Strong Medicine

"There is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you dear young people will never realize how very wicked the world is."
- Miss Marple (Agatha Christie's "The Blood-Stained Pavement," collected in The Thirteen Problems, 1933)
The ingenious and sardonic Anthony Berkeley was one of the founding members of the London-based Detection Club, who foresaw and participated in the popularization of the psychological crime novel, which he did under the byline of "Francis Iles," but he's primarily remembered today as one of the more original and innovative minds from the genre's classical period.

Berkeley's ingenuity sprang from a cunning mind that was willing to experiment with the form of the detective story and embrace new ideas. This is very evident in the characteristics of one of his series characters, the energetic Roger Sheringham, who's one of the most likable amateurs to ever don the figurative deerstalker, but as prone to fingering the wrong culprit as the reader – which also makes him one of the most relatable detectives in the genre. Sheringham snugly fits the mold of "the fallible detective," which was cast by E.C. Bentley in Trent's Last Case (1913), but Sheringham was unparalleled when it came to being wrong (e.g. The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and Jumping Jenny, 1933).

Just like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and G.K. Chesterton, Berkeley has a number of tricks, plots and storytelling ideas to his credit that were adapted and turned up in the works of other writers: a false solution from Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927) fuelled the plots of some well-known detective novels by John Dickson Carr, Nicholas Blake and Edmund Crispin. The basic plot-structure of The Silk Stocking Murders (1928) became the basis for Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936) and Panic Party (1934) seems to have been the model for And Then There Were None (1939) and William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954).

These influential works are accompanied by some excellent, first-rate detective stories such as The Piccadilly Murder (1929), Jumping Jenny, Trial and Error (1934) and the subject of this blog-post – a splendidly written, cleverly plotted and well characterized tale of a poisoning case in a small village that would have made Christie proud.

Not to Be Taken (1938) is a standalone novel and is narrated by Douglas Sewell, a fruit farmer and a countryside gentleman, who notes halfway through the story that, if his account "is to be considered as a detective story," he's telling it quite wrongly. As he had only just reached "the point at which a detective story usually begins," but reconstructing the recent past and bringing "the dead to life again in all the trivial details of everyday life" is necessary for assigning the roles for the engaging, fully fledged cast of characters who are about to play a part in a small-scale drama. Berkeley was not only a shrewd plotter, he also knew how to write a story around those plots populated with fairly convincing characters.

The narrative spun by Sewell begins with his next door neighbors, the Waterhouses, where the first signs of a domestic tragedy begin to manifest themselves.

John Waterhouse is a retired electrical engineer with a distinguished career behind him as "a kind of roving contractor," who was known, particularly in the East, as the man to call "when any native ruler with plenty of money" and "yearning for bright lights" was contemplating to wire his jungle capital – which resulted in several adventurous episodes and a respectable bank account. He settled down in the small village of Anneypenny, Dorset, to please his wife, Angela, but the restless workhorse soon picked up a hobby: masonry and construction. 

Construction is a useful pastime that provides the villagers with work and extra money, but Waterhouse has never been a penny-pincher, which made him a popular figure in Anneypenny. However, when the story opens, "the embodiment of robust health" has fallen ill and has been plagued with severe bouts of indigestion. The cause of the illness is placed on a developing gastric ulcer and his doctor advised him to cut down on his smoking, follow a diet and take his medicine. But that was to no avail: he "died a painful and a messy death" after a sick bed of five excruciating days.

The US title of Not to Be Taken
His doctor and a close friend of Sewell, Glen Brougham, was somewhat surprised, but signed a death certificate stating epidemic diarrhoea as the cause of death and Waterhouse would have been buried as one of those many examples, littering graveyards everywhere, of an unfortunate soul who passed away before his time – if it weren't for the interference of his brother. 

Cyril Waterhouse is very skeptical towards the official cause of death and Sewell wonders whether he had picked up grains from the local rumor-mill, before deciding to descend on the village, but a post-mortem examination supports his suspicions.

A quantity of arsenic is discovered in the body of John Waterhouse and this casts a wide net of suspicion. Cyril strongly suspects his sister-in-law, Angela, who's the sole beneficiary under her husband's will and can look forward to a fat paycheck from his life insurance – which is as good a motive for murder as her extra-marital affair. It’s also suggested Glen Brougham might have made a mistake in preparing the prescription, which would make it manslaughter and might cost him his career as a physician. The Waterhouses employed a German woman, Miss Mitzi Bergmann, who acted as a companion-secretary to Angela and was often ragged by John about the Nazi system, but on the eve of the inquest she flees from the country.

These are just a handful of the possible combination arising from the character-driven prelude of the first half and an examination of the hard facts during the inquest in the second half, which also involves Sewell himself, his wife, Frances, and the doctor’s sister, Rona. Before the final chapter, Berkeley threw down the gauntlet and wrote an Ellery Queen-style "Challenge to Reader," which asks several questions pertaining to who and how John Waterhouse was poisoned – as well as asking the reader if he thinks if the story contained, what he called, a "Dominant Clue." Berkeley delivers on the promise given by the premise and the tantalizing challenge, because the explanation is very clever and satisfying. I completely missed the central and dominant clue, but was pleasantly surprised to see the murderer give the kind of response I always wanted to see a murderer give to an old-fashioned deduction. However, I do not think this one really deserved to get away with it.

The final sentence closed the book on a note that was so unusual, unconventional and open-ended that it can only be described as stereotypical Berkeley. It was good and strong enough for Nicholas Blake to use it as an ending for his admitted masterpiece, Head of a Traveller (1949). So there's another piece of work seemingly inspired by Berkeley.

So, all in all, Not to Be Taken is another example of why Berkeley remains such a popular writer among connoisseurs of vintage crime-and mystery stories: he simply was one of the best.


Archery, Blackmail and Chalkboards

"There's something very convincing about a bow and arrow, but really, when you come to think of it..."
- Sgt. Beef (Leo Bruce's "I, Said the Sparrow," collected in Murder in Miniature and Other Stories, 1992)  
Rupert Croft-Cooke was the birth name of "Leo Bruce," writer and satirist, who penned a string of clever genre spoofs about a beer guzzling and darts playing village constable-turned-private investigator, but the novels about Sgt. Beef covered only a small portion of his total work – eight novels and a smattering of short stories stretched out over a period of sixteen years. Bruce was far more prolific with his secondary and lesser-known series about a schoolteacher and "a free-lance amateur" in the game of detection, Carolus Deene.

Deene took on the detective duties in twenty-three mystery novels, which were published between the mid-1950s and the early 70s, but they're a far cry from the inventive, tongue-in-cheek parodies of the genre that made up the Sgt. Beef series. They're more attuned with the darker mood and morose tone of the genre post-World War II.

Some years ago, I sampled one of the volumes from the Deene series, Death in Albert Park (1964), but I was repelled by the gloomy ambiance, plodding storytelling and a plot that was lifted from a rather famous mystery novel – i.e. Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936). Granted, I probably should not have read Death in Albert Park on the heels of Bruce's masterpiece, Case for Three Detectives (1936), but fact remains I was disappointed enough to angrily dismiss the entire series as bottom-of-the-barrel material.

I found an old comment on the GADetection Group, by Curt Evans, responding to my dismissal of the series by stating that in his view "reading the Deene books would be desperately scraping the bottom of the barrel" and how "Academy Chicago does not publish barrel scrapings" – followed by an assurance that "some of the Deenes have ingenious twists." Well, this was not the only instance in which someone, whose opinion on the detective story I hold in high regard, pleaded in favor of this series. So why not finally take that postponed second look at the series. I wanted to read something by Bruce and reading a Carolus Deene novel would prolong the inevitable end to the Sgt. Beef series, of which there only two more left on the big pile of unread detective stories.

The novel I picked to reacquaint myself with Carolus Deene was Death at St. Asprey's School (1967) and there were two reasons for that: I love a scholastic setting as much as a shipboard or war-time mystery and the plot description promised something along the lines of Gladys Mitchell's Tom Brown's Body (1949).

St. Asprey's Preparatory School is a private and expensive boarding school for young boys of high repute, but, lately, a chain of "ugly and frightening events" has plagued the place. Several of the students, "serious youngsters of twelve and thirteen years," swore they saw a figure they variously called "the Monk, the Old Friar or the Abbot," who has been described as a bearded man in gray passing through the dormitory like a ghost – while "mumbling Latin." Footsteps had been heard at night and lights had been "seen moving about the grounds."

Ghosts, lights and footsteps are something the teachers could have coped with, but soon the "satanic figure" became more "hostile and corruptive." Six rabbits were brutally battered to death in their hutch and a fox terrier puppy got its throat cut in the stables. It was obvious to everyone "some tragic event was pending," but nobody could have foreseen it was an attempt at murdering one of the teachers!

Colin Sime is one of the assistant masters and is very popular among the boys, but not with his colleagues in the common-room and he, miraculously, survives tumbling down a narrow, worn-out spiral staircase in an old church tower – which escaped only with a broken leg. However, Sime swears he was pushed and an aspiring killer could potentially ruin the reputation of the school. So they call in an expert to take over Sime's classes.

Carolus Deene is described as a slim, adolescent looking widower in his forties and the owner of a large private income, which made teaching and playing detective merely occupations to kill time "because he could not live idly." He had already established a reputation for himself as an amateur sleuth by the time the St. Asprey's School business presented itself, because it's asked of him if he could elucidate the matter without a murder. Usually, a murder or two before Deene successfully reaches the end of an investigation.

Sadly, for the victim, Deene is unable to prevent a second and far more successful attempt on Sime’s life: who's found propped up in his bed, in front of an open window, with the shaft of an arrow embedded in his throat. Interestingly, the practice of archery provided the best aspects for both the plot and storytelling. Archery is all the craze at the school and everyone is practicing it, which made sure there were enough people around when the deadly arrow was loosened, but there were also interesting scraps of background information on the sport – complete with the obligatory references to both Robin Hood and William Tell.

The method for the murder is a reworking of a short story from Bruce's very own Murder in Miniature and Other Stories (1992) and the idea had been previously explored by G.K. Chesterton and John Dickson Carr, but the trick was competently presented and pulled off in this version. Surrounding this trick is a rather common place, garden-variety plot: a blackmailing victim who received his comeuppance, but my main complaint is how the interesting plot-threads, ghostly figure and animal killings, were relegated to the background – instead of being played up to their fullest in order to dress-up and distinguish a simplistic, standard and shopworn plot. Like the archery elements and snippets of school life did for the story, which were my favorite parts of the book.

So, to cut this already overlong review short, I would say Death at St. Asprey's School was a better reading experience than Death in Albert Park, but I still would not place it anywhere near to the Sgt. Beef series. I probably should have read one of the titles that were actually recommended to me, such as Furious Old Women (1960) or Nothing Like Blood (1962), but they were not within reach of my covetous claws. However, I'll keep them in mind for when I'll return to this series, but, for now, I'm still a Beef kind of guy. 


Call a Policeman

"Different policemen have different methods..."
- Morse (Inspector Morse, Episode S05-E01: Second Time Around, 1991) 
The professional career of Sir Basil Thomson was as rich and varied as a vividly colored, intricately patterned tapestry and its textural richness included such snapshots as stints as a colonial officer, prison governor, intelligence officer, Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard and working alongside the Prime Minister of Tonga – according to some "he was the Prime Minister of Tonga." During his time on these jobs, he was a thorn in the side of the suffragettes, spies from Imperial Germany, Irish nationalists and British Marxists.

So with such a résumé, we can be forgiven for not remembering Thomson was also one of the pioneering minds of the English police procedural during the detective story's Golden Age. 

Fortunately, the Dean Street Press is in the process of filling this gaping lacuna in our collective memory by reissuing all of Thomson's police novels about Inspector Richardson, which tell the story of a Scottish policeman "climbing through the ranks of Scotland Yard." All of these eight books are clad in softly colored, uniformly designed book covers and are introduced by an accomplished crime novelist and genre historian, Martin Edwards. You can read more about Thomson's fascinating life in Edwards' introduction, which includes interrogation of Mata Hari, Roger Casement and a sensational conviction for "an offense of indecency" in Hyde Park – resulting in a fine of five pounds! But lets move on to the first book in a series that was praised by Dorothy L. Sayers, Jacques Barzun and Wendell H. Taylor.

Richardson's First Case (1933) begins on a wet, misty and depressing November afternoon in Baker Street where a young policeman, P.C. Richardson, is standing at his post. The "stream of traffic" had "splashed him with mud to his knees," his waterproof cape glistened with moisture and he "was wondering how he could win admission to the Criminal Investigation Department," but even he would probably have been surprised if he knew the traffic accident he was about to witness would offer him an escape from the humdrum routine of the uniformed police constable.

An old man, who "dashed across as if the devil was after him," got blindsided by a car and looked like "a bundle of old clothes" entangled with "the spring and the front axle." One of the witnesses on the pavement heard him say, "very well, then, I'll call a policeman," before dashing off, which complicated an apparent simple traffic accident – nor would it be the last complication in the case.

The name of the victim, who died on his way to the hospital, was John Catchpool. He was a registered moneylender and a shopkeeper of an antique store, who "had many other irons in the fire," but what they find in his store completely convoluted the whole matter.

What they found inside the store of the old man is the body of his wife, Mrs. Catchpool, who was strangled to death and the problem that arises from this discovery is a decidedly classical one. John Catchpool has a will that leaves everything to his wife and her beneficiary is a nephew, a naval officer called Lieutenant Sharp, but if his wife died before he did everything would go to his nephew upon his death – a man by the name of Herbert Reece. So the will provides both cousins with a potential motive for murder and asks the question of who died first, but there are more suspects to consider.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939)
Richardson found a slip of paper in the clothes of Catchpool, which bore the name and address of Arthur Harris, "a thin, weedy kind of youth," who has a fondness for drinking and reckless driving. Harris initially denies even the slightest acquaintance with Catchpool, but the old moneylender's ledger shows an entry in Harris' name for an outstanding loan of two hundred pounds. A second, potential suspect from the outside comes in the guise of a shivering, broken-down wreck of a man, named Frank Cronin, who's an artist and a picture-cleaner who illegally pawned an interesting picture that he was supposed to clean. The picture depicts a bunch of "licentious Spanish soldiers," during the occupation of the Low Countries, murdering and raping "the virtuous Dutchmen in the village" – which is burning down in the background. I wager it's a depiction of the Siege of Oudewater, but that’s a side observation.

So there's enough to investigate for the police, but where Thomson's crime-fiction differed from his contemporaries is the emphasis on teamwork and police procedural. As Edwards pointed out in the introduction, "such as focus on police team-working is very familiar to present day crime fiction fans," but it was a fresh and novel approach to the detective story in the 1930s. I have read about James Oliver Curwood who wrote books about the Mounted Police in the Canada of the 19th century, which reputedly blends elements of the police procedural with tracking-type of adventure/mystery stories in frozen, untamed lands. However, the comparisons seem superficial. Craig Rice had her detectives operate as a team, but they were amateurs from the forties with no regards for proper procedure and rules. So Thomson really was an innovative writer during the thirties, because this type of crime-fiction would not gain traction until the 1950s when such writers as Ed McBain began to carve a name for themselves.

I really found it interesting to see a series characters from a Golden Age police series start out as uniformed constable, pounding pavement, who slowly begins his rise in the ranks and is told by his superior to "apply for the plain-clothes allowance." Retrospectively, it seems so logical to use a police force as a series "character," but it goes to show how strong a precedent Auguste Dupin and Sherlock Holmes were for the genre.

I've one complaint to make about Richardson's First Case, which concerns the rather abrupt ending to the investigation. Richardson arrested the murderer and found a key-piece of evidence in the murderer's possession that this person was conveniently carrying around. The explanation also made a lot of the interesting plot-threads inconsequential to the actual solution, which was disappointing, but, as a whole, the book was very interesting – especially as a predecessor of the modern police procedural.

Anyway, I'll definitely return to this series for a second look, because my interest has been piqued in one particular title, The Millner's Hat Mystery (1937), which provided a clever idea for Operation Mincemeat during the Second World War. The introduction also kindled my interest in Frank Froest's The Grell Mystery (1913). So, choices, choices, choices!


The Book Case

"But in any case, after another crime, we shall know infinitely more. Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders, 1936) 
Thus far, 2016 has been a reasonably solid year for reading and discovering detective fiction. There were a handful of mystery novels that were uneven in quality, sparsely clued or stumbled in the final chapter, but none of them deserves to be qualified as a complete train wreck – unlike my worst read from last year.

So I was glad that my return to the works of Rex Stout not only continued this positive trend, but also uncovered one of the best stories from the Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin series.

The UK edition of Plot It Yourself
As I've stated in the past, the Nero Wolfe corpus is one of the rare exceptions in which I prefer characters to plot and there's a good excuse to justify such heresy. Stout had an uncanny knack for writing dialogue that gave his cast of regular characters a breath of life and endowed them with a mind of their own, but even more importantly, they're characters you would love to sit down with in real-life – in spite of their personal flaws. Who would not love to share a dinner table with Wolfe or have a front row seat for one of the many head-on collisions between him and the cigar-mangling Inspector Cramer? Or have a verbal exchange with the witty, sharp-tongued Archie or simply a guided tour of the brownstone with its rooftop greenhouse and the kitchen where their live-in chef, Fritz, prepares five-star meals. 

Nevertheless, the fact that Stout's talent manifested itself mainly in writing great lines for characters, who are both larger-than-life and yet very human, does not mean he was hopelessly lost when entering the plotting department. Some of my favorite entries in this series came with the added bonus of a soundly constructed plot: Too Many Cooks (1938), Some Buried Caesar (1939), Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) and And Be a Villain (1948). You can now expand that list with the wonderful Plot It Yourself (1959).

First of all, it should be pointed out that Rex Stout served as president of both the Authors Guild and the Mystery Writers of America, which is probably where he found the ideas and inspiration for Plot It Yourself – which has a clever and fairly original plot. Stout even found a new interpretation for the term "copycat killer," but the most ingenious part of the plot is the plagiarism racket that swindled a small group of authors and publishers out of large chunk of pocket money.

The case begins when a small contingent of people visits the office of Wolfe and Goodwin: Philip Harvey (author), Mortimer Oshin (playwright), Amy Wynn (author), Thomas Dexter (publisher), Reuben Imhoff (publisher) and Gerald Knapp (publisher). They form a Joint Committee on Plagiarism, selected from the ranks of the Book Publishers of America (BPA) and the National Association of Authors and Dramatists (NAAD), who are tasked with looking into a series of accusation of plagiarism that begin to follow a suspicious pattern – there "have been five major charges of plagiarism" so far. All of them seem to follow a similar script.

A book is ascending the bestseller list or a play begins to garner success when a letter arrives, in which the writer claims the plot, characters or even the dialogue were cribbed from a submitted, but unpublished, manuscript – a manuscript nobody remembers ever having seen or read. However, the manuscripts are found in drawers of the authors and archives of the publishers, which forced them to settle for tens of thousands of dollars.

Obviously, they were fake and planted on the victims, but there's a gaping ravine between a feeling of certainty and proof that will stand up in court. So the committee decided to hire the services of the best detectives money could get them and it's problem right up Wolfe’s alley.

Wolfe really hates to do any actual work (i.e. physical action), but he has to rent his remarkable brain in order to indulge in his expensive pastimes: growing orchids and lavish meals, which require the services of a resident orchid nurse and a live-in chef. Not as costly are his well-stocked bookshelves. Wolfe is an avid reader and Archie guesses he reads "two hundred or so books" a year. So it's not entirely surprising to find Wolfe doing some actual detective work in the initial stages of the investigation, instead of parking his one-seventh of a ton in his "oversized made-to-order chair" and synthesize the information brought to him by Archie, which he simply does by reading the fraudulent manuscripts. Hey, it was still work for Wolfe!

There were four different claimants, Alice Porter, Simon Jacobs, Jane Ogilvy and Kenneth Rennert, but Wolfe astutely deduces all of their manuscripts that their claims were based on were written by one and the same person – based on "the internal evidence" of diction, syntax and paragraphing. As Wolfe states, "a clever man might successfully disguise every element of his style," but there’s one exception, namely paragraphing, which comes from "the depths of personality."

However, the discovery of a common link between the claimants requires an extensive, all-encompassing and costly "kind of investigation," which falls outside of Wolfe's expertise. Regardless, he offers his clients a short-cut solution for their problem by offering one of the claimants a chunk of money and exemption from legal repercussions in exchange for a name. The name of the person who wrote those manuscript and basically the brains behind the whole scheme, but this person is well-aware of what is being planned and begins to remove all of the loose ends.

Archie is send around to the home of one of the claimants, Simon Jacobs, but is greeted ("not you") by Sgt. Purley Stebbins of Homicide West. Jacobs' body was found that afternoon behind a bush in Van Cortlandt Park, "dragged across the grass from the edge," which means he probably taken there from a car and the cause of death was a stab wound in chest – he would not be the last person to go out of this world with a knife buried in his chest. The body's pile-up in the final half of the book and Wolfe realizes he gave away too much information to the swindler-turned-murderer. It makes him roar "in a language that was probably the one he had used as a boy in Montenegro," but Wolfe redeems himself by trapping a strong-minded, very determined witness in giving away the identity of the murderer in order to wrap up the case to the satisfactory of his clients. And to earn his fee.

My favorite part of Plot It Yourself is the first half, which deals with the fraudulent accusations of plagiarism, because it's cleverly done and challenges Sherlock Holmes' assertion that "it has all been done before" and "there's nothing new under sun." But how it turned into a murder case and the identity of the murderer was also very nicely done. Considering the book was published in the final months of 1959, it's almost as if the book represented that final glance over the shoulder before the door closed on that Golden period in the genre's history.

So, all in all, Plot It Yourself has all the familiar faces and elements that made readers return to that notorious brownstone, on West 35th Street, for many decades and several generations, but the excellent and original plot also makes the book one of those brightly glowing embers in the hearth were once the mighty fire of the Golden Age roared.

Simply put: I very much enjoyed Plot It Yourself.


The Washington Motive

"It is impossible to win the great prizes of life without running risk."
- Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United Sates (1901-1909)   
Last year, I reviewed Washington Deceased (1990) by a lawyer-turned-author, Michael Bowen, whose predilection for "locked rooms, subtle clues, offbeat suspects and colorful characters" earned him comparisons to the likes of John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Herbert Resnicow – placing him in the ranks of the genre's traditionalists. Or, as I call it, the top of the heap.

Washington Deceased was the first of five politically tinged mystery novels, published between 1990 and 1999, which introduced Richard Michaelson: a sixty-some year old warhorse who served three decades in the Foreign Service of the State Department. In those five novels, Michaelson had to draw on all his knowledge and experience to plot a safe course through the darkest, murkiest and rat-infested waters of Washington politics. A watery sludge with more than one body floating around in it!

Bowen can tell an intriguing story and has a pleasant style that combines a light, humorous touch with shreds of cynical realism, which evidently lent itself well for a series of political mystery novels and the minor flaws in its debut were largely related to the plot – such as an overly complex impossible crime and a dismissive explanation as to how a firearm was smuggled into a tightly secured prison complex. However, I'm glad to report that such flaws have dissipated by the time the fourth book in the series was published.

Worst Case Scenario (1996) has Michaelson attending the Contemporary Policy Dynamics Conference, which is described as a "compressed microcosm of Washington," where he does a favor for a man, named Alex Moodie, who wants to know his wife, Deborah, suddenly stopped getting promotions – effectively freezing her career. Michaelson has dug-up a source of information, Scott Pilkington, who informs Alex that his wife made too much noise when "she thought she'd sniffed out a scandal." Deborah is a deputy director of Planning and Research Priority Assessment with the National Health Research Agency and she discovered that a retired army general, with "a charity star," received a bump on the way up on a priority list for a rare-match liver transplant. She became a nuisance on this issue and was put on a dead-end track. This is just one of the examples of people at the conference who are on the lookout for information, contacts or merely funds.

There is, however, one attendee who has a rather simple wish: Sharon Bedford wants to have a job. She circulates her résumé and attached to it is information "that'll get the attention of the right people at the right time," which is a tantalizing and tempting offer for any political climber in attendance – but she's keeping a tight lid on that information.

Michaelson warned Bedford to be careful, because "there are two ways you can get in trouble in Washington." One of them is "by promising what you can't deliver" and "the other is by delivering the kind if thing you just promised." These words prove to be prophetic when the door of her hotel room has to be pried open. Bedford is found submerged in a bathtub and death is later determined to have been caused by deadly dose of bufotenine, but this does not diminish the seemingly impossible nature of the murder. It is know how the poison was ingested, but the way in which the murderer gained access and exited a locked hotel room unseen remains an apparent miraculous feat and the explanation is simple, clever and sneaky. Bowen used simple misdirection and architectural nature of hotel rooms to create a satisfying locked room situation. So that's one aspect of this series that places its author in the class of traditional, puzzle-oriented mystery writers.

There was another aspect of the plot that reminded me of the traditional detective story, classic or modern, which came when Michaelson examined the victim's bookshelves: shelves hosting an eclectic collection consisting of White House memoirs, Tom Clancy, Erle Stanley Gardner and Danielle Steel. However, Bowen went one step further and planted a nice little clue among those volumes. A clue pertaining to the red-hot information that cost Bedford her life and harked back to the days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, his foreign policy, the previously mentioned general and the rumored government take-over of health care services – which all shapes the murder in "a Washington crime." A crime with a motive "that only makes sense in Washington terms."

Part of the motive nudges the story into the territory of alternative and speculative history, but the incriminating document, which gave the book its title, suffered a similar fate as so many of the lost manuscripts by famous writers and playwrights in similar type of the detective stories – e.g. John Dickson Carr's The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) and Edmund Crispin's Love Lies Bleeding (1948).

So, all in all, this made Worst Case Scenario an engagingly written, well plotted and classically-styled mystery novel with an original divergence from "regular" detective stories, from past or present, by simply placing the intrigue of the plots in some of in the inner-circles of Washington politics. It's why I'm really warming up to Bowen and this series, because it takes everything I love about Golden Age mysteries and resettles them in a completely new and interesting environment: Washington D.C. of the 1990s.

You can expect to read more about this series in the not so distant future. Stay tuned!


Night Lights

"...that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed."
- Hugo Baskerville (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902) 
Thomas W. Hanshew and Mary E. Hanshew were a husband-and-wife writing tandem who, just like G.K. Chesterton and R. Austin Freeman, wrote and published a part of their detective fiction during the first two decades of the previous century – placing them in that important group of mystery writers who bridged the Gaslight Era with the genre's Golden Age. The Hanshews have been floating around my wish-list, like a bunch of earth-bound souls, for an eternity and they were condemned to spend time there for two solid reasons: they were childhood reading of John Dickson Carr and their work covered four pages in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).

So I finally decided to eliminate one of their books from my monstrous, ever-expanding to-be-read list.

Thomas and Mary Hanshew's unconventional, pulp-style protagonist is Hamilton Cleek, who has a reputation of being "The Man of the Forty Faces," which refers to his uncanny ability to alter his facial appearance. It's a talent that gave him a reputation of an unrivaled master of disguise, but radically altering your appearance by contorting the facial muscles seemed to border on the supernatural ability of a shape-shifter – like Mystique from Marvel Comics and the X-Men movies. Cleek only has to pull a face to look either like a nineteen-year-old or middle aged man, which is an amazing "mobility of feature" and a gift he shared with "at least one notorious criminal of history." A reference to Arsène Lupin from the criminal fancies of Maurice Leblanc or a premonition of Edogawa Rampo's Kaijin nijuu mensou (The Fiend with Twenty Faces, 1936)?

Anyway, the facial flexibility of Cleek seems like a gross exaggeration of such a talent, but it makes for a fun, old-fashioned, if pulpy, story, which is an apt description for The Riddle of the Frozen Flame (1920).

The Riddle of the Frozen Flame is a late entry in the series and probably a solo effort on the part of Mary Hanshew, because her husband passed away in 1914, but she appeared to have retained his name on the covers of the later books. Presumably, this was done for the sake of name recognition. The reason for picking this post-1914 title, instead of The Man of the Forty Faces (1910), which was the starting point of the series, was for the intriguingly sounding impossible situations – concerning ghostly lights and a lack of footprints on a plot of soggy marsh land.

Hamilton Cleek is found in the opening of The Riddle of the Frozen Flame in the office of Mr. Maverick Narkom, "Superintendent of Scotland Yard," where learns about a puzzling rash of burglaries in bank buildings. The burglars never touched a single banknote or bond, but every ounce of gold was taken and they never left a single "clue to settle down upon."

However, the general cussedness of things refuses to give them any time to seriously consider the problem as it throws an apparent paranormal puzzle in their lap.

A gentleman, by the name of Sir Nigel Merriton, is described as a "bit of a toff," but "a fine upstanding young man" who "returned to England after twelve years of army life in India" to occupy to the ancestral seat of his family – a gloomy and ghost-ridden place called Merriton Towers. Sir Nigel became the lord of that manor, often referred to as "the loneliest spot in England," when his uncle inexplicably disappeared. But mysterious, unexplained disappearances are not all that uncommon in the district. 

During his first night at Merriton Towers, Sir Nigel noticed "a sort of unearthly fireworks display." A host flicking and dancing lights that "hung on the edges of the marsh grass" like "tiny lanterns swung there by fairy hands." The baleful butler of the place, Borkins, warns his master that the "frozen flames," as the villagers call them, sprang from a supernatural source and consume everyone brave enough to venture across the Fens when the sun has settled down for the night. There's been "cases by the score" of people who vanished "off the face of the earth as clean as though they'd never been born" and the disappearances coincide with the appearance of new light in the sky.

Well, the local legend has all the earmarks of an old wives' tale, but there's someone who's willing to test the veracity of the frozen flames.

Sir Nigel hosts an old-fashioned dinner party, during which "champagne ran like water and spirits ran high," in celebration of his engagement to the woman of his dreams, Antoinette Brellier, but there's the proverbial specter at the feast – a one-time rival of Sir Nigel for the affection of another woman when he was still a teenager. The name of this former rival is Dacre Wynne and he stakes fifty pounds that he can come back safely, which should "dispel the morbid fancies" from their "kindergarten brains," but the legend lives up to its reputation. Wynne staggers slightly drunk into the marshes and only left behind a trail of zigzagging footprints, which end in a patch of charred grass and there were no marks disturbing the soft ground around it. He had simply vanished into thin air!

The explanation for the miraculous disappearance of Wynne did not satisfy Adey, which he called "fairly weak," but I felt a bit kinder towards it. Yes. It's true that the solution hardly broke any new ground, but I never considered it as a possible answer to a no-footprints scenario that occurred outside in the middle of a soggy marshland. So I have to give credit for how the trick was handled that even in the 1920s was shopworn, moth-eaten and extremely dated. The explanation for the supernatural lights had a rather naturalistic explanation, somewhat reminiscent of some of the stories from L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898), which was one of the first collections of impossible crime stories.

Anyhow, the involvement of Cleek spells doom for the young Lord of the Manor, because the bodies he uncovers in the marshes bear incriminating evidence, which point in his direction and leads to his inevitable arrest – cumulating in a trial. It plunges Cleek in a race-against-time to disprove the evidence he dug up himself and clasp the manacles around the wrists of the actual murderer. This leads him to literally descend into the criminal underground, uncover a connection with the bank burglaries and rush back to the courtroom for some Perry Mason-style theatrics.

As you can probably guess, the story becomes progressively pulpier towards the end of the book. However, I did not entirely dislike the overall story as you can probably gauge from this review. The story was haunted by the shadows from the Gaslight Era and owned some debt to The Hound of the Baskervilles, but I found that to be rather charming aspect of the book – especially he portion recounting the events at Merriton Towers. As a result, the overall plot tended to bow more to the pre-Golden Age crime stories, but was pleasantly surprised to discover there was a genuine hint tucked away in the opening chapter that pointed in the direction of the murderer.

I guess that sounds rather meager to warrant this carefully positive review, but I had purposely lowered my expectations, because I had read the full-length novels in this series were very dated and difficult to read. Short stories were recommended as the preferred entries in this series. So I was torn between this book and one of the short story collections, which one of them consists almost entirely of impossible crimes, but I was intrigued by the titular flames and the impossible scenario. I could not be really disappointed to find a half-decent, if dated, story that harked back to one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories. I'll definitely return to this series in the near future by taking a peek at that miracle filled collection of short stories.

On a final note: has anyone else noticed that the name Hamilton Cleek sounds incredibly similar to Jonathan Creek? I guess Carr was not the only one who was inspired by Hanshew.



"A sensitiveness to fair play and sportsmanship is perhaps the best protection against the abuse of power..."
- Robert H. Jackson
During the first two weeks of this year, I reviewed three of the five mystery novels in the Anthony "Algernon" Vereker series, The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933), The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935) and The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936), which were recently reissued by the Dean Street Press – prefaced with a new introduction by genre historian and professional detective-fiction enthusiast, Curt Evans.

Robin Forsythe was the man who put his name to these forgotten gems and began to work on this short-lived series, clipped short by his death in 1937, while serving a prison term for his initial poke at contriving a criminal scheme. In the end, it proved far more profitable for Forsythe to confine his cleverly contrived schemes and tricky plots to the printed page. You can find some details about the Somerset House stamp case in my review of The Pleasure Cruise Mystery and Evans' introductory piece to his work, but that's ground I have trodden before. So lets move on the subject at hand.

The subject of this blog-post is the second novel in the "Algernon" series, The Polo Ground Mystery (1932), which opens with a newspaper report on the mysteries enshrouding Mr. Sutton Armadale's death – a rather well-known and wealthy financier. 

A mortally wounded Sutton Armadale was found on the private polo grounds of his palatial home, Vesey Manor, during the early hours of the morning: bleeding from a gaping gunshot wound in his abdomen region and a second bullet had gone clean through the head. Armadale was tightly clasping an automatic pistol, but suicide seems an unlikely explanation for the shooting. The gamekeeper who came across the body, Stephen Collyer, heard his employer murmur one last word, "murder," before drawing his last breath of air.

It was "subsequently discovered that the secret safe in the library," which was not as secret as it should have been, had been rifled and a "famous rope of pearls" had been taken – a rope that had been valued at a cool 20,000 pounds. A mask was found on the floor of the library. So it's entirely possible Armadale could have been gunned down while pursuing a burglar, but the strew of people who surrounded the victim could all be fitted in the role of murderer in half a dozen possible scenarios.

The stolen pearls belonged to Armadale's second wife, Angela, who treated him more as "a rich fur coat than a husband," which is why everyone considered them to be "an ill-matched pair." Evidently, Armadale agreed with the general opinion about their marriage, because he left everything he owed to his nephew, Basil Ralli, who was rather surprised since his uncle disapproved of his fiancé – wanting him "to marry some one of good birth." The fiancé is the daughter of the gamekeeper, Miss Trixie Collyer, who has a disgruntled admirer, Frank Peach, in the former underkeeper of the estate. But he was released from his duties by Armadale. There was also a "small party of guests" present at the manor, which included a Belgian cabaret singer, Miss Edmée Cazas, a well-known polo player, named Captain Fanshaugh, Mr. Ralph Degerdon, Mr. Aubrey Winter, who's a cousin of Mrs. Armadale, and one of her friends, Stanley Houseley.

Shooting happened against the backdrop of a financial crisis, known "The Great Brady Crash," which left "a hideous trail of suicides by poison, coal-gas, disinfectants, fire-arms" and "cold water," but, sadly, had little bearing on the overall plot – otherwise I could have padded this review with references to E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913) and Cyril Hare's Tenant for Death (1937).

A Classy Mugshot of R. Forsythe
Well, that’s how the situation stood when Anthony "Algernon" Vereker, gentleman artist, appeared on the scene as a special representative of the Daily Report and "as a sort of unofficial helper" of Detective-Inspector Heather of Scotland Yard. But they generally go about as friendly rivals with different approaches. Vereker prefers to find out "why the crime was committed and thence by whom," while Heather tries "to discover how the crime was committed and thence by whom," but, as is common in Forsythe's work, the beating heart of the plot were the mystifying circumstances in which the body was found.

Who and why are as important as in any other traditionally plotted detective story, but the answers to these questions are always provided by clearing the confusing surrounding, what I call, the "crime-scene conundrums," of which Forsythe was an absolute master. In The Pleasure Cruise Mystery, it was the sudden death of a woman whose gloved-covered hands were inexplicably cut and bruised, while The Spirit Murder Mystery confronted the reader with two bodies in a barren field – one of them with a crashed skull and the other with non-fatal gunshot wound. Forsythe spun some clever, twisted and original plots from these premises, which is no different here.

Vereker and Heather realize the murder of Armadale was not an ordinary shooting, because they're not even sure how many shots were fired or even how many firearms were involved. And then there’s the original motive for the shooting. A motive that sprang from a tense situation on the polo ground. So the combo of the murderer, motive and opportunity was very well done, which is something I have come to expect from Forsythe. Same can be said about the characterization and the witty dialogue. But I still had a problem with the overall story: it seemed too long. Like an overextended short story.

Yes, I said the plot was clever and original, which it is, but not on the grand scale as the previously mentioned Forsythe mysteries and even with a questioning half a dozen suspects, burglary sub-plot and a friendly rivalry there was still time for Vereker to loiter around the grounds – even having time to make charcoal studies of the woods. It's even mentioned in one of the chapters that, as a landscape painter, Vereker was having a wonderful day. Even the busman's holiday-type of mystery novel usually don't allow the detective that much leisurely time. So the opening and ending chapters were really good, but the middle-section had patched that looked suspiciously like padding. Very well written pieces of padding, but padding nonetheless.

To make a long story shot, Forsythe is an early contender to be my best discovery for 2016, but that’s mainly on account on the three previously reviewed titles, which were really excellent examples of classic, Golden Age mysteries. Again, not that The Polo Ground Mystery was bad, but not as good as the other.

Well, that only leaves Missing or Murdered (1929). I sure hope the Dean Street Press will not wait too long with reissuing Forsythe's three standalone mysteries. I'm particularly interested in Murder on Paradise Island (1937). Sounds like a blast. 

Anyhow, I'm not sure when the next review will be posted, but I can tell you it will be tangibly related to my favorite mystery writer.