A Journey to Remember

"Evil deeds do return to their source. They always come full circle, and their evil will never end until the circle is broken."
- Dungeon Master (Dungeons & Dragons, The Animated Series)
Every now and then patterns emerge in my reading. They have varied over the years from unwittingly picking up detective stories, one after another, featuring magicians or medieval armory, but they're usually nothing more than coincidences – either that or the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler has been hanging around longer than we thought.

The mystery novel set at a convention is now officially a pattern, having previously reviewed Isaac Asimov's Murder at the ABA (1976) and Matt Forbeck's The Con Job (2012), with this additional review of Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) – which won the Edgar statuette in 1988 for "Best Paperback Original." Except this time it was premeditated and have no regrets! 

Dr. James Owen Mega is our protagonist and scientist, who molded one of his theories into a hard-science fiction book entitled Bimbos of the Death Sun, which was an "idea" from his publisher, but fortunately, he had the foresight to use a penname and hopes he doesn't bump into one of his students at Rubicon. Mega is there to play second fiddle to the main guest of honor, Appin Dungannon, chronicler of the fantasy adventures of the Viking warrior Tratyn Runewind. 

Dungannon can be called a commercial success, whose books have spawned games and a Saturday morning cartoon show Dungannon's Dragons, but ignored when it's time to pass around the awards. Granted, Dungannon's vile temper also does very little for his popularity, however, they make for great anecdotes and draws larger crowds to cons. And I have to admit, I took a liking to that fire-breathing pixy when he spit a verbal dress down at his fans during a costume contest: "shut up, cretin, I'm vilifying you." Delivered like a comedian!

The first hundred or so pages are devoted to these sorts of events that happened at Rubicon, and even though it wasn't my world at all, I appreciated the guided tour that spun a background for murder. I'm always willing to take peek in a strange and different world, and SF/Fantasy fandom is a strange and different world to say the least! Bimbos of the Death Sun takes its time to show you around and meet many peculiar characters roaming the place. Like the visiting Scottish folksinger, Donnie McRory, who stumbles around the con like Arthur Dent slogged through space and time or Monk Malone, who's really good at being a fan, and than there are Clifford Morgan, only man brave/stupid enough to cosplay as Tratyn Runewind while Dungannon is in attendance and the "Guarantuan Femmefan," Brenda Lindenfeld – among other aspiring writers, fanzine editors, wargame players and more fans. I should also mention that the book has a bunch of nifty, comic-style illustrations of most of the characters that you meet.

Another thing worth mentioning is that characters discuss "electronic mail" and deem paper mail as a thing of the past. Home computers, portable printers and technology were firmly present in this story, but they hadn't quite caught up yet with the ideas of their creators/users. But the most interesting part was perhaps to see that these SF/Fantasy cons, from Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) to Matt Forbeck's The Con Job, have stayed the same in spirit. Well, at least in the realm of fiction.

Back to Bimbos of the Death Sun. Appin Dungannon is shot through the heart in his hotel room, while putting the finishing touch to his latest fantasy epic, and is found slouched with a spilled bottle of scotch next to him  – with the printer spitting out pages. Lt. Ayhan is put in charge of the investigation and he can't stop extrapolating how much he loves this case based on how different it is from the usual crimes he has to investigate, but it's Mega who draws out the murderer during a deadly game of Dungeons & Dragons. I was surprised how quick I caught on to Mega's plan considering that I know next to nothing about the game and coupled with the unusual motive made for quite a satisfying conclusion. Bimbos of the Death Sun was not an elaborate and complicated affair, but everything came together in the end and made sense – making this a fast paced and fun read that I recommend unreservedly.


In League With the Devil

"This planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."
Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979)
Emma Lathen was the nom de plume of economist Mary Jane Latsis and economic analyst Martha Henissart, businesswomen who switched branches in the early 1960s and exploited their insight knowledge for a string of mystery novels that ran well into the 90s. I've read various opinions on Lathen's work and the main consensus among connoisseurs gives the impression that their earlier books were the best, but otherwise, were prone to churning out uneven and sometimes needlessly complex mysteries – with the main appeal being the furnishing of the plot with corporate entities and financial shenanigans.

I was hesitant to dive head first into a disappointment and I may have hold Lathen off a bit longer, where it not for an old post on the GADGroup by Tom Schantz (from Rue Morgue Press infamy!) giving an honest defense on behalf of a pair of writers who did give me the impression of being genuine purveyors of whodunits. And after all, how bad can they have been, if Tom and Enid had to fight over who got first dibs on a new Lathen back when they first came out?

It still took Lathen weeks months years to reach the peak of Mt.-to-be-Read, but all of a sudden, there they were and I began to work my way through Ashes to Ashes (1971) – twelfth in the John Putnam Thatcher series.

The St. Bernadette's Parents League has been forcing a wedge between the community of Flensburg and the church over a bankrupt parochial school that a real-estate developer has made a multi-million dollar offer on the land – backed by a mortgage from Thatcher's Sloan Guarantee Trust. The league is determined to safe the school for the community, but their opposition is stubborn and the situation was heading for a stalemate.

Until Francis P. Omara, owner of a local funeral parlor, was relieved from his duty as the figurehead of the Parents League with a butcher's mallet and his murder throws a town already in uproar in disorder. Probably the most memorable scene is how a call for modernization of Catholicism by distributing birth control pills – resulting in an out-and-out riot. I was very tempted to title this post "It's clobbering time!"

Anyway, while Ashes to Ashes delivered on the business aspect of the story, it’s was not enough to carry the story on its own and I did keep losing interest in the plot, which was everything from mind blowing. Not even with a few bomb scares and an actual explosion thrown into the mix. There were clues that Thatcher explained, but they're hardly worthy of the epithet "America's Agatha Christie." If you want to draw a comparison, I would say Rex Stout. To put it simple, I found myself unable to care about most of what happened in this book, but individual opinions may differ – as they tend to do on Lathen.

But let the reader be warned: modern sensibilities might be strained or even disturbed by certain passages that rhapsodizes Wall Street (something they apparently do in every book) and depicts bankers in the act of protecting piles of money that smells fishy.  ;)

And I will give one of their earlier efforts a shot in near future.

Last but not least, I'm glad to report that I have received two packages that contain a fresh supply of murderous tales of bafflement and wonder. 


The Metafiction Murder Case

"Coincidences are the worst enemies of the truth."
- Gaston Leroux (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907) 
Just recently, I reviewed Matt Forbeck's The Con Job (2012), the first in a series of tie-in books picking up where Leverage, canned after its fifth season, left off and the crew's incursion of Comic-Con in order to take down a mark reminded me that I had another mystery novel knocking about that treaded similar ground.

Murder at the ABA (1976) is one of the more conventional mysteries I have read by that most unconventional author of detective stories, Isaac Asimov, and yet, it's far from an ordinary affair or run-of-the-mill. What struck me first about Murder at the ABA were the flashes of "Had-I-But-Known" preceding the discovery of the body, describing everyday trivialities that ended up being flagstones that paved the way for death, something that could've easily been staved off if one of those moments had played out differently or simply had not occurred – which is an unusual approach for a mystery not penned and/or narrated by a female.

Anyway, the dominos began to fall when Darius Just, our five feet two writer and narrator, arrives too late at the 75th annual convention of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to help out a friend, but before the day is through, he's inundated with requests to talk to his former protégé, Giles Devore.

Giles Devore is what we refer to now as a "Man Child," rising to fame as an author after Just assisted in whipping his first manuscript into shape that gradually became a success story upon its publication. However, there's precious little gratitude for the independent publishing house and small booksellers that took a risk by promoting him, and now he wants to sweep them from his coattail, which gives a lot of people ample motivation to do him – that's what Darius Just believes when he finds Devore's body in the bathtub of his hotel room. There’s also the pile of heroin Just found in the hotel room, before someone swiped it away, and the complex-ridden victim himself, who can not sleep with a woman unless she undresses and baths him like a child, and calling the woman in question "mommy," gives Just and the reader enough angles to keep them guessing what happened.

It’s not the plot that’s the most appealing feature of Murder at the ABA, but its self-awareness as a work of fiction and Just’s interaction with Isaac Asimov – who’s there to do research for his next book, Murder at the ABA. The book is even dedicated to a friend on whom he modeled Darius Just, fellow SF-writer Harlan Ellison, but I have to admit, Asimov’s depiction of his friend wasn’t exactly flattering at times. Not at all like the good-natured chops he saved for himself, but hey, you’re supposed to roast the ones you love.

That being said, the metafictional excesses became a bit wearing after Asimov and Just decided to carry on their light-hearted banter in the footnotes of the story. It stopped being cute after the third of fourth one, but alas, they are there to accompany you to final chapters.

Murder at the ABA was not an unentertaining and at times even interesting detective story with a plot that was basically hung upon "the blinkin' cussedness of things in general," which was better than the suicide-disguised-as-murder explanation that I was dreading – even if it lacked the dearth of clues that put the suicide theory in my head. There are, IMHO, few things worse in a detective novel than have the murder that fueled the plot be revealed as an elaborately staged suicide and I'm glad that Asimov didn't opt for that conclusion. In short: neither extremely good nor awefully bad, but just an average plot that shined a bit brighter due to the unusual approach of its author. 


A Town in Tumult

"A picture paints a thousand words."
- Proverb 
A few years ago, I picked up Phoebe Atwood Taylor's Death Lights a Candle (1932) and The Criminal C.O.D. (1940), after listening to some favorable reviews on Les Blatt's weekly audio pod cast, but they just didn't do it for me and forgot all about Mrs. Taylor – until I rediscovered Octagon House (1937) in the cavernous belly of Mt. To-be-Read. Hey, after Zelda Popkin and Kay Cleaver Strahan delivered the second time around, I judged correctly to give Taylor and her "Codfish Sherlock," Asey Mayo, another shot.

The town of Quanoment, Cape Cod's forgotten hamlet with a population of eight hundred, has been granted a new postal office with a mural from a local artist, Jack Lorne, but the town isn't thrilled. They recognize images of themselves in the mural and the depiction of the townspeople isn't exactly flattering. Plainly, it was Jack's wife, Marina, who put him up to it, and from the evidence, she was very adept at playing the role of killable murder victim – even though she never appears on stage herself. They room with Marina's father, Aaron Frye, whose spirit she broke, and her sister, Pam, at the titular house and it is Pam's precarious situation that brings her to the doorstep of Asey Mayo.

Pam found the body of her sister in the garage, stabbed with a pocketknife that belonged to her and Jack screaming at her that she has killed Marina and that he has called the police, but there are also the incriminating and fabricated statements spouted by Nettie Hobbs – a town gossip who soured when Pam protected her father from Hobbs' advances. There's also the problem of the hundred-pound lump of ambergris that Pam chanced upon the beach, and fought over with her sister, but has now gone missing and appears to be lugged around all over the place. These elements combined with the setting almost gave you the idea of tramping around in one of Dorothy Cameron Disney's mystery novels and Pam's plight gave it shades of John Dickson Carr's He Who Whispers (1946)

Speaking of Disney and Carr, my edition of Octagon House is a Dell Mapback and includes a "What this Mystery is about" and "Wouldn't You Like to Know" section and the latter one asked a question that I have to address: why and how Pam disappeared from the locked bedroom?

Octagon House is listed nowhere as an impossible crime story, however, chapters five and six include a disappearance from said bedroom, which was locked from the outside and the key in possession of Asey Mayo, and the window screens firmly hooked in place from within. I should also mention that Pam disappeared from the bedroom when Mayo had one of the Frye's lodgers as a visitor named Timothy Carr! It's more of an Easter egg than an actual challenge, but it was treated exactly the way it should've been for something as simple (and short) as that and the explanation was more than acceptable. I was also intrigued to find another one of these miraculous side distractions, which also occurred when Jeff Troy vanished from a dumb-waiter in mid-air in Kelley Roos' Ghost of a Chance (1947) and Madeleine Magellan evaporated from a watched room in the Jonathan Creek episode, Ghosts' Forge (1999).

I know, I keep coming back to locked rooms, but I keep running into them, even when I assume I'm reading a straight laced whodunit (see: Dead Man's Gift, 1936). It's a gift... and a curse.

To round this review up, I enjoyed Octagon House and the "Codfish" Sherlock a lot more a second time around, because this one wasn't written around a joke (and punch line) that I saw coming a quarter into the book (i.e. The Criminal C.O.D.) There was plotting and mystification woven around such imagery as people running around with a lump of ambergris, an eight-sided house with clock strewn walls, brewing town riot and even an airplane crash in town square. I have to admit, it's not perfect (figured out whodunit) and the ending chapters tended to drag a bit in parts, but otherwise, I was entertained.

The theme of 2013 definitely is redemption and perhaps I should consider taking another crack at Sjöwall and Wahlöö. 

What's becoming of me?! :/



"A film is a ribbon of dreams. The camera is much more than a recording apparatus; it is a medium via which messages reach us from another world that is not ours and that brings us to the heart of a great secret. Here magic begins."
- Orson Welles
The backdrop is the largest studio at the disposal of the Elkin-Filmmaatschappij, an hour away from Berlin, Germany, where an internationally assembled cast and crew are shooting Vrouwen die vergeten (Women Who Forget), a "talkie," starring Neri Vallona and Iwan Inkow – with an unaccredited cameo from Death in one of the key scene. 

As you might have noticed from the language, this is not going to be a review of one of Ngiao Marsh's theatrically staged mysteries, but the author in question, Willy Corsari, performed on stage before becoming a successful writer. In January of last year, I reported on her country-house mystery, Voetstappen op de trap (Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937), and while there was a fatal flaw in the plot, I was nonetheless entertained – and the first example I found of a Dutch-language impossible crime novel from the Golden Age of Detective Stories!

De onbekende medespeler (The Unknown Co-Player, 1931), which was also published as Het mystery van het filmatelier (The Mystery of the Filmstudio), is a standalone from early in Corsari's career and focuses on the peculiar stabbing of an unlikable, but desirable, actress in front of a camera. The opening chapters and structure of the book show imagination, rewinding and fast-forwarding between scenes like a movie, giving the reader a fractured view of what happened before Neri Vallona collapsed in Iwan Inkow's arms. It conjures up a picture of a woman who practically handed out motives, ranging from jealousy to greed, and even robbery is an option when discovered that her villa has been burgled and a necklace was snatched from the body.

Unfortunately, the impossible situation is underplayed and has a surprisingly routine (read: dull) solution based on a technique that locked room aficionados will be more than familiar with. I suspected Inkow for the longest time, because the medical evidence and movie reel proved conclusively that he was physically not capable of stabbing Vallona, but I presumed that she had died before the scene was shot – keep in mind that they're all in costume with dancers twirling around them.

The strong Inkow carries the body onstage, underneath his burly cape-like costume, with masked accomplish/mistress as a stand-in for Vallona and swaps places with the body when she swoops to floor (covered by the cape). He then slipped her out of the room when everyone was concerned with the body or when they carried her out there. A bit of a credulity stretcher, I admit, but the gaudy scene and confusing snippets that describe the murder would've been a perfect sell for such a risky method. Once the camera stopped, there was ample confusing to pull a switch and even if someone saw something, it's a detail that's easily lost in the chaos of the moment. It even provides a clue, if you put in a witness who swears s/he saw Vallona's "ghost" sneaking around the hallway after the murder. But you retain the illusion, because everyone thinks they saw her die in front of a rolling camera. Anyway, that's how I would have played it.

The police arrest Jan Ewoud Martens, the recording supervisor, on suspicion of the murder, prompting his friend and mystery writer, Juttu, to launch an investigation of her own – and yes, it's a simmering love story. Juttu soon bumps into an allay, Inspector Lusch, whose head's filled with fanciful theories and still pursuing leads on the case, but it's Juttu who reaches the unexciting end of the problem that began very promising.

I have to say in it's defense that it's mountainous improvement over her first detective novel, De misdaad zonder fouten (The Faultless Crime, 1927), which is a profusion of hackneyed plot devices like twins, sleepwalkers and duplicate keys – all of them brought in with a straight face. The Unknown Player may not be a groundbreaking detective story, but it lost its juvenile plumage that made her first outing an embarrassment and put me off her trail for years. And they can't be all classics.

However, what was interesting is that this may be one of the earliest examples of a fictional mystery writer complaining about growing tired of her own detective(s).

If you're interested, I compiled (some time ago) a list of Dutch-language locked room mysteries on the GADWiki.


Bill Pronzini: That 70s Crime Writer

"The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective."
- letter, 19 April 1951, published in Raymond Chandler Speaking (1962) 
Raymond Chandler was right. The great detectives of fiction, if they exist, would probably not be private eyes, of some renown, but occupy a seat in front of a computer and dream up the plots they would have solved if they had existed on the pages of a Dashiell Hammett or John Dickson Carr story.

For he's a jolly good fellow!
On April 13, 1943, a mystery writer was born who would not look inconspicuous wearing a fedora and raincoat, prowling those mean streets of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, or stalk the hallways of a decaying mansion were people have disappeared as if by magic – spurting cryptic remarks and chuckles that drives the official policeman up the wall. Alas, common criminals are rarely known for their storybook-like ingenuity and that's why Bill Pronzini criminal ties are merely fictional ones. 

Pronzini's career began in the early 1970s with the publication of The Snatch (1971), which was selected by our common deity hero, John Dickson Carr, as one of the best detective novels of the year, and solidified his name as one of the top crime/mystery readers in the succeeding decade. I'm fairly much a novice when it comes to his work, but what I have read was enough to list him among my favorites and not just because Pronzini is a damn good writer. 

What lights the fire in Pronzini's stories, that keeps most of us drawing to his work like moths, is that he's an avid mystery/collector himself and brings 170 years worth of insight into detective, thriller and private-eye fiction to the game – drifting himself quite naturally between those styles. Pronzini prefers to vary his style and approach to keep it fun and his long-running series fresh, which means that you can bounce with the Nameless Detective from an impossible crime buried in the past (Bones, 1985) to soul-searching suspense (Shackles, 1988). Historical mysteries, stand-alone thrillers, short stories, and that rare beast of crime fiction, properly done crossovers are part of Pronzini's repertoire, but more importantly, characterization reflects the modern era without turning a story into a collection of mini-biographies – adding instead of distracting from the stories. You get to the learn the (main) characters, bit by bit, which I always thought was much far more realistic and makes me care about what happens to them then when I would've waded through hundreds of pages of personal misery with a backpack full of past angst. 

Exactly the same can be said about a number of other post-GAD era writers that I, as a staunch classicist, nonetheless enjoy reading, such as Marcia Muller, William DeAndrea, Herbert Resnicow, Paul Halter and M.P.O. Books, and they have one thing in common with Pronzini: they all love(d) to sink their teeth in a good detective story and sometimes possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. Personally, I believe that their grasp on the genre has enriched their stories and continued to a tradition that others seem to have forgotten. You don't believe me? Xavier Lechard has a gem buried on his blog, a post from 2009, which reports on an Edgar-winning author, Tana French, chortling about how she carries on "the traditions of mystery fiction," and that's true, but than she blasts everyone with a nodding acquaintance with detective stories in the face with a shotgun blast of ignorance: "...my book is narrated in first person, which is an old convention of the genre except that in this case the narrator lies." I wonder if she spend a couple of days in an isolation tank for inspiration, but Agatha Christie was probably struck by that idea when she was doing the dishes. 

That’s why I find it hard to warm up to today's best-selling thrillers and popular police procedurals. They not only lack the historical depth, but I genuinely don't care about the troubled cop with his messy private life – if that's the only thing they have to offer. I want to be entertained or captivated with clever and imaginative plots (clues abound!), engaging characters, atmospheric settings and memorable scenes. Give me the tale of John Quincannon and Elena Oliverez, kindred spirits separated by a hundred years, who managed to help each other solve an even older case (Beyond the Grave, 1986; with Marcia Muller). Give me Nameless and Kerry Wade for a couple, whose mutual love ignited amidst "Carter Dickson-effects" in Hoodwink (1981) and Scattershot (1982). Give me any case that passes through the offices Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services (The Bughouse Affair, 2013). Give me the kind of "fictionalized realism" that drives a good plot (Dragonfire (1982) & Savages, 2005), because actual realism would result in a 600-page novel painstakingly describing a stakeout of a suspect without a payoff. That's what realism in crime fiction would be like. 

But this celebratory post is threatening to turn into a diatribe, and yes, this is embarrassing heap of praise is a mea culpa for not having a proper review ready to mark Bill Pronzini's 70th birthday – unlike some of my fellow bloggers. Rest assured that I'm thoroughly assumed of this fact and will review one of the Nameless novels I have kicking around later this/next month. Until then, I want to congratulate Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller with reaching this personal milestone and hope they've a great day tomorrow, and many more years together to trust their nefarious schemes to paper.


Avengers Initiative

"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
- Michael Corleone (The Godfather III, 1990) 
TNT may have canned Leverage after a run of five seasons, but the creative force behind the series are exploring new avenues to pull Nathan Ford and his crew back into the game, which is possible because the show was produced independently, and a movie is a popular rumor at the moment.

In the meantime, they'll keep us fans hooked with a series of paperback tie-ins they've commissioned and the first one in line, The Con Job (2012), proved to be a lot more fun than the bland title would have you believe. Matt Forbeck penned the first novelisation and I think it's a worthy addition to the canon, which also added to it, but the best part is that it still felt like Leverage – and that we can tag along with them again.

The Con Job takes place between The Gold Job and The Radio Job, episodes 16 and 17 of the third season, and Alec Hardison, hacker extraordinaire and resident geek, has found themselves a target: a disreputable dealer, Lorenzo Patronus, whose been filching rare comic-books and valuable cover art from their old creators. These were works from poor, freelance artists who hung on to them as an alternative retirement plan. Well, that pissed off a genius hacker/geek, who has a little Justice League of his own, and they're off to Comic-Con – where their mark intends to sell off the stolen goods.

As to be expected, the plot is littered with pop-culture references, ranging from Star Wars to Spider-Man, cameos from Stan Lee and Patrick Stewart, and even a sub-plot involving the manga publishing industry and a few "play-fights" that the combat hardened Eliot had to participate in – enough material for some of that Leverage humor. The con they play is basically a "Devil's Contract" that could fulfill Patronus' boyhood dream, becoming a recognized comic book artist, which is a cue for Sophie Devereaux's character, talent agent Jess Drew, to discover an unrecognized talent. But there's more than meets the eye (pop-cult reference!), when an old nemesis turns up, the less-than-scrupulous and source of general annoyance Cha0s (Hardison's rival), which is not a weird thing in itself considering that they're at Comic-Con, but when Hardison goes missing – they know that a third party is involved.

However, it's the crew that, as to be expected, stole the show in The Con Job and that’s immediately my only quibble: my favorite character, "The Mastermind," Nathan Ford was pushed into the background and gave Hardison the lead. His reluctance to enter Comic-Con is one of those things that added to the character, but I preferred to have had him a bit more in the front. That aside, I tremendously enjoyed tailing Eliot, Parker and Sophie around the stands and watch them off-page deal with the amount of unusual trouble you'd expect from Leverage. Heck, Eliot and Parker cosplaying as a Stormtrooper and Princess Leia, as they struggle through a crowd, should be the end all argument to bring the series back on the air and kick-off the new season with an adaptation of this book.

Anyhow, what matters are that Leverage is back and Forbeck penned a story that's very much in the spirit of the show. It's just unpretentious fun on an exciting and dangerous job. Far more than I expected from a TV tie-in novel and I'm looking forward to the next one, The Zoo Job (2013), which I probably will get to next month. A warning to the reader: avoid the reading the synopsis on the backcover of The Con Job, it gives away too much.

And to my fellow Leverage fans, if you enjoyed The Con Job for more than just a continuation of your favorite series, than I would like to draw your attention to Mack Reynolds' The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) – a comedic private-eye novel set in the world of SF-and Fantasy fans and features a loveable loser detective. He’s hired to by a bunch of oddball SF-fans investigate alien life on Earth, who have been taking potshots at them with ray guns or dropping them from flying saucers and the investigation takes him to an early SF/F con. It has been reprinted and I think if you liked The Con Job, you’ll love this one as well.

Yes. The blog-to-blog mystery evangelist never lets an opportunity slip through his fingers to harvest a soul or two.


Memories Lost

"Time is a terrible thing, because it erases joys and pains at the same time."
- Gosho Aoyama
Coincidently, this is the third post in as many days that I'll be discussing a detective story, or rather a compendium of stories, from the comic book spectrum and you might have noticed that another Case Closed/Detective Conan review has been long overdue.

The 45th installment of this long-running series begins, as often is the case with this series, with a story that was set-up in the previous volume and this yarn fits in with another theme that's prevalent on this blog – seemingly impossible crimes! The setting is a high school where a student, Hosaka, tumbled down a flight of stairs to his death and his ghost appears to be playing malicious pranks on his old classmates. At the conclusion of the previous book, they found his desk in the school courtyard with a note on it that said, "I HAVE YET TO SETTLE MY GRUDGE," but the rain that had fallen moments before left the note bone-dry and the field of mud surrounding the desk was bare of any footprints.

Conan does an excellent job in pointing out the prankster among the group of friends and Aoyama worked with numerous tropes popular in Japanese (manga) mysteries for this one (e.g. scholastic setting with legends haunting the hallways and the avenger-from-the-past theme), but here, IMO, it resulted in one of the best examples I have read to date. I guess it's because it didn't result in a gruesome murder case and stayed on a human level that fitted the backdrop and characters. 

Aoyama's art in Case Closed is always great to look at, especially when clues are abound, but it was here that it struck me how beneficial it can be for a story on an emotional level – because there's nothing that Hosaka's friends could have said that gave the reader more of a connection with him than showing his smiling face in class whenever they're talking about him. Much better than biography-approach you find a lot of contemporary crime and thriller novels.

The materialization of Hosaka's desk in the muddy courtyard carried the mystery aspect of the story, showing the strength of a well thought out, but non-violent, locked room gambit, but was also surprised to find out that it was practically the same explanation I had dreamed up for the no-footprints situation in William L. DeAndrea's Killed on the Rocks (1990). That was the only real good solution I ever came up with for the no-footprints situation. Oh, well.

Next up, Conan, Doc Agasa and the Junior Detective League take time to go on a fishing trip, and before long, they find themselves enmeshed in another case that has all the earmarks of an impossible crime: an angler sitting on his regular fishing spot, a pile of tetrapods sticking far out of the water, is found more dead than alive and foul play is suspected. However, nobody approached the man until they noticed that something was up and while he's rushed to the mainland, Conan is unsnarling the events of that day. Aoyama packed a nice bag of tricks for this volume and his solution is rather ingenious, but risky, method for poisoning someone from a distance – a versatile mind to be sure and one that should please a lot of my fellow mystery enthusiasts, if they ever decide to pick this series up. But be warned, it take six to seven volumes before the stories become really good.

Anyway, the third case is an out-and-out homage to Columbo and just about as enjoyable. Richard Moore is invited to come to Okinawa for a TV conversation with Toshizo Nose, a famous baseball player for the Jaguars, and the moderator is a former teammate and sports reporter – Motoyama, who harbors a grudge against Nose. A grudge that drives him to murder and constructs a cast-iron alibi to get away with it. Conan pops up every now and then to ask pesky questions, before he has given him enough rope to hang himself.

Finally, we are treated to a three-chapter story that will be concluded in the next volume and involves astronomy, an outstretched forest that hide a skeleton and a dying message, invitations from a missing man and a fresh corpse.


Cherchez la femme

"Locked rooms and mysterious disappearances smack of deliberate subterfuge."
- Sabina Carpenter (Bill Pronzini's "Gunpowder Alley")

John Pugmire is a self-published translator of French-language impossible crime tales, under the enterprising name of Locked Room International, whose résumé includes translations of Paul Halter and Jean-Paul Török – and has recently launched a website to keep us abreast of his publishing plans.

Dumas in 1855 (*)
It was on Pugmire's new website that I learned that he had translated an Alexander Dumas (yes, that Dumas) story, "House Call," for the June, 2013, issue of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and it's actually an excerpt from Les Mohicans de Paris (The Mohicans of Paris, 1854). The introduction notes that "House Call" is the first story since Edgar Allan Poe's 1841 inaugural locked room story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," that employed the device and according to Pugmire, this is the story were "Cherchez la femme" originated from.

Before we dig in, I would like to point out that The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000), edited by Mike Ashley, mentioned that Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "Out of His Head," a self-contained episode from an eponymous novel, was the second only after Poe to feature a locked room problem – except that Aldrich's story is dated 1862. On top of that, Aldrich might not even be third: M.M.B.'s "The Mystery of the Hotel d’Orme" was published in the same year and Dumas has a similar problem, if you consider Wilkie Collins' "A Terribly Strange Bed" as a proper impossible crime, but that's something for the scholars to mull over. I thought it noteworthy that both stories, credited with coming in second, are excerpts from otherwise non-mystery novels.

Anyway, a young woman vanished like a gust of wind from her closed quarters at a boarding school and head of the Sûreté, M. Jackal, is called up to investigate, but it must be said, for a master detective he has to work on his priorities. Jackal is informed upon his arrival that they aren't sure if there had been a disappearance, because the room hasn't been entered yet, but instead of breaking an entrance he parades everyone around the garden to look for clues – and establishing that the door and shutters are bolted and hooked from the inside. Fortunately, this does not deter the story in any way and the outdoor scene is actually quite fun, if you like these kind of deductive reconstructions, and even gave me an early example of the rival detective (e.g. Simon Brimmer in the Ellery Queen TV-series from the 1970s and should be used more often!) as M. Jackal is bested in one or two deductions by a friend of the missing girls' fiancée.

The explanation for the disappearance from the sealed room is dated and often used in later stories as a throw-away suggestion, but "House Call," if it's indeed the second locked room in modern fiction, than this is were the trick first appeared. 

Bill Pronzini, always up to something
And to pad out this post, I decided to pick an impossible crime story from a contemporary fictioneer and ended up choosing Bill Pronzini’s "Gunpowder Alley" – which appeared in the August, 2012, edition of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. You probably picked up on the opening quote that this is a Carpenter and Quincannon story, who appeared recently in The Bughouse Affair (2013), but this time it's mostly a solo-case for John with Sabina on commentary in the background, and naturally, there's a murder that looks everything but natural. 

Quincannon accepted a job from a reluctant client, Titus Willard, to put a stop to a blackmailer who's squashing him for thousands of dollars, but refuses to supply any details and with nothing much to work on, he sets a trap at the drop off – tailing the suspect to a tobacco-store in Gunpowder Alley. A talkative policeman walking his beats bumps into Quincannon when the sound of gunshots whips them into action. The door and windows are bared and secured from the inside, but they do offer a smudged view of a body sprawled on the ground of a cluttered room. 

It's one of those days that John has to relay on his noggin instead of his Navy Colt or a clenched fist. And he did it better then me this time. I was completely lost on this one and Pronzini walked a fine tight-rope, because part of the solution used a gimmick that I am not overly fond of, but once you get the overall picture, it's a nifty trick that shows that the author knows his classics. 

Well, I think if there's one conclusion  we can draw from this post, it's that I love a good locked room mystery.


The Dark Pages

"So to summarize, we're basically dealing with three concentric locked-room mysteries."
- Special Agent Bay of the Library Police 
The last review that appeared on here, a rundown of Jack Iams' Death Draws the Line (1949), is still smoldering, and while it's already a contender for worst mystery read this year, the final portion of the book that included the Little Polly Pitcher comic-strip served as reminder that I still had to check out the work of an actual comic book artist – who drew and penned an attractive contribution to the locked room sub-genre.

Jason Shiga's Bookhunter (2007) is a modern-historical, set in Oakland, California, 1973, but the fact that the story's protagonist is a special agent, named Bay, attached to the Library Police clues you in that you're still in comic-book land. However, the plot is delightfully classically in tone with a cartoon-y hardboiled edge to it. The story is split up in four chapters, three of them detailing Bay's investigation, and the first introducing him when he's organizing a raid on a "freelance censor," who swiped several political books from the shelves, and has been locating by printing the same book he was targeting with radioactive dye! A confrontation with the self-appointed censor ends in the same way that got a lot of old Looney Tunes episodes canned or censored, "my bladder," before Bay moves on to a more cerebral problem.

The rare book room of the Oakland Public Library had an English bible on loan from The Library of Congress, which "was given to John Quincy Adams by a group of Mendi tribesmen in commemoration of his representation of them in the Amistad slave ship case," and by all accounts, appears to have been spirited away from the library.

There were no signs of forced entry on the outside doors and windows. The fire-escapes were alarmed, but they were last heard the year before. The safe were the book was kept overnight is unscratched. And finally, if the thief got past these obstacles, there is still the stop-point gate that will be triggered by a magnetic strip embedded in the book. Unfortunately, these security measures were to no avail and someone skipped out of there, unnoticed, with a valuable book.

I have to compliment Shiga for planting a false explanation in my mind with his art work that would've made the triple locked room far less complicated, and I think every seasoned mystery fan would latch on to that like it was an actual clue, but the eventual solution was more involved – relaying on the inner workings of a library and the building itself. In a way, the plotting reminded me of Herbert Resnicow and perhaps I should also mention Bill Pronzini's novella "Booktaker," collected in Casefile (1983), because the resemblance between the titles alone speaks for itself. They have completely different solutions though.

Anyway, I couldn't tell more without divulging too much of what is essentially a short story, even if the page count lies somewhere around the 140, and I recommend you read it for yourself – especially if you're a fan of locked rooms, comics and/or bibliophilic mysteries.

All in all, Bookhunter is an off-beat gem that deserves more attention from the mystery readers, combining art that fits the mood of the story with tongue-in-cheek action sequences and meticulous plotting, but let the reader be warned, there's a lot of technical talk on locks and bookbinders lore. Heck, there's enough of that stuff in this story that Julian "Bloody" Symons’ would probably have broken a thumb and forefinger, because he couldn’t slap "humdrum" label on this book fast enough. ;)