Torn Twins

"Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them."
- Msgr. Ronald A. Knox (A Decalogue: Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction, 1929)
The Echoing Strangers (1952) is Gladys Mitchell's twenty-fifth mystery novel about her incomparable, witch-like series-character, Mrs. Bradley, who is a consulting psychiatrist to the Home Office and probably had the longest lifespan of any detective from the genre's Golden Age – debuting in Speedy Death (1929) and bowing out in the posthumously published The Crozier Pharaohs (1984). During that fifty-five year period, Mrs. Bradley's cases filled the pages of sixty-six books and one collection of short stories (i.e. Sleuth's Alchemy, 2005).

As a mystery novelist, Mitchell was as prolific as she was original and imaginative. However, she was not always as consistent in the quality department and even her greatest admirers acknowledged her output suffered a decline during the 1950s, which lasted until the seventies – when she reportedly returned to the fantastic plot-elements that defined her earlier detective stories (e.g. The Greenstone Griffins, 1983).

So that would place The Echoing Strangers in Mitchell's dodgy period, but the book is still held in high regard by Nick Fuller and Jason Half of The Stone House. And was recommended to me personally by John Norris in the comments on my review of Late, Late in the Evening (1976). Purportedly, the book is a bizarre mixture of identical twins, a homicidal grandfather, blackmail and cricket, but also stronger than usual on detection and clueing.

Naturally, my interest was piqued and placed the book on top of my to-be-read pile, but forgot all about it until my previous review brought it back to my attention for obvious reasons. Since it has been a year since the last time I looked at one of Mitchell's novels, I decided to finally pluck this often praised title from the big pile.

The Echoing Strangers opens with Mrs. Bradley traveling down to the village of Wetwode, situated on the River Burwater in Norfolk, where she planned to a pay a visit to an old school-friend of hers, but upon her arrival she discovers that a family emergency called her school-friend to Gateshead – which leads her to hire a boat and sail down the river. When she navigated "a pronounced bend" in the river, Mrs. Bradley witnessed a bizarre scene on the lawn of one of the river-side bungalows. A middle-aged woman being pushed into the water by "a slender, handsome youth."

The adolescent is a seventeen year old deaf-and-dumb boy, named Francis Caux, who was orphaned at age seven and subsequently separated from his twin brother, Derek, which done by their despicable grandfather, Sir Adrian. A truly villainous character reminiscent of Dr. Grimsby Roylott from Conan Doyle's "The Speckled Band" (from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892).

Sir Adrian Caux abandoned his damaged grandson and placed him under the wing of a guardian, Miss Higgs, who Mrs. Bradley witnessed being pushed into the river by her ward. On the other hand, Derek was brought back to Sir Adrian's home in the village of Mede. Consequentially, Francis and Derek have not seen one another for nearly ten years. Or so everyone assumed. But the river incident places Mrs. Bradley on the scene when the first, of two, murders is committed that are closely intertwined with the Gemini game the brothers have been secretly playing.

Mr. Campbell is "a misanthropic naturalist" and local blackmailer, who loved to observe "courting couples through his field-glasses," but someone had battered in his skull and his assailant found an original way to dispose of the body – attaching the remains to the bottom of dinghy by iron bands and staples. And the dinghy belongs to Francis!

Meanwhile, Sir Adrian engages a schoolteacher, named Tom Donagh, as a holiday tutor for Derek, but specified in the advertisement an "opening batsman and slip fielder" is "preferred." Even asking any applicants to supply their "last season's batting average." Sir Adrian loves cricket and heads the village cricket team, which in one scene has to play against the patients and doctors of "a sort of second-class Broadmoor." However, the main event is the annual game against the team of the village's longtime rival, the neighboring village of Bruke, but the game ends with the murder of the visiting captain, Mr. Witt, whose body was found in the showers of the cricket pavilion – beaten to death with his own cricket bat. Once again, the victim was a known blackmailer and Derek lacked a much needed alibi.

Evidently, this is a case requiring the hand of an expert and, luckily, Mrs. Bradley is in superb form with her eccentricities almost completely expunged. So she doesn't poke any ribs with a yellow claw or let loose a sudden, pterodactyl-like shriek that can be interpreted as a form of laughter. She sinks a lot of time in questioning the people occupying the neighboring bungalows in Wetwode case or theorizing about the role of the twins in the cricket murder in Mede. Despite being in top form, Mrs. Bradley is slightly reluctant to solve both murders.

After all, the victims were known blackmailers and they were about as popular during the Golden Age as kiddie diddlers are today. Mrs. Bradley is of the opinion that blackmailers are worse than murderers and considered the killing of these "poisonous pests" to be "a distinct gain to society," which is a sentiment often found in detective stories up to the 1960s and a very famous example can be found in Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton" – collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905). She would not have touched the case had she not been plagued by "a personal desire" to know if and how the twin brothers are involved. And the role Francis and Derek played in the story also showed Mitchell was at the top of her game.

Mitchell does not underestimate the intelligence of her readers and confirms before the halfway mark what most have probably figured out by that point, but this revelation only complicates the case even further. And it definitively turns the story in who-did-what-and-why instead of a traditional who-dun-it, which actually makes the book more mystifying than you would expect. The presence of identical twins in a detective story can be a spotty business, but The Echoing Strangers is one of the rare exceptions and arguably the best possible use of the Gemini gimmick. I would even argue that the twins were put to better use here than a certain and somewhat famous Ellery Queen novel from the 1950s, because the reader here is mystified by throwing pretty much all of the cards on the table.

This well-written, cleverly constructed story succeeded in being both utterly simplistic and maddeningly complex at the same time. Not an easy accomplish, but Mitchell pulled it off. She also deserves praise for the creative explanation that answered why the murderer used such a round-a-bout way to dispose of Campbell's body. Mitchell always had a penchant for bizarre murders (e.g. severed head in the snake-box in Come Away, Death, 1937), but this was a particularly good one. It showed the truth behind the Shakespearan saying that, sometimes, there's method to someone's madness!

Once everything has been revealed and explained, a dark, grim shadow falls across the characters and the story ends on a tragic, but inevitable, note driving home the truth that this is one of Mitchell's greatest triumphs. One that ranks alongside the previously mentioned Come Away, Death, The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1929) and St. Peter's Finger (1938).

Personally, I'll never understand people who don't like Mitchell, but The Echoing Stranger has convinced me to return more often to her fantastic detective stories. Luckily, I have several of her reputedly good and excellent titles on the big pile, which includes The Longer Bodies (1930), the illustrious The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935), Brazen Tongue (1940) and Groaning Spinney (1950). I also want to know whether Laurels Are Poison (1942) is as good as scholastic mystery as Tom Brown's Body (1949) and want to read Death of a Delft Blue (1964) for obvious reasons. So don't touch that dial!


Through the Labyrinth

"Reason is Life's sole arbiter, the magic Laby'rinth's single clue..."
- Sir Richard Francis Burton
Alfred W. Stewart was a Scottish chemist and university lecturer who penned seventeen detective novels, all of them published under the name of "J.J. Connington," which were well received by readers and garnered praise from high-profile critics – such as T.S. Eliot and Jacques Barzun. Yet, despite all of the praise and popularity accumulated over a two decade career, Connington slipped into almost complete obscurity after passing away in 1947.

Only a handful of dedicated readers and genre historians were aware of Connington's Sir Clinton Driffield mysteries at the dawn of this century. Something that's only recently begun to be remedied when his work appeared on the radar of several (reprint) publishers.

Lately, Coachwhip and Murder Room republished practically every single title in Connington's bibliography. Since then, I keep coming across reviews, here and there, continuously reminding me that there's a beaten-up, yellowed paperback edition of Murder in the Maze (1927) on my bookshelves – which had been stuck there for the better part of a decade. So finally decided to take it down and see what all the fuzz is about.

Murder in the Maze is Connington's third mystery novel and constituted the debut of his series-character, Sir Clinton Driffield, who is the Chief Constable of a fictitious county and has a local landowner, Square Wendover, acting as his Cap. Arthur Hastings. Some readers have compared him to Dr. Watson, but Wendover impressed me more as a character along the lines of Hercule Poirot's loyal companion. Anyway, Sir Clinton happened to be staying with Wendover at Talgarth Grange when a double murder occurred in the neighborhood.

Neville and Roger Shandon are two elderly twin brothers, living at an estate called Whistlefield, who made a name for themselves in different fields and earned some money along the way.

Neville is a barrister, or King's Counsil, with the reputation of being "a brutal and domineering cross-examiner." On the day after tomorrow, Neville is expected in court to cross-examine the head-figure in the Hackleton case, "an infernal tangle," which will be transferred from the Law Court to the Criminal Court when a breach of contract can be demonstrated – which would make Neville's removal very convenient. Something that's pointed out by his own family. Roger's "rise to prosperity" is very shady and all what's known is that he made his money in South Africa and South America, but the ghosts of his "disreputable past" have come back to haunt him.

So they both could use some privacy, to work or simply be alone, which is where the titular, double-centered, hedge maze down by the river comes into play.

The Whistlefield Maze is "a relic of earlier days," when garden labyrinths were fashionable, but the place was well kept and is exceedingly more complex in comparison to the mazes at Hatfield and Hampton Court. There was more than half a mile of twisty passages, dead ends and byways with "the shortest route to either of the centers" being at least "two hundred and fifty yards in length." So you really have to know the maze in order to find your way to Helen's Bowen (center 1) or the Pool of Narcissus (center 2) without getting lost.

The centers are probably the best places to get away from the world, because there couldn't be possibly that many people wandering around its winding passages on any given day, right? Well, this is a 1920s detective novel and that means there were more people, than usual, walking around the maze around the same time a murderer struck. Twice!

Howard Torrance and Vera Forrest, who are guests of Sylvia Hawkhurst, a niece of the Shandon brothers, decided to have a frolic in the maze and make a little game out of their exploration, but suddenly, they hear "an inarticulate cry" – followed by an eerie silence. Someone had shot Neville and Roger with curare-dipped darts and the murderer was still running around the hedge maze, which makes for an excellent and memorable scene with a frightened Vera stumbling around the maze. And eventually coming across one of the bodies in the second center of the hedge maze.

Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield immediately takes control of the case and is confronted with a tangle of complicated possibilities and a liberal serving of red herrings. One of those complications is the possibility that the murders are connected to either the Hackleton affair or Roger's dark past, because they were twins and one of them could have been shot by mistake. After all, a shady person, named Tim Costock, was plucked out of the maze with a loaded pistol in his pocket.

There are, however, several possibilities a lot closer at home: Neville and Roger have a brother, Ernest, who was financially depended on them, but also a complete and utter coward. Sylvia has a younger brother, Arthur, who suffers from "occasionally flashes of abnormality" ever since "the attack of encephalitis lethargica." Arthur was an annoyance to his uncles and loved playing around with airguns, which gave the young man a potential motive and the means to kill his uncles. Lastly, there is Roger's private secretary, Ivor Stenness, who possesses the "efficiency of a machine," but turns out he also had something to hide.

As Sir Clinton attempts to piece together this labyrinthine puzzle, the murderer makes several additional attempts on the lives of the other family members. The house is burgled and an answer has to be found to a small side problem concerning a forged cheque.

So you would expect that such a rich, well written and fast-moving plot would result in a rug-puller of a detective story, but there's an unfortunate flaw in the whole scheme: the murderer's identity is painfully obvious. In fact, the murderer was so easy to spot that, initially, I rejected this person as simply being a red herring. This was, however, not the case and is what keeps the book from a place in the first rank. Nevertheless, the book still has a lot going for itself.

As obvious as the murderer may be, the plot is not bad. Obvious, but not bad. And very well written with some excellent scenes set in the hedge maze, which is effectively used by Connington throughout the story. The maze is a marvelous backdrop for a murky crime and lends itself perfectly for a suspenseful chase scene (c.f. Edmund Crispin's Frequent Hearses, 1950), but equally great is how Sir Clinton used the maze in order to engineer the murderer's demise. And that's something else that makes Murder in the Maze an interesting excursion.

Sir Clinton is described as a slight, unassuming man with a bored expression in his eyes, but, occasionally, they betrayed "the activity of the brain behind them." Most of the time he plays the fool and appears to be making mistakes, which begs a comparison with Columbo. However, the way in which Sir Clinton dealt with the villain squarely placed him alongside H.C. Bailey's Reginald Fortune and Gladys Mitchell's Mrs. Bradley. A group of detectives you don't want to tangle with when you have just committed a morally indefensible murder, because they have their own ambiguous interpretation of law and justice. I always find such detective characters to be endlessly fascinating.

All in all, Murder in the Maze is not a flawless detective story, but certainly an interesting one that was excellently written and characterized, which is perhaps best read as an introduction to Connington and Sir Clinton. However, I have to read more to know for sure whether he improved with time or was simply not all that good at hiding his murderers from his readers. So I'll get back to Connington in the hopefully not so distant future. Stay tuned!


Burning the Midnight Oil

"You know a murder case is apt to get messy."
- Tecumseh Fox (Rex Stout's Bad for Business, 1940)
Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Smoking Chimney (1943) is the second of only two detective novels about one of his lesser-known characters, Gramp Wiggins, who's described by his own relatives as "an old reprobate" driving "an unwashed, rattletrap automobile" with worn tires and a cracked windshield – pulling "a thoroughly disreputable home-made trailer" behind it. At irregular intervals, Gramp Wiggins deposits his "bachelor's den-on-wheels" on the driveway of his granddaughter, Mildred, and grandson-in-law, Frank Duryea.

Frank Duryea is the District Attorney of Santa Delbarra County, California, whose work never fails to arouse the interest of the chronically curious Gramp Wiggins. A personality trait that's not exactly tempered by the fact a murder is committed in the district every time the old man parks his ramshackle trailer in the driveway of the D.A. However, I'm getting ahead of the plot.

The first dozen, briefly written, chapters are a testament to Gardner's talent for plot construction and his ability to manipulate an intricate web of plot-threads, which has strands running along a large cast of characters – giving armchair detectives enough possibilities to mull over. I think these chapters also demonstrated the author's expertise in legal shenanigans.

Ralph G. Pressman of Los Angeles is the unscrupulous businessman at the heart of these legal shenanigans, which spells bad news for the simple farmers and ranchers of a small town called Petrie. There was "a cloud on the title" of the farms and this meant that everyone who possesses the oil rights has "the right to enter upon the land" to "prospect for oil." Additionally, the oil rights also give the legal holder permission to erect derricks, sumps, refineries, storage tanks and pumping stations as well as laying new roads and pipelines. So whoever held the rights was pretty much allowed to do everything necessary to get "the oil out of the land."

Unfortunately, the local ranchers and farmers never took the potentially invasive reservation on their property very seriously until Pressman bought the oil rights for a song, which was rubber-stamped by the Santa Delbarra's superior court and the district court of appeals – prompting Everett True, editor of the Petrie Herald, to write a fiery condemnation. There is, however, nothing that can be done. One of the local ranchers, Hugh Sonders, already has an oil derrick planted on what he always assumed was his private property.

As if that wasn't bad enough, Pressman has an ace up his sleeve to ensure his scheme is profitable. After all, the oil wells might turn out to be as dry as a law book. So he wants the locals to have an opportunity to buy him out and has a bought a small, inexpensive ranch with a cabin under the name of Jack P. Reedley. When the local committee comes knocking for a contribution, Pressman will know how much is in the kitty and as a newcomer he'll ask question. If he plays his cards right, this little side-plan will give him all the inside information needed to wrangle money out of the oil wells. Even if they turn out to be bone dry.

Well, this alone would be good enough a premise for a detective story, but Gardner further complicated the plot with several additional plot-threads presented in those very same opening chapters!

Pressman's efficient secretary, Jane Graven, has the standing instructions to open all incoming mail and, in his absence, she opened an envelope from a private detective agency. The content of the envelope consisted of a report confirming that Pressman's much younger wife, Sophie, has been seeing a young stockbroker, named Pellman Baxter, behind his back – supplemented with photographic evidence. Sophie managed to get her hands on the envelope before the murder is discovered.

However, Sophie is not only one who has been taking advantage of the businessman: a cashier and auditor of the Pressman interest, Harvey Stanwood, has been dipping into his employer's pocket to nurture a gambling habit and impress his girlfriend, Eva Raymond. However, Stanwood's luck has run out and discovers himself in an impossible position when he has less than twenty-four hours to replace nearly $20,000 in embezzled money. Luckily, George Karper "believed that every man had his price" and wants to part with some hard cash in exchange for "the low-down on the Petrie oil business." All of it!

So there are more than enough potential suspects and motives to go around when Pressman's body is found in his locked cabin: the top of his head had been blown off by a bullet from a Colt revolver. The key to the door was tightly clasped inside the dead man's hand, but you should not read the book as a locked room mystery. As reported elsewhere, the book is on the marginal side as an impossible crime story and the answer to the locked door is a cheat. Nevertheless, the locked nature of the cabin is of relevance to the overall plot and even provides an important clue to the identity of the murderer, which is why I (reluctantly) labeled this blog-post as a locked room mystery. But you should not read the book solely for its minor locked room angle.

You should read The Case of the Smoking Chimney for the detective work done by Gramp Wiggins. Or to be more precise, the character interaction between Gramp Wiggins, Frank Duryea and Mildred that's at the heart of the investigation. A character-dynamic vaguely recalling Craig Rice's John J. Malone, Jake Justus and Helene Brand, but the relationships here are, of course, a little bit different.

One difference really setting this book apart from most of its contemporaries is that, regardless of his familial ties to the District Attorney, Gramp Wiggins isn't given unfettered access to the crime-scene and suspects – on the contrary! Duryea actively tries to dissuade his grandfather-in-law from intervening in the investigation, which proved to have a very low success rate. A good example of this is when Duryea, while looking over the body, discovers Gramp Wiggins has his face pressed against the window, like a creepy hobo, to see what was happening inside the cabin. Gramp Wiggins also managed to worm his way inside Duryea's office and question some of the witnesses. 
Regardless of his many eccentricities (such as plying his relatives with alcohol and smuggling coffee across the Mexican border), Gramp Wiggins does some first-class detective work by correctly interpreting such obscure clues as the meaning behind the fake suicide note, the footsteps heard inside the cabin a day before the murder and the amount of oil burned by the lamp during the night – which form a properly forged chain link of clues attached to the only person who could have done it. So that was a really rewarding aspect of the story.

On a whole, The Case of the Smoking Chimney is perhaps a minor detective novel, but the plot and clues are solid enough that they can be used as a convenient excuse to fling a copy of the book on your to-be-read pile. Not that most of you need an excuse, but it's there whenever you need it.


Trading Places

"Eh bien, Mademoiselle, all through my life I have observed one thing--'All one wants one gets!' Who knows... you may get more than you bargain for."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's The Mystery of the Blue Train, 1928) 
Last year, I reviewed A Most Immoral Murder (1935) by Harriete Ashbrook, who also wrote suspense fiction under the name of "Susannah Shane," which tend to be smart, lively and well-plotted detective-and thriller novels, but most book reviewers at the time gave her a short shrift – resulting in paperback publishers largely ignoring her work. So she has rarely been reprinted and this condemned her to almost complete obscurity. And the keyword there is almost.

One of the usual suspects, John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books, wrote a positive blog-post about her work, The Detective Novels of Harriete Ashbrook, drawing comparisons with S.S. van Dine, Ellery Queen, Mignon G. Eberhart and Craig Rice. That was enough to place Ashbrook on my radar and we ended up agreeing that she got the short, grubby end of the stick in life (as she also died at the age of 48).

After finishing A Most Immoral Murder, I really hoped some of Ashbrook's other detective novels would make it back into print and (sort of) got my wish.

Recently, one of Ashbrook's dames-in-danger suspense novels was reissued by Coachwhip and the book in question, Lady in Lilac (1941), was originally selected as "a $1,000 Red Badge Prize Mystery" – representing one of her scarce triumphs as a published authors.

Lady in Lilac has been called a Woolrichian suspense novel on account of a plot-device apparently closely associated with the Father of Noir, which involves two strangers exchanging their identities. An impulsive decision that will place two women in mortal peril.

Helen Varney is an aspiring actress, who moved to New York, but in the five weeks she has been in the Big City she "tried to see every manager in town" without result and is down to half a dollar. And she's already two weeks behind on her rent. So Helen is forced to put her dreams on hold and take a job as a waitress, but fate appears to intervene when she saves the life of a woman, named Joanna Starr, who attempted to end her own life in the adjacent apartment – which has far-reaching consequences. Helen tells Joanna about her dreams and how she, one day, will get hold of a famous manager, like Hugo Steinmark, and get her chance to prove herself.

Coincidentally, Joanna has an appointment with Steinmark, but also longs to escape from the complications of her own life. So she offers Helen her identity in exchange for a quiet, uncomplicated existence as a simple, unknown waitress in a New York Diner. In return, Helen receives an audience with Steinmark and an opportunity to experience untold luxury.

There's a lavish hotel room at the Waldorf in Joanna's name and she traded a fat roll of five-hundred dollar bills for the last fifty cents in Helen's pockets, which Joanna assured could be spend as she pleased. So their personal situations were completely reversed overnight and Helen experienced what it is like to shop for clothes without "the constraints of a budget," but she also learned that there's no such thing as a free lunch.

During her long-awaited meeting with the theatrical manager, Steinmark is fatally shot and the unseen murderer threw the pistol into Helen's lap. This has the unfortunate result that she was seen standing over the body with a gun in hand and she immediately high-tailed it out of there. However, everyone is now looking for the enigmatic woman in the lilac dress and bloodstained slippers. A woman who appears to have two identities!

The confusing caused by having assumed Joanna's identity is what allowed Helen to move through the city without being recognized by the public at large, but one of the people who knew Joanna intimately has catched up with her – a man named Paul Saniel and really wants to know what she has done to Joanna. Helen is not entirely convinced of Paul's good intentions and refuses to tell him the full story, which only complicated her personal predicament even further. And there are other stumbling blocks entering the picture in the background: a case of bigamy, an unsolved kidnapping/murder case obviously based on the Lindbergh affair, a suitcase with a secret and an Austrian actress who suddenly turned up in the United States.

There are two things I really appreciated about Lady in Lilac: one of them is the surprising complexity of the plot, full of twists and turns, which neatly tied all of its plot-threads together by the final chapter. You should not expect a plot à la Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr, but it was more than what I hoped to find between the covers of a woman-in-peril thriller. So that was a pleasant surprise. Secondly, I liked the use of newspaper headlines and excerpts that keeps both the reader and the characters in the story abreast of the latest developments in the case on the official end of the investigation.

It showed how the case captured the public imagination, but also explained to the reader why Helen continued to be unrecognized even when the police learned she was involved in the case under Joanna's name. Additionally, the story includes excerpts of an article penned by Lance Sheriton, an "ace detective story writer," who had been hired by the Gazette to write an exclusive reconstruction of the case with a final summation penned by the official sob sister of the paper. I liked how newspaper excerpts were used to tell parts of the story.

My sole complaint about the book is the sugary ending that was far too sweet. Ashbrook probably wrote the ending with a possible movie deal in mind, but she allowed a character to live who had been riddled by bullets. She should have allowed that character to be embraced by death, because it would have strengthened the sweet part of the ending. Granted, it would have made it a bitter sweet ending, but now it was one of those having your cake and eating it too endings.

Otherwise, Lady in Lilac is an excellent, fast-paced suspense novels and really hope more of her books reappear in print in the years ahead. Both her detective and suspense novels.


A Quartet of Detectives

"Cause and effect rule this world; they may be a mirage but they are a consistent mirage; everywhere, except possibly in subatomic physics, there is cause each effect, and that cause can be found."
- Trevis Tarrant (C. Daly King's "The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem," collected in The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant, 2003)
Frederick Irving Anderson was an American newspaper reporter for the New York World and a premier writer of short stories, who regularly contributed to such periodicals as The Saturday Evening Post and The Popular Magazine, but only a fraction of his work has been collected since the early 1910s – resulting in four volumes in total. The Adventures of the Infallible Godahl (1914) was published over a hundred years ago, while The Purple Flame and Other Detective Stories (2016) appeared only last year.

Wedged between these volumes, there is the very obscure The Notorious Sophie Lang (1925) and a widely lauded collection of short stories selected as one of the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone title of detective fiction.

Book of Murder (1930) consists of ten stories and has a peculiar, overarching structure. Six of the stories are about Deputy Parr of the New York Police Department and Oliver Armiston, "the extinct author," who had stopped writing detective and thriller stories years ago, "at the gentle request of the police," because criminals were plagiarizing his fictional schemes – which proved to be surprisingly successful outside of the printed page. So now the retired placed himself at the disposal of the police. However, it should be noted that the policemen in these stories are not clueless idiots or bunglers. On the contrary!

There are three further short stories with a different set of characters, farmer Jason Selfridge and Constable Orlo Sage, which take place somewhere in rustic New England. Regrettably, the rural backdrop turned out to be the only memorable aspect of these stories as the plots were severely lacking.

The tenth and final story is a crossover bringing all four characters together on the same pages. So that was an unusual, but great, ending to a collection of short stories about a pair of distinctly different series-characters and somewhat made up for the weakness of the Selfridge and Sage stories.

I can understand why Anderson is held in high regard by so many critics and readers, because he could write and was not devoid of imagination. Mike Grost placed him close to the scientific school of Arthur B. Reeve, but not Anderson distinguished himself from that movement by aspiring to "the irony, sophistication and wit" of "such writers as Saki and Oscar Wilde" - something that did not always allow for scientific accuracy or realism. Personally, the stories reminded me of those collected in J.E. Preston-Muddock's Dick Donovan: The Glasgow Detective (2005), which is both positive and negative.

On the upside, the stories collected in Book of Murder are mostly excellent specimens of the type of crime-and detective stories published during the early 1900s. When the genre was in a transitional period between the Doylean Era and the Golden Age. However, these stories were all originally published between 1925 and 1929, which almost makes them nostalgia acts during their own time and don't always translate in type of detective story common by the time the 1930s rolled around.

Some of the stories surely tried to aspire to the new standards, but my impression is that Anderson never fully emerged from that transitional period as a full-fledged Golden Age author. But I might be completely wrong about that. So let's take a look at the stories collected in Book of Murder.

This collections opens with one of its better entries, "Beyond All Conjecture," which was first published in the September, 1928 in The Saturday Evening Post and the victim is a wealthy Dutch-American from New York, Cornelius Vlemynck, whose ancestors came from "the delft banks of the Schie" - until an adventurous forebear began to wander and ended up within "the stockade known as Nieuw Amsterdam." Despite his fast wealth, Vlemynck has one simple ambition in life: to die in the house he was born in. A humble wish prevented by a furtive murderer, who administrated a dose of poison, which took hold of its victim when he had posted several letters. And the man died on his way back to his home in the gutter.

An alert medical examiner prevented the death from becoming "a perfect crime" and the two detectives, Deputy Parr and Armiston, expertly unravel the poisoning method. You should immediately know how the poison was ingested, but the details how it ended up in the victim's hand is very clever indeed. Something that made ingenious use of the Dead Letter Office. The relationship between the murderer and victim struck me as an attempt to imitate G.K. Chesterton.

The second story, "The Wedding Gift," was first published in a September, 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and the plot shows strains of the scientific detective story.

A dead man was found on a stretch of beach, "as if it had been washed in by the tide with the wind behind it," but the wind wasn't behind the tide on the previous night. The body also lacks any evidence of immersion in salt water and nothing is ever washed up at the beach where the victim was discovered. Parr explains to Armiston that murderer's are usually unaware that "a drowned man has a route" and tries to impress his friend even more by deducing that the body belonged to a left-handed violinist. Startlingly, the victim is identified as Barron Wilkes, the Bull's-Head Bank Defaulter, which throws an entirely new light on the case. One that was satisfactorily resolved and the explanation completely vindicated Parr's deductions.

The third story, "The Japanese Parasol," originally appeared on July 3, 1926 in The Saturday Evening Post and Deputy Parr has a direct hand in an "accidental" coal-dust fire, which has the objective of gaining entrance to an abandoned house belonging to one of the landed families of the island of Manhattan.

A very unorthodox police procedure, but the covert operation yielded result when they find a lead box buried in the cellar, containing human remains, with a tin foot among the pile of bones – positively identifying the body as belonging to Barry Dilk. One of the most unfortunate members of the family, whose mind had "ceased expanding at the age of ten" and had lost a feet when he went "fishing with a stick of dynamite" at the age of twelve, but was nevertheless given "uncounted millions" to squander. So the background of the story is not without interest and the scene of putting out the coal-hole fire was well conceived, but the explanation was pretty common place.

The next three stories, "Dead End," "The Magician" and "A Start in Life," are the New England tales about Jason Selfridge and Orlo Sage, but, as previously noted, the plots of these stories were lacking and really nothing to say about them – except that they were (admittedly) very well written. So on the next story.

One of my two favorite stories from this collection is "Big Time," published in an October, 1927 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, which is a witty impossible crime story that was overlooked by Robert Adey when he compiled Locked Room Murders (1991). A well-known musical coach, named Hector Verblennes, was found pinned to the floor of his music room with an African assagai (spear) snatched from a wall decorated with ancient weaponry. There is, however, one problem: all of "the doors were locked on the inside" and "the transoms held accumulations of undisturbed dust."

Anderson wrote an amusing, but original, take on the locked room problem and the method is good for a fun mental image of the murderer working his magic. Something Edmund Crispin could have written (e.g. "The Name on the Window" from Beware of the Trains, 1935).

The next one, "The Recoil," was published on March 23, 1929 in The Saturday Evening Post and takes it cue from Conan Doyle's "The Problem of Thor Bridge" (collected in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, 1927). The story opens with Armiston playing armchair detective and (sort of) solving the theft of a harp, but the story then moves on to the shooting death of Culpepper Lea. A dueling pistol, "with its muzzle blown away," was found in the waters near the scene of the crime. So this gives rise to the question whether the shooting was a murder or a suicide made to look like murder, because the recoil on the gun could have been used for the latter. Some potentially good ideas here, but nothing of importance was done with any of them.

The next-to-last story, "Gulf Stream Green," was originally published in a June, 1929 issue of The Saturday Evening Post and is another one of Anderson's scientific detective stories, but the explanation also appears to be related to the science-fiction genre. A celebrated diva, Leocadie, has "an anonymous lover," or stalker, who threatens her life and seriousness of these threats are demonstrated when her maid, Berthe, is accidentally killed in her place – because she was wearing her employer's Gulf Stream green clothes. A gimmicky, semi-scientific mystery story reminiscent of those found in such collections as Vincent Cornier's The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011) and Max Rittenberg's The Invisible Bullet and Other Strange Cases of Magnum, Scientific Consultant (2016).

Finally, we have "The Door Key," published in The Saturday Evening Post of December 28, 1929 and begins with a fishing trip up north, which brings Armiston and Parr into contact with Selfridge and Sage. During the first half, the story focuses on the strange behavior of Ensign Belding. Who appears to have suddenly vacated his country house and left a door key in the care of Selfridge, but when they poke around the place they find a lamp is still burning and a note on the kitchen table – ending with the request to "please blow out the lamp." The second part of the story takes place in the city and satisfyingly resolves the problem that had emerged from the first half, which concerns an empty car that was fished out of the river by Sage.

So the story was definitely successful in contrasting the rural setting of the Selfridge and Sage stories with the big city cases, and criminals, of the longer Parr and Armiston series. And a nifty way to tie otherwise unrelated material together in a single short story collection.

On a whole, Book of Murder is not a bad collection of short detective stories and loved two of them, "Beyond All Conjecture" and "Big Time," but personally, I do not consider them to be cornerstones of the genre. As a collective, the stories are simply not good or influential enough to attach such weight to them. However, I'm sure some of you will vehemently disagree with me on that point.