Shreds of Evidence

"Minutes may mean the difference between a good defense and a verdict of first-degree murder."
- Perry Mason 
The Case of the Baited Hook (1940) marked the sixteenth appearance by Erle Stanley Gardner's scheming and manipulative defense attorney, the inimitable Perry Mason, since the series' inception in 1933 and begins when Mason is summoned back to the office by a late-night phone call.

Perry Mason is soon joined by Robert Peltham and a masked woman, completely garbed in an omnipresent, buttoned up raincoat, and Peltham wants her protected from a problem that will probably be all over the news papers the following day – without revealing any vital details of the case. For example: the identity of the masked woman. However, Mason takes the unknown case with an anonymous co-client and receives one-half of a severed $10.000 bill, which he'll receive in full when the woman reveals herself to him by giving the other half of the bill.

Meanwhile, there's another, more assertive, clientele waiting for Mason and Mrs. Trump's problem concerns the welfare of a now grown orphan, named Byrl Gailord, who lost her parents, Russian refugees, when the boat they were on was torpedoed in 1918. Mrs. Trump whisked the girl away and funded her stay in an orphanage home, but they sold Byrl regardless of the funding that was still coming in. Byrl's "mother" remarried after the death of her "father" and when her "mother" passed away, the trustee became her stepfather, Albert Tidings, which doesn't sit well with Mrs. Trump – and not without reason. Tidings' body is found in the bedroom of his bungalow, shot in the chest, without his shoes and lipstick smudges on his face. And thus the plot-threads begin to converge.

I guess one of the allures of the Perry Mason series, outside of the courtroom antics and shenanigans, remains the involvement of Mason himself in the cases and actively trying to influence the course of events – instead of just following them to their conclusion. Mason is always up to something and the reader is (usually) right there to witness it. The first thing Mason does after the phone call in the opening was getting in contact with his private-eye friend/business associate, Paul Drake, to call in a stake out of the street and trace license plates, but Mason really shines when he's treading on thin ice. In one instance, Mason resorts to purse snatching and turns the table on the poor woman when a police officer tries to intervene or when's putting the legal screws on an unwilling witness. There was also a collision between the scheming lawyer and the buffoonish Sgt. Holcombe, in which Mason is threatened to be arrested on the moment The Clarion is about to come with breaking news. Mason's commentary on possible headlines and editorial comments on his arrest were amusing, to say the least, and were reminiscent of the some of the verbal exchanges between Nero Wolfe and the always fuming Inspector Cramer.

As par of the course, The Case of the Baited Hook is a densely plotted affair and I have noted before that lesser, second-string mystery writers could probably have padded several novels with the amount of material Gardner packs into a single story. Interestingly, the manipulation of time was a recurring motif in The Case of the Baited Hook and surfaced in several of the plot-threads – hence the opening quote. Only downside was that there were perhaps too many fingers in the pie to create the kind of case that baffled even Mason for a large segment of the story.

It is, nevertheless, admirable that Gardner's name on a book cover is almost a hallmark guarantee of quality that the detective story you're about to read has an actual plot. Even if it makes those cursed things sometimes difficult to review. 

Previously reviewed in this series: 

The Case of the Baited Hook (1940)
The Case of the Empty Tin (1941)
The Case of the Drowning Duck (1942)
The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito (1943)
The Case of the Lonely Heiress (1948) 


Days of Yore

"I am bound to tell what I am being told, but not in every case to believe it."
- Herodotus
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," published in Graham's Magazine in 1841, was the first to be recognized as a full-fledged detective story and locked room mystery. However, the idea of a crime perpetrated in a sealed room is even older than that. Case in point: Herodotus of Halicarnassus.

Herodotus was a historian in ancient Greece of the 5th century BC (c. 485-425) and known as "The Father of History," but the tale of "Rhampsinitus and the Thief" also qualifies him as the progenitor of the Locked Room Mystery and Inverted Detective Story! It's believed that Egyptian priests passed on the story to Herodotus as an anecdote, and while the historian questioned the veracity of the account, it was a story too good not to record – and perhaps even embellished it here and there.

King Rhampsinitus was said to possess an enormous wealth in silver, "which none of the kings born after him could surpass or even come near to," and wanting to protect his personal fortune he ordered to built "a chamber of stone." Unfortunately, for the king, one of the builders "disposed one of the stones in such a manner that it could be taken out easily from the wall," which is how his sons began to plunder to the king's treasure room after their old man passed away. The king is mortified when his wealth begins to diminish and strews the vault with booby traps, but the mystification is complete when they discover "the body of thief held in the trap without his head" and "the chamber unbroken, with no way to come in by or go out."

I can believe there's a core of truth in this portion of the story and that there have been robberies in ancient times by the very men who constructed a strong room or vault, but what follows is pure fiction in the cat-and-mouse tradition. The body of the headless thief is hung upon a wall, and guarded, much to the grief of his mother and the robbers' brother hatches a plan to retrieve the body for burial – which simply consists of plying the guards with drinks. This is, however, not the end of the tale as the king comes up with a plan of his own and his daughter is used to bait the hook. But, as to be expected, the nameless thief again outsmarts the king and eventually wins the princess' hand with the assistance of a severed arm!

On a whole, "Rhampsinitus and the Thief" was an interesting and enjoyable excursion to one of the earliest known locked room mysteries/detective stories, but I began to really appreciate the story after reading "Bel and the Dragon" from the Book of Daniel as comparison material. It's cited as another locked room mystery from antiquity.

The first part of "Bel and the Dragon" has some intriguing ideas that can be found in impossible crime stories from a much, much later vintage: there's a temple dedicated to a god named Bel, in which King Cyrus leaves food and drinks as an offering. Daniel is skeptical and sets out to prove Bel isn't real. A supernatural entity occupying a specific room or place is a popular theme for impossible crime stories, such as Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954) and Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968), and sealing the door with a signet echoes how rooms were locked in John Dickson Carr's The Sleeping Sphinx (1947) and Paul Halter's La quatrième porte (The Fourth Door, 1987). I guess the main exception is how footprints are being used as proof of human intervention instead of a supernatural agency.

Unfortunately, the second half is, more or less, what I expected from a biblical story and probably why I prefer Herodotus' anecdote, because the hero had to rely on his wits and brawn throughout the entire story – while Daniel enjoyed divine protection. And that's just plain cheating!

If there's anything to take away from these two stories, it’s a growing conviction that a place such as the library in Alexandria used to store manuscripts that, mystery fans and scholars alike, would respectfully have referred to as "The Ancient Ones." We really need to figure out how to time travel!


A Troublesome Journey

"He who goes out on the hills to meet the tiger must pay the price."
 - Charlie Chan (Keeper of the Keys, 1932)
Carl Wilhelm Wormser was born in 1876, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and served as a landboard chairman, judicial officer and prosecutor in the Dutch East-Indies between 1908 and 1920, after which he assumed the duties of editor of the Algemeen Indisch Dagblad – becoming the sole owner of the newspaper only a year later.

Wormser poured his personal and professional experiences in the East-Indies in three mystery novels under the byline of "Boekan Saja," which reportedly means "Not I" in Malaysian. Handlangers van den dood (Henchmen of Death, 1942) was succeeded by Het graf van den mammom (The Grave of the Mammon, 1943) before Het geheim van de tempelruïne (The Secret of the Temple Ruin, 1946) followed three years later.

The Secret of the Temple Ruin was published in the same year Wormser passed away, however, there are clues in the story suggesting its publication was posthumously. It obviously takes place before my country was occupied in 1940 by Nazi-Germany, but there were references to the Second Sino-Japanese War and that one broke loose in 1937 – a prelude to World War II. I can imagine there were some bumps in the road during this tumultuous period preventing an earlier release. Anyhow... on to the story.

Frans van Haren is a special agent for the Bureau of East-Asian Affairs in Batavia, Dutch East-Indies, and has to gather information on Marcelle Dupont, a Françoise of Indo-China decent, who got herself involved in an international conspiracy to wrench Cambodia from French influence. A move favored by Siam (presently known as Thailand) and Japan. Unfortunately, Van Haren is falling in love, but what follows is not necessary what you'd expect from the premise: it's not a spy-thriller of hidden dangers and double agents, but a stuffily romantic chase mystery across the East-Indies and its neighboring countries. Wormser's talents lay in describing the passing landscapes as Van Haren and Dupont travel through ramshackle villages, tucked away from civilization, and pass through the ruins of a lost civilization, now invested with foxes, panthers and owls, on the back of an elephant – which begs for an comparison with the Australian mystery writer Arthur W. Upfield.

In the vestiges of the ruins is where the secret and titular event takes place: Van Haren overhears Dupont talking to a mysterious Japanese, which isn't very spectacular, but the mysteries until 2/3 into the story are mild to say the least. A friendly spy from Siam is shadowing them and a couple of American missionaries, who speak perfect Dutch with an Amsterdam accent when they think nobody can overhear them. It's the descriptive passage of the journey that's the real eye catcher of the first half of the story and what I found interesting (read: suspected) is that Wormser allowed himself to speak through Van Haren when commenting on the differences between the state of the Dutch and French colonies. 

C.W. Wormser
The men from Wormser's generation saw themselves as responsible guardians of the East-Indies, providing health care and education to the indigenous population, provoking comments on the poor state of the makeshift villages they pass through and is surprised to find a school in one of them. Dupont merely points out they have only just began and that it'll be as prospers as the East-Indies one day. This casual conversation may raise some eyebrows today, but you have to remember that during this time people looked at the Dutch, British and French colonies and said: "hey, at least it isn't the Belgium-Congo." [citation needed]

Final quarter of The Secret of the Temple Ruin throws a body into the story and the murder genuinely impacts the story. It ceases to be a mild-mannered, romantic chase mystery in a stiff shirt and the body is that of one of the key players – brutally stabbed to death in a hotel room and briefly teased as a locked room mystery (boo!). The transition from one to the other felt like opening a completely new story, because there's a different detective and this part of the story consists mainly of serial-interviews with all of the suspects. And this begs for a comparison with Ngaio Marsh. The murderer is eventually forced out of hiding in a Perry Mason-style court scene and Wormser allows the story to end a very dark and unusual note. Not a Happy Ending you'd likely see in Hollywood, but it goes to show that not everything written within this genre and time period was about restoring order (see also my review of Herman Heijerman's De moord in de trein (The Murder on the Train, 1925).

Finally, I feel history has been intruding more than usual on this blog and I'll probably be looking for something more conventional the next time.


In the Thick of the Fight

"Let us be firm, pure and faithful; at the end of our sorrow, there is the greatest glory of the world, that of men who did not give in."
- General de Gaulle
Towards the end of last month, I posted a review of "Flashlights" by Douglas Clarke, published in The Strand Magazine in May of 1918, when the world was entrenched in what became the final year of the First World War and the story itself was set in the thick of the fog of war – centering around a cordoned-off hill from which light signals are send to German submarines. What made the story special is that it's perhaps one of only a handful of mysteries written and set during WWI.

French edition
I know the volume of detective stories-and novels written/taking place during World War II rivals the amount of cargo dropped by British Lancasters, but Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill (1946) differentiates itself through its unique depiction of news correspondents on the battlefield. However, the book was published when the Nuremberg trials were being held and you can find traces of the post-WWII world scattered throughout story – as patriotism had to give some ground to realism. There are references to soldiers making cognac out of gasoline, racketeering and stiff punishments for mistakes, but the reference to Europe as a country seems hopelessly naïve today.

Hangman's Hill is set in a partially liberated France and the allied forces are pushing on to Germany's borders, by taking the region of Alsace, and they're planning to shell the evacuated town of St. Anne and drive the "Jerries" from the surrounding hillsides – including the titular Theatre of Operation. Unfortunately, there isn't a ghost or legend clinging to the hillside, however, the battle scene that takes place there more than made up for that! And, curiously enough, that battle begins with a light flare send up from the hill and there's my reason for bringing up Clarke's "Flashlight." It's unwittingly an interesting companion story to Pell's novel.

The impossible problem that was at the heart of Clarke's short story was replaced here, described by Anthony Boucher as, "the Chestertonian principle of hiding a corpse in a battle," and the unfortunate victim is Tom Grange – a hated American war correspondence. Grange's remains were found in a foxhole and badly damaged by an exploding grenade. Lieutenant Schneider and Larry Shanahan, one-time star crime-reporter of the St. Louis Blade, take the matter under close scrutiny. And the place is littered with potential suspects and motives! A wounded war veteran, named Venola, and Major Farley appear as the most promising suspects, because the first lost his stripes due to Grange and the other can't account for losing a grenade.

Not the Actual Book Cover
Shanahan and Schneider take a sober and matter of fact approach to the investigation, which means the story can be talky at times, but the details on war reporting, censorship regulations and money-exchange schemes were truly fascinating stuff – and, admittedly, the highlights of the story. One notable example is the murder weapon, an American grenade, which made it unlikely a German soldier threw it, because only likeable situation they could've gotten those is if they were advancing instead of retreating. Armed divisions beating a hasty retreat in those days usually left a thing or two behind, you see. The friction described between the pro-French and German (speaking) population of Alsace, and outlawing of the French language during the occupation, echoed some recent news events.

Boucher said of Hangman's Hill that the "knowledgeable and fascinating details" of the War Press Room made up for the "almost total lack of characterization," but I have to disagree with the maestro here (what? Constable, take this man away!). I think a more in-depth characterization would distract from the events and the war here was kind of a character in itself. And the uniform-characterization fits the theme and surrounding of the book. After all, these are professionals doing a job and their current situation sort of gives any private problems they might have an air of complete irrelevancy. 

My problem is that, plot-wise, Hangman's Hill, didn't measure up (not even close) to other classic WWII mysteries such as Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1944) and Micheal Gilbert's superb The Danger Within (1952). In that respect, I think the book is of more interest to mystery scholars, history buffs and fans of the TV-series Foyle's War, but I definitely liked it.

By the way, I was only able to find a cover of the French edition. Seems fitting.


Behind Enemy Lines

"Follow the money. Always follow the money."
- Deep Throat (All the President’s Men, 1976)
We aren't even halfway through the year and the Cold War has already occupied a secure spot on the (short) list for "Best Comeback" in 2014, which reminded me of my continuing negligence of Cold War thriller-and mystery novels.  

Stories of the "Red Scare" took the place of the "Yellow Peril" yarns in the second half of the previous century, but left them mainly untouched because they seem to work better on a "You-Had-To-Be-There" level. Well, in the light of current events and news coverage, I read a stand-alone novel by Baynard Kendrick, Hot Red Money (1959), penned at the tail end of the Golden Age and best described as a clutter of cloak and dagger stuff.

The main protagonist of Hot Red Money is Maurice Morel, Staff Writer for the Globe-Star Syndicate, whose journalistic activities has uncovered several Communist plots and spies over the years, earning himself a place on "Khrushchev's list of Free World annoyances that should be removed" – in spite of being their most valued double-agent in the United States. Moral has an appointment with an informer, a Lebanese sailor named Beshara Shebab, at a place named Beirut Café and Shebab can provide information on large sums of unREDistered (pun!) money in anonymous, numbered bank accounts in Lebanon. Typically, Shebab is knifed and (of course!) Morel is knocked unconscious, shortly after their meeting, in the alley behind the café.

Unfortunately, this is the point in the plot where Hot Red Money begins to loose some of its lucidity and there were moments when I felt like I was reading a series of events instead of a linear, forward-driven narrative – even introducing and fleshing out characters who quickly disappear again. Such as Special Agent Leonard Ducro, who's packed off to a sanitarium called Amity Rest Home to pump a patient on information. The confidential source for this tip was Morel and the dying words of Shebab, but, of course, the patient ends up being murdered in very pulpy-circumstances. I was hoping the story would partially follow the route of Patrick Quentin's A Puzzle for Fools (1936) and Jonathan Latimer's Murder in the Madhouse (1935) was referenced, but the rest home bits, in combination with the flow of the story, recalled the clinic-scenes from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely (1940) – only less exciting than Philip Marlowe's ordeal.  

The often unnecessary switches between characters, who can disappear in the background as soon as they've appeared, is further marred by the overrepresentation of perfectly covered spies in Morel's professional-and social circle – which makes for a muddled web of relationships and lots of padding. There were some interesting and historical bits and pieces, with some contrasting opinions here and there, but if you're really interested in the history of the Cold War than there are far better sources. And the meager payoff and predictable twist at the end was as helpful to Hot Red Money as Mussolini's military alliance was to Hitler's quest to conquer Europe.

I'm well aware that I'm padding out this review with utter drivel, because there isn't much left to say and I have barely written a full page. I'll add this though: Baynard Kendrick was capable of writing better detectives (e.g. The Whistling Hangman, 1937), thrillers (e.g. The Last Express, 1937) and spy/mystery stories (e.g. The Odor of Violets, 1940). Unfortunately, Hot Red Money is heading for the Worst-of List of this year.

Well, I guess Cold War thrillers are not for me and I'll most likely pick up something more traditional for my next read.  


Oh, Sweet Child O' Mine

"There's enough chocolate in there to fill every bathtub in the entire country! And all the swimming pools as well!"
- Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964)
Last month, I came across a collectible curio, The Dell Mapbacks (1997), during a minor rearrangement in order to create shelf space and it wasn't the only forgotten "bibelot" I rediscovered during this project.

The unimaginatively titled De moord uit woede (Murder Out of Anger, 1998) is a little book of sixty-odd pages containing a script of an episode of the TV-series Baantjer, based on the characters created by the late A.C. Baantjer, and were commissioned by Droste B.V. – a Dutch chocolate manufacture. Peter Römer tasked one of the series regular scenario-writers, Gerrit Mollema, with fleshing out an idea, and the result was the episode/book Murder Out of Anger. The book was send out gratis with free chocolate, if you wrote Droste and asked for it, but that wasn't public knowledge until people began noticing overpriced copies surfacing on the internet a few years later.

"Our Day Begins, When Yours Ends."
I'm sure there were a few who shelled out a couple of bucks for this "rare" edition, and boy, they must've been disappointed when finding out they even paid the postage for something they could've gotten for absolutely nothing and were denied the goodliness of the free chocolate samples. That's just a torturous state of being for the cheap penny-pinching tight-fisted Calvinistic nature of the Dutch, but than again, I think Sir Simon Milligan was C.E.O of the company at the time.

Anyhow, the story is better than I remember from the episode, which I recall as being only so-so, but the scenario for Murder Out of Anger is remarkably well written, plotted and even clued. Opening scene is of a group of soccer playing children looking for their ball in the shrubbery when one of them stumbles over the body of woman. Inspector DeKok (Yes, I'm using the spelling from the English translations here) and Vledder are called-in and they are able to make a quick identification by following up on a missing person’s report filled a few hours before.

Martine de Wech was a partner in a stockbroker's firm and heir to her father's multi-million business empire, "De Wech Chocolade," but her unusual private (and professional) life leaves DeKok with more half-motives and half-alibis than are needed in a murder enquiry. Martine's husband, Pepijn Drijver, is a talented pianist/composer laboring for the past decade on an operatic masterpiece, called "Bismarck," but Pepijn is completely absorbed in this work – and Martine looked elsewhere to get Pepijn couldn’t give her. There's also a disgruntled, ex-collegue who kept bothering her on account of having ruined his career and with many millions changing hands in the background, there’s more than enough suspicion to go around.

Murder Out of Anger is a fairly dark story, if you get down to the barebones and resolution of the plot, but there's still a humorous undercurrent to the story in the playful insults/comments the characters bounce of each other. I also appreciated the scene in which DeKok unwisely allows the deceived wife of Martine's lover in on a round of questioning with her husband or Vledder ignorantly accusing Pepijn of commercialism by riding the coattail of the Titanic-hype with his opera about the Bismarck, because it sank too. However, the biggest joke in this book is that as a product of pure commercialism it gives its consumer a grotesque exaggeration of First World problems of the Upper Class with a bleak message: there's no hope. I know this sounds terribly dramatic, but every bit of good and humanity that could be saved and nurtured back to health was violently stomped out by the end. No. I don't remember the original episode being this depressing 

Well, this review has taken a turn for the worse, but while the subject material of Murder Out of Anger can be on the depressing side it has a decent enough plot and it's publishing history/double life as a TV episode makes it a fun collectible to own.  

Speaking of decent writing: I feel like I gutted through this review like it was the wee hours on the Sunday morning of September 30, 1888 again.