Cream of the Crop

"I hope the bastard appreciates this, yanking out my twat hairs by the root so I look good in a sundress."
Painted for the Kill (1943) was the first of only three (comedic) mystery novels by Russian born Lucy Cores, whose family packed up and left their home country behind after the Communist Revolution – hiding out in Poland and France before arriving in the United States in 1921. There they made themselves a new home and, twenty odd years later, Cores achieved the American dream by adding her name to one of the grandest pillars of human civilization with the publication of her first detective novel.

The center of commotion and many shenanigans in Painted for the Kill is The House of Lais, a beauty salon patronized by the upper crust of New York's socialite, which is ruled over by Lais Karaides and her reign resembles that of a small-country dictator. Every morning, at 8:30 sharp, there's a mandatory pep talk before the store opens and the store-manager, Mlle. Illona, drills home the pointers on how to behave towards customers and the importance of brand loyalty. If this book would not pre-date George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), I would've suspected Cores of spoofing the Stalinist shadow of Big Brother. That very same, dark shadow that caused her family to fled her home... Just a coincidence or the ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler. Moving on.

Cores satirizes everyone and everything, however, it’s not a mere comedy of manners and more closely related to the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection. The story is set in New York among the upper denizens of the city and the scene of the crime is a building, The House of Lais, consisting of multiple floors, through which characters move around – movements which are analyzed and scrutinized. There's a tour of the inner workings of the company. And the detectives are essentially amateurs who quickly develop a friendly relationship with the official police force, in this case Police Captain Andrew Torrent, but the exception here is that they aren't dilettante amateurs killing time by snooping around a fresh crime scene for clues.

Tony Ney is the dark-haired exercise director at Lais and Eric Skeets writes copy for the advertisement department, normally two completely segregated floors, and as to be expected, there's a mutual interest in one another. There developing relationship gives the story ties to the mystery solving couples. As a matter of fact, I was reminded at times of Kelley Roos' debut novel, Made Up to Kill (1940), in which Jeff and Haila Troy were engaged and secured a supporting role in a Broadway play – where murder quickly ensued. Except here the glitter and glamour of the theatre are replaced with the luxurious surrounding of an expensive beauty salon, where the daily routine is disturbed when Lili Michaud, a famous French movie star/refugee, drops in for a special treatment with the Winogradow mudpack.

Before Painted for the Kill morphs into mystery, the hustle and bustle at the beauty salon reminded me of British comedy series like Are You Being Served? So imagine my surprise when Eric Skeets channels Mrs. Slocombe when visiting Tony's apartment and meets Tony's gray Persian, Tom Jones, and remarks "nice pussy," adding, "you and I are going to be great friends, ha, ha." The humor is otherwise more sophisticated than that and Tom shows his disapproval of Eric by favoring Captain Torrent.

BAD PUN ALERT!: Beauty Sleeps & Dirt Maps
Anyhow, Lili Michaud has been left alone in a private-room with a mudpack on her face and quickly fell asleep, but after a while they found out that she's dead and a police investigation reveals that the cause of death was a jujitsu-like blow to the throat. 

A murder is feared to be disastrous for business, considering they could only just prevent the press hounds, who followed Lili around, from having an exclusive photo-op with the corpse, but they're booked full the next day – some of them even insisting on being massaged and mudded up in the "Murder Room." Satirizing continues when the detectives, official and non-official, are making up the balance and conclude that, while people had opportunities, they lacked a good motive for the murder of someone who was practically a stranger to them. Their problem is apparently solved when someone else dies under circumstances that appear so identical that it must be another murder, however, the throat of this body is not crushed. Did the murderer's heart succumb under the strain of a guilty conscience? Suicide? Or was it murder after all? And did murder become a little bit more careful?

When the cause of death is revealed I immediately recognized it as a red herring, if Cores hadn't been too careless in revealing the solution and had withheld vital information, because it suggests a solution that genre savvy readers will be more than familiar with. Edmund Crispin and Nicholas Blake wrote two of the better-known examples and if you know your classics, you'll know what I mean when you read the book. I had to reject it because it didn't tally with the information from the story and the actual solution was therefore much better in that it was more original and the arrival came through some well-clued detective work. The solution (and the story as a whole) makes Painted for the Kill also literary ancestor of Herbert Resnicow's Alexander and Norma Gold mysteries. So the only complaint I could possibly have is that Lucy Cores did not went all the way and found a way to this closed-circle of suspects into a bone-fide locked room mystery. Lets call it a cosmetic imperfection in an otherwise excellent mystery.

That leaves us with one unanswered question though: did the Cores family smuggle a time-viewing crystal out of Russia to keep themselves entertained with futuristic pop-culture and prepare for their new lives in America? 


Stuff of the Dead

"Strange things move beneath the surface of the years."
 - Miss Silver
The names of Patricia Wentworth, the pseudonym of Indian born Doris Turnbull, and her elderly ex-governess turned professional sleuth, Miss Silver, have been sifting in-and out of my peripheral vision for years, but never took the plunge – because the constant comparisons with Agatha Christie's Miss Marple were very off putting. What can I say? I'm just not a fan of the Miss Marple series.

"Wait a moment before going in there, hun..."
Somehow, somewhere, I acquired a 2006 reissue by Hodder and Stoughton of The Benevent Treasure (1956) and I'm fairly sure it wasn't on account of the comely illustration on the front cover. The synopsis on the back, on the other hand, painted a different picture that explained how it might have ended up on the pile and made me finally decide to give Wentworth-Silver tandem a shot.

The Benevent Treasure was published in the twilight years of Wentworth's writing career and the story is driven by undercurrents from the Victorian era, but the plot opens with a prologue – showing a then 15-year-old Candida Sayle clutching for her life to a narrow ledge of an overseas cliff. A young man named Stephen Eversley saves her, but they don't meet again until the following five years have come and gone. An aunt brought up Candida and in turn, she took care of her until she passed away – leaving her all alone until a letter arrives.

Candida's great-aunt, Olivia Benevent, has kept eyes and ears on the estranged side of the family and, as her last surviving relative, invited to spend some time at the ancestral family home – a Victorian monstrosity known as Underhill. The starched Olivia is the typical, domineering shrew who keeps her sister, great-aunt Cara, under the thumb, and generally, acts very, very patrician. There's the adopted secretary, Derek Burdon, whom they hope to marry off to Candido and the servants, Joseph and Anne. Stephen Eversley turns up to do some work on the house. Over this an old-fashioned cloak of family secrecy is thrown, which gives raise to motives for mutual suspicions and perhaps even murder. In the background lingers the legend surrounding the Benevent Treasure, which was smuggled into the country by one of their ancestors, after defecting from Italy, and hidden somewhere on the premise of Underhill. There's even a rhyme that turns up:
"Touch not nor try,
Sell not nor buy,
Give not nor take,
For dear life’s sake." 
The multitude of plot-threads seemed more than sufficient to justify its 350+ pages, at merely a quarter into the book, but when Miss Silver arrives on the scene, knitting in the compartment of train, a Mr. Puncheon asks her if she's in the consulting detective he has heard about. Miss Silver's reputation has preceded her and Mr. Puncheon wants her help in finding out if his stepson, Alan Thompson, former secretary of the Benevents, stole money and jewelry from his employer – before dropping off the map. Everyone, including Mr. Puncheon himself, assumed he was guilty and it killed his mother. Remorseful, Mr. Puncheon now wants to know if there's a chance to clear Alan's name.   

"Super cereal literature!" - Al Gore
Here is where the story begins to bog down and fall apart. The "Had-I-But-Known" atmosphere that permeated through out the beginning of the story disintegrated and the interaction between the characters began to drag down the flow of the narrative. Eventually, there's a murder clumsily disguised as an accident, when someone is found sprawled at the foot of the staircase, but once you reached the ending you realize you could have just skipped there instead of wading to through all that muck

The solution obviously owed some debt to Conan Doyle's "The Musgrave Ritual," collected in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893) and G.K. Chesterton's "The Curse of the Golden Cross," from The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926), but everything seemed tired and a bit on the confusing side of my consciousness – even a last ditch effort at something original with a last-minute murder through an unusual method of poisoning. Well, unusual and original, maybe it would've been in the era that Wentworth attempted to emulate. And that includes a nightly/ghostly intruder in Candida's bedroom and secret passageways.  

After, and it must be said, good opening, I was hoping it would drag itself out the slum and pick up again towards the ending, because the tedious and repetitive family business recalled the slumming drag you had endure in Rupert Penny's Sealed Room Murder (1941) – before rewarding its readers with a short detective story in the final quarter of the book. That didn't happen. Instead, it treaded dangerously close to George Bellairs' The Cursing Stones Murder (1954).

So, no, I did not like it and had I but known that my curiosity for the Benevent treasure would result in the lost of several precious hours, I would never have given that book a second glance!    
To end the review on a positive note (and a spot deification), but mysteries like The Benevent Treasure and The Cursing Stones Murder makes you appreciate later-period John Dickson Carr. The recently reviewed The Cavalier's Cup (1953), published under the Carter Dickson byline, which was deemed as indefensible (because it's mediocre by Carr's own standard), blows those two away and one of them was written in the middle of the authors career! Because that's how great he was. Sorry. That's all I had left in the tank for this review. Writing reviews of books you ended up disliking can be a strain on your creativity. 


Putting the Pieces Together

"Because murder is more fun away from home."
Seicho Matsumoto was a Japanese crime writer from post-WWII Japan, who enjoyed a handful of translations that were well-received by Western readers, praised for possessing a social conscience, but, as Ho-Ling observed in his review of Ten to Sen (Points and Lines, 1958), they only illuminated one aspect of his work. Personally, I wouldn't place Matsumoto among my favorite mystery writers, but he has some good and fun stories to his name that can be appreciated by crime readers across the board – and Points and Lines comes especially recommended.

Unfortunately, De Amsterdamse koffermoord (The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder, 1979), a collection of Dutch translations of a novella and three short stories, has only partially appeared in English. The novella, as far as I'm aware, has not been translated in English, but the short stories can be found in The Voice and Other Stories (1995). More on those stories later.

Still Waters (Run Deep)
The titular novella, The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder, appeared originally as Amusuterudamu-unga satsuyin-jiken (The Amsterdam Canal Murder Case, 1969) in the weekly Shukan Asahi and the plot was modeled on an actual, unsolved homicide – which captured the attention of the media in both Europe and Japan. I learned of this sensational murder case when I read my first true-crime book, A.C. Baantjer's Doden spreken niet: veertig onopgeloste moorden (The Dead Don't Speak: Forty Unsolved Murders, 1966; revised in 1981), who was a policeman in Amsterdam at the time of the murder and mentioned the case in the book. Baantjer's description of the case and comments definitely added an extra dimension to Matsumoto's artistic interpretation of the facts.

The names of the people, for one, are altered as are some of the facts (and some were left out all together) to fit the explanation for Matsumoto's fictional case. Matsumoto grounded his story in reality, but drew heavily on his artistic license. The story also notes problems in sharing information between the Dutch and Belgium police, which Baantjer confirms at the end of his piece by saying that they needed the cooperation of the Brussels police to continue the investigation, but that never happened – even though the world was watching them. Baantjer also wrote that one of the police detectives remarked, after the sudden death of a second witness, "even a detective-writer could not come up with an ending for this mystery." Someone must have felt like he was being challenged.

So on to the story, which begins, for the world, on 26th of August, 1965, when a child's attention is caught by a silver colored, metal-like suitcase floating on the Westside of the Jacob van Lennepkade between two houseboats. The macabre content of the suitcase consists of the torso of a man from which the head, hands and legs had been cut-off – alongside shredded, bloodstained pieces of clothing. Chief-Inspector Hendrik van Berkum from Bureau Leidseplein is put in charge of the investigation and immediately reaches out to Interpol and the Japanese police, while they run down the list of missing people closer at home. They eventually make an identification, but the case is shelved when one of the people, although completely cleared from any suspicion, fatally, and "suspiciously," crashes his car in Belgium.

And this is where Matsumoto introduces a narrator and a detective character in the style of Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin. This is even preceded with a chapter that breaks down the fourth wall and introduces them in a reference to Poe's "The Mystery of Marie Roget," which was also modeled on a real-life, unsolved murder – making it a wonderful homage to both Poe and Dupin. There are also the obligatory references to Sherlock Holmes.

The duo tramps around the Netherlands and Belgium, speaking to witnesses, analyzing facts and theorizing, while drinking in the scenery and sometimes blatantly following the tourists trail. They even visit the Anne Frank House where the detective, who the narrator calls for the purpose of this story Dr. Ukichi Kuma, muses in the hidden room how the Dutch houses are traps that can hold and make people disappear – if that's what its owner desires. I like the idea that, somehow, over the centuries, our historical buildings became sentient, but dog loyal, beings, e.g. moving churches from Jan Terlouw's Koning van Katoren (translated as: How to Become King, 1971).

So the descriptive passages do have the touch of the Dutch police procedurals/mysteries by Appie Baantjer and Simon de Waal, but the observations are clearly from the eyes of a Japanese writer and Matsumoto's explanation for the chopped-up body did not disappoint. There's always another reason in Japanese detective fiction for body mutilations/decapitations besides to make it easier to dispose of a body or make identification of the victim as difficult as possible. There have even been entire (locked room) plots build upon mutilated bodies and the few Japanese mysteries that were translated in English can vouch for their craftiness when it comes playing around with body parts.

The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder was, for me, the highlight of this volume, but there were also three other and much shorter stories. They put more emphasis on characters that drive the story rather than the plot, but two of the three were quite good for what they are.

"The Face" ("Kou") was published in August, '56 edition of Shosetsu Shincho and won a mystery prize the following year, however, this was the only story from the collection I ended up disliking. The premise was good enough to build a solid story on as an actor is slowly gaining traction as an actor and is starting to receive minor parts in movies, but the problem is that he may be recognized by the one person who could identify him as the murderer of a young woman – several years earlier. Every time you think the story is going somewhere, it peters out, before ending predictably.  

"The Cancelled Subscription" ("Chibo-shi wo kau onna") appeared on April, 1957 in the previously mentioned magazine and, basically, it’s the same story but done much better. A woman takes a subscription of a small-town newspaper filled with uninteresting local news on account of an exiting story they're running as a serial, but cancels it after a month and the small-time writers decides to find out why. The only complaint I have is that the story ended with a written confession when it, stylistically, would’ve been if the story had ended with flashback/prologue that tied up the loose ends – and an ambiguous ending would've strengthened the overall effect of the scene that came before the explanation. The plot also suggests that Matsumoto was already playing with ideas for/in the process of writing Points and Lines.

I think this story appeared in The Voice and Other Stories under the title "The Serial."

On July 1958, again in the same magazine, "The Woman Who Wrote Haiku" ("Kanto-ku no onna") was brought into circulation for the first time and has two editors of a monthly haiku publication worrying of a gifted amateur committed to a hospital. She has failed to send in a new haiku for the past three months and they decide to go investigate her faith for themselves. The reader, again, learns of highly illegal things you can do with a corpse and was surprise to read that doctors were (are?) allowed in Japan to lie to their patients, if they think it's in their best interest. 

I drew (heavily) for the publication info from the afterword of the translator, Miyako Vos-Kobayashi. 

All in all, I would say that Matsumoto's The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder was a successful cultural exchange.


A Vein of Poison

"We're in a sort of hodge-podge of fantasy and harum-scarum adventure that isn't a proper detective story at all. We might be by Michael Innes."  
- Michael Innes (The Daffodil Affair, 1942)
A remarkable property of detective stories is that they can be seamlessly integrated with every type of (genre) fiction imaginable, without producing a preposterous and forced sounding premise such as cowboys or vampires in space. They can take place in the distant past or the faraway future, alternate or completely different realities, but still work on both plains – depending on who's writing and plotting, of course.

Peter Dickinson's The Poison Oracle (1974) satisfied itself with roaming the borders of the genre, blurring instead of crossing them, but, personally, I would rank the book among the best attempts of its kind.

Wesley Morris is a psycholinguistic who's learning Dinah, an unusual bright and pre-verbal chimpanzee, to understand language and to communicate through plastic symbols. An old friend from Oxford, the Sultan of Q'Kut, is bankrolling the experiment and has them brought over to his palace – which has a private zoo attached to it! You guessed it, this is going to be an impossible crime story, but before plunging into a murder enquiry, Dickinson builds a marvelous sand castle in the sky. Q'Kut is a tiny, oil-saturated sultanate with its own culture and history, which is weaved into the tapestry of the plot.

The relationship between the ruling Arabs of Q'Kut and the primitive Marshmen were especially interesting, because the isolated condition of the Marshmen created their own, unique and barely translatable language that's unlike any other. There's a verbal treaty, "the Bond," between the Arabs and the Marshmen stating that the latter would accept the former as their overlords, if they have the marshes for themselves and one of the clans provides a bodyguard for their ruler. As I said before, the treaty isn't written down, but performed once a year in an epic song chronicling the history of the Marshmen and the Bond – which reminded me of the dioramas depicting the Aborigine story of creation in S.H. Courtier's Death in Dream Time (1959). There's a Ngaio Marsh reference in there somewhere.

Dickinson did on a smaller scale what Isaac Asimov did on a universal scale in such books as The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun (1957): building a civilization with a history, language, social structure and characters, too! 

There's the relationship between Morris and Dinah, which in itself provides enough material and ideas for a separate story. The relationship and communication between Morris and Dinah was somewhat reminiscent of the way Captain Bridger from SeaQuest DSV tried to communicate with Darwin, a dolphin, before meeting Lucas – who broke the code of their language and invented a communicator. As noted, Dickinson roved the edges of the genre without actually crossing them, so no fancy SF-like gadgets here. There's also the heir to the throne, the young Prince Hadiq, who's learning English with the help of a stack of Batman comic books, Akuli bin Zair, "major domo of the Palace and effectively Prime Minister of Q'Kut," and Dyal – a loyal bodyguard for Sultan from one of the clans in the Marshlands. And finally, there's "Anne," who crash-landed in a skyjacked airliner and her influence begins to have its effect on the Sultan. So much that rumors begin to escape from the Women's Quarter that the Sultan’s first wife wants to start sowing poison around the palace.

However, it's the Sultan and his bodyguard who appear to have killed each other with poison-laced, hypodermic darts fired from a set of spring-guns and nobody else appears to have been able to have had a hand in both deaths. The solution is a curious, but satisfying, mishmash of ideas that was molded in something new(-ish) that merged wonderfully well with the overall plot of the story. 

Anyhow, the neighboring friends and allays of the Sultan are outraged that Marshmen broke the Bond and murdered their friend, which demands for punitive measures to be taken against them, but the marshes are impenetrable and likely to be booby-trapped with poison-dripping spears – and they will fight to the last man. Caught in between are Morris and Dinah, who become an unlikely detective duo as Morris tries to figure out what happened, including a dangerous trip into the marshes, while trying to pry loose what Dinah knows about the murders in a way that he, and others, can understand. 

If you have to say anything in disfavor of The Poison Oracle, it's that its depiction of imperialism, slavery and the existence of a Women's Quarter, even if it takes place on a completely imaginary spot of land bordering on fairytale land, probably won't get the stamp of approval from the PC crowd, but how else do you write about a clash of cultures, times and traditions? It's basically a tale of a primitive tribe (Marshmen) coexisting with the settlers (Arabs) in a land that’s encroached upon by Western influences (zoo, new palace, plane crash, etc.) and what happens if they butt heads in the middle – presented as Mitchellian fantasy of crime.

Sometimes a story is just a story and this was darn good one. If Scheherazade were still telling her stories, The Poison Oracle could've easily been one of them.