Double, Double

"You never count on the perfect plan. The perfect plan, it has too many moving parts... you got to expect the perfect plan to fail."
- Nathan Ford (Leverage
There are a number of impossible situations of the miscellaneous kind, such as trains being whisked away in between two stations or an entire house vanishing over night, but they are uncommon because they're hard to do convincingly – not to mention the lack of wriggle room for an original solution. The doppelgänger of folklore is another example of an inviting premise trammeled by a limited amount of options to work with, if the supernatural has to be kept outdoors.

Helen McCloy's suspenseful Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) and Time Waits for Norman (1998) from the Jonathan Creek TV-series seemingly did everything that was (fairly) possible with the premise, however, Charlotte Armstrong found a nifty and clever way to extract some extra mileage out of the doppelgänger-ploy in The Dream Walker (1955) – which has also been published as Alibi for Murder.

Armstrong's twist lies in not coming up with a brand new solution to the problem, but showing the reader the ugly, plain woodwork behind the plot to assassinate the character of the respected John Paul Marcus. The reader knows from the offset who, why-and how and this makes The Dream Walker an inverted impossible crime story (another rarity), but the advantage is that the astral projection trick can be played up to full effect for story telling purpose. You're sort-of committing yourself with a locked room premise to deliver some kind of clever or original trickery at the end.

The Dream Walker tells the reader from the beginning Raymond Pankerman, third-generation millionaire, financiered the smear campaign against Marcus, after the latter alerted Uncle Sam of the illegal activities of the former, by offering a fat reward to Kent Shaws – brains of the outfit and slightly unhinged. Cora Steffani and Darlene Hite round out the team. Shaw's crazy scheme begins like a benevolent urban legend after Cora passes into a trance for the first time and dream walks. Miles away. Usually in another state of the country. There were even people who confirm to have talked to Cora while she was laying unconscious in another circle consisting of impeccable witnesses with no reason to lie.

While suggestions of an elaborate publicity stunt and "there are more things in Heaven and Earth" are being volleyed around, the reader can feel smug the entire time for knowing more than the characters trying to figure out what's happening. You're far more willing to go along with the insane scheme, because the inverted structure of the story makes the reader feel like a silent partner in the plot. You can simply sit back and look bemused at the unfolding events, complimenting Armstrong when she throws in an uncontrollable variable in the perfect plan of the foursome – forcing the dream walker to stumble over a body. It does, however, give the story traction in the press and Marcus eventually finds himself in a compromising position and nobody believes it when everybody swears, Marcus included, he didn't receive an envelope from the dream girl.

As noted in my review of The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943), it was Patrick, blogging At the Scene of the Crime, who propelled Charlotte Armstrong higher up my wish list (thanks!) and have to agree on two of his main points: it’s a strong statement against the witch hunts of the McCarthy-era and Armstrong knew how to pen a suspenseful story. Once again, this simple trick, made complicated for the sake of being complicated, worked admirably because of the inverted angle for the reader. The moment everyone in the story has figured it out the reader doesn't respond: oh, there were two of them, because that was never the point. Armstrong could focus completely on the characters and their exploits.

I have to add that I still think Patrick Quentin's Black Widow (1952) is the best persecution / suspense story of its kind, but The Dream Walker comes in as a close second. So I'll definitely be returning to Armstrong. 

By the way, you can all be proud of me: I resolutely said no when a punning post-title, "A Trance-Continental Flight," suggested itself. None of that Tom Foolery on this blog! 


Nowhere to Hide

"The lamps are going out all over Europe...
 - Edward Grey
The first conflict of interests on a global scale, usually referred to as The Great War or The First World War, is often cited as the start of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, however, there are barely any war-time set mysteries from the period – unlike the abundance of World War II mysteries from twenty odd years later.
"The Signaling from Scarthoe Hill..."

Well, I found a rare World War I spy/detective story when thumbing through my copy of Locked Room Mysteries and Other Impossible Crimes (1991), "Flashlights" by Laurence Clarke, published in the May issue of The Strand Magazine of 1918. The story is illustrated by Warwick Reynolds. I had flicked pass the entry of the story before, but it was an uncollected, stand-alone story and only just noticed the publication date. It was a public domain story and available, fully illustrated, here as part of the collected issues from January to June.

The impossibility of "Flashlights" are the streaks of magnesium-lights being sent up to the sky from Scarthoe Hill, signals to German submarines, and they've cost to British navy two ships as a consequence. To stop the signals, Captain of the Coastguard, Evan Carlton, hermitically sealed off the hillside with a cordon of troops, but the flares persevere. Carlton himself witnessed, through a telescope, the flares being sent up and the barrier of soldiers closing in on the spot where the light emanated from – only to discover the place completely deserted. No. The solution has more originality than revealing the spy was wearing a soldier's uniform and blended in with the cordon sanitaire, but the answer does own some debt to ideas from its time and its predecessors.  

A Military Draft (Get it!?)

A special-agent attached to the Admiralty Secret Service, Terrence Milner, is dropped from the sea on the land in a one-man amphibious landing and takes cover in an abandoned house. Milner expects to be staking out for days or even weeks, but the flares are soon lighting up Scarthoe Hill again and the manor is suddenly everything but deserted. Laughter is heard. And Milner is confronted with an unusual homely picture. Milner's landing and investigation of the house are the best portions of the story. It's a nice bit of suspense with a wartime setting with an impossible problem lurking in the background and reminded me somewhat of John Dickson Carr's excellent Captain Cut-Throat (1955), which is a historical spy/mystery set during the Napoleonic Wars. I wonder if Carr was aware of Clarke's story.

The last part of "Flashlights" slightly diminishes the overall quality of the story with some Victorian love-friction between Milner and a woman, whom he tries to third-degree from her German husband – who's unflattering depiction can be attributed to the "Down with the Hun" position of the Brits at the time. Overall, "Flashlights" is noteworthy as both a detective-and locked room story, because of its unique setting, impossible problem and (historical) ties to the Scientific School of Detection. It's a short story that's more than worth the few minutes it takes you to read it and can be found (again) here.

I hope to back with another review before long, because I'm halfway through a very unusual (inverted) impossible crime story.


Uneasy Ties

"Curiosity is useful for us detectives. It makes us nibble away at impossible problems."
- MacDougal Duff 
Charlotte Armstrong's The Case of the Weird Sisters (1943) was jotted down on my wish list after a laudatory and tantalizing review from Patrick, who still blogs At the Scene of the Crime, praising the novel as "one of the most uniquely-constructed impossible crime mysteries I've ever come across." Naturally, my interest was piqued, especially after finding out the book escaped the attention of Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Inpossible Crimes (1991), but that was for an obvious reason – 'cause it is not an impossible crime story. But more on that later.

I have to agree Armstrong took an unconventional, but fanciful, approach to constructing the plot and characterization that was both in-depth and grotesque. In a way, the story reminded me of some of John Dickson Carr's later period Sir Henry Merrivale novels, in which he experimented by removing or reducing one of the central ingredients of a whodunit (e.g. A Graveyard to Let, 1949).

The Case of the Weird Sisters begins conventionally enough with the engagement between Alice Brennan and Innes Whitlock, who has one million dollars to his name. It's a marriage of convenience and they both take something away from it: Innes gets the wife he desires and Alice's future is secure in a rapidly changing world. However, the unconventionality begins to seep through when their car, conveniently (plot-wise, that is), breaks down while passing through Innes hometown of Ogaunee, Michigan, forcing them in a situation they would've otherwise avoided – visiting Innes' three sisters at their ancestral home.

"Whitlock Girls" are what remains of the town's past dynasty and their distorted personalities, detached from reality, is reflected in both their characters and physical presentation. Maud is a lazy slob who gradually lost her hearing and a car-crash left Isabel with one arm, but Gertrude is the one Innes fears as it was negligence that left her blind in a horse-riding accident. Maud, Isabel and Gertrude are locked in their own worlds, but the question arises if these separate entities could form an alliance when they learn of the engagement and the accidents begin to happen. The missing road sign could've meant anything, but the falling lamp and tinkering around with gas pipes are clear indicators of malice. And they do what every rational human being would do in a case of attempted murder: call the police bring in an amateur detective!

MacDougal Duff is a retired historian-turned-detective and furnished this review with an opening quote, but The Case of the Weird Sisters really shouldn't be classified as being of the impossible variety. The nature of the disguised murder attempts require the simple power sight and sight or the practical use of both arms, however, the physical restrictions aren't even considered a necessary obstacle by Duff – arguing the sisters could've been in cahoots or one of them isn't half as disabled as everyone believes. You could argue it's a borderline impossible crime, but I would (IMHO) place it closer to such howdunits as Dorothy L. Sayers' Unnatural Death (1927). The disabilities of the three sisters mainly functions here to cross a nifty array of possible scenarios off against the sequence of events.

Patrick justly points out that the sequence of events, in some instances, was perhaps too clever for its own good, but the genuine weakness of The Case of the Weird Sisters may also be the books biggest triumph: Armstrong kneaded a fascinating detective story with compellable characters out of the mundane facts of how-and when a table lamp was thrown over and a road sign was removed. It's not a first-grade mystery and perhaps needed a full-blown impossible problem as the centerpiece of the plot, but it's a strangely compelling story. 

By the way, I smirked immaturely a couple of times at the poor choice of words directed at the Whitlock sisters. Duff actually begins explaining himself to the blind, but stuck-up, Gertrude with "Well, you see..." and part of me wanted Duff to follow up with "...truth only falls on deaf ears if people refuse to see it or grab it with both hands, you fossilized crayfish. Why aren't you collecting dust up in the attic?

Hey, I gathered from the overall story that Armstrong didn't like the Whitlock's either. So... until next time.


Mapping Out a Plan

"It does help the reader relate events to setting, and does so accurately and with a sense of atmosphere. As a combination of decoration and usefulness, it's probably the best of the lot."
- Jack Iams (on the "mapback" edition of his Girl Meets Body, 1947)
I unearthed a spiral-bound book during a minor restructuring of my shelves and it's one of those books I intended to read, but lingered on the pile before being shelved. Well, Piet Schreuders' The Dell Mapbacks (1997) is actually more of a diary posing as a booklet than an actual book. It goes in a few short chapters, fourteen pages in total, over the history of the immense popular and highly collectible Dell Mapbacks – distinguished by their airbrushed cover art and crime maps on the back covers.

Schreuders is a graphic designer by trade and admirably adopted the Dell Mapback style-and trademarks for the compilation of The Dell Mapbacks, which is plainly a labor of love of a collector/fan. The book even opens with What This Book is About ("a series of highly collectible BOOKS published between 1943 and 1953"), Wouldn't You Like to Know ("who murdered the DELL historian, William H. Lyles?") and Persons this Book is about – followed by a dramatis personae and a List of Exciting Illustrations.

Dell Books was brought into being in the middle of World War II when Dell founder, George T. Delacorte, Jr., needed paper to print books and Lloyd Smith of Western Printing & Lithographing wanted printing work, but the most eye-brow raising from this chapter was how these beloved collectibles were abridged or even censored! "Some books were abridged drastically so as to fit Dell's page requirements" and "although the front cover blurb... suggested that the books were complete, they rarely were." And worse: "one compositor, Ralph MacNichol, spiced the house style with his editorial judgment by removing words like Christ, Jesus, and Goddamn." It's good to see one moral arbiter had to foresight to see the possibility of the nazi's eventually opening a North-American branch of the Kultuurkamer and brushed up on his résumé just in case. Hey, I had to raise that petty censorship with a Godwin.

The following chapter concerns the art-department of Dell Books and in particular the work of Gerald B. Gregg, who painted the covers of 212 novels and drew a couple of back covers, and praised for "extraordinary skill with the airbrush which made the Dell covers of the 1940s unique in appearance." True to the nature of a detective story, Gregg was "resorting to the tricks of the time to get the effects" such as pasting a paper doily onto the bottom of a painting (i.e. cover of Fanny Heaslip Lea’s Half Angel, 1946; a romance novel). The Dell Mapbacks reproduces fourteen of Gregg's covers in this book. Another artist mentioned in this chapter is Robert Stanley, who used himself as a model for characters such as Sam Spade, Mike Shayne, Hercule Poirot and Zorro! 

However, it's the crime map on the back covers that stands out as the standard feature among these Dell Book trademarks, and the feature that keeps drawing-in readers, but they probably cost them the most work – from editors and volunteers to map specialists. Something worth mentioning is that Schreuders included two of his own (fake) mapbacks, but they are truly astonishing pieces of art! I especially liked the map showing the location, Haags Gemeentemuseum, of the first international paperback art exhibition in The Hague, in February, 1981. The chapter also notes Dell historian, Lyles, discovered the identity of a prolific crime back artist, Ruth Belew, who drew 150 (or so) in the series.

The historic overview of Dell Books ends on a sad note with the story of William H. Lyles, writer and researcher, who wrote a biography of the Dell Books entitled Putting Dell on the Map (1983) and it's reputedly a meticulous analysis of the stories in comparison with the artwork/crime maps. Unfortunately, there were personal and financial problems for Lyles (resulting in selling-off his entire and complete collection of mapbacks), which ended with him snapping and committing suicide after shooting (and wounding) his then girlfriend in July of 1996. The remainder of The Dell Mapbacks consists of a diary for 1998 and interspersed with replications of front-and back covers of various Dell publications – from mystery and romance to western and science fiction. Flipped through the book again, but it's hard to pick a favorite. Even the simple map of the European Theater of Operation, from the back cover of Eisenhower Was My Boss (1948; Kay Summersby), makes me want to seek out that book.   

Long story short, The Dell Mapbacks is an interesting curio and as collectible for Mapback collectors as the original books. And Schreuders included a list of essential reading, if your interest has been piqued on this niche subject.

Yes, I just rambled for more than a full page on what basically amounts to a calendar/diary from 16 years ago, because it had some background info in it about a defunct publisher of detective stories from the 40s. Again: welcome to the niche corner.


Behind Locked Doors

"Is it a big house or is he just out to the police?
- Lt. Columbo (Murder Under Glass, 1978)
Looking back at my review of E.C.R. Lorac's Fire in the Thatch (1946), I noted that, while it was a good read, I'd probably end up only remembering the story's depiction of post-WWII England and the same was true for the backdrop of Murder by Matchlight (1945) – which I read before this blog was flung on the web. Lorac obviously knew how to create an evocative surrounding and giving her characters a touch of life, but Rope's End, Rogue's End (1942) indicates Lorac also knew her way around an intricate tangle of plot threads. And is it any wonder the book secured a spot in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders and Other Impossible Crimes (1991)? Anyhow, on to the review.

Wulfstane Manor is a mansion that served as a fortified holding in the days of the Plantagenets, but has remained untouched since Queen Anne's time and the place is beginning to show its age. Lorac's (almost) turns the old, creaking Wulfstane Manor with its faded and worn furniture in a character in itself: like a very old man sitting quietly in the corner and observing everyone around him. In this case, it's what left of the once wealthy Mallowood clan. The house now belongs to Veronica and her twin brother, Martin, who suffered from infantile paralysis as a teenager and is easily affected by stress, which is partly the reason why their father left them the house – and that caused a row and fall-out between them and their three brothers.

Richard is an adventurer and "brings back unknown primulas and new Tibetan poppies for wealthy gardeners to cherish," while Basil and Paul replenished the lost family wealth by becoming "city wallahs" in the finance sector. It has always been Paul's wish to restore the old family home, but there's a lot of bad blood between Paul and Veronica. And, of course, this family is reunited at Wulfstane the day before Paul leaves for a trip around the world. Nevertheless, he tries a last ditch effort to pursued his sister to sell the house and may even tempered with their already modest income to drive his point home (pun not intended, I swear!).

The exchange between brother and sister has all the courtesy of a meeting between two diplomats from the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War: "How pleasant that we can both express our aversions in a manner so academic, Paul! As a family, our mode of speech is remarkably uncorrupted by either temper or jargon" replied with "Yes. There's still something to be said for breeding... we don't descend to face-slapping tactics in practice, whatever the trend of our feelings..."

Still, the reunion wasn't a complete disaster and a row was prevented, but the following day a gunshot is heard from the upper-floor and the solid, unyielding door to the disused playroom had to be forcefully broken open and what they found was the body of one of the four brothers – a sporting gun with a piece of string leading from his foot to the trigger. A simple and obvious case of suicide, however, loose ends brings Chief Inspector Macdonald in for consultation and begins to ask pesky questions.

Rope's End, Rogue's End is a legitimate locked room mystery and doesn't relay on the cop-out solution of the murderer dumping the key in the room after breaking down the door. I hate those. And, unfortunately, usually found in these second-tier mystery novels. However, the impossibility of the murder actually strengthened the plot of the story, because it's one of few aspects in the overall story that genuinely prevents a haughty armchair detective from being too clever and cute. I think everyone who has read a few detective stories intuitively comes up with the same solution, but, factoring in that two of the four brothers are out of reach (after the murder) and how everyone's movements played out really upset every possible variation of this solution I tried. It had to be right!

I also liked how the locked room problem was presented and treated: the victim was heard moving around in the playroom before the sound of a gunshot and the only escape the window provides is a thirty foot drop. The badly maintained roof is as impassable as a minefield and alternative solutions are discussed/rejected. The actual solution is fairly simple (in theory) in comparison with its presentation, but it's acceptable and original enough to not leave me disappointed.

That being said, Rope End's, Rogue's End is not completely flawless, but it's the best and most skillfully handled detective story I have read from Lorac thus far.


The Art of Deception

"For in the long run, either through a lie, or through truth, people were bound to give themselves away..." 
- Agatha Christie's After the Funeral (1953)
After a brief, unannounced leave-of-absence from this blog, I've been slowly picking up my normal reading pace and managed to finish My True Love Lies (1947) by Lenore Glen Offord in just a few days. And no, contrary to the title, it's not a sugary, one-note romance novel, in which true love stands as the sole survivor, but a bone-fide detective story by a writer who served as the mystery critic for the San Francisco Globe for three decades – and stood-in for Anthony Boucher whenever he was unavailable during World War II.

My True Love Lies is set in the year following Allied victories over the Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific, but civilian and military life is still entwined in the San Francisco of 1946. The streets are filled with navy uniforms and the story's protagonist, Noel Bruce, has a job as a government job as a paid driver while she studies (line-) drawing at the Sherwin Art School. Noel is also friends with a charming and good humored Navy commander, named Miles Coree, who came back to San Francisco to find his fiancée married to another man.

A great detective once observed artistic blood is liable to take the strangest forms and the body found inside an unfinished war sculpture, a clay model called "Woman at the Grave," can attest to that statement!

Offord is represented on my best-of list with The Glass Mask (1944), because it’s an excellent treatment of the "perfect murder" ploy without a cop-out ending and an example of the kind of detective stories American's weren't suppose to be writing at the time: the kind set in a small and sleepy country-side town in which time has crept forward instead of marched. My True Love Lies doesn't bat in the same league as The Glass Mask, but the writing plainly shows Offord knew her way around a plot.

The reader is constantly kept busy with mysterious developments and analysis's of the crime. There are crimes from the past lingering in the present and unknown pursuers are harassing Noel and the relationship between the different characters become more, and more, entangled. There are the "Five Scared Artists:" Noel, Anna Tannehill (it was her sculpture in which the body was discovered), Will Rome, Rita Steffany and Paul Watkins – who's inseparable from his cousin, Daisy. This lot is rounded out by the head of the art school, Eugene "Papa Gene" Fenmer, a brash reporter from the Eagle, Red Hobart, a derelict known as "Old Dad" and the ex-wife of the murdered man. And they all gravitate towards the scene of the crime.

Offord actually came up with a clever solution as to why the corpse was hidden in the clay model (other than dramatic effect) and there was a nifty double-twist at the end, which made My True Love Lies an above average mystery novel. It missed that special spark to make it really great, but it's definitely better than similar artsy-themed detective stories such as Dorothy L. Sayers' Five Red Herrings (1931) and Ngiao Marsh's Artists in Crime (1938).

In parting, here's a nugget of wisdom tugged away in the opening of the second chapter of My True Love Lies and reflects on the news playing up the Bohemian angle of the murder case: "Like many journalistic implications, these were partly true and mostly a long way from accuracy." We're almost a century removed from the publication of this book, but I'm afraid this little quote still holds some truth today considering you could make a special-edition DVD box-set for 3D home entertainment systems of the recent news coverage of the missing Flight 370 with downloadable content of Jesse Ventura taking the viewer through all the conspiracy theories.  

Well, enough filler writing for one review and I'll probably grab a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery from the shelves for my next read.