What the Hex is Going On?

"This is too strange for school, Hadji."
- Jonny Quest (East of Zanzibar)
One of the umpteen entries in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) that caught my interest was R.H.W. Dillard's The Book of Changes (1974), which has a problem of the impossible variety that is described as follow: "death of a man inside a locked room that could only be locked from the outside, yet the sole key was in the victims stomach."

A brief search on the web revealed that the book is still available in paperback, a 2001 reprint from the Louisiana State University Press, but this good news was accompanied with a sobering and off-putting review – calling the book "pointless experimentation" and "potsmoke prose, accompanied with babygoo beatifics." I was still intrigued though and bumped the book up my list of priorities, but now I have to review a story as disjointed as a recently unearthed skeleton.

To understand this, I can easily place this book in the canon of the genre alongside Virgil Markham's Death in the Dusk (1928), Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) and Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock (1950), stories with either a nightmarish or dreamlike quality that ditch realism at the side of the road and string together a series of often episodic events that defy common sense, and Dillard goes all out in The Book of Changes! The stories switches from scene to scene, era to era and from characters to characters and none of them seem to make much sense. One of the persons we follow around, throughout many decades, is the consulting detective Sir Hugh Fitz-Hyffen, a distorted, funhouse mirror reflection of Sherlock Holmes, whose cases lead him from the home of an English matriarch, after a number of the local women turned up dead and a wolf is seen dancing on its hind legs, to Chicago where a Zodiac killer stalks its citizens and a man turns up dead in a locked room.

Regrettably, Fitz-Hyffen's cases are more anti-detective stories than proper mysteries and readers like yours truly should expect not much from them. The explanation for the problem of the locked door was even more disappointing than venomous animals, secret passageways or another Isreal Zangwill rip-off – while another, simple but elegant, solution presented itself based on the evidence given in the story. According to the pathologist, who dug the key from the victims innards, it was acid bitten and might not have properly worked if they tried the lock. Dillard could have easily made that key a false one, while the murderer used the actual key to lock the door.

The episodes set on a street named Life, where the moral fabric is slowly disintegrating, were, perhaps, my favorite segments in this book and showed that Dillard had more than just a nodding acquaintance with the genre. Inhabitants of Life includes, alongside Oscar Wilde, a pair of twin brothers, separated at birth, named Leslie Ford and David Frome, and a couple who listen to the names of Michael Venning and Daphne Sanders. Everyone can come across as genresavy by referencing Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and Sgt. Cuff, but I bet those four names would go over a lot of readers heads nowadays. Oh, and did I mention this weird plot also involves The Moonstone and the Mask of Fu-Manchu? Both of them nicked.

I think this makes the "potsmoke prose" and "babygoo beatifics" the least of the books problems, if they are problems, because the style seems to fit what Dillard set out to do and you can’t fault an author for doing that. It would be akin to lambasting Dashiell Hammett for not writing village cozies featuring Nanny Spade. The real problem is that The Book of Changes is a story without a payoff and Adey mentioned that liking this book depends on your allegiance to the genre. I guess I'm not that enlightened yet to embrace a book like this, but what amplified this weakness, for me anyway, is that I know of three, much earlier, books (mentioned above) that did this long before Dillard and they all did it better than him. Heck, even Rogers' The Red Right Hand was better and I belong to the group who think it's overrated. 

So I can only recommend this if you’re in the mood for something goofy.  


Pedigree of Crime

"Every real story is a never ending story."
- Michael Ende.
San Sebastiano is a speck of a principality, situated in the Riviera, that was dreamed up by James Powell in order to unfetter his imagination from the chains of historical accuracy and was fascinated to watch how an imaginary princedom became the most well-rounded character in A Pocketful of Noses: Stories of One Ganelon or Another (2009) – a collection of short stories culled from the pages of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine by that indispensable publisher Crippen and Landru.

The principal characters of this collection are four generations of Ambrose Ganelon's, whose ancestral tree is adorned with deerstalkers, fedoras and tools of the detective's trade, scourging the criminals patronizing San Sebastiano. This includes members of Dr. Ludwig Fong's Eurasian crime dynasty, who play the Professor Moriarty to their Sherlock Holmes. Ganelon's multiple casebooks are filled with wonderfully told and imaginative tales of crime and deception, loaded with historical details of San Sebastiano, but they seldom, if ever, adhere to fair play rules. They're more in the tradition of late 19th/early 20th Century thrillers, in which master criminals attempt to overthrow a small country or blow-up the crowned heads of Europe. 

Nevertheless, this was not the let down that it should have been and it speaks volumes of Powell's ability as a writer to not make me want to care about plot – even if the locked room mystery got a similar treatment. Good fiction is good fiction, plain and simple, but how I was going to review these stories left me in a tangle. So I decided to just discuss the four detectives and their cases instead of each individual story.


The first Ganelon to done the deerstalker and dabble into detection was Ambrose Ganelon I, who reasoned, for the most part, from an armchair and was basically the Sherlock Holmes of San Sebastiano – later known as the Founder of the Ganelon Detective Agency. "The Haunted Bookcase" is my personal favorite, in which a dream of a ghost has a direct bearing on the books he left behind and those same books are being moved around in a locked room. IIRC, this story bears some remarkable resemblances to Norizuki Rintaro's "The Green Door is Dangerous." Other stories included in this section are "The Flower Diet" (involving a mystic's claim that he can draw his nourishments from the odor of flowers, instead of food and drinks, and nobody has caught him eating), "Unquiet Graves" (a scared stiff and body snatching) and "The Priest Without a Shadow" (in which a doomed priest exorcizes a house where a man was decapitated).


The second Ganelon to turn detective turns to the scientific methods of Dr. John Thorndyke to lead him to the end of a case. In his first big case, he confronts "The Gooseberry Fool," a hired assassin who plagues the European continent each summer and leaves Paris deserted – except for tourists and waiters. "The Verbatim Reply" asks Ganelon II to intercept a wrongly dispatched document and "A Pocketful Noses" shows flashes of Mycroft Holmes, suggesting that he is the Intelligence Services, as he investigates the murder of Serbian subject logging around a half a dozen false noses.


The grandson of the agency's founder is from the Hardboiled School, battle hardened on the killing fields of war, which is also the stage for the first story in this section, "Harps of Gold." Ganelon III also tangled with a female member of the Fong family in "The Zoroaster Grin" and brought light in another dark plot in "At Willow-Walk-Behind," but most interesting is perhaps that these stories show the effect the three generations of Ganelon detectives had on the principality – having almost entirely eradicated crime he had to expand business and turn in a Pinkerton-like agency.


The last of the Ganelon detective's is perhaps the smartest, as well as the unluckiest, of the bunch. His family's success has ruined the detective business and now impoverished is dependant on the soup kitchen for his meals. I think this is an interesting, logical and almost evolutionary progress in the series. San Sebastiano is only a speck on the map and therefore crime could be contained, even eradicated, within its borders and the Ganelon's dove into that pond like a flurry of piranhas, and before long, they had reach the bottom of their food chain – and after only four generations the Grand Detective has disappeared from the Grand Stage of San Sebastiano. Well, not entirely, as Ganelon IV still picks up cases here and there, like the theft of some of the "Coins in the Frascatti Fountain" or the mystery of "The Bird-of-Paradise Man."

I can recommend A Pocketful of Noses: Stories of One Ganelon or Another to fans of Sherlock Holmes and the stories from his creators contemporaries, especially the ones who didn’t take themselves too seriously, and hope to see more of Powell's work collected in the nearby future. But most of all, I hope he compiles a tongue-in-cheek history book of San Sebastiano and the Ganelon Detective Agency. I would love to read a full-account of the Half-Day War and how Ganelon's slyboots thwarted an invading army!

It's possible that the next review posted on here will be of an impossible crime novel written, judging by the book's synopsis, in the same style and spirit as the stories I just reviewed here and the description in Adey's book is very enticing... but I also want to return to the Artemis Fowl series. Choices, choices, choices!


The One-Man Book-Club

"To read of a detective’s daring finesse or ingenious stratagem is a rare joy."
- Rex Stout.
Until a few years ago, the message board of the John Dickson Carr collector website was not entirely unlike a disreputable alleyway, tugged away in an obscure gas-lit street of Sherlock Holmes' Victorian London, where the fugitive shadows of the city gathered to tell and boost of tales of haunting crimes and murder most foul. However, crime has the tendency to spread and soon we were absorbed by the blogosphere, which provided us with the tools necessary to brainwash the masses indoctrinate your children promote classically-styled mysteries, but it turned the JDC forum into a ghost town – and one thing I do miss, from time to time, are the one-man book-clubs.

A One-Man Book-Club is exactly what its name implies: you read a book and post your thoughts and theories as you go through the story. This resulted in some interesting "reviews," at least I think so, and because I have nothing else at the moment I decided to revisit a few of them.

One month before I began blogging, I read Lenore Glen Offord's The Glass Mask (1944) for one of these One-Man Book-Club threads and the first thing I noted that it was the kind of detective story that American mystery writers reputedly never wrote – set in a remote small-town unaffected by the passage of time and echoes the sleepy, country-side village of Miss Marple's St. Mary Mead. The problem is also one that could have been torn from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel: was an ailing and inoffensive matriarch murdered by her grandson to inherit her property and an opportunity to get married? According to the local gossip machine, he did, but it's impossible to proof as the remains were cremated and there are many other unanswered questions.

Offord's main characters, however, are not stock-in-trade and even ahead of their time. Georgina Wyeth is a single mother of an eight-year-old girl and has relation with her semi-official fiancé, pulp writer Todd McKinnon, but she's not your quintessential dunderheaded heroine entering dark cellars or abandoned houses on her own – and the book has its "Had-I-But-Known" moments. But the biggest triumph of this book is how the solution to the "perfect murder" is handled.

S.S. van Dine's The Dragon Murder Case (1934) was a disaster of a story that I had to abandon midway through, but not before taking a peek at Vance's explanation and discovered not only that I was partially correct but also that I was being to logical. If you’re curious, you have to read the original post where my observations are hidden behind proper spoiler-tags.

Darwin Teilhet was one of the first writers to address the atrocities committed by the nazi's, when Hitler rose to power, and used the detective story as his vehicle. The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934), set against the rise of the Third Reich, opens with the unlikely sight of a talking sparrow, imploring an elderly man to help him, moments before the man himself is shot. A cover-blurb pointed out that the book, atmosphere-wise, suggests the work of another American mystery writer, John Dickson Carr, and I agree. The story has a few nice touches of the macabre, the sparrow that spoke like a human and nazi officials going out of their way to bow to a lone pine-tree, but also a young American hero who's caught between a blitzkrieg of crime and the efficient Schutzmännen of the German police force.

Unfortunately, The Talking Sparrow Murders merges the spy-thriller with elements of the detective story, which left me in two minds, where I wanted more from the plot, but was nonetheless intrigued that it was published years before Hitler began WWII. This makes me want to give less weight to its shortcomings as a mystery. I mean, it's not an historical novel – it was written in 1934, and it turned out to be a glimpse of things yet to come!

My fall as a snobbish, cynical purist began to pick up momentum after reading William DeAndrea’s The HOG Murders (1979), which has a wonderfully conceived plot that connected the past with the present. A serial killer is bumping people off at random in a small town and sends taunting messages to the police, who turn to the famous criminologist Nicolo Benedetti, who I described at the time as a cross between Hercule Poirot and a hand tame Hannibal Lecter, and Ronald Gentry – a private-eye Benedetti personally trained. The plot has an original take on the serial killer story and I was on the right track, before DeAndrea effectively pulled the wool over my eyes.

It's follow-up, The Werewolf Murders (1992), was also subject of discussion in a One-Man Book-Club thread. The book was written and set during the waning years of the Twentieth Century and a French baron has organized the first Olympique Scientifique Internationale, a year-long gathering of the world's most prominent scientists, in preparation of the new and hopefully more enlightened millennium at the ski resort of Mont-st.-Denis. But then an astronomer is murdered and his body is draped across the eternal flame, situated in the town square, another scientist is brutally attacked, and before long, logic and reason begins to dissipate among the scientific community as the rumors of the Werewolf of Mont-st.-Denis begins to leave footprints on their nerves.

When the local authority with the assistance of a detective from the famous Sûreté fails to turn up any leads or even a viable suspect, everyone, once again, turns to that philosopher of crime and human evil, Professor Niccolo Benedetti, who also shows Nero Wolfe how to collect an enormous fee and still come across as the embodiment of generosity and patriotism. 

I was able to grasp the most significant parts of the solution, only missing out on some of the finer details and motive, and missed one very obvious clue.

Well, that’s it for this week’s filler and hope to back soon with a regular review. And beware, I have stocked up on locked room mysteries... again. 


Death's Debt Collector

"Revenge is like a poison. It can take you over, and before you know it, it can turn you into something ugly."
- Aunt May (Spider-Man 3, 2007).
During the wintry days of early 1304 a professional and hooded assassin, known as the Mysterium, re-emerges after pulling a disappearance act from a locked and closely guarded church twenty years earlier, where this figure sought sanctuary after being unmasked, to settle old debts with a cut-throat interest rate. It's one of the many problems that keep Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal and eyes and ears of King Edward I, and his right-hand Ranulf busy for the better part of Paul Doherty's The Mysterium (2010). 

Walter Evesham is the ex-Chief Justice who fingered Boniface Ippegrave, a clerk attached to the Office of the Privy Seal, as the Mysterium and capitalizes on this success, but when this story opens he's facing corruption charges and fled to the same church as Boniface to atone for his sins. Or so he said. It's also the same church where Boniface's sister, Adelicia, and Brother Cuthbert, a man Evesham spiritually ruined, live and the inevitable eventually happens: the loathed Evesham is found dead in his cell. His throat is cut and the door was barred from the inside as well as the outside with wooden beams and a wafer-thin slit for a window high in the wall. The chamber was, for all intent and purposes, an impenetrable prison cell. 

The solution as to how the murderer managed to bar the door on the inside of the cell was, as to be expected from Doherty, uncomplicatedly simple and absolutely workable, which may disappoint some readers, but you have to give the author props for finding a good motivation to turn Evesham's murder into one of those locked-door problems. I can be satisfied with a simple trick to turn a crime-scene into a sealed room, but I want some of the authors ingenuity that was lost on the impossible element of the story invested somewhere else in the plot (e.g. Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key, 1941 and Manly Wellman's Find My Killer, 1947) and that was definitely the case here. The explanation how the accused, Ippegrave, gave his guards the slip was one that, alas, traversed over trodden ground, but, again, not entirely without interest.

More murders are committed, all of them connected to Evesham, like his former clerk Engleat, who was lashed to the decaying remains of a condemned river pirate and cast into the inky abyss of the Thames, an old punishment for perjurers, and they all had the letter "M" incised into their foreheads – the signature of the Mysterium. It means Mysterium rei (The Mystery of the Thing). But even this barely describes half of the intrigue of this book, which seems richer and more fertile in both plot and writing than any of his other novels I have read and reviewed on here. As a matter of fact, I don't think I have ever seen Doherty being this generous with clues!

I might have over praised another book, but The Mysterium is the kind of detective story I enjoy the most, with its locked rooms, impossible disappearances, ciphers, clues and an actual plot to dissect. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it was written in the same spirit as the best historical mysteries by John Dickson Carr, Robert van Gulik and Bertus Aafjes.

All the books I have reviewed by Paul Doherty:

The Mysterium (2010)


The Private Eyes' Requiem

"The captain, to see me? It's not about my wife, is it? I mean... she likes to have a good time, sometimes she gets carried away..."
- Lt. Columbo (Troubled Waters)
It's a common misconception among layman and even some adepts that the toughies and cozies were domestic products, stories that were typical of either American or British pop-culture, but the alcohol-guzzling, wise-cracking mystery solving husband-and-wife teams, who attract stiffs like they run a funeral parlor, are almost exclusively an American speciality – and not just the case-hardened ones that Dashiell Hammett introduced. The ones I have read were well written, often tightly plotted and whimsical in tone, which could be offered to explain why they're all but forgotten in this day and age: they're fun and don't fit a preconceived notion.

Undeterred by its hardboiled sounding title, Voyage into Violence (1956), a team effort from the spousal tandem of Frances and Richard Lockridge, has everything you expect from a sophisticated British drawing room mystery, from a pair of upper class sleuths, Mr. and Mrs. North, to the closed-circle of suspects, except that two Americans wrote this book.

Pam and Jerry North, alongside police Capt. Bill Weigand and his wife, Dorian, take a well deserved holiday aboard the S.S. Carib Queen, plotting a course for Havana, and their fellow passengers are a motley collection of holidaymakers and soon picture frames hanging in their gallery of suspects. 

There's the Ancient and Respectable Riflemen, founded during the War of 1812 (and Patrick perks up), led by respectable Captain Folsom, the frumpy Hilda Macklin and her bullyrag of a mother, Olivia, a professional dancer named Jules Barron, among others, but the most important one is perhaps J. Orville Marsh – a retired private-eye, or so he says. However, when Marsh is run through with a ceremonial sword, belonging to the Ancient and Respectable Riflemen, evidence pulled from his luggage, like correspondence and photographs of expensive looking jewelry, indicates that he was on a case and may have come too close to closing it. Bill Weigand is put in charge, who, in turn, drags in his socialite buddies, to begin a covert investigation, but soon rumors, like a discrete waiter quietly enquiring if Sir or Madam wants a refill, are whispered from deck chair to deck chair, and before long, they sweep the deck like a tidal wave.

Voyage into Violence is a fine example of the pleasure you can derive from a Busman's Holiday-mystery, when you have writers who can weave patterns with multiple plot threads without getting tied up in it themselves, demonstrating that an extra set of hands at the typewriter can come in handy has its advantages when writing a mystery novel, as well as vividly describing the setting that gives the reader the idea that they are there with them as the Van Dine to Pam and Jerry's Philo Vance. I do fear I might have over praised this book and admit that it's not in the same league as, oh let's say, Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile (1937) or Christianna Brand's Tour de Force (1955), but making a distinction that one is merely “clever” while the others are absolutely "brilliant" is simply arguing semantics. Voyage into Violence is a vividly written mystery with a busy, logical plot and interesting characters, but, more importantly, it was a nice, leisurely summer read.

I want to leave you with this excerpt, from chapter IV, page 59, which I thought was interesting from a modern point of view. I could not imagine a problem like that in this day and age:
"If the Carib Queen were equipped for the dispatch of radio photographs-but that was absurd. (...) It was absurd. The Carib Queen was equipped for many things, some rather more complex than picture transmission. She could look through the darkness, farther than the eye could reach. Electronically, when near the coast-as she was now-the Carib Queen could tell precisely where she was. But she could not dispatch the convoluted signature on note and check to Worcester, Massachusetts, where it would mean something."
Oh, one more thing, I have to make obligatory recommendations when discussing husband-and-wife detective teams: read Kelley Roos' The Frightened Stiff (1942; reprinted by the Rue Morgue Press) and Herbert Resnicow's Alexander and Norma Gold series.


Why So Serious, Inspector Ghote?

"Clean up your act, Joker."
- Batman: The Animated Series (The Last Laugh)
I'm familiar with the term "hobby deformation" and the symptoms that escort this twist of the mind that makes us, devoted mystery enthusiasts, associate Gaston Leroux and A.A. Milne with Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) and The Red House Mystery (1922) instead of La Fantôme de l'opéra (The Phantom of the Opera, 1910) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), but never expected that a simple news item about a zoo, who're expecting their first baby flamingos in over a decade, would direct me to my shelves to pull out my unread copy of H.R.F. Keating's Inspector Ghote Plays a Joker (1969).

Not at all how I imagine Ghote!
The much-plagued inspector of the Bombay police, Ganesh Ghote, is summoned to his superiors and asked to play the fool in an almost impossible task: protect the last remaining flamingo left in the Bombay Zoological Gardens. The birds were a gift from the American Consulate and a sniper has been picking them off, one by one, and, sure enough, Ghote arrives just in time for his assignments swan song. But worst of all, the epitome of incompetence, Sergeant Desai, will lend him an "assisting" hand in his inquiries, however, it's this same incompetent fool who puts Ghote on the trail of the joker. Desai knows that three months previously a popular racing horse was substituted for a donkey and uncover that a malicious prankster is picking on the proud and prominent members of society.

Among the victims who involuntarily played the fool are a scientist and the owner of the racehorse, Anil Bedekar, all of whom prefer to forget their embarrassments, but with his superiors breathing down his neck for results, Ghote pushes through and finds an unexpected ally in the Rajah of Bhedwar, known to his friends as "Bunny" Baindur, who fancies himself an amateur detective. He drags Ghote along to watch the yogi Lal Dass perform a miracle in public, walking across the surface of a brimful water reservoir, exactly the kind of place where the joker would strike, which he does, and Dass is saved thanks to the rapid intervention from Ghote. I have to point out that, before this happened, Dass walked on water and Keating provides the most simple and logical explanation for this miracle and thus qualifies as an impossible crime novel – even if it’s only a tiny fraction of the plot and immediately supplies a solution.

The joker is pulled from the pack halfway through the game, but most of the readers will have picked up on that punch-line before its delivered, because this person is exactly the kind of opponent Keating likes to pit against Ghote: affluent, influential, powerful, smart and charismatic. Pretty much the exact opposite of the timid detective and this series is at its best when Ghote is barking like an underdog at a towering tidal wave. It seems futile, but, somehow, he manages to come out on top and prefer the cat-and-mouse games of Inspector Ghote Goes by Train (1971) and Inspector Ghote Draws a Line (1979) to the "solved-by-inspection" novels like Inspector Ghote’s Good Crusade (1966) and Filmi, Filmi, Inspector Ghote (1976). I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Keating was at his best, as a mystery writer, when he wasn't writing mysteries. As Wakko Warner once famously observed, "the mind boggles."

Anyway, back to the review, where the book, incomprehensibly, contorts itself into a regular police procedural when Ghote's opponent is murdered just when an interesting development had presented itself: how can he stop the prankster now that he knows this persons identity? They even had a confrontation, in which the joker wondered out loud how Ghote was planning to put a stop to all the tom foolery. It would've made for a classic Keating novel! This book is a good demonstration of Keating's strength and weaknesses (a wonderful and promising first half vs. duller second half), but I prefer to watch Ghote overcome seemingly insurmountable odds when he takes on influential town bosses, stubborn ex-judges and cunning master criminals. They tend to be more fun, but walking the beat of Bombay alongside Ghote never feels like a chore.   

One more thing that should be mentioned, is that I suspect Inspector Ghote Plays a Joker of being secretively being an homage to Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes is referenced and the business of the stolen racehorse calls to mind the affair of "Silver Blaze" and the dead flamingos of the work of Moriarty's henchman in "The Empty House."


Rural Legends

"You must believe me. It was a horseman, a dead one. Head less!"
- Ichabod Crane (Sleepy Hollow, 1999)
The dog days of summer are not renowned for creating an atmosphere ideal for reading a Christmas mystery, even if the canicule has its off-days, but the humidity, outbursts of summer rains and lack of snow did nothing to diminish Gladys Mitchell's Dead Men's Morris (1936), a tale of Yuletide, folk lore, Morris dancing and ghostly murder, set in the rustic countryside of rural Oxfordshire. 

Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, whose ophidian features insinuates a kinship with the swarm of fossils wrenched from the numerous layers of the Earth strata, descends on Oxfordshire to spend the holiday at the pig farm of her nephew, Carey Lestrange, and we're forthwith served with a plethora of characters and events that testify to her gift as a novelist and born storyteller. But this is, after all, a detective story and Mitchell assigned the role of the inaugural corpse to Edmund Fossder, a country-lawyer with masynogistic tendencies and a feeble heart, who, according to village gossip, received a note challenging him to keep a tryst with one of the local ghosts, a headless horseman known as the Sandford Ghost, which becomes more than a rumor when Fossder is found dead on a towpath next to a river.

Evidence picked up at the scene indicates a pursuer was on Fossder's heels, before sinking to the ground with a stopped heart in his chest, but the police has no interest in cordoning off the area and turning it into a crime scene. They're satisfied that it may have been a prank gone awry. An incredulous Mrs. Bradley begins her own investigation, sort of assisted by Carey, and disentangles one of Mitchell's knottiest problems – eventually leading up to a second murder, that of the curmudgeonly Simith, who was gored to death by a savage boar with the legend of the Shotover Boar roaming in the background. As I said, it's a very a tricky and knotty problem with lots of shenanigans and restless suspects abound, and that makes it even trickier to properly describe the plot without giving anything away.

The plot buzzes like a beehive with characters constantly sneaking about the place, theories being expounded and snooping around for clues without becoming a mere puzzle. Mitchell's sketches characters with the eye of an artist and this amusing lot, populating the Oxfordshire countryside, definitely compliments the landscape, which, I always felt in her stories, have the descriptive quality of a fairy-tale. Then again, how else can you define the mental image that Mitchell conjured up of Mrs. Bradley, the benevolent witch from children's fables turned detective, covered only by her underwear, taking-off cross-country like Roadrunner in order to get help for her nephew, who's holed up in a secret passage, or a line suggesting that "out there, in the quiet and the dark, a ghost seemed germane to the landscape, not alien—a possibility, not an old wives' tale"... Mitchell had a touch similar to John Dickson Carr to naturally blend a seemingly peaceful environment with the presence of local legends and ghosts, except that Carr's a nightmarish while Mitchell's are fairytales in which the Grim Reaper as he goes about his daily business, but the presence of Mrs. Bradley always gives them a benevolent touch. I think this is why Mitchell couldn’t read any of Carr's books.   

But where Mitchell really excelled here was in plotting, which can be an Achilles' heel that acts up from time to time in her books, and the busy and cluttered plot had me worried for a while, but a few sweeps with a witches' broom neatly cleaned it up – and that makes reading Mitchell even more enjoyable than it already is. Like a stronger than usually plotted Rex Stout novel. In short, I enjoyed this book, but advise readers who are new to the series to begin somewhere else like the imaginative Come Away, Death (1937) or the excellent St. Peter's Finger (1938). 

Other books I have reviewed by Gladys Mitchell:

St. Peter's Finger (1938)
Ask a Policeman (1933; together with the Detection Club)

Oh, there was a short scene in the Detection Club and Mrs. Bradley is an honorary member! :)


When We Dead Awaken

"And now for something completely different."
- John Cleese (Monty Python's Flying Circus)
The disadvantages of maintaining a bustling blog dedicated to fostering an environment in which a Silver Age of Detection can blossom have been few and far between, but one that has been bugging me, as a direct result of becoming a blogger, is that the detective story has usurped every inch of my reading list. I have been longing to return to Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl-series for over a year now. So I decided to make this place prone for occasional side distractions and took a dib in the few, unread, manga books stacked up on my to-be-read pile and came up with the 12th volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service – a sort of humanistic horror series covered with dark touches of humor and touching stories. 

As pointed out previously, I'm not a devoted or active participant in the anime and manga community, however, I do consider myself as a casual fan who picked up one or two series after immersing myself in Detective Conan and have come to admire the gift of Japanese story telling – especially when they tell it through a visual medium like a comic book. Whether it's about an ancient board game or a bored Shinigami, if they are from the hand one of their top-notch writers, they are almost impossible to put down or turn-off. Readers of this blog might want to consider giving the animated series Death Note a try. It's a supernatural thriller bound to rules in the spirit of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and the plot twists and turns like smoke in a curl, in which everyone is constantly plotting and scheming. A very intense and intelligent thriller with a daring and dramatic twist halfway through. 

The "skeleton staff" of the KCDS.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is a company specialized in locating discarded and forgotten bodies, in order to fulfill their last wish, usually assisting them in taking care of unfinished business, and consists of five graduate students from a Buddhist university – all of whom possess a special gift or talent. Kuro Karatsu is a student Buddhist monk and the psychic of the group who communicates with the corpses they find and can even (temporarily) reanimate them. He also has a spirit, Yaichi, lingering near him. Ao Sasaki is the brain of the outfit, as well as a computer expert/hacker, who takes care of the practical side of business. Makoto Numata is a dowser who can detect dead bodies instead of water and it’s up to him to find clients. Yuji Yata is a bit on the introversive side and wears a grotesque hand puppet, which he uses to the channel the conscience of a bad mannered, wisecracking alien intelligence. Keiko Makino looks like a sweet and innocent girl, but she studied in America to become a fully licensed embalmer and as a result has become somewhat of an outcast in Japanese society. Embalming is seen as an unclean profession over there.

"I ain't afraid o' no ghost"
In the earlier volumes, most of the stories were short-short stories, covering a single chapter, but they expanded over the course of the series and now span for several chapters, however, they can still be read as individual stories – making it easy to sample the series before you decide to read on. After all, it's a series with "explicit content" and you have to take that quite literal. The portrayal of corpses in various stages of decomposition, nudity and violence show that Housui Yamazaki has quite a skill with the pencil, but, personally, it never felt that they were just included to gross out the reader or to service its fans (see: fan service). Because gutted bodies and sex isn't this series selling point... it's the wonderful, varied stories and its cast of gargoyles. The best things I remember from the earlier volumes aren't the gruesome depictions of dead bodies, except, perhaps, for the alien, but the stories that were either moving or funny (this series is the first one to poke fun at itself) or even borderline detective stories or full-blown supernatural thrillers. The second volume is basically a novel-length story in which the Kurosagi-crew uncovers a cruel exploitation of the dead.

The 12th volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service begins where it all began: Jukaiyama. It's an immense forest and a popular haunt of the lost souls of society to watch the sun rise or set one last time before taking their own lives – because business, as usual, was not booming and they need a client. Unfortunately, Numata’s pendulum only turns up a napping woman, Yuka Suzuki, who's attached to a credit agency and looking for an ex-debtor. Mr. Kawai paid his debts and moved to Jakaiyama Village, a secret settlement somewhere in the woods where people who have grown tired of life and contemplated suicide find sanctuary, except that he’s still around and the crew even speaks with him, but Suzuki insists that he’s an imposter! It's a twisty and gloomy story that brutally molests satirized a part of 21st century life and ends on a note as wonderfully cynical as MacKinlay Kantor's "The Strange Case of Steinkelwintz."

Shakuya nailed it!
My favorite story from this volume is the second one and puts the spotlight on two young people: Nene and Shakuya. Nene is a nightclub hostess who can separate her spirit from her body at will and uses this nifty trick to lure in customers. One evening, while gazing at the city lights, her eyes fall on Shakuya, an aspiring actor/comedian who lives in houses, where the previous tenants were murdered or committed suicide, for a living (so the landlord can present a clean record of the previous tenant to the next one), and decides to beckon him in. A bond is a swiftly forged between the two as it cruelly broken when Shakuya is murdered in the apartment they had just moved into. The Kurosagi-crew are basically there to mend two souls torn asunder and the resolution had a nice decorative touch of lampshade hanging.

In the last story, the guys find an old man pushing a wheelchair along the river with a life-size doll of a woman in it. The doll is a replica of what his sister might have looked like if she hadn't died as a child during the great air raid on Tokyo. The man is also involved with a gang of foreign agents, who kidnap them, and the spirit of his dead sister, through the doll, asks the Kurosagi-crew for help and the solution involves a dictator, more dolls and guardian spirit. The story also briefly looks at Yata's past again, who was the sole survivor when his parents tried to take their kids with them in a suicide pact, but I have no idea if this was brought up because there are parallels between his and the old man's story or to suggest that his hand puppet might have a different origin.

All in all, an excellent collection of stories that were well worth the wait, but I hope the next release will be within a 12-month period. Anyway, I hope this was not too much of intrusion and a regular review will be up as soon as possible.


Incredible How You Can, See Right Through Me!

"The devil's agent may be of flesh and blood, may they not?"
- Sherlock Holmes (The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)
I have to 'fess up that I dreaded reading Paul Halter's Le Diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993) after a laudatory review, left by armchair critic Patrick At the Scene of the Crime, praising it's impossible crime element as "simple" and "dazzling effective," was followed up with a sobering notice posted on the GADWiki by Barry Ergang – saying that the solutions to a couple of the murders struck him "as a bit of a stretch" although "they weren't entirely implausible." I carefully began to tread the pages, afraid that Patrick had overenthusiastically cheered on one of his pet mystery writers, but I ended up leaning more to his opinion. However, I share Barry's reserve regarding the explanation for the invisible entity responsible for flinging a number of people from a rocky protrusion and out of an open window.

The backdrop of this book is the same as Conan Doyle used for one of the most celebrated stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Dartmoor, England, where a ghostly hound lurks on the moors before snatching one of the local gentry's down to Hell, and The Demon of Dartmoor was apparently written after Halter went down to England to soak up the atmosphere for himself. Whether it was the trip or not, but there was one visible improvement in one of his greatest weaknesses: creating a sense of time and place that I felt was lacking in the previous books. He made me believe this time that Stapleford was a small village instead of a clutter of three or four houses where the suspects live (e.g. The Fourth Door, 1987). The outdoors scenes were also very well done.

Stapleford is one of those sleepy and homely hamlets dotting the countryside that imbued Sherlock Holmes with untold horrors, "the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside," with more than enough dirty linen spilling over the laundry basket to fill one of Dr. Watson's notebooks with untold cases. In one of Sherlock Holmes' Dartmoor cases, "The Adventure of the Winged Menace," he teamed-up with Dr. John Thorndyke to investigate a series of impossible disappearances from the Moor. Evidence points to a pterodactyl as the culprit and they meet a strange bearded man, looking like a caveman in modern clothing, who threatens them bodily harm if they hurt his pterodactyl. But let's return to Halter's flight of fancies.

The Demon of Dartmoor takes off with a retrospective look at the tragic deaths of a few of Stapleford's inhabitants, three innocent teenage girls, who were flung from the top of Wish Tor, a granite spur frequently haunted by lovers, into the rushing stream below. One of the murders was witnessed and they described how the girl thrust out her arms, as if she were pushed in the back, before plummeting to her death, however, they saw nobody near the girl. Basil Hawkins even claims he saw a headless horseman riding into the sky on the day one of the girls disappeared. Skip forward a few sunsets and Stapleford welcomes actor and playwright Nigel Manson as the new owner of Trerice Manor, where a pair of invisible hands pushed a woman down a flight of stairs fifty years previously, inspiring the playwright for the inspiration for a successful stageplay entitled The Invisible Man. An impossible murder that lurks in the past is a staple of Halter's mystery fiction. 

As the be expected, the unseen murderer strikes again, this time in full view of a number of people who witness Nigel Manson being shoved out of a window by an invisible force. The local police call-in Scotland Yard, who send Inspector Archibald Hurst with Dr. Alan Twist in tow and they do an admirable job at making sense out of this nightmarish sequence of events.

The method for murdering three girls unseen after they made the climb to the top of the precipice were disappointing disenchanting, but was nonetheless thrown off the scent here like I was balancing on the edge of a cliff myself. When I learned that the victims were heard talking to an invisible companion minutes before their fatal plunge and that one of the suspects is a two-bit promoter who loves young aspiring actresses, I simply assumed that the girls were overheard rehearsing the lines he had fed them. Luring the hopeful girls to that desolate spot for a very private audition and while they took their pose on the top to begin, they got a rock flung to their heads with a slingshot (or something) and thus you have an explanation for the invisible push. Needless to say, I was wrong and didn't like any of the solutions for this portion of the story.

Nigel Manson's impossible tumble from one of the top-floor windows was a lot better explained and the solution, risky and no-success guaranteed, may impress some readers as implausible and impractical, but Halter convinced me with its deadly simplicity and even provides the murderer with a backup plan in case anything goes wrong. I had to go with Halter on this one.

On a whole, Halter did a craftsman's job of forging an engaging plot from links that rattled like a good yarn and that chain of baffling events, stretching back years, made for a satisfactory read regardless of a few weak links. I think Patrick over praised the impossible crime element of the book, but otherwise I agree with his overall opinion. Paul Halter is a problematic writer, but he was better here, as a writer, than in the previous books I have read and his commitment to the keep the cerebral detective story alive is something I really admire.

An inordinate amount of praise should also be bestowed on his translator, John Pugmire, who set-up shop for himself under the name Locked Room International and has been delivering a steady stream of content never before published on this side of the language barrier. A fifth translation, Le Cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996), is planed for late 2012 and the plot is "Halter's And Then There Were None, with a very clever impossible crime thrown in." Henri Cauvin's The Killing Needle (????) is also planned for a late 2012 release and features the French precursor to Sherlock Holmes. You can support John Pugmire to continue doing this by simply buying the books, as ebooks or paperback, and enjoy reading them. That's all.  

Oh, and my review of Jean-Paul Török's L'enigma du Monte Verita (The Riddle of Monte Verita, 2007) provided a blurb for that book on the back cover of The Demon of Dartmoor. Neat!