Home Intruders

"There are so many possibilities, and yet all of them seem wild and improbable."
- Tommy Beresford (Agatha Christie's "The House of Lurking Death," from Partners in Crime, 1929)  
As you may have noticed, I've been abandoning the trail of obscurity to focus on the profusion of reprints, translations and even neo-orthodox mystery novels that are currently flooding our wish lists – hence why nearly every review over the past month was tagged as "Foreign Mysteries"and "Post-GAD."

Well, for reasons even I can't fathom, I neglected the publications from Locked Room International as well, which is an independent publisher of English translations of mainly French impossible crime novels. The owner and translator of Locked Room International, John Pugmire, has introduced many, interesting locked room mysteries to a non-French speaking audience and is currently still in the process of translating Paul Halter's work – one of the two biggest fanboys of John Dickson Carr on the European continent.

One of LRI's latest offerings is La Maison qui tue (The House That Kills, 1932) and was written by a former juge d'instruction (examining magistrate), Noel Vindry, who penned a dozen locked room mysteries between 1932 and 1937 – which all began with this book.

The House That Kills introduces Vindry's detective, Monsieur Allou, an examining magistrate "who could work without giving that impression," but goes on a holiday on page one and puts a younger colleague in charge. And it doesn't take long for a problem to present itself.

Pierre Louret shot and killed a knife-wielding vagrant in self-defense and a large sum of money found on the tramp's body suggests he may have been hired, instead of crazy, but the frightened Louret family is unwilling to show the police the skeletons in their cupboards – preferring to barricade themselves in their fortress-like home. The windows are barred or shuttered and the bedroom doors have a pair of heavy bolts, but even when the police are crawling around the premise they are unable to keep the menacing force out of the door.

A menace that may be bloody inheritance from the days of Pierre's father in the United States, which called to mind Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear (1914) and Joseph Bowen's The Man Without a Head (1933).

The results are two, seemingly impossible crimes and twice as many murders! The first victim is Pierre's sister, Germaine, who's found dead in her bedroom – clutching a smoking gun and a toppled chair with a knife-handle sticking out of her chest. As to be expected, the windows were secured from the insight and the bolts were drawn. The second impossibility occurs when another member of the family gets snuffed out when apparently nobody was around him.

At roughly the halfway mark, Monsieur Allou returns early from his holiday to take over the reigns of the investigation and brings the case to a close by fingering the obvious suspect, but it was also the point where I began to lose faith in the plot.

The House That Kills has received some lukewarm reviews upon its release, but I can forgive wooden, human-shaped chess pieces or the lack of atmosphere in a (locked room) mystery... if the plot is any good or original. That's what was severely lacking in the first half.  

The murder in the locked bedroom was an audacious redressing of one of the oldest tricks in the book, but to pull it off as it was presented in this book would require a supernatural amount of luck and foresight – and only worked because the plot required it to work. Amazingly, I pictured the exact solution in my mind for the second impossibility and rejected it immediately, because it seemed silly. I think it would've been more convincing if it had been presented as a crime of opportunity, done in the spur of the moment, because the murderer seemed to be well versed in the Xanatos Gambit.

However, the second half has some points of interest that shows the promise worthy of the praise French mystery scholars give him. Firstly, Allou played god over life and death to collar the murderer in the act and that has consequences in the second half, which isn't a theme that's often explored in Golden Age mystery series – let alone in a debut novel. Of course, there's Speedy Death (1929) by Gladys Mitchell, but that's another story all together.

Secondly, there's a third, seemingly impossible crime in this portion and the solution to the nearly fatal shooting of Allou in his locked and watched apartment is original. I figured out how it was done, but only because it's very similar to favorite short story of mine from the late 1930s. However, Vindry seems to have been the originator and it's unlikely the other author was even aware of this novel.

So, the plot of The House That Kills isn't erected on the soundest of foundations, but I never want to be too harsh on debut novels. After all, John Dickson Carr's legacy began with It Walks by Night (1930) and who am I to judge. If I wrote a locked room mystery, the result would be exactly the same. Who gives about in-depth, character exploration? There's probably a body behind that locked door and certainly one in that field of unbroken snow outside!

I really wish I could be glowingly enthusiastic about this one, especially because of the time and effort Pugmire has put into translating these novels, but this just isn't a top-tier locked room mystery.

On a final note, I'll contain to knock off some of these recent releases, but I'll return to the Golden Age regularly with the like E.R. Punshon and Stuart Palmer


In the Mist of Time

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit the facts."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur C. Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892)
In my previous blog posts, I reviewed Keigo Higashino's Seijo no Kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) and the fifty-second volume from the long running Case Closed series by Gosho Aoyama, which were two distinctively different works of Japanese crime fiction that were recently translated.

So, I thought, why not complete the hat trick and diminish the pile of recently published, but unread, mysteries at the same time?

That brings us without too much delay to Katsuhiko Takahashi and Sharaku satsujin jiken (The Case of the Sharaku Murders, 1983), which the Mystery Writers of Japan honored with an Edogawa Rampo Award. Thames River Press published a translation of The Case of the Sharaku Murders in 2013, but the book appears to have already fallen into obscurity, because even Ho-Ling seems to be unaware of Takahashi – and he's one of the few who isn't depended on translations.

The opening chapters of The Case of the Sharaku Murders gives the impression of setting up a British-style university mystery, which begins when the body of Saga Atsushi is fished out of the ocean off the coast of Cape Kitayama – located near Tanohata in Shimohei County. Saga was a renowned calligrapher and one of the foremost authorities on ukiyo-e in the country. It was a genre/style of woodblock printing and paintings that were popular in Japan from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

Professor Nishijima was a rival of Saga and who managed to garner an unprecedented amount of influence and power in their niche-corner, which he managed to do by helping students gain positions in museums and universities – making him popular professor to have as a student aspiring to be paid one day. The vehicles of this simmering rivalry are both men are members of, Edo Art Association (EAA) and Ukiyo-e Connoisseurship Society, but despite all of this the death is filed away as a suicide and the story moves in a different direction.

A young, promising ukiyo-e scholar, Ryohei, and research assistant of Professor Nishijima becomes engrossed in the mystery of "Sharaku," who was a famous woodblock print artist and active for only ten months – between May 1795 and February 1796. Sharaku was assumed to be a Noh player, but the matter of his identity became a touchy subject in the ukiyo-e establishment in the wake of the Shunpoan Affair of 1934.   

Ryohei came across a possible clue pointing in the direction of a person who could've been Sharaku, tugged away in an art catalogue that was printed in 1907, but you have to appreciate history or art to enjoy what follows. This investigation swallows up the entire middle section of the book and covers several centuries of obscure, Japanese history on woodblock printing and oil paintings – from the early 1600s to the late 19th century.

However, these scholarly enquiries are done and presented as proper and vigorous detective work. The ten month period of Sharaku's activity is used to check if figures from the era have an alibi for that period and there's an interesting takedown of multiple hypotheses that have accumulated over the decade, which includes pseudonyms of closely related figures and even an entire workshop – explaining the prolific output over a short period. 

In this slow, meticulous way, a nearly 200-year-old web of relationships and cultural influence is uncovered and Takahashi densely packed it with historical background information. A reader expecting an academic mystery might get more than they bargained for and feel like they're reading a fictionalized textbook, but I think it's the best part of the story – especially compared to the overarching plot book-ending this story-within-story.

On a brief side note: this part also strangely reminded me of the historical subplot of the fleeing Revolutionary War soldier from Herbert Brean's underrated Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1952).

Upon his return from his excursion into the past, Ryohei finds himself in the middle of academic skullduggery, which leads to a fatal house fire and a tragic hit-and-run, but the slow pace really began to bog down the final half of the book.

The Case of the Sharaku Murders has an involved, somewhat ambitious plot, but the explanation doesn't pull the rug from underneath your feet and that's begins to frustrate when the story keeps retracing its own steps – filling in blanks here and there with each explanation. There's even a long, written confession by one of the persons involved explaining that persons actions in the whole case and the book didn’t end with that letter.

As explanatory plunge in obscure nook of Japan’s history, The Case of the Sharaku Murders was as interesting as the tattoo lore from Akimitsu Takagi's Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1948), but, as a detective story, I feel as divided about it as Togakushi densetsu satsujin jiken (The Togakushi Legend Murders, 1994?) by Yasuo Uchida. 

Well, that put a stop to that short-lived streak of positive reviews of really good mystery novels. 


Like a Destroying Angel

"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them."
- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
From all the Japanese mystery writers who clambered over the language barrier, Keigo Higashino appears to be one of the few who actually met with success and popularity on the other side.

A translation of an award winning and somewhat controversial novel, Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005), was published in 2011, which collected favorable reactions across the board – from readers of contemporary thrillers to fans of the traditional mystery novel. A translation of Akui (Malice, 1996) came out last year and a fourth translation is scheduled for 2016, but the second release has been languishing on my to-be-read pile ever since its release in 2012.

Seijo no Kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) is the second, novel-length entry in the Detective Galileo series and has a plot that frames an impossible poisoning as an inverted mystery, which occasionally channeled the spirit of Agatha Christie. There's even an eternal triangle at the core of the plot.

Yoshitaka Mashiba has one, fiery wish: to find a wife and have children. That's why Yoshitaka’s marriage to Ayane is made under the condition that she had to be pregnant within a year or he would divorce her. After nearly a year, it becomes obvious to Yoshitaka that the deadline won't be met and began to court Hiromi Wakayama. One of Ayane's students from quilting school. 

As the saying goes, "hell has no fury like a woman scorned." Ayane puts this piece of proverbial wisdom into practice by poisoning her husband, but the reader isn't show how she managed to spike the coffee with arsenous acid (i.e. arsenic) – while being miles away and surrounded by witnesses, that is. 

The initial investigation is for Police-Detective Kusanagi and his assistant, Koaru Utsumi, who go over the crime-scene and statements with a fine toothcomb, which makes for a pleasant police procedural reminiscent of Ten to Sen (Points and Lines, 1958) by Seicho Matsomoto

The police investigation focused mainly on how the coffee could've been poisoned, but every attempt at separating the essential facts from the side issues showed how frustrating a simple, straightforward looking poisoning can be. It's a complex and impossibly constructed house of cards, but its construction was as fun to watch as its destruction at the hands of Detective Galileo. 

Detective Galileo is the nickname of Manabu Yukawa, assistant professor of physics, who made his scientific mind available to Kusanagi in previous investigations, but it's Utsumi contacting the physicist – convinced Ayane used a trick to cover her tracks. As Yukawa observes, "criminal tricks are different from magic tricks," because the audience of a magician never has an opportunity to examine the stage where the illusions took place. However, "with a criminal trick, investigators can pore over every detail of the crime scene until they’re satisfied." Some trace always remains. 

Yukawa provides a delightful, false solution involving a time-delayed trick to release poison in a water kettle, but some readers will have a problem with swallowing down the final explanation. 

The explanation for the poisoning is as clever as it's original. The clues that were embedded in the characterization made it feel inevitable and I would place it in the same league as Ronald Knox's "Solved by Inspection," collected in The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories (1990), but I would actually understand the people who would dismiss it on grounds of being unrealistic – because even I was there for a moment. 

However, the final chapters translated to a convincing argument for the reader to suspend their disbelief and I went along with it... willingly. 

What more can I say? Salvation of a Saint is a first-rate example of what the genre can produce when stories aren't dismissed for having something as vulgar as a plot. While Higashino's work is modern in appearance, it's the plotting that makes him closer to Western mystery writers of the past than from the present, but hey, lets not flog that horse again. Not now anyway. 
On a final note, the book slated for release next year is Manatsu no Hoteishiki (Midsummer’s Equation, 2011), but there's already a Dutch translation available. So I just might go for that edition instead of waiting for the English release in 2016 and reading it somewhere in 2019.


Evil Never Prevails

"With a keen eye for detail, one truth prevails."
- Edogawa Conan  
The 52nd volume of Case Closed (a.k.a. Detective Conan) begins when the premiere of Star Blade VI is mere minutes away and the Junior Detective League is part of the crowd in front of the movie theatre. While waiting in line, they strike up a conversation with a fellow fan and professional photographer, but he dashes off to meet a friend after a brief phone call. And the first screening of the movie is only moments away!

It's the shortest story from this volume, covering only two chapters, but Gosho Aoyama crafted a nifty plot, which paraded around as a calculated, inverted detective story, before revealing a why-dun-it with a heart – giving Conan an opportunity to do what most detectives only seem able to pull off at the end of a case (i.e. preventing a murder). I remember Hercule Poirot doing it in a short story from the collection Poirot's Early Cases (1974).

In any case, I loved the double-layered structure of the plot, because there can never be enough plot in a detective story. Never.

The next story comes from the Metropolitan Police Department and concerns a knife-wielding maniac in a ski mask, who brutally murdered the occupants of the houses he burgled. A young couple, engaged to be married soon, had a brush with the fiend, but escaped with their lives and home in tact. However, the burglar is a sore loser and vowed to come back for revenge. Now they have to deduce who among the wedding guests could be the murderer. It's a reasonable plotted story, but very easy to pick apart.

For the third story, Aoyama seems to have drawn inspiration from Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) and one of the first Columbo episodes (Murder by the Book, 1971).

A successful and elderly novelist of historical fiction has murdered his ghostwriter, stolen his manuscripts and rigged up a tight alibi for himself, but a cat named Novel threatens to upset the plan and the murderer has to improvise – by turning certain items in the room upside down. Books, models cars and boxed action figures.

The explanation for the upturned items is almost too clever for a spur of the moment idea, but this devilish stroke of ingenuity was undone when the body is discovered before it was meant to. And the one who made the discovery was Conan!

Without a doubt, this inverted, Columbo-style mystery with Queenish underpinnings was my favorite from this lot, but there's one thing that bugs me. The murderer took a partially finished manuscript of a mystery novel with him, but was stumped when he tried to come up with an ending himself, which came after plotting a murder and improvising a trick that took care of the evidence that was left behind. He did that as an amateur killer. But as a writer, he couldn't come up with a somewhat decent ending? Well, I guess that's why he needed a ghostwriter.

The final story, covering three chapters, began promising, but fell apart in the final stretch of the story. Conan, Rachel and Serena are scouring a maple grove in search of a red handkerchief. A popular TV drama made the area a popular tourist attraction and fans are flogging the grove, which can be witnessed by the many handkerchief tied to the branches of the maple trees – an important plot-point from the TV series. Naturally, there's something sinister about that first tree with the red handkerchief and the body that was found in the woods, but I didn't care about the ending. Or the deus ex machina that brought it about.

The final score: two good stories (first and third), one average (second) and one bad (last one). Not a bad score.

I'll return presently with a regular review and I hope the two impossible crime novels I ordered will arrive somewhere this week.


Cycle of Crime

"...so you can put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Busybody Holmes."
- Mr. Williamson (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist," from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905) 
In late April of this year, I reviewed The Studio Crime (1929) by Ianthe Jerrold, which was the first of only two mystery novels she penned about John Christmas. That genial, conjecture-prone and enthusiastic amateur sleuth. 

The Studio Crime was in spite of a disappointingly handled locked room angle studded with promise, standing confidently by itself among other apprentice works from the period, but it's its sequel, Dead Man's Quarry (1930), that's been called a genuine lost classic – and I agree.

Dead Man's Quarry is set in the Wye Valley in the Hereford-Wales borderland, known as the Welsh Marshes, which is dotted with the familiar imagery of the British countryside: tiny villages, rustic cottages and ancestral homes. Dr. Browning is exploring these parts during a bicycle holiday together with his family and some friends. The party consists of his young, adolescent son, Lion, who could've strayed from the pages of a Gladys Mitchell novel. His sister, Nora, has brought along a friend from art school, Isabel Donne, and there's a photographer, Felix Price, alongside with his cousin, Sir Charles – who recently returned from Canada to inherit the family title and Rhyllan Hall.

Upon his return, Sir Charles presented himself with a cavalier attitude and that hasn't made him very popular, which is a sentiment punctuated when his battered body is found at the bottom of a disused quarry. Shot through the back of his head. There's an equally battered bicycle lying next to the body.

At the coroner's inquest, Morris Price, manager of the estate, is indicted for the murder of Sir Charles and jailed to await trial, which was based around a letter speaking in less than glowing terms about Sir Charles and his revolver was discovered to be the murder weapon.

Luckily, John Christmas stubbornly refuses to the settle with the apparent cast-iron facts for an easy answer and drags his scientifically minded friend, Sydenham Rampson, across the countryside to hunt for an alternative explanation – and clues, of course. Rampson proved to be a better character for Christmas to play off than Detective-Inspector Hembrow from The Studio Crime. On the one hand, you have Christmas, who prefers to construct sky castles from the broad characteristics of the case and see if the underlying facts will support the structure, while Rampson prefers to search for answers through the lens of a microscope.

There's an abundance of seemingly unconnected facts getting the full brunt of Christmas' imagination, which range from five pound notes, egg shells and a green bicycle pump. There's also a mysterious woman who keeps appearing and there's a large, interestingly cast of characters populating the area to be questioned. But, as Rampson observed, "never forget that apparently disconnected facts are often actually disconnected" and that's "far, far more often than Mr. Sherlock Holmes and Mr. John Christmas seem to imagine."

It's this pure, unadulterated detective work in combination with a humorous, light-hearted tone, well drawn characters and an excellent constructed plot that made Dead Man's Quarry a pure delight to discover. I'm therefore especially proud at how fast I caught on to the identity of the murderer, but (it must be said) the plot does owe something to a certain Sherlock Holmes story. Finally, I want to point out how the combination of the Welsh backdrop, outdoors activity, Sherlock Holmes references and plotting style reminded me of Glyn Carr – who penned several mysteries set in the mountains of Wales (e.g. Death Under Snowdon (1952) and Death Finds a Foothold, 1961). I wonder if Carr was aware of this book and if it influenced him in any way.   

Dead Man's Quarry is a mystery novel that gives credence to our claim that we're currently living in a Renaissance era of detective fiction and kudos to Dean Street Press for rescuing this one from biblioblivion.