2009), in which John Justin Mallory, a licensed Private Eye from our reality, wanders an otherworldly Manhattan in hot pursuit of a stolen dragon on Valentine's Day – accompanied by an entourage as bizarre as the collection of characters that plodded down that yellow brick road. It's not entirely unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) set in the maddeningly bizarre world of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and the result is an eclectic, but surprisingly pleasant, mishmash of genres and tropes.

I ended up liking it so much that I chucked Stalking the Unicorn: A Fable of Tonight (1987) in a digital shopping cart not long after putting up the review.  

Stalking the Unicorn is where it all began for John J. Mallory. Or where it ended, depending from whose point of view you look at it. It's New Year’s Eve and Mallory's personal life and career has hit rock bottom. A prophetic image for anything within reach that contains alcohol. So when a green elf named Mürgenstürm turns up in his office with a job proposal, he isn't too surprise, but than again, with a gang of thugs banging on your door you can't be too picky about clients – especially ones who can pluck thousands of dollars from thin air (all scientific, of course).

In the alternate Manhattan, Mallory has to track down Larkspur, a rare unicorn that was put in Mürgenstürm's charge, and he has to find the animal before sunrise or the elves' guild will kill him for losing it! It's from here on out that story sets up a pattern that was picked up in Stalking the Dragon. Mallory wanders around the city, bumping into peculiar characters and unusual situations, but everything was just so much better done here. In retrospect, Dragon read more like a well-oiled machine while Unicorn had rougher edges that suited the story. It's a hardboiled fantasy, after all! I also enjoyed the bizarre characters a lot more and thought the book as a whole was better written. How can you not love a famous detective and a master criminal locked in a never-ending power struggle over a chessboard? Or how both worlds connect and explain such things as subway tokens and the rate of unsolved crimes.

Unicorn is more a joyride through fantasyland as oppose to a proper mystery, but who cares, we have the quintessential image of the tough gumshoe battling a demonic power known as The Grundy in a race for a mythical horse and a last chance at obtaining a one-way ticket home. It's a well-written, fun trip outside the ordinary like this that makes it worth taking a break from those old-time detective stories.

By the way, I wonder if Resnick (unknowingly?) gave an explanation for this line from J.M.Barrie's Peter Pan (1911):  

"After a time he fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy."

If we take Grundy's explanation on influences and apply it to a certain event towards the end of the story, than it becomes very likely that Resnick is somehow responsible for the drunken, fornicating fairies and whatnot stumbling around in a classic children's story. It was probably done with time travel. I'm sure Resnick could enlighten us, if he's not having dinner at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe or taking a stroll around Ancient Rome. ;)

Fables of Tonight series:

Stalking the Unicorn (1987)
Stalking the Vampire (2008; review At the Scene of the Crime)
Stalking the Dragon (2009)
Stalking the Zombie (2012)


Things That Go Bump in the Night

"A cup of kindness that we share with another
A sweet reunion with a friend or a brother
- It Feels Like Christmas (The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1992)

I had to interrupt and postpone an unusual New Year's mystery, when M.P.O. Books' Dodelijke hobby (Deadly Hobby, 2012), a slender, soft-cover volume comprising of a novelette, a pair of short stories and some promotional material, arrived in the mail – an early Christmas present, to be sure!

Dodelijk hobby was originally published as a downloadable, free-give-away ebook, after being shelved for a number of years when Books and his previous publisher parted ways, but due to its enormous success (close to 80.000 downloads!) and numerous requests for a print version, it was "bookformed" with some of his other, earlier material. The tales that make up this book show the other side of Books, a crime writer who's also aware of the works of the literaties laboring in his field. Except for the second, classically styled story and the titular novelette shines with his love for intricate plotting and the Sherlock Holmes canon. Books also announced the title of his next District Heuvelrug novel: Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013). I told you it was like Christmas came early this year!

Deadly Hobby takes place during the dark, snowy days of Christmas that André Lourier was hoping to spend in the company of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens. He's house-sitting a remote village that belongs to his cousin and her husband, who's an avid collector of Delfts blue, miniature houses and has build quite a collection up in his secured attic-room. But it's due to André that burglars were able to swipe the entire collection from under his nose and with the Christmas celebrations in full swing, the police are understaffed and their hands tied-up to more press casings. So the housekeepers decides to turn detective and help the attractive inspector, Inge Veenstra, help finding the thieves and restore the collection.

But it's a fare more complex story involving more than just a stolen city of Delfts blue houses. Just in the first half, a number of apparently unrelated plot threads are introduced that all tie-together in the end. This is very reminiscent of the kaleidoscopic plotting technique Books used in De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010) and De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011), which had very satisfying results. Unfortunately, Deadly Hobby missed out on the opportunity of giving the reader a fair shot at cracking the case themselves, but that still leaves the reader with a well-written crime story that literary keeps you guessing until the end!

Interestingly, Deadly Hobby has a weird tie-in with the Van Dine-Queen and Hardboiled School. This is completely coincidental, but interesting, nonetheless. André Lourier assumes the role of amateur sleuth in a case revolving around collectors and the movement of everyone involved ends up being very important for the solution. This plot complexity with a clear and understandable solution was something these writers aimed for and we also get to see Books' series character, Inspector Bram Petersen, and his team of policemen work on another case – a triple homicide echoing the crime from Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot." Books also continued to flesh out his characters in this book, which helped made the story feel part of the series instead of standalone (all that in less than 90 pages!).

Less typical of the Van Dine-Queen School, but more so for the Hardboiled guys, was the portrayal of criminals and few physical altercations, including André getting knocked on the head and locked up in a room, while the burglar plundered the attic, after which he's determined to set the thing right himself. Much like a chivalrous, lone-knight in a raincoat and fedora would've done. As a matter of fact, André's situation reminded me of The Nameless Detective’s predicament in Bill Pronzini’s "Where Have You Gone, Sam Spade?"

"Handige dief!" ("Handy Thief!") was penned nine years ago for the Dutch website Crimezone. The story is set in an English, countryside village in the present time, but the status quo of a previous era has remained in tact and the villagers have gathered on the cemetery to pay their last respects to a local baron – who's to be buried in the family tomb with a valuable brooch encrusted with stones. A local "handyman," Harold Straker, plans to relieve the baron from his Earthly possession, but the ancient tomb is equipped with modern locks. A fun little story with a twist. 

"De indringer" ("The Intruder") is a straight up thriller and involves a well-to-do, but insecure woman, who finally found a companion before he went missing. One night, she finds that there's an intruder in the house. Has he returned? Not my kind of story, I'm afraid.

All in all, this volume served a few nice morsels of crime to whet the appetite for what’s coming next year. 

Destrict Heuvelrug series: 

Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia, 2004)
De bloedzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005)
Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006)
De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)
De dood van Callista de Vries (The Death of Callista de Vries, 2012)
Dodelijke hobby (Deadly Hobby, 2012)
Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013)