With Malicious Intent

"Either there was no motive at all like in those crazy kind of murders that you read about in the newspaper. Or there was a very good motive, one that makes terrific sense. And that's what keeps going around in my mind--motive."
- Lt. Columbo (Make Me a Perfect Murder, 1978)
I've noticed something inexplicable about the reviews I tagged over the years with the "Foreign Mysteries" label in that, logically, only the blog posts reviewing Dutch-language detective stories should've escaped being labeled as such, but they're categorized as foreign mysteries as well! I seem to have tagged everything that wasn't written and published in England or the United States as being from abroad. Hobby deformation, it seriously alters the mind.

Well, there's no ambiguity on whether or not the label belongs on the work of Keigo Higashino, who made his debut with a Western reading audience in 2011 with a translation of the award-winning Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), which got a positive reception. The success was followed up with a translation of Seijo no kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) in 2012 and an English edition of Akui (Malice, 1996) was released this year.

I wanted to read Salvation of a Saint before Malice, but the synopsis of the later captured my attention: "...body is found in his office, a locked room, within his locked house, by his wife and best friend, both of whom have rock solid alibis. Or so it seems." Unfortunately, Malice is not an impossible crime story, but therefore not any less ingenious and enjoyable as it toys around with narratives and the readers' expectations – in what even the respectable looking book cover describes as "A Mystery" instead of "A Novel."

The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint both featured, by now, Keigo Higashino's best known series character, a professor of physics with the nickname "Detective Galileo," but Malice is from the much older Police Detective Kaga series – which began with the for now untranslated Sutsogyo (Graduation, 1986). Malice is split up in "notes" and "accounts," from Kyoichiro Kaga and Osamu Nonoguchi, regarding the violent death of a popular novelist, Kunihiko Hidaka.

Hidaka recently remarried, after being widowed, with the much younger Rie and they're about to move to Vancouver, Canada, but on the evening before their departure, while working on the conclusion of his latest story, Hidaka is murdered in his home office – rendered indefensible with a paperweight and finished off with a phone cord. The front door and door to the office were locked, however, there was an unfastened window. So, yeah, it's not a locked room mystery. Moving on: Hidaka was discovered by Rie and Nonoguichi, who was best friends with the deceased, writer of children's fiction and a former colleague of Kaga. They were briefly teachers at the same high school, before Kaga left to become a policeman and Nonoguichi began a career as a writer. The events leading up to the murder, its discovery and the meeting with Kaga were recorded by Nonoguichi, but the next chapter gives Kaga's view of the events and it puts Nonoguichi's account in a completely different light.

It's the second chapter where the fun of Malice really begins, because Kaga has grabbed the tail end of the truth, while the lion's share of it remains elusive, but, for an inverted whydunit, the story was grounded in the proper detective work of a whodunit. Essentially, Detective Kaga and Nonoguichi are locked in a cat-and-mouse game, but the narratives were meticulous picked apart by demolishing an alibi, correctly interpreting the meaning of a bright computer screen in a dark room, a single cigarette butt in the ashtray of a chain smoker and a stack of handwritten, spiral-bound manuscripts – among other such clues.

I was (somehow) reminded (perhaps by the sober policework) of a short story, entitled "The Shoe," by Chinese Golden Age mystery writer Cheng Xiaoqing, collected in Sherlock in Shanghai: Stories of Crime and Detection (2006), but with the same effect of indecisiveness on the reader as Paul Halter created in La Septième Hypothèse (The Seventh Hypothesis, 1991) by pitting two narratives against each other. What I really appreciated is how Higashino, effortlessly, can present his stories as modern crime novels with a classic bend, without compromising either, as well as exploring the new avenues offered to good plotters by modern science and technology. The Devotion of Suspect X is a particular good counter argument against the slanderous claim that contemporary police work killed the necessity for clever plots (Pfui!). What's more, I think Malice is one of a handful of whydunits I actually like. The only other I can think of is De dertien katten (The Thirteen Cats, 1963) by A.C. Baantjer. So, yes, I enjoyed Malice.

What's even more amazing is that I read a Japanese mystery novel that Ho-Ling hasn't already read in Japanese. That means we're catching up, right? 


Ghouls on Wheels

"Everything's just a game to you, something to make a story out of."
 - Sgt. Beef (Leo Bruce's Case with Four Clowns, 1939)
Last year, I read and reviewed the two sole "Jay Omega" mysteries, Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987) and Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992), written by award winning novelist Sharyn McCrumb. They are detectives stories steeped in science-fiction lore and very much off the beaten track. Fortunately, McCrumb's bibliography extends pass those two mysteries and I recently dug up one of her Elizabeth MacPherson novels – a humorous, inverted crime story by the title of Missing Susan (1991).

Rowan Rover is the bored, waspish guide of a Jack the Ripper tour and an amateur "criminologist extraordinaire," who tries to summon the ghosts of that long-gone East End London of the late 1880s for a few quid per person, but it's not enough to keep the wolves from the door. There are several ex-wives, tuition fees for his son and a smoking habit to sustain. So how could Rowan have turned down Aaron Kosminski's offer to subtly murder his cousin, Susan Cohen, during a three week murder tour in the south of England – in exchange for a nice fee, of course. Susan came into the family money and decided to retire at the age of thirty-six, which didn't garner much sympathy from either the family or Rover.

After this set-up, Missing Susan becomes a strange, but enjoyable, travelogue filled with the chatter of crime lore, detective fiction and the blood-soaked history of the English countryside.

The references to mystery-and crime fiction is perhaps what you'd expect from detective readers and amateur criminologists from the early 1990s: Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael, Jeremy Brett's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's disappearance and mentions of Dorothy L. Sayers, Colin Dexter and there's one tour-member who wants to buy a Reginald Hill novel that hasn’t been published in the U.S. yet. They also visit the area in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) is set and the disappointing Agatha Christie exhibit in Torre Abbey, among other historical sights, but the snippets of "True Crime" were equally interesting. The murder of William II in 1100 is discussed, Dr. Crippen receives an obligatory mention and the Constance Kent case, known best today from The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (2008) by Kate Summerscale, function as a story-within-a-story – as MacPherson and the tour members try to piece together an alternative solution.

Meanwhile, Susan Cohen isn't making herself popular and beloved among the group, especially with her would-be-assassin, as she's an easy person to dislike: a self-absorbed, draining personality without a glimmer of self-reflection. However, it took nearly two/thirds of the book before Rover began to make serious attempts at earning his fee. The result is a comedy of errors only Rover is aware of and only the reader can appreciate.

Sharyn McCrumb
Missing Susan may come across like a snail-paced, overly chatty and fictionalized travel guide posing as a cozy mystery novel, which is a suspicion I began to harbor halfway through the story, but the ending is worth the grand tour of south England. I have read a lot of detective stories with takes on the supposedly "perfect crime," but McCrumb may very well have the best one I've yet encountered. It's delightfully ironic, beautifully understated and simply tucked away in the final pages of the book, which also has an interesting part to play for Elizabeth MacPherson – who manages to be both right and wrong about the solution at the same time.

Hell, it was infinitely better than the solution I pieced together based on Susan's expensive makeover and the outdated photograph in her passport, which gave her trouble at the airport. I assumed Susan had been "disappeared" before Kosminski approached Rover with his offer. The Susan on the murder tour had to be Kosminski’s accomplish in the murder of the real Susan, but had been convinced to take the tour in England to make it look as if Susan had disappeared abroad – while they (i.e. he) has an unshakable alibi. That would (at least) freeze the money until she was declared dead, but Kosminski wanted to kill two birds with one stone: if "Susan" dies in an unfortunate accident abroad, nobody will be looking for her body back home and he has silenced a potential danger. Rover could never put the squeeze on Kosminski, because it would be his word against his (and a confession to being a murderer).

Well, I was wrong. And my reason for jotting down my failure as an armchair detective is because this is the second mystery novel in a row that I liked, but doesn't give any room to discuss plot. It's a very talky, but fun, mystery with lots of sight seeing and crime discussions, but the ending is worth it.

P.S. the post-title is a reference from the book refering the tour group as "ghouls on wheels." They sure love their bloody history and murder stories.


Not a Case for the Police

 "The past is the father of the present."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, 1969)
There is something familiar about the story of a body in the proverbial library of a dreary, Victorian-era mansion and an ornamental, bloodstained dagger covered with incriminating fingerprints. It's a premise so familiar it borders on cliché, but Rupert Croft-Cooke wouldn't have been "Leo Bruce," if he hadn't found a way to sidestep the trite and tropes of the Roaring Twenties – while spoofing them at the same time, of course!

Leo Bruce's penchant for tongue-in-cheek mysteries was cemented in his debut novel, Case for Three Detectives (1936), in which caricatures of Hercule Poirot, Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey try to unravel a locked room murder mirroring the plotting techniques of their creators. It was, however, a village policeman, by the name of Sgt. Beef, who solved the case with dull, routine police work as opposed to the intricate, fanciful theories erupting from the amateur reasoners.

Case with No Conclusion (1939) opens with a note from the former police sergeant to his longsuffering chronicler, Mr. Lionel Townsend, announcing he's now a private investigator with quarters near Baker Street – the "Harley Street of Detection." Townsend struggles with the concept of Beef as a discreet, private-investigator, but Beef suspects Townsend's portrayal of him as a blundering, speech impaired buffoon in uniform is to blame for the lack of clients. They've zero respect for the fourth wall as commentary from Milward Kennedy and Raymond Postgate are cited, while throwing about allusions to other detectives and their famous biographers. I especially liked the part when Beef began to complain about the stiff competition: "There was that nice little case the other day, for instance, that would just have suited me. Body found in a brewer's vat. And who got the job? Nigel Strangeways, of course, Nicholas Blake's detective." Bruce will let you know you're reading a detective story!

However, there are still more than enough cases and one of them soon finds its way to Beef and Townsend: Mr. Peter Ferrers is the co-editor of a small, leftist newspaper and his brother is to stand trial for the murder of an old family friend, Dr. Benson. The doctor was found on the morning after a small party in the library, stabbed in the throat, when it was presumed he had left the previous evening. A blood smeared, ornamental dagger lays in its usual spot on the desk and the handle has Stewart's fingerprints on it like a signed confession. There was, as to be expected, a violent quarrel between both men, before the party broke up, and Stewart may've been fooling around with Benson's wife – giving the police a nice, clean-cut case to hand over to the prosecution.

Beef and Townsend come in a fortnight after the facts, and the later is immediately annoyed at the unusual methods of the former, because being forced to steal liquor from your client to test it for poison is far off the beaten track in a stabbing case. Evidently, Bruce had a lot of fun writing about Beef and his Boswellian narrator, while poking fun at the genre, but Bruce was besides a good humorist also a very decent plotter. There are clues and hints placed, here and there, while Beef seemingly blunders to a premature end of his career, but I can't delve much deeper in that – because ethics of the mystery reviewer.

I'll say this, though, the story takes dark turn when Peter Ferrers has to stand trial for the murder of Dr. Benson, but the way Bruce handled the newspaper angle and public reactions is what made Case with No Conclusion one to remember. Even the parodies from Case for Three Detectives responded to the outcome of the trial. Of course, there's final revelation, but, again, ethics. Detective stories. Reviewer. You know the story. And that is just my luck. Finally dug up a detective story that I fully enjoyed and I can't tell too much about the plot, which, of course, translates in a badly written and shaky review.  

Oh, well, I'll dig up another unapologetic, traditionally plotted mystery for the next review.


War of Shadows

"The "war to end all wars" was over, but a new one was just beginning-on the streets of America."
- The FBI and the American Gangster, 1924-38 (The FBI: A Centennial History, 1908-2008). 
During the last quarter of 2012, I reviewed the splendid Commissioner Daan Vissering trilogy by the "Crown Prince of the Lending Libraries," Cor Docter, but the incontestable "Emperor of the Neighborhood Library" in the Netherlands was the prolific Herman Nicholaas van der Voort – producing roughly twelve to sixteen novels a year. Under as many pseudonyms and publishers!

There have been approximately four hundred books and about two hundred appeared under Van der Voort's most well known and celebrated penname, "Edward Multon," which includes stories from the F.B.I.-series. So, yes, it's pretty much low-grade pulp, produced in high volume, but I couldn't help getting curious about one particular title from the series for self-explanatory reasons.

The Invisible Slayer (1963)
De onzichtbare doder (The Invisible Slayer, 1963) begins on a crowded, New York street in the early 1950s when 22-year-old Charles Booth opens fire on Inspector Alexander Haynes from Detroit. Haynes is mortally wounded, but manages to return the favor with a single shot! The last, gurgling words of Haynes' murderer are "bevel... van... mister... Lee..." ("orders of Mr. Lee"). Haynes was in New York to make inquiries in the death of a bar owner, back in Detroit, which may involve espionage and already attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover – who assigned his trump card to the case three days before the shooting.

Peter Finch has the personal appearance of a wise wolfhound with a wolfish grin and the Feds' trump card, but before the investigation is off the ground for the reader, there's another victim waiting in the wings of the third chapter. Mr. Howard Payne is one of the wealthiest and most influential man in the United States, but the best protection money could buy wasn't able to save Payne from an assassins' bullet – even when he was behind metal doors and steel shutters. A policeman attempting to enter Payne's upper floor office, through the window, triggers the alarm system and a steel shutter hermitically seals off the room completely. After peeling away the steel, they find Payne with a bullet hole in the chest and a note underneath him reading, "bevel van Mr. Lee."  

The murders of the Detroit homicide detective and Mr. Payne gives the public Cold War tremors, fueled by Yellow Fear, as Mr. Lee is portrayed as a sinister Chinaman leading a first wave of attacks on the West for Communist China – accompanied by illustrations evoking the image of Sax Rohmer's villainous Fu-Manchu. One illustrator even challengers Mr. Lee, by adding his own name to the list of victims, and is shot and wounded not much later. However, Finch doesn't believe Mr. Lee is Chinese and spreads counter images to see what happens. 

H.N. van der Voort (1900-1982)
It was actually one of the few clever bits in the story, but, unfortunately, everything remotely interesting evaporated within a few pages. Payne was a better fleshed out character in the two, three pages before being written off in a steel vice gripped room than some of the characters who made it to the end of the book. The locked room device itself was abandoned, having served its purpose to justify the title, and the slapdash explanation, casually tossed into a conversation, was a letdown – to say the least. Finch's handling of the Yellow Peril trope with the cartoons didn't last long either and the commentary on the pulps felt more like sniping at the readers. As if Multon was knocking his own readers for enjoying the kind of fiction he was churning out himself. The remainder of the story consists of piling up the bodies by shooting, gassing and curare poisoning in a very mundane, run-of-the-mill gangster thriller.

Sorry I tried and brought up this one. I'll be returning to the green pastures of the proper detective story for my next read and review.


The Sealed Room: A Literal Stronghold

"The lofty ceiling is not high enough,
The walls contain no consummated breath;
And hanging there, the orison of time.
Ticks and ticks and ticks its way to death."
- Hospital Waiting Room (Sister Mary Vista, R.S.M.)
The marginalizing of the detective story has been a recurring subject of discussion and banter on the GADetection Group, which probably began (again) when a gritty, "ultra-modern" private-eye novel, Where the Dead Men Go (2013) by Liam Mcllvanney, with a jaded protagonist won the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel.

We could literarily feel the foundation of the genre tremble and transcend beneath our feet as we read about the winner's prose-powered, page turning storytelling powers and the books uncanny ability to linger in the mind beyond the final page. It sounded exactly like the kind of bleak, dime-a-dozen, Serious Grime (sic) novels that have come and gone for decades, but critics and scholars have always been favorably disposed to them for "Transcending the Genre" with character-driven narratives – while ignoring such tripe as sound plots and props (i.e. locked rooms and dying messages).

The mystery-sphere's correspondent in France, Xavier Lechard, noted in this ongoing, scattered discussion that as far as the really important "mystery" awards are concerned, "not only traditional mysteries need no apply, but standard crime fiction don't either," favoring novels only marginally affiliated to the genre. 'Cause genre fiction, any type of genre fiction, can be fun-inducing and having fun is dangerously irresponsible – even if it's just from an armchair. Personally, I find it hilarious how the "Respectable Wing" of the genre are distancing themselves from the label "genre fiction" and enclosing themselves in their padded hugbox. I wouldn't have dragged the discussion on to the blog, but I happened to stumble across an old essay from decades ago, more or less, addressing this issue from the perspective of the much maligned locked room sub-genre. The author had written down, what I thought, better than I ever could. I'm a hack reviewer, you see.

"The Locked Room: An Ancient Device of the Story-Teller, but Not Dead Yet" by Donald A. Yates, Professor of Spanish-American Literature and book collector, was published in the 1956 autumn issue of The Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review and begins with outlining the critique leveled at literature in general at the time – which boiled down to the "classical concept of structure" and "form-for-the-sake-of-form." Obviously, the detective story (and the locked room prop) is guilty as judged, but, as Yates points out, it's a form of literature that actually thrives on those limitations. It has thrived and proven to be fertile grounds for creative writing for over a century, but has often, unsuccessfully, been declared dead and buried.

Yates' response to the critics, scholars and contemporary crime novelists eagerly signing their name on the death certificate of the detective story should be committed to memory, "I should like to show that even when its death papers are signed and delivered, a genre is capable of lively revolt" and "that it may throw these papers up in server's face and suddenly reveal that it has acquired a new life and new direction—merely through the stimulation of imagination lent to it by a new individual who has dedicated himself to a fresh treatment of its themes and traditions," because it has happened since this piece was written. Many times!

Herbert Resnicow brought four decades of experience in engineering and construction to the game in the 1980s, which is reflected in the unique way Resnicow approached the problem of the sealed room (e.g. The Gold Deadline, 1984 and The Dead Room, 1987). The neo-orthodox movement in Japan has pioneered, what could be called, "Corpse Puzzles," in which writers fool around with dismembered body parts to create identity problems, alibis and seemingly impossible crimes (e.g. Soji Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981). Just two examples.

It continues with a (spoiler laden!) historical overview of the locked room device, from Edgar Allan Poe, Melville Davisson Post and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Gaston Leroux, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr, which covers the middle portion of the essay, before, prophetically, speculating on its future. Yates states that "the limitations of the locked-room puzzle offer to such writers a challenge which is really rather difficult to resist" and "it seems that in hand of every new advance in the field of human knowledge there comes a new way to polish off someone inside that wonderfully appealing locked room." After all, "Poe had no vacuum cleaner, and we have no penetrating death-ray gun, but it might be next." Last year, M.P.O. Books published Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013), in which crime-scene hermitically locked, fortress-like villa guarded with cameras and motion-sensory detectors, but Books found a way for his murderer to by pass those security measures. And the penetrating death-ray gun... I remember a relatively obscure story (from the 2000s) that had the murderer ignite an incendiary device inside a locked apartment with the assistance of a simple laser pen.

I’ll be citing the last lines of the essay in full for prosperity sakes and to close this rambling post: "No, indeed, the last nail has not yet been driven into the restless coffin of the locked-room tale. On the contrary, its critics probably have had their obituaries interpreted more often as a challenge than as a public notice. So with this toast, I would like to hail the mystery authors of years yet to come who will be rallying to the call—Here's to the second hundred years!"

Hear, hear! And many thanks to Bill Pronzini, Marcia Muller, William DeAndrea, Paul Halter, Louise Penny, M.P.O. Books, P.J. Bergman, Paul Doherty, Richard Forrest, Edward D. Hoch, Martin Méroy, Fredric Neuman, John Sladek, Japan and any other writer who picked up the challenge in the post-GAD era. I'll catch up to you sooner or later!
P.S.: I think the actual truth behind the locked room mystery's refusal to die lies in the soft, muffled thumping coming from the tell-tale heart hidden beneath its floorboards. What else did you expect Edgar Allan Poe put in there when he gave life to the detective story? We got a spare heart from the horror genre and now we're immortal! You can bury us. You can wall us up. You can declare us dead, but, like "The Black Cat," we'll always come back. Always!