An Invasive Species

"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools."
Napoléon Bonaparte
Back in October, "JJ," posted an open invitation on his blog, "John Dickson Carr is Going to Be 110 – Calling for Submissions," which gave everyone who wanted to participate a two-month notice and this was sufficient time to prepare – as even I managed to write and schedule this review well ahead of the deadline. Yes, I actually prepared a blog-post in advance! I'm that much of a fanboy for John Dickson Carr.

And picking my Carr-related subject was even easier than preparing this blog-post: the habitually overlooked and criminally underrated Captain Cut-Throat (1955), which is a thunderous blend of ghostly murder, espionage and adventure set in Napoleonic France. Regardless, the book never managed to emerge from the shadow of Carr's better-known historical work (e.g. The Devil in Velvet, 1951), but (at least) deserves to have its existence acknowledged. So let's put some polish on its name recognition!  

Captain Cut-Throat takes place during the warm summer days of August 1805, when "the shadow of the new Emperor lay long across Europe," who has been amassing an invasion force, called the Armée d'Angleterre, "along the whole length of the Iron Coast" – restlessly awaiting the Imperial order to begin the invasion of England. Their stationary position made the soldiers bored, fidgety and restless, but their attention was soon to be occupied by a murderous, wraithlike creature sneaking around the military encampments at Boulogne.

On the night of the 13th August, this shadowy figure began to murder sentries "like a ghost," because he couldn't be seen "even when he walks in the light." It began as a series or relatively ordinary stabbing deaths, but, "step by step and murder by murder," the killer moved from "a point far outside the camp to its very center," which culminated in a seemingly impossible murder. Grenadier Émile Joyet, of the Marine Guard, was one of the sentries patrolling the lighted, oblong enclosure round the Emperor's cliff-top pavilion, but he suddenly shouted, doubled up and collapsed – stabbed through the heart. The other sentries, who could observe "the whole lighted space," both inside the fence and outside, swear they had not seen a soul anywhere near the spot where the stabbing took place. As if the murderer had been invisible!

After some of the killings, the weapon was left behind, namely bloodstained daggers, but in every single instance there was a scrap of paper: signed "Yours sincerely, Captain Cut-Throat." Since the night of the second murder, the Grand Army has talked of nothing else.

The murders came to the attention of the Emperor himself and he has two options: launch his invasion at once, "which would cure everything by curing inaction," or " he must crush Captain Cut-Throat before another murder can be committed." So the Emperor gives Joseph Fouché, the Minister of Police, an impossible task: he has less than a week to ensnarl the cut-throat with his talent for Machiavellian maneuvering. 

M. Fouché has a large, far-reaching network of agents and spies, which captured a foreign agent, named Alan Hepburn, who operated in France under the Lupinian nom de guerre of "Vicomte de Bergerac." He wants to use this British agent to trap a British agent and involves Hepburn secret wife, Madeleine, whom he deserted for unknown reason. But they're not the only ones send into the encampments by Fouché: Hepburn involved himself with another woman, Ida de Sainte-Elme, who's one of Fouché agents and helped to capture Hepburn and they're closely followed by a Prussian horse-rider – Lieutenant Schneider of the Hussars of Bercy. 

Admittedly, a good portion of the first half of the book is one or two paces slower than the rest of the story, because Carr takes the time to introduce the characters, explain their situations and giving the details about the "series of ghost-murders" of Napoleon's sentries. But after these opening chapters, the story becomes somewhat atypical for Carr. One of the most notable examples of this is how he treated the impossible crime element of the story, which does not take the center stage of the plot and is easily explained by Hepburn around the halfway mark of the book. I found this to be a minor mark against the book, but I can understand why it was done as Captain Cut-Throat is more a novel of adventure and intrigue than one of detection and ratiocination. And that may be a problem for even some of Carr's most loyal readers. 

However, purely as a historical novel of romance, intrigue and adventure, Captain Cut-Throat allowed the cavalier attitude of its author to roam freely and let his swashbuckling, adventure-hungry spirit off the chain. This resulted in what is, arguably, Carr's best action scene: Hepburn's night-time flight through the field of balloons. A scene that would, by itself, be justification enough to make an expensive period film out of the book. It's simply that great! 

Of course, even an unapologetic JDC-apologist, like myself, cannot deny all of this running around and adventuring did not came at the cost of the detection, which has some shaky reasoning and fair play, but these elements are still far stronger than your usual run-of-the-mill historical spy-thriller – because this is a Carr novel after all. And the final revelation of the omnipresent villain is perhaps one of the most original plays on the least-likely-suspect gambit. I actually figured out the identity of Captain Cut-Throat the first time I read the book, but (admittedly) arrived to that conclusion instinctively rather than deductively. 

Captain Cut-Throat is not a perfect piece of fiction, but it's tremendous fun with an intriguing premise and plenty of excitement with a dusting of mystery and romance. On top of that, the first half has a good, if simplistic, impossible crime. So Carr really threw everything he had at the plot and the most impressive accomplishment is how he managed to simultaneously use elements of the spy-thriller, adventure story and an impossible crime tale, inside a historical narrative, without reducing the impact or effectiveness of any of them. Therefore, the book really should be better known within the ranks of readers of both Carr and historical mysteries. 

In closing, I would like to wish the ghost of John Dickson Carr a grand 110th birthday. Long may he haunt us!


Scared a Lot in Camelot

"Don't you get any foolish ideas that magic will solve all your problems, because it won't."
- Merlin (The Sword in the Stone, 1963) 
Richard Hunt is the author of seven Detective-Inspector Sidney Walsh mysteries and a pair of standalone novels, but otherwise, precious little is known about him.

The back flap of Deadlocked (1994) briefly describes Hunt as "an accountant with a special interest in violin making" and lived at the time of publication in Norfolk, England, which is the only verified information I can share with you. However, I also found a Wikipedia page for a Richard Hunt, a magazine editor and green activist, who has several of his non-fiction books listed on the same GoodReads page as the Sidney Walsh series – which suggests they're one and the same person. One clue supporting this assumption are the animal rights activists who play a minor role in Deadlocked.

Even so, this could very well be an understandable mix-up, because there are likely more than just one Richard Hunt's traipsing around the British Isles. So, with Hunt's introductory out of the way, it's time to take a closer at one of his detective novels.

Deadlocked is Hunt's fourth piece of crime-fiction and the second case for Detective Chief Inspector Sidney J. Walsh of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary's CID, which is, as you probably guessed, an impossible crime novel, but the plot also has an Arthurian theme that can be found in two recently reviewed locked room novels – i.e. Paul Halter's Le cercle invisible (The Invisible Circle, 1996) and Richard Forrest's Death at King Arthur's Court (2005). So did I stumble across a forgotten sub-category of the locked room mystery? Anyway...

Dr. Arthur C. King was a research scientist for PZB Testing Ltd, where they test "the long-term effects of drugs, medicines, and pesticides," which once used live animals, but have since substituted their guinea pigs for body tissues. Regardless, King has received a number of death-threats pertaining to his research work and the police advised him to upgrade his home security. Well, the unpopular researcher has a "mania about King Arthur" and turned his house into a twentieth century fortress.

The house is "guarded by a highly sophisticated alarm system," originally designed to protect "big multi-room places with valuable contents," such as galleries and museums, which consists of special locks, cameras, floodlights and computer-operated motion sensors. And they know when a second or unauthorized person enters the premise. If the homeowner does not authorize the detected entry within several minutes, the system automatically rings the police station. So the house seems to be as safe as a small fortress and the security precautions reminded me of the locked room situation from M.P.O. Books' Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013). And in both cases these modern and sophisticated alarm systems utterly failed to offer any protection to their owners.

Dr. King is discovered by his neighbor, who peered through a window, with "a ruddy great bronze sword sticking in his chest," engraved with "EXCALIBUR" and "MADE IN INDIA," but the meat of the problem is that the body was found inside locked-and bolted room within a highly secured house surrounded by freshly fallen snow – which showed the paw prints of a dog and footprints going to the locked windows. They offer no explanation how the murdered managed to enter and leave the premise without triggering the alarms.

So the crime-scene is handed over to Detective Chief Inspector Sidney Walsh and the members of his Serious Crimes team, which are mainly represented by Detective Constable Brenda Phipps and Detective Sergeant Reginald Finch. I think their investigation constitutes the best aspect of Deadlocked.

Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Hunt's writing is not crippled by grand delusions of being a great novelist and simply attempted to merge a traditional (locked room) mystery with a modern police procedural. As a result, the plot is practically bare of any side distractions that usually emerge from the private lives of the series-characters and nearly all of their attention is focused on solving the murder by talking to the family members, colleagues and enemies of King – as well as giving considerable thought to the impossible aspect of the case.

Obviously, Hunt did try to give the book a touch of realism by observing rudimentary police procedure and pointing out some of the unpleasant aspects of real police work, such as attending autopsies, but the structure of the plot is that of a detective story. So you would assume I made a great discovery here. Unfortunately, I have to report that the plot fell apart in the final chapters.

First of all, the elaborate, multi-layered premise of the locked room problem was far better than the given solutions: the answer to the strange footprints in the snow was ridiculous. The explanation for the locked and bolted room within the house was routine and not very original, but made for a proper locked room. Finally, I was profoundly disappointed when I learned how the security system was bypassed and how this method was connected to the murderer. A murderer whose revelation (and motive) was somewhat of a cheat and the complicated scheme this person executed had far more success than is believable.

So, while I was not expecting a modern classic from Hunt, I began to expect something more from him by the time the final chapters rolled around. Unfortunately, this was not the case and came away disappointed, but that's the gamble one takes with these little-known mystery writers. Hopefully, I'll be more lucky the next time.


Passio Christi

"Men may keep a sort of level of good, but no men has even been able to keep on one level of evil. That road goes down and down. The kind man drinks and turns cruel; the frank man kills and lies about it."
- Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton's "The Flying Stars," from The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911)
Bloodstone (2011) is the eleventh entry in Paul Doherty's "the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan," originally published as by "Paul Harding," which appeared after the series went dormant for nearly a decade, but the ever-prolific Doherty penned six more novels since he pulled his creation from literary limbo – all of them work towards The Great Revolt (2016). I thought this second period in the series seemed like a good place to get reacquainted with Brother Athelstan.

The story takes place during the dark December days of 1380 and opens on the eve of the Feast of St. Damasus I, which takes place during the second week of Advent. So you can chalk Bloodstone down as a Christmas-time mystery, but the spirit of festivities garbed itself in the robes of the proverbial specter at the feast.

Sir Robert Kilverby is comfortably ensconced "in his warm, snug chancery chamber," pine logs were crackling in the mantled hearth and the door bolted from the inside, but even the safe, fortified nature of the room was no security from dark thoughts clouding his mind. The rich merchant was in a lamentable mood: reflecting on the passing of his first wife and regretting his second marriage, which are merely domestic trifles compared to his past sins of a far more serious nature – a grave wrong that made him the custodian of a holy relic.

As a man of wealth, Sir Robert had financed "those depredations in France," which were part of a seemingly never-ending conflict, known now as the Hundred Years' War, but this made him "partly to blame for the theft of that sacred bloodstone." A precious, blood-red ruby, "The Passio Christi," which is said to have miraculously formed out of the blood and sweat of Jesus Christ when he was dying on the cross. The gemstone was the crown jewel of the Abbey of St. Calliste, near Poitiers in France, where it was taken by a notorious band of marauding soldiers.

The Wyvern Company has "a fearsome reputation" as "a deadly, hostile horde from the havens of hells." They were ruthless men of war who had shown "no respect for anything under the sun." During their glory days, these men were the scourge of the French countryside and took everything they desired, "be it a flagon of wine or some plump French wench," but even Holy Mother Church was not spared from their greedy claws – as they scaled the walls and plundered the Abbey of St. Calliste. One of their grand prizes was the sacred bloodstone, the Passio Christi. Officially, they claimed to have found the relic in an abandoned cart, but the crown disputed their claim and ordered the stone to be placed in trust with one its bankers, Sir Richard Kilverby. In exchange, the men of the Wyvern Company would receive a pension out of the coffers of the Royal Exchequer.

So that's how Sir Richard came to be the legal custodian of a stolen relic, but, as of late, he has been repentant about his old sins and bad decisions. The new French Sub-Prior at St. Fulcher, Richer, has warned him about the dangers the possession of the ruby posed to his immortal soul and similar warnings were written down in the Liber Passionis Christi – i.e. The Book of the Passion of Christ. Sir Richard has began making reparations and is determined to deliver the Passio Christie to St. Fulcher, after which he wants to go on a "pilgrimage of reparations" to Rome and Jerusalem, but "some stealthy night-shape" penetrated the secure chamber and delivered earthly revenge. As well as taking the stone from a triple-locked casket.

The death of Sir Richard brings Sir John Cranston, Coroner of London, to the scene of the crime and alongside him is his secretary, Brother Athelstan, who's a Dominican friar and parish priest of St. Erconwald's in Southwark. Athelstan is also the Holmes to Cranston's Watson and usually is the one who finds a path to the solution. One of the many problems facing the friar is having to figure out how poison was introduced into a securely locked and bolted room, which was found to be bare of any traces of toxin. Or how the assassin managed to take the Passio Christi from that same room.

The Nightingale Gallery (1991)
However, this particular locked room was not as difficult to solve as may seem at first. I immediately figured out how the poisoning trick was pulled off, which was practically given away, but also because Doherty recycled this particular artifice from one of his novels from the early 1990s. Luckily, there were more plot-threads and this included one of Doherty's most ingenious locked room murders, but one that was surprisingly underused. It's a trick that should have been used as one of the main plot-threads.

Back at St. Fulcher's, a cowled figure, "cloaked all in black," is targeting the last remaining members of the Wyvern Company: one of them is cut down in the cemetery and another one is gutted along a quayside, but the third one perished in a blazing inferno inside a locked room. The trick for starting this fire was surprisingly clever and deserved more prominence, whether in this book or another, which has its only weakness that Athelstan and Cranston needed outside help to explain the technical nature of the trick. Namely that of an eccentric-looking man, Bartholomew Shoreditch, commonly known as a firedrake "for his skill, knowledge and expertise with all forms of fire," i.e. a pyromaniac with a license! So something fun could have been done with a character like that if this plot-thread had been better utilized.

I should also mention another sub-plot about a gifted painter and talented hangman, a local anchorite, who is haunted by "the ghost of a wicked woman he hanged." The explanation for these ghostly apparitions are, again, fairly easy, but this storyline provided the book with a couple of nicely written, atmospheric and even Carrian set pieces – which added to the overall readability of the book.

Plot-wise, Bloodstone does not rank as one Doherty's absolute bests, but the plot is competent enough to overlook some of its minor shortcomings and the story itself is engagingly written, which showed the author's background as a historian. I think the historical details and the revolt brewing in the background helped a lot in masking some of the plot's shortcomings. So, to cut a long story short, while I have read better from Doherty, I was certainly not left disappointed and kind of want to continue with this insurgence story-arc. But that's something for next year.  


The Stone and the Moth

"One man's flower is another man's weed."
- Nero Wolfe (Rex Stout's Over My Dead Body, 1940) 
Frederick "Fred" M. White was a multifaceted author who reputedly was a pioneering presence in the espionage genre and an early practitioner of disaster fiction (e.g. The Doom of London, 1903), but also labored in the field of detective fiction when the genre was between two epochs – transitioning from the Gaslight Era into the Golden Age. Regardless, these achievements have not resulted in ever-lasting name recognition and I would not have been aware of White if it weren't for a special mention in Locked Room Murders (1991).

Robert Adey mentioned in his introduction, when discussion The Victorians (1890-1901), "a strange sense of precognition" about White's Who Killed James Trent? (1901), serialized in Pearson's Weekly, which has a rising young novelist as its protagonist – named Jasper Carr! A wonderful coincidence and "an unconscious pointer to an author yet to come," but copies of this locked room tale are hard to come by. So I decided to take a gander at his other impossible crime novel.

The Cardinal Moth (1905) originally appeared in a London evening newspaper, The Star, which ran the story as a serial from December 1903 to January 1904. A year later, the story was republished in book form, under the same title, but was given a subtitle, The Accused Orchid, which is redundant as both titles refer to the same thing. Namely a very rare, legendary and absolutely unique flower. One that has come to be closely associated with death.

The legendary orchid, known as the Cardinal or Crimson Moth, is described as "a flower on a flower" with "a large cluster of whitey-pink blossoms with little red blooms hovering over like a cloud of scarlet moths." Once upon a time, the flower guarded the roof of the Temple of Ghan, situated in the fictional Kingdom of Koordstan, but the shrine was also used as an execution place for (political) criminals. All of those who were condemned were given the Herculean task of climbing to the roof and pick a flower from the Moth, which they had to after being locked inside the temple and when the priests outside finished their prayer the door was opened – only to find the condemned man on the floor with "the marks of great hairy hands about him."

Sometimes it was the neck that was broken or they had died from strangulation, but there were also cases of men who had their chest crushed in "as if a great giant had done it." It sounds like the premise of a Paul Doherty novel or the back story for one of Paul Halter's fanciful plots! And the flower seems to have lost nothing of its power when a specimen of the long-lost flower turns up in England.

Sir Clement Frobisher was "that rare bird amongst high-born species," a man who made his own fortune, but was reputedly booted out of the diplomatic service after being involved in an affair concerning Turkish Bonds. Simply put, Sir Clement was a bit of a rogue. A rogue who knew how to be charming and appreciate a good opponent, but a rogue nonetheless and one who sees his love for flowers as "the only weakness that Providence had vouchsafed to him" – which resulted in a hundred-thousand pound investment in a treasure filled orchid-house.

The glass house is a small paradise of bright, vivid colors and a sea of floral fragrances, located smack dab in the middle of Piccadilly, but one evening, a genuine treasure is practically given to Sir Clement.

Paul Lopez is a high-class a scoundrel, "a star of the first magnitude," who Sir Clement deems worthy enough to be his rival and Lopez brings him the coveted Cardinal Moth. A flower assumed to be extinct and consigned to the myths of a far-away land, but Lopez brought the orchid collector a living specimen. And what does the scoundrel want in return? He merely wants an alibi. So, a very small price in exchange for such a rare specimen, but his Armenian servant, Hafid, implores his master to “take it and burn it at once.”  

Of course, The Cardinal Moth delivers on its reputation when a dead man is found in the orchid-house, "strangled by a coarse cloth twisted about his throat," but nobody seems to have been able to commit the murder. The house was securely locked from the inside and everyone who was present could be accounted for. It makes for a tantalizing situation, but one that's shoved to the background in favor of a second plot-thread that involves a royal gemstone.

The Shan is the Westernized monarch of Koordstan, home of the fabled flower, but the Kingdom also has the Blue Stone of Ghan: a precious ruby and "a talisman that every Shan of Koordstan is never supposed to be without," because one side of the stone is engraved and used as for sealing state documents. But the most importantly is that the stone is a symbol of the Shan’s claim to the throne to the tribes of his land. There is, however, one problem: the Shan is prone to the vices of the West and is generally hard up. So he pledged the stone to a notorious money-lender, Aaron Benstein, who allows his wife, Isa Benstein, to wear the jewels polite society pawned with him to social gatherings.

Well, the work done by various characters, most of them tied "the orchid mystery," to ensure the Shan can produce the royal stone and safeguard his throne makes for an unusual alliance, but also makes The Cardinal Moth hard to pigeonhole. You can hardly describe the book as a traditionally-structured detective story. Even by the standards of the early 1900s, but neither can it be described as a thriller or an espionage story. I guess the final chapters can be described as courtroom fiction, when the orchid-deaths are explained during an inquest on the bodies, but the plot is largely about two problems that a number of people try to resolve – without conforming to any of the patterns or sub-categories of crime-and detective fiction. It almost sounds dull, but the cast of colorful characters and exotic plot ingredients took care of that. So, yeah, a very unusual, but interesting, read that fans of early twentieth century popular fiction will probably enjoy the most.  

Finally, I should mention the locked room elements: White showed he possessed a fertile imagination and this was reflected in the impossible situations, which moved away from the secret passages, unknown poisons and deadly animals that had dominated such impossible crime stories during the nineteenth century. A path that was abandoned by L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace in A Master of Mysteries (1898), which contains one or two short stories that can be considered literary relatives of The Cardinal Moth

My sole complaint is that I don’t find it believable that the method would work (successfully) more than once. Let alone having a success rate dating back more than a thousand years.


Dark Are the Days of Winter

"There is, at Christmas, a spirit of goodwill. It is, as you say, "the thing to do." Old quarrels are patched up, those who have disagreed consent to agree once more, even if it is only temporarily."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Murder for Christmas, 1938)
Back in May, I reviewed Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries (2015), edited by Martin Edwards, who is known as an award-winning crime novelist, genre-historian and the author of The Golden Age of Murder (2015), but now Edwards is building a reputation as the resident anthologist of the British Library Crime Classics – compiling a rapidly growing number of themed mystery anthologies for them.

Thus far, the stack includes Capital Crimes: London Mysteries (2015), Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries (2016) and Serpents in Eden: Countryside Crimes (2016), but potentially the best collection of short stories is still in the pipeline: Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017). But that anthology won't be released for another six or seven months. So, for the moment, I will have to make do with what has already been published, which brings us to the subject of today's blog-post.

Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries (2016) is an offering of "vintage crime stories set in winter" and a sequel, of sorts, to Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries (2015), which became "one of the UK's fastest-selling crime anthologies" and this lead to the commission of a second compendium of wintry tales – as there's "no denying that the supposed season of goodwill" is "a time of year that lends itself to detective fiction." Edwards succeeded in cobbling together a collection of rare, interesting and often excellent detective stories breathing the spirit of Yuletide. Let's take these stories down from the top.

Fergus Hume's "The Ghost’s Touch," culled from the pages of The Dancer in Red (1906), acts as this collection's curtain-raiser and some aspects of the plot anticipates John Dickson Carr's other famous radio-play, "The Devil’s Saint," which has several versions – two of them I discussed here and here. Hume's story is narrated by Dr. Lascelles, who relates the terrible Christmas of 1893, when he accompanied a friend, Percy Ringan, to his ancestral home. Percy's father accumulated wealth as a gold prospector in Australia, but his poorer cousin, Frank, inherited the family title and estate. So their relationship is both familial and mutually beneficial.

Frank invited both of them to spend Christmas at the Ringan estate, Ringshaw Grange, which resembles "the labyrinth of Daedalus" and has a cursed chamber, the Blue Room, haunted by the ghost of Lady Joan – who reputedly touches occupants of the room "who were foredoomed to death." As to be expected, one of the cousins decide to sleep in the Blue Room, but Dr. Lascelles intervenes in their plans and effectively demonstrates the mortality of the accursed ghost of the room. Not really a rug puller of a detective story, but a good, solid example from "The Room That Kills" category (i.e. a ghost story with a logical explanation).

The second story comes from "The King Kong of the Thriller," Edgar Wallace, whose predilection for lurid sensationalism and hoary dramatics has a repellent effect on me, but the few short stories I read seem to contradict his reputation as a writer of dated melodrama – which is certainly true for "The Chopham Affair." 

Originally, the story was published in one of Wallace's own collections, The Woman from the East (1934), and can be described as a crime story with a twist: one of the main characters of the tale is an old-fashioned rogue, "Alphonse or Alphonso Riebiera," who passes himself off as a Spaniard, but has a passport from one of those shady South American republics. Riebiera eked out a living as a blackmailer of women of rich husbands and turned this in "a well-organized business," but one day, the husband of one of his victims accidentally receives a blackmail note. As a result, the husband decides (as Sherlock Holmes would call it) to extract some private revenge. However, this result in an unusual and hard to explain situation: the blackmailer is found in the snow, shot through the head, alongside the body of a car thief. How this situation came about is the twist in the tail of the story. I liked it and should try one of his full-length novels in the not so distant future.

Margery Allingham's "The Man with the Sack" was first published as "The Case of the Man with the Sack" in a 1936 issue of the illustrious Strand Magazine, which plays a familiar tune on the theme of stolen jewels during a Christmas house party. Reluctantly, Mr. Albert Campion accepts Lady Turrett's invitation to come to Pharaoh's Court on Christmas Eve, because she fears one of her guests, Ada Welkin, is in danger of being relieved from her valuables. Campion is, however, unable to prevent the place from being burglarized, but promptly identifies the guilty person and finds the place where this person stowed away the loot. It's not one of the most original short stories in this anthology, but good and competent enough for what it is.

S.C. Roberts was a renowned publisher and a distinguished Sherlockian, who once played a round of golf with Conan Doyle, which was enough to brag about as a fanboy, but Roberts also wrote and published several pastiches – one of those stories, "The Case of the Megatherium Thefts," is apparently very good. However, the Sherlockian pastiche that's collected here is a short stage-play, "Christmas Eve," in which a problem is brought to Holmes and Watson by Miss Violet de Vinne. She acted as a secretary to Lady Barton, "the owner of a very wonderful pearl necklace," but the pearls have gone missing. Holmes immediately sees there’s a second story hidden beneath her account and cleverly ferrets the truth out of her.

The resolution of the case tore a page from "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892), which also happened to be a Christmas-time story about a lost gemstone. As a matter of fact, I think that story may very well be the arch-type of these festive tales about stolen and/or lost stones.

One of the main reasons for jumping on this anthology is the next novella-length story: Victor Gunn's "Death in December," originally published in Ironsides Sees Red (1948), which is an impossible crime tale set in a snowbound castle during Christmas – solved by a wonderful character in the mold of Sir Henry Merrivale, Andy Dalziel and Arthur Bryant.

Chief Inspector Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell, or simply "Old Iron," is a grumpy character who is dragged by his highborn subordinate, Johnny Lister, to the ancestral seat of his family. A place as dark and gloomy as the past, named Cloon Castle, perched on the top of desolate mountain in the Peak District. So "Old Iron" had enough material to grumble for the entire length of the journey, but, upon their arrival, the holiday is slowly turning into a busman's holiday for the two. On the driveway of the castle, they saw "an extraordinary figure," garbed in a dark cloak, stumbling across a snowy field and vanish, but the figure failed to leave any footprints in his wake. And this would not be the only apparently supernatural event at the castle.

Cloon Castle has one of those haunted rooms, known as the Death Room, but the head of family, General Lister, refuses to tell the back-story of the room to his guests. However, this fails to dampen the enthusiasm of the house party and one of them ends up sleeping in the haunted room. As is pointed out in the story, these experiments usually end with the house party finding "the occupant of the haunted room stretched out cold and stark on the floor," but this time around the events take a different turn: a blood-spattered corpse appears inside the room in the middle of the night. But when everyone goes back to check, the body has vanished and not a trace of blood is found on the floor! This cannot be tagged as a locked room, but how the bloodstains vanished can be marked as an impossible situation.

The subsequent investigation by "Old Iron" was quite fun, which lead from the Death Room to "a cold, gloomy, family crypt" and back to his bedroom where a nasty surprise was waiting, but I have a bone to pick about the impossible situation regarding the footprints. I do not believe the trick would leave behind a spotless field of unbroken snow and it would be very easy to make a slipup in its execution, which would ruin the whole effect. All in all, I liked this novella and have written Victor Gunn down as a person of interest for the near future.

Christopher Bush's "Murder at Christmas" was first published in 1951, in The Illustrated London News, under the title "The Holly Bears a Berry," which features his series-character, Ludovic Travers, who is spending Christmas-weekend as the house guest of the Chief Constable of Worbury – which is usually a quiet, peaceful place. However, one of the neighboring inhabitants is a rather notorious characters and an ex-convict, named John Block Brewse, who was "the last of the line of financial swindlers." So hardly surprising when someone strangles him to death in the nearby woods and Travers solves the case by smashing the murderer's alibi to pieces, but I always wonder if these alibi-tricks work when you have to manually strangle the victim. Otherwise, a fairly good short-short detective story.

The next entry in this anthology is also a fairly short-short story, but one that quickly became a favorite of mine, "Off the Tiles" by Ianthe Jerrold, who also authored the magnificent Dead Man's Quarry (1930) and the splendid There May Be Danger (1948). Jerrold has undergone a personal renaissance, after all four of her mystery novels were reissued by the Dean Street Press, which were supplemented during the 1950s with a handful of short detective stories in The London Mystery Magazine.

This one is a great showcase of her talent as a writer, as well as a demonstration of her cleverness, as Inspector James Quy investigates the deadly fall of a woman from a roof onto the street below. Was it an accident or a cleverly contrived murder? The plot that Quy uncovers is fairly original and one that could be considered both a success as well as an abject failure. So I really hope all of Jerrold's short stories gets gathered in a single volume. I would love to read more from her.  

Macdonald Hastings' "Mr. Cork's Secret" was printed in the December, 1952 issue of the monthly magazine of Lilliput magazine, which was offered as a Christmas competition and promised a reward of 150 pounds to everyone who could deduce the titular secret. The solution and winners were announced several months later. Interestingly, Edwards posted the answer to the secret at the end of the book. So you can try and challenge yourself. Plot-wise, this twist in the tail turned this fairly ordinary crime story into one of the best and most original Christmas stories about stolen jewelry. A genuinely clever piece that involves bloodied corpse in a hotel room, several famous thespians, a newspaper reporter and a well-mannered burglar. A very fun and eventually clever story.

Unfortunately, I did not care all that much for the next pair of stories, Julian Symons' "The Santa Claus Club" and Michael Gilbert "Deep and Crisp and Even," which is convenient excuse to skip them and not further bloat this blog-post.

Finally, the last entry, Josephine Bell's "The Carol Singers," was first published in Murder Under the Mistletoe (1992) and the story ends this collection on a fairly dark, grim and sad note – even for a collection of detective stories about bloody murder and thievery. Old Mrs. Fairlands occupies the ground floor flat of a converted Victorian family home, which once housed her entirely family and a domestic staff, but this became untenable by the late 1940s. So the house was converted and the floors rented out as apartments. The reader is also told how old age is catching up with the poor woman, who needs a solid hour to get dressed and sometimes too tired to make supper, which leaves her faint and thirsty, but the worst is yet to come.

Circumstances lead her to be all alone in the large house on Christmas, which provided an opportunity to a small group of home-invaders, pretending to be carol singers, to overtake Mrs. Fairlands. She was tied to a chair and gagged. And there she was left and eventually take her last, labored breathe after being completely "exhausted by pain, hunger and cold." It's even sadder when you realize the carol singers who did this were children! However, the ending showed Bell was not willing to plunge the reader in an all-encompassing darkness and provided a cop-out ending, but it remains a well-written, powerful and chilling story. In particular the part up until her death.

So, all in all, Crimson Snow is a nicely balanced collection of holiday-themed detective-and thriller stories, which managed to avoid all of the usual suspects and consists almost entirely of rarely anthologized short stories – even a couple of genuine rarities. And that's always a plus for these kind of short story collections. I really enjoyed breezing through all of these stories and will have to take a look at some of these other collections. I just hope I haven't breezed through this review too fast. By the end, it was basically just banging on the keyboard. 

Well, that's it for this blog-post and I'll try to lay-off the Christmas/wintry mysteries for now, because last year it actually burned me out. 


Snow Bound

"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Christmas Bells, 1863) 
Molly Thynne was one of the long-lost, forgotten mystery novelist from that luminous era, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but her neglected body of work has recently been exhumed by the Dean Street Press and this consisted of half a dozen mystery novels – three of them standalones and the remaining ones are part of a short series. All three of those concern the exploits of an elderly Greek chess maven named Dr. Constantine.

I previously reviewed the excellent Death in the Dentist's Chair (1932) and He Dies and Makes No Sign (1933), but the series commenced with The Crime at the Noah's Ark (1931), which is subtitled "A Christmas Mystery." They were released in the twilight of this year’s summer and late August was a bit too early for a Yuletide mystery, but the holiday season is now steadily approaching. Well, that and I already reviewed three Christmas mysteries last month: J. Jefferson Farjeon's Mystery in White (1937), Winifred Peck's Arrest the Bishop? (1949) and a short story, entitled "The Christmas Bear," by Herbert Resnicow.

So I wanted to resume my reading of these wintry tales in an attempt to eliminate as many of these seasonal-themed mystery novels and anthologies from my TBR-pile as possible, because we're only six weeks removed from Christmas Day. Let's get this snowball rolling!

The Crime at the Noah's Ark is Thynne's fourth mystery novels, but the first one to feature her series-characters, Dr. Constantine and Detective-Inspector Arkwright, who crossed paths in a spacious, rambling and old-fashioned establishment – a remote inn called the "Noah's Ark." However, the inspector appeared fairly late in the story. So this is the only reference to Arkwright in this review.

A far more important character is Angus Stuart, a rising author with a bestseller to his name, who decided to enjoy the spoils of his success by spending the Christmas holiday at an expensive, seaside resort. Unfortunately, the never-ending snowfall threw a spanner in the works. The snow was so persistent that even "the children grew tired of snowballing" and "the most confirmed among the sentimentalists began to grumble," but, day after day, "the drifts rose higher and higher in the country lanes" – a week before Christmas the roads showed signs of becoming so blocked that it threatened the plans of holiday-makers. And this was certainly the case for Stuart.

Stuart is one of those holiday-makers who failed to reach his intended destination and ended up in a remote, snowed-in inn, the "Noah's Ark," which is well known to hunters and, if it weren't for the heavy snowfall, would've been filled to capacity. So there's enough room to provide a warm shelter for stranded travelers and there’s an interesting collection of characters housed underneath its roof.

First of all, there are two sisters, Amy and Connie Adderley, who were stranded in the snow, but Stuart saved them from their difficult position and drove the sisters (alongside their chauffeur) to the inn. Other guests already there include the Romsey clan, which are represented by Lord Romsey and his three adult children: Victoria, Angela and Geoffrey. Another guest from the upper crust of society is the widow of a rich American banker, Mrs. Van Dolen, who is known for the number of husbands she tried and as the owner of an emerald girdle. She is accompanied by her secretary, Miss Hamilton. Mrs. Orkney Cloude is an attractive and "an exceptionally charming lady," but turns white as a sheet when she sees Lord Romsey. Major Carew is "a proper bounder" and a drunk who will be at the root of some of the problems at the inn. Trevor is an accountant's clerk and very, very shy. Felix Melnotte is a gigolo (i.e. dancer) who was suppose to ply his trade at the resort, Redsands, where Stuart was planning to spend the holiday. Finally, there's Soames, a commercial traveler, and Dr. Constantine, who are both enthusiastic chess players. So they spend some of the dark, cold evenings hunched over a chessboard and locked into a battle of wits.  

The Dr. Constantine from the movie adaption of The Murder on the Orient Express

Well, the severe winter weather has condemned these people to spend Christmas together and Dr. Constantine observes that they're "as completely isolated from the outside world as the inhabitants of the original Noah's Ark," but I found the snowy encirclement of the inn to be reminiscent of a large snow-globe – which is regularly shaken and rocked by strange, nighttime disturbances. A masked figure has been seen in one of the long, dark passages on the first night and this caused some commotion, but this incident proved only to be a prelude.  

Major Carew's drunkenness culminates in an altercation with Miss Hamilton and Trevor, who jumps to her defense, is given "a crimson nose." So they decide, for everyone safety, to lock Major Carew up until he's sober again, but that same night a rope is seen dangling from his bedroom window and everyone assumes he escaped to the balcony below – resulting in a midnight search of the premise. During this search, they discover that someone ransacked Mrs. Van Dolen's room, while she was sleeping, and took her emeralds. They also find the body of the major tucked underneath a blanket in his bed: his fractured head resting a blood-soaked pillow. The hostelry was abound with bloody murder and thievery!

Thynne's best?
However, as contradictory as it may sound (especially coming from an unapologetic classicist), but the violent death of Major Carew is a cosmetic imperfection of the plot. He should've had a bad heart, due to his bad lifestyle, which then gave out during the confrontation with the murderer. If you've read the book, you know it would fit the situation (and the simple plot) a whole lot better, because now the culprit seems stupid for leaving a battered corpse behind. Particularly when you learn the fate of this person in the last chapter.

Otherwise, the plot is pleasantly busy and has a plethora of plot-threads, which the largely sedentary Dr. Constantine calmly untangles and these include hidden relationships, background stories and several secret identities – which go hand-in-hand with the nightly prowls. And while I would not rank The Crime at the Noah's Ark alongside the excellent Death in the Dentist's Chair, it's miles ahead of He Dies and Makes No Sign. A worthy addition to the stack of Christmas-themed mystery novels so many of us loves to read (and re-read) around this time of year.

So if you're sick and tired of endlessly re-reading Agatha Christie's Murder for Christmas (1938) and Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel (1972), you might want to consider adding The Crime at the Noah's Ark to your yearly reading list for November/December. Or check this list that I need to update one of these years.

Well, the next blog-post will probably be of a collection of short stories that may or may not be related to the theme of this review. So stay tuned!