Trouble at Sea

"There should be no combination of events for which the wit of man cannot conceive an explanation."
- Sherlock Holmes (Valley of Fear, 1915)
Herbert Brean was an American journalist and a "Perennial Sherlockian," who switched from reading detective stories to writing them and Wilders Walks Away (1948) is his most cited and popular work to date. Personally, I prefer Hardly a Man Is Now Alive (1952), mandatory reading for John Dickson Carr enthusiasts, and The Traces of Brillhart (1961), in which a magazine writer, William Deacon, investigates the alleged immortality of a New York music composer.  

The Traces of Merrilee (1966) marked the second, and final, appearance of Bill Deacon and meddling in police business paid off at the start of this book – as a banking friend hires him to take passage aboard the Montmartre to protect a multimillion dollar investment. Loans were given to fund a big-budget movie, based on Helen of Troy, but a successful return on their investment depends on Merrilee Moore and she disappeared for the time being. There was a solemn promise from the actress to be aboard, but gave an impression of being scared and fearful of the crossing.

Interestingly, there are snippets of impossible crime material present here! Merrilee believes she inherited the gift of Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP) from her mother, who developed the power touring dingy theatres and joints with a mind reading act. The solution to the trick was revealed in a throwaway line, inside a brief back-story, but it's actually pretty clever and could generate year's worth of discussions on its fairness – if properly and prominently used in a detective story. Merrilee's mother predicted she would die at sea (how lovely) and has a recurring nightmare herself about man with a green face hanging by the throat in a closet.

This makes The Traces of Merrilee a borderline impossible crime novel, but the elements are too weak and superficial to, officially, qualify the book as such. This is, however, not to the detriment of Brean as a mystery writer, because they weren't the main focus of the plot and Brean learned from Wilders Walks Away a full-blown locked room mystery wasn't one of his strong suits – hence why I prefer the titles mentioned in the opening of the post.

The Best of the Brean Novels
Back to the story. The recurring nightmare about the green-faced man, hanging from a hook inside a closet, becomes prophetic, however, Deacon simply disposes of the body by dumping it one of the lifeboats. A popular spot for a body dump on an Atlantic cruise, because the murderer picked another lifeboat to discard of the second victim. Unfortunately, the dying words of the victim never translated into Ellerian dying message. The detections of Deacon further consists of tailing a notorious industrial spy, which becomes complicated when there are two men sharing the same name on the ship, slipping in and out of cabins (or being locked up in them) and avoiding being maimed – before confronting the killer during a staged visitation from beyond the grave.

Not very original as far dénouements go, but that's emblematic for The Traces of Merrilee. Brean penned a breezy, fast-paced and fairly clued detective that was fun to read, but, except for the mind-reading act, nothing stood out as particular clever or inspired. Merrilee and Deacon were pretty much the only characters in the book and everyone else simply played their part. I'd place the book closer to (TV lightweights) Murder, She Wrote and Midsomer Murders (fun but unchallenging) than to the Golden Age ancestors Brean penned earlier in his career.

Recommend to fans of Brean and shipboard-set mysteries, but, if you're new to this author, I recommend you begin with Hardly a Man Is Now Alive, The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954) and The Traces of Brillhart.


Rule of Thumb

"We need to nail this fast."
- Gene Hunt (BBC's Life on Mars
The comprehensive scope of Tipping My Fedora encompasses "mystery, crime and suspense in all media" and Sergio, in charge of the outfit, is currently in the process of reviewing the entire 87th Precinct-series by "Ed McBain" – a penname wielded by the late Evan Hunter. Sergio did his part in putting Killer's Wedge (1959) and Tricks (1987) in my hands, and they didn't disappoint, in addition to tossing another burden on my wish list. Thanks a lot, chum!

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960) was the eleventh to appear in the row of 87th Precinct books, covering six decades, but the first to be published in a period no longer dominated by the bright light of the Golden Age. The moody, somber backdrop of a drenched city and the nature of the plot seem to (unwittingly) reflect the passing of the old order into a new and uncertain era.

First of the character vignettes in the novel is of a patrolman, Dick Genero, sloughing through his beat in the pouring rain on a dreary afternoon in March. Genero muses on the sordid business that comes with being a policeman and bums a drink from Max the Tailor, but the day takes a turn for the worse when he sees a passenger boarding a bus without his or her bag. It's a small, common looking bag from an airline with exception of its content: a large hand severed above the wrist with mutilated fingertips.

Genero takes the bag post-haste to the precinct and interrupts the boys reminiscing about their days in uniform, but, curiously enough, Genero only receives flack for not attempting to board to bus at the next stop. I'm sure removing that bag from the scene wasn't standard police procedure. Even if its rains. Anyhow, an examination reveals the hand belonged to a white male in his early-teens to mid-twenties... probably.

There's not much to work with for Steve Carella and his men except to comb through the list of missing persons and the structure of the story, strangely, reminded me of an episode of CSI (*). Forensics comes from examining the severed hands (other one was found in a trash can) and analyzing blood spatters-and types. Detectives are fleshed out in brief character sketches detailing past experiences or personal reflections, without dominating the entire story, while they "meet people on the worst day of their lives," but despite that there's still humor to be found in McBain's dark and gritty world. The conclusion is inevitably tragic and I'm sure something similar was done on CSI, because it would fit the show. Or, perhaps, 87th Precinct-series would be perfect for television adaptation. I think these stories would translate very well to the small screen.

Anyhow, I'm not very good in reviewing these character-driven crime stories, plots are my department, but I liked Give the Boys a Great Big Hand for its engrossing, semi-hardboiled story telling, slow unwinding plot and the picture of the city being drowned by a seemingly unending cloudburst. Shortly put, McBain could write and I'll be back for more.

*) I had a CSI-period, but, in my defense, Max Allan Collins duplicitously lured me to the franchise when someone recommended his TV tie-in novels of the series. Unfortunately, all three TV-series managed to lose my attention when the characterization began to resemble a parody of a daytime soap opera.  

Note before posting: I read back this post and it's really a poor review. Sergio does the book more justice and I recommend you read his review(s), if you want to be really convinced to give this series a shot.  


Cardinal Sins

"Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the inquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems."
- Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet, 1887)
"Sidney Miles" is the nom-de-plum adopted by a former resident of Blackfield on his return home, in the spring of 1887, to gather material for the novel he has been contemplating to write and intends to draw from a nine year old, unsolved murder case – which could've been ripped from the pages of an Edgar Allan Poe story.

The problem of a murder perpetrated in a sealed room fascinates "Miles," convinced one day studies will be devoted to the subject, and hopes future scholars will be poring over his fictionalized account of the impossible death of the local philanthropist. Richard Morstan had converted his study in a makeshift performance stage, partitioned by a curtain, to treat a group of children to a magic show. While Morstan is behind the curtain, someone, somehow, enters the room and the only evidence this person left behind was a body.  

This is a conventional, but cautious, description of the opening of Le brouillard rouge (The Crimson Fog, 1988) and arguably Paul Halter's most ambitious detective/crime-thriller to be introduced into the English language by John Pugmire's Locked Room International to date. Reviewing detective stories can be a tricky business, but in this case I can barely allow myself to comment on a single plot-thread, because I don't want to give anything away. I would further recommend avoiding reading the back cover. It gives away information you should discover on your own. Like three-ways through the book.

Anyhow, "Miles" teams-up with Major Daniel Morstan, eager to do justice to the name of his brother, and the daughter of the local inn-keeper, Cora, who picked up maturing in his absence – and they decide he should pose as a detective from Scotland Yard. However, the murder of Richard Morstan is as a problematic as penning this review and was astonished at the possible solutions Halter left unmentioned. There was a door in Morstan's curtained-off section of the study, but it was nailed shut with three beams to eliminate any cheating and suggested (to me) the door could be prepped beforehand to open in-and outwards – and a stagehand/killer could squeeze between two of the three wooden bars. I could mention another one involving the open and watched window, but, again, I don't want to give away too much. I'll say this for Halter... he knew here how to keep clued-up mystery readers busy with multiple possibilities. For a while, I suspected the book of being a cleverly disguised homage to Carter Dickson's The Skeleton in the Clock (1948), with the titular crimson fog being a reference to "the pink flash," which gave me the idea for the open-window solution.

Naturally, their rooting around in the village and questioning witnesses has repercussions in a detective story, and before long, the phantom-like killer strikes again and manages to vanish from its pursuers under baffling circumstances. This impossible angle is repeated in the latter half of the book, but they're childishly simple, however, the impossibilities aren't the reason you should pick up a copy of The Crimson Fog. It's a modern take on those grand, France-feuilletons (e.g. Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room, 1907), but Halter (as an Anglophile) placed this English-set mystery/thriller closer to American-style delirium tremens, such as Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand (1945) and Fredric Brown's Night of the Jabberwock (1950), than to the British Golden Age serial killer novels – think Philip McDonald's Murder Gone Mad (1931) and Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders (1936).

Nevertheless, Halter deals a fair hand to the reader (more than usual as far as I remember) and successfully walks the fine tightrope between a traditional whodunit and a Victorian slasher. The Crimson Fog is probably not everyone's poison of choice, but it's one of those books you have to sample for yourself.

One thing I want to point out, SPOILER (select to read): Halter's general weakness to breath life in his historical settings could've been a strength here by withholding the period until the Jack the Ripper-part came into play. The way Blackfield is described could've been anywhere between the late 1800s right up to the actual Golden Age and all that talk about early locked room mysteries would be clue as to the date of the story. I'm just saying.  

Previous reviews of Paul Halter's locked room mystery novels: 

La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987)
Le brouillard rouge (The Crimson Fog, 1988)
La tête du tigre (The Tiger's Head, 1991)
La septième hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991)
Le diable de Dartmoor (The Demon of Dartmoor, 1993)
Les sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997) 

A Kind of Magic: More Impossibilities Outside of Fiction

"As far as I am concerned, if, when everything impossible has been eliminated and what remains is supernatural, then someone is lying."
- Isaac Asimov (Afterword to "The Obvious Factor," collected in Tales of the Black Widowers, 1974) 
Last year, I scribbled sporadically on some particular, domesticated and downright strange instances when "that tired old plot device," known as the "Locked Room Mystery" or "Impossible Crime," escaped from the immures of the written word and began to break the laws governing our universe. Here are the links to parts I, II, III and IV

The first sample in this fifth installment can be filed under "Do-It-Yourself" and "Carrian Pranks," in which a magician and comedian, Pete Booth, unwisely, provides the readers of his blog with step-by-step instructions on how to create memories that will last a life time – using a disgustingly simple locked room trick. Booth takes as his purely hypothetical victims a pair of too happy, diabetic inducing newlyweds shacking up in the hotel room next to you and the trick is to make them believe someone snuck into their (locked) room. All you need is a big, round pizza tray, a spatula, freezer and urine. Needless to say, it would work just as well, if not better, in a student dormitory as in a hotel room. Full instructions can be found here. You can also find tips on Booth's blog on how to appear as a public healer, read your friends mind and summon a ghost with such simple household items as a key, receipts and a mirror.

For the next impossibility, I have to reference the first part of this series (see above) and the link provided in the post to a video of James Randi, on That’s My Line, zapping the powers of Kung-Fu Panda, James Hydrick, simply by "placing small pieces of extended polystyrene" in the path of his invisible mind beam – genuinely an obstacle if you ruse depends on a ventriloquist-like blowing technique. 

Skeptically inclined blog Forgotomori, "extraordinary claims, ordinary investigations," currently lays in dormancy, but the archive extends back to early 2007 and the lion's share of the site looks at UFO's, paranormal phenomena and creatures unknown to science. The gist of these posts reveal that, yes, the extraterrestrial beings on the photographs was simply a shaved monkey or deformed fetus/animal cadaver and the space craft the result of home crafting in the garage or behind the computer. There were also one or two articles of interest.

One of them discussed an experiment with an apparent feat of telekinetic power and the post run through all the possible and logical solutions, before the table (read the post) was revealed as a piece of stage prop. I think it's rather elaborate to make a bit of paper spin around and, IMHO, shows why Hydrick's performance was actually a pretty good, well executed magic trick and I imagine the audience felt the number of witnesses and cameras would spot any trickery. And then a can of foam ruined the whole epic thing. 

There's another interesting post on a famous physical medium from the 1930s, Colin Evans, known today perhaps only for the silly black-and-white photograph of him floating at a séance while making a face as if he's about to drop Little Boy on the group below – who are fearfully holding hands. The explanation is childishly simple, but this story (and that of D.D. Home), gave me possibly an original idea for a levitation trick inside a locked room. I also recommend the amusing post on Sheep Circles, which reports on flocks of sheep spelling out words or form a semi-perfect circles and "The Miracle of the Semiliterate Ants." 

The piece on the Lost Thunderbird delves into crypto-zoology (*), but the side-mystery of a shared (false) memory of a non-existent photograph from the late 1800s is fascinating. Finally, a Dutch mystic, "Mirin Dajo," had a human pincushion-act that was never debunked and X-rays showed a fencing foil had indeed penetrated his body. It killed him in the end, but still, I think there's something in our water, because today we have a real-life Ice Man.

And finally, finally, I'll hopefully be back before too long with a review of a mystery novel from a modern-day artisan of impossible crime stories. Stay tuned.

*: Penn Jillette explained crypto-zoology on an episode of Bullshit! as follow: zoology meaning "the study of animals" and crypto meaning "shit we made up."  


Tread Carefully

"And yet, who knows of Athelstan today..."
- Michael Woods (In Search of the Dark Ages). 
I'll return to the trail of obscurity in the near future, which, knowing myself, will probably be somewhere next month, because there's still a slew of contemporary detective stories vying on the slopes of Mt.-to-be-Read for attention – and February is hardly enough to cover them all. So that's the program for now.

The Nightingale Gallery (1991) is the first tale from "The Sorrowing Mysteries of Brother Athelstan," set in the 13th century during the reign of Richard II of England, published under the byline Paul Harding. Of course, "Paul Harding" is the now discarded penname of historian Paul Doherty, who already garnered praise under his own name with the Sir Hugh Corbett-series, but the Brother Athelstan stories has the potential to become one of my favorite series of historical mysteries.

Prelude of The Nightingale Gallery is the passing of the old king, Edward III, which leaves the throne to a mere child, Richard II, but the question is how the passing of kings affected a domestic tragedy at the home of an affluent gold merchant.

Sir Thomas Springall held a banquet on the night of his death, however, the poison that killed the merchant wasn't administrated during the feast, but in the claret of wine his servant Brampton brought him every night. Springhall was overheard arguing with Brampton and the latter was found swinging at the end of a rope in a garret. It's a neat and tidy case of murder/suicide, but Sir John Cranston, Coroner of London, has his own views on the deaths as does Brother Athelstan – a friar basically assigned to Sir John as part of his penance for his past sins. Nevertheless, there is a valid objection to their hypothesis of a double murder: the hallway to Springall's bedroom is named the Nightingale Gallery for the acoustic quality of the floorboards and they "sing" if you walk on them. It's a medieval burglar alarm, but one you can't temper with and they didn't sing on the night of the murder – except when Brampton brought Spingall's customary goblet of wine. Yes, it's another one of those pesky, locked room mysteries!

I first want to say I really enjoyed the main characters who were being introduced here and was particular interested in Sir John, who may've been modeled on John Gaunt from John Dickson Carr's The Bowstring Murders (1933) on the (bodily) scale of Dr. Gideon Fell. Someone who can withstand enormous amounts of alcohol without it effecting its thinking and there's one scene in which Sir John demonstrated he could listen attentively to a conversation, while apparently in an alcohol-induced coma. Brother Athelstan is an unusual character for Doherty, because, unlike Sir Hugh Corbett or Chief Judge Amerotke, there isn't a wife with children hovering in the background. There aren't loved ones here to treasure and protect. Just atone for the ones he allowed himself to lose.

The plot of The Nightingale Gallery also diverges from the later-period Doherty novels I have read in that it concentrates on the raffles of a single plot-thread, instead of multiple ones (e.g. Ancient Egypt-series), with clues, riddles and suspects abound! There's even a second poisoning in a locked room with an obscure potion.

Steve, a.k.a. "Puzzle Doctor," holding regular visiting hours at In Search of a Classic Mystery Novel, who probably introduced most of us to Paul Doherty, reviewed this book in 2011 and called it "one of the best mysteries that I've read for a while," adding "the impossible murder is very well done... there's enough here to work it out, but I bet you won't." Well, I solved the locked room angle and identity of the murderer without much difficulty, but I would put that down on having mostly read the later-period Doherty novels.

That withstanding, The Nightingale Gallery still stands as an excellently crafted mystery, which Doherty cloaked in the period setting of the story without attempting to romanticize history, which gives the story a great touch of the macabre when Doherty draws on his artistic license. For example, the part where Athelstan and Sir John meet Robert Burdon, a gate-tower constable, who, every morning, combs the hair of the rotting heads placed on spikes as a warning to other traitors and sings Lullaby's to them. You can understand the sequel, The House of the Red Slayer (1992), has ascended on my TBR pile.  


Day of Infamy

"Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God."
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt (December 8, 1941) 
There was a period when variation was a part of my reading habit and nuzzled at other genres, such as the "Lost World" yarns from The Complete Land That Time Forgot (Edgar Rice Burroughs; collected in 2007), before I shackled myself to the mystery genre with this blog. I really should pick up a non-mystery novel again and Max Allan Collins' The Pearl Harbor Murders (2001) helped me remind there's actually more to read as well as providing a terrific example as to why I'm hooked on detective fiction.

The events from The Pearl Harbor Murders begin on December 5, 1941, when there are less than forty-eight hours between the unprecedented attack on the Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War, but Edgar Rice Burroughs does not believe Oahu is a target for an invasion – and neither does General Short. Besides, there's a trouble brewing on the island. Burroughs is requested to keep an eye on his German neighbor, Otto and Elfrieda Kuhn, alleged Nazis with family ties to Heinrich Himmler.

Meanwhile, "Hully" Burroughs (son of) is requested by a sensational band singer, Pearl Harada, for her father to fix an appointment with Col. Fielder. Pearl and Bill Fielder (son of) have plans, but her mixed blood and war looming at the horizon makes marriage a problematic issue in 1941. She simply wants to plead her case to the colonel.

"Disaster Series" distinguishes itself from other (mystery) novels featuring historical figures, because they were, mostly, present at the time of the titular catastrophes and hard facts are seamlessly integrated with the fictional aspects of the story. Collins' endnotes referring back to the texts consulted are reflected in the story, not just by finding a satisfying balance between fact and fiction, but in conjuring up images of Hawaii on the brink of war that felt alive – from the white beaches of Waikiki to the markets of China Town. Of course, there were more direct references to the racial tensions and hierarchy (e.g. issei and nisei), but I think Earl Derr Biggers (Charlie Chan Carries On, 1930) and Juanita Sheridan (The Waikiki Widow, 1953) would recognize Collins' Hawaii as theirs.

I'm not overly familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs' work, having only read The Land That Time Forgot trilogy and name, maybe, two of his characters, but enjoyed how Collins sketched in Burroughs personal life from the man's own point of view and loved the anecdote about the controversy surrounding a World War I Tarzan novel. Tarzan in the trenches of the Great War? My interest is piqued! I was also interested in the relationship between father and son, which, in a detective story, immediately begs for a comparison with Ellery and Inspector Richard Queen, but there relationship was never explored in-depth and was more of an excuse to get Ellery on the crime-scene without pesky questions being asked. I was more reminded of Herbert Resnicow's Ed and Warren Baer, making the first of two appearances in The Dead Room (1987), who, despite tragedy close at home, have a good relationship and are drawn into a murder investigation out of necessity instead of finding it stimulating mental exercise.

Still, Burroughs doesn’t do too bad on his outing as an amateur snoop of fiction, awaking from a bizarre nightmare, which he jotted down for future reference, capturing Pearl’s murderer, Harry Kamana, red-handed on the moonlit beach – after glimpsing him standing over the body from the bedroom window. Kamana claims to be innocent and the Burroughs launce an investigation of their own, but are they looking for one of her scorned admirers or one of the spies looming ominous in the background like the approaching attack. The solution is well put together and a play on the least-likely-suspect gambit, even though Collins would probably have been accused breaking a cardinal rule of detective fiction if The Pearl Harbor Murders had been published in the 1940s. But then again, those rules were written in Britain and Collins is American. So go figure (I kid, I kid!). This plot is set against the backdrop of an impending war, but only the reader is aware of what’s about to hit them and, coupled with the history of Pearl Harbor, adds an usual tension to the story.

The War of the Worlds (2005) has been my favorite up to this point, in which a murderer turned the table on Orson Welles during the infamous Panic Broadcast and was just fun to read, but now has to share that place with The Pearl Harbor Murders. I really hope this series returns one day. Luckily, I still got two more to go.

Note for the curious: I previously reviewed The Titanic Murders (1999).


A Three-Part Trick

"One man's magic is another man's engineering. Supernatural is a null word."
- Robert A. Heinlein
Yes, I'm way behind on reading the marvelous, long-running Case Closed series and Gosho Aoyama wasn’t the only contemporary queuing on the slopes of Mt.-to-be-Read, which is why there has been an influx of posts on more recently published detective stories this year. So here is, without further ado, the long overdue review of the forty-seventh volume of Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan).

Traditionally, the story opening the book began in the final chapter of the previous volume and involved a woman, Tomoko Kariya, enlisting Richard Moore to find her missing cell phone, but the seemingly innocent request has tragic repercussions for his client – who's found murdered inside her car parked near a bridge. The three main suspects all claim to have been home at the time of the murder and a pair of housekeepers affirm their statements, however, they all relay on three senses: sound, sight and sense. Suspects were immersed in their respective occupations and were either heard speaking, seen moving or being smelled smoking a pipe from behind a sliding door.

Interestingly, Conan is repelled in playing the manipulative detective on the sideline, guiding everyone to the clues and their correct interpretation like a puppeteer, by a suspicious-minded Rachel – slowly beginning to believe Edogawa Conan and Jimmy Kudo may be one and the same person. There's a short chapter, functioning as an addendum for this storyline, in which Conan goes through some comic book-style shenanigans to drag a red herring across the trail. One of the few flaws (IMHO) in this series is Conan's insistency to keep Rachel in the dark when, logically speaking, she would be his most reliable ally in every difficulty thrown in his path over the course of the series. But this one pet peeve of mine should reflect poorly on this excellently plotted, well clued mystery and some of hints involving literature and the changes in society were splendid.

The next story is possibly my favorite from this collection and, as unsurprisingly as pulling a quarter from thin air, the plot revolves around a frame job that could only be pulled off by jumping through time and space – which makes this an impossible crime story!

Conan, and his friends, finds Detective Takagi gazing dreamingly at a brooch coveted by Sato (i.e. A Metropolitan Police Love Story), but a man wearing a motorcycle helmet and brandishing a pistol shatters the trance. Takagi identifies himself as a plainclothes policeman, but the robber only laughs and sprints off – only to be cornered on top of a building. Rooftops of high buildings in Japan are apparently fitted with fences for safety, but it wouldn't deter a jumper and the robber takes the leap in front of their eyes. When they look over the edge, mere seconds later, they see the body of the robber on top of a truck.

Gosho Aoyama: Artist in Crime
Slowly, but surely, the plot begins to morph in an inverted mystery, which poses more questions than answers, because they saw a man go over the fence and not a dummy being dragged over it with a wire. If the death of the jewelry store robber was an elaborate murder disguised as suicide, they now have to explain how his killer miraculously disappeared mid-fall. And while Aoyama draws somewhat on his artistic license as a comic book artist for the explanation (nobody would attempt this trick in real-life), it demonstrates, once again, how you can play around with a three-dimensional crime scene within a visual medium and I think stands comparison with other impossible tricks of its kind. Not as simple (as it's clever) as Edward D. Hoch's "The Long Way Down," but definitely better than the two-part Jonathan Creek episode The Problem at Gallows Gate (1998) – which has almost a similar set-up of plot and reportedly got rehashed in Sherlock. I was also reminded of the second, seemingly impossible murder from Richard Purtill's Murdercon (1982) and, reading back my review, and I commented then on how that part of the plot reminded me of Case Closed and Jonathan Creek.   

Finally, Conan and Rachel are on a "double-date" with Harley and Kazuha, but lugging a pair of young, bright sleuth hounds to an otherwise spectacular magic show is bound to create a bored, armchair detective version of Statler & Waldorf – laconically showing the plain woodwork and mechanics behind the magic of stage illusions. Nonetheless, they manage to befriend the magician, alongside his illusionist circle of friends, who are on their way to the home of their teacher, a once famous magician himself, who has been missing for the past ten years.

Not long after Conan and Harley passed the threshold of the “Magician’s Castle,” a murderer strikes under the cover of a blackout in one of the hallways and the victim, curiously enough, revealed earlier to perform “The Resurrection of the Witch” as a throw at the mantle of their teacher. The main trick is one I expected to be used for a locked room mystery and, in a way, it was sort of an impossible trick, but Aoyama turned it to a different angle with a good result. However, Aoyama obviously came up with the trick first and plotted a story around it, which he began by retracing the premise of a much earlier story and retouching it. Plot-thread about the missing teacher is not resolved and the secret notes only exist to provide someone with a motive. It’s still good and clever little detective story, but even I think kowtowing to proper plotting has its limits. Still loved the opening part the most.

In closing: an excellent collection of mysteries and every volume has (at least) one ace of a story, sometimes more than one, which makes opening a Case Closed book always a rewarding read. The entire series is a compendium of the genre and chucks everything at the reader, from traditional whodunits and locked room murders to thriller-based story arcs and inverted mysteries, and while the ongoing storyline moves slowly, the series has yet to draw a single yawn from me – even after nearly fifty installments. If you're a mystery fan and aren't reading Case Closed, I look with a deep sense of pity upon the barren wasteland that is your intellectual life.  

My other Case Closed/Detective Conan reviews: 

Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan), vol. 41 
Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan), vol. 42
Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan), vol. 44
Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan), vol. 45
Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan), vol. 46


Not Everything is Ancient History

"The cleverest lies... are those we're already inclined to believe."
- DCI Tom Barnaby (Midsomer Murders) 
The Friends of Cattesmoor are jubilant over their victory in court on the right-of-way and restoration of the Possel Way, a medieval pilgrim's footpath carving a route from west of Stoneham to the seaside resort of Biddle Bay, which partly runs through the grounds of Starbarrow Farm – reconditioned by the current owner, Jeffrey Ling, who bought the place for its remoteness.

Suddenly While Gardening (1978) was published midway Elizabeth Lemarchand's career as a mystery novelist, taking the plunge with Death of An Old Girl (1967) and bowing out after The Glade Manor Murder (1988), but is virtually unknown today. Some scraps of information, here and there, qualify Lemarchand as a tradition, British writer of unchallenging, but nonetheless competent, cozies. Not my usual cup of tea, however, I was intrigued by reported use of archeology and history in her plots and the description also made me suspect Lemarchand may be an acquired taste like Gladys Mitchell. What I found could very well have been Caroline Graham's original Midsomer Murder novels, of which The Killings at Badger's Drift (1987) was the first. A year before Lemarchand published her final mystery. Interestingly, Lemarchand's series character, DSI Tom Pollard, has a DI named Gregory Toye and Graham's DCI Tom Barnaby has DS Gavin Troy.

The plot of Suddenly While Gardening would be easily translated to an episode of Midsomer Murders, in which Tom Pollard takes the family for a holiday in the countryside to visit his aunt, Isabel Dennis, who’s a member of the Friends of Cattesmoor – and from whom he learns about the Possel Way. Being a good tourist, Pollard takes the hike himself, but is stopped when he sees a group of walkers gathered around a Bronze Age grave (kistvaen) containing the skeletal remains of a human being. Pollard hands the case over to the local authorities, but is called back after returning home from holiday when a post-mortem revealed the bones belonged to a young man dead for no longer than fourteen months.

I found the idea of a police investigation focusing on the question of how and when the remains were disposed at the gravesite an interesting change, because Pollard and Toye were unable to concern themselves with possible motives. A lack of identity and cause of death made this mainly a case of opportunity for the body dump. Unfortunately, this never went further than tracking people's movements and the pace of the story made it feel as if Pollard was still enjoying his holiday. Pleasantly written? Yes. But it lacked a pinch of urgency. And the book is basically a novella-length short story (143 pages)! Anyhow, Pollard and Toye uncover another crime buried in the town, but the main trick was even when the book was published way behind its time.

Suddenly While Gardening is pleasantly written, leisurely paced, and, on a whole, not terrible as a (modern) detective story, but, if I ever return to Pollard and Toye, it'll be on account of their possible (literary) kinship to Barnaby and Troy from the Midsomer Murders. Yes. The title of the book is a bit of a misnomer.

To end this post on a positive note... BBC has released an episode title, The Letters of Septimus Noone, and synopsis for the new Jonathan Creek episode. The plot sure's enticing: an impossible murder during a West End musical production of Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room in the locked dressing room of the theatre. It also sounds like the idea of David Cargill's currently working with for his third locked room mystery. Oh, ghost of Harry Stephen Keeler, will you ever grow tired of these pranks?


Circling the Ring

"Fear isn't in our vocabulary..."
- Jonny Quest
Professor Giles Dawson is a historian in the art of illusionism and the great magicians, as well as a member of both the Magic and Ghost Club, who applied his theoretical knowledge in practice after a cabinet maker and designer of stage props died under peculiar circumstances inside a sealed room. David Cargill recorded the case under the title The Statue of Three Lies (2011) and Dawson's successful interference fueled the plot of it's follow-up, Gauntlet of Fear (2012), in which the owner of Circus Tropicana hires the professor to put a stop to a mounting series of mysterious accidents in the Big Tent.

Gauntlet of Fear comes second in a Locked Room Trilogy in progress and I began in the middle of this three-part series after a simple mistake on my side between the numbers one and two, but, to the authors credit, Cargill never revealed anything of vital importance from The Statue of Three Lies – even if the profusion of references tethered on the brink of vulgar product placement. Believe me... a correct combination of the words "room," "mystery" and "locked" are more than enough to make a story appear on my wish list as if by magic.

The setting of the book, mid-1960s, places Gauntlet of Fear in the category of modern-historical mystery novels and begins with Professor Dawson and his one-time RAF buddy, Freddie Oldsworth, traveling down to the winter quarters of Ramon Mordomo's Circus Tropicana – an abandoned RAF airfield at Winkleigh in Devon. It's a secret base Whitehall never admitted even existed and now is reputedly haunted, which takes the guise of the sound of ghostly airplanes and men scrambling to get airborne. However, the lingering presences of Allied forces are the least of Mordomo's troubles. There's a perpetual mood of impending doom hanging over the circus ground and Mordomo's convinced there's a saboteur abound, trying to make him forfeit the circus he loves by forcing him "to run the Gauntlet of Fear."  

You can compare the first part of Dawson's investigation with Sgt. Beef's task in Leo Bruce's Case with Four Clowns (1940), in which the retired investigator joins his nephew at the circus to prevent a murder from happening. Dawson meets a diverse, colorful troupe of athletes and performers who pride themselves on performing in the Grandest Show on Earth. Hank Findley is an American funambulist, "Wirewalker," who served at Winkleigh during World War II and who nearly fell after his wire began to vibrate. Michael Wagner is the magician responsible for the big disappearance act of show, "The Lady Vanishes," in which he makes his assistance, Allison Somerfield, disappear from the middle of the circus ring by stacking tires upon her until she's covered from head to toe – and when they dismantle the pile, tire-by-tire, Allison has vanished. Ingrid Dahlberg is a blond, slim knife-thrower and not the person you'd expect to master the Wheel of Death. Rodrigo Gomez is in charge of the Royal Bengal Tiger, Khan, and Chuck Marstow is the head clown, but Eva Zigana the Fortune Teller deserved a more prominent role in the story – if only to see another attempt at cold reading Dawson.

Anyhow, the accidents continue to happen, someone unlocks the tiger cage, a fire was started, a magic trick is botched and Leonardo, a sword balancer, is nearly impaled when his Staircase of Swords is tempered with, but the saboteur is also taunting the professor. Notes with clues and a coded message are dispatched to the professor, but even more remarkable is an actual gauntlet being thrown down at his feet. Unfortunately, the professor is unable to prevent the dangerous shenanigans from turning deadly. During a performance of the vanishing trick, Allison is found unresponsive at the bottom of the remaining pair of tires and soon becomes clear she was poked with a hypodermic, in the middle of the ring in front of hundreds of eyewitnesses – yet nobody saw a thing. Not long after a session of questioning, appropriately done at the disused control tower of the airfield, there's another murder committed under baffling, seemingly impossible circumstances inside one of the locked circus wagons.

Regrettably, here's where Gauntlet of Fear begins to unravel, which is a pity, because there where moments when I was convinced I found a companion writer for the great Herbert Resnicow, but the explanation was uninspired and muddled. And to be honest, I found that quite surprising. The book obviously suffered from some of the flaws of self-publishing and was definitely over written in parts, but not in a horrifically, bad manner. The characters weren't multi-faceted, but neither were they indistinguishable from one another. The text was also covered with patches of historical nods that placed the story within its time with clever, little references to John Dickson Carr and P.G. Wodehouse.

However, once the whole scheme was revealed, I have to say Cargill gave more attention to the writing than plotting, because the murderer's scheme seems needlessly complex, risky (etc.) and weakly motivated. I expected so much more from the intriguing and intricate set-up of the locked wagon instead of simply doing difficult for the sake of doing difficult. I'm still not entirely sure about the locked-door business. The murder during the vanishing act is hardly impossible, once you know the solution, and oddly resembles the answer to the impossible stabbing from Willy Corsari's (untranslated) De onbekende medespeler (The Unknown Co-Player, 1931) – which was also hardly a noteworthy method. By the way, the solution for "The Vanishing Lady"-trick is never given, but it's obvious Allison was supposed to hide inside one of the bottom tires. I think a better solution would've been if the murderer, dressed as one of the helpers handling the tires, wearing one of the blue overalls, cap and dust mask, and shoved a thin blade between two tires after putting one of the final tires on top obscuring the view of the audience in front. Granted, the timing has to be perfect and other helpers obscuring the audience vision on the left and right at the moment.

So, yes, slightly disappointed over the solution, but I'll have another go at Cargill and Dawson in, hopefully, the not so distant future. Hey, the concept of a Locked Room Trilogy has piqued my interest and even the best writers have their off day, right?

Notes for the curious: David Cargill was born in Dumfries, Scotland and "a lifelong interest in stage magic and the writings of John Dickson Carr kindled his interest in writing." Currently, Cargill is a member of the Society of American Magicians and working on The Cinderella Murders (2014/5?), which is foreshadowed in Gauntlet of Fear. The book, by the way, ends with "Notes for Curious Minds." I think we might be reading the same kind of detective stories. :)

Finally, here's a link to every post tagged on this blog as "Locked Room Mysteries" and "Impossible Crimes."