An Almost Perfect Crime

"If ever you make up your mind to commit a murder, don't make the mistake of trying to be clever."
- Dr. Benjamin Trancred (G.H.D. & M. Cole's "Too Clever by Half," collected in Detection Medley, 1939)
Except for One Thing (1947) seem to have been the debut for one of John Russell Fearn's myriad of pennames, namely "Hugo Blayn," which he used for two of his series-characters, Chief Inspector Garth and Dr. Hiram Carruthers, who occasionally worked together on the same case – e.g. Vision Sinister (1954) and The Silvered Cage (1955). So the book also marked the first appearance of Garth.

There is, however, a structural difference between Except for One Thing and the subsequent titles published under the Blayn byline, such as The Five Matchboxes (1948), which were all impossible crime novels. All except for this first one.

Except for One Thing can best be described as a Columbo-style inverted detective story with some of the trappings of an Anthony Berkeley crime novel (c.f. Trial and Error, 1937). And the plot is about as good as anything associated with two names. I've only read less than ten of Fearn's detective novels, but this one ranks as one of his best and has a killer twist in the tail regarding the disposal of the body.

The opening of the book introduces the lead character, Richard Harvey, who finds himself with two lives on his conscience before too long, but some readers today may find his motive to be wholly unconvincing – since it would hardly be a reason to kill someone in today's society. However, you could be sued for "a breach of promise" when you broke your promise to marry and this could have ruined a man in the past.

So this could lead to a very unpleasant situation when the woman in question refuses her "heart balm," or severance pay, and insists on trapping her reluctant fiance in a loveless marriage.

Valerie Hadfield is a beautiful blonde, but ice-cold, actress playing a lead role in a long-running musical comedy, which is where Harvey saw her for the first time. Harvey became completely enamored with her, but had to come to the sad conclusion that the woman he had seen laughing, singing and making love on the stage was in actuality "carved out of a glacier." Slowly, Harvey came to the realization that had fallen for the role she was playing and that their (secret) engagement was a mistake, but Valerie simply refuses to break the engagement and has enough to potentially ruin his reputation – such as a pile of passionate love letters and an inscribed cigarette box. She's determined to marry him in order to climb the social ladder in polite society.

You see, Harvey is a wealthy and distinguished research chemist, who occasionally works for Scotland Yard, but Valerie promises to start a scandal that'll tarnish his name "in every club and scientific association in town." And this would effectively prevent him from marrying the girl he has been seeing for the past eight months, Joyce Prescott.

So "an insidious thought" began to fester in his mind. A thought that, ironically, germinated into tangible plans after a chance encounter with his policeman friend, Chief Inspector Mortimer Garth. At the Stag Club, Garth was explaining to a follow member the difficulties of committing "the perfect crime" in an age of science, because "it's impossible to be rid of a corpse so completely that nobody can find it" and referred to several celebrated failures – like the gruesome murders committed by Dr. Crippen and William Sheward. Harvey is of the opinion that "perfect crimes do exist" and we never hear of them "because they're perfect."

Harvey has known Garth for many years and has come to look upon him as a machine, "a brilliant analytical thinker," but the inspector himself admitted he was not infallible. So could he lead Garth down the garden path?

What follows gives the reader a front-row seat to the planning, and execution, of a carefully plotted murder, which has both flashes of brilliance and nuggets of utter stupidity. One of the more cleverest aspects of the plan is his creation of an alter ego, named "Rixton Williams," who's cast as Valerie's secret admirer and prime-suspect in her disappearance. Harvey had a pretty clever reason for using such a rare and unusual name like Rixton, but the observant armchair detective will also pick up on some of his first small mistakes.

Like the withdrawal of two thousand pounds and depositing the money at a different bank under the name of Rixton Williams. However, the real mistakes begin to pile up the moment he finishes strangling Valerie.

Someone saw him, as Rixton, carrying Valerie's body to his car, but told this witness that she was blind drunk. There is, however, only a single bottle of champagne found at the home he got under his alias and the place where the murder was committed, but Garth, astutely, observed that's impossible to get dead drunk "a third of a bottle of champagne." A second witness, Valerie's chauffeur, forces Harvey to improvise a "second and entirely unrehearsed murder," which both provide all the material for a good, old-fashioned cat-and-mouse game between the Scotland Yard detective and the well-known research chemist – recalling the best from Columbo. A comparison strengthened when Garth tries to involve Harvey in the investigation. And the latter is never quite sure how much Garth really knows.

There is also a human aspect to the story, as Harvey is seriously suffering under the strain of having snuffed out two lives, which causes him to lose a lot of sleep and slowly his mind begins to deteriorate. When the story began, you could still sympathize with his situation, but, by the end, he has become functionally unhinged and even began to taunt Garth by sneakily showing him the truth. And gloated over how he had outsmarted the man from Scotland Yard. One component of his plan definitely warranted some gloating on his part.

I alluded to this at the beginning of the blog-post, but what really helped made this book standout is the answer to the only question readers have to figure out themselves before reaching the end of the story: how did Harvey manage to dispose of Valerie's body without leaving "an atom of proof that murder was done." The solution is fairly clued and the method is as clever as it's inventive. You'll never forget where the body ended up. I would rank this aspect of the plot alongside the John Dickson Carr's classic "The House in Goblin Wood" (collected in The Third Bullet and Other Stories of Detection, 1954). The solutions for the disappearance of a body are very different in both stories, but you'll never forget either explanation!

I guess that's what attracts me to Fearn's work. He may have been a second-string pulp writer, but he evidently was very fond of constructing plots and always seemed to try to be as original as possible. Or, at least, attempt to find a different angle to an old trick. Occasionally, this resulted in a plot elevating one of his books above what a second-stringer should be capable of doing. Thy Arm Alone (1947) is one example of this and Except for One Thing is another. 

Highly recommended to everyone who loves Columbo, inverted detective stories or a good and original how-dun-it. So you can expect more reviews of Fearn in the future. 


Only Death is Immortal

"There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet, 1887)
During the previous century, the detective genre became a holiday residence, or even a second home, to a number of science-fiction writers that included Isaac Asimov, Anthony Boucher, Fredric Brown, John Russell Fearn and John Sladek. One thing they have in common, as mystery novelists, is that they tended to write plot-oriented detective stories with a predilection for impossible crimes. So imagine my initial enthusiasm when discovering a modern author who appeared to have continued this tradition.

Eric Brown is a British science-fiction author, whose career took off in the late eighties, but several years ago Brown tried his hands at a detective novel and wrote Murder by the Book (2013), which is set in the mid-1950s and introduced his series-characters, Donald Langham and Maria Dupré – who reminded me of Richard Forrest's Lyon and Bea Wentworth. The second book in the series, Murder at the Chase (2014), was billed as a "classic locked room conundrum," but this claim borders on false advertisement. And what remained was not all that good either.

Murder at the Chase began promising enough and the premise of the book could have easily come from one of the better Jonathan Creek episodes, but the plot never delivered on the promises it made to the reader in the opening chapters.

The book takes place during the summer of 1955 and begins at a garden party given by a London publishing agent, Charles Elder, who has Langham as one of his clients. Langham writes violent "thrillers set in the underworld" and at the party he's introduced to the son of an old acquaintance, Edward Endicott, who's known for his "tough-guy no-nonsense stories," but the shy Alasdair is a complete contrast to his old man. And from him they learn Endicott is currently obsessing over a reputedly immortal Satanist.

Vivian Stafford was a Victorian-era Satanist, "a cohort of Crowley," who was born in 1835, but the present-day Stafford claims to be the same Stafford as the one from Victorian times, which would make him around a 120-years-old – a claim supported by an old photograph depicting a dead ringer for the present-day Stafford. He also demonstrated his occult powers that allowed him to summon the dead. During two gatherings, called "Evening of the Occult," he summoned several ghostly apparitions. Stafford's demonstrations were enough to convince old Endicott and he decided to write about a book about him, but Alasdair is afraid this plan may have lead to his father's seemingly impossible disappearance from his study. So he called the ex-detective he met at the garden party for assistance.

The door to the study, "as solid as rock," was locked from the inside and the French windows were latched, but Langham solved this extremely simplistic, incidental and very disappointing locked room mystery upon his first inspection of the room. What really annoyed me is not only how the impossibility is completely identical to minor locked room problems from such detective stories as Anthony Berkeley's The Layton Court Mystery (1925) and Agatha Christie's "Dead Man's Mirror," collected in Murder in the Mews (1937), but also that it was obviously tossed in to market the book as a locked room conundrum – because the plot would have worked just as well if Endicott had vanished from an unlocked room. Endicott and his papers simply had to disappear. This locked room angle added nothing to the story except disappointment.

So, merely five chapters into the book and my initial enthusiasm was already on life-support, but decided to trudge on. After all, there were other plot-threads that could still deliver in the end, right? Well, I was very naive and really should learn to bail on these modern monstrosities. If they suck in the beginning, they suck in the end. They never, ever, improve after a while.

I'm going to give this one a pass
First of all, there are the ghostly apparitions witnessed by the group of people attending the occult evenings. Not only would the method for making the ghosts appear be more at home in an episode of Scooby Doo, it has been used in such Scooby Doo episodes as Hassle in the Castle and The Fiesta Host is an Aztec Ghost! So not really all that believable for a historical mystery set in the 1950s. Secondly, there's the identity of Stafford, which is half-decently handled, but nothing particular clever or noteworthy. I think something more could have been done with the murder of a self-proclaimed immortal. Just think what someone like John Dickson Carr or Hake Talbot could have done with such a premise.

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that, around the halfway mark, Stafford's body is found in the woods around the Endicott home. But who cares. This potential interesting plot-development degenerates into an old, tired and uninspired blackmail/murder plot.

Brown provided the story with a second body, which showed some imagination in its staging, but also revealed he's hardly a top-notch plotter as far as this genre is concerned. I can only conclude that the reason for introducing this second corpse was in order to shoe-horn in a false solution, which needed an innocent person who could not object to being accused. So this person simply had to die.

On top of the poorly, disappointingly conceived plot, the book was also mind-numbingly boring and I couldn't care less about any of the characters. Simply did not care about any of them. I eventually began to skim through the book, because I wanted it to be over. Hence why I'm dragging myself through this equally poorly written review.

At the beginning of this blog-post, I name-dropped a fairly recent discovery of mine, John Russell Fearn, who, admittedly, was a second-stringer, but that hardly seems fair when you compare his work to such modern-day equivalents as Richard Hunt's Deadlocked (1994), David Marsh's Dead Box (2004), Frederick Ramsey's Stranger Room (2009) and Eric Keith's Nine Man's Murder (2011) – or the subject of this blog-post. Yes, I know. Our beloved Golden Age also produced raw sewage pressed between two book covers, but their modern counterparts are usually so much worse.

Well, sorry for having brought this one up and really wish I had something more substantial to tell about the book, but I had not much to work with and, honestly, lacked the interest. I'll try to dig up something better for the next blog-post. In the meantime, I recommend my reviews of Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) and Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956), which were both excellent mystery novels for very different reasons. 


Ghost in the Light

"...there is evil everywhere under the sun."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, 1941)
During the 1950s, the celebrated and incredibly prolific science-fiction author, Isaac Asimov, wrote "a series of six derring-do novels" about the ace investigator of the Council of Science, David "Lucky" Starr, which is a gig that brought him to every world in our Solar System – all of them colonized and inhabited by humans. As they should be!

The stories fall into the category of juvenile fiction and were initially published under a pseudonym, "Paul French," but the name was dropped when plans for a television series fell through. So the series always impressed me as an action/adventure stories in a science-fiction surrounding, but, according to Mike Grost, there's one Lucky Starr title offering "a fully fair play mystery." One that has clues and "a dying message delivered by a non-human character," which should give the observant reader a couple of strong hints as to who the culprit is. So how could I possibly resist?

Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury (1956) is the third book in the series and brings David "Lucky" Starr and his small, Martian-born sidekick, John Bigman Jones, to the smallest and innermost planet of the Solar System – a two-faced celestial body called Mercury. Since the planet is the next door neighbor of our Sun, it's not the most hospitable place for permanent human settlement. However, the planet had been mined in the past for precious metals, such as silver and platinum, and recently became the location of an expensive research project.

At the Solar Observatory at the Mercurial North Pole, they're testing a completely new branch of science, called Sub-etheric Optics, which would allow them to intercept sunlight, guide it through hyperspace, and spread it evenly over the Earth – effectively giving them full control over the seasons. The "distribution of sunlight" would turn the Earth into a "conditioned paradise," but, recently, the project is plagued by a series of accidents. And they're taking a toll on the engineer in charge of Project Light, Scott Mindes.

Upon their arrival on Mercury, Mindes tells Lucky and Bigman there are "two-legged ghosts" on the Sun-side of the planet. Mindes has been scouting the Sun-side in a small rocket-scooter and observed "something that moved under the sun," something wearing a metallic spacesuit, who was seen standing still in the Sun for minutes at a time – as though it didn't care "a thing for the heat and radiation." Something that would be even ill-advised to do in a special insulated spacesuit.

So is the metal-clad ghost a fragment of the engineer's unstable imagination? An unknown Mercurian life-form? Or a saboteur from the Sirius star system?

After the opening chapters, the red-thread running through the plot splits into several sub-threads, which are still tightly connected to one another, but allows for some of the spotlight to be shown on Starr's right-hand man. Bigman got himself into a feud with Jonathan Urteil, a "roving investigator" for Senator Swenson, who stands in opposition to the Council of Science. A dispute that would eventually lead to a duel fought in low-gravity to make up for the weight difference between both men and resulted in a simple, but original, murder involving a gravity lock.

However, the murder is committed relatively late into the story and before they dueled in low-gravity, Bigman and Urteil had a close brush with death in the dark, disused mines that has a backstory that could be used as the premise of a science-fiction horror movie.

Bigman and Lucky Starr
The mines were slowly being abandoned fifty years ago, when the observatory was constructed, but the only thing that never died down were the stories the miners left behind for the astronomers. Stories about miners who were inexplicably frozen to death in the shafts. In those days, the mine shafts were fairly well heated and the power units of their suits functioned normally, but miners kept dying from an inexplicable and intense cold – eventually only entered into the main shafts in gangs. Bigman and Urteil stumble across the answer to "the freezing death in the mines," but the answer in question is pure science-fiction. However, the problem gave the book some nice and imaginative scenes.

Yes, I realize this is the third mystery in row about a mine, having previously reviewed Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) and M.V. Carey's The Mystery of Death Trap Mine (1976), but was unaware Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury had a sub-plot about an old, abandoned mine when picking the book from the big pile.

Meanwhile, Lucky is exploring the Sun-side of Mercury with an ergometer and comes across the tall, metallic figure glanced by Mindes, but all I can really say about this plot-thread is that Asimov had really stopped hiding his identity at this point in the series. Something is revealed in these chapters that makes no bones about the fact that these books take place in the same universe as (some) of his other science-fiction/mystery stories. And this figure gives Starr an incomprehensible dying message, "er—er," when asked who was behind the acts of sabotage.

It's a rudimentary and simplistic dying message, but one that makes perfect sense when explained and beautifully complements the other clues pointing the murderer/saboteur. Asimov really showed his then brand new credentials as a part-time mystery novelist. Granted, the story does not translate into a genre-classic, or even one of Asimov's best hybrid mysteries, but the plot was sound and all of the plot-threads tied up satisfactorily. And the Mercurial backdrop was great.

Even though Asimov had to admit in his introduction, written for Fawcett editions, that "the advance of science can outdate even the most conscientious science-fiction," because his "astronomical descriptions are longer accurate in all respects." But that will only annoy readers who are well versed in astronomy, I suppose.

On a last, semi-related note: Ho-Ling, JJ and yours truly appear to be the only who occasionally review these science-fiction mysteries and thought a list of all these hybrid-mysteries, reviewed between the three of us, would be a nice way to pad out this blog-post.

My list: Manly Wade Wellman's Devil's Planet (1942), David Reed's Murder in Space (1944), John Russell Fearn's The Lonely Astronomer (1954) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).

Short stories: Miriam Allen Deford's Space, Time and Crime (1964; anthology) Isaac Asimov's "Mirror Image"(1972) Timothy Zahn's "Red Thoughts at Morning" (1988).

Ho-Ling's list: Poul Anderson's After Doomsday (1962) Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1983) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).

Short stories: Sonoda Shuuichirou's "Dakara dare mo inaku natta" ("And That's Why There Were None").

Audio drama: Hiroshi Mori's "Meikyuu hyakunen no suima" ("Labyrinth in the Arm of Morpheus").

JJ's list: Peter F. Hamilton's A Quantum Murder (1994), Adam Roberts' Jack Glass (2012) and James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars (1977).

As you can see, we all love Hogan's book!


You Are Mine Now

"In attempting to conceal a fact one may point still more markedly to its occurrence."
- Prof. T.L. Westborough (Clyde B. Clason's Blind Drift, 1937)
One of the drawbacks of devouring detective-fiction at the same rate a mine fire consumes oxygen, is that you'll eventually ran out of such monumental classics as Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Ellery Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932), John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man (1935), Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile (1937) and Christianna Brand's Green for Danger (1945) – to name but a few of the genre's masterpieces. Or so it seems.

You only have to glance at the webwork of blogs, dedicated to the classic detective story, to realize there's a gem-rich soil beneath the genre's surface. Several layers of hidden treasures requiring some time and work to find, but can uncover such golden nuggets as Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935), Harriet Rutland's Bleeding Hooks (1940), Kelley Roos' The Frightened Stiff (1942) and John Sladek's Black Aura (1974). Or absolutely precious authors like Pat McGerr, E.R. Punshon and Cor Docter.

Thankfully, there are a number of small, independent publishers who make collecting and reading rare, long out-of-print mystery novels embarrassingly easy. One of them found and reissued a genuine gem of a detective novel.

Lately, Coachwhip has been making some collector's items available again for us commoners, like the intriguing-sounding The Rumble Murders (1932) by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr., but I had the misfortune to pick Alexander Williams' rather unwhelming The Hex Murder (1935) from this batch of new editions – which remains a risk when rooting around for obscure mysteries. Even when they're reprinted with the seal of approval from the likes of John Norris and Curt Evans. However, there's one book among their recent offering that can only be described as a minor masterpiece along the lines of the previously mentioned titles by Roscoe, Roos, Rutland and Sladek.

Tyline Perry's The Owner Lies Dead (1930) should be used as a textbook example of how to integrate a plot complexity, clues and moments of foreshadowing in, what is essentially, a very character-driven story. You can play with the puzzle pieces as you move from chapter to chapter, but Perry did not underestimate her readers and did a sterling job at misleading them. She kept tossing me between potential solutions like a new prisoner is passed around in the showers. Loved it!

The story takes place in the small coal-mining town of Genesee, Colorado, which begins with the kind of tragedy that was only all too common in those days: an explosion rips through "the subterranean maze" of Haunted Mine, which resulted in a growing number of casualties – starting with the eleven bodies retrieved during the first hours of rescue work. Additionally, there are seventeen mine workers who are still trapped in the dangerous, smoldering underground passages and their prospects are not looking good. However, the nephew of the mine's owner, Anthony "Tony" Sheridan, wants to make a last ditch effort and is the last one to be lowered into the mine, but he never makes it back to the cage-lift. And the situation has gotten to such a point that they had to seal up the mine air-tight for an undetermined period of time. Since a fire in a coal mine can rage for years (e.g. Centralia mine fire).

Well, there were only five weeks between the disaster and the moment when the mine was declared safe again to enter, but what they find upon their descent is the scene of a seemingly impossible crime!

Someone, somehow, has fatally shot Tony Sheridan in the back! The straight, horizontal angle of the bullet and the absence of a gun excludes the possibility of suicide, but even more inexplicable is that the only people present were the trapped miners – all of them died long before Tony descended into the mine. So who was in a position to fire the shot and how was it done?

After the discovery of the body, the narrative is picked up by one of Tony's brothers, Henry "Cappy" Sheridan, who retreats into the past and begins to tell about their childhood in Genesee. And this excursion takes the reader through the years and up till the moment when the body is discovered. Usually, this means that the author has place the plot in the backseat in favor of characterization, but The Owner Lies Dead is a glaring exception to that rule.

These early chapters are loaded with important information, scenes and clues that are of paramount importance to the solution. One of them being the troublesome relationship between Tony and a childhood friend of the Sheridan brothers, Regina, who ends up marrying a local boy, Pat Brace, who has personal reason for hating the uncle of the three Sheridan brothers – which, as one would expect, did not sit well with Tony. Cappy's narrative also describes several curious events leading up to the mine explosion and its direct aftermath. Such as the wounding of the local physician by a stray bullet, the theft of the pay roll of the mine workers and how his other brother, Rush, swears he saw Tony's ghost after the mine was sealed.

As you can imagine, when such a series of apparently incomprehensible events are put together with some care and logic, you can have a lot of fun in attempting to pull them apart. And try to rearrange them in the correct order of sequence.

Arrogantly, I assumed I had (roughly) pieced together the explanation for the entire problem, which was somewhat conservative in nature, but, despite correctly identifying some components of the actual solution, Perry kept me from reaching the complete truth – something I find to be incomprehensible in hindsight. In the end, everything clicked together with logical inevitability. From the childhood incidents and the local legend of Haunted Mine to the explosion and bizarre circumstances of the shooting. It all makes sense without taxing the readers credulity too much, because the explanation is not as complex as the premise suggests it to be. And those often tend to be the best kind of detective stories.

But you can find a plot between the pages of The Owner Lies Dead

As the resident locked room fanboy, I have to give a note of warning to everyone who might want to buy this book purely on the strength of its impossibility. The premise is definitely promising, but the sealed mine angle is only a small cog in the overall machine of the plot and has a relatively simple explanation. I still liked how it fitted in the overall plot. And, therefore, you should not read The Owner Lies Dead as just an impossible crime novel, because the book is not a one-trick pony. You should read as a detective story with an impossible situation as the cherry on top of the excellent plot.

So, as you can read, I really, really liked The Owner Lies Dead. I will now always refer back to this review when pointing to a mystery novel with perfect balance between a clue-rich plot and adequate character development. And I really hope Coachwhip decides to republish Perry's second and last mystery novel, The Never Summer Mystery (1932), which was also listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991). It's actually surprising Coachwhip did not reissue The Owner Lies Dead and The Never Summer Mystery as a twofer volume like they did with Clifford Orr and Donald Bayne Hobart. I would have loved to own that set! Anyway...

On a final, somewhat related note: the small mining town setting was a reminder how much I would love to read a detective story set in Neutral Moresnet. I'll even settle for a thriller, spy or adventure story, but, as far as I know, the place never produced any crime-fiction or caught the attention of writers outside of its borders. Something that can only be described as a missed opportunity, because this unique "dwarf-state" (i.e. a semi-sovereign mining village) had all the material to furnish the plot of a first-rate detective or thriller novel.


Do Not Enter!

"Fear isn't in our vocabulary..."
- Jonny Quest (TRAJQ: S02E10: Ghost Quest)
Since 2015, I discussed nearly a dozen books from The Three Investigators series, mostly those written by Robert Arthur and William Arden, but also one of the many titles penned by M.V. Carey. Between them, they imagined countless alluring problems and tight spots to occupy those three lads from Rocky Beach, California, but rarely did they allow the boys to stumble across a body – certainly not a really well preserved one that could be a homicide victim.

Over their many adventures, Jupiter "Jupe" Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews uncovered long-hidden skeletons of people who died (e.g. The Mystery of the Moaning Cave, 1968) or were murdered (e.g. The Mystery of the Headless Horse, 1977) over a century ago. A past murder in a Cairo bazaar was mentioned in The Mystery of the Whispering Mummy (1965) and the boys dealt with the legacy of a dead man in The Mystery of the Shrinking House (1972), but Carey's The Mystery of Death Trap Mine (1976) places them squarely in Case Closed territory when they make an unsettling discovery in an abandoned mine-shaft.

The Mystery of Death Trap Mine begins when they receive a surprise visit in their secret headquarters from a character who previously appeared in The Mystery of the Singing Serpent (1972), Allie Jamison, who's the daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Rocky Beach. Jupe, Pete and Bob helped Allie's family with getting "rid of a sinister house-guest" and "exposed a diabolical blackmail plot," but this time she wants to keep her uncle, Harry Osborne, from having "the wool pulled over his eyes" - which has, according to her, something to do with his suspicious next door neighbor.

Osborne has bought a Christmas tree ranch in Twin Lakes, New Mexico, which used to be a mining town. There's an exhausted silver mine, called Dead Trap Mine, because "a woman once wandered in there" and "fell down a shaft." Some say she still haunts the place.

So the mine is an extremely dangerous place and locals sealed the opening when a missing five-year-old nearly got herself killed in there, but Osborne sold the mine and a chunk of land to a returning local, Wesley Thurgood. One of the first things Thurgood did was to remove the iron grill from the entrance and bought a guard dog to watch the place. He also puttered around the site in brand-new jeans, a hard hat and manicured nails! All of this makes Allie mighty suspicious and deviously gets her uncle to offer Jupe, Pete and Bob a summer job, pruning Christmas trees, but their real task will be helping Allie getting to the bottom of the mine business.

Surely, not long after arriving at Twin Lakes, Allie does seem to have grounds for suspicion, because Thurgood appears to have lied about something. And why did he fired a shotgun inside an empty mine?

Of course, they're going to do exactly what any kid or teenager would do in their place: ignore Osborne's warnings, trespass on Thurgood's property and descend into the forbidden mine, but, "about fifty yards into the mountain," Thurgood suddenly appeared behind them, while Allie started to scream in front of them, pointing to the bottom of a dark pit – where a body "lay strangely twisted on the rocky floor of the shaft." The well-preserved, mummified corpse belongs to a convicted criminal, Gilbert Morgan, who had been released from prison five years previously and then simply disappeared. So there you have two problems that may, or may not, be intertwined.

On the one hand, you have the strange behavior and protective attitude towards "a played-out silver mine" on Thurgood's part, while on the other you have the presence of a dead parole-jumper in that same mine.

Allie is rattled!
The problem of the dead body in the mine is tackled by going through some back issues of the local newspaper, Twin Lakes Gazette, which chronicles absolutely everything that happened in that small and remote town. And there they learn about the placing of the iron grill and the discovery of a stolen car near the mine. However, it is the accidental discovery of a five-year-old Phoenix newspaper that tells them about a crime that appears to have a connection with both the body and the abandoned car. The other problem has an interesting geological clue, the appearance of "a bit of gold in a played-out silver mine," which eventually explains the gunshots, the underground explosions and Thurgood's behavior, but not in the way you might assume. I liked this aspect of the plot the most.

In between snooping, Jupe, Pete, Bob and Allie have to dodge newspaper reporters, curiosity seekers, midnight prowlers, guard dogs, rattlesnakes and adult supervision. And the latter seriously hampered their movement on one or two occasions. However, they still got around to playing detective and they even visited a ghost town, called Hambone, which received a deathblow when their mine closed, but made for a great backdrop for an excellent and one of the more memorable scenes from the book – which will culminate in the obligatory spot of danger when a couple of criminals show up. Pete and Allie find themselves at their mercy and that of the scorching sun of a stretch of desert land, while a helicopter is desperate searching for them.

So, all in all, The Mystery of Death Trap Mine was a very readable, well-characterized and competently plotted entry in the series. Granted, the plot was not stellar, however, all of the plot-threads hang together coherently. They were just a bit commonplace. You could partially blame this on the author not daring to make the death of Morgan a full-blown murder. Carey said in an interview that they had not "any murderers in the series," but she could see "where the life-is-not-fair-so-I-think-I'll-hold-up-the-bank type of thinking can lead to murder." I think the plot of this book would have been a perfect vehicle to tell exactly such a story. And hey, she already supplied the body, so why not go all the way, right?

Secondly, Carey seems to have been a very character-driven writer and you can see this in how she treated all of the characters. Even the minor ones seem to be more than just background decoration, but the most eye-catching here is how Allie interacted with the boys. I got the distinct impression that Carey was setting Allie up as a counterweight to Jupe and planted the seeds of a potential romantic relationship between her and Pete, but the series publisher probably told her not to pursue this angle. Because Allie made no further appearances in the series.

Well, that brings us to the end of this review and I can already reveal that the next one also has a mining backdrop. So you can probably guess which mystery novel that's going to be.