"He's making a list, checking it twiceGonna find out who's naughty or nice."- Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Once again, a year has come and gone! So that means the time has come to officially close this year of blogging with my traditional best-and worst-of list of the past twelve months, which is are now six in total. Actually, there are seven of them, but that's because my best and worst of 2013 were done as separate blog-posts. I came across enough clunkers that year that a separate list was in order, but why not precede this new end-of-the-year list with a quick rundown of precious best-lists. You know, to pad out this blog-post as much as possible.
THE BEST/WORST OF 2011-2015:
So, here is without further ado, the best and worst of 2016.
THE BEST MYSTERIES READ IN 2016:
The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972) by William Arden
So far, this has to be one of my favorite mystery novels about that "trio of lads," which employed a host of classical plot-devices: a hidden object puzzle, a locked room problem and even a dying message. All of this made for a surprisingly cerebral, but rewarding, entry in this series of juvenile mystery and adventure stories.
Koto Pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989) by Alice Arisugawa
The latest translation from one of our very own, Ho-Ling Wong, who brought one of the landmark novels of Japan's neo-orthodox era (shin honkaku) to the English-speaking world. And it has all the hallmarks of the classic mystery novel: an isolated island, where a treasure has been hidden by the previous owner, which leads to a double murder inside a locked bedroom and several additional deaths – one of them involving an obliterated dying message! A handsomely and expertly dressed plate of puzzle-clues, hidden treasure and impossible crimes. What's there not to like?
Not to Be Taken (1938) by Anthony Berkeley
A deceptively quaint village mystery, concerning the poisoning by arsenic of a retired electrical engineer, who dies a painful and messy death, but, as one would expects from the author, this is not entirely an ordinary whodunit. One that puts a great deal of emphasis on the characterization and psychology of the cast of characters. However, there's also a EQ-style "Challenge to the Readers" towards the end of the book, which asks several pertinent questions and asks the reader if they think the story contained a "Dominant Clue." If only more modern, character-and psychology driven crime-writers were like Berkeley!
Neck and Neck (1951) by Leo Bruce
The seventh and penultimate novel in the wonderful Sgt. Beef series and this time the client of the former village constable, now a consulting detective, is none other than his personal and long-suffering biographer, Lionel Townsend – whose aunt has been poisoned with a fatal dose of morphine. Sgt. Beef tackles the case with his accustomed enthusiasm, boorishness and an alarming shortage of tact. But, as usual, Beef comes out on top and ties this case together with an, apparently, unconnected murder of a hated publisher. Neck and Neck is simply another solid example as to why I love this series so much.
Death in the Tunnel (1936) by Miles Burton
I had to add this one on its strength as an original howdunit/impossible crime novel: Sir Wilfred Saxonby bribed a train guard with a one-pound note to find him a first-class carriage he could have to himself and locked him into it, but when the guard returns all he finds is a body in the supposedly secure carriage. The method to accomplished this is very involved and perhaps not entirely practical, but it's as inventive as it's original.
Captain Cut-Throat (1955) by John Dickson Carr
I re-read this splendid novel for the blogosphere's commemoration of Carr's 110th birthday, organized by "JJ," which is, to my never-ending bafflement, completely overlooked – even by the aficionados of the locked room master. Granted, the book is an odd one, a hodgepodge of sub-genres, but was surprisingly successful as a hybrid crime-novel. First of all, the story is a historical one and takes place in Napoleonic France, during the planned invasion of England, but a seemingly invisible agent is bumping off the Emperor's sentries in plain sight. However, the impossible crimes are not allowed to dominate the plot. It's as much a dashing tale of adventure and espionage as one of crime and detection.
Fear is the Same (1956) by Carter Dickson
John Dickson Carr, or "Carter Dickson," is primarily known as the undisputed master of the locked room mystery, but he was also one of the early pioneers of the historical detective novel and within this sub-genre he also experimented with a very peculiar kind of hybrid novel – namely time-slip novels. He wrote three of them: The Devil in Velvet (1951), Fire, Burn! (1957) and this one, which flings two people back to the Regency Era in 1795. All they have is a bleary recollection of a murder that happened more than a hundred years into the future. Meanwhile, they have to survive in a time that's very different from their own and even having knowledge about the future can prove hazardous small-talk.
A Murder in Thebes (1998) by Paul Doherty
One of Doherty's grandest historical narratives, as well as one of his richest impossible crime novels, which takes place during the Sack of Thebes by Alexander the Great. As the once great city is reduces to a smoldering, ash-covered heap of rubble, Alexander has several missions: he wants to possess the Iron Crown of Oedipus, but this treasure is safely stored away in a holy shrine and the path to it has several (deadly) obstacles. So taking it will take some ingenuity. However, there's also the problem of an army general who was flung from the open window of a locked and guarded tower room when no murderer could've been physically present. Finally, the whispered rumors are making their round through the smoke-filled streets of the sacked city that the ghost of Oedipus has returned, a blood-encrusted club in hand, which coincide with a series of baffling murders of Macedonian soldiers – who were taken two, three or more at a time by complete surprise.
Thy Arm Alone (1947) by John Russell Fearn
One of trickiest titles on this list and for more than one reason. The plot revolves around Betty Shapley, "the belle of the village," who has three admirers vying from her attention and affection. But one of them dies under circumstances that are as gruesome as they're baffling: a single blow had obliterated part of his face and his body was found inside a burning car. I've no doubt that the cause of death will make some readers growl in disbelief, but the subsequent action on the part of the murderer is what makes this a (minor) classic. As this person said towards the end, "a chance like that only happens once in a lifetime" and "I made full use of it." A genuine original piece of work!
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) by Robin Forsythe
Anthony "Algernon" Vereker's high-spirited friend, Manuel Ricardo, manages to convince the gentleman-painter to accompany him on pleasure cruise aboard a luxury ocean liner, but this turns into a busman's holiday when the body of a woman is found on D-deck. The dearly departed is Mrs. Mesado, wife of an Argentinean meatpacking millionaire, who was suffering from a very weak heart. There are, however, some questionable aspect about her sudden death: one of them is that the hands beneath her leather gloves were badly cut and bruised. It's a clever and audacious treatment of a classic plot-device, which turned out to be most extreme example of Forsythe's tendency to fool around with bodies in his stories and create baffling mysteries out of the circumstances in which they were discovered.
The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936) by Robin Forsythe
The fifth and last detective novel from the Vereker series and concerns John Thurlow, who is a skeptic where the paranormal is concerned, but is tolerant and open-minded towards his niece, Eileen – an ardent devotee and practitioner of spiritualism. During an experimental séance, they both hear ghostly music that cannot be accounted for and not long there after her scientific-minded uncle disappears. But the disappearance is only a short-lived mystery. The following morning his body is found, alongside that of another man, on a stretch of wasteland: one of them was battered to death and the other one had been shot. However, physical evidence precluded the possibility that they murdered each other.
As said before, Forsythe knew how to weave a complex plot around the circumstances in which a body (or bodies) were found and this is a good example of that!
Murder on Paradise Island (1937) by Robin Forsythe
Admittedly, this one is not as clever or tricky as some of Forsythe's series novels, however, therefore it's not any less fascinating. On the contrary! The book can be described as a character-driven crime-novel masquerading as a Robinsonade (i.e. shipwreck fiction). A handful of shipwreck survivors make it to the beaches of an island resembling a picture of heaven, but the place is entirely devoid of the luxuries and comforts of modern, early twentieth century life. So with a ship, perhaps, a decade removed from their shores they decide to start building a new life there, but they're soon confronted with the unnerving presence of an "armed unknown" on the island. A genuine isolated island mystery!
The Crime at Tattenham Corner (1929) by Annie Haynes
A surprisingly clever piece of work by an author who was, during her lifetime, somewhat of a throwback to an earlier period of the genre, but this is a pure, Golden Age-style mystery novel. The plot revolves around the shooting of Sir John Burslem, a well-known and race-horse owner, who was killed on the eve of a highly anticipated horse race. And this has immediate consequences on the race. The explanation is satisfying and pulled off with a twist on an old trick, which is only marred by a last-minute confession by the murderer. However, that can be forgiven in this case.
The Murder of My Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull
An inverted mystery novel with a twist and one that would have received the nodding approval of Pat McGerr. The story is told from the perspective Edward Powell, a haughty and repugnant character, who is bound by his grandmother's will to his meddlesome aunt. She loves to berate him and play tricks on him. So these clashing personalities live in a cold war-state and this convinced Edward that his aunt had to go, but that's easily said than done and his murderous endeavors are constantly thwarted by Murphy's Law – which makes for deserved classic on the list of Haycroft-Queen Cornerstones of Detective Fiction.
The Green Ace (1950) by Stuart Palmer
A pair of police officers witness how a speeding car ignores a traffic light and smashes into a delivery van, which is a good cause to write a stiff ticket, but when they check the backseat of the car they make a gruesome discovery – a naked body of woman. She was a client of the driver, a former newspaper reporter turned press-agent, but he's unable to convince the authorities of his innocence. So, within a year, he finds himself as a convicted lady-killer on Death Row and does what every sensible mind would do in his situation: write a screwy will in favor of a homicide detective. Luckily, this situation inspires Miss Hildegarde Withers to stick her nose where it definitely doesn't belong. A solid entry in a great series!
Late, Late in the Evening (1976) by Gladys Mitchell
A late, late entry in the series, but tells of a time when Dame Beatrice was still Mrs. Bradley and the storytelling is laced with nostalgia. The setting is a rapidly changing village and commented at the time that it reads as if the genre itself reminiscing about the childhood days it spent in the many quaint villages that stud the English countryside. You can read the description of the changing in village, from the opening chapter, as an allegory to the changes the genre underwent after World War II. However, the book itself looks back on a simpler time, when such place could still host a murder or two, which is told in manner that's vintage Mitchell – which even has a pair of children acting as part-time narrators. It's a fond, but also sad, reminiscence of the genre when the detective story was allowed to dream and imagine. Or offer adventure to everyone who would dare seek it.
Diabolic Candelabra (1942) by E.R. Punshon
This is generally considered to be one of Punshon's best detective novels and the book, which is really a Mitchellian crime-fantasy, offers a splendid, magical and labyrinthine plot that includes a wild variety of plot-ingredients: a secret recipe for "the most scrumptious chocolates that ever were," a little girl who prefers to company of the animals in the forest, a missing hermit-cum-herbalist and several missing pieces of art. One of them being the titular candelabra.
There's a Reason for Everything (1945) by E.R. Punshon
Punshon had a knack for crafting complex, multilayered plots and manipulating the various strands of the plot with the trained, nimble fingers of puppeteer, but this just might be the knottiest one of all his detective stories – which skillfully navigates through a maze of plot-threads without getting lost in them. Some of these plot-threads concerns a murdered paranormal investigator and a ghostly bloodstain that vanished from a haunted room! A mysterious gunshot that was heard in the nearby forest and the unidentified remains of a murdered man in a canal. A man who has disappeared after a quarrel with his uncle and a young woman who may have been a witness of something. And, somehow, all of this tied in with a long-lost masterpiece by Vermeer.
Six Were Present (1956) by E.R. Punshon
The thirty-fifth and final entry in this long-running series, which saw a once humble police-constable, named Bobby Owen, climb to the rank of Commander of Scotland Yard. His last recorded case brings him to the remnants of his childhood and interferes in what is, essentially, a family affair. The household of his cousin, Myra, has been marked by her husband obsessing over African magic and is currently dominated by a faux medium, which culminates in an impossible stabbing during a séance inside a locked tower room. It has been accurately described as a charmingly introspective novel that ended the series on a high-note.
Death in Harley Street (1946) by John Rhode
A rather slow-paced detective story that earned its spot on this list for trying to be an original and the book did not entirely fail in that attempt: Dr. Richard Mawsley of Harley Street seems to have injected himself with a fatal dose of strychnine, but murder, suicide or an accident are eliminated as possible answers. So it is up to Dr. Lancelot Priestley to find a fourth alternative to fill in questions surrounding the death of the specialist.
Come to Paddington Fair (1997) by Derek H. Smith
Until recently, this second and last Algy Lawrence mystery, a sequel to Whistle Up the Devil (1952), was easily one of the most obscure and rare of all collector items in the genre. Smith was unable to secure a publishing contract for his second detective novel, but a Japanese took the manuscript home and financed a limited print-run – one that consisted of a meager one-hundred copies. So the book eluded some frustrated locked room fanboys over the years! Thankfully, John Pugmire made the book available to a world-wide audience in 2014 and gave us an opportunity to learn how the apparent straightforward (on-stage) shooting of an actress was actually a cleverly disguised impossible crime.
Plot It Yourself (1959) by Rex Stout
Arguably one of the most solidly plotted and original entries in the Wolfe Corpus, which begins with Wolfe and Goodwin being hired by the representatives of the Book Publishers of America (BPA) and the National Association of Authors and Dramatis (NAAD) – who put together a Joint Committee on Plagiarism. Recently, there have been a serious string of accusations of plagiarism and a large chunk of cash had to be coughed up to settle these cases, but the accusations have began to form a suspicious pattern. So far, there had been five cases and they all seemed to follow a similar script. Wolfe has a short-cut plan to end this racket, but the brains behind this scheme smells something is afoot and starts getting rid of some loose ends. As I said before, this is one of the best in the series.
The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934) by Sir Basil Thomson
One of the downsides of detective stories is that, sometimes, endings do not entirely deliver on the promise given by their premise, but, in this instance, a solid first half is followed up by an even better denouement – one that showed that even detective stories from this vintage were not devoid of humanity. However, the first half is very definitely practical police procedure: an aspiring mystery novelist, Miss Clynes, was found with her head inside a gas-oven and a suicide note was found. But the police reasons from such clues like a piece of thread on a tack in the floorboard and a canceled postage stamp that she was murdered. And the trail leads straight to France. Where the story takes a quite turn!
Venom House (1952) by Arthur W. Upfield
The famous "half-caste" policeman/tracker, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte of the Queensland Police, is dispatched to a far-flung, swampy corner of the Australian continent. A spot where the decayed, lonely mansion of a reputedly cursed family stands and this spot has, recently, been the scene of two murders – one of the local butcher and the other of a family member. Upfield wrote a very strange, but great, homage to the Victorian-era crime and sensational novels.
THE WORST MYSTERIES READ IN 2016:
The Milk-Churn Murder (1935) by Miles Burton
A book that began promising, describing the daily routine of dairy farming, but this picturesque opening chapter was disturbed by the discovery of a dismembered corpse in one of the milk-churns. Sadly, nothing of remote interest was done with this premise: Desmond Merrion seems to be a bit omniscient when it comes to separating the actual clues from the red herrings. And once an unknown "X" is revealed as the murderer, the story dissolved into a second-rate thriller.
The Cadaver of Gideon Wyck (1934) by Alexander Laing
It has been pointed out to me that I have been unfair in my condemnation of the book, because this lurid, grotesque horror novel was never meant as a legitimate detective novel. Be that as it may, I still hate this abomination of a story. Even as a horror novel it was pretty weak.
Murder in Space (1944) by David V. Reed
A horribly botched attempt at relocating the semi-hardboiled crime-story, with touches of a legal thriller, courtroom drama and even hints of western, to the edge of our solar system, but the book failed on all accounts – even as a science-fiction novel. The plot is as poorly imagined as the so-called futuristic world it attempted to conjure up. I mean, Reed described a universe that was colonized as far as the asteroid belt, which was being mined, but courtroom photographers still use flashbulbs.
Well, that's it for 2016! One of the things I only just noticed is how well the 1950s are represented on this year's list, which is not something I expected, but there are about seven of them. That decade may represent the twilight years of the Golden Age, but the genre, obviously, was not quite dead yet.
Anyhow, this is probably my last blog-post for 2016. So let me wish every one of you all the best for 2017 and hope to see back next year.