Lifting a Tip of the Veil: Jonathan Creek vs. "Sherlock Holmes"

"All will be revealed in due course."
- People who plot and scheme

Jonathan Creek (Alan Davies) with Joey Ross (Sheridan Smith)

While the BBC hasn't released any official air dates or synopses for the upcoming Jonathan Creek episodes, Radio Times announces yet another incarnation of the immortal Sherlock Holmes as an enticing plot-thread and rival detective for Creek in the opener of the fifth season.

In a third season episode, Miracle in Crooked Lane (1999), Jonathan Creek's investigation of a possible case of astral projection is hampered by a growing legion of fans, who follow him around like a flock of mimicking lovebirds. This new character, Ridley, is studying criminology and also admirers Creek as a detective, however, Ridley takes his cue from another, even more famous sleuth.

Ridley wears "a black coat, has a thick crop of dark hair and an eye for observing details" and the actor playing the part, Kieran Hodgson, studied Benedict Cumberbatch's recent interpretation of Sherlock for inspiration. Unfortunately, for the fans of Holmes' modern day reinvention, series-creator David Renwick reportedly wrote the episode as a spoof. I suspect from the article Ridley will be somewhere along the lines of the oddball Sherlock from Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller's The Bughouse Affair (2013), which also happens to be a locked room mystery. Radio Times further reports Jonathan Creek is due to air on BBC1 in February.

Well, to pad out this notification, and in anticipation of the upcoming season, I'll post a short list of my favorite episodes as an excuse to babble about impossible crimes. Also known as the part where you can stop reading without the fear of missing anything of importance. 

Jack in the Box (1997)

The standout episode of the first season with an original, satisfying answer for the problem of the retired comedian found dead in the disused nuclear shelter, heavy door locked from the inside, underneath his home. Creek reasons the truth from a toilet basin and a light bulb. 

Danse Macabre (1998)

A well-known and controversial author of sensational horror stories is shot dead on All Hollows' Eve, and her murderer was dressed for the part, clad in a tight skeleton suit, but during the escape from the house the shooter kidnaps the daughter of the victim and they're eventually trapped in the garage. The place is surrounded, but when the door is opened the shooter has disappeared from a locked, windowless room that was constantly guarded. Even if the police should've solved this one immediately, it's still a good trick and overall a very good episode.

Time Waits for Norman (1998)

Read my full review of this episode here

Black Canary (1998) 

A once famous illusionist, known as the "Black Canary," apparently took her own life after chasing away a limping man dressed in rags from the snow covered garden, which was witnessed by her wheelchair-bound husband, but a post-mortem reveals his wife died hours before her committing suicide. The man in rags he saw limping away from his wife must have been lighter than air, because the blanket of snow was bare of any footprints! I still think this the series' masterpiece. 

Satan's Chimney (2001) 

The seemingly impossible murder of an actress during a movie shoot, struck by a bullet fired through a window without breaking the glass, leads Jonathan Creek to an ancient castle with a room where the devil consumed the souls blasphemers. I did not think much of the first plot-thread, but the miraculous disappearance from the dungeon room and the whodunit-aspect were very well put together.

The Tailor's Dummy (2003) 

A truly great episode from the last, regular season until the irregular, seasonal specials took over and begins when a bad review leads a designer to commit suicide, which sets a delightfully piece of a Carrian revenge in motion – in which a man changes his physical appearance in matter of seconds.

Well, I hope to be back before long with a regular review, but a few orders began to arrive around the same time (I was behind on a few series) and now I’m going through something of an existential crisis. I'll sort it out though.


I Want to Play a Game

"Dear reader, you now have all the clues you need."
- Ellery Queen (a challenge to the reader)

How Good a Detective Are You? (1934) is a compilation of one-page detective stories, numbering sixty in total, challenging the reader to figure out how Professor Fordney logically reached his conclusions and were gathered in a slim volume by H.A. Ripley – described in the introduction as "that genial compounder of criminal prescriptions." The solution to each story is printed, upside down, on the backside of the page.

H.A. Ripley is presented as "a police enforcing officer of the most crime ridden city in America" and collaborated with Professor Fordney across the globe on headline making cases and condensed the most interesting ones in "the world’s shortest detective problems." In reality, Austin Ripley was a mystery writer with a national syndicated newspaper column, Minute Mysteries, in which readers were challenged to Solve-It-Yourself and founded the Guest House

Professor Fordney, I suspect, is completely fictional, but Fordney and Ripley still agree on one thing, "crime is simple!"

However, not every singe one of these Quick Draw mysteries deal with criminals and a handful of stories, simply titled "Class Day," has Fordney chucking mathematical riddles at his criminology students. These stories stand close to Ellery Queen's Puzzle Club from Queen's Experiments in Detection (1968) and The Tragedy of Errors (1999), but they weren't my favorites and one of them cheated, because there wasn't an answer for the question posed.

There were also non-criminal problems taking place outside of the classroom and one of my favorites is "A Fisherman’s Tale," in which the reader has to catch the professor in a lie about having had breakfast with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and observe him signing his first official document. "An Old Spanish Custom" was undoubtedly the best and cleverest of the lot and tells of double-cross in the throne room of the Spanish Monarch, who gave a commoner a change at winning the hand of the royal princess – in a completely rigged game! If there's one entry from this collection worthy of being saved and anthologized, it's "An Old Spanish Custom" on account of being an excellent example of the quick-witted underdog overcoming a seemingly insurmountable odd thrown in his way by a powerful adversary. I would file this short-short story away as an unwitting ancestor of Bertus Aafjes' Judge Ooka stories.

The remainder of the puzzles deal with a variety of crimes, from clumsily disguised "suicides" and mob hits to thefts and embezzlement, but solving the matter can be as simple, or frustrating, as spotting a discrepancy in someone's statement or a flaw in the set-up of the crime – which can hinge on very obscure, minute details or (outdated) trivia about cheap clocks. You're not always asked the Who, How-and Why question, but how Fordney it was murder or saw through a lie. Plot-wise, these stories can be compared to the puzzles examined by the Black Widowers from Isaac Asimov's work, but with a body count as opposed to the gentler, common day mysteries the dinner club tries to solve.

Nevertheless, there were a few stories of moderate interest and they came in pairs. "The Clown Dies" and "Murder Behind the Big Top" investigate, firstly, the apparent suicide by shooting of Pipo in his circus tent and the latter the strangling/stabbing of Fofo – both better than average stories for this volume. I think the set-up of both puzzles would've made a great starting premise for a mystery novel. Something along the lines of, oh, I don't know, The Last Laugh by H.A. Ripley... (ah boo!). "Murder on Board" and "Murder During a Storm" are short, simple, but nicely done, shipboard mysteries, in which the professor notices how facts and statements given to him don’t match up. In "At the Cross Road," a taxi-driver finds his passenger with a knife sticking out of him in the backseat of his car, however, they hadn't stopped driving until they reached their destination and their was no way for anyone to enter the taxi while being driven. It's an impossible crime! Unfortunately, the solution kind-of robs it of that label and the same goes for "Fordney Climbs for a Clew," in which a man is poisoned in a locked room, but, again, it's not really a locked room mystery at all.

Finally, "Fordney Investigates a Fire" deserves a special mention for its keen and original solution for an insurance fraud by a manufacturing company, and I predict "Murder at the Cotton Mill" will probably be excluded from any possible future reprints until the full text is released into the public domain.  

So, altogether, not that bad of a collection of brainteasers, but you probably shouldn't read them in one (very short) sitting like I did. Turning the book upside down to read the solution also becomes tiring after the first ten or so stories.


A Penny for Your Thoughts

"It is an historical fact. Sharing has never been humanity's defining attribute."
- Professor Charles Xavier (X2: X-Men United, 2003).  
I first learned of Timothy Zahn's "Red Thoughts at Morning" in a web article titled Locked Room Mysteries and Other Improbable Crimes on Steve Lewis' now torpid Mystery File Online, which preceded the (current) blog of the same name, compiling eight columns of stories not catalogued by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991) – praising Zahn's hybrid concoction for its fair play and working as "a mystery as well as a better than average science fiction story."

There was a straightforward reason for seeking out this particular, futuristic tale of the impossible, beside the compelling premise and promise of a fairly constructed plot. The brief synopsis and commentary put a possible solution in my head and simply wanted to see if I was correct. Hey, it wouldn’t be the first time I solved a locked room story by merely reading a description or the back cover of a book! I found there were two sources available for "Red Thoughts at Morning," the original publication in a 1981 Analog Science Fact/Fiction magazine and the collection Distant Friends and Others (1992), but a cheap copy of Analog was also easily available.

Amos Potter of Euraka, California, was a renowned telepath who'd won his small community tolerance from a world eyeing them with suspicion, because telepaths can't help in this universe reading the thoughts of people in close proximity of them. The death of Amos Potter therefore comes as a shock to telepaths such as Dale Ravenhall, who read in the newspaper the commuter plane Amos was on got hijacked and instructed to fly to Cuba. They were overrun during a stopover in Las Vegas to refuel, but the body of the telepath was discovered in the unlocked lavatory of the plane – stabbed in the chest with one of the galley's steak knives. Dale is currently a witness in a robbery case and the court is debating over whether or not his testimony as a telepath could be admitted as evidence, which shows the hassle and abuse telepaths still have to go through. In a way, the world of the Distant Friends reflects the Marvel universe (if every mutant was a telepath) and Amos even invented a telepath-finder. But it's during the next day in court that Dale asks himself the one-million dollar question: "how the hell do you unexpectedly stab a telepath?" 

The rules of Zahn's Distant Friends universe on telepaths state that they can't come into close contact with each other with disastrous effects and Dale constantly communicates with his Distant Friends by telepathy, but ordinary humans are unable to shield their thoughts and intentions from a telepath – leaving open the question why Amos didn’t lock himself in. It's an impossible crime witin a reverse locked room mystery! Zahn's explanation adheres to these rules, however, it grounds the story firmly in SF/Fantasy territory and it's the complete opposite of the solution I had in mind. My solution would depend on the murdered telepath to have an assistant, because I suspected having such kind of powers would be a hassle on account of the skyjacked airplane. I envisioned the assistant (or maybe a wife) was the actual telepath, but resented the public perception and created a public avatar. The telepath receded in the background as the "assistant" and worked the public "telepath" as a puppet through telepathy, but the "assistant" panicked when they came after the "telepath" and killed him to keep everyone from finding out. Little did he know the matter would be resolved in Las Vegas. Anyhow, that's how I would've played it.

But wait, I have one more short story to review!

The English humorist and playwright P.G. Wodehouse, of Jeeves and Wooster fame, has a single locked room mystery to his credit, "The Education of Detective Oakes," published in Pearson's Magazine, December 1914 and as "Death at the Excelsior" in The Uncollected Wodehouse (1976) – rounded out by an abbreviated version set in the United States in the 1976 Argosy Special Commemorative Issue under the title "The Harmonica Mystery."

Mr. Paul Snyder of a reputable detective agency in New Oxford Street has a peculiar case on his desk: Captain Gunner was found dead in his room in a Southampton waterfront boarding-house of snake poison, however, the door was locked and the open, but bared, window too high to offer an escape for a snake. The search for the tricky serpent is as fruitless as the one for a tangible motive and the problem is deemed insoluble. Snyder sees the case as a perfect lesson in patience and humiliaty for Elliot Oakes, who recently joined the staff and has been far too conceited and self-absorbed with his own skills for his liking. Needless to say, I rather liked Oakes.

The plan to lower Oakes' self-esteem appears to work, at first, until Snyder receives a telegram announcing the case has been solved and the young detective delivers a solution from the Poe-Doyle School of Impossible Crimes. Unfortunately, for Oakes, a rival detective appears: the proprietress of the Excelsior-boardinghouse, Mrs. Pickett, who impressed Oakes as "having very little intelligence." Mrs. Pickett basically plays the Mr. Chitterwick to Oakes' Roger Sheringham (c.f. The Poisoned Chocolates Case, 1929) and I can imagine Wodehouse gave Anthony Berkeley an idea or two with this story. However, in defense of Oakes, it's not much of a victory if the actual solution is even more preposterous than the false one.

All in all, still a fun read and I finally know where this rather silly idea for an impossible poisoning came from.


Beware the Red Herring!

"So, Morse, must the evil that men do live on after them?"
- Mrs. Radford (Inspector Morse, The Sins of the Father, 1990) 
George Michaelmore is a well-preserved, middle aged widower of independent means with four adult children in their twenties, whom he provided for with their own apartments in the family's ancestral home christened "Sunbay." However, the Michaelmore household is in for an overhaul following a letter from their father announcing his intensions to marry a woman, named Adelaide, he met abroad and intends to bring her home in a fortnight.

Thus begins Herbert Adams' The Judas Kiss (1955) and as the publication date indicates, Adams penned the story during the twilight years of the Golden Era. A transitional period in which the focus shifted from plot-and idea driven narratives to in-depth characterization and social commentary. You can find traces of these changes in the attitudes and opinions of some of the characters, but The Judas Kiss remains foremost a detective story – and one that's surprisingly domestic in nature.

The first half basically consists of two different quarters: the introduction of Adelaide into the Michaelmore family and the unraveling cumulating in murder. Adelaide talks with George's two sons and daughters. Garnet entered the church and tries to revive the local community, often with the gleam of the zealot in his eyes. Jasper is the artistic soul of the family and uses his apartment as a studio. He also flirts with his stepmother. Emerald is a wishful writer currently working on a serious novel with Victor Gore-Black, but is their relationship purely professional? Pearl is the babe of the lot and the confident of her siblings. The source from which all of their problems spring are ideas and morals that in Britain of 1955, a full decade before Roy Jenkins eased divorce laws and whatnot, could be experienced as an assault on the institution of marriage. Granted, some of the things are still considered a no-no, but there was definitely a break with the idea that a marriage begins with secret kisses in the apple orchard and ends with sharing a plot of land in the church graveyard.

Interestingly, there's another break with tradition going contrary to what's happening at Sunbay, but to be honest, in the wake of Dorothy L. Sayers and Ngiao Marsh, it's more of a continuation than a break – except that a male mystery writer does it. Adams' series-detective, now retired Major Bennion, has taken temporary possession of the house next door to enjoy a holiday with his wife Ruth and their baby. The brief intrusions on the Bennions are cozy, domestic snapshots of what I imagine people thought of as the Good Life in this period after World War II and the Cold War warming up. So, yes, detectives have a private life, but I'm still grateful John Dickson Carr spared us a homely bedroom moment between Dr. Gideon Fell and his wife in Hag's Nook (1933). That's a genuinely, disturbing mental image. I should also note here (before continuing the review) the apparent physical-and mental fitness of the characters, because they're constantly playing golf, tennis, chess or reading detective stories.

Anyhow, the nice, quiet domicile of the Michaelmores is uprooted when a car fatally strikes down George and the reading of the will lays bare hurt pride and greed within the family. It also pits Adelaide against George's children and there's a clever bit about wording of the will, but where The Judas Kiss distinguishes itself is the red herring apparently designed to fool the self-absorbed, armchair Philo Vance's who fancy themselves the stuff of geniuses – because they've read far too many detective stories than is good for them. I can't even claim I was properly fooled by deducing the wrong murderer. After a while, I was back at jabbing a finger at my first suspect (a corpse) and shouting, "you did it... I just know you did!"

How did Adams pull this off, you ask? There's a confrontation between Adelaide and the Michaelmore children, which leads the former to go into partial exile at the local inn and that's where someone manages to poison her behind the locked doors and shuttered windows of her bedroom. The police are unable to find a trace of poison in the room or how the murderer was able to administrator the poison, but Bennion solves the locked room angle almost immediately and this is the part where the seasoned mystery reader has to tread carefully. Trust me. A dead man through space-and time manipulated me by going that route. I won't go into precise details, but you've been warned.

Unfortunately, the cleverly deposited red herring was better than the actual and much more mundane solution, which was under whelming, but the worst part was that it gives ammunition to the people who say whodunits are only about restoring order. Well, The Judas Kiss did exactly that and more: all of the "rotten" branches of the Michaelmore family were cut-off and the bad intrusions rooted out. The ones who were left behind have a married life to look forward to and all was well with the world. That part felt as a definite cop-out on Adams' part. C'mon, Adams, it was 1955! We could've handled a bleak ending with one snake left in George's old love nest. 

Anyhow, The Judas Kiss is a fun and quite an interesting read in spite of the weak, but cheerful, ending and loved slipping so foolishly over the red herring Adams expertly placed along the trail.

Finally, another word of warning for the reader, there's an amusing bit towards the end about a stolen plot of a detective novel and a character who reads the ending of a mystery before reading the entire story, because he wants to know as much as Sherlock Holmes does when he begins reading (fair enough). However, I fear this portion of the story could've revealed the method for the impossible poisoning from Carolyn Wells' Raspberry Jam (1919-20), which I still intend to read after positive comments from Curt Evans and Mike Grost. How do I know without having read the book myself, you ask (again). Well, if it's true, than Adams was less than subtle about it. 

I have previously reviewed Herbert Adams' The Writing on the Wall (1946).


The Silent Language

"Man's brain, enlarged fortuitously, invented words in an ambitious attempt to learn how to think, only to have them usurped by his emotions. But we still try."
- Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout's Death of a Dude, 1969) 
Previously on this blog, I practically eulogized H. Edward Hunsburger's "Eternally Yours," a short story plucked from the pages of a 1980s edition of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine for Mike Ashley's The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006), as a flawless gem of a detective story. I stand by my opinion, but that's beside the point. The introduction to Hunsburger's sole short mystery story noted the author was probably best known for the novel Death Signs (1987), adapted for the TV series Hunter in 1988, in which a deaf man leaves a dying message in sign language – and that'll be today’s review.

Mattie Shayne is a Minneapolis schoolteacher working with deaf children and part-times as an interpreter at a Medical Center, which is the reason why she finds Police Lieutenant Ryder on her doorstep: a deaf man with stab wounds has been brought into the emergency room and he needs Mattie to get a statement from the man before he passes away. Unfortunately, for the police, Noah Kendrick's "last words" make as much sense as M.C. Escher's sketchbook, "house burned down... no iron man there," but their collaboration doesn't end there.

There were, naturally, deaf acquaintances of the victim and even his much younger widow, Ariana, can't make a statement to Lt. Ryder without Mattie translating the hand gestures and words. After the dark opening of Death Sign, Mattie and Ariana slip in the routine of the bantering, mystery solving couples from the 1940s and throw around allusions to Ellery Queen and Columbo – whose described as "an abused archery target in his disreputable trench coat." However, Mattie also acts a guide for Ryder (who represents the reader) in the deaf community and touches slightly upon their history.

Mattie and Ryder peddle between suspects and witnesses as they uncover Ariana's hidden motives for doing away with her husband, and her possible relationship with the barrel-chested neighbor, Paul Linstrum – who competed in an Iron Man (triathlon) competition. Ariana left another (deaf) man to marry the much richer Kendrick and may harbor a grudge against them. They also hear Kendrick's only friend, Todd Meredith, a deaf art gallery owner, Neil Travers, an artist sponsored by the gallery, and the victim's snooty business partner, Sam Cole.

All in all, a splendid pool of suspects of draw from and Hunsburger places just enough clues to keep it a fair-play mystery, but it does not radiate with the same intensity as the short story mentioned at the beginning of this post. However, Death Signs is still a well written, fast read, that kept my interest with a good enough plot placed against an unfamiliar backdrop. And there aren't that many mystery novels (besides EQ) with a (good) Dying Message as the main plot-device of a story. David Alexander's Murder Points a Finger (1953) is the only example I can think of from the top of my head. Perhaps I should’ve tackled Colin Dexter's The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn (1977) as comparison material before taking on this one. Anyhow, not a perfect mystery, but I enjoyed it.

Lamentably, I have to end this review on a sad note. I was roaming the internet for more on Hunsburger when I learned of his passing on November 28, 2011, after receiving care in an IC-Unit for a head injury, but the unsettling part came when I searched further. I can't claim these two reports are accurate (which you read here and here), but they claim the fatal injuries were sustained during a mugging! However, if these reports are true than the perpetrator(s) deserve the kind of justice only a lethal cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone can provide.  

Tied Together: Two Impossible Crime Stories

"Magic is an art form where you lie and tell people you are lying."
- Teller (from Penn & Teller
"A man vanishes at the top of the Indian rope trick and is found dead miles away" and "a dead man continues to receive mail in response to letters apparently written by him after he'd died" are two of the stories teased on the back cover of The Mammoth Book of Perfect Crimes and Impossible Mysteries (2006) – edited by anthologist Mike Ashley.

Six years previously, Ashley compiled The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes (2000) and both collections are distinguished from past anthologies by the balance between rarely reprinted locked room stories and brand new content. Of course, there's a flipside to every success story. The quality of the content is prone to fluctuation and can go from radiating brilliance, and crackling with novel ideas, to absolute schlock pumped from the sewers of some shoddy, forgotten pulp archive or private collection. Ashley's second collection of impossible crimes has the dubious honor of containing one of my favorite and most hated locked room mystery stories of all time. Lets begin with the latter.

John Basye Price's "Death and the Rope Trick" was buried in a 1954 issue of the London Mystery Magazine and hadn't been reprinted before, which can have a legitimate reason behind it – quality wise. Even after re-reading the story, I still feel Ashley should've been in the docks for desecrating a gravesite. He actually called it (and I quote), "a particularly cunning example." Oh, the story starts out promising enough, alright, but the solution does more than merely strain the readers credulity... it then strangles reality with it. It's as if Price took the premise of a rejected Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner cartoon and used it as a template for a detective story.

The legendary Indian Rope Trick is at the heart of the story and begins when the narrator, Jimmy, accompanies his uncle, Mr. Edward Dobbs, Chairman of Western University's Board of Trustees, to Central America to witness the famous trick in person. A certain Mr. Weldon, a student of the paranormal, has left the university two million dollars under condition a fund of half a million dollars. The money is a reward for the person who can perform the magic rope trick under scientific test conditions and there by demonstrate the genuineness of psychic phenomena, because even Harry Houdini never attempted it. That's the logic behind the challenge. I guess. But the presentation of the trick isn't even consistent with the terms of the will or the fund.

Dr. Clive Marlin is a self-styled student of the occult and has claimed the $500,000 reward, but hams up his performance at a steady pace from the start with not a word of protest from the trustee or his nephew. The poring of the concrete and signing their names in it is an interesting hindrance to eliminate one possible way of cheating (until you read the explanation), but there are also curtains placed around the plateau. Guess who aren't allowed in for the first part of the performance? It's an out and out magic show with suspicious movement in and out of the curtained enclosure, which leads up to an incredibly convoluted and ridiculous dénouement – going contrary to statements made by Jim and his own photographic evidence. I refuse to believe they were fooled by what they saw or that the truth wouldn't have come to light after the photographs were developed.   

But, first, Dobbs and Jimmy witness the rope snaking up from the curtain and rising into the air and a young, skinny boy, named Ali, climbs up the rope, while the curtains below burst into flames and only a tight budget (he hadn't quite earned that check yet) prevented a full fire work display. You have to admire the integrity of the trustees to not allow the Scientific Method to intrude on the privacy of the Man Behind the Curtain. Anyhow, Marlin proceeds to whip out a pistol and shoot the boy, but the only thing dropping from the sky is the white loincloth Ali was wearing. He appears to have burst like a soap bubble. Statements and (photographic) evidence makes you reject the obvious answer. Not that it would've helped you solve the crackpot method of the Rope Trick or how the body of Ali was found miles away from the performance area. However, I think Marlin still qualifies for the half million dollars for showcasing a supernatural ability in how every inane step of the performance worked like a well-rehearsed dance routine. Looking back, it's like a minimalist and slightly surrealistic circus act performed for a very, very small audience. I didn't like the story, is what I'm trying to say.  

Nevertheless, the editor was able to redeem himself with the inclusion of H. Edward Hunsburger's "Eternally Yours," culled from the pages of 1985 edition of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, which I think is close to perfection in terms of a short detective story – and re-reading has only cemented my first impression of the story. Remembering the solution, I was surprised how liberal Hunsburger was in sowing clues and dangling the truth in front of the reader. It should be required reading for aspiring mystery writers in how to clue a detective story.

Jeff Winsor is hardcover artist for mystery novels and narrator of "Eternally Yours," who doesn't believe in ghosts nearly as much as he believes in the scarcity of good apartments in New York City, but his new abode in Gramercy Park is beginning to look haunted. The previous tenant, Admiral Miles Perry, died behind the locked doors of the apartment after slipping on a rug, but is keeping up a chess-by-mail correspondence with a friend – signed "fraternally yours, Charles." It gets unnerving when the postcards begin to contain references to events after Penny passed away. Two impossibilities for the price of one!

Karen Hunter, the lady in Winsor's life, is convinced there's a murderer somewhere, because "people are always getting murdered behind locked doors in mysteries," and Penny's ghost wants Jeff to find his killer. Recognizing an inescapable quest for the truth, Winsor begins to question the doorman, Tom Banks. Lew Drayton, the local postman and considered for mail carrier of the year. Tana Devin, the star of the soap opera Maneuvers from 3B and Mr. Campbell from 3A with more than enough reasons to celebrate the untimely demise of the Admiral. Hints and clues are littered in these conservations, and there's even a false solution which caused me some embarrassment. I assumed I had hit upon a somewhat original premise and solution for a locked room mystery, but my subconscious seems to have borrowed from this rejected explanation. I still gave it a good twist, though.

However, I have to admit Hunsburger's explanation also retraced the steps of a well-known short story and an obscure locked room novel, which I can't mention without spoiling the solution of this story, but the spin he gave on it was really good and invigorated one plot-device that should've been dead and buried in the 1980s. It's evident Hunsburger knew his way around the classics and "Eternally Yours" just gels perfectly as a Who, How-and Whydunit. And fair-play, too! This story should be dragged from obscurity to be hailed as a classic. And if you disagree, you're a heretic. Or Symon's harlot. Or both. But that's OK. We don't judge in this Mausoleum of Enlightenment.

Finally, the inspiration for re-reading these stories came from Paul Halter's La tête du tigre (The Tiger's Head, 1991), which has a character reminiscing on witnessing the Indian Rope trick in person. By the way, if anyone is curious how the original Indian Rope Trick was pulled off... well... it's a bit disappointing. Back in the oldie days, before mass-communication, there were people who amused themselves by telling tall tales and one of them was a completely fabricated story of seeing an amazing performance of the trick by a mysterious fakir or priest. Usually in an obscure market place in a mountain village or countryside. I think the only proper, workable way to pull of the trick is on a disguised, elevated platform with a thick, hollow rope and a pole that can be stuck through it when it's stuffed in the prepped basket.


Tiger's Cage

 "Aw, c'mon, you can't fool us! A genie is supposed to grant wishes."
- Louie (Duck Tales: Treasure of the Lost Lamp, 1990)
Paul Halter's La tête du tigre (The Tiger's Head, 1991) is the fifth novel, alongside a dusting of collected and uncollected short stories, to be translated from French into English by our very own purveyor of miracles – John Pugmire of Locked Room International.

The first half of The Tiger's Head is divided between chapters entitled "On the Trail of the Suitcase Killer" and "The Leadenham Chronicles," in which we follow Dr. Alan Twist, Inspector Archibald Hurst and the inhabitants of a normal sleepy village before their respective problems collide in the second half. Twist and Hurst are tasked with roaming train stations for clues in a particular brutal murder case. Someone has been discarding suitcases containing the severed arms and legs of women, however, they've been unable to locate any of the heads or romps – which is not a case you'd think interest Twist. Until the "Suitcase Killer" strikes again in unfathomable circumstances.

Jenny Olsen is a flower girl of reputedly questionable virtue and was seen by her boyfriend, Tom Ross, entering her apartment in the company of a shadowy figure and flees to the nearest pub. A friend convinces him to go back and confront the bloke, but they find the door and windows secured from within. However, the lights are still on and the sound of running water can be heard. They force the front door and the place appears to be deserted, but someone turned off the water tap, made a bloody mess of the bathroom and left a suitcase behind – containing a severed set of woman's legs and arms. The murderer and the remaining body parts seem to have faded from existence!

Meanwhile, in the otherwise quiet and dormant village of Leadenham, another series of crimes are being perpetrated, but the petty thefts of chocolates, candles and hats are fairly tame in comparison with the Suitcase Murders. The best part of these so-called village chronicles is the introduction of the people who live there and those who'll be there for the second act. I have often criticized Halter's depiction of villages as nothing more than a small, tight cluster of houses where the suspects happened to be living for the purpose of the story (e.g. The Fourth Door, 1987), but here there's more of a communal feeling – even though the characterization remains on the surface. 

Major John McGregor is one of Leadenham's citizens with a bagful of tall stories and anecdotes from his days in India, which includes witnessing the famous Rope Trick in person and an account of an unsolved murder case eerily similar to the suitcase murders.

The major finds a new audience for his tales with the arrival of his nephew, Jim, who's a professional tennis player and his fiancée, Evelyn Marshall, but there's also the engaged couple of Clive Farjeon and Esther Dove and the former adopts a skeptical attitude towards the stories. One of the prized items in Major McGregor's collections of swords and daggers is in fact a bamboo cane with a lump of bronze as big as a fist and shaped like the head of a tiger, which he won from a fakir in a crooked bet. It's said that the head of the tiger is the home of an ill-tempered genie and prone to violence after being summoned, especially towards those who refused to believe in him before appearing.

Major McGregor and Clive Farjeon lock themselves up in the lounge room and every possible exit is being guarded by their friends, which does not prevent something from viciously attacking both men with the titular cane – killing the major and seriously injuring Farjeon. However, there's nobody else to be found in the room afterwards! The nature of Farjeon's wounds clears him from suspicion and the actual solution was far cleverer, original and better executed than the first locked room murder, which had an intriguing set-up but a lousy explanation.

Plot-wise, The Tiger's Head is the most complex and ambitious novel I have read from Halter since La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door), but (alas!) this intricate braided rope of plot-threads has a few weak spots and flaws. It's so complex you can understand and forgive Halter for bringing luck and coincidence into the game, which were words too often dropped by Twist in the explanation. But in the authors defense... what an imagination! However, the real flaw in Halter's works (IMHO) remains the lack of sense of time (and often a place), which is not an unimportant aspect of stories set in the past. I wonder how different the writing in these stories would've been, if they had been set in France instead of England. Anyhow...

To sum this review up, The Tiger's Head is not a novel of crime that fleshes out characters by going over every minutiae of their life, with a dash of social commentary, but a detective story that takes great pride in being elaborate for the sake of being elaborate. I liked it in spite of some of its shortcomings.


Pellets from a Buckshot

"...you planned the most hazardous of all crimes as if you were devising a harmless parlor game." 
- Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout's The League of Frightened Men, 1935)
The original plan was to have one or two more reviews up by now, but an unspecified package stubbornly persists on being delayed and, tiring of the wait, settled on crossing a handful of short stories from the ever growing list of mysteries I hope to read one day.

"Holocaust House" is a novella and a continuation of the previous review, in which I looked at Norbert Davis' debut as a mystery novelist with The Mouse in the Mountain (1943), however, I mistakenly called the book the first recorded case for Carstairs and Doan. That's not the case. The novella was published as a two-part serial for Argosy in November, 1940, which was the inaugural case for the unlikely duo. Well, sort of.

Doan and Carstairs are, essentially, the same characters from the novels. Doan is short and plumb, whose pink round face and bland blue eyes radiates with the type of innocence gullibility conmen look for in a mark – which basically means that Doan is a hardboiled, gun toting and drinking incarnation of Father Brown. However, it's the fawn-colored Great Dane, "as big as a yearling calf," Carstairs, with a pedigree of high-class ancestors as long as the arrest record of any repeat offender, who's the senior partner. "Holocaust House" is no different in this aspect and begins with Doan awaking from successfully getting drunk the night before and Carstairs, "never been able to reconcile himself to having such a low person for a master," gives him nothing but wearily resigned disgust.

The first quarter of the story consists of Doan trying to figure out who slipped him a bulky, stainless steel cigar case with deadly content (not one of the perils mentioned in the anti smoking ads, by the way) and finding a man "whose name isn't Smith and who doesn't wear dark glasses and doesn't have black eyebrows or a black mustache," before their employer of the Severn Agency, J.S. Toggery, gives him a case that separates him from Carstairs. Doan has to safeguard a gunpowder and munitions heiress, by the name of Sheila Alden, in the mountains of the Desolation Lake country – where the first snow of the winter season has begun to fall. Carstairs does not approve of mountains and stays with Toggery. And you thought Scrappy had attitude problems.

Here where's the novella begins to differ from the novels, not only because the separation breaks the fun dynamic between the protagonists, but what we get in place functioned surprisingly well as a morbidly funny take on the closed-circle of suspects stuck in a mountain lodge. There are some wonderful, evocative scenes as Doan wonders the train tracks, heads down against the blizzard, in the dark and finds a frozen corpse by match light or the encounter with the one-armed, lantern wielding stationmaster and his troupe of sled hounds – slightly unhinged and nurtures a grudge against the Alden family. The situation at the lodge is arguably worst: there's a nervous man from the bank who hired Doan, a secretary hell-bent on murder, a shady caretaker and a lost traveler.

A perfect set-up for murder, fisticuffs and emptying the remaining cartridges in Doan's revolver and, while the murderer became more and more obvious, the plot stuck together pretty well. Breezy, well-paced hardboiled story telling laced and occasionally funny, too! Well, it seems I have overused the padding to review this one story and I'll try to lay off the stuff for the next three stories.

Isaac Asimov's "Mirror Image" was originally published in the May, 1972 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, collected in The Complete Robot (1982), which marked the brief return of the Earth policeman Elijah Baley and the advanced Spacer robot R. Daneel Olivaw after their last joined investigation in The Naked Sun (1957). Baley is surprised when Olivaw turns up on Earth on a Spacer ship, but there's a professional character to his visit. There are two passengers, a pair of eminent mathematicians, accusing each other of plagiarism and the story has the potential to cause a tidal wave of scandal across the academic worlds of the Settler planets – unless Baley can sort out the mess before taking off again. They both tell the exact same story, except the names in their story are reversed, and even their servant robots repeat the conversation verbatim. Again, the names are swapped. Clearly, one of the robots was instructed to lie and exposing the truth lies in understanding how the lying robot interpreted TheThree Laws of Robotics. "Mirror Image" is a fun little quip, but one that felt immeasurable small in comparison to its monumental predecessors, The Caves of Steel (1954) and The Naked Sun, in which Asimov excelled as he created entire worlds with civilizations, history, technology, infrastructure and political structures, and still remembered he was writing a detective story. But more importantly, it refuted the argument that modern forensic science killed clever, old-fashioned plotting decades before it was made. Asimov was so much more than just a Visitor from Science Fiction to the mystery genre.

I count the husband-and-wife writing tandem of William and Aubrey Roos, writing under the penname of "Kelley Roos," among my favorite mystery writers and if you're wondering why, you obviously haven't read The Frightened Stiff (1942).

"Two Over Par" is a short story, collected in the anthology Four and Twenty Bloodhounds (1950), featuring Jeff and Haila Troy – New York's meddlesome, wisecracking amateur sleuths and they were the best. Jeff and Haila Troy are indulging in their latest fad, which happened to be golf, but they are quickly drawn in their favorite past time when they uncover two bodies in the thickets of the golf course. Mrs. Carleton and her caddie, Eddie Riorden, were shot through the head and this gives rise to multiple possibilities. Based on a 1948 novella I read, "Beauty Marks the Spot," I assumed Roos needed novel-length stories to fully shine, but here we have the same, satisfying dovetailing of plot threads combined with their trademark wit and even a twist solution. My only complaint is that it wasn't a full-length novel.

G.D.H and M. Cole's "The Owl at the Window," collected for the first time in Superintendent Wilson's Holiday (1928) as "In a Telephone Cabinet," mentioned every know and then as a splendid example of short impossible crime stories, however, I found it to be a tad-bit dated. The story opens with Wilson and his friend, Dr. Michael Pendergast, stumbling on a man breaking into the locked home of his friend who failed to respond. As to be expected, the man is murdered and lies dead in the telephone cabinet of his home. His face blown apart from the discharge from a blunderbuss, which also happened to be the only remarkable feature of the story. The lack of suspects makes the solution only more obvious than it already was and I have seen this set-up done better in Arthur Porges' "The Scientist and the Wife Killer," which can be found in The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009). So a little bit of a disappointment.

Finally, it's interesting to note that I picked these stories randomly, but, nonetheless, there emerged a connecting theme: all of the culprits did too much to cover up their misdeeds and, thereby, exposed themselves to the detectives. And that explains the opening quote.