Rummaging in the Past

"I suppose we'd better ask some questions." 
- D.I. Anastasia Hardy (Kate Ellis' "The Odour of Sanctity," collected The Mammoth Book of Locked Room Mysteries and Impossible Crimes, 2000)
The year 1920 is generally accepted as a semiofficial starting point for the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, which witnessed the debut of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the rest, as they say, is history. During the same period, H.C. Bailey and one of his two series-characters, Mr. Reginald "Reggie" Fortune, were introduced in a collection of short stories, entitled Call Mr. Fortune (1920), and was the first of many popular and critically acclaimed mysteries from his hands – good and recognizable enough for Christie to spoof in Partners in Crime (1929). 

Howard Haycraft noted at the time: "it seems safe to say that any impartial statistical poll of the sentiments of readers on both side of the Atlantic would assure a position high on the list to H.C. Bailey" and S.S. van Dine reputedly began to reshape Philo Vance in the image of Reggie Fortune, but, today, Bailey has (undeservedly) become a footnote in the genre’s history. 

I say undeservedly based on a handful of novels, such as the excellent and reissued Shadow on the Wall (1934) and Black Land, White Land (1937) or the superb and sadly out-of-print The Sullen Sky Mystery (1935), with only The Great Game (1939) falling short of the mark – which is surprising considering it's a crossover of sorts. And I like crossovers! However, The Bishop's Crime (1940) proved to be a return to those earlier novels. 

The cathedral village of Badon is the backdrop of The Bishop's Crime and dominating the horizon of the town is the historical tower of Badon Cathedral, known as "Jacob's Ladder," on which a previous prior envisioned angels ascending and descending from heaven, but the past keeps its hold on the place in other ways. There used to be shrine devoted to a statuette of the Virgin Mary, discovered by the founder of the church, a Saxon King, however, the treasure was reputedly lost at sea after Henry VIII claimed it – which begs the question if the relics were hidden before the shipping accident. 

A historical subplot is briefly teased with one or two murders buried deep in the past of Badon, but they're left there and Fortune's expertise is called upon when the body of a burglar is discovered on a well-frequented road to London. However, it's not an accident and foul play is suspected. Fortune retraces the steps of the victim back to Badon based on the content of the stomach and analyzing the dirt found underneath his nails. There's another criminal element meeting an unfortunate end and it becomes obvious someone's hunting for lost treasure, but Fortune has difficulty getting a solid grip on the case. 

It depresses and somewhat amuses Fortune as he pieces together a mosaic of slander clues, scattered across the centuries in Greek and Latin, to form a complete picture of the events that took place in Badon, and the Biblical references, lines of poetry, lost treasure and historic tie-ins makes The Bishop's Crime play out like a small epic. The resolutions, once again, reveals Fortune as an ancestor of Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley as he plays judge, jury and executions (by proxy) in meting out his own peculiar brand of justice for every guilty person involved in the case. That's interesting aspect of the "plump, drawling Reggie Fortune," who has no qualms about manipulating people into murdering each other in the pursuit of justice – much to the shock of Lomas ("My God!"). Still weird to think a TV-series like Dexter can be connected to H.C. Bailey, Gladys Mitchell (Speedy Death, 1929) and Rex Stout (Black Orchids, 1942 and "Boody Trap" in Not Quite Dead Enough, 1944).
Finally, I realize my review has been rather summary and lacking detail, but that's because there were gaps in reading the book, nonetheless, I enjoyed the read even if it didn't quite reach the heights of The Sullen Sky Mystery and Shadow on the Wall. It's easy to see why Bailey was considered as one of the leading lights of (British) detective fiction and reminded me to give the short Reggie Fortune stories a shot.


Jonathan Creek: The Curse of the Bronze Lamp

"Don't think you can hold a man who can use his brain."
- Prof. S.F.X. van Dusen (Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13")
Last night, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (2014) closed the gate on the fifth season of Jonathan Creek and, contrary to my expectations, the ending of the episode left open a door to possibly a sixth season or another 90-minute television special.

I calculated from the synopsis the episode would end with Creek's funeral after saving Polly from a bunch of kidnappers in an impromptu bullet-catch act to put a permanent end to the series. Instead, we got more of the same, lightweight mish-mash of smaller mysteries thrown together to form an episode – except that here it was stitched in one overlapping story. So that was an improvement over The Letters of Septimus Noone (2014) and The Sinner and the Sandman (2014). 

First of all, there's the kidnapping of the clever wife of a cabinet minister, who's whisked away and kept in chains in a disused bunker in the woods, but clues are beginning to find their way out of the sealed prison: a feat only imaginable if she possessed the power of teleportation. The kidnapping is tied-in with the woman who cleans for Jonathan and Polly Creek, Denise, who begins to regret finding "Aladdin's Lamp" at a car boot sale and wishing for more excitement in her life. 
Be careful what you wish for!

 Polly has to help her dispose of the body of a male gigolo, who died in her bathtub, which is part of the reinvented dynamic of the series I genuinely enjoy – namely the comedic absurdity likely to be found in those original bantering, mystery solving husband-and-wife teams. Unfortunately, the comedy and the plot of this season don't gel as well as Kelley Roos' classic The Frightened Stiff (1942) and the excellent Sailor, Take Warning! (1944). Which, IMHO, is what Renwick should've aimed for this season even if it had come at the expense of the locked room motif of the series. 

There was a minor locked room mystery in last night's episode: after her ordeal with the gigolo in the bathtub, Denise changes the sheets on her bed and locks the door of her bedroom before going to sleep, but the next morning she finds an expensive watch underneath her pillow belonging to cabinet minister's wife! How did it get into the locked bedroom? 

At the end The Curse of the Bronze Lamp, I began to wonder if Renwick had read the criticism in the Jonathan Creek topic on the John Dickson Carr message board concerning one part of his plotting technique (SPOILER: the use of (unknown) accomplices) to create a seemingly impossible situation – which has now been completely phased out and replaced for trivial or coincidence laden impossibilities. The appearance of the wristwatch from a sealed bunker into a locked bedroom is a good example of the latter and the lotto prediction from the previous episode of the former. You can roughly work out how the watch got there, if you recognize the story the kidnap-plot was based on and snatching a book title from Carter Dickson for the episode was just to throw dust in the eyes of any genre savvy person who might be watching.

By the way... is it really that hard to come up with an impossible situation and a reasonably good solution? I'm always happily plotting along and coming up with possibilities how the murderer could've escapes from a locked room and failed to leave any footprints in several inches of snow. 

In lieu of any competition, The Curse of the Bronze Lamp stands as the best of the three episodes, but only because the plot was more focused and the last 40-minutes weren't as excruciatingly boring as the first twenty odd minutes. However, I'm afraid the only thing fans of Jonathan Creek will take away from this season is a kinder feeling towards the third and fourth season of the series.


Unfinished Business

"Every silver cane has a grubby end..."
- Albert Stroller (Hustle)  
Georgiana Ann Randolph was an accomplished and adulated mystery writer under the nom de plume of "Craig Rice," whose booze fueled, madcap shenanigans centering around John J. Malone garnered her the moniker of Queen of the Screwball Mystery, but Rice's standalones and reputedly ghosted novels carved out a reputation for themselves.

Home Sweet Homicide (1944) stands out in Rice's oeuvre as a rare, but truly original, standalone novel and essential reading for everyone who enjoys good fiction – regardless of which genre you prefer. I'm even tempted to say the book transcended the genre. However, Rice wrote more than just that one book and the praise I have seen being heaped on To Catch a Thief (1943), written as if by "Daphne Sanders," secured the title a spot at the top of my wish list. Well, I wasn't disappointed when I finally got around to reading it.

John Moon doubles as protagonist and antagonist in To Catch a Thief, shifting between thievery and snooping around for clues, which makes him ancestor of Lawrence Block's The Burglar Who-series, but relieving Poppy Hymers of a string of emeralds has top priority at the opening of the story – before everything becomes progressively worse. The car they're in crashes and Moon is forced to improvise a kidnapping. Poppy feels isolated from the world and decides to join Moon in his mission. And it's a mission. The story moves to the office of Donovan, a private-investigator, who was hired to investigate a thief targeting a group of seven men and sends them warning notes – signed by a person referring to himself simply as "N." Yes. This aspect of the plot vibrates with V for Vendetta-vibes.

The group formed a syndicate and left a financial massacre in their wake when they crashed the stock market, wiping out a slew of innocent people in the process, which gives Rice an excuse to slip in a bit of social commentary on a situation that's (to say the least) still topical today. Donovan gets to poke around the debris of lives they wrecked, while Poppy's stepmother, Dorothy Hymers, cooks up a plot with her lover, Leon Martelli, to steal her own bracelet and blame it on the mysterious "N" – who's well aware of the plot and stages a double-cross. The double-cross turns into a triple-cross when someone strangles an unconscious Mrs. Hymers after Moon left the house. Like Arsène Lupin in Maurice Leblanc's 813 (1910), Moon spearheads the murder inquiry in which he's one of the suspects and knows his way around a disguise. He even poses as a keen amateur detective to bother and drug the policeman guarding the scene of the crime!

This all makes To Catch a Thief very different in structure from every other Rice novel I have read to date, but you can still identify it as one of her stories because it's covered with one tell-tale marking: her detectives operate as a team. There's Poppy playing Evey to Moon's "V" and Donovan has close ties with Tom Clark of The Gazette and Inspector Garrity of the Homicide Squad. Moon also has semi-official team mates in a former prizefighter and a forger/fixer. There's a Leverage reference hidden in there somewhere.

Moon and Donovan agree on a truce in order to find the murderer of Mrs. Hymers, while suspects go missing and the body count keeps rising, however, the actual question of the book is the identity of John Moon – who could be anyone from a figure in the background story of the financial raiders or even maintaining a third identity.

I love a good roguish tale as much as a well crafted mystery and Rice skillfully guided the plot through the gray area separating the genres, but, surprisingly, the zaniness was toned down quite a bit and you could say this was Rice at her most sober. To Catch a Thief is not an overly serious or drab book, far from it, it's not written in the tipsy, punch-drunk style of the Malone novels. Despite the typical Ricean plot elements, there's a serious, but human, touch to the story and there were a few very well drawn scenes. I liked the book is what I'm trying to say. But then again, Rice seldom disappoints.

Note for the curious: the penname "Daphne Sanders" was the name of a character from The Wrong Murder (1940). If only JDC knew picking a pseudonym could be that easy.


Jonathan Creek: The Sinner and the Sandman

"Since the Brother of Death daily haunts us with dying mementoes."
- Sir Thomas Browne
Where to begin, where to begin...

The Sinner and the Sandman (2014) is the second episode from the fifth, three-part season of Jonathan Creek, and as much as I hate to say it, the series is dying at its leisure. That much is obvious after tonight. The previous episode, The Letters of Septimus Noone (2014), suffered from having too many plot threads and not enough time to explore them all, but here it was the exact opposite – a five-minute brain teaser stretched into a sixty-minute episode. Nothing happened for nearly an hour!

David Renwick gives, more and more, the impression of being completely out of ideas for seemingly impossible problems for the series and tired comedy bits were thrown in as substitutions. They might as well have re-launched this season (without acknowledging it) under the title One Foot in the Grave and draw a chuckle from confusing their viewers.

Anyhow, Jonathan and Polly Creek are immersing themselves in the plain, drab everyday existence of village life, away from Jonathan’s alternative career, but there’s always a mystery to be found in the British countryside – even if they turn out to be nothing of the kind. Polly is involved with the local community center, where a scandal is brewing, and Jonathan has to make a charitable call on the local recluse, Mr. Eric Ipswich a.k.a. "The Amazing Astrodamus," whose home harbors a feat of clairvoyance from the past. Behind fifty years worth of wallpaper, they find the winning lottery numbers from a local winner with the words "WILL WIN" scrawled underneath it. Unfortunately, the (gist of the) solution should occur to everyone almost immediately, especially after the cross symbol is found, with the real the real problem being how to verify it. Renwick nicely tied a problem to this apparent act of clairvoyance, but coincidence is the key word for both of them. That's why I didn’t tag this review with "Locked Room Mysteries" and "Impossible Crimes" labels.

There are slight, almost residue traces of the supernatural when the arrival of a baby at the vicarage coincides with reports of a shadowy, hunchbacked beast with glowing eyes prowling the garden and going through the trash. Again, there's not much of interest here and presented only to deliver an obvious punch line at the end. Only time Jonathan Creek made me laugh this season was in the previous episode, when one of the characters suddenly realized she had read a text message meant for Polly and bellowed on for a full minute how glad she is it wasn’t her dad who'd just died – with Polly sitting right next to her! So dark. Comedy here hardly deserves a second look.

The "Sandman" from the episode title is a figure from Polly's nightmare and the dream sequence suggests this was a British relative of Uncle Paul who urged Polly to keep grown-up secrets, but whereas comedy was attempted to draw from the other plot-thread, here it was to create a forced, emotional moment to end the show with. It was so sweet... I'm still wiping the diabetes from the corner of my eyes.

I want to stress here how much I normally enjoy Jonathan Creek and actually like how Renwick reinvented the character, but, plot-and story wise, the series has now reached a phase were it could apply for euthanasia had it run in my country. That's really the nicest way I can put it (rewrote and scrapped a lot for this review). I'll watch the last episode for completion, however, I don't even expect it to be traditionally that one good episode every season has had. But, hopefully, I'm wrong and Renwick saved the best for last. 

Finally, I hope to have a regular review up this weekend. Hopefully. 


On Stranger Tides

"It's a princely scheme."
- Captain Hook (J.M. Barrie's Peter and Wendy, 1911) 
I'll probably be returning to that luminous age of detective stories for the next review, having bobbed around in its post-era for the past few weeks, but, for the moment, I'll be flicking a glance at Death in a Deck Chair (1984) by K.K. Beck – praised for her "graceful recreations of the old-fashioned, Golden Age whodunit."

K.K. Beck is an American mystery novelist who debuted in 1984 with Death in a Deck Chair and Death of a Prom Queen, published under the penname "Marie Oliver," followed by a dozen or so detective novels over the next twenty years. Beck had two, short-lived series-characters in her repertoire and one of them was a 19-year-old woman, Iris Cooper, whose adventures are set in the 1920s and invoke the mysteries of the period – laced with gentle, tongue-in-cheek humor.

Death in a Deck Chair takes place aboard the S.S. Irenia bound for the United States and homeward for Iris Cooper, who circled the globe with her aunt, Hermione, and now apprehensive about the future instead of enjoying the last days of the trip. There is, however, no shortage of interesting passengers aboard the ship: Professor Ignacz Probrislow's expertise is the criminal mind and is accompanied by his secretary, Mr. Norman Twist. The professor occasionally interpreters for Cardinal DeLaurenti, who doesn't speak a word of English. Vera Nadi is one of the shining stars of moving pictures and is being dogged by a newspaperman named James Clancy. A German governess, Fräulein Reiter, is charged with looking after two energetic, nosy children aboard and there's British Colonel Marris. There are a bunch of Americans, like the millionaire Mr. Ogle, Judge Omar Griffin and Mrs. Griffin, and a pianist of the orchestra whispers words of warning about one of them to Iris.

All in all, a nice a collective of potential suspects to buzz around the promenade deck at the moment, one of them, expertly pushes a knife in the back of Mr. Twist without being seen. I immediately zoomed-in on the wrong suspect, because the book was listed in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) as an impossible stabbing and circumstances lead me to believe Beck had retooled a shopworn trick to be audaciously used in the open-air. That was not the case. Not that the actual method was any less daring, but I wouldn't have tagged the book as a (full) impossible crime novel. The name of the character I suspected also cemented my conviction longer than it should've lasted (look up the authors full name).

Evidently, Death in a Deck Chair is a charming emulation of Agatha Christie, but not necessarily of the titles you’d imagine from the description thus far. There are talks about and connections with a European kingdom that has disappeared from the map in the aftermath of The Great War. The shipboard setting and international cast of characters makes you think of Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937), but Balkan politics, sinister society names Comrades of a New Dawn, false identities and lost royalty creeping to the foreground places the plot closer to The Secret of Chimneys (1925) – which is a book I hadn't thought about or read in a very, very long time. I was actually surprised I remembered parts of that book.

Anyhow, Beck's talent as a writer showed in entwining these opposing plot elements (old-fashioned whodunit vs. spy/pre-WWII royalty thriller), while maintaining a light and humorous touch to the story, without becoming outright farcical. I wouldn't rank Death in a Deck Chair at the top of the list of shipboard mysteries, but it's an accomplished, gentle throwback to a time when detective stories were allowed to be fun and a tad-bit eccentric. I would say you should judge for yourself and make the crossing from cover-to-cover, but that would be a word joke (of sorts) and people always cringe at them.


Jonathan Creek: The Letters of Septimus Noone

"There is no point in using the word impossible to describe something that has clearly happened."
 - Douglas Adams (Dirk Gentle's Holistic Detective Agency, 1987)
After eons of one-off appearances in holiday specials, Jonathan Creek reemerged on the small screen last evening in the first of three regular episodes, entitled The Letters of Septimus Noone (2014), but David Renwick, creator and sole writer of the series, took a different approach to the plot this time around – tilting it at an inverted angle.

Jonathan & Polly Creek
The first difference between The Letters of Septimus Noone and the specials of the preceding years is the lack of an atmospheric setting and back-story permeating with suggestions of the supernatural. There aren't any bedrooms digesting its guest over night or portraits coming to life here. However, it's not a return to the old form either. 

Jonathan Creek and his wife, Polly, are attending a West End musical performance of Gaston Leroux's The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) and the seemingly impossible attack in the play is echoed backstage. Star of the show, Juno Pirelli, is found with a knife wound in her dressing room after they had to break open the bolted door and witnesses in the hallway saw nobody sneaking in-and out of the room – leaving them stunned and baffled. Only the viewer at home saw the whole thing unfold and this was done so they could have a chuckle at the expense of Creek's rival: a young criminology student with a keen eye for details and a penchant for leaps of logic. 

The very Sherlockian Ridley
Ridley is a nudge and a wink at Sherlock and his first encounter with Creek has a scene in which he (wrongly) deducts he just returned from Reykjavik, complete of close-ups and zoom-ins of the clues, but Ridley was mainly there to provide a preposterous false solution for the attack in the locked dressing room. The main components of Ridley’s solution are old hat, but there was one, subtle detail borrowed from one of my favorite impossible crime novels. Did you spot it?

There are also subplots lurking in the background of the episode. An elderly woman, Hazel Prosser, shares an incredible story with Polly about the day she brought the urn with her mother's ashes home and spilled them when startled by the telephone. She was called away, but upon her return, the pile of ash had vanished from the carpet! The windows were all secured from the inside and Hazel locked the front door before going away. It's a minor, but fun, subplot and could be plucked from my series of posts on real-life, often domestic locked room mysteries (parts: I, II, III, IV and V). The other subplot involves Polly's father, who passed away, and a stack of old letters written to her mother and Renwick's focus was on this plot-thread – as nearly all the clues in this episode point towards this problem. Downside is that it's almost impossible to miss the answer. But is it fair to complain about fair clueing?

Anyhow, The Letters of Septimus Noone is a visual collection of separate puzzles, clicking together through characters and events making connections, however, while this made the plot tidier than the patch-work plotting of The Clue of the Savant's Thumb (2013), it also made the characters and plot feel slight. Juggling between these separate stories meant some lacked the exposure to be fully effective such as Ridley lampooning the modern-day interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, I have to compliment Renwick on how he managed to reinvent the series. Jonathan Creek discarded the duffle coat and left the magician business (and windmill!) behind and married Polly, which now makes them one of those wisecracking, mystery solving couples that were all the rage in the 1940s (e.g. Kelley Roos). 

So, all in all, a somewhat imperfect beginning to the new series, but, hopefully, the next episode has a grand (central) impossible problem at the heart of the episode.

By the way, the final episode of this season is now titled The Curse of the Bronze Lamp (2014), which has a similar problem as the Carter Dickson novel of the same title and involves a kidnap victim disappearing under her captor's eyes as if by teleportation. I hope Renwick's solution doesn't simply redress the trick, but I fear, as this may be the last season, Creek will end up doing an impromptu bullet-catch act with the kidnappers in order to save Polly – and we'll see Maddy back in a cameo at the funeral. Ridley may actually take the torch from Creek as hilarious inept detective who keeps stumbling to the correct solution. A "Sleeping Moore" without the tranquilizer darts.