Just About as Strange as Fiction: Day to Day Miracles

"The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen."
- Father Brown

"Oh, that never happens in real life" or "lack of realism" are tired old platitudes that are wheeled out every so often to demonstrate the artificiality of the mystery genre and no other trope is more detached from our day-to-day life than the Locked Room Mystery. That is, if you ignore actual cases like the seemingly impossible murders of Isidore Fink and Laetitia Toureaux or coffins being swung around in sealed crypt on the island of Barbados, but in my wandering on the internet I found many examples of domestic miracles – showing that the locked room problem is a lot more common than most people think it's.

Example #1: The Problem of the Intoxicated Thespian

Lawson (left) in The Wrong Box (1966)

The blog Shadowplay has post dating from 2008 describing an anecdote involving actor and funnyman Wilfred Lawson, "one of the few actors who could function quite well with a skinful," and was locked into a dressing room before a radio interview – hoping it would prevent him from getting drunk. When they returned after an hour and opened the door, they found Lawson hammered and nobody knew how he got his hands on the demon rum. The comment section is rive with every solution imaginable and the one that immediately sprang to my mind was that he bribed someone on the outside to poke a straw through the keyhole, but that one was already offered. So to safe my reputation as the blogosphere's resident locked room enthusiast, I'll give one more solution to this problem.

Sometimes, actor's pick up a skill or a trick through their work, the cast of Leverage was trained in pick-pocketing, and I can imagine that a professional drunkard has few tricks up his sleeve. What if... Lawson was armed with a flask of hard liquor that he slipped into the pocket of the minder before going to the dressing room, shook his hand or gave him a pad on the shoulder at the door, so he wouldn't feel the other hand fishing the flask from his pocket, and spend the next hour getting drunk. Upon the return of the minder, Lawson slipped the flask back into the pocket of the minder and probably retrieved it after he and/or the room was searched.

Example #2: The Cat Who Created a Miracle

Jill McGown (1947-2007)

Jill McGown was a contemporary mystery writer of the inspector Lloyd and Judy Hill mysteries, who died in 2007 at the age of 59, and, from what I heard, her earlier work is very much in the Golden Age vein – and in the opinion of Douglas Greene she was one of the best. That got my attention and Google'd her name to find a homely tale on her website of her cat who made an attempt at outdoing Edgar Allan Poe at his own game. Here's the story in McGown's own words:
"I came in to find Greta polishing off Frankie's Go-Cat (she starts with the tinned food and moves on to the dry stuff). She shot past me, towards the front window, the way she had come in. The window has two large panes that open from the side, and a little one between these two that opens from the bottom. It's on a cantilevered hinge, so when you open it, there is a space above and below it. Greta jumped, landed on top of it (on the side of the glass that is outside when the window's closed), squeezed through the gap, and took off, kicking it with her back feet as she launched herself into the air, which action neatly closed the window behind her. If I had come down a moment later, I would have found the house catless, the cat food gone, and the windows all securely shut. Edgar Allen Poe couldn't have done it better."
I applaud McCavity Greta for creating this ingenious little locked room that could've been easily incorporated into a story: a straight forward murder case becomes a bone-fide impossible crime, because the victim's cat accidentally closed the killer's exit. You can find McGown's original post here.

Example #3: You're Gonna Carry That Weight

To be completely honest, I have no way of confirming the veracity of the next story that has been floating on the internet and apparently came from a book of unsolved mysteries – entitled Mysteries of the Unexplained (1992?). Anyhow, the problem that baffled the police involves the Dowing Construction Company of Indianapolis and a five ton steel wrecking ball hanging from a crane 200 feet above the ground that vanished overnight in 1974.

My initial theory was that the ball was lowered into a hole in the ground and buried. Motive? Sabotage. Practical joke. Payback from employees on the boss. You name it. But the best solution came from "Samskara," at the JDCarr forum, who proposed this gem of an explanation:
"Alternately, another crew on a job elsewhere in town might have found that their 1 ton wrecking ball simply wasn't up to the job. They came over with a suitable truck, lowered the 5 ton ball into the back of the truck, drove back to their own site, and switched the wrecking balls. This would reduce the amount of time and activity at the site from which the ball disappeared, and the missing ball would be rather like the purloined letter -- invisible in plain site."

Example #4: Wizards in a Laboratory

James Randi, Professional Skeptic

James Randi has been a bane to the spiritualists' society, homeopathic industry and paranormal claimants as a debunker. The James Randi Educational Foundation even has The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge to "eligible applicants who can demonstrate a supernatural ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria," but nobody to date has lived up to the challenge. However, there's a two-part interview with James Randi and Michael Edwards on their YouTube account that shows if Randi, and his companions, had less scruples they could've fooled millions of people.

In the video Randi and Edwards are reminiscing about Project Alpha that hoodwinked an entire group of para-psychologists into believing that a couple of kids possessed psychic powers. It was an elaborate hoax to show how easy it was to even fool "scientists" who were willing to believe instead of investigate and one of their tricks was creating a psychic storm in a sealed laboratory. You can watch the videos here and here (the locked room story can be found in part 2).

Example #5: The Mind Reader

This one is a personal favorite of mine and also involves James Randi when he debunked James Hydrick, who looks like the illegitimate child of He-Man and Morticia Addams in his confrontation with Randi, and his extraordinary claims of having "unlocked" the powers of his mind – even giving a demonstration in the studio by flicking through the pages of a telephone book with his mind! I admit it, I was impressed the first time I watched that video, but only because I recognized it as a good and unusual magic trick. Watch the magician who explains miracles in action for yourself.

Example #6: Where Have You Gone, Professor Van Dusen?

Back in 2007 (I think), the NYPD released a video that showed a white car pulling off drunken maneuvers, seemingly impossible bursts of speed that ended with the phantom car phasing through an chain-link fence without smashing it. The accepted concensence appears to be that only the top of the fence was secured, basically working as a garage door, snapping back into place when the car had passed through. It's definitely a problem that would've piqued the interest of Professor S.F.X. van Dusen, a.k.a. The Thinking Machine, who solved a similar puzzle in "The Phantom Motor."

Well, these are my White Queen’s half dozen of impossible things that nobody has probably ever imagined, let alone before breakfast, but nonetheless happened outside the confines of a detective story – some of them of a very domestic nature. The locked room may be one of the most timeworn tropes of the genre, making its first debut in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," but that's because it has always been the most popular ride in the park and for good reason! If done well, it adds an extra layer of mystification to the plot, and more often than not, an impossible situation (like a theft of disappearance) can carry an entire story without a single body hitting the floor. 

Hopefully, I have demonstrated with this post that aren't just figments of imagination that belong on the pages of a Victorian mystery, but actually occur in the real world. McGown's eyewitness account shows that they sometimes just happen. I see opportunities instead of a tired old cliché.


Rest in Pieces?

"I've never been a cop nor hope to be a cop, thanks."
- Evan Hunter. 

Ed McBain was perhaps the best known penname of the late Evan Hunter, a prolific author of crime and mystery novels, whose 87th Precinct stories are still being praised for its portrayal of a policemen and their daily struggle against crime, but I have seen McBain's work only in diluted form – like his completion of the unfinished manuscript, The April Robin Murders (1958), that Craig Rice left behind upon her death.

I have wanted to sample one of the 87th Precinct novels ever since my radical attitude towards post-WWII mystery writers began to taw, but before that fairly benevolent proprietor of Pretty Sinister Books posted a review of Killer's Wedge (1959), describing a hostile cat-and-mouse game with a locked room puzzle looming in the background, I had nothing to aim for. Well, it still took a year and a few months for it to reach the top of the pile, but it got there and sometimes it's worth to be picky when tackling a new writer.

A large slice of the story told in Killer's Wegde takes place in the squad room of the precinct, where a group of detectives are being held hostage, which began when Virginia Dodge sailed into the room brandishing a gun and a bag containing a jar of nitroglycerine!

Dodge is described as Death personified, "she had deep black hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head... brown eyes set in a face without make-up, without lipstick, a face so chalky white that it seemed she had just come from a sickbed somewhere," who's more than willing to complete the illusion by announcing that she has come to kill Detective Steve Carella. Dodge holds their colleague responsible for the death of her husband, who died in prison, and I wonder if the writer of Columbo had this book in mind when they wrote Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo (1990), which is not out of the question, since a few episodes were based on stories by McBain. Anyway, the wedge in her plan is that Carella is out on a case and so they have to wait until he returns.

The case that requires Carella attention stands in stark contrast to the premise set fort in the first chapters and throws the reader back to the days of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr, who's referenced when Carella muses over the case. It appears as if the patriarch of the wealthy Scott family, and business tycoon, took his own life at his mansion by throwing a rope over a beam and tying the other end to the doorknob in a windowless room – bolting the door from the inside before hanging himself. The door had to be practically destroyed at the seams with a crowbar to gain access, and not before cutting the rope, which makes suicide a very tenable theory. Interestingly, the reader becomes privy of information that never reaches Carella, who has to reach the solution by pure reasoning – giving the reader an extra edge over the detective.

I suspected the correct solution even before forensics confirmed that it was murder, but I still enjoyed it because I have been on the look-out for a locked room mystery that would use it. The crux to the create the locked room is so simple and obvious that I have always been convinced that it had to been use, and it was proposed as a false solution in a novel from the 1930s, but never as the actual explanation and I have to give it to McBain for how he handled it.

Meanwhile, back at the squad room, the tension is slowly becoming unbearable as the detectives and Dodge engage in a dangerous battle of wits, a swelling pool of hostages (consisting of a wounded cop and a prisoner), several attempts to communicate with their (dense?) colleagues, but the shrew has firm grip on the gun – and all the while she keeps everyone guessing whether there's actual nitroglycerine in the jar. McBain weaved two separate stories, a character-and a plot driven one, together into a great, snappy page turner that was, for me, an excellent introduction to his 87th Precinct series. It's obvious that the author of Killer's Wedge embraced the new direction that crime fiction was taking at the time, but it's gratifying to see McBain was also one of those writers who occasionally glanced in the rearview mirror to determine how well he was going down that new route. As a result, Killer's Wedge is a book that can be appreciated by detective and thriller/crime fans alike.

Sergio from Tipping My Fedora also reviewed this book a while ago and delved deeper into the characters populating the plot. I'm just here to give the plot my stamp of approval.


A Twist in Time

"I started playing so I could link the distant past to the far future."
- Hikaru Shindo. 

I've always had an affinity for crossovers, which, alas, are scarce in the mystery genre, but every now and then, one rises to the surface. The rotating writing team that once operated under a number of pennames, including Patrick Quentin and Jonathan Stagge, wrote one, Black Widow (1951), where Lt. Trant cast Peter Duluth as the main suspect of his murder investigation and The People vs. Withers and Malone (1963) has Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer's series detectives facing off against Murphy's Law – and gave me one hell of a dream!

The mystery writing husband-and-wife team of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller have occasionally pooled their talents, and as a result, The Nameless Detective and Sharon McCone inhabit the same universe and I recommend Double (1984), if you have never seen them on a case together. However, Beyond the Grave (1986) may have been their best collaboration from that period. It presents the reader with the alluring problem of a hidden treasure of religious artifacts, hidden in 1846, that leaves a streak of crime through history – and it takes the combined skills of two detectives, a hundred years apart, to solve it.

Beyond the Grave opens with the only part of the novel that takes place during 1846, when Rancho Rinconada de los Robles, the estate of Don Esteban Velasquez, fell during the Bear Flag Revolt, but not before trusting Padre Urbano with stowing away his family treasure. The padre died during the siege of the ranch and the cache of artifacts evanesced from history. We move from the 1840s to the 1980s, where Elena Oliverez, curator of the Museum of Mexican Arts in Santa Barbara, who solved a locked room murder there in one of Muller's solo novels, The Tree of Death (1983), finds a sheaf of papers in a marriage coffer she purchased at an auction. It's part of a report dating back to 1894 from a private investigation firm named Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services!

According to the report, Felipe Velasquez, son of Don Esteban, engaged Quincannon after a golden statuette of the Virgin Mary, the name of his father and date etched into the gold, turned up and wants him to follow the trail – in the hope of recovering more of his father's lost collection. Meanwhile, in the future, Elena tries to piece together the past and find other scraps of Quincannon's report. The construction of the plot is not entirely dissimilar to Ellery Queen's A Study in Terror (1966), in which Ellery Queen devours one of Dr. Watson's unpublished manuscripts accounting Sherlock Holmes' involvement in the Jack the Ripper case, but Elena is much more involved than Ellery and does more than providing a part of the solution. Not to mention that she actually has to look for Quincannon's papers in order to read them and it was a nice touch to show that she was still a museum curator, and that she couldn't just take time-off to indulge in a personal interest at her leisure. Ellery also didn't have to deal with a present day murderer near an abandoned grave.

But than again, Pronzini and Muller are as good at shaping characters as they are at crafting plots, but that also gave this book an aura of melancholy. Elena Oliverez has a fair share of personal issues troubling her, like a hospitalized mother and a wrecked relationship, and Quincannon has sworn off the demon rum and convinced that Sabina's resilience against his advances are weakening, but it's sad to think about when they're referred to in the 1986-parts as the long-dead detectives. The separation in time makes Quincannon's problems, and Elena's own worries, seem like trifles that are, or will be, dust particles in time. I have mentioned before that Carpenter and Quincannon are my favorite Pronzini/Muller characters (sorry Nameless and McCone) and I like to think that they were cut from the same ephemeral material as Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe.

However, Carpenter and Quincannon's mortality does not damage the pleasure I got from Quincannon and Oliverez, a private-eye from 1890s and an amateur snoop from the 1980s, tying together an intrigue that began in 1846, picked up in 1894 and finally ended in 1986 – and thought almost the same as Oliverez before she shared this final sad reflection, "I wished I could tell him the way it had ended." Luckily, there’s nothing deterring you from learning how this bloody 140 yearlong treasure hunt ended, but to fully appreciate this story, you should be acquainted with the characters before picking this one up.

Finally, I have to point out a continuity problem when compared with The Bughouse Affair (2013): Quincannon mentions in Beyond the Grave that he’s a read a collection of short stories by Conan Doyle and purposely mimics Sherlock Holmes' speech, but in The Bughouse Affair he's talked about as an actual person – a contemporary detective of Quincannon! Of course, we can assume that in this universe "Conan Doyle" is merely a pseudonym for Dr. Watson choose and probably picked that name because it was the name of a young a man who published a prosperous story, "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," that some people took as a true eye-witness account of what happened aboard the Mary Celeste. Who would take any thing that guy wrote now as anything but fiction! It was a perfect cover and the reason why everyone at the time of Beyond the Grave assumed he was a storybook character. Their real names were probably Sheringford Homes and Dr. John Smith. It also explains why the real Doyle was fed-up with Sherlock Holmes overshadowing his other actual work and must have been thrilled when Dr. Smith send him the account of his friends final adventure at Reichenbach Falls. I think I would made a great conspiracy theorist.

I hope the time between now and the next review will be a lot shorter.


This Game of Murder!

"Just see how it glints and sparkles. Of course it is a nucleus and focus of crime. Every good stone is. They are the devil's pet baits."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle")
Ton Vervoort was the non-de-plume of Peter Verstegen, born in 1938 in The Hague and if the absence of a date of death on his wikipedia page is any indication, he will be celebrating his 75th birthday on July 30 of this year. A few days ago, Ton Vervoort, one of those all-but-forgotten mystery writers reappeared on my radar screen when "Plaat-van-de-Maand," a monthly item on a Dutch thriller blog high-lighting the works of forgotten authors, picked him for March and I just happened to have his first mystery novel kicking around – but have no recollection where and when I picked it up.

Murder Among Students (1962)
Moord onder studenten (Murder Among Students, 1962) introduces the readers to the character of Ton Vervoort, student and hand-picked chronicler of a slightly eccentric inspector of the Amsterdam police force, Floris Jansen, who broke with the traditional, sober minded Dutch policeman that usually prowl these tales and have discussed a few of them on previous occasions (e.g. Cor Docter and Tjalling Dix). Jansen is aware that he's playing a role and modeled himself on the popular detectives from fiction, like Philo Vance and early-period Ellery Queen, but gave a somewhat plausible explanation for breaking the mold. Before he arrived on the scene, the newspapers had no reason to mimic their overseas colleagues when it came to sensational murder cases, but now that they had one of those fancy detectives, he simply helps selling the story. However, there's more: Jansen grandmother was an impoverished Russian noblewoman, who married a Dutch painter in France, and his Eastern-style home, leisurewear and half-Persian wife also gives Jansen a dash of Prince Zaleski – minus the decadence and social withdrawnness. And wasn’t M.P. Shiel also Prince Zaleksi's narrator?

Verstegen was a very genre savvy mystery writer whose characters converse on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, deductive vs. intuitive reasoning and quote Agatha Christie, and if that wasn't enough, he dusts off a few props from his predecessors – and an official police investigator is the only concession made to realism. You could almost classify it as a pastiche. 

Murder Among Students opens with Ton Vervoort stumbling to his feet, after an unknown assailant knocked his lights out when he was going upstairs to ask the wife of their landlord, Mrs. Van Duinhoven, if they she wanted to join an impoverished birthday party for a fellow tenant, Grandpa Hobbema. Vervoort was lucky enough to escape with his life, because the person who bumped into him had just returned from stabbing Mrs. Van Duinhoven in her bedroom and purloin a valuable blue diamond. The stone was kept in a safe and only used to gaze into during private séances, however, the replica Mrs. Van Duinhoven wore was missing, too! 

Peter Verstegen a.k.a. "Ton Vervoort."

Before I continue, I have to make a note here on the title of the book, which is a bit of a misnomer. It implies a murder at a student hostel, but the setting is an apartment complex were a few rooms are let to students and quite of few of the suspects are related to Mrs. Van Duinhoven.

There's the unpleasant and not much loved landlord, Mr. Van Duinhoven, and their children, son Robbert and daughter Jos, and Hugo ter Laak, a son from Mrs. Van Duinhoven's first marriage. Otto Warendorf is Jos' fiancé and an active member in various student societies. Willie Klook is another promising, beautiful student and secretly engaged to our narrator. Iwan Mulder studies medicine and had a special friendship with Mrs. Van Duinhoven. Eighty-year-old birthday boy, Grandpa Hobbema, loves to go to funerals of strangers, getting away with it by being mistaken for a long-forgotten great uncle, and finally we have the hustling neighbors Mr. and Mrs. De Boer. Their "shenanigans" make for an involving plot that is, at times, very aware of itself. One of the students even addresses the problem of the book title by commenting on the newspaper that is placing the murder in university circles. The students do play a part in the plot, but the title is rather, uhm, arbitrary? I think Moord onder huurders (Murder Among Tenants) would've been a better and funnier title, because it's the landlords who drop like flies among their own tenants.

Yes! Mr. Van Duinhoven croaks as well and was found in his bed not long after stumbling into the home, drunk and out of his mind, pointing an accusing finger at Vervoort and yelled shrilly, "Jij! Jij! Jij hebt het gedaan!" ("You! You! You have done it!"). A "lovely Poe-effect," Jansen remarks, in reference to Edgar Allan Poe's short story "Thou Art the Man," but the poisoning of Mr. Van Duinhoven is a clever piece of plotting in itself. Thrown together with the jumble of the stolen stones, clues consisting of a lingering whiff of cigarette smoke, clocks, cats and a false solution that played on a classic plot device made for an entertaining read. Murder Among Students is not a book you pick up for it's great writing or grasp on characterization, but absolutely perfect if you are in one those pulpy moods and crave for a story with a complicated murder plot, stolen diamonds, a scheming master detective, a capricious killer and enough references to play "spot-the-nod."

There's just one thing that bugged me: Jansen bragged that his detectives were very good at searching, but somehow they missed a safe that was hidden behind a few books?

Ton Vervoort/Peter Verstegen bibliography (untranslated):

Moord onder studenten (Murder Among Students, 1962)
Moord onder toneelspelers (Murder Among Performers, 1963)
Moord onder astrologen (Murder Among Astrologers, 1963)
Moord onder de mantel der liefde (Murder Under the Cloak of Love, 1964)
Moord onder maagden (Murder Among Virgins, 1965)
Moord op toernee (Murder on Tour, 1965)
De zaak Stevens (The Stevens Case, 1967)
De zuivelduivel (The Dairy Devil, 1975; a SF-detective)


Breaking Point

"Crime is common. Logic is rare."
- Sherlock Holmes

Alice Williston is pried loose from Sleep's embrace when a persistent buzzer disturbs the peaceful hours of an early April morning, but the doorman informs her that the person will call back at a more convenient time – after which she decides to freshen herself up and make coffee for her companion, Jimmy Madena. Alas, even a brew of the strongest, blackest coffee lacks the potency to revive the dead and Alice is charged with Jimmy's murder.

This is the premise of Murder One (1948) by Eleazar Lipsky, a lawyer and prosecutor with a couple of movies to his writing credits, Kiss of Death (1947) and The People Against O'Hara (1951), and evidently drew from his legal career when he began to write. And to be honest, the peeking around in the District Attorney's office in Murder One was more interesting than the story itself.

Esau "Easy" Frost is the Assistant District Attorney who's charge of the Madena case and offers Alice repeatedly a plea-bargain, but she refuses to admit that she was responsible for Jimmy's death – and he's convinced that she did it and reluctantly charges her with Murder One. Frost is described in the Cast of Characters as "a real lawyer who will stick his neck way out to be fair to a defendant," while technically true, he’s not exactly a White Knight either. He has a nasty taste for psychological torture, or "the fourth degree," as he likes to call it, and excuses himself by stating that he abhors physical violence. I understand this attitude towards a cut-throat gangster, who's pleading for his life in the death-house as his date is coming up, but keeping a witness from seeing his dying wife? A tacky move, if you already have your guy and his methods made him about as unlikable as Thatcher Colt in The Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930).

The upside is that this book, which can be described as a hardboiled police procedural/courtroom drama, follows Frost around in the D.A.'s office and I think this is the first time I saw such a character being involved in more than one cases – even if they have no bearing on the case the story is focusing on.

I already mentioned Frost's visit to the death-house, where he turned down a high-ranking mob boss who suddenly had second thoughts on the plea-bargain he had turned down, but he's also informed that the police has dragged a headless body from the river and sits-in on a meeting to decide what direction they would take on a number of murder cases. One of them was very reflective of the time: "a drunken throat-cutting of a harmless old Negro building superintendent by a white neighborhood hoodlum. There was no motive beyond savagery, but the proof of premeditation and planning was clear," however, "despite the delicate racial issue," they voted to take the plea and safe the man's life. This attitude demonstrates why even Frost's "gentler" fourth degree is dangerous. What if that old man had turned on his attacker and killed him, legally, in self-defense, but, still upset and confused over having killed someone, cracks under either their strong-arm methods or Frost's mind games and confesses to cold-blooded murder – giving them no reason to go for Murder Two. No doubt they could drum up witnesses of the victim antagonizing the accused in the past and present it as a motive.

And the saddest part of that is that the situation I just described would've made for a far more interesting story. Julian "Bloody" Symons would probably have adored Murder One for it's realistic portrayal of law officials (Frost has a wife and kids) filled with questionable police methods, professional crooks and loose morals, but it all boils down to Frost circling Alice, and when it's time to wrap up the story, pulls a pair of "surprise witnesses" from his sleeve. Needless to say, the conclusion left me under whelmed.

Lipsky had put quite a distance between himself and the traditional whodunit with Murder One and you could identify it as an ancestor to the kind of crime novels that still occupy the bestseller lists today, but as misguided as Lipsky may have been (hey, I'm a classicist!), his professional knowledge of the machinations of the law provided us with a keyhole in time to peek through. Otherwise, this was not my kind of crime novel.  


Vigil of the Shepherds

"I just need you to figure out how to... fake a miracle."
- Nathan Ford (The Miracle Job, Leverage)
Recently, I learned that BBC One commissioned a fifth semi-series of Jonathan Creek, comprising of three brand new episodes, which are planned for broadcast in 2014, making this years Easter Special, The Clue of the Savant's Thumb (2013), a hors d'oeuvre to the next batch of episodes!

Unfortunately, I still have to muster up some patience before Savant's Thumb airs and we're still a year removed from the new season. However, the news got me in the mood for a touch of crooked magic and decided to take a crack at a series that I wanted to sample for ages – Blacke's Magic. The series ran for twelve episodes, from January to May 1986, starring Hal Linden as stage magician/amateur sleuth Alex Blacke and Harry Morgan as his carny/conman father Leonard. He basically plays the Adam Klaus to Alex Blacke's Jonathan Creek, but apart from that, Blacke is a throwback to detectives like Philo Vance and Ellery Queen with a hint of Ed and Ambrose Hunter.

Ten Tons of Trouble (1986) opens with Blacke being roused from his sleep by a phone call from his dad, who, moments later, is knocking on his door to move in after a misunderstanding at the retirement community he was staying at. Leonard had set up a death-lottery, which is exactly what you think it’s, but was caught peeking at the medical files he always consults before taking a gamble. Needless to say, I took an immediately liking to the old man, but in my defense, I have been heavily indoctrinated by Hustle and Leverage. Anyway, a dandy looking bachelor in a lavishly styled apartment may give the impression of a modern-day Philo Vance, but Blacke has a much friendlier attitude and a sense of humor – and is glad to help his cop buddy when he comes to him with a peculiar problem that might interest him.

The Manhattan Renaissance Museum has a ten-ton marble statue, Vigil of the Shephards, on loan from the Italian government as part of a world exhibition tour and the sculptor is said to have been the best known protégé of Michelangelo and is well protected from theft. A sealed box of bullet-resistant glass covers the sculpture and a CCTV CAM surveys the room like a hawk, and if that wasn't enough, one of the security guards monitoring the screens patrols the room every sixteen minutes, but, of course, it's biggest protection is it's own weight. It's simply humanly impossible to whisk out a chunk of marble under the stated conditions, but that's exactly what appears to have happened and the empty display case is an impressive calling card in itself. But the cut-off marble finger and picture of the stolen statue with that day's newspaper stuck to it was a nice touch as well. 

Vigil of the Shepherds

Chief of Security, Ben McGuire, is held accountable and a rival detective shows up, Elisa Leigh from Empire Fidelity Insurance, but her only contribution was picking a television network for the news coverage and look very modest into a rolling camera once Blacke had solved the case. I want false solutions from my rival detectives! There was a false solution offered for the disappearing statue, the first one that will probably pop into your head, and Blacke presents it with some crummy television magic (*) to lure the thief/murderer (there's a body halfway through the episode pretty much confirming who the culprit is) out of hiding and this should've been a move on Leigh's part – like a cop-out on the insurance.

Oh, not that it was a ruse that should’ve work on anyone who bothers to look and think before acting, but it would've solidified her as the antagonist.

Blacke's reconstruction of the disappearance, staged at the scene of the crime with all suspects gathered around the display case, shows an impressive amount of trickery and tended to like it at first, however, once you begin to think about it a lot of details begin to bother you – like the size of the sculpture and the narrow sixteen minute window. Why didn't Blacke found the same clues in the museum that he found in the ship? Remember... only sixteen minutes! And if you know the solution, re-watching the opening becomes really bothersome. It’s a good trick to make something of that size disappear, if it takes place in the staged and controlled environment of a magic show. I have the suspicion that the writers reworked illusions and hung everything on those tricks, without even attempting to make them come across as plausible and with very little eye for everything else.

I did not entirely dislike Ten Tons of Trouble, like Leonard applying his griftering skills to help his son nap the killer/thief and the old-fashioned set-up, but it's basically just 50-minute vanishing act with a bit of acting to distract us.

(*): Blacke made the marble finger, cut-off from the statue and mailed to them, levitate and fly across the room, but he never explains how he managed to do that. It reminded me of Clayton Rawson’s magician-sleuth, "The Great Merlini," who demonstrated a trick in his magic shop in "From Another World," which involved pulling the trigger of gun without touching it. I suspect it was a wind-up gun, pulling back the hammer puts a wind-up mechanism in work, but Blacke’s trick seems pure TV magic.


"Who is in charge of the clattering train..."

"...Death is in charge of the clattering train!"
- Edwin J. Milliken (Death and his Brother Sleep
C. Daly King opened one of his lauded mystery novels, Obelists Fly High (1935), with the epilogue of the story and thought it would be a nice touch to begin this post on Todd Downing's Vultures in the Sky (1935) in a similar vein: it's as if we have entered a period of redemption!

As the post-title and opening quote suggests, Vultures in the Sky takes place aboard a passenger train bound for Mexico City, but sundry shadows are cast over the journey and not all of them are from the zopilotes (vultures) dotting the desert sky. Rumor filled compartments of an impending railway strike and saboteurs of the Cristeros (a religious splinter faction) become the prowling ground of a murderer who snuffed out a passenger before he even boarded the train! There's even talk that there may be people aboard who are connected to an infamous kidnapping case, which is not entirely coincidental, as Curt mentioned in his review that Downing had "read Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934) the year he began writing Vultures and he immediately praised the Crime Queen's novel unreservedly" – giving perhaps the first of many nods to one of the most famous whodunits ever written.

Downing's regular detective, Hugh Rennert of the United States Treasury Department, Custom Services, tries to take charge when he suspects foul play after one of the passengers, an American of Mexican extraction named Torner, dies while they passed through a darkened railway tunnel and Rennert does not entertain the theory that it was the bad air in the tunnel that got to him. He receives official clearance to take charge of the case, until they reach their destination and the proper authorities can take it from his hands, but this murderer is not deterred by red tape and continues to plough through the list of passengers.

I wonder if Vultures inspired the opening sequence of Stuart Palmer's The Puzzle of the Blue Banderilla (1937), in which Inspector Oscar Piper is on a train heading for Mexico City when a customs inspector takes a sniff from a bottle of cheap perfume and falls to the floor in a dead faint.

The plot rattles along at a nice, but brisk, pace and Hugh Rennert functioned as both a knowledgeable guide, who speaks his languages and appreciates the culture and history of the land, and as a proper detective – trying to make sense of hatboxes and the movement of suspects. In many ways, this was the kind of detective story that I was hoping to find when I picked up Downing's The Cat Screams (1934), actually two years ago this week, and I think my poorly written, two-year-old review still conveys my lack of enthusiasm for the book. I actually referred to Clyde B. Clason in that review and I think Vultures compares best to his work except that we move from the remnants of an erstwhile civilization, piled up in a private museum or library, to a railway track carving through the deserts of Mexico – where everything is very much alive as opposed to dusty museum pieces in the possession of a soon to be murdered private collector (c.f. about half of Clason's output).

Downing redeemed himself with Vultures, after my initial disappointment over Cat, and second chances appears as of late to be a trend on this blog. Zelda Popkin's Dead Man's Gift (1942) was a marked improvement over her slapdash performance in Murder in the Mist (1940) and Kay Cleaver Strahan's Death Traps (1930) made the award-wining Footprints (1929) look even worse in retrospect: it's as if we have entered a period of redemption! 

Lets hope this trend continues and I will definitely check back on Downing. All of his books have been reprinted by Coachwhip and have an introduction by Curt Evans (a.k.a. The Passing Tramp).

This also reminds me how horrible behind I am on my reading and working off my wish list.


Trouble Next Door

Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice.”  
- The Fat Man (The Maltese Falcon, 1930)
The award-winning curiosity, Footprints (1929), was my first foray into Kay Cleaver Strahan's writing, and while it was an engaging story depicting life on a Oregon ranch during the early 1900s, it lacked finesse as a proper detective story – i.e. neglecting to supply the full solution. We learn the name of the murderer, in an off-handed way, but not how this person escaped from one of the locked bedrooms or walked over a field of snow surrounding the house without leaving the titular footprints.

However, as little known as Strahan is today, she was known as a versatile mystery writer who penned variegated detective stories, varying her approach to the genre with each novel, which seems tenable after having read Death Traps (1930). Footprints may have been a more captivating story, but in the end, Death Traps proved to be a better mystery novel! The main protagonists in Death Trap are two old codgers, a Mr. Lucky and a Mr. Fisbee, and large portions of the story consists of conversations between the two discussing the crimes that have taken place in their respective homes, "death traps," as Mr. Lucky calls them, situated in an exclusive residential district, Calla Heights, in San Francisco. 

Mr. Bezaleel "Uncle Buzz" Lucky is a self-styled millionaire and retired green grocer from Yoncalla, Washington, and a guest at the home of Judge Amos Dexter where a mysterious shooting takes place in the sunroom: Gerald Dexter, son of, is shot and wounded, and his brother, Bob, is presumed guilty. A cover-up, of sorts, takes place. Guns are taken or turn up. A French window that may have been latched suggests a locked room problem, but there's no mistake about the impossible circumstances surrounding two deaths next door. Mr. Timothy Fisbee is a fidgety, suspiciously-minded old man who stays with relatives, Mr. and Mrs. Justin Veerneg, both of whom, one faithful morning, fail to answer the persistent knocking on their bedroom door (locked from the inside, of course!). The police had to cut a hole in the window screen and found the two peacefully slumbering in their bed, dead for several hours and many more to come! The house wasn't piped for gas and poison seems unlikely, but how then did the Veernegs die?

Strahan's series detective and seasoned crime analyst, Lynn MacDonald, provides an answer for this locked room conundrum, but otherwise, she's a non-entity who only really appears towards the end as a deus ex machina – just not exactly as we mean when we use that phrase. Just read the book.

Anyhow, the solution to the locked room is a good one and I did a bang-up job at solving it too, but than again, I had an almost identical idea for a similar impossible situation. So I caught on fairly quickly. Unfortunately, there's one method now that I have to dump from my bag of dirty tricks and murderous ideas! 

I guess the rest of the story is somewhat marred with many irrelevancies and prattle from the main characters, but I rather enjoyed how they were engrossed in the problems facing them and came up with false solutions and dummy cases – in the spirit of the dodgy characters populating Christianna Brand's detective stories. Death Traps may not be the best mystery novel produced during the 1930s, but with its excellent locked room and good enough solution, a fairly well played hand with the least-likely suspect card, it was a mountainous improvement that looms over its predecessor. I think I'll give Strahan another shot somewhere down the line.

On a completely unrelated note, but halfway through writing this review, I came to the stunning discovery that "unwakeable" is not a word, which makes me want to find a detective story about a murdered lexicologist so I can use the post title, "The Unwakeable Lexicographer." Childish, I know.