Detective's Holiday

"A woman's chief weapon is her tongue and she never lets it rust! Apt, eh? Devilish apt!"
- Colonel Malloy (John Bude's Death on the Riviera, 1952)
Elizabeth Gill was born into a literary, artistically-inclined family that had already produced illustrators, water-colorists, novelists and journalists, but Gill would go on to climb to the loftiest heights of the literary world by penning a trio of mystery novels – all of them featuring an eccentric painter/detective named Benvenuto Brown. Yes, I seriously consider detective stories to be the purest and highest form of literature.

According to our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, Gill could have become a marquee name in the genre, but we were "cruelly deprived" of "a rapidly rising talent in the mystery fiction field" when she passed away at the age of 32. A tragic fate she shared with another promising talent, Dorothy Bowers, whose untimely passing left the world with only five (obscure) detective novels (e.g. the excellent Postscript to Poison, 1938).

In both cases, their work became victims of obscurity and they never got to challenge Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh or Josephine Tey for their comfy spots as (secondary) Crime Queens.

During the mid-2000s, Bowers was briefly revived by the now defunct Rue Morgue Press, but Gill had to wait an additional decade to be resurrected. But her time for a comeback has finally arrived: Dean Street Press is reissuing her entire, but humble, body of work, which consists of The Crime Coast (1931), What Dread Hand? (1932) and Crime de Luxe (1933) – all of them introduced by the usual suspect, Curt Evans. Evans wrote a general introduction, concerning the short-lived of the author and her family, as well as a short piece on each novel.

The Crime Coast is the first one of the lot and was originally published in the UK as Strange Holiday, which falls in the category of mystery novels that can be described as "Channel Crossers." A category in which English detectives cross the Channel to have a (holiday) adventure in France. Some early and well-known examples are Freeman Wills Crofts' The Cask (1920) and Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links (1923), but, lately, some lesser-known "Channel Crossers" were reprinted: Basil Thomson's The Case of the Noami Clynes (1934) and The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937), E.R. Punshon's Murder Abroad (1939) and John Bude's Death on the Riviera (1952).

You can also place Christopher St. John Sprigg's Death of an Airman (1935) and John Rowland's Calamity in Kent (1950) in this category, but that has more to do with the smuggling sub-plot that tends to hover in the background of these kind of crime novels.

In any case, The Crime Coast has more in common with these latter examples than with those by Crofts and Christie. But let's begin at the beginning.
The Crime Coast opens with a report from a morning newspaper about a double crime perpetrated in a London hotel: a rich Argentinian woman, Luela de Costa, was found in her suite, "wrapped in an eiderdown," almost entirely naked except for one thing – she was clad in "a number of magnificent jewels." Only half an hour later, the Countess of Trelorne discovered that her room had been ransacked and the thief had taken her famous collections of jewels, which included a famous rope of pearls. So two, apparently unconnected, crimes that might be closely linked on account of the close proximity in place and time.

After this short chapter, the story switches to a young Oxonian, Paul Ashby, who had planned a holiday abroad with two of his friends, but one of them secured a job in the colonies and the other one got engaged – dooming him to explore the cities and the French countryside by himself. Fortuitously, a chance encounter at his flat with an ill man, Major Kent, sends him on his trip with a purpose. A stranger's quest to satisfy "a craving for adventure which existed somewhere in the secret places of his soul."

Major Kent is a frail, sick old man who wants to make amends with his son, Adrian, who's a painter smitten by the charms of a much older woman, which lead to one hell of a row between father and son. Adrian had been commissioned to paint a portrait of the woman in question and had fallen in love during his work, but his father recognized in her likeness "the chief character in a particularly unsavory divorce case." One that had ended with a suicide. So naturally he was not pleased that his son intended to marry this woman and their argument ended with Adrian running out of the house, which was the last his father had seen of him, but he wants to see his son again before his groggy heart stops. And he has good reason to believe he's in the south of France.

So the lonely holiday becomes an investigation, as Ashby sets out to search for Adrian, which brings him into contact with a small, but interesting, cast of characters – consisting of both (new) friends and potential foes. There's the villainous brother of the murder victim from the London hotel, Hernandez de Najera, who's known to possess a false alibi for the day of the murder. But why? Ashby also meets a friend of Adrian, one Adelaide Moon, who's a young artist herself. A policeman from England, Detective-Inspector Leech of Scotland Yard, crosses their path as he chases a noted jewel thief, "The Slosher." An unsavory individual known to Ashby as Herbert Dawkins. Finally, we have Gill's series-detective, Benvenuto Brown.

Brown is an interesting character who could've easily grown into one of those recognizable amateur sleuths of the genre, which makes me all the more curious to see how he's used in the other two novels. As noted before, Brown is a painter with a healthy interest in criminology, but his interest is not entirely that of an amateur dilettante. There are snippets strewn throughout the book about his past and he apparently cut his teeth in the Secret Service. Brown was a decorated officer and was offered "a marvelous job in the Foreign Office after the war," but he picked up painting instead and wandered the world while indulging in his "passion for elucidating mysteries" - slowly becoming "the most brilliant detective outside fiction."

I also loved his homely anecdote how his artistic mother tried to forget that "she brought someone into the world who has turned out to be an exponent of cubism." It should also be noted that Brown mentioned he painted at his best when he had a problem to work out. Brown has this common with a classically-styled detective-character from the second half of the previous century, namely Niccolo Benedetti, who also appeared in only three mystery novels before his creator, William L. DeAndrea, passed away prematurely. Patterns!

All of this makes for a good, solid and tight detective story, but the small cast of characters also turned out to be sole flaw of the book, because the murderer has practically nowhere to hide. A seasoned armchair detective will easily point out the guilty party, but, to be fair, there's an additional challenge here that's almost as important as identifying the murderer and consists of piecing together the right sequence of events – i.e. who entered the hotel room and did what before leaving.

The Crime Coast is a solid effort by a debuting novelist, one that's pregnant with promise, which is also a very worthy additional to the pile of "Channel Crossers" that have recently reappeared back in print. I'll definitely return to Gill sooner, rather than later, because Crime de Luxe is (reportedly) one of the better ocean-liner mysteries from the Golden Age. Who doesn't love a good mystery set aboard an ocean-liner?


Tools of Death

"I am too old a crow to believe that a random deduction of mine is necessarily true... but I suggest it, my friend. I suggest it. And unless you can satisfy me that it is not the truth, I am going to make matters warm for you. Very well."
- M. Henri Bencolin (John Dickson Carr's The Four False Weapons, 1937)
Rufus King was an American mystery novelist who created a number of series-characters, such as Reginald de Puyster, Stuff Driscoll and Dr. Colin Starr, but his primary and most successful detective was a New York policeman, Lt. Valcour – who made his first appearance in the very unusual Murder by the Clock (1929). I only read one other of King's Lt. Valcour novels, The Case of the Constant God (1938), before, perhaps unfairly, shelving him away as a poor man's Ellery Queen.

Lately, I came across several reviews of King's detective novels, which tempted me in returning to his work for a second glance and there were two potential candidates on my TBR-pile: Murder by Latitude (1931) and A Variety of Weapons (1943). The former received glowing comments from both readers and critics, but settled down for the latter, because the premise and the book-title suggested the story fell into a rare, sparsely populated category of the genre – one that (so far) consists only of G.K. Chesterton's "The Three Tools of Death" (The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911), Ellery Queen's "The Hanging Acrobat" (The Adventures of Ellery Queen, 1934) and John Dickson Carr's The Four False Weapons (1937).

Well, this turned out not to be the case, however, the book was, as Anthony Boucher described it, deftly characterized with "sly shifting suspense" and "a puzzle of Kingly dexterity." It also oddly managed to be a very unconventional mystery that operated well within in the confines and conventions of the traditional detective story. If that makes any sense. Anyhow...

A Variety of Weapons is a standalone novel, originally serialized in Redbook as The Case of the Rich Recluse, which has a young woman as its main protagonist.

Ann Ledrick is slowly making a name for herself as a photographer of animals and already won an award for "a stunning shot of a Manx cat," which landed her job at the barely accessible estate of the titular recluse. Justin Marlow is fabulously wealthy and lives at a place called Black Tor, tucked away in the heart of the Adirondacks, where there are no roads, but the four thousand acres of private land has its own landing field – providing the safest way of reaching the isolated community. There are rumors, aimed at discouraging uninvited guests, that "entire safaris have perished from starvation while attempting to track to the house itself." So the place is really remote and practically inaccessible.

Marlow wants Ann to come down to Black Tor to snap a ton of pictures of the ocelots that belong to his cousin, Estelle, but it becomes apparent they've an ulterior motive for flying her down to the estate. A reason that's attached to a family tragedy and an ever increasing pile of bodies.

Twenty years ago, Marlow's only son was found standing over his pregnant and mortally wounded wife with a blood-stained knife in his hand. He was accused of having stabbed her while "she was playing Chopin on a spinet," put on trial, sentenced and executed on the electric chair, but his father never believed him to be guilty. Old Marlow "fought like a tiger to clear his son," right up to the execution, but rumors say he went cuckoo after failing to save his son. And this may have resulted in some additional deaths. Several of the men who were involved with his late daughter-in-law died before their time in hunting accidents or succumbed to food poisoning, which whispers say were murders with "a Machiavellian touch."

I do not think most readers will have too much trouble figuring out what role the twenty-something Ann played in this drama, because it's mentioned, very early on in the story, they "did a Caesarean" on the dying woman in order to save the baby. So Ann finds herself cast in the role of an unexpected and tragic heiress, but one who inherits more than just money from her newly found grandfather.

Marlow was already a dying man when Ann arrived. The victim of a slow, destructive poison and on his deathbed he handed her the torch of his private-investigation into the murders that have taken place on the estate – making it now her task to prove her father did not stab her mother. It's not a task that's entirely without danger. However, the second half of this novel is far more detection-orientated than the first one, which had a surprising amount of logical clues that instinctively make you glance in the direction of the killer. Such as the nature of the later murders of the men and "the white back" that was seen behind a rainy window of the music room on the night of the murder twenty years before. A clue that, by the end, recalled Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington (1957).

There were also two interesting animal-related clues: why did the dog of Ann's mother, a Chow, not defend its master when she was being stabbed, but, instead, "trembled on her cushion" and made little noises? The second clue is the affection Sgt. Hurlstone, of the State Police, gives to a black cat, but animal-lovers will probably frown upon his reason for keeping the animal so close to him.

Of course, this positive review of a mystery novel, I genuinely enjoyed, would not be complete without me nitpicking about something small, because (minor) imperfections are there to be dragged out into the light of day. 

First of all, there's the poison that was slowly killing Marlow. It is, in fact, a slow-acting poison, but some of the details were questionable and sounded as if King got them from the pages of a lurid pulp-thriller. However, this is unquestionable one of the earliest examples of such poison being used in crime-fiction and "the grim result of the skeleton bones in silver on the films" was a nice touch. Secondly, the motive could not really be deduced based on the given evidence, but motive is of secondary importance to most readers. As long as the who (and how) can be deduced. So that won't spoil the book for most readers.

So, all in all, I found A Variety of Weapons to be a better mystery than either Murder by the Clock or The Case of the Constant God, which nicely balanced a fairly clever plot with elements of suspense – planted in a traditional, but unusual, setting with a strong cast of characters. King really redeemed himself here and Murder by Latitude has now crawled to the top of my TBR-pile.


Endless Waltz

"This dance of death which sounds so musically,
was sure intended for the corpse de ballet."
- Anonymous (On the Danse Macabre of Saint-Saëns)
Last week, Mike of Only Detect and "JJ" of The Invisible Event posted reviews of, respectively, The Frightened Stiff (1942) and Sailor, Take Warning! (1944), which came from the hands of a criminally underrated pair of mystery novelists, William and Audrey Roos – who published their work under the shared penname of "Kelley Roos." I rank their high-spirited, comedic detective stories among my personal favorites and the aforementioned reviews were a reminder there still was one of their novels on my TBR-pile. A particular title I had been saving for a while.

The Blonde Died Dancing (1956) is an expansion of a 1948 novella, entitled "Dancing Death," which was originally published in American Magazine and featured their beloved series-character, Jeff and Haila Troy. However, the couple from the novel-length version were given different names, Steve and Connie Barton, but they're carbon copies of the original. You can easily see they act as stand-ins for the Troys.

Steve and Connie Barton have a similar penchant for attracting copious amounts of trouble, while bantering and wandering into unlikely situations, but they also might be separate characters who inhabit the same universe as the Troys – because both appear to be acquainted with Lt. George Hankins of the Homicide Squad. It could mean they're either a thinly disguised version of the Troys or there are two of such meddlesome, trouble-prone couples running amok in New York.

The problems in The Blonde Died Dancing begins with Connie worrying about the state of her marriage. Every Wednesday, Steve "had dreamed up a reason to be away for the evening," but the pile of excuses are as transparent as a broken window pane. So, after a thorough makeover failed to keep him home on another Wednesday evening, Connie decided to tail her husband to the fourteenth floor of an office building and there she makes a startling discovery: her husband is secretly taking dancing lessons! The place is called the Crescent School of Dancing and Steve is being taught how to waltz by "a tall, willowy and ravishing female" named Anita Farrell. But moments later another headache of a problem presented itself to Connie.

After Steve finished his lesson for the evening and left, Connie entered the music-filled Studio K to meet her husband's dance teacher, but what she found was her body sprawled grotesquely on the smooth, shining floor – a bullet hole in her back. She was grasping "a small, curiously shaped piece of heavy paper" in one hand. There is, however, one problem: she had entered the studio right after Steve had left it. Nobody else had entered the room. There were no concealed doors, camouflaged windows or hidden crevices behind the mirrored walls, which means the shooter could only have been Steve!

You guessed it! The Blonde Died Dancing is a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery and one of the reasons why I stored this away for a cold, wintry day.

Anyway, Connie is shocked and confused, but has sense enough to snatch the registry from the reception desk, which lists Steve as Farrell's last pupil, before hightailing out of there. However, this only slows down Lieutenant-Detective Bolling and Lieutenant Hankins. They're working on a clever process of elimination based on the lists of students. A process that will, eventually, reveal the last pupil and prime suspect in the slaying of the dance teacher – referred to by the sensationalist press as "The Waltzer."

I've to make one observation here: the registry noted that Steve's appointment took place between seven and eight. Steve mentioned he known his teacher for a total of nine hours. So he has been taking lessons for nine weeks, right? But absolutely nobody at the school, without the registry, remembered who was getting dance lessons at that fixed time for the past two months? And it was in the murderers best interest to remember who this pupil was.

This is an obvious weak spot in the plot. A weakness that was necessary to propel the plot forward, which happens when Connie returns to the dance school to get a job as Farrell's replacement. As the pseudonymous "Hester Frost," she uncovers hidden relationships, a blackmail racket and how an outside murderer could have penetrated the watched and closed studio, but there's also a great deal of lighthearted humor in getting identity under wraps – such as trying to avoid the police-detectives who know the new teacher by her real name. But that's not the only close shave she got and all of this makes for a pleasantly paced, humorous read.

Undoubtedly, the lighthearted, cheerful nature of the storytelling is the most attractive aspect of The Blonde Died Dancing. However, this is not to say that the plot is bad, which is not the case, but rather simplistic and will not pose a serious challenge to the experienced armchair detective. You can almost instinctively figure out how the murder was accomplished based on the black paper figure in the victim's hand and the nature of the bullet wound. Something that's confirmed when Connie stumbles across the means of the locked room trick, long before grasping how it fully worked, but, when she does, the reader is treated to a nice set-piece in the murder room. The who-and why were a bit more tricky, but not something that broke new ground or surprisingly pulled the rug from underneath the reader.

Nevertheless, The Blonde Died Dancing is a very fun and energetic detective novel, which harked back to the early mysteries by Roos. The plot never reaches the height of their best novels (i.e. The Frightened Stiff and Sailor, Take Warning!), but the attempt will be appreciated by readers who enjoyed their other work.

A note for the curious: The Blonde Died Dancing formed the basis for a French-Italian movie, Come Dance With Me (1959), starring Brigitte Bardot.


The Policeman Who Explained Miracles

"Always remember, it's a trick. Keep that in mind and you can figure out how it's done."
- Lt. Columbo (Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, 1989)
Stephen Leather is a former journalist from the United Kingdom, who used to write for The Times and The South China Morning Post, before he became a full-time crime novelist and saw his thrillers translated in a dozen languages – which makes it safe to say that his career switch was a success. However, what caught my attention were not his contemporary crime novels, but a series of classically-styled short stories about Inspector Zhang of the Singapore Police Force.

I don't remember who recommended the Inspector Zhang stories, but remember they were described as a spirited homage to the locked room mystery and the great detective stories of yore. So, of course, they found their way onto my TBR-pile!

Leather penned this series during the early years of this decade, between 2011 and 2013, which were then collected a year later as The Eight Curious Cases of Inspector Zhang (2014). All of the stories are impossible, or semi-impossible, crime stories that are, mostly, set in "squeaky-clean Singapore." But the main attraction of this collection is the titular police-inspector.

Inspector Zhang is best described as a kindred spirit of ours. A policeman who loves detective stories, in particular locked room mysteries, but crimes of a seemingly impossible nature seldom occur outside of the printed page and rarely on the island state of Singapore – as it boosts one of the lowest crime rates in the world. So, whenever a criminal situation shows some inexplicable peculiarities, Zhang takes the opportunity to give a Carrian locked room lecture or litter his speech with references to Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Ellery Queen. The good inspector also revealed he learned Japanese for the sole purpose of being able to read the work of Soji Shimada.

So, the character of Inspector Zhang is both incredible fun and interesting: a policeman who operates in one of the cleanest, safest and low-crime areas on the face of this planet, but with a soul yearning for the kind of problems that faced Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. This makes them especially fun stories for the reader who's as big a fanboy as the inspector.

I better stop this bloated introduction here and start taking a look at each of the eight stories in this collection, because my reviews of short story collections have the tendency to expand to the size of Nero Wolfe's waistline.

The first one of the lot, "Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish," confronts the duo of Inspector Zhang and Sergeant Lee with the murder of an American distributor of plastic products, Peter Wilkinson, who was found in a five-star VIP hotel room with a stab wound to the throat. However, the windows were secured from within and the only door opened on a corridor that is constantly monitored by CCTV, which showed the victim was completely alone and this makes the murder look like a seemingly impossible one – much to the excitement of Zhang. As he confessed to Sgt. Lee, he has been waiting his whole life for an actual impossible murder and uses the situation to give an impromptu dissertation on all of the tricks mentioned by Dr. Gideon Fell in his famous Locked Room Lecture from John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935). Granted, this is used to pad out the story and makes the routine solution, which is a slight variation on an old trick, slightly disappointing, but Zhang's contagious enthusiasm made this a passable effort.

In the second story, "Inspector Zhang and the Falling Woman," Zhang has taken his wife to a restaurant to celebrate thirty years of marriage, but the ending of the evening is spoiled when they came across the prelude of a drama: a young woman was standing on the roof of a twelve-story apartment building and threatened to jump. She acts upon her threat and jumps to an ugly mess on the pavement below, but this routine case of suicide takes a strange twist when the medical examiner takes a closer look at the body. The woman who apparently jumped to her death was drowned!

However, the method was actually not too difficult to figure out and really the only answer that made logically sense, which (for your information) had nothing to do with the medical examiner. I know what some of you were thinking, but that's not the answer. What really was the highlight of this story was not the plot, but Zhang's imitation of Columbo, when he waltzed into the apartment of one of the suspects, speaking irrelevances about "my wife" and even saying "just one more thing." Loved it!

The third story, "Inspector Zhang and the Dead Thai Gangster," finally shows a clever and even an original impossible situation. One that takes place aboard a Boeing 777-200. Zhang and Lee are flying to Thailand, "to collect a Singaporean businessman who was being extradited on fraud charges," but upon landing the inspector is summoned by the captain: a passenger has been found dead in the sparsely occupied business class and the body has a bullet hole in the chest with gunshot residue on his shirt. The shot was fired at close range, but that seemed, under the circumstances, as impossible as getting a gun aboard and then making it vanish again – which is, nonetheless, what appears to have happened. But that's not the only problem facing the inspector.

The name of the victim is Kwanchai Srisai, "a well-known gangster" with "political aspirations," who has been target of several murder attempts before. Zhang contacted his superiors over the telephone, who contacted the Royal Thai Police, and they want him to take a crack at the case and sort out the mess before taking over the case, which means they prefer to come aboard to take the killer into custody rather than taking over the investigation. And, while not every piece of information was fairly shared with the reader, the explanation for the impossible situation was still pretty clever and somewhat innovative. I liked how it came about.

Next in line is "Inspector Zhang and the Perfect Alibi" and the plot shows the inspector is acquiring a reputation, up and down the ranks of the police force, as someone with an uncanny knack for getting "to the heart of seemingly impossible situations." The Deputy Commissioner is stuck with what appeared to be a simple case, which turned into an impossible one, that has the potential of turning the entire police department into a laughing stock. A woman had been murdered in her home, throat cut, but there were clear signs of burglary and there were cast-iron, tale-tell clues pointing towards a known burglar – fingerprints on the murder weapon and a bite-mark on victim. However, the suspect was in custody at the time of the murder. So either the suspect managed to slip from his sealed and guarded prison cell or their forensic scientists made a mistake. Both answers are bad for the police.

A good and intriguing premise, but very simple to solve and you should be able to stumble to the correct answer by the halfway mark. By the way, I did learn something from this story: caning is a legal and perfectly normal punishment in Singapore. It can be given for a wide variety of crimes and offenses. The video I found of a caning looked very, very painful, but makes you almost understand why they have clean streets and a chronic lack of petty criminals.

The fifth story, "Inspector Zhang and the Hotel Guest," is the shortest entry in this collection and is fairly simple, non-impossible problem. A man was found in one of the hotel rooms, booked in the name of a Russian woman, but the man has a bump on the back of his head and no memory of who he is. So the inspector has to make a series of Sherlockian-style deductions based on the man's appearance and study the CCTV footage in order to ferret out the answer to this little conundrum. A short, simple, but passable, story.

There's an original locked room problem at the heart of the next story, "Inspector Zhang and the Disappearing Drugs," which begins with the Senior Assistant Commissioner summoning Zhang to his office in connection with a case of "a highly confidential nature." A sensitive case that requires the mind of "an expert in the field" of seemingly impossible crimes.

A team of Customs officers accidentally came a consignment of drugs, a hundred kilos of Burmese heroine in ten cardboard boxes, which gave the Drug Squad an opportunity to setup a trap by following "the boxes of drugs to the customer who had paid for them" - effectively rolling up the Singapore end of the operation. Well, that didn't happen. The boxes were delivered to a shabby apartment on the eighth floor of a building and were left behind there, but the address was known known to the police. So they made their preparations: CCTV cameras were installed in the hallway and the apartment was under constant police observation, but the boxes were never retrieved from the apartment.

After a week passed, they called off the operation and the police-detective in charge was given to order to enter the apartment in order to retrieve the heroine. But that's when they made a startling discovery: the apartment was empty and the boxes, alongside the drugs, had vanished into thin air!

Zhang is great form and figures out both the method and the culprit based on the CCTV footage and the pesky security on the reinforced front-door of the apartment, which offers the reader with the same opportunity. And that makes this one of the better and most rewarding stories from this collection.

The penultimate story in the collection, "Inspector Zhang Goes to Harrogate," is a fun one. Zhang's wife arranged a holiday to England for his birthday and the main attraction of this present is attending a mystery writers' conference, where he meets a hated writer and publisher, Sean Hyde, who sold over a million ebooks by selling them "for less than the price of a cup of coffee" - which is resented by a lot of people. They claim Hyde is "devaluing books" by selling them so cheaply, but he merely suggested agents and publishers needed to adept to a changing market. Or that some of his vocal colleagues should supply better written books at the right price, because badly written, over priced schlock was doomed to fail. So this made him not the most popular speaker at the conference.

But the situation takes a dramatic turn when Hyde's body is found in his hotel room, hanging from the bathroom door, in what appears to be a suicide: a maid was outside in the corridor outside and saw nobody leaving the room after hearing a thud. So nobody was present when he apparently hung himself. However, this is, technically speaking, not a locked room, because the door was not locked from the inside and the bathroom window was open. It's one of those alibi breaking stories that strongly reminded me of one or two similar tales from Case Closed (e.g. Vol. 57), but it's a fun one, which is strengthened by the setting and the background that delved into ebook publishing. An area not yet widely explored by mystery writers. So this story may very well be an original in that regard.

Finally, there's "Inspector Zhang and the Island of the Dead," which sounds very grim and promising, but the setting, Sentosa Island, is a popular resort that was associated in a dark and distant past with piracy. However, that has very little to do with the story at hand. A domestic affair dressed up as a botched burglary: Dr. Samuel Kwan was found stabbed to death in his study by his wife and Dr. Mayang. They heard a scream emanating from the study, but the door was locked and they had to go round the house to discover that one of the windows of the backdoor had been broken. But this apparently botched burglary turns into another alibi breaking story when Zhang learns the house was a divided one with a divorce in process.

So, not a bad story, but I expected something better from both the title and the last story in this collection, which really should have had a (strong) impossible crime.

In any case, I genuinely enjoyed The Eight Curious Cases of Inspector Zhang, which may not have always been perfect or played entirely fair, but, as a whole, the book offers a great band of tribute stories to the locked room mystery and the classic detective story – exemplified in the character of Zhang. His presence and enthusiastic love for detective stories made even the weaker stories fun to read. Hopefully, this is not the last time we got to see him take charge of a curious case involving locked room murders, baffling disappearances that appear to be completely impossible or destroying a cast-iron alibi of a guilty person. All the while he's happily chattering away about Carr, Christie and Doyle.


Lucifer's Pride

"I could murder that woman... she treats us like muck." 
- Amy Ford (Harriet Rutland's Knock, Murderer, Knock, 1938)
Alfred Meyers was, like Anthony Boucher, "a great opera buff" and snatched at any opportunity to sing "in every chorus that would use his talents," while working off and on in his father's bank, but Meyers also achieved modest success as a writer – publishing short stories, a stage play and a detective novel.

Murder Ends the Song (1941) was Meyers' sole contribution to the genre, but, despite his scanty resume, he was elected the first Treasurer of the Northern California chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. A chapter of which Lenore Glen Offord was Secretary and Boucher was its Vice President. Meyers would go on to write only a single chapter for an anthology of true crime stories, San Francisco Murders (1947), before fading from the public-eye and his work was hurled into obscurity.

There it was, after seven decades, found by one of the usual suspects, Curt Evans, who reviewed the book in early 2013 and in his two-part post (here and here) called it "a work worthy of the masters" that "merits reprinting" - which finally happened in 2015. A small, independent publisher, Coachwhip, reissued the book with an introduction by Evans, which is a compendium of his blog-posts on Meyers. It also, enticingly, points out that the book contains several illustrations, a floor plan and a tabulations of clues. Showing that Meyers was dedicated to playing the game fairly and resulted in "a most enjoyable classic mystery" composed "in the manner of the great Ellery Queen." And for the most part, I agree with this assessment.

Murder Ends the Song is told in the first person and the narrative voice is that of a promising young tenor, Anthony "Tony" Graine, who's a most amusing character and this is particularly shown in the opening chapter – when his business manager, "Nero," insistently rings his phone until he drags himself out of bed. The subsequent conversation was rife with verbal abuse, with one of them threatening to ram a telephone "down his yapping managerial gullet" and the other evoking "the curse of the Witch of Endor," but the manager won in the end. Graine collected himself and met with him ten minutes later to go to the airport to join the entourage of "La Grazie."

Marina Grazie was a star of the operatic stage, but, while her star had dimmed, her fame had not entirely faded. She was heard on the radio often and could still gather a crowd of newspaper reporters. However, to her dismay, she has been unable to set a toe on the big stage after prematurely retiring, hoping the famous managers would track her down with "a contract as fat as she was," which never happened – eventually giving and making a guest appearance on a radio program. Grazie wants more and joined the "one-horse outfit" of Nero in the hopes of making a West Coast comeback.

So, a typical spoiled diva with a high opinion of herself and was knocked down a peg, or two, by the world around her. However, the subsequent story "The Great Grazie" to be a truly villainous piece of work. A woman who has been described as "a grasping, egotistical, demanding slave-driver" and not adverse to abuse her authoritative position to physically assault the people around her. Graine quickly became aware that Grazie has "a gift for inspiring impulses to violence" and hears several references to her murder long before stumbling across her body. Someone even wrote a message in blood on her mirror! So someone has it out for her.

The entourage of the opera diva consists of the following people: Miss Elena Grazie (her niece), Miss Ambrosia Swisshome (companian-secretary), Dr. Beale Thorndyke (personal physician), Mr. Julian Porter (accompanist) and Mr. James Paris (chauffeur and pilot). They find themselves stranded, together with their tormentor, inside a grim, half-finished castle, called Lucifer's Pride, which was constructed by Grazie's dead fiance, Lucifer Bollman – an elderly Wheat King who, reputedly, died of a broken heart and now haunts the place.

Lucifer's Pride is "perched on a bluff some three hundred feet" above the Columbia River Gorge and a violent storm cuts the party off from the mainland for a full twenty-four hours, which is enough for the killer among them to dispatch a few people to Great Beyond. And this person begins with Marina Grazie.

After a confrontation between Grazie and her rebellious entourage, she takes possession of the library and repeatedly sings her favorite aria, Caro Nome, but when Graine goes to check on her he finds that the singing came from a phonograph in the corner – playing a ten-year-old recording. Grazie was slumped over the keys of the piano, her head resting in her arms, where she slumped to the floor when Graine touched her shoulders. A steel knitting needle protruded from the base of her skull!

Alfred Meyers
So there you have it: the premise of a classically-styled mystery novel with a closed-circle of suspects, cut-off from the outside world, which is a clichéd situation often associated with detective stories from this period. However, Murder Ends the Song is everything but cliché or an unoriginal imitation of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939). Meyers allowed his character to perform a different kind of detective story on this stage and this resulted in some very well imagined set pieces.

One of them is how nobody, except for Graine, is really concerned about the murder and they find it more important to search the library and padding down the corpse(s). What are they looking? Graine suspects it is Lucifer diamond. After all, Grazie's jewelry box has been looted, but, obviously, the party is searching for something completely different. There was also a very bizarre musical scene, in which everyone had gathered in the library and was singing Shall We Gather At the River at the piano, while the body of Grazie was laying on the couch and tucked around with an Indian robe. It ended with the question whether it would have pleased the old bird. I was reminded of a similar and equally bizarre singing-scene from Boucher's The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942). So the writing and story-telling were as inspired as the plot.

A plot further complicated with addition of two bodies. One of them belonging to an unknown man who broke his neck in a rather unpleasant fall and the third victim perished in a muddled shooting incident, but the main attraction of the story is the murder of Marina Grazie and the person responsible for her death.

Meyers did an exemplary job in plotting and writing a genuine whodunit. I was pleasantly surprised when it became apparent this person was the killer, because I had not seriously considered this option and experienced one of those rare, but pleasant, jolts of surprise that attracts readers to detective stories, but (admittedly) become rarer once you become well read in the genre. But this one did it. I also found the motive to be interesting and very original for the time. It may very well have been the first example of its kind.

So that aspect of the plot was definitely satisfying, but, like a tiresome nitpicker, I have to point out a strange, anomalous flaw in the solution. Meyers may have done too good a job at hiding the murderer, because the (main) clues do not, necessarily, point this person out as the only possible candidate to have committed the murders – which makes them more indicators than tell-tale clues. Well, there's the clue of the bottle, but that one veered closely to the territory of Dagmar Doubledick's tie. However, I guess the bottle clue can be seen as the connecting puzzle piece to the aforementioned indicators and together point towards the murderer.

I should also point out that the caretakers, Mr. and Mrs. Tait, withheld a key piece of information until the end. Granted, it was established early on in the story that they didn't always show the back of their tongue or "forgot" things, but still, it should have been divulged a whole lot sooner.

Anyhow, you should not allow this technical nitpicking to deter you from trying Murder Ends the Song, because it is a genuine and pleasantly surprising whodunit with an original background placed in a familiar setting. And it is a notable entry in the Van Dine-Queen School of Detection. I just found the effect of the clues on the overall plot to be a bit weird. But, again, that's just me nitpicking the finer details of a clever and enjoyable mystery novel.