Fade to Black

"Trouble shared is trouble halved."
- Lord Peter Wimsey (Five Red Herrings, 1931)
The Golden Age of Detection Wiki has a summery biography for Morna Doris MacTaggart, whose penname, “Elizabeth X. Ferrars,” was plastered on the covers of more than sixty mystery novels – appearing for the first time in print at the dawn of WWII and the last one rolled off the presses in 1997!

That's a prolific writing career covering a significant chunk of the previous century, during which she garnered praise for her novels and was compared with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but the absence of a solid lead character in her detective stories may have contributed to her descend into literary obscurity. I know she had two, albeit minor, series characters in Toby Dyke and Jonas P. Jonas, but from what I gathered, the majority of her work consists of stand-alone novels and the rule of thumb with Golden Age mysteries is that the lack of an iconic detective figure rarely bodes well for a writers longevity. Who remembers now Pat McGerr, a true post-WWII era innovator, or the man who penned the delightful The Neat Little Corpse (1951), Max Murray, but a handful of fervent "Connoisseurs in Murder."

Murder Among Friends (1946) is one of those stand-alone mysteries that was selected by the late H.R.F. Keating as one of his "one hundred best crime and mystery books" and Ferrar's regular publisher apparently rejected the manuscript, because the content was too steamy for a proper detective story, however, you shouldn't rush off to order a copy on account of its explicit content – which is adorably tame by today's standard that probably would even consider P.D. James as one of the "cozies."

(added per request by E.F.'s original publisher)

Ferrar's coated the plot of Murder Among Friends in the style of the classic, British drawing room mysteries, in which the roar of the war is reduced to a murmur from the outside world penetrating the blacked out windows of the home of Cecily Lightfood – who's throwing a party for a closed circle of artistic friends. The main objective of the party is to lift the spirit of a lauded playwright, Aubrey Ritter, after his wife, Rosamund, killed herself the month before. However, the guest of honor no-shows, and before long, they find out why: someone busted open his head in his upstairs apartment with a fire iron. The American soldier who discovered the dying Ritter heard him mutter the name Janet. One of the titular friends is a Janet Markland, who even makes an admission, which is immediately detracted, but the damage has been done and she's convicted for the murder of Aubrey Ritter – and sentenced to be hanged by the neck.

Everyone seems to accept the official reading of the murder and the sentencing, except for Alice Church, who feels not so sure if the evidence is complete or even if they're aware of the full truth. Alice begins to talk with the people who knew Janet personally and creates a picture of a woman of whom she's convinced could not have committed the murder. These four conversations and combined with the fact everyone accepts the murder as a closed and shut case, gives the plot a murder-in-retrospect structure and may have been influenced by Agatha Christie's Five Little Pigs (1943) and (maybe) Sparkling Cyanide (1945). The downside is that story has the pace and urgency of a dying mountain stream. The ending is mixed bag of treats and there were some clever edges to the solution, but found the explanation for fingerprints on the murder weapon to be very convenient for the purpose of the plot.

In summation: Murder Among Friends is a very chatty, British-styled drawing room mystery that openly flirts with certain elements of the psychological crime novel and still has some clever, sharp edges that mystery fans can enjoy. Not great, but not all that shabby either. 


Throwing Down the Gauntlet: An Insane Locked-Room Puzzle

"There's just something missing."
- Michael Ende (The Never-Ending Story, 1979)
In the on-going series, "Pretending to Post," I have constructed a locked room riddle based on an idea that sort-of popped-up in my head, but the insanity of the explanation probably makes it an insoluble problem. However, the dark annexes forming the crime-ridden corners of the blogosphere teem with inquisitive foxes that'll jump on any challenge. So I hope they have fun sinking their teeth in this one!

Bacherlorhood in Victorian times
The mise-en-scène is a well-attended costume party and two of the attendees, garbed as Jack the Ripper and Tarzan, retreat themselves into a windowless room and bolted the door behind them. On the opposite of the room door is a wide niche, where someone is sitting to take and hand back coats and bags to visitors, generally to keep an eye on things, and swears nobody entered or left the room for quite some time – until the door suddenly opened and a Voodoo priest appears!

This apparition waves around a staff with a skull on top of it and has rug sack-sized, animal skin-type bag slung over his over his other shoulder. There's a bone-fingered necklace hanging from his neck and strings with bones and glass bottles of dark potions clatter around his body. He does a ritual, slow motion dance through the hallway, into the filled-up party hall, and disappears in a crowd of partying monsters. The room is bare except for a roaring fire in the hearth and lifeless furniture. It's as if Jack and Tarzan never entered that room at all.

So what happened? The facts are that two men entered a windowless room and the chimney is too narrow to allow a grown man to climb through it and let the other guy light a fire, change costumes and burn the original one the fire - before leaving the room. If the room would be subjected to a forensic investigation, they would barely find any DNA or cremated remains in the hearth. Except for burned pieces of cloth. Two people entered that room, but only one of them, perhaps even an unknown person, walked out of that sealed and watched room.

But how? If you've a shimmer of an idea, it might be fun to post it before you read further.

SPOILER, highlight text or press CTRL+A to read: upon entering the room, Jack the Ripper stunned Tarzan with his Victorian-era walking stick and took a roll of plastic from his surgeon's kit and covered a piece of the floor. He draped his cloak on top of the plastic and rolled the unconscious Tarzan on top of it.

Yes, but...

SPOILER, (...): Jack the Ripper than proceeded to kill Tarzan and threw his own costume into the fire, after ripping off the buttons, and slipped on the Tarzan slip – after which he gutted and dismembered Tarzan. Remember, the surgical knives are part of the Ripper attire, albeit a personal customization on the murderer's part.  

That still doesn't explain how only one person walked out of windowless and guarded room without leaving any traces!

SPOILER, (...): Oh, ye of little faith! The murderer proceeded to make his macabre ornaments out of the body parts and reusing parts of his own costume. The staff with the skull was the Ripper's walking stick with Tarzan's skinned head on it, and well, you know what he did with the bones. The organs were put in the bottles that were in the kit and wrapped the other stuff up in (more) plastic and put in the kit or the animal-skin, plastic-lined bag that he wore under his cloak when he entered the room. When the body had disappeared and had adorned him with his slain victim, he wrapped up the blood-drenched cloak and plastic – stuffing it in the kit that went in the bag with the rest and that was slung over his shoulder. The murderer than put up his little act in the hallway and strutted into crowd, towards the backdoor and into history.

W-why? Why would anyone do that?! To be completely honest with you, that's kind of the weak point, which is why I threw it out here for the fun of it, but there's a way to properly motivate it in universe where people go through such insane lengths for a disappearing act.

SPOILER, (...): To pull it off in the first place, you've to be a skilled pathologist and so what if the man under the Ripper costume was a well-renowned pathologist with a skeleton or two in closet. Maybe he illegally sold body parts. Who knows. And Tarzan was a blackmailer, a low-level criminal who found out and made the connection, and fixed a rendezvous at the party and felt secure to meet him behind the locked door of that room when there was someone standing guard outside. Nobody knew of his side job or that somebody found out about it, and thus nobody knew he had solid motive for making this person thoroughly disappear. He might have had van park near by where he could chance and carefully remove the remains he's carrying. Safely home, he could practically put the skull on his desk without ever attracting attention.

No. The ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler does not possess me.


A Fish Out of Water

"Things were certainly bad when a respectable communications officer began playing gumshoe."
- Lt. Chuck Masters (Murder in the Navy, 1955) 
A year before the late Evan Hunter adopted the Ed McBain moniker for the 87th Precinct series, which ran for fifty years, there was a crime novel with the stylistic trappings of a traditional whodunit, Murder in the Navy, published under the Richard Marsten byline – later reissued as Death of a Nurse (1955) as by Ed McBain.

U.S.S. Sykes is a U.S. Navy destroyer and the backdrop for Death of a Nurse, on which the well-oiled, but routine, existence of the sailors is disrupted by Navy Day sight-seers and the discovery of the body of a Navy nurse in the radar shack. The reader witnesses how her boyfriend throttles Claire Cole to death without learning his identity and the case becomes a brass concern.

An investigative board of naval officers is formed, one of them being Lt. Chuck Masters, the story's protagonist, and a pair of FBI agents are send down to look into the case – which promised a nice contrasting of amateur and professional detective work. Frederick Norton and Matthew Dickason are G-Men, however, they look and act more like a snotty amateur reasoner of some celebrity of a bygone age and his Dr. Watson, but they let the captain know who's in charge of the inquiry – restricting the investigative board to gathering facts for the ship log. Nonetheless, they scooped up a handful of names from the sea of suspects by employing the same method: who were in possession of the keys to the radar shack and were, at one time or another, committed to the hospital ward and on leave during a specific period.

They had four names to pick from and that makes for a joyful game of whodunit, but, unfortunately, a second murder is written off as the suicide of Claire Cole's murderer. Consumed by remorse or feeling the hangman's noose tighten and preferred to chuck himself overboard, but the reader witnessed the unknown, shadowy assailant attacking and rolling him into the water beneath them. Here the official and investigative board, under pressure and after roughly sixty pages, closes the case and that takes the urgency out of the story – which rapidly deteriorates into a run-of-the-mill crime novel.

Lt. Masters is convinced that the murderer is still at large, but is forced to stop snooping around and ordered to accept the official explanation. Meanwhile, Masters and the unknown murderer are developing an interest in nurse Jean Dvorak, but at this point in the story, I was only able to marvel at the breathtaking stupidity at how some of the characters were poking and agitating the murderer – especially the last one to fall. He was one step away from dropping on his knees and popping out a small, velvet lined box containing a shiny cyanide capsule and asking, "will you murder me?"

McBain probably realized this and tried to excuse the victim by letting Jean confess that he was a good boy inside, who loved to violate classic compositions on his violin. The defense should probably take note of that. Hey, I try to keep this review up beat and you should sing my praise for not going with "Through a Keel-Haul" as a post-title for this shoddily written review.

Anyway, to whom did Jean make this confession, alongside a truckload of pesky questions about Cole Claire, while pretending to fall for this persons advances? The man who she happens to gravely suspect of having killed three people and successfully eluded investigators from different bureaus and organizations... while alone and slowly being undressed. Three of the four (would-be) victims could've easily aired their suspicions in saver environment to officials, but they practically went in front of him (the second one on an abandoned part of the ship in the dark) while saying, "I know what you did and it's going to ruin your life." I accept one dummy like that, but there were all together three of them (minus Claire Cole, who was the true victim of this book) and only one of them survived.

Death of a Nurse is well written as a story of crime, but lousy as a detective novel and that was what it posed like for the first quarter of the book. I expected more from the author of Killer's Wedge (1957) and Tricks (1987).

Finally, I wanted to come back on my previous review and I wanted to make a separate post for it, but it would've been a very short one. Anyhow, Marco Books pointed out one of the "Easter Eggs" that he had hidden in Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013), which I had shamefully missed. I mentioned in my review that the video security of the house showed a lot of animals passing by and the first to "discover" the murder was an inquisitive tomcat, who tried to further investigate the trail of blood, but, ironically, couldn't get in on account of a locked front door and plaintively meows like the cat from A.C. Baantjer's DeKok and the Sorrowing Tomcat (1969). Again, thank you for that wonderful cameo(w)! 

And will I be stopped before spinning the purr-fect pun? Find out in the next blog post.


The Raven and the Criminal

"You can't study the darkness by flooding it with light."
- Edward Abbey 
Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) is the seventh entry in M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug series, which takes place directly after the events from the previous novel, De dood van Callista de Vries (The Death of Callista de Vries, 2012), and everything added to one of his most impressive juggling acts – going all the way this time in combining the best of two eras into a contemporary crime novel.

Fred Duijster was one of the figureheads of the Dutch criminal underworld, whose name turned up in a number of high-profile investigations without a single conviction to show for it. His fortified home can vouch that Duijster was not a man you were likely to catch off guard. The windows were secured with steel shutters and the premises are monitored with motion sensors that trigger overhead lights and cameras. Back and front. They are so sensitive that birds, cats, hedgehogs and prying neighbors can set them off. You could basically splice the security footage from the garden together to create an episode for The Animals of Farthing Wood.

Duijster allowed a handful of people into his home and fewer knew he lived there, but despite these precautions, someone still got to him. Brutally got him! Beaten and gutted with a kitchen knife.

An investigation is launched by the police, but here's where we get the first clue that this, stylistically, is going to be a different kind of story because Inspector Bram Petersen is sidelined for this investigation – after his wife suffered a stroke and her life is hanging by a thread. This sounds like typically police procedural stuff, but Petersen is just a background character here that makes a few brief appearances. That doesn't mean that his wife's critical condition or his grief is not shown or addressed, but it's not intruded upon, which I find to be infinitely more realistic than a long, drawn-out account of her dying process.

The man they found to replace Petersen is a transfer from Utrecht, Inspector Arthur van der Camp, who garnered praise there for his tough opposition against (organized) crime and thus the man to lead the investigation – which turns into a slam dunk case after an analysis of the security footage. The video clearly shows only one person entered and left the house at the time of the murder, a self-professed reformed criminal named Rafaël du Mez, alias "Raaf," who denies any involvement and demands a lawyer. Of course, nothing goes as smooth as it should be going due to internal struggles.

Here the plot takes another departure from the norm of the series: the sister of the suspect, Elvira, hires Sjoerd Guikema as her brother's defense counsel, and all of the sudden, where in an American mystery novel from the 1940s! Well, that's how my brain translated it. Guikema is overworked as it's and has no interest whatsoever in taking the case. That's until he sees Elvira and is suddenly inspired with an all-consuming will to help clear her brothers' name.

The parts of the story tag around with them smack of the amateur mystery solving couples that kept up the spirits of the English speaking nations during the war years. Books experimented before with an amateur sleuth in the trappings of a police procedural in the titular novella from the short story collection Dodelijke Hobby (Deadly Hobby, 2012), but this was by far the better of the two and both of them offered a false solution as to how someone could've entered the house undetected. They were surprisingly classical as well! Giekema's solution was definitely a nod to Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890), one of Books' favorite mystery writers, while Elvira's reminded me of Fergus Hume's The Silent House (1899) – if I remember that particular story correctly.

How the murderer circumvented the surveillance cameras and censors, gained access without tempering the locks or shutters, survive a knife fight with a dangerous criminal, and left again under the same circumstances was fairly easy (apart from the knife fight bit, of course). But that's often the beauty of a locked mystery, which appears to be completely impossible, when the answer is actually quite simple. Carter Dickson's The Judas Window (1938) and Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Solution (1983) have a similar premise as A Sealed House, in which a single person is fingered as a cold blooded murderer, because another suspect is a physical impossibility, and while I don't think it was quite on par with the former, I definitely think it was better than the latter. The Gold Solution is actually comparable to A Sealed House, because it also revolves around a fortified crime scene with a state of the art security system designed to keep people out or locked them in. So I have no complaints in that department.

If I have any complaints, it's that if criminals were as smart as they are portrayed here, I would be known the world over as the Sherlock Holmes of the modern age and the ending was a bit, uhm, what's the word... overkill? It has been commented upon before that writers like Bill Pronzini and William DeAndrea don't shy away from a dramatic climax at gunpoint, but Books must have been on fire when he wrote those chapters! I think he didn't hear the ghost of Mickey Spillane over the gunfire-like banging of his keyboard to tone it down just a little bit.

For the non-Dutch readers who are curious (a MILD SPOILER, select to read): a hostage situation erupts when the murderer is cornered and to prove the demands were not being made in jest, two very, very dead bodies were wormed out of window down to a street filled with policemen, onlookers and I think even a rolling camera or two.

Those mean streets of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are far more uglier below sea level. Anyway, to round this long, rambling review off, A Sealed House is an explosion of creativity scattering across various areas of the genre: the crime offered a classic locked room problem with some old-fashioned amateur snooping on the side, while the official police investigation of the murder further fleshed out some of the people who do that work and the milieu of the story gave everything a hardboiled edge. I also liked how the book set-up characters and storylines for down the line, because I doubt we've seen the last of Guikema or Van der Camp. The plot for the next book was also foreshadowed as a special police team is being formed. 

Long, long story short, A Sealed House is one of the best in the series that have been published up to this point and I'm eagerly anticipating the next installment. 

District Heuvelrug series: 

Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia, 2004)
De bloedzuiger (The Bloodsucker, 2005)
Gedragen haat (Hatred Borne, 2006)
De blikvanger (The Eye-Catcher, 2010)
De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011)
De dood van Callista de Vries (The Death of Callista de Vries, 2012)
Dodelijke hobby (Deadly Hobby, 2012)

Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013)


Like a Ghost

"One, two, Freddy's coming for you.
Three, four, better lock your door.
Five, six, grab your crucifix.
Seven, eight, gonna stay up late.
Nine, ten, never sleep again
- Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
A question was posted on the GAD group asking the list-members whom of John Dickson Carr's series detectives they preferred, Dr. Gideon Fell or Sir Henry Merrivale?

As you may or may not have noticed, John Dickson Carr happens to be my favorite mystery writer and having to pick a favorite character seems like an impossibility fitting the motif of his overall work, however, I have no problem with picking H.M. over Fell. No problem whatsoever. The "Old Man" is a more lively and entertaining character, whose cases often are an odd, but strangely balanced, hodgepodge of gothic material, farcical comedy, spies and criminals of international repute – while upholding the standards of the traditional detective story. And the impossible crimes, of course!

But, for me, it's also H.M.’s childlike embrace of life and schoolboy antics, as childish and petty as they can actually be at times, which made the entire series fun to read – even the supposedly bad ones from a later vintage. That's not something I can say for Dr. Fell's involvement in The House at Satan’s Elbow (1965), Panic in Box C (1966) and Dark of the Moon (1967). A Graveyard to Let (1949) and Night at the Mocking Widow (1950) may not be the greatest mystery novels ever committed to paper, but they were, at least, fun to read thanks to H.M. creating a riot in the subway and handing out cigars to children. Even the worst of the Merrivale mysteries, Seeing is Believing (1941), was brightened up with the "Old Man" dictating his memoirs.

One of the list-members, Bob Houk, responded to this with, "but then there's Cavalier's Cup, for which no excuse is possible, in my opinion," which is the last of the Merrivale novels and one of two I had not yet read – until today!

First off, I'll concede that The Cavalier's Cup (1953) is sub-par in comparison with Carr's best work, but still, it wasn’t that bad.

The setting is Tellford Old Hall, where the Oak Room was once haunted by the image of a long-dead Cavalier, Sir Byng Rawdon, who carved his final words in a windowpane with a diamond ring – before dashing off to his final battle on the lawn outside. But lately, the ghost of Sir Byng seems to have returned to the room not long after the titular cup is briefly returned to the hall, before being carted back to the bank vault, and Lord "Tom" Brace stands on personally guarding the family heirloom. Tom locks himself up in the Oak Room, a pair of stiff bolts on a door tightly wedge in its frame and windows fastened from within, while the cup stands in a safe with its sole key inside the room, but when dayspring wakes him up he's confronted with what appears to be the handy work of a poltergeist. The cup has been removed from the safe and stands in front of him on the table! Thinking he has become prone to sleepwalking, Tom refuses to go back to sleep (hence the opening quote!) and this brings his wife, Virginia, to call on Chief Inspector Masters to explain the impossible to ease her husband's mind.

Naturally, Sir Henry Merrivale is drawn into the case, who has buried himself for the last six months at Cranleigh Court to take private singing lessons under the tutelage of Signor Ravioli much to the horror of Masters – who presumed that the lack of public scandals for the last few months meant that H.M. was finally struck with a serious case of sanity. 

Anyway, the miraculous occurrence of the moving cup happens again, but this time when Masters is guarding the cup and is knocked unconscious for his trouble, however, even more baffling is the appearance in the room of a cup-handled rapier that hung outside of the sealed Oak Room! The bits and pieces that make up this problem show that Carr was still a good plotter at this point in his career, but it would've worked better as a short story or a novella (e.g. the H.M. novella "All in a Maze" from The Men Who Explained Miracles, 1963) where there could've been more emphasis on the locked room trick – which was clever, well-clued and both of the occurrences properly motivated. The motive was very clever, indeed, even if it became questionable by the execution of the trick by the culprit. A sort of last minute change, but that's all I can say without spoiling it.

The problem with The Cavalier's Cup is that it's too wordy and chatty that, more often than not, merely functioned to pad out the book as it took a whopping hundred pages to get to the point of the whole story. But more than that, I think some readers disliked seeing one of their favorite writers, whose books always gave off the impression of someone who thought life was something worth fighting for, reduced to bitterly ranting about the then Labor government like an Irish poet – which makes for an odd mixture of a novel when you throw in the comedic and detective bits. Personally, I found the righteous indignation of Masters, who's a shadow of the man who first appeared in The Plague Court Murders (1934), to be most insufferable part of this book and I agree with Nick Fuller who wrote on his (I think) now defunct website, Ministry of Miracles, that the perfect ending to this novel would've been H.M. as the mastermind behind the prank to stick it to Masters, who really seem to have started disliking H.M. And after having revealed himself, H.M. throws a snowball in Masters' face! I added that last part for even more comedic effect. 

So I recognize and suffered through it flaws, but did not end up hating it and liked the overall idea of the story – even if the execution leaves a lot to be desired (and cut). The whole idea was almost Scooby Doo-ish (and s/he would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those meddling snoops) or could've been an episode for Jonathan Creek (like The Scented Room). This book really should’ve been entitled The Cavalier's Cup: A Ranting Comedy With Detective Interruptions.

And no. I'm not unable to give Carr a bad review, but I'm not going to reread Patrick Butler for the Defense (1956). Satan himself would've to draw up a pretty sweet contract to make that happen. By the way, Carr's historical mysteries from the same period were much better than the ones set in contemporary times, which, I think proves my theory that Carr was a chronophobiac.

Anyway, the next review will be of a modern day writer taking a shot at the locked room mystery.


The Auspicating Bone Counter Murders

"Calm down, doctor! Now's not the time for fear. That comes later."
- Bane (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012)
First of all, an explanation is needed for the unusual and archaic-sounding post-title I slapped on this review, which is nothing more than a contorted attempt at linking Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders (1936) with John Rhode's The Murders in Praed Street (1928) – one of the first detective novels to examine the handy work of a serial killer.

John Rhode has a reputation for being a dry and dull writer, whose books herded flocks of insomniacs to dreamier pastures, but I think that reputation is undeserved. Back in 2011, I wrote jubilating review of Death on the Board (1937), in which I "defended" Rhode against the charge of being dull and have often praised The House on Tollard Ridge (1929) and Men Die at Cyprus Lodge (1943) – both handling the haunted house setting in a sober and rational manner. The Murders in Praed Street is basically an overdose of imagination peppered with out-right acts of super villainy!

The opening of the story depicts the shop strewn Praed Street, which has turned in recent years in a dreary traffic artery of London, and the people who toil there. There's the simple-minded, but hardworking, green grocer, Mr. James Tovey. The chatty tobacconist, Sam Copperdock, whose son, Ted, is friendly with Tovey's daughter, Ivy. And the herbalist, Ludgrove, is the confident of many of the secrets of the inhabitants of Praed Street.

After being lured from his home with a telephone call, Mr. Tovey collapses in the street with an unusual blade buried in his back. The old baker, Ben Colburn, buys a brand new pipe in Copperdock's shop and cuts his tongue on a poisoned crumb of glass lodged in the stem and dies a few hours later. A middle-aged poet, Mr. Pargent, died under similar circumstances as the green grocer. The only thing Inspector Whyland has to connect these deaths is that each victim received a white bone counter, about the size of a half penny, with red roman numerals etched on them in sequential numbering. But it gets better!

A former resident of Praed Street, Mr. Martin, who resided there as a receiver of stolen goods from only "the aristocracy of thieves," is lured back with a blackmail note and is poisoned in the small cellar of No. 407, Praed Street. The house was locked and bolted from within, windows securely fastened and the body blocked the door of the cellar – and all of the keys were accounted for. And even if we learned of the solution in the next chapter, it's still a bone-fide locked room mystery and there was even more impossible material. Another bone counter was found in someone's bedroom when the house was locked up and the key in possession of the owner. Not very difficult to solve, but I appreciated its inclusion nonetheless.

This is the point where Dr. Priestley enters the picture, but the analytical and cerebral is incredible dense here and that may be due to his personal involvement in the case. The murderer is easily spotted as was the then original, well hidden-and clued motive that will be viewed today as hackneyed, but you can't slam Rhode for coming up with it first. However, the background of the motive reads like an origin story of a hero (Priestley) creating a super villain (the murderer) and involves something that is still considered controversial today. I couldn't help but feel somewhat sorry for the murderer and Priestley came-off as a dick in that part.

Under its pulp-like exterior, The Murders in Praed Street has a lot of modern-day grim and grit. It's the Golden Age of Detectives' answer to The Dark Knight Rises and I just love how apt the opening quote of this post is for this book. Even the endings share some similarities. But for the villainy, Rhode seems to have tapped from the Sherlock Holmes canon. The image of The Black Sailor and the numeral warnings recalled the vengeful Jonathan Small from The Sign of Four (1890) and Rhode's love for deadly gadgets got echoed another one of Holmes' iconic adversaries.

My only quibble is that none of the victims made the connection themselves. It seems such an obvious thing to remember, especially in the face of a rising body count. Anyway, I was glad to discover that I had not become too jaded and was still able to enjoy the ride, even if it's one of the oldest, timeworn rides in the park.

Oh, and shame on you, Mr. Rhode. Writing about working class people and criminal folks, and addressing controversial topics while you're at it, when you're suppose to be writing posh thrillers with smart aleck dialogue or the gentry's plight. You were a man and published this book in 1928. What are scholars supposed to do with you? Do you think Curt Evans' book, Masters of the Humdrum Mystery: CecilJohn Charles Street, Freeman Wills Crofts, Alfred Walter Stewart and the British Detective Novel, 1920-1961 (2012), hawks itself? 


Down Among the Dead Men

"Men will confess to treason, murder, arson, false teeth, or a wig. How many of them will own up to a lack of humour?"
- Frank Moore Colby
According to the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, "George Bellairs" was one of two pennames handled by Harold Blundell over a four-decade spanning career during which he wrote more than sixty mystery novels – nearly all of them with Inspector Thomas Littlejohn of Scotland Yard as the series character. There's also a mention that Blundell relocated to the Isle of Man after becoming a full-time writer and the island became the backdrop for a number of Littlejohn's cases, but I sincerely hope that The Cursing Stones Murder (1954) is not indicative for his entire body of work. Great way to open a review, I know.

The opening scene of The Cursing Stones Murder is promising enough, though, as the Manx Shearwater, a scallop dredger, is knifing through the water in bad weather to the West Quay – where a police party is awaiting its arrival.

While dredging off the Isle of Man, they found a decomposed body of a man ensnarled in their nets. The body was unrecognizable and weighted-down with stones, which makes it murder and thus a case for Inspector Perrick of the Manx C.I.D. Inspector Perrick actually arrests a suspect after identifying the victim as the philandering Cedric Levis, who left a string of broken hearts in his wake and went missing a few weeks prior – and the person arrested was Johnny Corteen, who wanted Levis to stop seeing his sister.

The arrest of the young Corteen prompts Archdeacon Kinrade to send for his old friend from the Yard, Inspector Littlejohn, for a short holiday on the island and enjoy a bit of amateur snooping on the side. I guess Bellairs took joy in letting Littlejohn stroll across the landscape, while he talks to the locals, explores caverns and interviewing the people connected to the case without anything really happening. Well, that's not true. Someone who knew what happened got run over, but luckily, he got better and spilled the beans at the end anyway. And the cursing stones from the title, you ask, that could grant mortals the power to cast spells and curses on its fellow human beings? They were mentioned. Just like the local legends and whatever goes with the landscape. Just passing scenery. It's like a Gladys Mitchell tale that got its soul ripped out of it.

However, that would've been forgivable, where it not that there's nothing clever or anything of substance waiting for you in the final chapters – except for a drab, sordid affair that reads like the worst travel brochure in history. When I began to read The Cursing Stones Murder, I was afraid that Bellairs had foreshadowed an ending hinging on "The Birlstone Gambit" in the first line from the opening quote, "in the Island of Man, oftentimes even in the daytime, the Islanders did see men that had been dead, either without a head, or the body entire, and what manner of death they died," taken from William Blundell's History of the Isle of Man (c. 1648), but as the story began to drag I began to hope that was exactly what Bellairs was aiming for. But nothing tallied in the story with that theory and ended up disappointed here before you.

The dust jacket touts a blurb from the Rochdale Observer stating, "since Dorothy L. Sayers abandoned Lord Peter Wimsey, we should class Mr. Bellairs as our most ‘literary’ practitioner in the field of detection," but if this kind of writing is the benchmark of the literary crime novel than it goes to show that the genre has lost so much more than just its false memories of curved daggers, bodies in libraries and suspect-filled drawing rooms. Yes. This book was bad enough to make me relapse into blindly ranting against everything that isn’t a proper detective story.  

So let me end this post by saying that I liked the moody cover art and the map in front of the book, because a book can never have enough scenery. Never.