A Cosmos of Crime

"Of much I am not sure. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we search for truth than we would have been if we had indulged in idle fancy that there was not knowing and no use in seeking to know – that is a theme on which I am ready to fight in word and deed, to the utmost of my power."
- Socrates 
Richard Purtill is the Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the Western Washington University who dabbled in science fiction, fantasy and non-fiction, and elements from these genres were poured in Purtill's sole mystery novel, Murdercon (1982).

The layman detective of Murdercon is a professor of philosophy, Athena Pierce, who published a science-fiction novel and enters, for her, uncharted territory by attending a SF/Fantasy convention at the Aztec Hotel – which mirrors the premise of another mystery set at a convention, Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987). But the set-up is where the resemblances part ways. Murdercon is more focused on the plot as opposed to fan-lore/pop-culture references, which were still an integral part of the story and that made this book one of the better convention-mysteries that I've read to date.

This will also be the umpteenth review of an impossible crime novel that slipped under Robert Adey's radar and was not listed in his bibliography of the locked room mystery – I can't seem to escape from them!

Anyhow, at the convention, Professor Pierce soon bumps into another key player, Dorothy Dodd, a member of the con committee and a dangerous woman who loves to play games with people, and recently forked over nine hundred bucks for a surviving copy of the first and only issue of a failed SF-magazine from the 1930s, Kosmos Tales. The plot thickens! But before plunging into a murder investigation, Professor Pierce has time to visit some panels and observe her new audience, and some of the observations on the SF genre were interesting from a mystery reader's perspective and this (snarky) remark from Dodd would be met with "hear, hear!" on here, if you replace SF/science fiction with mysteries:
"A bunch of academics who think that they're experts on science fiction because they teach courses on it and write papers about the SF writers they approve of."
A panel discussion is also the décor for the first murder when a toy gun toting figure, costumed as Darth Vader from Star Wars, disrupts the discussion and vanishes after producing a flash from his toy and one of the panel members, a certain Dorothy Dodd, lays sprawled across the table. The question is how she died, when it's out of the question that the toy gun was capable of delivering a shock that could've killed Dodd, let alone at a distance of ten feet, and no other obvious methods for electrocution are found. It's unlikely that Dodd was scared to dead by a goofy stunt by a disruptive fan. They were play-acting Logan's Run all over the hotel, but the second murder, staged and disguised as a suicide, is even cleverer and its presentation was very Jonathan Creek-ish while the plotting reminded me Gosho Aoyama's Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan).

Over the course of Pierce's private investigation, she receives a phone call from a suspected wanted for questioning and this leads her, alongside a hotel bellman, to the room of yet another suspect – where they witness the person in question falling from an open window upon breaching the threshold. What is interesting is that the police almost immediately suspects trickery and the murders are never treated as impossibilities, by either the police or Pierce, but as another piece of the puzzle that requires further investigation, which was an approach favored by early American mystery writers like Jacques Futrelle and S.S. van Dine. The terms locked room mystery and impossible crimes are never dropped, but that doesn't make them any less relevant to the genre – if only for their presentation. I think a genre savvy reader will stumble to the answers, or the main gist behind the trickery, very early on, however, Purtill never insults the intelligence of his readers by mystifying what's suppose to be obvious to everyone and the investigation is never far behind on the reader. That being said, I liked the trick behind the second impossibility more than the first one. It was more original and the explanation of the Darth Vader murder felt indebted to Fredric Brown's Death Has Many Doors (1951; another SF-themed mystery).

Before the end of the case, Professor Pierce has to face that staple of Silver Age mysteries, starring down the barrel of a loaded gun, among several other hostage/hostile situations – while moving between the convention and such locations as the historic Coronado Hotel and the San Diego Zoo. I should also mention a plot thread involving a "lost story" by Stanley Weinbaum, and while this trope is not unfamiliar in mysteries, Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding (1948) revolves around a lost Shakespeare play and John Dickson Carr wrote a teasing excerpt of a fourth C. Auguste Dupin short story in The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933), they do tend to end on a predictable note, but that's not a trap Purtrill fell into. But then again, adjusting history, it's like a stroke of the brush for a SF writer.

Murdercon was a fun read and discovering no less than two, fairly well done, impossible crimes was the icing on the cake, and while it's not perfect, I really enjoyed it and did not felt like wandering through a strange land. My only knowledge of science-fiction comes from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, SeaQuest DSV, no more than two or three actual SF novels and a handful of hybrid mysteries, but the plot of Murdercon had the same balance between the bizarre world of SF and a straight-up detective story as Mack Reynolds' classic The Case of the Little Green Men (1951) – another one that sneaked under Adey’s radar like an advanced spacecraft.

Well worth a shot.


Café Noir

"The fact that we are I don't know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world."
- Georges Simenon
Een wolf in schaapskleren (A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, 2013) is the eight in a series that began when Appie Baantjer and Simon de Waal, once colleagues as (homicide) detectives of the Amsterdam police force, partnered up to append another series of police stories to their writing credentials – under the banner Baantjer & De Waal.

After Baantjer passed away in 2010, De Waal continued the series as De Waal & Baantjer, and I have to say, after Een licht in de duisternis (A Light in the Darkness, 2012) that fully warmed me to the characters, it's starting to feel like the good ol' days of the biannual Baantjer releases. Unfortunately, you also burn through them about as fast.

A Wolf in Sheep's Clothes begins when the persistent nagging of the doorbell drags Peter van Opperdoes, a veteran police detective attached to Bureau Raampoort, from his bed to the canal belt where the body of a John Doe is floating face up in the Prinsengracht (Princes' Canal). The cause of death is drowning, but whether it was an accident or murder requires further investigation on his and Jacob's part, which leads them to a barmaid named Rafiqa. Forensics was able to retrieve her number from the victims phone and the place where she works is Café Lowietje! The same café where the bar scenes for the TV-series Baantjer were shot and the place adopted the name of the series.

But the part were Peter van Opperdoes and Jacob seated themselves on the stools of DeKok and Vledder, while Rafiqu conjures a bottle of cognac from underneath the bar, was a wonderful homage to Baantjer – even more so by using some of his own writing to construct that particular scene. I also liked that Baantjer and Piet Römer, who portrayed DeKok, were mentioned and some anecdotes were shared. To be honest, I was a little bit disappointed that Van Opperdoes did not complain to Jacob about Simon de Waal bothering him with questions if he could use his name for the main character in a series of politieromans he's planning to write – similar in vein to DeKok complaining about Baantjer's fertile imagination. It will also confuse readers who picture Van Opperdoes and Jacob as Baantjer and De Waal. 

Anyhow, Jan Willem van Deventer is the name that belongs to the victim and he was student from a family that broke into peaces: the mother would not be surprised if her was son was murdered, while the father is convinced that he's to blame for his son's suicide. The girl in the café Jan Willem was interested in took his gifts, but was seeing someone else and a teacher from the university and his roommates refuse to tell the whole or a straight story – with an unfortunate suicide as a consequence. Meanwhile, Van Opperdoes and Jacob move between cafés, some for breakfast or a cup of coffee and other for work, and in one of them, they come across a polite-mannered, but cut-throat, criminal known as "De Regulaar" ("The Fixer"), who paid students for certain jobs. And here we have another café scene I very much appreciated: Van Opperdoes deducing whom the fixer is in the café and immediately plotting his capture. The guy never stood a chance.

The eventual solution of the death of the young student is a rather bleak one, because the answers they've found resolve nothing for the better for any of the people involved and the court will probably show some leniency on the guilty party. This is definitely not a cozy, but there were some clues in place that made this a (light) mystery as well as a police procedural and the ghost of Van Opperdoes' late wife (see previous reviews) even pointed out a clue of sorts that he had missed, which ended the book on a high note for me. Hey, a non-intrusive spirit entity pointing out something that her husband, The Great Detective, had missed is something I have absolutely no problem with.

De Waal has moved on with this series now that his late partner in crime can't tease him anymore with implausible plot twists, but the style and warm spirit that was so characteristic of Baantjer is what makes his memory and indelible presence in these books.

De Waal & Baantjer series:

Een Rus in de Jordaan (A Russian in the Jordaan, 2009) [De Jordaan = neighborhood in Amsterdam]
Een lijk in de kast (A Skeleton in the Closet, 2010)
Een dief in de nacht (Like a Thief in the Night, 2010)
Een schot in de roos (Hitting the Bull's-eye, 2011) [still have not read this one]
Een rat in de val (Caught Like a Rat in a Trap, 2011) [still have not read this one]
Een mes in de rug (A Knife in the Back, 2012)
Een licht in de duisternis (A Light in the Darkness, 2012)
Een wolf in schaapskleren (A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, 2013)

The title for later this year has not yet been announced, but I guess it probably will be something like Een geluk bij een ongeluk (A Blessing in Disguise) or Een adder onder het gras (A Snake in the Grass).

By the way, I use the English name of DeKok on this blog because this is an English-language blog. It also amused me to no end that from all the variations on the name that the translator could've decided on, he picked the one variation that makes him look silly every time he spells out his name when he's introducing himself. DeKok (with Kay-Oh-Kay) is the conventional spelling of the name DeKok or Kok. Why not settle for De Kock (with Cee-Kay), if you insist on changing the name?


Closing the Gates of Hell

"The perfect murder, sir? Oh, I'm sorry. There's no such thing as a perfect murder. That's just an illusion."
- Lt. Columbo (Now You See Him, 1976) 
The name of Evan Hunter's alter ego, "Ed McBain," has become more noticeable, while perusing reviews and other related blog material, after having read Killer's Wedge (1957) – a story that warranted a follow up. One of the later novels in the 87th Precinct series, Tricks (1987), lured me with an appetizing synopsis of a Hellish shift on All Hallows' Eve.

"Halloween ain't what it used to be," reflects Andy Parker in a police squad room that has not been that quiet probably since the construction of the building, and bored policemen with too much time on their hands begin to nurture work distorted fantasies of becoming (crime) writers. Before the dawn of the next day, those peaceful moments of them reminiscing in the squad room has become as distant a memory as the old cases they were talking about.

The first problem that's plaguing them is the disappearance of The Great Sebastian, who was reported missing by his wife, Marie Sebastiani, after discovering that her husband's van was gone and their stage props discarded on the sidewalk. And their apprentice/jack-of-all-trades, Jimmy Brayne, has vanished alongside the great magician himself. A fitting case for Halloween, but far more ghoulish is the murderer who's cruising the streets for spots to dump body parts, even posing a waist with a pair of trouser clad legs in an elevator, and these two plot treads represent the classics and weaved a traditional pattern that I very much appreciated – even if I caught on almost immediately to the tricks that were being played. Granted, McBain did not exactly made a secret out of the solution, especially if you know your classics, but I nonetheless enjoyed this part of the story and loved the Columbo-like pouncing at the end. But there's more!

A gang of costumed children are wreaking havoc on the streets, sticking up liquor stores and they shoot before dipping into the cash registry, which leaves a trail of bodies that lead the police to a blonde woman, who drives the kids around, and puts Carella and his men in the line of fire – wounding two of them. Obviously, not as traditional a crime story as the other threads, but hats off to McBain, he had me fooled on one aspect until they did something peculiar during the second (or was that third?) robbery. It's something you easily miss on an evening like Halloween. 

Hunter & McBain: two men who could laugh at themselves

Character-wise, the main protagonist of Trick was Eileen Burke, who's the bait in an undercover operation at Larry's sleazy bar at the Canal Zone, but on a previous assignment Burke was raped and the guy they’re after now is about as dangerous – and the question is if she can face her demons and not lose her head on this job. But the scenes between the murderer, a self-styled comedian, with first Sheryl, a regular of the district who may've been the next victim of The Ripper in Stitches (*rib poke* get it?), and than Eileen laughing at his jokes, while buying them drinks, gave this storyline an unusual angle. But, oh, how annoyed I was at foreseeing that there would be moment were Eileen was doubting that his intentions, even after feeling a knife in his pocket.

All in all, Tricks is a nice bag of treats with enough different flavors to satisfy a good portion of the readers huddling under the umbrella of crime/mystery fiction, from traditional puzzles to a character invested thriller story, and I think McBain is a great example of a writer who updated the detective story to modern standards without shrieking and repelling at the thought of having to plot as well.

In short: McBain is a keeper! 


The Case-Book of the Black Monk

"The real secret of magic lies in the performance."
- David Copperfield 
The 1933 September issue of Pearson's Magazine printed a story by Vincent Cornier, entitled "The Stone Ear," which interposed Barnabas Hildreth (a.k.a. "The Black Monk") of the British Secret Services into the Grandest Game in the world, where they would've languished in literary obscurity – until a certain editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine began to republish the series in 1946.

One half of the Ellery Queen penname, Frederic Dannay, called Barnabas Hildreth "one of the great series of modern detective stories," and while I don't agree entirely, I can understand where Dannay was coming from and there's definitely appeal in the feral imagination of the author. Cornier's elaborate, almost baroque, writing style in itself adds a layer of mystique to plots that were cloaked in an air of mystery to begin with. The Black Monk's case-book is filled with astonishing problems reminiscent of those faced by John Bell (L.T. Meade and R. Eustace's A Master of Mysteries, 1898), but the scientific approach to clear up some of the impossibilities also called Arthur Porges' The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) to mind and Cornier may have influenced Porges.

However, Cornier's explanations are often steeped in arcane knowledge of (pseudo) science or strand in a twilight area between mystery and science-fiction, which is where I disagree with Dannay. You have to be a polymath in order to solve the stories that are actually solvable! That being said, if you want something out of the ordinary in your crime fiction, you can hardly go wrong with The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011) – another "Lost Classic" from Crippen and Landru.

The opening story, "The Stone Ear," was a nice introductory to the characters as Ingram relates his first brush with murder alongside Barnabas Hildreth, who looks into the sudden death of a relative, Sir Roger Amistead. After his retirement from the bench, Sir Roger wrote his unpublished memoirs and there's a chilling tale for a final chapter when dies of an apparent heart attack at the exact moment that precious goblet of glass vanished from his hand. A well-written story with an intriguing premise, but with the kind of explanation that leaves fans like me very dissatisfied.

"The Brother of Heaven" is a member of the Chinese tong, who turns up dead inside an abandoned warehouse at the Thames, stabbed to death, with an unsettling lack of guilty footprints surrounding the body. The only clues are a peaceful expression on the victims face and orchids. One of the more conventional stories in this collection and not all that bad with exception for the no-footprints situation, which is an answer that usually laughed away in other stories when it’s suggested.

A Doylean treasure hunt is at the heart of "The Silver Quarrel," in which Pagan imagery carved in an elephantine-sized table in a priory room holds the key to finding the hiding place of a family treasure that belonged to a now extinct noble bloodline. Hildreth helps a physician locating the treasure and I tended to like this one. The next story, "The Throat of Green Jasper," also deals with treasures, looted this time from an Egyptian burial chamber that lay undisturbed in the sands for ages, until it was plundered and a curse swept the continents – purging everyone from the Anglo-American expedition that violated the tomb. This could've easily been the best of the Egyptian curse mysteries from the 1930s, if it had not wandered from that terrain.

"The Duel of Shadows" is a pure scientific detective story with a wonderfully imaginative premise: a man settles down in an easy chair, in front of a cozy and crackling fire place, when he's struck by a bullet that was discharged once before and that was more than 200 years ago in a duel – making it slowest bullet on record. But the most rewarding part of this story, is that you don't need Hildreth's arcane knowledge to figure the general idea behind the shooting. "The Catastrophe in Clay" opened equally promising, reporting the discovery of a what appeared to be the body of a gold encrusted creature that some mistook for the remains of a God, but degenerated into a story with an authentic super villain and a secret weapon.

In "The Mantle That Laughed," an old sea captain is trying to sell an item he procured during an expedition of the uncharted regions of Mexico, a golden cloak that’s a thousand years old and has the power to laugh, but does it also has the power to kill? A similar problem faces Hildreth in "The Tabasheeran Pearls," which are the deadly inheritance of a Japanese pearl merchant who westernized hara kiri when he shot himself, however, neither of them left a lasting impression on me despite their interesting subject matter. I guess I missed the game element that are usually present in these type of impossible mysteries and that the explanations often feel dated and/or hokey doesn’t help either. "The Gilt Lily," first published in 1938, is a great example of this. There's a leakage of information at Whitehall and relays on the same device used in C.N. and A.M. Williamson's "The Adventure of the Jacobean House," a short story from 1907!

Luckily, there was improvement in the final two from this collection. "The Monster" is tale of two twins, a small village, animal mutilations and something the law can't touch – even if it maims and kills. It even has a twist on a twist that you were expecting and one that was reworked by Ellery Queen in one of their novels.

"Oh Time, In Your Flight" is the shortest of the lot, but also one of the better stories, plot-wise, in which Hildreth has to break an alibi to solve the murder of a friend and it has been suggested that Frederic Dannay, who collected volumes of poetry, gave this story its title – because Cornier was known for his affinity with the great poets of yore. The personal connection between the victim and Hildreth, like was the case in the opening story, also makes it nice story to round out this volume.

Verdict: I liked most of them as stories, but not as detective stories. So, for me, The Duel of Shadows was a mixed bag of tricks.


When Oddities of Fiction Encroach on Fact

"Houdini walked through a wall two bricklayers had built onstage: People swore he had the power to dematerialize. You find out he used a trapdoor under a carpet, it's too mundane: you feel cheated. That's all magic is, an illusion."
- Jonathan Creek (The Wrestler's Tomb
At the moment, I'm still working my way through a collection of short stories of the mysterious kind (of course!), which leaves me with a poor excuse to whip out a folder, labeled "Oddities," for my third installment (first and second post) of examples of fictional impossibilities encroaching on reality. So this is, in fact, a filler post.

I'll begin clearing this pile with an example that’s conventional in appearance for an oddity, but it's the solution that put the case on this list and the fact that it's seen as a model for a thousand murders – real and imagined. 

In May, 1835, a swift and silent assassin descended on the people of Paris and plunged a knife in the heart of the widowed Monsieur Loubet. The scene of the crime is a box of riddles, locked doors and an open window fronting on a canal, baffling the Parisian police until they examine the final hours of Loubet's life and hear a witness who saw "a flash in the sun" at the time of the murder. It’s to the credit of the Prefect of Police for drawing a coherent pictures between a handful of dots and giving orders to drag the canal, which revealed a Javanese dagger with a cord and weight tied to it. But those muddy waters also revealed the motive of a grieving man whose only wish in life was to be buried alongside his wife.

Unfortunately, "The Loubet Sacrifice," which is definitely not as exciting, as a move on a chessboard of wits, as "The Birlstone Gambit," ruined a few promising impossible crime stories for me, because there's nothing as destructive to a locked room mystery than taking the ingenuity out of the explanation. The difference between a magic show and a locked room is that a magician only has to concern himself with satisfying the audience with the effect of an illusion, while mystery writers have the additional burden of pleasing their readers with a clever solution – and trapdoors, hidden passageways, murderous animals and suicides disguised as murders aren't going to do it after 1894. You can read a full account here.

The following case is one of those examples were the scissors snip a rounded pattern to bring a pair of unusual detectives together to offer a rational explanation for a truly amazing example of a ghost caught on video. 

Captain Disillusion is a YouTube character promoting rational thought and skepticism, his catchphrase is "love with your heart and use your head for everything else," by debunking hoaxes with the illuminating help of Mr. Flare, but the disquieting problem of the Pantry Door Ghost has him at his wit ends and it takes the appearance of dues ex machina to remind him that not every trick hinges on digital manipulation – producing a solution based on a secret room and wind from closing the hidden panel caused the pantry door the open as if by ghostly hands. Naturally, this explanation is far from satisfying (even if it's the most likely answer), but than Captain Disillusion uploaded an addendum with an exposition of the Pantry Door Ghost conundrum worthy of Jonathan Creek and other magician detectives. You can only pull this off with a camera and audience who are in on it, but it's still a great trick! I recommend you dig around in his video archive for more, like explaining how Derren Brown predicts lottery results. Great stuff!

 I found this oddity on a message board dedicated to a fantasy game and a member reports that, upon his arrival at the air temple and opening the secret door to Yulgash's Room, all he found was an orb – indicating that his opponent had passed on, which is apparently odd. I know, I know, I would not have included this one in the list, if another member had not suggested that the game automatically generates items in that area and a "nasty potion" may've appeared in the room and that's about the only part I could follow from that conversation, but the idea of a game generating locked room mysteries amuses me – and found another example of this happening here. And I think this video might explain how these impossible situations happened ("They say the user lives outside the net and puts in games for pleasure...").
Well, that was the last one I had and perhaps the last one in this series, for now, but to not leave you completely under whelmed, I'll refer you to this post from April, 7, on the GAD Group, in which I pretend to be Thackeray Phin and give a highly fictionalized account of the how murderer of Isidore Fink managed to escape from a room that was locked-up from the inside.


Learning from the Best: C. Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes

"The trouble is that as usual you are so engrossed in the fact that you are oblivious to its environment."
- Nero Wolfe (Fer-de-Lance, 1934) 
"Dupin was a very inferior fellow" and "by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine," opined Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet (1887) after his trusty companion, Dr. John Watson, mentioned that Holmes reminded him of Dupin – remarking that he had "no idea that such individuals did exist out of stories." Holmes may not have recognized an equal in Dupin, but the trick his Parisian counterpart employed to deliver the killer in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" to his doorstep still worked for Holmes half a century later. No. I'm not referring to their first case.

First we've to go back to Paris, 1841, where the terrific shrieks rouse the inhabitants of the Rue Morgue to the doorstep of Madame L'Espanaya and her daughter, Mademoiselle Camille L'Espanaye, but the premise is secured from within and the gateway had to be forced with a crowbar. The cries had ceased by this time, however, when they moved upstairs they hear a pair of rough voices, but when the second and last door was broken down there was nobody there that was alive to tell them what had happened. Madame L'Espanaya was decapitated, Camille stuffed up the chimney and a crime-scene that resembles a battle field without an apparent escape route for the murderer – leaving the police baffled. All except for Dupin, who sees the plain truth in the sheer impossibility and brutality of the case as well as some great deductive reasoning on the multilingual perception of the voices that were heard from the locked, upper floor room.

One of Sherlock Holmes' cases of lesser repute, "The Adventure of Black Peter," collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1903), provided the Great Detective with a problem that featured similar outré characteristics and his method echoed Dupin.

The retired Captain Peter Carey earned his nickname, "Black Peter," for his villainy and was known the flog his wife and daughter through the park in the dead of night and had a private retreat, a wooden outhouse he called the "cabin," which is where he died – pinned to the wall like a butterfly with a harpoon. Naturally, Holmes is ahead of the police, who arrest the wrong man along the way, reasoning where to look for the killer based on a pouch of tobacco and the strength needed to pin a rugged, ill-tempered seaman to the wall.

I don't want to cast any aspersions on Conan Doyle's character, but I suspect him of having had a bit of fun at the expensive of his readers who've read "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." I've always got the impression from this story that Doyle wanted to put the suggestion into the readers head that he's going for a similar solution, from the background of the characters to the force needed to pull off the crime, before presenting a far more rational answer as opposed to Poe's fancy solution – which made the whole story really nightmarish. That image of the murderer wielding a razor blade like a mad barber is perfect for a Tim Burton movie. With Johnny Depp as Dupin, of course!, and Jude Law as the nameless narrator. Just to screw with the Sherlock Holmes movie franchise. But seriously, I would love to see a Burton/Depp adaptation of Poe's Dupin.

At the end of the day, Dupin and Holmes reasoned truth from different clues that told in essence the same story, but their understanding of the physical strength involved made interpreting everything else all the more easier. And based on their deduction, Holmes followed Dupin's example to place an ad that lured the culprit to their rooms. But this begs the question... was remembering that story what made Holmes dash off to the butcher's shop, in the wee hours of the morning, for an experiment (we know he read Poe) and did he acknowledge this by using Dupin's ruse to ensnarl the murderer? 

Well, I guess we simply don't have enough data to make a solid brick, but I always felt this story was as much in the Dupin/Poe spirit as "The Speckled Band," collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1891), and The Sign of Four (1890) - even though it does not contain a locked room or an atmosphere of horror.


Out of the Tidy, Clipped Maze of Fiction: More Real-Life Locked Room Mysteries

"Yet once or twice the miracle occurs; the scissors snip a rounded pattern; and with all its orchestra a-blare, life fashions a mightier melodrama than any we have dreamed of."
John Dickson Carr (The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, 1936; "a Preface for Connoisseurs in Murder.")
If you remember from about a month ago, I compiled a summary of instances where "that tired old plot device," the Locked Room Mystery, crossed the line from fiction into reality and were, surprisingly, domestic in appearance – from a mystery writer's cat showing Edgar Allan Poe how the trick is done to a wizard who does not believe in miracles. 

I know this place probably won't erupt in shrieks of surprise when I say that I wanted to do a follow up, but you'll be amazed when you learn of the treasure I found. A case that was cut in the rounded patterns of fiction, featuring a real-life example of a plot device that's even more unrealistic than an impossible crime, namely, an amateur detective who explains the miracle-crime.

John Scarne was a magician and author with a wealth of knowledge on gambling and con games, which helped him put a stop to the Blondie mob, five young women, who roughly scammed a $1 million from Los Angeles bookies in the 1940s. One particular bookie had what he called a "Horse Room," a sealed and soundproof room, where regular customers are entertained and encouraged to bet on horses. The bettors are sealed inside the room to prevent them for getting information on races before the bookies and the only communication with the outside is a single telephone-line, used to take outside bets and getting the results, which makes cheating impossible. Well, a blonde woman has won a hundred grand on bets and the bookie hired Scarne to see if, and how, she managed to cheat when she was locked-in like everyone else – and cut-off from outside communication. 

One afternoon, it took Scarne one afternoon, to clear up the case and report to his employer that the person who has been supplying the blonde woman with the winning numbers was none other than himself! Before the inside woman placed a winning bet on, lets say, horse number 8, the bookie received a phone call from a confederate of the blonde, who knows the result of the race, to place three bets on another horse in a different race (like $10, $50 and $20) and asks him to repeat her bet – which leaves the other woman with nothing more to do than knocking off the zeroes and adding up what's left to know the number of the winning horse. It's a detective story that wrote itself! You can read an online account of this case here

Not as nearly well documented and shrouded in obscurity is the time that the late Edward D. Hoch, King of the Short Stories, was engaged as a private consultant to look into a seemingly impossible theft that took place in mid-air. Steve Steinbock (now holding court in the Jury Box of the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) reported on this story on his now dormant blog, The Vorpal Blade, when Hoch passed away 2008. Here's the excerpt from that blog post:

"Ed once told me a true story of how a foreign government once hired Ed to consult on a real life impossible crime: cargo was apparently stolen from an airplane's locked cargo hold - while the airplane was in flight! Ed wasn't able to catch the thieves, but the incident was the inspiration for his story "The Liverpool Kiss" featuring master spy Jeffery Rand."

Ha! Ed wasn’t able to catch the thieves. Yeah, right. I’m sure that foreign government, full of embarrassment, kept everything under wraps after Hoch wandered into the hangar, sipping coffee and biting a donut, strolled around the airplane and told them how it was done. If Hoch had been given a few more years, Steinbock would’ve been given "a small libation," and sneaked in a Sherlockian quotation, "I did not know you quite so well in those days," before explaining how the cargo was purloined all those years ago. 

And with that we're back into the tidy, clipped maze of fiction.


The Great Hanaud

"It appears to me that this mystery is considered insoluble, for the very reason which should cause it to be regarded as easy of solution - I mean for the outré character of its features."
- C. Auguste Dupin (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” 1841)
After having dabbled in the "Silver Age," which is the label I recently applied to detective stories published between 1970 and 1990 with a traditional arch, I decided to return to one of the points of origin for the mystery novel and cross a title off my list that had been on there for far too long – At the Villa Rose (1910) by A.E.W. Mason.

By the time Mason appeared on the scene, Conan Doyle had already left an inexpugnable mark on the landscape and it was the same year that G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1910) was released, but this case for Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté captured the imagination of future mystery writers like Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr. You can easily recognize Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings in Hanaud and Mr. Ricardo, but more importantly, it's a part of what Carr referred to as the Grandest Game in the World!

The game begins for the reader at the Villa des Fleurs, situated in the small town of Aix-les-Bains, where Ricardo is studying the crowd around him staking their louis at the tables and observes two primary players: a wealthy businessman, Harry Wethermill, and a young, poorer woman named Celia. Wethermill allows Celia to gamble away thousands of his francs and shrugs the loss off as having a good time. But when Ricardo finds Wethermill on his doorstep, clutching a special edition of Le Journal de Savoie, there's not much left of the man from the night before. The paper screams about the savage strangling of Mme. Camille Dauvray and the manhandling of her maid, Hélène Vauquier, who was chloroformed and tied-up, before the house was ransacked for her famous collection of jewels and everyone's convinced that her missing companion was in on it – and that companion happens to be Celia. 

Wethermill pleads with Ricardo to ask Hanaud, who happens to be holidaying in the area, to take charge of the investigation, but every single clue and thread they uncover/examine edges the blade of the guillotine closer for Celia and the investigative part is what put this novel in the Grand Tradition with clues that indulge in double-speak. The footprints, empty petrol cans, jewelry, tear stained cushion and a statement from the maid how Celia performed séances to control the susceptible Mme. Dauvray all point to her involvement in the murder, but to the Great Hanaud, they tell a different story and I was able to follow his train of thought without difficulty.

That's a drawback when you dib into these influential stories relatively late, but being able to chuckle along with Hanaud at the baffled Ricardo made up for that and it was intriguing to see the effect this novel had on two of my favorite mystery writers. The persecution of Celia and the amount of evidence stacked against her reminded me of Lesley Grant (Till Death Do Us Part, 1944) and Fay Seton (He Who Whispers, 1946), and it's been a while since I read Murder on the Links (1923), but wasn't that one rather Mason-like in spirit – which even included a French detective named Giraud. There's also a second murder, a stabbing in a slow moving cab of a witness, which can be considered a borderline impossible crime and something that must have appealed to a young John Dickson Carr. Not to mention the séances that is of paramount importance to the plot!

However, in turn, Mason drew from Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887) to structure At the Villa Rose. In the first part of the book, we're introduced to the characters and tag-along with Hanaud and the second part is a reconstruction of that evening with an explanation of all the clues from the Great Detective himself. I'm not a fan of revealing the murderer midway through a novel, but in the context of the time, I think it was an improvement over Doyle's novelette-length prologue and something he, alas, repeated in The Valley of Fear (1915). I now wonder what that book, foreshadowing the kind of mystery novels from the Golden Age, would've been like if Doyle had integrated the second part the same way as Mason had done in At the Villa Rose – instead of ending on another prologue. Instant GAD?

I think fossilized gem is an appropriate description for At the Villa Rose. A modern mystery reader can follow the plot patterns like the spiral ridges of fossilized shells, but that won't bother the true connoisseur of the classics.


A Grave Must Be Deep

"A zombie, m'sieu, a zombie is one who has died but is not yet dead. A corpse resurrected by witch’s doctors magic from the grave."
- Comte de Limonade (Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way, 1935)
After posting my review of Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987), a breezy detective story taking place during a Sci-Fi and Fantasy Con, I learned of a sequel with another outlandish title – Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992). I checked for the book and it was available, but what made it a grabber was the synopsis outlining a plot reminiscent of one of those pesky, untranslated neo-orthodox Japanese mysteries that Ho-Ling and Mousoukyoko blog about from time to time.

Zombies of the Gene Pool centers on a group of SF-writers/fans, who shared a farmhouse in Wall Hollow, Tennessee, and a dream of becoming celebrated fictioneers in the field they loved. In commemoration of their stay at the farm, they bury a time capsule, filled with handwritten stories, letters and memorabilia – like pulp magazines and a film poster of The War of the Worlds. That was back in the 1950s and some succeeded in catching up with their dreams, and over the decades, the anthology of unpublished stories grew in notable names from the realm of Sci-Fi. Unfortunately, the groups initial plans to retrieve the capsule in 1984 was thwarted when the valley, shortly after their departure, was flooded and turned into an artificial lake. Oh, well, cue sera, sera.

Fast forward to the early 1990s and maintenance work to the dam requires the lake to be drained and brings the farmhouses and dormant ghosts of the valley back to the surface. In a weird kind of way, it felt like a collision of Reginald Hill's On Beulah Heights (1998) and Charles Ardai’s "The Last Story," collected in The Return of the Black Widowers (2003), which also revolve around a drowned valley and an unpublished Sci-Fi anthology.

Dr. James Owen Mega from Bimbos of the Death Sun is referred to in this book mainly by his penname, "Jay Omega," and he still has a relationship with the sharp-tongued Dr. Marion Farley of the English department – and a colleague of theirs, Prof. Erik Giles, asks them a favor. Omega and Farley are invited as guests to a reunion, because they're the only ones who know about Giles' skeleton in the book-closet: he wrote science-fiction.

I have to mention here that the first two-thirds of the story concerns itself with fleshing out the characters, telling back stories of the failed attempt at attending Worldcon and the time capsule, peppered with critical satire of the fan community of the time, but nothing of the mundane and kept me reading at a steady pace. On the other hand, I feel forced to draw the conclusion that, from paper fanzines and dial-up bulletin boards to what we have now, we have not grown along with our technology. Yes. That conclusion is based solely on the depictions in this work of fiction and a casual glance at the internet. And I, for one, will welcome our new robotic overlords.

Anyway, one of the extraordinary things to happen, before the reunion is well under way, is the reappearance of the bêta noire to the community of SF-fans, Pat Malone, presumed to be among the dead for decades. Malone was the author of a single novel, River of Neptune, but achieved ever lasting notoriety when many within the community of fans felt his barbed tongue in his underground publication entitled The Last Fandango. Interestingly, McCrumb includes reproductions from old fanzines discussing Malone's death and, again, judging solely by this book, they were paper blogs that published reader comments on the previous issue. Technology appears to be the only difference between fanzines then and blogs/websites now. 

Well, Malone has risen from the grave, but more as a malevolent specter than as zombie, because he's as spiteful as ever and knows what each member of the group has the hide from the world. This is still a mystery novel and with a hundred pages left to go, they find Malone slumped on the bathroom floor of his hotel room – victim of an apparent heart attack. While the group makes their expedition to the remnants of the farm to retrieve "The Dead Sea Scrolls of Science Fiction," Jay Omega crosses miles of land on the digital highway in a relative short time to gather information on Malone and piece together the puzzle before confronting all the suspects. The drawing out of the culprit was not as originally done as in Bimbos of the Death Sun, but as a mystery, Zombies of the Gene Pool was a richer story with a more involved plot and just enough clues not to make you feel cheated.

Another recommendation and enough to warrant a look at some of her other mystery novels.