Murder in Retrospect: The Best Mysteries Read in 2013

"Love is such an arbitrary thing. I love my mom. I love pancakes."
- Doug Stanhope (Stand-Up Comedian)
"Give me problems!"

Yesterday, I posted a summary overview of the worst mysteries endured this year and the most inferior examples answer why detectives can be held in such low regard, but today I'll be gushing and talking pompously, like a ranting Napoleon atop a hobbyhorse, on the ingenious mysteries I enjoyed reading in 2013. The detective stories that were the seven-percent solution to my Sherlock Holmes.

You can expect an over representation of everyone's favorite trope, "The Locked Room Mystery," but I like to believe the divergence of styles, sub-genres and international character shows a balanced, in-depth list with an overlapping theme.

Now, without further ado, the List of Best Mysteries Read in 2013:

The "Moth" Murder (1931) by Lynton Blow

The first of merely two mystery novels by Lynton Blow, but as enthusiastic an endeavor in the field of detective fiction as the Wright brothers conquering the skies in 1903. Except that The "Moth" Murder takes off when the blazing remains of a light aircraft plunges from the sky and a post-mortem on the charred pilot reveals an inexplicable bullet wound. These are, however, the first of a train carriage of complications, but Blow holds a firm grip on all the plot threads and understands these kind of complex detective stories gain credibility by including Murphy's Law in the equation. The only letdown is that there's an old trick at the heart of the mystery.

Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) by M.P.O. Books

A figure head of the Dutch criminal underworld, Fred Duijster, is brutally slaughtered in his tightly secured, fortress-like home. The windows were covered with steel shutters and the grounds around the house are monitored with motion sensors that trigger overhead lights, back and front, and cameras – and they captured only one person entering and leaving the home at the time of the murder. But is he guilty? It's an impossible crime story in the same vein (and quality) as Marcia Muller's The Tree of Death (1983) and Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Solution (1983).

Painted for the Kill (1943) by Lucy Cores

A comedic mystery lampooning the daily workload of a prestigious beauty salon, The House of Lais, a popular haunt for women inhabiting the upper crust of New York, but the place is run like a (awkwardly pre-dated) parody on the Stalinist shadow of Big Brother from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). I guess it's a hallmark of good comedy if you're jokes gain traction over time. However, Cores took a break from satirizing everyone, and everything, to construct a satisfying plot around the death of a valued customer of Lais. Clever and funny. 

The Poison Oracle (1974) by Peter Dickinson

Now here's a tale that would've bought Sheherazade another reprieve from the executioner's sword, if the King had faltered after the One Thousand and One previous nights. A tale of the imaginary sultanate of Q'Kut. A strip of land in cloud-cuckoo land where the Arab rulers share a special bond with the native Marshmen, an isolated tribe with their own unique language, reaffirmed every year in a verbal treaty, "The Bond," which is an epic song telling the history of the Marshmen and the Bond. Dickinson builds a completely new civilization with a history, language, social structure, political system and used as a framework for a first-rate detective story – involving a pre-verbal chimpanzee, skyjacked airliner and an impossible poisoning in the Sultan's private zoo. Undoubtedly, one of the richest mysteries I have read this year. 

Nightshade (2006) by Paul Doherty

A historical mystery novel set in 1304 and centers around the affairs of the perfidious Lord Scrope, whose district has fallen in disorder after ordering the massacre of an entire religious sect, but King Edward I has dispatched Sir Hugh Corbett and Ranulf to restore His Majesty's Rule to the region. However, upon their arrival, they learn matters have worsened with the arrival of a mysterious bowman. In order to protect himself, Scrope erected a sealed structure, a reclusorium, on the Island of Swans, which is encircled by an icy moat and guards posted on the opposite banks – all to no avail. Locked doors and shuttered windows failed to keep his murderer out and Doherty comes up with a better solution than he usually does for his impossible premises. Not ground breaking, but not bad either.

Vultures in the Sky (1935) by Todd Downing

A previous mystery novel I read by Downing, The Cat Screams (1934), ended in disappointment, after the plot failed to live up to its own premise, but there are more than enough redeeming qualities to be found in its successor. Downing's series character, Hugh Rennert of the United States Treasury Department, Custom Services, takes charge of a train bound for Mexico City when one of the passengers dies while passing through a tunnel and Rennert doesn't entertain the idea that the bad air in the tunnel did him in. The plot rattles along at a nice, steady pace and the exploration of the local culture gives the book its authentic touch. This is not a cheat Christie knock-off. 

Ättestupan (Deadly Reunion, 1975) by Jan Ekström

With a nickname like "the Swedish John Dickson Carr," it was bound to attract my attention and I wasn't disappointed, but, stylistically, the book stands closer to Ross MacDonald and Christianna Brand. The problem here finds it roots in the three warring branches of ninety-year-old Aunt Charlotte Lethander's family and summons them all in a last ditch effort to reconsolidate them before passing away – which ends in a tragic murder/suicide. One of her relatives was shot and the murderer was gassed to death in a locked bedroom. The brooding atmosphere and hidden (family) secrets is still today typical for Scandinavian crime fiction, but the classically styled plot and clever impossible crime makes it a noteworthy entry in the annals of locked room mysteries.

The Con Job (2013) by Matt Forbeck

The first tie-in novel continuing the cancelled TV-series Leverage, set during the third season, and the plot would've been a perfect basis for an actual episode. Nathan Ford's crew goes after a disreputable art dealer who has been targeting old comic-book artists, which brings them to Comic-Con and a galore of shenanigans in an attempt to thwart the dealer from robbing Alec Hardison's heroes blind.

La Septième Hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991) by Paul Halter

More than once, I found something to nitpick about in a Paul Halter story and I blame the glowing comments preceding the long-awaited translations, which unfairly drew comparisons with John Dickson Carr and G.K. Chesterton. On the other hand, this particular title can be logged into evidence to back up their claim: the plot is triumphant in reviving the "Baghdad-on-the-Thames" atmosphere of a long-gone London. Plague doctors are seen roaming the streets by moonlight, a deadly duel of wits between a genius playwright and a gifted actor and one or two impossible disappearances. What's not to like?

Moord in de trein (Murder on the Train, 1925) by Herman Heijermans & A.M. de Jong

A dark, twisted gem of a story stained with the irony of history (see review) and opens with Satan visiting three of the characters, but the only thing the rich banker, the ambitious writer and the hotel-rat have in common is a ticket for the D-train to Paris. Nathan Marius Duporc, Inspecteur of the Amsterdamse Centrale Recherche, one of the passengers, has to wrench apart a surprisingly good and Carrian murder plot.

77 Sunset Strip (1959) by Roy Huggins

A curious, but well-done, TV tie-in novel composed of three short stories with bridging material predating the television adaptation, based on these original pulp stories, but the kicker is that private eye Stuart Bailey is confronted with trio of crimes of the impossible variety. It's a fast-paced montage of three cases pitting a street-wise, smart talking detective against a few actual brain crackers and the structure is remarkably similar to Bill Pronzini's Scattershot (1981), which strung three, separate (impossible!) cases for the Nameless Detective in one of his most Hellish weeks at work.

At the Villa Rose (1910) A.E.W. Mason

A story clearly foreshadowing the Golden Age of Mysteries and The Great Detectives After Sherlock Holmes and his imitators, which was accompanied with the publication of G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown (1910), but Mason's contribution was casting a mold for a certain type of Great Detective. Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté reflects such famous sleuths as Hercule Poirot and Sir Henry Merrivale (or they reflect him), but the problem is certainly up-to-date for the time it was written in. All in all, a classic I should've read before 2013.

De Amsterdamse koffermoord (The Amsterdam Suitcase Murder, 1979) by Seicho Matsumoto

This is a collection of Dutch translations consisting of a single novelette and three additional short stories, but the main showpiece is the novella-length Amusuterudamu-unga satsuyin-jiken (The Amsterdam Canal Murder Case, 1969) and was originally published in the weekly Shukan Asahi. The plot was based on the premise of an actual, unsolved murder case and one that captured the eye of the press in both Europe and Japan. Read the review for more details.

Killer's Wedge (1959) by Ed McBain

A perfect introduction to Ed McBain and my first meeting with the illustrious 87th Precinct, in which the Squad Room suffers from a mild case of breach of security when Virginia Dodge barges in with a handgun and plants a bottle of nitroglycerine on a desk. Dodge demands to see Detective Steve Carella, but he's out on another case that stands in the stark contrast with the hostage situation at the precinct. Carella is looking into the death of a business tycoon at his family mansion, where he apparently hanged himself in a windowless room with the only door dead-bolted on the inside. You get a hostage, cat-and-mouse thriller and a classic locked room mystery for the price of one!

Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) by Sharon McCrumb

To quote myself from the original review, Bimbos of the Death Sun isn't an elaborate and complicated affair, however, everything came together in the end and made sense. More importantly, McCrumb turned a new leaf on the timeworn dénouement scene and the backdrop of a SF-and Fantasy convention made this a memorable read. The 1988 Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original was more than deserved, IMO.

The follow-up to this book, Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992), a very character-driven mystery novel about "The Dead Sea Scrolls of Science Fiction," shares this place with Bimbos of the Death Sun. Read them both in 2014, if you haven't done so already.

The Voice of the Corpse (1948) by Max Murray

The village shrew of Inching Round, Angela Mason Pewsey, passing the time with mentally torturing her neighbors, sending poison-pen letters and shrieking folk songs, receives her comeuppance when an unknown assailant strikes her down at the spinning wheel. Pewsey's black notebook is missing, but, to the bafflement of Mrs. Sim, the local police prefer to follow the obvious trail of a passing tramp or gypsy. The ending has an excellent, morally ambiguous twist and goes to show that not all village-themed mysteries are by definition cozies.

Dead Man's Gift (1941) by Zelda Popkin

An unconventional, but original, detective story drowning in conventional tropes and added as a counterweight to G.E. Locke's The Red Cavalier (1922) on my worst-of list, in that's a good example of how you could play with tradition – such as the closed-circle of suspects. Here we have the beneficiaries of distant relatives gathering at the house for the reading of eccentric will, but a freak flood cuts them off from the outside world and a murder is committed in a submerged staircase. However, the flood is not just a novel plot device here to keep the house party stranded and Popkin shows the sometimes dramatic effects the water has on local residents, but even more important, there's a genuine, clever twist at the end of the book.

Beyond the Grave (1986) by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller

There aren't many, genuinely well-written crossovers within the mystery genre. Licensing issues, splitting royalties and different modus operandi may've prevented more than one writer from pooling his character with the creation of a friend/colleague. Thankfully, these obstacles are mere trifles for the husband-and-wife writing team of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, who snatched enough opportunities to foster a friendship between their respective characters, but the best crossover piece they collaborated on covered a pair of sleuth a century apart – riding the waves of the aftershocks of an even older crime. For the true mystery fan, there's something touching about Elena Oliverez's longing to tell the then long-dead John Quincannon how the case ended. 

The Bughouse Affair (2013) by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller

The first in a new series of full-length mystery novels chronicling the daily caseload of John Quincannon and Sabine Carpenter, a couple of private investigators in San Francisco of the 1890s, in which Pronzini and Muller tie-together the story of two cases and three detectives into one conclusion. Sabina is following the cocktail route and torch lit bazaars on the trail of a high profile pickpocket, while Quincannon is on a stakeout for a burglar and bumps into peculiar character that claims to be Sherlock Holmes! Oh, and there's a murder in a locked room and the killer escaped from the house, under surveillance by Quincannon and Mr. Holmes, unseen.

Murdercon (1982) by Richard Purtill

There surfaced a handful of accidental patterns in my reading this year and these included stories set at SF/Fantasy or writers convention, discovering impossible crimes Robert Adey missed in his locked room autobiography and train-mysteries. Purtill ticked two of three boxes with a detective yarn unwinding at another one of those SF/Fantasy cons, where a surviving copy of a failed magazine, Kosmo Tales, from the 1930s becomes the motive for a couple of bizarre, seemingly impossible murders – one of them apparently committed by Darth Vader.

Cake in the Hat Box (1954) by Arthur W. Upfield

Upfield is one of those rare writers, alongside H.R.F. Keating and Rex Stout, who could write detective stories you can read and enjoy without being a mystery fan, because of the gripping storytelling or the engaging characters – making them stories about detectives rather than detective stories. In these books, it's the evocative depiction of the Australian landscape, which is perhaps the best-drawn character in the series, from the sun blasted Nullarbor Plain to draught stricken cattle ranges. Here Upfield describes Agar's Lagoon, another dried-up desert settlement, hemmed-in by a halo of glass bottles and where meteorites streak across the night sky, but the well-contrived plot explaining the shooting of Constable Stenhouse was the topping on the cake. 

Darkness at Pemberley (1932) by T.H. White

The author of the Arthurian fantasy, The Once and Future King (1958), once wrote a detective story and the first half, concerning a murder at St. Bernard's College, is a typical British, drawing room-style mystery – including maps, floor plans and an impossible crime! The second half is a dangerous cat-and-mouse game between the detective and murderer/master criminal, restricted to house, but presented here on the scale of the worldwide manhunt for Carmen Sandiego.


Murder in Retrospect: The Worst Mysteries Read in 2013

"You know, I'm glad this is over, but I feel like everyone is gonna wish they knew who was really last on the list."
- Kyle (South Park, The List) 
"I cannot live without brain-work"
There are up-and down sides to wading through piles of obscure, all-but-forgotten mystery novels, more often than not from writers whose headstone epitaphs are probably read by more people than their literary legacy, but, if you're interested in the history of the genre, it's stimulating to map the emergence of ideas and trends within the detective story. This is why I avoid non-fiction writing on the genre, because they tend to openly discuss solutions and I prefer to discover them on my own.

Anyhow, there are also the disadvantages, such as availability and the price tags, but the greatest one is finding out there was a pretty good reason why a particular book or author slipped from our collective consciousness. I do encounter them from time to time, but this is the first year I suffered through enough of them to compile a modest worst-of list to precede my annual best-of list.

Interestingly, five of the seven titles listed here were published during the twilight years/transitional period of the Golden Age and only two from the 1920-and 30s, but hey, I have always been up front about my predilection for the classics. So lets cast the first stone in alphabetical order of surnames!

The Cursing Stones Murder (1954) by George Bellairs

Arguably, one of the worst mysteries I have ever read and its only, vague claim to be called a detective is the subtitle the cover should have carried, The Cursing Stones Murder, Or, The Case for Book Burning, because everything of remote interest becomes a part of the passing and dreary scenery – as Inspector Littlejohn tramps up and down the Isle of Man. To rehash one of my remarks from the original review, it's like a Gladys Mitchell tale that got its soul ripped out of it.

The Purple Parrot (1937) by Clyde B. Clason

The best of the worst on this list and had to be put on here due to the plots resolution, which turned an intelligently written detective story into an ineffective parody of a shilling shocker. Clason is still one of my favorite mystery writers and he usually delivers, only to fall short in sight of the finish in this instance. Oh, well, you can't win them all.

Death Draws the Line (1949) by Jack Iams

A waste of a detective story with a nifty, unique gimmick surrounding a batch of missing comic strips and they're included in the book, but by the time you got to them, they tell the story you probably already deduced or guessed. The book is further marred by fuzzy, unclear plotting and incompetent police work.

Murder One (1948) by Eleazar Lipsky

The author of this piece was a lawyer and prosecutor himself, which gave the book its only redeeming quality: a keyhole in time for the reader to peek through and observe the machination behind the closed doors of a District Attorney's office in the late 1940s. However, the story's more-than-usual realism is hampered by the lack of even a ghost of a plot, psychological torture (a.k.a. "The Fourth Degree") and an under whelming conclusion after a pair of surprise witnesses were pulled from thin air.

The Red Cavalier (1922) by G.E. Locke

A gaudy collection of shopworn, but propitious, tropes such as a haunted castle and a mysterious murder in the past, however, Locke failed to apply as much as a lick of originality on even a single one of them – prettied up instead with colonial attitudes and casual racism. Even if you think your suffering is over, there's still a fifty-page counting explanation and surprise twist to look forward to. Yay...

Death of a Nurse (1955) by Ed McBain

Granted, not the worst book on the list, but I had to include it to be fair and I was severely disappointed after reading two excellent 87th Precinct novels previously – which Death of a Nurse was not a part of. It's a standalone set on a U.S. Navy destroyer as Lt. Chuck Masters becomes entangled with the death of the titular woman in the radar shack and poses as a traditional whodunit before disintegrating in the second half. Reading back my review, I see I was surprised at the breathtaking stupidity in how some of the characters approached and agitated the murderer, almost begging to be killed next, which makes me now suspect McBain writing it as a lark. Well, not every punch line hits home.

The Benevent Treasure (1954) by Patricia Wentworth

A tiresome story in the "Had-I-But-Known" tradition and in spite of a promising opening, evocative setting and more than enough plot threads to weave a carpet, they only bogged down the story as it processed – if you can speak of progression with a pace like that. It's books like these that give genuine talented HIBK writers like Dorothy Cameron Disney a bad name. I just want to blot the book from my mind. 

Note that the reviews of these books are poorly written, because a bad read usually translates itself in a shoddily written review. The reader has been warned. 


Fallen Idols

"Scene of the crime—well, what's wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere. As for the weapon—well, it might be a curiously twisted dagger—or some blunt instrument—a carved stone idol..."
- Captain Arthur Hastings (Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders, 1936)

Last month, I reviewed The Scarlet Macaw (1923) by Gladys E. Locke and the absence of as much as a profile page from the hive mind of the modern mystery reader, Golden Age of Detection Wiki, attests that your name on a book cover isn't always an inked guarantee of its immortality.

Locke's second, exasperatingly titled mystery, The Red Cavalier, Or, the Twin Turrets Mystery (1922), was reported as one of the better mysteries of the year, but, what struck the critics' fancy at the time, it sure as hell wasn't innovation. If you could spread out the plot material, of The Red Cavalier, like the content you'd likely find in a suitcase from the era, it would be as plain and familiar as a straight razor, a bank book and black-and-white photographs.

The backdrop is a castle in the country side of Yorkshire, dating back to the Wars of the Roses, which comes with a ghost garbed in the costume of the days of the Merry Monarch and the unresolved death of the previous owner, Sir Roger Grainer – stabbed in the library with a poison smeared, Hindu dagger. Sir Roger had stocks in the ruby mines in Burma and applied this wealth to fill Twin Turrets with a collection of Hindu curios and idols. Statues of foreign deities line the hallways and the neighborhood has recently been plagued with burglaries reputedly done by the spectral cavalier of the castle, wrestled free from the gibbet cage to plunder once again.

Twin Turrets can be regarded as a problem on the market and not a property that can be easily foisted on a proper, English lady. However, it's Miss Egerton who snatches the lease from under the noose of Prince Kassim Bardai and even matched the outrageous sum he was willing to pay for it. Miss Egerton wants the place for the summer to couple her nephew, Maxwell "Max" Egerton, but he has plans of his own and they involve another woman. And, somehow, Max is acquainted with Bardai, who never stopped pressuring his aunt to hand over the lease, but manages to secure an invitation for the prince.

Meanwhile, at Twin Turrets, statues of Eastern idols are toppled from their base in the dark of the night and a friend of the Egertons, Lord Reginald Borrowdean, watches how the events and cross-relationships culminates in another murder committed in the library – while a fancy dress party was in progress. On the surface, the motive of the murder appears to have been the possession of the Azra-El-Kab ruby, a ball of fiery red fire, which was stolen from the body and the red cavalier had been seen at the scene of the crime, but they also discovered a piece of spangled dress clasped in the hand of the victim. There's much to do about who locked and unlocked the library door, and when, and who was possession of a spare key, but there's hardly any ingenuity about it and painfully lays bare how overwritten the story and outdrawn the plot are. The chapters covering the inquest and the explanation seemed to never come to an end. I still feel like I haven't quite got there yet.

The Red Cavalier didn't profit elsewhere, either, because the setting with its homegrown legend furbishes the story with the same amount of ghostly, suspenseful atmosphere as a science lecture hall and Locke also failed to capitalize in the characters department. There was an interesting contrast between the English and East Indian characters, and their views on their inter/national "ties," but it never went beyond mere racism. Locke might as well have gone all the way and called the book Dark Are the Moors. It fits the setting, color-theme titles and, you know, the racism. 

By the time (well into the story) Borrowdean calls in a private detective from London, a "young woman professionally known as Mercedes Quero" who build herself a "reputation as a solver of unsolvable mysteries," it's too late to safe the book. Quero showing-off her cleverness and dexterity with a tiny pocket revolver falls horribly flat and the overdrawn explanation, euphemistically entitled "Gathering Up the Thread," didn't do much help either. Nor did surprise twist. Long story short, the premise was better than the end product. 

Well, that could've been a great post, if you could measure greatness in a hack review by hack reviewing an extremely hacky mystery novel. Anyhow, I hope to be back after Christmas with a more jolly review and I'll probably be returning to more regularly to some modern mystery writers. Any locked room mysteries? Well, that's a possibility. Sure, sure. Let's wait and see. And in meantime, I hope you have a merry what-ever-it's you happen to be celebrating around this time of the year. 


True Crime: A Journey Back in Time

"Men are foolish, are they not, Mademoiselle? To eat, to drink, to breathe the good air, it is a very pleasant thing, Mademoiselle. One is foolish to leave all that simply because one has no money — or because the heart aches. L’amour, it causes many fatalities, does it not?"
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928)
On New Year's Eve, 1921, a steam locomotive pulling an express train makes a stopover at Amsterdam Central Station and Mr. Jacques Wijsman, a promising young lawyer celebrating his thirty-second birthday and on his way to mark the turn of the year with his parents, boards the train – occupying a warm, first-class compartment. An hour later, they arrive at station Hollands Spoor, Den Haag (The Hague), where a female passenger makes a gruesome discovery. Mr. Wijsman lies on the floor of the compartment, partially covered with his overcoat, shot three times in the elbow, shoulder and chest.

J. Wijsman
This is not a sketchy premise of yet another obscure, untranslated detective story set aboard a train, but the curtain-raiser in an illustrious murder case I first read about in A.C.Baantjer's true-crime book Doden spreken niet: veertig onopgeloste moorden (The Dead Don't Speak: Forty Unsolved Murders, 1966). There are aspects to Mr. Wijsman's murder, professional and personal, which I can only describe as food for mystery writers and even gave raise to a bone-fide conspiracy theory. Yes, I have a possible solution tucked away at the ending. It's classic.

Let's take the known facts from the beginning: detectives found three, copper shell casings on the floor of the compartment and discovered the murderer had taken Wijsman's jacket (holding his personal documents and other papers). Curiously, a wallet containing 10 guilders was left on the body. 

Another, online source I consulted, described the police-investigation as hilarious fumbling and this evident when only a subsequent look at the moordcoupé reveals a crumpled up, paper bag from a sandwich store in Amsterdam – which still had one shrimp left in it. Granted, the station master had removed the body and sealed the compartment, which had badly affected the evidence, but it's still sloppy police work the bag didn't turn up during the first sweep of the crime scene. The police departments of Amsterdam and Den Haag were (from the given reports) everything but cooperative in their search for the unknown man who shared the compartment with Wijsman and nurse Greetje de Boer. Interestingly, De Boer was shown photographs and she made a positive identification, but the man was able to produce a satisfying alibi. Days after the murder, the police were inundated with tips from physic mediums, crackpots and people who may've thought they witnessed something of importance. But the point is that they had to be checked and basically amounted to chasing phantasms or passengers who were seen running to catch their last train home on the evening of the murder.

The Dead Don't Speak (1966)
What caused the turmoil surrounding the murder (all the way up to the 1930s), and led to questions being asked in parliament, wasn’t all on the bungling of the police, but the rampant rumors surrounding Wijsman’s private life – who was gay in a time when being gay condemned you to a double-life. Wijsman was linked with actor Gerard Vrolijk, who was known for keeping a house filled with unwed men and the papers buzzed with rumors of directions from above to sweep this embarrassing case under the carpet. 

However, as interesting an angle as Wijsman's private-life may've been to the press and their readers at the time, I would've personally followed a different trail from his professional life and it's according to one of the elementary rules of police work – follow the money. There were unconfirmed rumors of Wijsman possessing documents about the Renate Leonhardt, a German ship torpedoed in 1917 by the British after sailing from Rotterdam to Hamburg and became a lore of the sea as a goudwrak (gold wreck) on account of its cargo, 55 million guilders in gold, but there were questions asked how the British knew how and when to strike (they barely left the harbor). Was there even gold aboard the ship? And were the British in on the scheme and tied up the loose ends by sinking the evidence to the bottom of the sea? It's basically on conspiracy on top of another conspiracy. 

Well, I'm not going to drag an international conspiracy from The Great War into my version of the crime, but the fact remains that personal documents were taken from the body. A theft of papers doesn't fit the modus operandi of an enraged lover following Wijsman around on New Year's Eve, undoubtedly fingering the loaded firearm in the pocket of his winter coat, waiting for the moment to strike. Even if you assume the documents were love-letters and dangerous to the murderer's social status (and assume Wijsman carried them on his person), you also have to ask yourself why he took the risk of shooting Wijsman when they were both stuck on a moving train. It would've been safer and easier to get away, if he had struck when Wijsman got off the train and was on his way to his parent's home.

I think there was a work-related affair at the back of the shooting and someone hired an amateur to the job of a professional, which I base on two (admittedly meager) clues, but the circumstances of the crime weren't given in details. For example, I have no idea what the distance was between the murderer and Wijsman when the shots were fired, but I know Wijsman was sitting in a corner seat by the window in the first carriage of the train – practically with his back against the proverbial wall. I don't presume they were at opposite sites of the carriage when the shots were fired, and yet, the bullet wounds weren't grouped closely together. Two of the three bullets struck the shoulder and elbow, and only the third found the heart. I assume that someone who’s used to handling firearms would shoot with more precision, even inside a hunk of metal in motion, which is my other point and the most baffling aspect of the case...

The fatal shooting occurred in the first-class compartment of a moving train and the wounds of the body could suggest a murderer not entirely comfortable with handling pistols, but still did the job akin to Michael Corleone strolling into a restaurant and shooting Captain McCluskey in the throat. Murder under any circumstances would make a man nervous, let alone on an express train without an escape, but that's the cold and deliberate part of the killing. The murderer must have felt comfortable to premeditatedly fire three shots in a train carriage that's still on the run.

I know this sounds trite and hacky, but I would've closely investigated the complaisant witkiel (railway porter), who gallantly held open the door to the lady discovering the body (at least as a witness if he didn't hop the ride) and the conductor of the train as the main suspect. Wijsman had apparently a good relationship with his parents, who didn't hear about the death of their son until the following morning, after asking at the station if any accidents had happened, and it's safe to assume he made the journey before. You can safely assume people knew he was going to spend the last hours of his birthday and the old year with his parents (or guessed it), which gives our secret adversary an opportunity to snatch the documents from Wijsman at a vulnerable moment of presumed safety... this/these person(s) only have to grease a poor conductor's palm with some silver, supply him with a gun and instructions. 

A conductor can pass through a train unnoticed and talk with passengers without raising suspicions. The train is not moving prison to a conductor, but a familiar surrounding in which he naturally belongs. People hardly even notice them.

Oh, the sandwiches bag with the shrimp. It's probably nothing and left there by the mysterious, but innocent, traveler, however, if you insist on a clever explanation. Do you really think the police found shell casings and missed a wad of paper? The compartment was stored at the railways and it's not unthinkable the murderer, who probably read detective stories at moments of leisurely at a station house, planted it afterwards as an act of bravado to baffle the police (he could have had access). After all, the police would be asking the sandwich shop to describe the people who bought their shrimps before the murder and not after.

Now if I can be so rude to ask one of you to play the Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes and marvel at my stellar deductions.


The Wastelands of Heaven

"Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price."
- Emelia Earhart 
After my previous post embroiled deliberately on the recurrent image of railway mysteries, I intended to follow the theme. A plan as simple as it's perfect, if it were not for the fact that you can't always shape an accidental pattern further and that are perhaps too many words to say I forgot to check if there were any unread, train-bound detective stories on the big pile – which was not the case and didn't feel like re-reading any of the classic examples. The substitute book I picked was meant as a compromise, but the story turned out the be a pleasant surprise!

The "Moth" Murder (1931) is the first of two mystery novels by Lynton Blow, one more name for the list of writers who are conspicuous by their absence on the GADWiki, and the sole case for Inspector Hunt, from Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard, burdened with finding Sir Charles Stafford's killer – an aviation hero of the modern era.

One year before, Stafford had made a daring double crossing of the Atlantic in a light aero-plane, which raised Britain's prestige in a time when air supremacy was seen as the key to victory in future conflicts, but a coastguard in Bournemouth Bay is the lonely witness of Stafford's burning machine crashing down from the sky. Immediately, Hunt is confronted with the first of many problems: there's only one body retrieved from the burned out wreckage of the plane. Stafford's body is badly burned, but there weren't any remains found of his female passenger, Mrs. Evans. Even more puzzling is that Mrs. Evans husband, Dennis, who was flying solo, also appears to have dropped off the map – alongside with his airplane. However, the proverbial bombshell goes off during the inquest when the police surgeon reveals Stafford was shot in the back of the head before he crashed!

Meanwhile, down on the ground, Hunt is summoned to a ditch in Redstock Lane where a local cowman found the body of Constable James, also shot through the head, which is one of many complications resulting in some genuine (and fun) detective-and think work. The bits of theorizing, especially the part on what must've happened in the air, were engrossing on account of the multitude of methods you could use a two-seater, light airplane in a murder or body dump and I know of one mystery writer who reworked one of these rejected premises in a full-length detective novel – of course, I'm not going to spoil anything. Blow jam-packed the plot with twists and turns, seemingly complicating the case with every step Hunt takes forward, with Stafford's heir disappearing from the scene almost as fast as he appeared, a suitcase full of money, a dead tramp (Curt is OK) and a gang of dope peddlers hanging around in the background. Not to mention unsnarling a knot of footprints and tire tracks. There are even allusions to the problem of a single set of footprints and the disappearance of a car from a locked garage, but they didn't materialize into actual impossible crimes of the Carrian kind (ah boo!).

The "Moth" Murder weaves a fine, complex mesh from multiple plot threads and Blow understands these kind of plots work best when they play out according to Murphy's Law, instead of allowing the murderer smooth sailing on the winds of good luck like a demigod, but what holds the book back is that there's a very dated trick at the heart of the plot. This makes the solution as plain as day to any seasoned mystery reader. And that's somewhat funny, because it's a trick I used to fall for all the time. Once, I fell for it twice, back-to-back, while reading the same author! That's how easily fooled I was and every time I was just as surprised as the time before that I had fallen for it. Who knew mystery writers could lie through the teeth by stating factual truths. 

Finally, there's a shimmer of continuation on the railway theme as one of the characters crashes with a car into a London-bound express train, but hardly enough to tag it as such. Still nice to see it popping-up though!

Steve from the MysteryFile website/blog has more on Lynton Blow's second novel, The Bournewick Murders (1935), and link to read The "Moth" Murder yourselves, if this review has piqued your interest.