The Baited Hook

"Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms?"
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur C. Doyle's "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1891)
Last week, I wrote a fervidly enthusiastic and laudable review of Harriet Rutland's debut novel, Knock, Murderer, Knock (1938), but now I've read her second novel and fear I might have over-praised her maiden effort – because Bleeding Hooks (1940) is the real-deal.

Knock, Murderer, Knock is an odd, quirky portrayal of the closed-circle of suspects with an eccentric cast of characters and a string of bizarre, grotesque murders with knitting-needles. On the surface, it's a classically-styled detective story with a clever plot straying from the beaten track. So, in that regard, it's very satisfying and attractive book for the experienced armchair detective.

Bleeding Hooks is a brightly written, colorful story with a plot strolling along a more traditional route, which is strewn with twists and turns. The characters toddling along a beautiful, evocative drawn Welsh setting and the double-layered explanation has a last-minute with a dusting of originality.

The backdrop of the story is Aberllyn, a quaint fishing village in Wales, where a picturesque inn stands, named The Fisherman's Rest, which is a snug, cozy place that can easily compete with the larger Lakeside Hotel and often finds hotel-guests on its doorstep – to "beg for a room" no matter how "small and poorly furnished."

Only drawback for the holidaymakers is having to put with Mrs. Ruby Mumsby: a vulgar, slug-like widow who'd "ran after anything in trousers" and the dread of the local ghillies (a fishing-and hunting guide). It's a small discomfort that seemingly sorted itself out when Mrs. Mumby's body is found at the side of a lake with a salmon fly deeply embedded in her hand.

Dr. Roberts determines death was caused by a combination of poor health and shock from the deep wound, which caused her heart to give out, but a vacationing Mr. Winkley harbors suspicion of foul play and discreetly starts to investigate the sudden death – assisted by a pair of "Bright Young Things."

Pansy Partridge and Vyvyan Gunn, primarily referred to be their nicknames of "Pussy" and "Piggy," enthusiastically throw themselves into the roles of amateur sleuths, which furnished the plot with a pleasant amount of layman detection.

In his introduction for the Dean Street Press edition, Curt Evans likened Pussy and Piggy to Tommy and Tuppence from such Agatha Christie novels as The Secret Adversary (1922) and Partners in Crime (1929). Which is a fair comparison. However, they reminded me of two other partners in mischief, namely Vanya and Lucinda, from Helen McCloy's marvelous Mr. Splitfoot (1968) with a dash of Kelley Roos' Jeff and Haila Troy.

Well, they go about their self-imposed task with the zest and zeal befitting of a pair of amateur detectives, but their poking around and questioning aren't making them exactly popular with their fellow guests – which eventually results in an attempt on the life of Pussy.

The cast of potential killers, by the way, consists of the owners of the inn, Mr. and Mrs. Evans. Mrs. Mumsby long-suffering ghillie, John Jones. A veteran of the Great War, Sir General Courtney Haddox and his spinster sister, Ethel, who behaved suspiciously when the body was discovered. Pussy's mother, Mrs. Partridge. A couple, Mr. and Mrs. Pindar, who are affectionately referred to as the Pandas by Pussy. A prattling sport fisher, Major Jeans, who prefers to make his own fish flies and frequently utters "bleeding hooks," which gave the book its title. Mr. Weston and his young son, Claude, who's promising music-hall performer and quickly became my favorite character in the story, because I love magician-characters and magic-acts in detective stories.

So, while Piggy and Pussy are antagonizing or annoying everyone around them, Winkley has been far more subtle, which eventually gives him the opportunity to bait a hook, cast a line and patiently wait for a nibble – before reeling in the murderer. And it's quite a catch!

I also feel redeemed for having spotted the murderer and the motive, because in Knock, Murderer, Knock I only managed to get hold of a bunch of red herrings. However, Rutland did include a final pull of the rug that surprised both me and Mr. Winkley. I agree with John Norris, who reviewed the book under its US title, The Poison Fly Murder, that this final revelation makes the book somewhat of a minor masterpiece.

There's literally nothing I did not like about Bleeding Hooks, which is rare, because I can usually find something to nitpick about. But this one of those rare mysteries in which every aspect of the story seemed to co-exist in perfect harmony with one another. The plot, characters, background and atmosphere as well as the small, but interesting, tidbits about fly fishing and everything surrounding it made this easily (one of) the best reads of 2015.

I sincerely hope Rutland's third and final mystery novel, Blue Murder (1942), is able to hold itself up against its predecessor, because Bleeding Hooks is a tough act to follow. 


Some Kind of Monkey Business

"Why, the English countryside is one congealed mass of intrigue and petty spite. That is why almost every murder story is placed in a country town or in some remote village, where all the natural passions have free play."
- Miss Boddick (Stanley Casson's Murder by Burial, 1938)
On the back-cover of my Pan Books edition of Death Comes to Cambers (1935), Dorothy L. Sayers asks "what is distinction," which is not easy to define, but, instinctively, it's recognized in those few who achieved it and ascended to the first ranks.

Sayers asserts that we recognize it in the Sherlock Holmes canon, E.C. Bentley's Trent’s Last Case (1913), A.E.W. Mason's At the Villa Rose (1910), G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories and "in the works of Mr. E.R. Punshon we salute it every time" – which I tend to agree with after reading three of his detective novels.

Death Comes to Cambers has Punshon's series-character, Detective-Sergeant Bobby Owen, staying as a guest at Cambers House. Lady Cambers has reasons to believe burglars are sneaking about the house, coveting her expensive collection of jewelry, but Owen soon finds himself engaged in a murder-investigation.

One morning, her ladyship fails to appear for breakfast and her bed hasn’t been slept in, which eventually leads to the discovery of her body on a damp, cold and trampled field just outside of the house – strangled to death! As to be expected, the centerpiece of Lady Cambers' collection, "Cleopatra's Pearl," is missing from her safe and there are signs someone had been staking out the house during the night. But robbery isn't the only possible motive for the murder.

Lady Cambers' husband, Sir Albert, wanted to separate from his wife, one way or another, in order to marry another woman. There's a nephew, Tim Sterling, who became her heir, but resented the way in which she wanted to run his life and bumping off his aunt would've brought freedom – in addition to a considerable lump of money.

A motive of a different nature comes from the local vicar, Mr. Andrews, who's a rabid creationist and objected fiercely to Lady Cambers financing an archeological excavation in Frost Field. Which is where her body was found. The excavations are being carried out by an equal fanatical and arrogant Darwinist, named Eddy Dene, who hoped his theory about the true genesis of man "would make as big a sensation as Darwin's Origin of Species."

Those are only the obvious lines of enquiry, but there are more suspects and motives strewn about the place. It makes for a nice, if somewhat typical, 1920s-style country house/village mystery.

However, John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books remarked in his review of the book that it took a considerable amount of pages to move away from routine police work and "enter the realm of originality," which is a valid complaint.

Bobby Owen and Colonel Lawson, chief constable of the country, do have a spot of routine work to take care of, before Owen can get to the meat of the plot: which consists of a pair of clever ciphers, posted in the agony column, and a genuine original, if somewhat bizarre, alibi-trick. But how much this preliminary groundwork and series of interviews is a reduction in quality really depends on how much you care about relatable or likeable characters, because there aren't many of them in this story and can bog down some readers in its first half – which wasn't a problem for me.

What I did found disappointing about the first half is that the feud between Dene and Andrews wasn't used to greater effect, which would've benefited the overall story if such vignettes had been interspersed with the interview.

The parts that did touch upon this feud were interesting and even had a bit of a Chestertonian flavor, because "the age-old conflict of the priest and the scientist," who are "both right and both wrong," has a paradoxal quality about it when their relationship was described as follow: "the one mistrusting too much reason, and daring to doubt where truth may lead," while the other mistrusted "too much faith, and daring to doubt where love might go" – concluding that both are "so tremendously right" and at the same time "so presumptuously wrong."

I wish there had been more of that, as well as more on the archaeological excavations, but Death Comes to Cambers is a very well written and (eventually) cleverly plotted mystery novel, which demonstrates why Punshon was so highly regarded during his lifetime.

If you want to take a crack at this book yourself, there's a new edition from Dean Street Press with an introduction penned by our very own Curt Evans.


Needled to Death

"When people say things behind your back there is nothing you can refute or deny, and the rumors go on growing and growing, and no one can stop them."
Miss Marple (Agatha Christie's "The Thumb Mark of St. Peter," from The Tuesday Club Murders, 1928)
Genre historian Curt Evans, author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012), and Rupert Heath of the Dean Street Press are promptly becoming the usual suspects in the revival of obscure, long-forgotten mystery writers – having already brought E.R. Punshon, Ianthe Jerrold and Annie Hayes back into the fray.

The next name on their hit list is "Harriet Rutland," whose real name was Olive Shimwell, and wrote "three of the most unjustly neglected English mysteries from the Golden Age of detective fiction." It's an opinion echoed by John Norris in his reviews of Knock, Murderer, Knock (1938) and Bleeding Hooks (1940). So that was all the encouragement I needed to pounce on Rutland's debut novel!

Knock, Murderer, Knock takes place at a hydro-hotel, called Presteignton Hydro, perked above a private beach in Devonshire Bay and the sprawling building provided a home to "a collection of oddities" – most of whom are permanent resident patients of the place.

Rutland succeeded in coating her satirical illustrations of this cast of gossiping gargoyles with a layer of gravity, which complemented the equally unusual plot.

Personally, I was very fond of Mrs. Dawson, who had failed to find a publisher for the thriller novels she had written and sniped at the reader by observing how "the reading public nowadays is never satisfied with only one murder" and there needed to be "two or three, at least." Which would become prophetic!

Ah, but there are more personages of interest: Colonel Simcox, a sock-knitting veteran of the Great War and a working class aristocrat, Lady Warme, who inherited her title from her green-grocer, philanthropic husband, but that's a private-embarrassment. There's also a pious Miss Astill and a batty Mrs. Napier, among others, who are overseen by a staff and a professional nurse under the guidance of Dr. Williams – owner of the resort.

None of these characters or their behavior can be easily pigeonholed as typical, stock-in-trade clichés of the genre, which can be considered as a triumph of characterization. They're all a bit daft or eccentric, which can be an object of fun, but it's their buggy behavior that makes the story swing between satire and brooding seriousness.

But, enough about the characters, lets shift the focus of this review to the plot. A plot with no less than three murders knitted in its design and the first body is that of the beautiful, evocative Miss Kane, who turned the heads of the men and scandalized the women, found slumped on a settee in the lounge – a knitting-needle jammed into the base of her neck.

A 25-cent Dutch edition Knock, Murderer, Knock
Inspector Palk is saddled with the responsibility of ferreting out the murderer and is assisted by Sergeant Jago, who laments that the "craze for detective fiction" gives "the general public too much information about finger-prints and police procedure." Of course, the sergeant loves reading thrillers, but it's all right for him because it's his job. Needless to say, I took as much of a liking to sergeant as I did to Mrs. Dawson.

Anyhow, Palk struck me as a poor man's Inspector Roderick Alleyn. At the end of a series of interviews, Palk does make an arrest and assumes the murder is solved, but, "before the week ended," he and his "band of constables" would be back – to resume those "grueling hours of police questioning" after someone else got poked with a knitting-needle. 

In his introduction, Evans compares Knock, Murderer, Knock to the works of some of Rutland's "Great British Crime Queen Contemporaries," which has all the familiar names, but neglects to mention Christianna Brand and Gladys Mitchell.

The book reminded me the most of a combination of both their works. The relationship between the first victim and the rest of the cast reminded me of London Particular (1952), in which an outsider is murdered within a close-knit group of people and it doesn't seem to matter – until another murder strikes a lot closer to home. It's even pointed out that Miss Blake and the assumed murderer "had been like visitants from some other world whose actions left them entirely unaffected" and how the situation "might have been different if any of the older residents had been involved in the murder."

Of course, the main difference is that people in Brand's closed group of insiders genuine cared for each other, but that lack of humanity and mental quips would've been food for Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley. Who's not unfamiliar elements of abnormal psychology in her murder cases.

Well, Palk seems insistent on flubbing the case by looking for a copycat-killer the second time around, but soon finds himself in the company of a mysterious guest at the hotel, Mr. Winkley, who swiftly acquired a reputation as a crime-fiction enthusiast. Initially, Winkley seems to be playing a poor man's Roger Sharingham, but there's a clever mind behind his fumbling and bumbling, which succeeded in drawing out the murderer and the explanation was very much in line with the psychological nature of the story.

The only disappointment was how very, very wrong my own solution was. I had dumped all of my eggs into one basket and was wrong on every count, which revolved around a description of one of the woman at the resort: described as a big woman with "large, capable hands" and "exquisitely corseted," but the "illusion of femininity" was marred by the "masculine tones of a deep, resonant voice." Nurse Hawkins had mentioned once or twice how the Victorian-minded patients "don’t like to be naked altogether," which would be a perfect cover for something that was very not done during the 1930s and the people who stumbled to this secret ended up with knitting-needle in their neck.

I was so sure I had figured it all out, but the actual solution and motivation was slightly more conventional and less modern than that. 

However, Knock, Murderer, Knock is a very good, well-written story and one that'll be especially appreciated by seasoned mystery readers, because it's something off the beaten track. Definitely recommended!


Soaked in Tragedy

"The cautious murderer, in his anxiety to make himself secure, does too much; and it is this excess of precaution that leads to detection." 
- Dr. John Thorndyke (R. Austin Freeman's The Eye of Osiris, 1911)
Last month, I posted a review of The Cask (1920), which is an early classic from the Golden Age and embarked Freeman Wills Crofts on a career as one of the genre's more technically minded plotters – and was even considered as one of the "Big Five" British detective writers of the 1920-and 30s.

The plot of Freeman's debut novel concerned a cask "sent from France to London" and "was found to contain the body of a young married Frenchwoman." It required the combined efforts of Scotland Yard, Sûreté and the services of a private investigator to prevent the case from being shelved as unsolved.

I quite enjoyed that monument of a crime-novel with its old-world air, but the reason for bringing it up here is that Inspector French mentioned it in The Sea Mystery (1928), in which he observes that his current problem shared some similarities with "a case investigated several years ago by my old friend Inspector Burnley" – who has since retired from the force.

Funny how French's spoiler-ridden comments on The Cask confirmed my initial, unsubstantiated hunch of it being a companion piece to The Sea Mystery.

The Sea Mystery opens on a pleasant, balmy evening in September on the calm, smooth surface of the Burry Inlet, "on the south coast of Wales," where 14-year-old Evan Morgan is spending his last day-off fishing with his father. However, the only thing they managed to catch that day are the remnants of a perfect crime. Or an attempt at one anyway.

What they hooked was a solid, wooden packing crate, which was bare of "any helpful marks," but the same can’t be said for its putrid content: consisting of a horrendously decomposed body of a man, clad only in underclothes, whose features "had been brutally battered in" and "entirely obliterated" until "only an awful pulp remained." The medical-evidence places the crime five to six weeks ago.

Inspector French is faced with a problem that "seems absolutely insoluble," but believes "it is almost impossible to commit a murder without leaving a clue" and a logical, methodical mind, combined with experience, can get you pretty far.

So, first things first, French sets out to reconstruct how the crate got to the bottom of the inlet, which is done with a bit of math and a practical experiment. These first, preliminary inquiries have a pleasant amount of logical, science-based detective work, but there's a potential plot-hole.

Very early on, French determines a crane-lorry was used in the disposal of the crate, which is traced to a motorcar company, who rented out such a machine and they asked for a 300-pound deposit – which was quite a lump of money in those days. But it's never investigated if such a sum was drawn and re-deposit from a bank account around the time the crane-lorry was taken out. Which I assumed would be a rational route to follow in an investigation that, up to that point, was starved for solid, tangible clues.

A second plot-thread is introduced and involves a double disappearance from a location that'll immediately capture the attention and imagination of every mystery reader: namely the desolate, haunted and treacherous bogs and mires of Dartmoor – inextricably linked to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).

One night in August, a pair of businessmen, named Charles Berlyn and Stanley Pyke, where on their way back home when their car broke down and they attempted to cross the moors and were never seen again in this world. The well-read, observant mystery reader should note the similarities between the plot of The Stoneware Monkey (1939) by R. Austin Freeman and the theories arising from the possible connections between both cases, which I thought was interesting. But not as interesting as the eventual explanation!

Crofts only provided French with a small pool of suspect to fish in, but managed to drag a clever and classically styled solution from it that was pure Golden Age. It won't leave the seasoned armchair detective god smacked, but they'll admire the well-clued, intricate plot solved by an intelligent and competent policeman – who's nonetheless as fallible and prone to mistakes as you and me.

Which made French more relatable than I expected and permanently shattered the preconceived notion, I once held, of Crofts as a dull, boring writer who had turned detective-stories into math homework assignments. Not the case at all! I'll definitely return to Crofts before too long. I just hope my tired brain has done some justice to The Sea Mystery

Well, I'll be back soon with another review of a vintage, Golden Age mystery.


The Locked Room Reader III: John Dickson Carr

"My ambition is still to write a really outstanding detective novel, which I honestly do not believe I have yet achieved. When a writer says this, what he really means is that he wants to wrote one which will make all other detective novels look silly. Of course you can't do it. But you can always keep trying."
- John Dickson Carr
Recently, I've been coming across blog-posts such as "Five to Try – Starting John Dickson Carr," which appeared on The Invisible Event, and "A Bit of a Ramble – John Dickson Carr's Great Works" from fellow mystery enthusiast Puzzle Doctor – which reminded me of a shameful omission on my part.

Over the past several years, I wasted a number of opportunities, filler-posts and an immeasurable amount of basic logic by neglecting to assemble my very own list of favorite John Dickson Carr novels. Logically, such a list should've been one of the first entries on this blog. But, hey, better late than never, right?

John Dickson Carr shouldn't require an introduction, especially around these parts, but if you're one of those uncivilized, heathenish infidels, unfamiliar with the Lord of the Locked Room Mystery, you might want to take note of this list – or risk suffering the same faith as Duc de Saligny. The reader has been warned!

I have broken down this best of list in three categories: series-books, standalones and historical mysteries.

The Henri Bencolin-series:

The Lost Gallows (1931) was the second detective-story from the mind of a young John Dickson Carr and can be considered a premonition of things to come, which consists of a lost street and a murderer, known as "Jack Ketch," roaming the fog-bound streets – cumulating in one of the "prettiest fancy in the whole realm of nightmare."

The Four False Weapons (1937) is the last entry in this series and moved away from the gothic, theatrical atmosphere of the earlier books, but without being any less mystifying or satisfying. The plot itself is fantastic: a retired Bencolin unravels a brilliantly contrived murder in France, which was obviously modeled around G.K. Chesterton's "The Three Tools of Death," from The Innocence of Father Brown (1910), and the Hanaud stories by A.E.W. Mason.

The Dr. Gideon Fell-series:

The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) is the second book in the series and while not as atmospheric as its predecessor, Hag's Nook (1933), but the plot is a lot tighter and involves a series of pranks resulting in a crossbow-murder – committed at the historic Tower of London. One of the plot-points involves a long, lost manuscript by Edgar Allan Poe and Carr "reproduces" a short passage from this hitherto unknown Auguste Dupin tale.

The Hollow Man (1935) is, IMHO, a fabulous Chestertonian-tale of the miraculous shooting of Professor Grimaud in his locked/watched study and later an equally baffling crime in Cagliostro Street, but the book seems to have lost some of its popularity in recent years (heresy!). The solution is incredible tricky and I have seen the fairness being called into question, but the story derives its admiration from offering an overly ingenious and complex situation – without the plot becoming a cluttered mess. You can perfectly understand by the end of the book how everything went down. That's what attracted fans of fiction to this book for over half a century: it's the fantastic and nearly unbelievable being pulled off in an almost perfect and convincing manner.

The Arabian Nights Murder (1936) is one of Carr's Baghdad-on-the-Thames stories, in which Dr. Fell makes his only appearances in the opening, middle and ending portion of the book – while listening to three different narratives about a strange night at the Museum of Oriental Art. Highly recommended!

The Crooked Hinge (1938) is often billed as an impossible crime novel, but the eventual explanation makes it more of an improbable murder and a Chestertonian-nightmare, but it's a great one nonetheless. The plot-threads consist of Tichborne claimants-type dispute, witchcraft, the Titanic and a creepy automaton called the Golden Hag.

The Problem of the Green Capsule (1939) is one of Carr's more bizarre, but satisfying, mystery novels, in which an amateur psychologist, Marcus Chesney, stages an observational experiment to oust a murderer in his village – who killed several children with poisoned chocolates. Naturally, in a Carr story, Marcus is murdered in front of his captivated audience without anyone have spotted the murderer.

Till Death Do Us Part (1944) is Carr's most successful attempt at creating an Agatha Christie-type of village, but with his own typical spin on – which includes a persecuted woman and a locked room shooting. This one appears to have gained some popularity with 21st century readers of vintage mysteries.

He Who Whispers (1946) is considered by some as the true masterpiece from this series, because it has everything: dark, grim atmosphere, excellent story telling, misdirection and an improvement on the persecution-plot from Till Death Do Us Part – with a woman who's suspected of being a vampire and therefore a natural suspect of a seemingly impossible stabbing atop of a tower in France. I definitely liked this one, to say the least.  

The Sir Henry Merrivale-series:

The Plague Court Murders (1934) is the one that pushed me over the edge and convinced me of Carr's brilliance as a mystery writer, which was done by murdering a fraudulent medium on the premises of a haunted house – inside a locked room, of course! The solution is incredible tricky, cheeky and the murderer is neatly tugged away from the reader, but all the clues are there and that tightrope was successfully traversed.

The Unicorn Murders (1935) has Carr balancing along a similar tight-rope in order to fool the reader, but it's arguably even more successful as he balances between a formal mystery and a spy-thriller – stranding a group of survivors of an air-plane crash in a French chateau with a legendary criminal a la Arsène Lupin. There are also a couple of interesting and original (impossible) murders: people are being gored to death by an invisible unicorn!

The Punch and Judy Murders (1937) is a wacky mad chase story and pits Ken Blake against Murphy Law, while the tell-tale clues march along noticed and are eventually followed by a couple of false solutions. A very competent and amusing entry in this series.   

The Judas Window (1938) is arguably the most iconic book in this series and sports one of Carr's most original trick, but the clip the length of this blog-post I'll refer you to my full review of the book.

Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940) is a personal favorite of mine and possibly one of the best shipboard mysteries, which places H.M. aboard a munitions-carrying ship crossing submarine-infested waters and has an interesting impossible situation – that of bloody, "ghostly" fingerprints that doesn't match with any of the passengers.

She Died a Lady (1943) is undoubtedly the masterpiece of this series, but, again, to prevent this post from assuming the size of bloated canal corpse, I'll refer you to the full review of this book.

The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) is, admittedly, the weakest admission on this list, but the plot is still very descent and concerns itself with poison-pen letters, an impossible crime in the past and recent murder at a disused prison complex – which are neatly tied together by the end of the story. But the best parts of the story are the comedic bits-and-pieces, which genuinely made me laugh when I read it for the first time.

The standalone-and historical mysteries:

Poison in Jest (1932) is a gothic-style mystery novel and takes place in a decaying, Pennsylvanian mansion in the dead of winter, which has a creepy, brooding atmosphere depicting such horrors as a disembodied hand from Caligula's statue "run" along the window ledges like a spider. There's also poisoned brandy pored from a sealed bottle and dying laughter echoing through the dilapidated hallways. I really want to re-read this one!

The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey (1936) is a brilliantly conceived and convincingly argued reconstruction of a real-life crime from the days of Charles II, but it's mainly included here because it perfect demonstration of the authors gift for resuscitating the past through the written word.

The Emperor's Snuff-Box (1942) is a triumph among Carr's standalone novels, but I'll refer you to my full review for reasons previously stated in this post.

The Bride of Newgate (1950) is Carr's first historical mystery novel and one of his best, but, once again, I have to refer you to my previously review of the book.

The Devil in Velvet (1951) was considered by the author himself to be one of his finest achievements and how can you argue against it? The book revolves around a deal with the devil himself, which sees an exchange of Professor Nicholas Fenton's soul for a one-way trip to the late 1600s – in a futile attempt to prevent a murder by poisoning. However, this capsule synopsis doesn't do any justice to the book as a whole.  

Captain Cut-Throat (1955) is a strange, but massively underrated, hybrid-novel stitching together the seams of the spy-and adventure stories with that of the traditional mystery – which takes the form of an invisible assailant, the titular "Captain Cut-Throat," bumping off Napoleon's sentries on the eve of the planned invasion of England. If there's one of Carr's lesser-known works that deserves recognition, it's this one! And I'll be re-reading and reviewing it before long.

Well, if there's one thing that became obvious after compiling this list, it's that I'm a bit of a heretic myself, because time has dimmed a lot of the details of the books I have read. So this list is already a candidate for revision somewhere in the future.

On a final note, there two more, locked room-related things: yesterday, I posted a review of Michael Bowen's Washington Deceased (1990), which featured a shooting in locked, guarded-and camera-watched supply room inside a prison complex. Secondly, I found an old, beaten-up Dutch paperback edition of Det slutna rummet (The Locked Room, 1972) by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, but I begin to regret the purchase – because this duo almost repelled me from the detective story in my early days of discovery. So is this one as good as some fans say it is or is it dreadful and depressing as everything else they wrote?

Anyhow, I'll be back with something from the Golden Age before too long. Stay tuned!


Death Behind Bars

"You've got the murderer locked in there like a cockroach under a drinking glass. How does he get out?"
- Inspector Poland (Joseph Commings' "Murder Under Glass," from Banner Deadlines: The Impossible Files of Senator Brooks U. Banner, 2004) 
In a recent cumulative blog-post, titled "The Locked Room Reader II: An Overview," which commemorated the two hundredth post tagged as a "locked room mystery," I mentioned several modern practitioners of impossible crime stories – such as Herbert Resnicow and Bill Pronzini.

Michael Bowen is trial lawyer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the United States and an author of about a dozen mystery novels, who I have seen mentioned in the same breath as the previously mentioned locked room artisans. But his detective stories had eluded me until now.

It's not for a lack of interest. In an edition of "The Jury Box," from an issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine from the early 1990s, Jon L. Breen opined that Bowen was "one of the most promising detective-story classicist to debut in the last couple of years" and his stories appears to be crammed with the kind of impossible problems haunting up the works of John Dickson Carr and Edward D. Hoch.

So, I'm not entirely sure why a self-described, unapologetic classicist, like yours truly, who can't go for more than two or three blog-posts without bringing up a locked room mystery took so long to get around this author. But that's one of those unanswerable, ponderous questions of life for you.

Washington Deceased (1990) introduces Richard Michaelson, who's a thirty-five year veteran of the Foreign Service of the State Department, all-round Washington insider and author of a slim, hardcover volume by the title of Bright Lines and Slippery Slopes: Nine Fallacies in Current Foreign Policy Discourse – which he sees being clutched at a meeting by 19-year-old Wendy Gardner.

Wendy Gardner is the daughter of an ex-senator, named Desmond Gardner, currently serving time in a Federal Minimum Security Correctional Facility in Maryland on a bribery conviction, but a chance at parole is looming on the horizon. However, a sugar-related investigation might block Gardner from tasting his freedom again. Which is why Gardner contacted Michaelson through his daughter and asked him for chat at the prison face to face.

The first half of Washington Deceased mainly consists of establishing Michaelson as a character of this series, which shows him as "brave, cool and arrogant" with a "definite idea where he wants to be when the next President comes in," but would "lie, cheat or steal to get on the right guy's short list for one of the jobs he has in mind." So, not exactly a hand-wringing bureaucrat, but a politician nonetheless.

There are, of course, some things to be said about Washington itself, or rather, the political-machine it hosts, which has (for example) the State Department spying on the CIA, because the latter was "not good at telling the State Department and Congress everything it found out" – which gave the place an Alice-in-Wonderlandesque spot of madness. Like the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. There were also some conversational snippets predicting a collapse of Apartheid in South Africa and a crumbling influence of the Soviet Union.

I found these parts quite enjoyable, because it placed the detective story in a different territory, but only part of the story that of interest, plot-wise, was the seemingly inexplicable locked room shooting in prison.

"Sweet" Tony Martinelli was "a thumb breaker" specialized in "labor racketeering," which exists of coaxing "union members not to be overly inquisitive about what's happening to their pension funds" and shake down employers by convincing people "not to interfere with illegal work stoppages." A charming personality who was quite out of place in the minimum secured facility housing non-violent offenders.

So it's not a surprise someone wanted an end to Martinelli's existence, but the real problem arises in answering how this unknown person managed to do it!

Tony Martinelli is shot in a locked basement supply room, numbered "B-4," with a Colt .22, which was left inside the room and the shooting was on a surveillance camera – and that's where the problems begin to arise. The only room in the window was barred, locked and framed with a metal detector-alarm and the same goes for pretty much the entire premise. There are three floor plans showing how many cameras and metal detectors are strewed around the complex, which makes it "totally impossible for any inmate" to have "left the Supply Room by any means."

The explanation for this seemingly impossible murder has flashes of originality and imagination, which possibly betrayed a love for stage-illusions on the authors part, but the complexity of the trick came at the expense of believability – evidenced by the amount of ground Michaelson had to cover to explain each step of the murder.

The murderer had to do "a whole series of things that incredibly increased the chance" of being spotted "doing something that would get him convicted of murder," which is hard to explain in a convincing manner without Murphy's Law rearing its ugly head.

You really need to calculate one or two (minor) screw-ups in order to give this kind of real-time, murderous illusions a shred of credibility, but I can easily forgive this – 'cause I love originally thought-out impossible problems. I had a much bigger problem how some of the details were half-assed such as how the murder weapon got into the facility as a whole. The answer supplied: "how does cocaine get in... how does contraband of any kind get in," followed by "no prison on Earth is airtight." Well, the solution how the pistol got into locked and metal-detector protected supply room was definitely a lot better. And puzzling along and making up false solutions was fun as well. 

Overall, Washington Deceased was an interesting, if imperfect, introduction to Michael Bowen's locked room novels, which requires further investigation before giving my final judgment. I remember reading some positive things about Worst Case Scenario (1996) and Collateral Damage (1999). So one of those two will probably be the next Bowen I'll be reading.