12/28/15

Murder in Retrospect: The Best and Worst of 2015


"...scattered across the country is a small but determined group of readers... who devour almost every mystery story published. They take their daily dose of murder with the frenzied enthusiasm of a drug addict. They know all the tricks; they have followed all the detectives, erudite, exotically Oriental, depressingly homespun; they are familiar with all the ways a human being can be put to death."
Philip van Doren Stern ("The Case of the Corpse in the Blind Alley," from The Virginia Quarterly Review, 1941)


First of all, the amusing opening quote for this obligatory annual round-up post comes courtesy of Past Offenses, who recently uncovered an article from the early 1940s in which the author rages impotently about people avidly consuming the kind of books he looks down upon – concluding that the "root of their devotion can probably be traced to an unhappy childhood" or "a maladjusted sex life." Fortunately, Phil gave us the verbal ass pounding we had been yearning for since 1841 and finally made men out of us!

Secondly, I hope everyone survived the busy, demanding ordeal of the festive season and enjoyed themselves on Christmas Day. I surely did. Well, I could pad out this post further, but I'll stop myself here and immediately skip to the meat of the matter: a list of the best-and worst mysteries read in 2015! They've been surprisingly voluminous this time around, because I had a rather slow start this year and there were even months I had barely read anything worth mentioning.

So here is, without further ado, the annual best-of/worst-of list:  

THE BEST MYSTERIES READ IN 2015:

Spider's Web (2000) by Agatha Christie and Charles Osborne

A novelisation by Charles Osborne of a stage-play Agatha Christie wrote in 1954 for Margaret Lockwood, who wanted a role that would exploit her talent for comedy, which resulted in a humorous thriller about a diplomat's wife stumbling over a body in the library – not long before her husband is expected to come home with an important foreign guest. A fun and clever little mystery that's not as well known as other pieces from Christie's large body of work.

The Secret of Skeleton Island (1966) by Robert Arthur

This was the sixth book in a series of juvenile mysteries about The Three Investigators, but it was my introduction to Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Peter Crenshaw and Bob Andrews. It's a gem of a case: they're asked by none other than Alfred Hitchcock to figure out who's committing acts of thievery and vandalism on the set of a suspense movie, which involves an abandoned amusement park with a haunted merry-go-round and an island that used to double as a pirate hideout. Where there are pirates, there's bound to be treasure!

Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) by Yukito Ayatsuji

A book credited with launching the neo-orthodox movement in Japan and a fun riff on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939), but populated with the Asian counterparts of the characters from Peter Lovesey's Bloodhounds (1996). The characters are members of a university club dedicated to detective story and they decided to stay on an abandoned island that had been site of a tragedy. Of course, a fresh series of murders is dogging their heels! A very fun and important mystery novel that was translated by our very own Ho-Ling Wong.

Cold Blood (1952) by Leo Bruce

Lamentably, Bruce retired Sgt. Beef as his series-character after the publication of this novel, but it's a magnificent sendoff to such a wonderful and sadly under-appreciated detective character. Sgt. Beef is engaged to investigate the bludgeoning of a misanthropic recluse in a dark, gloomy-looking Georgian mansion and soon comes to the conclusion that much more than simply his reputation is on the line. The confrontation with the murderer on the rooftop may have inspired a specific episode from Jonathan Creek, which in turn may have given the writers of Sherlock an idea to explain a cliff-hanger.

The Sea Mystery (1928) by Freeman Wills Crofts

A companion piece to Croft's debut novel, The Cask (1920), which begins when two fishers hook a wooden packing crate in the waters of a Welsh inlet and discover it's macabre content: a horrendously decomposed body of a man with obliterated features. It's a seemingly insoluble problem, but the methodical Inspector French follows the clues to their logical conclusion. Somewhat of a minor classic. 

The Judas Window (1938) by Carter Dickson

If I'm not mistaken, this is the only book I re-read in 2015. However, it's one of those books that stood up very well to re-reading: a man is murdered in a hermitically sealed room and suspicion naturally falls on the only other person present in the room – who's absolutely innocent. The explanation to the impossible aspect of the plot is as classic and original as the performance of the "Old Man" in the courtroom!

Seijo no Kyusai (Salvation of a Saint, 2008) by Keigo Higashino

The second, full-length novel in the "Detective Galileo" series and has an impossible crime plot that is as clever and original as it's cheeky and unbelievable, but all of the clues where right there – embedded in the characters. I'm sure not everyone is willing to swallow the explanation, but it's a fresh and innovative treatment of the shopworn poisoning plot.  

Inherit the Stars (1977) by James P. Hogan

I know what you're thinking: how can I award a spot on my yearly list of best classic and neo-orthodox mysteries to a science-fiction novel? But it's ok: we've officially appropriated Inherit the Stars from the SF-genre. It's officially ours now! The plot of the book revolves around the anomalies discovery of a skeleton in a spacesuit on the moon, belonging to a normal-sized, anatomically modern human being, but carbon dating says this person died over 50.000 years ago! I know it's science-fiction novel and the plot is grounded in that territory, but the explanation is worthy of our genre!

Dead Man's Quarry (1930) by Ianthe Jerrold

I said about the reissued edition of this book that it gave credence to our claim that we're currently living in a Renaissance era of detective-fiction. The story is set the beautiful, evocative Wye Valley in the Hereford-Wales borderland, which is where a cycling party ends with its least popular member at the bottom of a disused quarry. It's a pure and solid Golden Age mystery.

There May Be Danger (1948) by Ianthe Jerrold

I wanted to avoid giving writers more than one entry this year, but I had to make an exception for Jerrold's final contribution to the genre: which is more of an thriller-cum-adventure story that's structured as a very unusual detective story and ends up as an espionage novel. It begins when an out-of-work stage manager, Kate Mayhew, notices a handbill in a shop window requesting information about a missing twelve-year-old London evacuee – which leads her to a sparsely populated village in Wales and a very dangerous situation. It's simply splendid! By the way, lot's of Welsh-set mystery novels this year!    

Crime at Christmas (1934) by C.H.B. Kitchin

Mystery readers mostly remember Kitchin as the author of Death of My Aunt (1929) and Death of My Uncle (1939), but Crime at Christmas was my introduction to Kitchin and the book has a pleasant, old-fashioned and traditionally looking plot. However, Kitchin wrangled a clever and original mystery novel out of the premise of a family gathering at Christmas time. It's a bit slow moving in parts, but comes highly recommended if you like to read Christmas-themed mysteries in December.

Schemers (2009) by Bill Pronzini

A fairly recent entry in the ongoing biography of Pronzini's "Nameless Detective," who's named Bill, which can be labeled as a "bibliomystery" and has two impossible situations at the core of its plot: one of them is the disappearance of several highly prices volumes of detective fiction from secure and private library. The second impossible situation is a fatal shooting in that very same library and the explanation shows were still a long from exhausting every possible way to polish someone off in a locked room. I'm also very amused at the fact that this hardboiled series is strewn with bibliomysteries and locked room murders. 

Ten Star Clues (1941) by E.R. Punshon

Punshon has rapidly ascended on my list of personal favorites and Ten Star Clues is a great piece of justification. It's basically one long riff on the infamous, Victorian-era case of the Tichborne claimant and is scrupulously plotted with an extremely linear narrative, which was evidently needed to keep the plot from becoming muddled. A clear and sharp detective story.

Bleeding Hooks (1940) by Harriet Rutland

Arguably, one of the best and cleverest mystery novels I have read this year and a book that should be jotted down on my list of all-time favorites: it's set in a Welsh fishing village where one of the unpleasant guests is found at the side of a lake with a poisoned salmon fly deeply imbedded in her hand. I found the whole book a pleasure to read and the final, ingenious twist was grand! I can't recommend this one enough!

Devil's Planet (1942) by Manly Wade Wellman

An early and surprisingly accomplished attempt at integrating a formal mystery plot with a science-fiction premise, which predates Isaac Asimov's Caves of Steel (1954) by more than a decade! The plot follows around an Earthling, named Dillon Stover, on the dry, dusty and draught-stricken surface of Mars in thirtieth century and how Stover became the prime-suspect in the murder of a prominent Martian citizen – who perished in a locked room! I'm genuinely baffled how Devil's Planet failed to carve a name for itself as both an early hybrid and an impossible crime novel.

HONORARY MENTIONS:  

I've read a number of anthologies and short story collections, but adding an additional section to the list, discussing individual stories, would really bloat this blog-post. So I simply list the collections I enjoyed as a whole.

Christianna Brand's What Dread Hand (1968)
Edmund Crispin's Fen Country: Twenty-Six Stories (1979)

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries (2014), which I reviewed in several parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.  

CURIOSITY OF INTEREST:

The Case of the Sharaku Murders (Sharaku satsujin jiken, 1983) by Katsuhiko Takahashi

A book starting off as a British-style academic mystery, but soon delves into the distant past as the characters try to figure out the identity of a legendary woodblock print artist, "Sharaku," who worked for only a short period – between the early months of 1795 and 1796. You have to enjoy either history or art to enjoy this book, because this portion of the plot covers a period from the early 1600s to the late 19th century. It's not a great mystery novel, but it's an interesting one.

THE TOP 3 WORST MYSTERIES READ IN 2015:

1: Nine Man's Murder (2011) by Eric Keith

I read this one on the strength of a ton of positive reviews, but was angry and disappointed when I discovered a horribly written, sloppily plotted mess populated with unconvincing, cardboard characters. As I noted in my review, the characters resembled a group of Easter Island statues, because they were completely unmoved by what happened around them and this robbed the book of any tension that should’ve arising naturally from the isolated situation. You should avoid this one at all costs.

2: The Santa Klaus Murder (1936) by Mavis Doriel Hay

A long, repetitive Christmas-themed mystery novel lacking in originality. It was a chore to read and a drain on my festive spirit, which prevented me from reading and reviewing some additional, holiday-themed detective stories I had lined up for this month. Not recommended.

3: And So to Murder (1940) by Carter Dickson

I know, I know! I actually placed a John Dickson Carr novel in this portion of the list, but it's a genuinely bad and poorly constructed mystery. Hopefully, its inclusion here proves I can be critical of his work and not just gush over, and blindly praise, everything he ever wrote.

Well, that's a wrap for this year! I'll probably have more review for this year, but that would require me to finish the book and write a review before the end of the year, which is not a guarantee in these final days of 2015. So this could very well be my final post of the year. If that's the case: I want to thank everyone who has voluntarily put up with my vague ramblings about detective stories over the past twelve months and wish you all the best in 2016!

12/27/15

On a Dark, Grimy Night


"When you follow two separate chains of thoughts, Watson, you will find some point of intersection which should approximate to the truth."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur C. Doyle's "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," from His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes, 1917) 

Lenore Glen Offord wrote only eight mystery novels during her lifetime, but amassed a bulky body of work as a critic and served as a reviewer on the staff of the San Francisco Chronicler for over thirty years – a gig which landed her an Edgar Award for Outstanding Criticism in 1952. Nonetheless, it would be a capital mistake to overlook Offord as a mystery novelist.

The Glass Mask (1944) successfully employed a "perfect murder" ploy and refused to fall back on a cop-out for a happy ending, which firmly anchored the book on my list of all-time favorite detective stories. It's also one of the better village mysteries I have read. My True Love Lies (1947) revealed it self as a wonderful, artistically themed standalone novel with an equally wondrous, double-twisted ending and provided a clever answer as to why a murderer would hide a body inside a clay model.

So I was glad to learn Felony & Mayhem had reissued Skeleton Key (1943), which offered an avenue for further exploration of her work and introduced her series-characters – Georgine Wyeth and pulp-writer Todd McKinnon. Georgine Wyeth was introduced to the reader as a strikingly modern character: a workingwoman and widowed mother of a seven-year-old girl, which left her barely with any time for a personal life. It's during one of her ungrateful jobs that the reader catches a first glimpse of her.

Georgine is roaming a cul-de-sac in Berkeley, California, called Grettry Road, carrying a miniature briefcase full of magazine-subscriptions, but they so far remained blank. Nobody seemed interested and there even appeared to be "a sudden wave of sales resistance," which lead to the reflection that she couldn't "sell water to a desert tank corpse," but an opportunity presents itself when a case of mistaken identity gains her entrance to the home of an eccentric professor – who, according to "the consensus of the neighborhood," is perfecting "a Death Ray" in his laboratory!

In actuality, the suspiciously minded scientist, Alexis Paev, is looking for a scientific-illiterate typist to convert his large collection of notes into typescript. It's a job worth a hundred bucks. Luckily, Georgine is fabulously ignorant of such subjects as chemistry, physics and bacteriology. So why not paunch on the opportunity to earn some extra money?

However, the job requires her to be a temporary resident of the dead-end street, because the professor is adamant that not a single page is carried off the premise.

As a new resident, Georgine "noted with amusement" how much Grettry Road "resembled a village," in its semi-isolation, but without the public knowledge of everyone’s private affairs and the inhabitants viewed her as "a fresh mind on which everyone was eager to stamp his own impressions" – which positioned her in the role of social observer. It's in this position that she involuntarily amasses an astonishing amount of knowledge about the locals.

A wealth of information that proved its worth when the local air-raid warden, Roy Hollister, is killed during a blackout in what appears to have been a freak accident, which occurred when "a driverless car plunged downhill" and "struck him as he was going on his rounds." Georgine had noticed during a block meeting Hollister "wardened harder" than anyone she ever saw and how "he had sort of impact on people" that she "couldn’t define or explain." Obviously, there are one or two potential motives hidden just beneath the surface.

The semi-isolation, village-esque quality of Grettry Road begs for a comparison with the English village mysteries of Agatha Christie, but what truly gave the book a British twang was the blackout angle. It's a part of World War II that's seldom played up in American mysteries from the period and therefore became closely associated with English mysteries, which was used by practically every writer active at the time. But the only other American mystery novel I can think of (from the top of my head) using/mentioning blackouts was Frances Crane's The Pink Umbrella (1943).

A well-drawn backdrop, affected by America's entry into the war, coupled with an interesting, somewhat original motive lifted the plot slightly above average, which was a nice result since the book was evidently a vehicle to introduce and establish the new series-characters – by bringing Georgine and Todd together. The only part of the book I found truly disappointing was how the disappearance of one of the characters was presented as an impossible problem,  someone was heard running up a flight of stairs and "at the top had vanished into thin air," but the magic was quickly dispelled and revealed as merely a misundertood situation on the part of Georgine. Oh well.

All in all, it was still a nicely written mixture of plot and characters that resulted in a good, but not outstanding, detective novel with an interesting WWII background.

Well, that's the best I could do with this review and I'm not if I can squeeze in another review before the end of the year, but there will be a best-of/worst-of list. I just haven't decided yet if they're going to be separate lists or simply merge them into one long, rambling blog-post. So stay tuned.

12/20/15

The Enemy Within


"Never was anything great achieved without danger."
- Niccolò Machiavelli 
In my previous blog-post, I reviewed Let Him Lie (1940) by Ianthe Jerrold and noted that it was the first of her final two contributions to the genre, which were published a decade after The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930) under the pseudonym of "Geraldine Bridgman."

The main difference between Let Him Lie and its predecessors was that it's a standalone novel with a character-oriented plot, but Jerrold's final novel differed from all three of its forebears. There May Be Danger (1948) falls in the category of spy-cum-adventure thriller. However, I'd say its unusually structured plot also clung to the traditional mystery, which was abandoned in the end, but it had a grasp on it.

In his introduction, genre historian and author of Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery (2012), Curt Evans, wonders if There May Be Danger was composed in the early 1940s "as a war-time follow up to Let Him Lie" and may have been turned down "on the grounds that it was more a war-time thriller than a classic detective novel" – which could explain how the book ended up eight years later with the same publisher as The Private Life of Adolf Hitler: The Intimate Notes and Diaries of Eva Braun (1949). 

All the same, I think the book stands (IMHO) alongside Dead Man's Quarry as Jerrold's finest piece of crime-fiction. I found it an immensely satisfying story and appreciated the unorthodox structure of the plot, which, I imagine, even diverted from your stock-in-trade spy yarn.

One of the main attractions of There May Be Danger is the protagonist, Kate Mayhew, who used to be a "stage-manager and general factotum" of a small repertory company in London, but a "receding tide of theatre-going" followed the bombers in the sky and the ever-increasing familiar sight of air-raid wardens and gasmasks in the streets below – effectively putting her out of a job. She's contemplating her next course of action when a handbill pasted to a shop window attracts her attention.

The handbill asks "PLEASE HELP" in regards to a missing twelve-year-old London evacuee, named Sidney Brentwood, who resided with a couple in a sparsely populated village in Radnorshire, Wales, but has been missing for several weeks. It seems Sydney "got up in the middle of the night" and "went off on his bicycle" without "saying a word to anybody" and "simply never came back."

Kate concerns herself over the fate of the missing boy and decides to go out there and search for him, which is an undertaking that begins with a visit to Sydney's cat-obsessed aunt in London. But she soon finds herself roaming the streets of the small, Welsh village of Hastry and the surrounding area that's strewn with old homes, neglected building and ancient tumuli – providing the tantalizing possibilities of long-lost hidden passages and chambered barrows.

That's why I enjoyed Kate Mayhew over Jeanie Halliday, the leading heroine from Let Him Lie, because she was a passive character, unwittingly picking up pieces of the puzzle, while Kate went out of her way to find a child she had never met before. It's a premise that energized an already excitingly original plot. A plot that begins somewhat as a traditional mystery novel, but the familiar murder enquiry is ditched in favor of a missing child and nobody even believes there was a crime. Such as Sydney's schoolteacher, who believes he has met with an unfortunate accident, which gives the story an unusual sense of dread, urgency and mystery. Because you want to reach the ending to find out what has happened to Sydney.

Interestingly, there's an archeological-angle to the plot with its burial mounds, possible underground passages from long-ago and a 9th century silver penny of Ceowulf, but, by the end of the book, the story begins to encroach on the territory of blood-curdling thrillers and treacherous espionage novels.

As a large-scale consumer of traditional mysteries, I found the hybrid structure of an espionage-thriller posing for a large part as an atypical detective story to be a pleasant divergent from the norm. I'm just afraid that my review has not done the book any justice, because I glossed over a lot of plot details and fun characters that I did not want to give away.

There May Be Danger is one of those novels you should try and discover for yourself, which I can especially recommend to readers who appreciated the more adventurous outings of Agatha Christie's Tommy & Tuppence (e.g. The Secret Adversary (1922) and N or M?, 1941). Or simply are a fan of Jerrold. Or fond of discovering obscure, long-forgotten vintage crime novels. The wonderful Dean Street Press is reissuing the book in January, 2016.

I'll return to the traditional mystery for my next review, but I've not yet decided whether it'll be an impossible crime novel or a war-time mystery.

12/17/15

In a Mound of Trouble


"...murder sneaked out and invaded the village, upsetting its routine and disarranging the regularity of its program."
- Maureen Sarsfield (Green December Fills the Graveyard a.k.a. Murder at Shots Hall, 1945)  
Earlier this year, I reviewed a pair of mystery novels by Ianthe Jerrold, The Studio Crime (1929) and Dead Man's Quarry (1930), which were assumed to have been her sole contributions to the genre, but there were two additional novels – published under the pseudonym of "Geraldine Bridgman." However, they differ in a few ways: both are standalones with different lead characters operating in separate branches of the genre.

Let Him Lie (1940) is a genuine, Golden Age detective, but lacks the presence of Jerrold's series characters, John Christmas, and There May Be Danger (1948) is a World War II spy-thriller. You can probably guess which of the two novels is going to be the subject of this review.

A decade separated Dead Man's Quarry from Let Him Lie and Jerrold appeared to have inched away from the "Great Detectives" that dominated the pre-World War II scene, which accounts for the absence of her brilliant series characters, John Christmas. He has been replaced by a former arts student, Jeanie Halliday, who has settled herself "in proud and lonely independence" at Yew Tree Cottage in Gloucestershire. 

Halliday differs from Christmas in that she does not "create a theory out of the broad characteristics of the case" and then "test the facts," or simply actively detects, but inconspicuously buzzes around the involved with the case and picks up spores of information along the way – which eventually leads to a nasty murderer. Guess you can compare the method of detection in this mystery with pollination.

Anyhow, the opening of Let Him Lie sets the tone of the book: Halliday takes an interest in the welfare of thirteen-year-old Sarah Molyneux and experiences first hand how "confederacy between the adult and the child has its difficulties," which begins when her "queer, neurotic and unhappy mother," Myfanwy Peel, turns up brandishing a service revolver. Sarah was left in the care of her uncle, Robert Molyneux, after being dragged across "Europe in the course of two more ill-starred marriages and one or two less regular alliances."

Lately, Peel has been nurturing "a maternal sentiment" and demanded her former brother-in-law to return Sarah to her. Even saying to the unwilling child that she would not like the be returned to her mother by force of law and how she would not like her daughter as much as she does now. Well, that makes her an obvious first suspect in the murder that soon followed her arrival.

Ianthe Jerrold, 1936
© National Portrait Gallery
Robert Molyneux was busy in his orchard, pruning the branches of an apple tree, when he dropped to the ground, but he did not accidentally slipped and fell to his death – because there was a bullet-hole in the left side of head. Someone had simply shot him out of the apple tree!

There are, however, more people with a motive for murdering the apparent nice and inoffensive Molyneux. A former secretary, Peter Johnson, was fired earlier in the year for stealing, but has returned to the region with an additional motive involving the wife of her former employer. Agnes Molyneux was an old acquaintance of Jeanie, but her marriage has transformed her in a very selfish, unfriendly and money spending woman, which caused many quarrels in the household. The locals have a different ideas about what lays at the heart of the murder: namely the curse of an ancient burial mound, locally known as "Grim's Grave," which he had given permission to excavate and this was especially opposed by Mr. Fone – a local poet and armchair historian obsessed with the men of the Neolithic era and would've "done anything to stop it."

Jeanie moves around these people, inadvertently picking up crumbs of information, which combined with such clues as a dead, snow-white kitten, the directional sound of a gunshot and a broken string of pearls lands her in the obligatory spot of hot water.

In the decade that separated Dead Man's Quarry from Let Him Lie, Jerrold wrote a number of mainstream novels, which had an obvious effect on this book: the writing and characters have matured from the pure game aspect of her late 1920-and early 30s mysteries. It's very reflective of the changes that would sweep across the genre in the coming decades, but retained the structure and necessary ingredients of a proper, classically-styled detective story.

I was actually reminded of the debut novel of another writer with a short-lived career in the field: Murder at Shots Hall (1945) by Maureen Sarsfield, which has a young, artistic (sculptor) woman as the main protagonist confronted with murder at a small English village dominated by a grand old tower. But, more importantly, you have to wonder how the genre had looked if the short-lived careers of such writers as Jerrold and Sarsfield had extended pass the 1940s. Would writers such as Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh still be considered Crime Queens today?

Let Him Lie has a good plot that's populated with convincingly drawn characters and its only short-coming is that it does not reach the same, lofty heights as its predecessor, which some of us consider to be somewhat of a masterpiece. But that's only an issue if you're a spoiled, impudent brat, like yours truly, because the book should be judge as a standalone effort – which was (IMHO) a success.

Let Him Lie and There May Be Danger are scheduled for republication in January, 2016 and the responsible parties are, of course, Dean Street Press and Curt Evans. Evans has traditionally written an introduction and him vetting the books for DSP is as close as you can possible get, as a publishing house, to stamping a seal of quality on your products. 

12/14/15

A Breath-Taking Miracle


"I knew, as everyone knows, that the easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place some one is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death."
- Harry Houdini
Daniel Stashower is a freelance journalist and an award-winning author of such biographical works as Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (1999) and The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder (2006), but Stashower is probably better known for several historical crime novels – usually with Harry Houdini as one of the main protagonists.

I had previously only read Elephants in the Distance (1989), which is a memorable and excellent standalone about a reunion of elderly magicians that came with a body count. It's one of those post-GAD mysteries, read during my pre-blogging days, that suggested that, perhaps, not everything published after 1960 was complete and utter tripe.

However, I took my sweet time in returning to Stashower, but the Harry Houdini mysteries have always been in my peripheral. There was something about the plot descriptions I found intriguing and captivating. If only I can remember what exactly it was. Oh, yes: the impossible crimes!

The Floating Lady Murder (2000) is the second of three historical mystery novels about Harry Houdini, which is book-ended by The Dime Museum Murders (1999) and The Houdini Specter (2001), but the detective turned out to be Theodore "Dash" Hardeen – who was Houdini's younger brother and an accomplished escape artist/magician himself. Interestingly, Hardeen is also the chronicler and therefore assumes the roles of both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

I picked The Floating Lady Murder for one simple reason: the seemingly impossible situation sounded epic and one-of-a-kind!

The book opens in 1898 and Dash, in the function as Harry's manager, spots a notice in the New York Dramatic Mirror, in which opportunities are offered with the "Dean of American Magicians," Harry Kellar, for the '98-'99 season, but his brother resists on account that "The Great Houdini is no mere stagehand" or "a simple lackey to be ordered about." It takes a bit of manipulation from Harry's wife to change his mind to go to the audition.

Well, they're taken in after helping subdue an escaped lion, but Houdini's mind is as welcome a presence as his nerves of steel, because Kellar is staring a problem in the face: he wants to debut the lifelong dream of his late mentor, "The Wizard of Kalliffa," which is the illusion of the floating lady and he came very close a quarter of century before – except that tragedy intervened and his wife plunged to her death. Kellar had patiently waited his entire professional career for mechanical engineering to evolve to the point it would deliver "necessary mechanics" to complete the trick, but, at the dawn of the twentieth century, there are rival magicians working on a similar trick. The illusion is far from perfect (or even complete) and a deadline is looming at the horizon.

A good chunk of the first half of The Floating Lady Murder consists of Houdini, Dash and Bess being ingrained into the group and helping to perfect the illusion as they prepare for opening night. That’s where the trouble really begins.

"Now she is almost beyond our earthly grasp," echoes the voice of the old magician on opening night, "surely the gods themselves must watch in wonder as she floats up towards the vault of heaven," but the astonished audience becomes horrified when something goes horribly wrong. Everyone watched in horror as the hovering figure "dipped and tossed" as "though it were a marionette whose strings were being snapped one by one" and finally the floating lady plummeted seventy-two feet to her death.

On first appearance, Miss Moore death seems like a tragic and unfortunate accident, but a post-mortem examination reveals the presence of water in her lungs and there can only be one conclusion drawn from that – she drowned in mid-air! It's not an accident, but an impossible crime and a blatant one at that!

First of all, I want to note here that Stashower crafted a fine and well-characterized historical novel, wonderfully capturing the spirit of the era, but as a detective story it did not entirely conform to the basic rules of fair pay. I can forgive Hardeen for withholding the tell-all clue he found in the newspaper morgue, but I was a bit miffed when I found out I had been shooed away from the correct explanation for the "aerial wizardry" that caused the mid-air drowning. There's basically one logical answer for this apparent miracle, but there's a character who swears that explanation was as impossible as the situation itself, which made my hope rise for an original explanation and labor on an intricate solution of myself. However, the ending revealed that the solution did run along the lines of that one logical answer and clues to it where not fairly shared with the reader.

It's kind of understandable why Stashower played those cards close to his chest, because revealing them would've given the entire game away well before the end, but this blog uses the Golden Age standard and therefore I'm obliged to nitpick about the fairness of the plot.

I did enjoy the book as a whole, but I wish the plot had adhered to the rules of Golden Age fair play, because I had the sincere hope The Floating Lady Murder would reveal itself as a companion to John Sladek's Black Aura (1974) – which has a similar, but fairly-clued, miracle problem about a mid-air murder. 

However, I will not be deterred from trying the other two books in the Harry Houdini series, which have apparently more traditional locked room problems. So this will be continued!

12/13/15

Post Mortem


"The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic."
- Aristide Valentin (G.K. Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911)
Ever since its inception, The London-based Detection Club produced some interesting and experimental volumes of collaborative detective fiction, which consists mainly of round-robin novels (e.g. The Floating Admiral, 1932), but The Anatomy of Murder (1936) took a break from fictional crimes with plots constructed like an obstacle course.

The Anatomy of Murder is a collection of true crime articles and cast the contributors in the role of armchair criminologists. It's a short who's who of the early Detection Club: Dorothy L. Sayers, E.R. Punshon, Helen Simpson, Margaret Cole and Anthony Berkeley – appearing here under his penname of "Francis Iles."

They're tasked with re-examining five infamous cases from the late 1800s and early twentieth century, but these literary exhumations consist mainly of going over the facts and consider their implications. So don't expect any mind-blowing, alternative explanations being spun from the giving facts. It's a dry and factual collection, but interesting from a historical perspective and a particular item of interest for avid consumers of true crime stories.

Note that I'll be keeping the case descriptions as short and summary as possible, because murderers operating outside of the printed page are generally unconcerned with creating a clear, straightforward and clue-filled plot – unlike their fictional counterparts.

Helen Simpson wrote the first chapter, "Death of Henry Kinder," which could also have been titled "Crime in Australia" and is a textbook example of "an unsatisfactory crime" from "the point of view of a reader of detection stories."

Henry Kinder was a chief teller in the City Bank of Sydney and appeared respectable, but was very fond of hard liquor and his drinking habits had began to affect his health in the months preceding his death. On October 2nd, 1865, the news of Kinder's suicide startled many of his respectable friends in the city and a jury brought in a verdict death "by the discharge of a pistol with his own hand," but by that time the rumor mill had started – with subsequent events revealing Kinder may have been polished off with a dose of poison by his wife's lover. Henry Louis Bernard was put on trial and Simpson's report, peppered with diary entrants, letters and pieces of court transcripts, shows how the chain of events clanked "to a madman’s fandango," which lead to a very unsatisfactory conclusion.

Well, unsatisfactory if this had been a piece of fiction, but, as a criminal case from history, it demonstrated that even if the perceptive story book detectives had existed their singular talents be rendered pretty much useless in cases lacking their own clarity of mind. You can read an extensive description of the case here.

Margaret Cole's penned the second chapter and deals with "The Case of Adelaide Bartlett," which is better known as the "Pimlico Mystery" and shares some similarities with the previous case: in both cases a spouse is fatally poisoned after a previous incident relegated them to a sick bed. In the case of Henry Kinder, it was an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, but in the 1886 death of Thomas Edwin Bartlett it was mercurial poisoning – which he claimed was self-ingested. However, it was not the poison that would end up killing him.

A month later, Bartlett passed away and a post-mortem examination revealed a fatal quantity of chloroform in his stomach. The inquest yielded a verdict of willful murder and Adeleide Bartlett was indicted, but acquitted under "immense cheering" in the courtroom. As Cole noted, it was one of the most interesting trials of its day, because it was not "a tale of horror or brutality." None of the people, however odd or foolish, were monsters and tried "to be as nice as impossible under rather difficult circumstances." It was an interesting study in characters and motives that were somewhat ahead of their time.

However, it must be noted as well that one of the main reason for acquittal was failing in providing an answer how the poison could've been administrated without a struggle, since chloroform burns, but Cole makes a valid suggestion based on the characteristics of the people involved – and had the jury considered this possibility "she would have never gone free." A very odd case to say the least.

Interestingly, Cole's account includes a list of nineteenth century medicines and remedies given to Thomas Bartlett after his mercurial poisoning, which did not sound very appetizing.

For the third chapter, E.R. Punshon gives "An Impression of the Landru Case," which deals with the "incredible reincarnation of the Bluebeard of the nursery tales." Henri Désiré Landru was one of the neatest and charming serial killers who ever stalked the European continent. Known as "The Bluebeard of Gambais," Landru operated "during that four-year feast of horror and of terror we remember as the war" and responsible for the complete disappearance of eleven people in such a manner "that nothing can be declared with certainty" – concluding that "no jury" would've brought in "a verdict of guilty" had "each case stood alone." It's an accumulation of those eleven disappearances in close proximity of Landru, a methodical kept notebook and a storage room with a "strange collection" of items "once the property of a woman who once had known Landru and now was known to none" that became his undoing.

Punshon sketches an interesting, but unsettling, picture of charming confidence man with the predatory nature of "Jack the Ripper," but with more self-control and enjoyed to play the game until the very end – which in Landru's instance was up to the moment he was lead to the guillotines. You almost have to admire the guts and brawn of such an imperturbable character, but I’m sure France could've used such talents elsewhere at that specific point in time.

Dorothy L. Sayers goes over one of the England's most infamous "unsolved" murder cases in it's criminal history, "The Murder of Julia Wallace," which has captured the imagination of several post-WWII crime-writers – including a couple of Golden Agers. The books it has inspired include George Goodchild and C.E. Bechhofer's The Jury Disagree (1934), Winifred Duke's Skin for Skin (1935), John Rhode's The Telephone Call (1948) and P.D. James' The Skull Beneath the Skin (1982).

You can understand why mystery writers tend to be intrigued, because if William Wallace was guilty of bludgeoning his wife to death "he was the classic contriver and alibi-monger that adorns the pages of a thousand mystery novels," but if he was innocent "then the real murderer was still more typically of the classic villain of fiction." Where do you begin to describe a case that includes all of the classic ingredients of a detective story: a blood-stained mackintosh, a mysterious phone call from a non-existent person calling himself "R.M. Qualtrough" and an apparent contrived alibi. Then there are the conflicting witness statements: such as a constable who assumed he saw Wallace crying in the streets, but the clients he met after this apparent encounter with the policeman reported he was his usual self.

It was a dark, murky and muddled case, but despite every scrap of evidence against Wallace being circumstantial, which included an exonerating testimony from the local milk delivery boy, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. However, Court of Criminal appeal quashed the verdict in what was at the time an unprecedented move, which left open that intriguing question: who killed Julia Wallace? This was easily my favorite chapter from the book.

Finally, Anthony Berkeley, writing as "Francis Iles," delivers the longest-written chapter from the book as he rides his hobbyhorse, called criminal psychology, across a hundred pages describing the sordid mess known as "The Rattenbury Case." I did not find the case as interesting as Berkeley, but I can understand why people interesting psychological crimes can rattle on about it for page-after-page: a middle-aged woman, Mrs. Rattenbury, living together with her much older husband and her very young lover in a villa, which leads to battering-death with a mallet. Probably not the best chapter to end the book on, but I'm sure there are readers out there, especially readers of psychological thrillers, who'll be as intrigued by chapter as I was by Wallace chapter.

Well, there you have it: five cases re-examined by members of the Detection Club. The cases have something of interest to offer, one way or another, but I think the main draw is that the articles/chapters were written by famous mystery writers from the Golden Age – rather than for the cases themselves. I think it would've been better if they re-examined unsolved cases and provided a possible solution, which was, after all, their job.

However, it was a good, historically interesting diversion from the fictional murders the authors usually reveled in, but I'll be returning to those fictional murders for the next review.