False Notes

"Danger is part of my trade."
- Sherlock Holmes.

The licensed private-eye Barr Breed, prowling those mean streets of Chicago, has two recorded cases to his credit, The Body in the Bed (1948) and The Body Beautiful (1949), written by Bill S. Ballinger – an associate professor of writing who worked in advertising and broadcasting. You can read more about Ballinger and his work on the Thrilling Detective Website, which includes an uncomplimentary blurb from Anthony Boucher’s review of The Body Beautiful:
"A shabby museum of every cliché of plot, style and action." 
Well, I can't entirely disagree with Boucher's opinion, but still, I think that label is more applicable to the book discussed on here a few days ago, Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934), than to this little hardboiled conundrum and with that book still fresh in my memory – I felt that the short comings in this one were less of an issue. Sure, it does go through the motions of pulpy, dime-store paperback, but I kind of liked how the hardboiled voice resonated in a theatrical setting and the plot wasn't bad for what is essentially just pulp. 

For Breed, the headache begins when Benny and Rusty try to set him up with Coffee Stearns, a drop dead gorgeous showgirl currently performing in Golden Girls at the old Marlowe Theatre, but Coffee is a solitary minded girl whose only expectation of Breed is to pick a corner to die in. That is, until she learns that he's a P.I. and promises to pay him in kind for his patient attentions, if he does a job for her, but the last thing he ever sees of Coffee is her falling from a gild swinging cage, open in front and elevated above the stage, into the orchestra pit – a knife is firmly planted in her gold-painted back.

Breed's cop-buddy Cheenan takes command of the case and at times takes even more from Breed than Cramer would have from Wolfe and Archie! Like shoving him from an elevator, while knocking down the lift attendant and greasing a cab driver for a quick getaway, but things like that doesn't deter them from bouncing light-hearted threats and verbal jabs off each other the moment they make contact. Hey, I said that I sort of agreed with Boucher and once you've made it pass the chapter with the hospital scene, in which a stitched-up Breed shrugs of the effects of a bomb blast before charging the streets, you've (pretty much) left the worst part behind you.

Anyway, Breed and Cheenan turn the old, but refurbished, Marlowe Theatre inside-out for evidence, interview Coffee's co-workers and everyone even remotely connected to her and tangle with anonymous clients, unwilling witnesses, two more corpses and a prowler with a gun – as well as tangling with each other. But the best parts were the solution to Coffee's stabbing and the dénouement.

Coffee Stearns was stabbed while sitting in an inaccessible cage, suspended above the floor, and while a seasoned knife-thrower was part of the show, that notion was never seriously entertained and a gleam that was seen shooting up to the cage, from the front side, made me suspect that the knife was worked with fish wire. My reasoning was that the swinging of the cage made a spring (or a contraption) unnecessary. It could be simply pulled in place with a wire, as Coffee was backing up when the cage began to ascend and move, but Ballinger relayed on a very Carrian gimmick – giving it a nifty twist in this particular setting. 

Not anything spectacular, but interesting for impossible crime buffs and also disappointing that this angle of the problem got very little exposure. But I did like how Breed gathered the suspects and began tying up the loose ends, all the while building up the suspense by buzzing in people, until everyone has been fed enough information to realize for themselves who the murderer is.

The Body Beautiful is not for you if you're looking for a mystery that offers crisp, highly-quality prose that is meaningful, three-dimensional characters that you can relate to and a plot that takes your breath away, but it’s perfect for a fun, fast-paced read. And believe me, there are worse mysteries out there.


In the Shadow of the Gallows

"Behind every great fortune lies a great crime."
- Honoré de Balzac

Maurice B. Dix was an author of detective and thriller fiction who contributed to the Sexton Blake Library, publishing most of his stories before World War II, but the passage of time, unkind as ever, obliterated nearly every trace of the man – even the Golden Age of Detection Wiki came up blank when I searched for his name.

I couldn't tell if Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934) is a standalone crime novel or a volume from a series of mysteries, starring the intuitive inspector Gordon Frewin and the man-of-facts Chief Inspector Jimmy Miller, but the plot is a smorgasbord of tropes, clichés and dust particles of good ideas.

When the story opens, two separate cases are staring Gordon and Miller in the face. The first consists of a gang of dope peddlers, using a fishing fleet to smuggle cocaine into the country, and one of the men, "Steamboat Bill," a skipper of a fish tender, Saucy Nan, threw a man overboard after finding him in bed with his wife. The man died and Bill is facing a charge of manslaughter, however, Gordon is convinced that it was carefully planted murder by the mastermind behind the drug ring, but with the man on trial, he's summoned to look into another case.

At Grassmere Abbey, Sir James Arnold was shot in his own library by an intruder and his neighbor, John Forsythe, was arrested as the responsible party. The murder weapon, which Forsythe admits throwing into the pond near the estate at the night of the murder, belongs to him. He was also overheard having a violent quarrel with Sir James. The local constabulary lacks any doubting shadows nipping at their heels about Forsythe's guilt, but the prisoner has powerful and popular friends who want a second opinion from Scotland Yard's finest. It's interesting to note how police-friendly this book is. Aside from the local police, they are portrayed as intelligent, well-trained, witty and caring people who go out of their way to protect the innocent – even treading carefully to not startle the highly strung skeletons in the overstuffed closets of the local gentry any further.

Gordon and Miller were also the only "real" characters in the book, but only because you could follow their trend of thoughts. You get to know them more as policeman than as actual people. And no. I don't count that love affair of Gordon as characterization. Oh, but there was one brief moment when they were speculating on Miller's hatred for drugs, before it was shrugged off, which felt as a willful act of non-characterization!

Obviously, a clue turns up (i.e. a cylinder of cocaine) that ties together the two cases just in time for the murderer to strike down a second victim: P.C. Brown was standing guard on the scene of the crime when a bullet struck him in the face, but the police seals on the doors and windows were intact. But don't expect too much from the solution, which is almost insulting and belongs on the pages of one the detective genres primordial ancestors from the 1800s. The same can be said for most of the answers given in this story. Very disappointing.

Yes, I did dream up an explanation of my own to account for the unbroken police seals on the doors and windows of the library, which is not only better, but would've also smoothed out some imperfections (no spoilers for the actual solution):  

The only way to have made the murder of P.C. Brown work as a proper locked room mystery, is if he had been killed by one of the "unknown" gang members, which is a role I would've assigned to the local constable, Maples. He would've had access to the house and was in a position to remove the seals, retrieve any evidence and reseal the room with an official police seal. Unfortunately, he didn't counted on P.C. Brown and a struggle ensued, in which he fatally struck his head on the fireplace. To delay the discovery, he still applies a fresh police seal to the door. This would've also accounted for why he was satisfied with the circumstantial case against Forsythe and having Maples as co-killer would fit the pattern of the story to a T.

But in the end, Murder at Grassmere Abbey was just a bad, but readable, book that began to teeter on the brink of idiocy once the pile-up of tropes and clichés, dragged kicking and screaming from retirement, became apparent. Dix basically took every preconceived notion that non-mystery fans have of classic whodunits and shoehorned them in a book of just a little more than three hundred pages. Recommended as a curiosity only.


On the Dragon's Tail

"The way all the creatures argue. It's enough to drive one crazy!"
- Alice (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)

A perusal glance at the ever expanding quantity of impossible crime fiction, discussed on here with accelerating regularity, persuaded me to go easy on the old hobby horse and mix things up a bit. But the book I fixed upon, for a much-needed change of pace, almost feels out of place on this blog and it still concerns an impossibility depending on your criteria. After all, it's a wild goose chase for a missing dragon on Valentine's Day!

Mike Resnick was an unfamiliar name to me when I chanced upon Stalking the Dragon: A Fable of Tonight (2009) at the Boekenfestijn (Book Fest), where excess stock is disposed of at bargain prices, and I have to admit, I was drawn to this book by its fantastic cover illustration – evoking an image of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) set in the Land of Oz. I simply had to own a copy! By the way, I checked up on Resnick and he's a huge name in the SF/Fantasy genre, sweeping up five Hugo Awards during his career, and producing a steady stream of fiction since the late 1960s. All in all, an image of a modern-day fictioneer.

John Justin Mallory is an old-fashioned gumshoe with an ample supply of snappy comebacks, who made his first appearance in Stalking the Unicorn (1987), in which an elf named Mürgenstürm transports Mallory to an alternative Earth in order to find a stolen unicorn. I want to read that book just to watch a less jaded Mallory interact with the fairytale world he suddenly finds himself in. It oddly reminds me of the premise of the BBC series Life on Mars (2006/07), in which a modern day policeman awakes in the early 1970s of his childhood and has to adjust himself while figuring out what's happened to him. One of the few modern, character-driven crime series I enjoyed watching and first season was solid gold.

In Stalking the Dragon, Mallory has already adapted himself to his new surroundings and it hardly surprises him when a distraught client, Buffalo Bill Brody, engages him to find his tiny dragon, Fluffy, who's the heavy favorite for the Eastminster pet show to be held the following day. Mallory suspects Brody's competitor Grundy, a powerful demon, and plans to make quick work of the case, but Evil Incarnate fancies himself a sportsman and doubles Mallory's fee if he can bring back Fluffy in time – and it's during this nocturnal quest that mystery and fantasy tropes really begin to intermingle. It should also be noted that Grundy knows what really happened, due to his demonic powers, but refuses to help Mallory in order to keep things fair. Well, that's one way of dealing with supernatural beings in a mystery.

Anyway, when the case began, Mallory was accompanied by just Felina, resident office cat-person, a walking appetite with a penchant for mischief and one of my favorite characters in this book, but along the way they begin to pick up an assortment of characters that any other sane person would've left at the side of the road.

Would you have picked up Dead End Dugan, professional zombie and slowest thinker on the otherworldly side of Manhattan, a cell-phone named Belle, who constantly tries to seduce Mallory, or a samurai sword-wielding goblin? But together they tramp those mean streets like Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion strolled down the yellow brick road and just as in the journeys of Atreyu (The Never-Ending Story,1979) and Stach (Koning van Katoren, 1971; translated as How to Become King), they visit many memorable sites. My personal favorite was the neglected wax museum where the figures of Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart are perpetual hunched over a statue of a bird – occasionally coming to life to threaten and scare any lost soul who wandered in by mistake.

On a whole, Stalking the Dragon was an enjoyable read and can be classified as a proper detective story, adhering to the basic structure and keeping the fabulous abilities of imaginary creatures out of the explanation also helped a lot, but the overall plot hardly poses a challenge to a seasoned reader of whodunits. It's something to bear in mind, but not something that should deter you from reading the book. Resnick obviously wrote it to amuse his readers and not to baffle them. I think he succeeded in doing so.


The Man Who Leaped Through Time

"I want to go ahead of Father Time with a scythe of my own."
- H.G. Wells.

I only recently learned that the missing and presumed dead Jonathan Creek series has resurfaced to hopefully redeem itself, after an ungraceful plunge into mediocre in the abysmal The Judas Tree (2010), in an as-of-yet untitled Easter special – to be filmed in early 2013. The episode was originally planned as a Christmas special, but Alan Davies' touring commitment delayed the production a few months. 

Scooby Doo, Where Are You?

Personally, I'm as thrilled as an early 1900s shilling shocker! Jonathan Creek has always been a very hit-and-miss series and The Judas Tree represented an all-time low, illogical to the extreme and riddled with plot holes, but the show's creator, David Renwick, also penned a few solid contributions to the impossible crime genre (e.g. Jack-in-the-Box (1997) and Black Canary, 1998). And hey, if we can forgive John Dickson Carr for Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956), we can certainly forgive Renwick for The Judas Tree.

And as we eagerly await the first snippets of information on this new episode, I wanted to take a look at an older one from the second season, Time Waits for Norman (1998), which nobody seems to like except me.

To be fair, Time Waits for Norman is an unusual episode – even for Jonathan Creek! The impossibilities, up to this episode, involved tangible miracles like a body inside a sealed nuclear bunker or a murderer, dressed-up as a skeleton, vanishing from a closely guarded garage, but here it's a domestic phenomenon of a man who only does things by his watch.

Maddy's publisher, Antonia Stangerson, finds herself confronted with irrefutable proof that her husband, Norman, was in America and England around the same time! It begins when an employee of a burger joint returns the wallet of her husband, which he left behind, but that’s highly unlikely because: a) Norman is a vegetarian and b) he was in New York at the time the man says he was eating a hamburger in the city. The man's story is on the threshold of convincibility, but Norman's employer confirms that he attended an early morning meeting.

A most singular problem, if you have to believe the evidence. Norman had a mere seven hours to hop on a flight back to the UK, to apparently enjoy a burger at his leisure, and hurried back to Manhattan in time for an important meeting. Maddy becomes interested and automatically draws in Jonathan to pick Norman’s story apart. Clues vary from a photo of Norman, taken in the UK when he was suppose to be in a meeting, a cryptic note and a scald mark on Norman's foot corresponding with the story of him spilling coffee in the burger tent. 

It's all Shakespeare to them

I guess this makes it for some people a dull and unexciting story to watch, because it’s basically tearing an alibi asunder without a proper crime to go with. At least, not a legal one. The motivation behind it all was very well done, even better than the solution itself, but Renwick's biggest achievement with this episode was showing a modern crime story that integrated a completely impossible situation, crossing space and time, in a believable scenario – and understanding what makes Norman ticks is key to understanding what actually happened. It's also what made me enjoy this episode even more. Norman dreads the passing of time and as a bit of chronophobiac myself, I felt empathy for the poor sod and loved the idea that it was used as a basis for an impossible crime story.

In my opinion, Time Waits for Norman is a criminally underrated and overlooked episode from this series.


The Demons' Night-Parade

"And grizzly ghouls from every tomb,
are closing in to seal your doom."
- Vincent Price (Thriller)

Lou Cameron (1924-2010) illustrated comic books before ditching the drawing table for a typewriter and, from the 1960s onward, became a fictioneer who banged out war stories, science-fiction, westerns and tie-in novels, but, from what I gathered, he achieved ever lasting fame among pulp-fiction devotees for creating Longarm – a U.S. Deputy Marshall from the 1880s who appeared in more than 400 novels!

What put me on Cameron's trail, was an entry for Behind the Scarlet Door (1971) in my well thumbed-through enchiridion of impossible crime stories and the summations of the problems in this book appeared almost identical to those in Hake Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman (1942). Corpses decompose with supernatural speed and an assault is carried out in a locked room, but these resemblances are merely superficial and I would associate the book with Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935). It's written in the same pulpy style, cloaked in shades of noir, and the plot involves a coven of witches, druids, Welsh legends, zombies, an invisible cat-like creature, body parts, zombie witches and an immortal. I'm sure I forgot to list one or two more ingredients of this witches' brew.  

Sgt. Morgan Price originally hauled from Wales, but came to America to live with his uncle and aunt, after his parents passed away, and because he speaks the language he's dispatched to the City Morgue to join Lt. Brewster and Sgt. Curstis. They are watching as the docters are cutting up the body of a young woman, Cynthia Powell, who came to them a few days ago with a story as unlikely as her own death. Cynthia also came from Wales and was making a living here chirping folk songs and got an offer to come along to a Black Mass orgy in a blue-bricked house with a red door. She witnessed how a man whipped out a gun and shot one of the hooded attendants, but when the police began to checkout her story they were unable to locate the house. She turns up dead a few days later. Well, days later...

The coroner is pretty sure that the girl had been dead for week, or more, before turning up at the police station with her unlikely story and they speak with others who turn out to have been dead all along – and it's not just the zombies dead weighting their investigation. They also meet an old Welsh man, deeply involved with the coven, who claims to have been around for five-hundred years and the lie-detector backs him all the way. Price is attacked when he wants to enter his darkened apartment, after a cat-like creature is heard inside, but nothing, alive or dead, is hiding there and still this only described a fraction of the entire story.

I became a bit of a skeptic, halfway through the book, as to how Cameron was going to explain away this pile-up of apparently supernatural occurrences and outrageous plot twits, without consulting the occult for an answer, but I have to say, he delivered the goods.

It's what you would more or less expect from a story as pulpy as this, but not a letdown at all, and I admire Cameron for keeping in control when the plot seemed to be running all over the place. The clueing is a bit flimsy though, but then again, that's a charge that can be laid against a lot of crime novels published after the Golden Era and you can still come pretty far in this one.

I initially bought Behind the Scarlet Door as comparison material, not expecting too much from it, but the book turned out to be a pleasant surprise that stands on its own merit and comes especially recommended now that All Hallows' Eve is approaching.


Mine Your Own Business

"A box without hinges, key or lid; yet a golden treasure inside is hid."
- J.R.R. Tolkien

The elderly, gentle minded professor Theocritus Lucius Westborough, a scholar whose expertise encompasses the Roman Empire, was the brainchild of mystery author Clyde B. Clason who produced ten detective novels during the mid 1930s-and early 40s.

Clason belongs to the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection and was clearly influenced by its members, from stories centering on collectors with private museums stuffed with artifacts from erstwhile civilizations (e.g. The Man from Tibet, 1939) to taking a murder tour in a business enterprise or institution like perfume manufactures (e.g. Poison Jasmine, 1940), but more importantly, they were cleverly crafted and minutely analyzed mysteries. Sad to say, Clason's insistency to hang on to that particular branch of crime fiction also meant that, once the sex and violence school of Mickey Spillane began to pick up momentum, he felt there was no longer a place for the cerebral detective of yesteryear and never wrote a follow-up to Green Shiver (1941) – which thus became Professor Westborough's last (recorded) case.

However, Clason left us with a small, but memorable, body of work and a notable one for connoisseurs of miracle problems, because more than half of them contain a variation on the impossible crime. Granted, they're not exactly spectacular illusions that are pulled off with the routine of a Las Vegas stage magician, but simple, workable (and convincing) gimmicks that are cogs in the machine of the overall plot. Clason is one of those writers you can get an overall enjoyment from: stories as intelligently written as they are plotted and populated with interesting characters that move around in specialized fields.

For his third outing, Blind Drifts (1937), Clason took a shot at explaining how someone could be hit with a bullet fired from a non-existent gun in front of seven witnesses in a mineshaft at a depth greater than the height of the Empire State Building and to do so he dispatches Westborough from Chicago to Colorado as one of the shareholders of the Virgin Queen Gold Mine – inherited from his late brother. Barely out of the plane, the mild-mannered professor is thrust into a feud between Mrs. Edmonds, major stockholder, and Jeff LaRue, owner of the neighboring Buenaventure Mine, who wants to lease the Virgin Queen. This also gives Clason an opportunity to illuminate his readers on the inner workings of a gold mining company.  

As Westborough takes a few days to inform himself, he also looks into a local mystery that may have ties to his current predicament, a department store owner and a Virgin Queen director, George Villars, disappeared without a trace, but it's the ongoing dispute between Edmonds and LaRue that ends up providing the main puzzle for the mild-mannered professor. Instigated by the suspicious mind of Cornalue Edmonds, they descend into the belly of the Virgin Queen, where, inside one of the blind drifts and in front of a number of witnesses, Edmonds is felled with a bullet, severely injuring her, and a smoking gun fails to turn up in the subsequent search.

It's the side-puzzle of the dissolved gun that contributes the most satisfying portion of the overall solution, simple and therefore convincing, but the remainder of Westborough's problems, including a pair of successful murders, are marred by a convoluted explanation. I love ingenious, complexly woven plots that consist of multiple layers, but juggling with timetables and travel schedules just doesn't do it for me.  

All in all, Blind Drifts is a solid, but not the highest rated, entry in this, altogether too short, series and will be appreciated by both fans of Westborough and puzzle-oriented mysteries.
Clason's work is fairly obscure and older editions of his books come with a hefty price-tag attached to them, however, the Rue Morgue Press has reissued a seven of his ten books and Blind Drifts is their latest offering.


Columbo: Miracles for Sale

"Few things are impossible to diligence and skill."
- Dr. Samuel Johnson

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine (1989) was the opening episode of the eight series and marked the return to the airwaves of the disheveled homicide detective after a hiatus that lasted more than a decade, but the intervening period had not dulled the lieutenants prey drive or his duplicitous appearance – never missing a beat as he doggedly pursues an opponent who's in the business of selling miracles.  

Elliott Blake is a self-professed psychic medium, who’s trying to weasel his way into a well-funded military think-tank program that studies claims of extraordinary sensory perception and finding a military purpose for it. Naturally, Blake's claims are as a legit as a stack of counterfeit bank notes and the only reason he has been getting away with his duplicity is because he has someone on the inside, Dr. Paula Hall, to help him achieve the desired results. But it also gives the heads of the think-tank hope that they finally got their hands on a genuine psychic specimen, who can perform miracles on demand and plan to stage another test conducted under the supervision of Max Dyson – an ex-magician exposing fraudulent mediums and explaining supernatural phenomena. 

Before the test, Blake and Dyson meet on a bridge cloaked in the rags and tatters of a misty evening and we learn that the gentlemen were imprisoned together in an African goal, where Dyson got out of before Blake, and the two opponents part ways like two duelists taking their paces. A very Doylean scene, if you ask me, somewhat reminiscent to Jonathan Small's story in Sign of Four (1890).

Dyson's experiment involves distant viewing and Blake is positioned in an isolation chamber, while three soldiers are scattered throughout the city in unmarked cars each with a small suitcase consisting of a blind fold, a marker, a city map book, a rubber band and a Polaroid camera. The soldiers have to blindfold themselves, flip through the book to mark a random location and drive to it in order to snap a picture and send it to HQ. Meanwhile, Blake is probing the minds of the soldiers, drawing pictures of what they photographed, and they match up pretty good! What I liked about the solution is that's basically textbook stuff, as Jonathan Creek would've said, that only works on paper, but what made it work here was that the trick was pulled-off under rigorous test conditions. It's so clever that the one trick that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to pull off becomes possible when you put a few obstacles in its way to prevent cheating. 

One, none-spoilorish, question though: were the really handheld scanners like that back in 1988/9?
The penetrating stare of a first-rate mind.

Anyway, performing a magic trick in front of a captivated audience, insistent on being fooled, is not, necessarily, a crime that garners the attention of one of the homicide squads finest, but Blake went back to Dyson when he was tinkering with his guillotine and leaves his old cellmate headless in his sealed apartment – and before long Columbo comes knocking on his door.

When the lock is cut out of the door, the lieutenant is confronted with what appears to be either a bizarre accident or a grotesque suicide, but the detective makes a few astute deductions that convince him that he's dealing with a murder. A magician friend of Dyson, Bert Spindler, puts Columbo on the trail of Elliott Blake and a battle-of-wits and deceit commences. Even though we know the murderer's identity from the outset, Columbo's observations on a screwdriver, groceries, tears shed at a funeral and the fact that Dyson died a day after his first defeat at the hands of a psychic are more clues and hints than is necessary for inverted mystery that plays out in front of your very eyes, but I love that the writer took the time to explain his suspicions. Not as much attention is bestowed on the problem of the locked doors and windows, Columbo finds the solution in a book entitled Locked Room Magic, however, I can forgive this since there was already a grand trick in this episode with Columbo reconstructing it towards the end. So I was already more than satisfied in that department.

Unfortunately, Blake is a lousy foil for the Great Detective, but only because he was accurately characterized. Blake's whole shtick is essentially being this enlightened being who unlocked the secret powers of his mind, but when you take that away you're left with a rather dumb, gullible person who gets by on a few tricks taught to him by Dyson and Columbo played him like a violin throughout the episode. Fun enough, absolutely, but I revel when Columbo has to chase a murderer as clever as him and one who sees right through him – often resulting in a nifty character sketch of the tousle headed sleuth.  

Here's the murderer from Prescription: Murder (1967):
"You never stop, do you? ... The insinuations, the change of pace. You're a bag of tricks, Columbo, right down to that prop cigar you use... I'm going to tell you something about yourself. You think you need a psychologist. Maybe you do, maybe you don't, but you are a textbook example of compensation... Compensation. Adaptability. You're an intelligent man, Columbo, but you hide it. You pretend you're something you're not. Why, because of your appearance you think you can't get by on looks or polish, so you turn a defect into a virtue. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you. And that's where you trip them up."
The killer's opinion on Columbo who was hounded by him in Ransom for a Dead Man (1971):
"You know Columbo, you're almost likeable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it's the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks... The humility, the seeming absentmindedness, the homey anecdotes about the family, the wife, you know... Yeah, Lt. Columbo fumbling and stumbling along but it's always the jugular that he's after. And I imagine that more often than not he's successful."
 And a final character analysis comes from Columbo's opponent from How to Dial a Murder (1978):
"You're a fascinating man, Lieutenant... You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you're laying a mine field and wagging your tail."
I love it when Columbo has to fight a duel-of-wits on equal grounds, but that does take nothing away from the pleasure or cleverness of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine and enthusiasts of locked rooms should queue this in their to-watch-list – even if you've already seen it. Murder is just so much more fun when Lt. Columbo is fumbling and stumbling through a case, even in the re-run! 

I also reviewed Columbo Likes the Nightlife (2003).


A Three-Puff Problem

"I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sign of Four, 1890)

You might recall that, back in early April, I reviewed W. Shepard Pleasants' interesting, but problematic, The Stingaree Murders (1932), which wrung out an unusual and pleasing (pardon the pun with malice aforethought) story from the premise of a host of people cut-off from the outside world – with an apparent invisible killer picking them off one-by-one. If judged only on originality, Pleasants' book should be among the more better known locked room novels, if only for the sheer audacity of the last of three miraculous occurrences that he strung together, but the uncouth racial attitude of the characters is what probably kept this book away from the printers for a reissue.

I met with a similar problem when leisurely strolling through Joseph Baker Carr's The Man With Bated Breath (1934), a story as disentangled from the shackles of reality as Hake Talbot's Rim of the Pit (1944) and Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935), set at the family plantation of the Gobelin clan in Georgia where a whiff of old southern racism lingers in the air. The Man With Bated Breath is not of the same caliber in reputation or content as the two novels mentioned here before, however, it could've made a name for itself as a marijuana-induced premonition of John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935) – including a two-chapter scene as memorable as the locked room lecture entitled "The Sin Party" and "The Sin Party, Continued." But more on that later.

Like his namesake would've done, Joseph Carr picked a young hero, named Frederick "Freddie" Carewe, as one of the central characters who's en route to Lookinghaven plantation, where he's to don the chauffeur's pet for his new employer, but before he can ring the doorbell he is confronted with a gun-toting dame and the body of a man. The woman turns out to be Marigold Theby, a relative of the Gobelin's, who stumbled across their dead lawyer. It's a death that, at first, does not seem to matter to the family, because the inoffensive man was, more or less, an outsider without an enemy in the world and they regard the affair as unpleasant intrusion from outside, but they remain unshaken throughout the story and one should not expect too much from this mystery in the characterization department.

The authors intent was writing a proper detective story and made few, if any, excuses in the execution of that plan – like turning Carewe into Ruper Carnal's unofficial sidekick. Just so he can be there when Carnal, who represents the local law, examines the half obliterated mud print of a face and questions Gil Gobelin on his unexplainable fit of laughter. It's just more fun to have Watson, but when that same Gil calls in a private detective the plot slowly begins to resemble the landscape of a John Dickson Carr novel.

Ocealo Archer is a gargantuan detective with an insatiable appetite (I also considered to title this post The Hungry Goblin or Feed Me More) and the demeanor of a jolly Santa Claus, but still waters run deep and underestimating him is a fatal error. Sounds familiar? I made a similar assumption, but you have to read the ending of this book to realize how different Archer and Fell really are. But I’ll say this, if this book was published a decade later, nothing could’ve convinced me that it was not written a conscious mock parody of John Dickson Carr and Dr. Gideon Fell. Nothing! Oh, there's also a jewel merchant, Waldemar de Windt, there to purchase a jewel knowns as the "Pekinese," who sets himself up as a rival detective – playing the Simon Brimmer to other detectives Ellery Queen.

Anyway, everyone knows that the presence of a great detective does not prevent a murderer from striking again. On the contrary, killers are drawn to them like a moth to a flame and this nefarious person deserves bonus points for efforts. One of the rooms in the plantation is a disused, empty gable-room that becomes the source of a crashing noise that everyone, immediately, responds to. Four of the family members make it into the room, after which they got locked in, followed by gunfire. There's an open window, but a policeman below on the grounds closely guards that one. When they enter the room bodies are scattered in the four corners of the room: two of them are dead and the others are (severely) wounded. The room is as bare of furniture as it's of hiding places for a smoking gun, however, none turns up and the two survivors were physically incapable of making it vanish. Not to mention that the policeman swears nothing was dropped from or thrown out of the window and the victims were in such a position that it eliminates the possibility of a sniper.

The solution is up to scratch though not with the vivacity of the original Carr (and the murderer was easy to spot), but you have to give this one props for pulling off the vanishing murder weapon convincingly, which seems to be harder than it appears. I find them to be very hit-or-miss. Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933) should've been one of the more famous novels from their earlier period, where it not for the botched and unconvincing explanation for the dissolving gun, while John Dickson Carr probably came up with one of the best and most simple answers in one of his stage play, "Inspector Silence Takes the Air," collected in 13 to the Gallows (2008). A willingness to fairly dispense clues also helps in overlooking some of its shortcomings. One of the worst may just be that Carr neglected to weave the family story of one of their ancestor, Mordecai Gobelin, who was hanged as a highwayman, done to replenish the family fortune, with the abandoned gable-room. A ghost of a condemned highwayman would’ve been the finishing touch and betrays that this is not a work from the hand of the real grandmaster of the locked room mystery.

By the way, I think the method would be perfect for one of Paul Doherty's Sir Hugh Corbett stories and it would be a lot more convincing in a medieval setting. If you know the solution, imagine it being done in a sealed, snow covered tower with a vast expense of unbroken snow surrounding it. Perfect!

Then we come to the "Sin Party," a gathering similar to Dr. Fell's "Locked Room Lecture," except that Archer deals out marijuana cigarettes to stimulate the mind and gives a defense for its use, but not before getting a lengthy description of its effect on poor Freddie. What a great take on the wool gathering technique of the armchair detective, but it has made me very suspicious of Nero Wolfe's appetite and his insistency on privacy when he's up with Theo on the rooftop greenhouse. And remember Rex Stout's remark about rolling their own? A Freudian slip of the tongue, as they say? If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth and I think the truth is that Wolfe's greenhouse is the most exclusive coffee shop in the world.

Well, I have to leave you at that and recommend this book to collectors of alternative crime novels, fans of John Dickson Carr who want to read it for comparison, and locked room enthusiasts like me, but let the read be warned, the book may tax some readers sensibility as much as their deductive abilities. But remember, we came a long way since this book was written and this kind of old-fashioned racism should be taken as seriously as John Cleese goose-stepping in Fawlty Towers

Update 6 Oct. 2012: Douglas Greene posted additional information on Joseph B. Carr on the GADetection Group.