Escape from the Tower

"In fact the way this was worked was so sublimely simple, when I tell you, you'll wonder why you didn't get it in five seconds flat."
- Jonathan Creek (Jonathan Creek Series 2, Episode 2: The Scented Room, 1998)
Several months ago, I reviewed an impossible crime novel, The Weight of Evidence (1978), written by the late Roger Ormerod and noted in my post that he had two other books listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991), but an inspection of his bibliography revealed two overlooked locked room titles - namely More Dead Than Alive (1980) and And Hope to Die (1995). The synopsis of the former immediately caught my attention, because the description of the plot struck me as a prototype of Jonathan Creek. I turned out to be correct.

More Dead Than Alive is the penultimate novel about David Mallin and George Coe, a pair of private investigators, who started out as separate series-characters, but formed a partnership after crossing paths in Too Late for the Funeral (1977). The Weight of Evidence was the inaugural case of their partnership and they would appear in that capacity in half a dozen books.

More Dead Than Alive is narrated by the wife of David Mallin, Elsa, who has been staying at a crumbling, drafty medieval stronghold, Kilvennan Castle, which is owned by the husband of an old school friend, Konrad Klein, known as "the greatest escapologist" since Harry Houdini – even celebrated as "one of the world's leading illusionists." But that was a long time ago. The modern world doesn't flock in droves to the theaters to see illusions anymore and magic on television lacks the prestige of the stage, because you can always assume it's "a trick of the camera." So the magician has been laboring diligently, up in his tower room, on dangerous new trick by combining elements of the Sword Box Illusion with the Bullet Catch Trick.

Konrad had constructed a special trick-cabinet, a heavy, carved wooden box on castors, in which his lovely assistant, Amaryllis Moore, had to take place and mere seconds after closing the door he would "fire a bullet through the cabinet at chest height" – from side to side! A very dangerous trick that could possibility revitalize his failing career, but the illusion refused to work and Amaryllis had begun to loose her nerve. The dummies that are being used to the test the cabinet are riddled with bullet holes and she simply refuses to enter the deadly contraption.

So it was not unusual to hear gunshots emanating from the work room, but, one day, a loud crash echoed down from the tower and when they went to investigate they found that the unlocked door would not butch as much as an inch. And the reason? It was blocked by the heavy trick-cabinet. When they finally wormed passed the blocked door, the only thing they found was an open window overlooking "the sea-slicked cliffs” and “the piled waves crashing into the cliff over peaks of rock." A sheer death-drop of several hundreds of feet!

Mrs. Clarice Klein asks Elsa to call in her husband, David Mallin, to advice her what to do about her missing, and now presumed dead, husband, because his life had been insured at the tune of 100,000 pounds. Konrad used to joke he was "worth more dead than alive," but the insurance policy came with a suicide-clause and is non-payable in case the magician took his own life. A fact that places a big question mark behind his disappearance act in the tower as suicide appears to be the only logical answer.

David Malling arrives with George Coe at the ancient castle and they begin to poke away at both the case and the trick-cabinet, which places them at odds with an agent of the insurance company, Martin Fisher – who can expect "a percentage commission" in case of suicide. This is, however, not the case. Once the two private-eyes learn the secret of the cabinet, they come up with a delightful (false) solution explaining how the mysterious disappearance could have been an unfortunate accident. And in that case, the double-indemnity clause is triggered and the insurance company has to cough up 200,000 pounds to the family.

Arguably the best aspect of More Dead Than Alive is all the theorizing and testing of potential solutions to the problem of the tower room, which is largely done by Coe, who emerges her as an enthusiastic, if crude, detective in the Roger Sheringham mold. Coe even credited Edgar Allan Poe's famous 1844 short story, "The Purloined Letter," with helping him find Konrad's hidden drawings and papers about all of his illusions. So there's a definite link with the great detective stories of the past in this 1980s mystery novel. Something that becomes even more pronounced when Konrad's body washes ashore with a bullet wound.

The fact that Konrad was shot to death makes his disappearance from the tower room a full-fledged impossible crime. One way or another, either he had left the room and was murdered elsewhere or his was killed there and his murdered had left the room, but either way they had to pass through a door that was blocked from the inside by a heavy cabinet – which proved to be practically impossible to move, or manipulate, from the outside. Something that was painfully demonstrated when Coe's hand got stuck in between the doorpost and blocked door during one of his tests.

Nevertheless, Coe comes up with a number of possible explanation for the blocked door problem.

One of them is rather practical and shows a method that could be used to leave the room blocked from the inside, while another false solution, based on sound and misdirection, was obviously based on Clayton Rawson's masterly "From Another World" (collected in The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective, 1979). However, while Coe was experimenting with various possibilities, Mallin was silently contemplating the case in the background and noticed the significance of the clues provided by the fatal bullet and a test dummy that was found lying beneath the window.

These clues yield an entirely different kind of solution that's not as easy to accept as the other proposed explanations, but, admittedly, it had been wonderfully foreshadowed in the early part of the book. And much simpler in nature than the other explanations. You just have to accept that nobody would notice what was going on right under their very own noses.

That being said, More Dead Than Alive is an imaginative locked room novel that reads like a predecessor of the Jonathan Creek TV-series. I can easily imagine how a slight rewrite, and replacing the detective-characters, could turn this book into a full-fledged Jonathan Creek TV-special. David Renwick would probably have some fun rewriting the final page of dialogue, between David and Elsa, which lends itself to his style of comedy.

So this probably piqued the interest of locked room readers and fans of the Jonathan Creek series, but the book also shares some of the weaknesses of the latter which may turn off some readers. The book is purely concerned with the how of the crime, which the who-and why hinges upon, while the characters populating the plot are (even by my standards) paper thin. You really have to take More Dead Than Alive purely as an impossible crime story, because, as a mystery novel, it's only a very minor work in the overall pantheon of detective-fiction. 

Still, as a locked room novel, it deserves to be better known for its multiple (original) solutions and somewhat daring final explanation to the central impossibility.


The Four Horsemen

"The more you know, the shorter your life is."
- Electra (Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' On Heaven's Door, 2001)
John Russell Fearn hardly requires an introduction on this blog, especially after the past year-and-a-half, but for the benefit of the uninitiated I'll very briefly go over his career again.

Fearn was an astonishingly prolific writer of science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, published under a legion of pennames, which largely appeared in such popular periodicals as the Toronto Star Weekly, Astounding Stories and Amazing Stories – marking a British success story in the American pulps. However, he was more than just a remarkably productive writer of magazine stories.

If you look at his bibliography, you'll notice that Fearn churned out full-length novels as fast as his short stories and they practically covered every single form of popular genre-fiction. So far, I primarily looked at his regular detective stories, like Except for One Thing (1947) and Death in Silhouette (1950), but also reviewed a science-fiction novel, The Lonely Astronomer (1954), which transported the classic locked room mystery to the distant, far-flung future. Earlier this year, I discovered Fearn might have done something similar with one of his westerns and thought of it would be a nice followup to my previous review to take a look at a western-style mystery novel.

Ghost Canyon (1950) was originally published under one of Fearn's many pseudonyms, namely "Matt Francis," and was based on a lengthy plot-outline written by a friend, Matthew W. Japp, who was a greengrocer and was decorated World War II veteran – who fought in Normandy, the Netherlands and Germany. Japp also wrote a western solo, titled Jackson's Spread, but the lion's share of his literary endeavors consisted of plotting six westerns for his friend. Ghost Canyon looks to have been their third collaboration and has an impossible disappearance mystery at the heart of the story.

The protagonist of the story is "a saddle tramp," Jerry Carlton, who arrives at a small outpost in Arizona, called Verdure, which has "an oddly deserted aspect" and resembled a ghost town. There were, however, strips of lights visible between the cracks of the wooden shutters that had been placed across every window in town. So there were people living there.

Carlton stops at the gateway of a "solitary wooden dwelling" and is met at the doorway by a woman with a gun, named Hilda Marchland, who lives there with her old father. It's from them that Carlton learns that the town is regularly haunted by the ghosts of four horsemen, "like they came out of the Apocalypse," clad in spectral white and the townsfolk have become too frightened to leave their homes after dark – some are now considering to abandoned the "hag-ridden" town. Even though the town is surrounded by rich, green patches of pastureland. Carlton has done enough riding under a clear sky and in the wind to start believing in spooks.

Hilda is delighted to have finally found someone who shares her skepticism and together they decide to tail the phantom horsemen to see what, and who, are behind the haunting, but they find more than they bargained for.

Each time the horsemen were seen, they rode into Star Canyon and staking out the mouth of the gorge yields immediate result. Carlton and Hilda saw the phantom horsemen appear, "dead in line with each other," slowly riding into the canyon and they followed behind to see where they were heading, but in the narrowest part of the canyon the hoof-prints came to a halt. As if they had ridden into a portal to the Other World! The walls at that point are smooth, and steep, without any rockery niches, acclivities and umarred by a single seam, which appear to be completely immovable "except by blasting" - which had all the potential of a first-class impossible problem. Regrettably, the gentlemen who wrote and plotted this story were not playing entirely fair with their readers.

You see, they early one discarded one possibility, a tired old trick, but the ending revealed that this discarded trick is exactly how the ghost-trick was accomplished, but by that time I had already grown fond of my own explanation.

My solution was based around the narrow passage and three hundred feet high walls. I imagined that, on the flattened top of the rocky canyon, a (movable) ramp-lift, like a mine-shaft elevator, stood that could be operated with a hand-winch and the horsemen were simply "air-lifted" out of the narrow passage by an accomplish. On top of the canyon, out of sight of everyone, the horses could be put away for the day in a tiny, makeshift stable. Nobody from the town below would dare to come there anyway. Sadly, the actual answer to the seemingly impossible disappearance of the horsemen turned out to be more prosaic, unfair and very, very dated.

So the only detective-element of any interest proved to be a monumental letdown and the remainder of the story was more reminiscent of a hardboiled western than a cowboy-detective.

For one, there's no real mystery about who's behind the business of the ghostly horsemen. Verdure is under the control, and run, by a small circle of men: Sheriff Harrison (who has an eye on Hilda), Mayor Burridge and the owner of the Black Coyote Saloon, Grant Swainson, who have clear motive for pulling this Scooby Doo stunt. So the primary problem for Carlton is how he has to deal with these men and trying to convince the towns people that they're being frightened out of their property.

A task slightly complicated when the people behind the swindle start murdering people who knew too much. Tragically, one of the victims is Hilda's father, but the villainous sheriff is also shot in the most stereotypical manner imaginable. After the death of Old Man Marchland, Carlton was roughing up the sheriff in the office, promising him he would stop when he starts talking, but a bullet whizzed through the open window to permanently silence him. By the way, it would have made more sense for the murderer to have shot Carlton, because he was physically attacking the sheriff and therefore could be passed off to the people of the town as a justifiable homicide.

So, yeah, the crime-elements are pretty sub-par in Ghost Canyon, but this is slightly made up by the action-scenes towards the end. Such as a very memorable scene when a destructive animal stampede passes through the town. I also snickered at the scene when the murderer is confronted by the angry towns people, ready to lynch him, but tells him he's entitled to stand on his constitutional rights. As to be expected, the people of Verdure were not having any of it.

Well, Ghost Canyon is a very readable and even fun story to read, but the plot is decidedly second-rate and can not be recommended as an example of the western-style detective story like Edward D. Hoch's Ben Snow stories. So I'll probably stick to Fearn's regular detective-fiction for the foreseeable future. Luckily, he wrote enough of those to last me a while.

A Note for the Curious: Fearn's collaborator on this book, Matthew Japp, passed away in January of this year at the grand old age of 102. Only four days short of his 103rd birthday!


Quick on the Draw

"I'm sure you have lots of stories about the Old West."
- Mary Best (Edward D. Hoch's "The Problem of the Haunted Tepee," collected in Nothing is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne, 2014)
Edward D. Hoch's The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales (1997) is the only collection of short stories about his gunslinger character, Ben Snow, who's always "a long way from home," as he travels from town to town, but everywhere he goes he's followed by the ghost of the Wild West's most legendary gunfighter, Billy the Kid – to whom he bears a resemblance.

Snow is lightening quick on the draw and hailed from the State of New Mexico, where Billy the Kid was reportedly shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett, which convinced enough people that the outlaw had survived and adopted the name Ben Snow. This makes him a magnet for all kinds of problems. Everywhere he goes in the Old West, there are people who either want to take a shot at "the ghost of Billy Kid" or "hire the fasted gun in New Mexico." So the series places the traditional detective story within the framework of a Western and it worked like a charm.

I've to note here that I'm not very knowledgeable, or well-read, where Westerns are concerned, but, going by these fairly modern incarnations of that genre, I can understand why horse-and-cowboy tales were once as greedily consumed as the other popular forms of genre-fiction – such as our beloved detective story and the science-fiction genre.

According to the introduction, this collection of the first fourteen stories in the Ben Snow series "is really two books in one."

The first seven stories appeared between 1961 and 1965 in the British and American publications of The Saint Mystery Magazine, which are supposed to be read with "a bit of tolerance for a young writer," but these earlier stories are as good as the later ones. After 1965, Snow rode off into the sunset and would not be seen for another twenty years when Hoch resurrected the series for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It would be a home for the wandering gunslinger until his literary father passed away in 2008.

So, now we got that out of the way, let's take a look at the short stories that makes up this splendid collection of historical mysteries, which all take place during the late 1800s and early 1900s!

"Frontier Street" was the secondly published story in the series, originally appearing in the May 1961 issue of The Saint Mystery Magazine (hereafter, SMM), but was intended by Hoch to be the series-opener – which is a mistake that has been corrected in this volume. Ben Snow has been hanging around the titular street for the pass two months, mostly enjoying complete obscurity, but then "the power on Frontier Street," Len Antioch, summons him to the Golden Swan. The gambling boss has gotten wise of the rumors surrounding Snow's identity and wants to hire his gun to get rid of the pesky deputy, Reilly, but his refusal places him a tight, dangerous spot. A spot that's tightened, like a noose, when the gambling boss is clubbed to death with a gun butt on the same day as the hit on the deputy was issued.

This is a pretty good story that only serves as an excellent introduction to the character of Ben Snow, but also has a very decent plot that plays on the least-likely-suspect gambit and how this character is brought to heel is exactly what you'd expect from a Western. Snow challenges the murderer to a showdown in the street with only a single bullet left in the cylinder of his six-shooter, which he spins to make it as dangerous as humanly possible. So he has no clue which chamber holds that all important bullet. It's like Russian Roulette for people who are bored with playing Russian Roulette! A solid opening story of this fine collection of stories.

"The Valley of Arrows" was the first story to be published in the series, printed on the pages of the May 1961 publication of SMM, but had originally been written as the second one and the plot might explain why they were, initially, published out-of-order. It has a relatively simple, but memorable, premise reminiscent of Robert van Gulik's "The Night of the Tiger" from The Tiger and the Monkey (1965). So it was probably picked by the magazine editors as the series-opener, because it would leave a stronger impression on their readers.

The story begins with the arrival of Snow at Fort Arrowhead, "a city in the making" or "a last outpost against the red man," where he came with a serious warning. Snow had come across hoof-prints in the valley, "showing that someone from the fort had met with two Navajos," which obviously was not a place where a peace meeting or truce talk had taken place – suggesting the potential presence of a traitor within the walls of the fort. After his arrival, the body of the legendary commending officer of the fort, Colonel Noakes, is found with "a Navajo arrow protruding from the left side of his neck." However, this is not even the beginning of their problems.

Snow is part of a two-men truce mission, conducted under a white flag, to offer the Colonel's body to the chieftain, Running Bear, in exchange for the safety of the people at the fort. Only problem is that the traitor has promised "the lives of one hundred men," which ends the truce talks in an exciting horse-race back to the fort that's followed by a full-scale siege of the place. So this is more of a Western than a detective, but a very good and memorable one.

"Ghost Town" was originally published in the September 1961 issue of SMM and brings Snow to an abandoned, reputedly haunted, town in a valley, called Raindeer, where he finds an ill-assorted group of people. There's the apparent leader of the group, a priest, whose obviously wearing a gun under his black suit and has two very mismatched companions: an Indian dressed as a cowboy, but with a knife, instead of a gun, on his belt and a foul-mouthed, tobacco-chewing old man with a beard. Finally, there's a woman who fired a bullet at Snow and tied him up for the night.

Unfortunately, for the group, the place is living up to its reputation and one of them is gruesomely murdered. The old bearded man is found "pinned to the wall like some giant butterfly" with a harpoon and the floor surrounding the body is soaking wet. As if some "creature from the sea" had struck down a man in "the middle of the desert." A story with a very enthralling, well executed premise, with a mounting body-count that turned the ghost town into a small graveyard, but Hoch did not neglect to drop a clue, or two, that hinted at the truth. Such as how the murderer was able to strike in dark places or the water-drenched floor. I liked it.

"The Flying Man" appeared in the December 1961 issue of SMM and the premise of the story showcased Hoch's sorely missed talent for setting the stage.

Snow has been spending time among the three-hundred odd citizens of Twisted River, "a dried-up hole," which is one day visited by a man in a wagon, Doc Robin, who calls himself The Flying Man. Doc Robin has brought an amazing invention from the East Coast of the United States: a contraption with a giant set of wings that is used in big cities, like New York, to glide off buildings. He has even brought newspaper articles with him to proof his claim and promises a demonstration before taking one-hundred dollar orders from the town folks with a ten buck down payment. But before the big demonstration, Doc Robin approaches Snow with an offer to become his bodyguard and ensure him a safe departure from the town (with the money). Snow refuses the offer.

On the following morning, the town had gathered to watch Doc Robin glide down from the hill on his mechanical wings, but what they saw instead was a man crashing down to earth. And the cause of the crash was a well-aimed bullet. This fact makes the murder a borderline impossible crime, because the shot could've only been made with a rifle and nobody in the crowd was seen carrying a large, cumbersome rifle – or even a simple sidearm. Hoch is daringly fair in dangling the tell-tale clue in front of the reader and the fact that the victim had approached another gunman with his offer provided the plot with a solid motive. Plot-wise, this is easily the best Snow story from the 1960s period of the series.

Assassination of President McKinley
"The Man in the Alley" was printed in the April 1962 issue of SMM and, story-wise, is arguably the most interesting entry in the series for two reasons. One of them is that the plot actually deals with the rumors that Snow is Billy the Kid and the other places him on the scene of the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. I can't say much else about the story except that the plot is a great example, or recipe, of how fiction can be mixed with actual historical events without having to take liberties with the latter (see the final lines of the story).

"The Ripper of Storyville" was originally published in the September 1962 issue of SMM and, according to the introduction, Cornell Woolrich approached Hoch at a Mystery Writers of America cocktail party to tell him personally how much "he admired the story" - which, at the time, was considerable praise for a then still young writer. And the compliment was more than deserved.

Snow is hired by a dying Texan rancher and oil millionaire, Archer Kinsman, whose daughter, Bess, ran away from home and ended up in the red-light district of New Orleans, but Kinsman wants to make amends before his time is up. Snow accepts the assignment and travels to the Storyville, New Orleans, where the preparations of Mardi Gras are in full swing. There is, however, a slight problem complicating his task: a number of woman have been brutally murdered and the general belief is that Jack the Ripper has come to the Americas. Initially, I assumed to plot would prove to be very simple and transparent ("you don't know what I've become"), but Snow uncovers a hidden connection between all of the victims.

A connection that had to be obliterated in order to obscure the all-revealing motive behind a previous crime that fueled the string of murders. This is one of those excellent serial-killer detective stories in the same vein as Ellery Queen's A Cat of Many Tails (1949).

"Snow in Yucatan" was printed in the January 1965 edition of SMM and marked the end of the first period in the series, which went into dormancy until the mid-1980s.

Once again, Snow was offered a big chunk of cash, two-thousand dollars, by three ex-soldiers to murder a man, Wade Chancer, who's a thousand miles away in Mexico. Chancer had served with the ex-soldiers under Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba, but had deserted his brothers-in-arms and good men had died as a consequence. So he has to pay with his own life. Only problem is that he has fled to Mexico and made himself a general with the ambition to take over the country. Or a large swath of it. Chancer wants to use to the native population for this purpose and appears to have a magical hold over the Indians, which becomes a problem when the self-appointed general dies under inexplicable circumstances.

The story has a ton of local color and great story-telling, but the plot is rather thin and easily seen through. You can easily guess the source of Chancer's power over the natives and figured out how he died based on the photographic clue, which immediately brought Rufus King's A Variety of Weapons (1943) to mind. So not a bad story, but not particular great either.

"The Vanished Steamboat" marked the resurrection of Ben Snow and made his debut on the pages of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM) of May 1984, which also happens to be the first full-blown impossible crime story of the series.

Snow has been hanging around Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he has made some good friends, such as a riverboat gambler, Eddie Abilene, but Snow has to play detective again when a steamboat, known as River Ridge, vanishes impossibly from a stretch of the Mississippi River – as if it had suddenly ceased to exist between two ports. One of the people aboard had been Abilene. So the old gunslinger accepts an offer from the steamboat's owner to find out what happened to the River Ridge and does some old-fashioned detective work to reach the only correct conclusion, which even included a false solution based on Conan Doyle's famous 1898 short story, "The Lost Special."

Hoch came up with a perfectly acceptable and believable explanation for the impossibility of a vanishing steamboat, but one that most readers will probably instinctively guess and the clues only serve as a confirmation of your gut-feeling. A limited range of possibilities will always be a weak spot of impossible crime stories that attempt to make streets, houses, planes, trains or boats vanish into thin air.

"Brothers on the Beach" was published in the August 1984 issue of EQMM and is another story that mixes actual history with fiction, but not quite as successful as "The Man in the Alley."

Roderick and Rudolph Claymore pay Snow to protect a stretch of private beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Orville and Wilbur Wright are planning to make test flight with their heavier-than-air flying machine, which is going to attract a large crowd and the Claymore brothers want Snow to shoo away any trespassers from their private beach – which has something to with an archaeological discovery on the beach. A discovery pertaining to the site of Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony of Roanoke.

So there's enough material here for a good story, but the experiment of the Wright brothers only served as background decoration and the plot regarding the murder on the beach, and the archaeological angle, was pretty basic at best. A decent enough story, but nothing more than that.

"The 500 Hours of Dr. Wisdom" was published in the December 1984 issue of EQMM and takes place early on in Snow's career as a cowboy-detective, which can also be labeled as a borderline impossible crime story.

Snow arrives at a far-flung, sleepy town, called Waycliff Station, where the only excitement appears to be the regular visitations of Dr. Wisdom's medicine show. The patent medicine was a staple of the Old West, but this time the charlatan in the covered wagon had something genuinely interesting to sell: an extra hour in the day to spend as they wished. Dr. Wisdom guarantees that time will stand still outside of the town and resume again when the hour has drawn to a close, which he demonstrates on the following Sunday. The only train that day arrives at the station at noon, which is on schedule, but according to all of the clocks in town the train was an hour late. The town was given an "whole extra hour" that day!

I loved this portion of the plot and was placed in the father into the past on account of a historical event, in 1883, that made this time-trick possible, but was less enthusiastic about the murder of Dr. Wisdom and the sub-plot of a missing wad of cash – which cribbed a horrendously bad trick from Ellery Queen's The American Gun Mystery (1933). However, the resolution to the case was well done and Snow is pretty much run out of town after fatally shooting the murderer.

By the way, Snow shoots and kills nearly two dozen people over the course of only fourteen short stories.

"The Trail of the Bells" was published in EQMM of April 1985 and begins with Snow's discovery of a dying man by a water hole. The name of the man is Tommy Gonzales, a half-Mexican gunman, who had been the right-hand man of a masked outlaw, named "Poder," notorious for robbing banks and stagecoaches all over the New Mexico territory – culminating with the murder of a banker in Tosco. Snow happened to be in town on that day and was hired as a one-man posse to bring the two desperadoes to justice, but the last words spoken by the dying gunman is to "listen to the bells" if wants to find Poder. This dying clue leads Snow to a mission station, in San Bernardino, where he has to figure out which of the priests is moonlighting as a bank robber. What really makes this story memorable is the solution and the deductive reasoning that brought Snow to that conclusion, which evoked the works of both Ellery Queen and Victor Hugo.

"The Phantom Stallion" was originally published in the October 1985 issue of EQMM and is a locked room mystery in spirit of John Dickson Carr, which naturally makes this a personal favorite of mine, because you know me. :)

Snow is hired as a temporarily ranch hand at the Six-Bar Ranch of Horace Grant in West Texas. Grant is a broken man in his seventies and confined to bed, following a fall from a horse, but his sons have made life as pleasant as possible for their father. The bedroom is cooled with an expensive, and early, model of an air-cooling device (i.e. air conditioning) and from his window he can see the construction of a new family home some distance away. However, the man still has intense nightmares about being trampled by his now dead stallion.

Otherwise, everything seems pretty normal at the ranch and they even have a healthy, long-standing rivalry with the owner of the neighboring Running-W Ranch, Nathan Lee ("it's like the Civil War all over again"). However, Snow quickly comes to the conclusion that not everything is what it seems at the ranch and the illusion is shattered when Grant is brutally beaten to death in his bedroom, which had been securely latched from the inside – both the door and the window. The earth beneath the window showed no traces of footprints, but there was "a bloody horseshoe" imprinted on the skull of the victim!

Hoch cobbled together an excellent impossible crime story that made good use of the situation at the ranch, the bed-ridden victim and the air-cooling device, but also supplied a logical reason as to why the bedroom had to be locked from the inside. The locked room here actually function as a clue to the identity of the murderer. Same goes for the murder weapon. So, yes, easily one of my favorites from this collection.

"The Sacramento Waxworks" was published in the March 1986 issue of EQMM and finds Snow in the capacity of adviser to the new owner of a waxwork theater, Seymour Dodge, who plans to add a section of famous, and infamous, Western sheriffs and outlaws – on which he needs advice from an actual cowboy. There is, of course, a darker plot behind all of this, which could very well have placed a noose around Snow's neck. And that's about all that can be said about this fun, but minor, story in the series.

Finally, we come to the last story in this collection, "The Only Tree in Tasco," which originally appeared in the October 1986 issue of EQMM and has Snow arriving in town when they town folks were preparing "the only tree in Tasco for hanging."

Pedro Mapimi, a Mexican, had been tried and convicted of murdering a local banker by nearly cutting his heart out of his chest, but trial had been a quick one and the presiding judge was the victim's son – who had ignored the alibi offered by the accused and backed up by a witness. So the wandering gunslinger takes upon himself to proof that the man had been innocently convicted and tries to delay the hanging by dynamiting the tree, which only slows down the sheriff's determination to have the hanging down before too long. So the only option left is to find the real murderer and the peculiarity of the wound proves to be a dead giveaway.

This is where the story began to bother me: long, long ago, I've seen this exact same story play-out in a TV-series or movie, but can't for the life of me remember the title of the series or movie in question. However, I'm absolutely sure I have seen that wound-trick, in combination with a small town setting, before on the small screen.

Anyway, The Ripper of Storyville and Other Ben Snow Tales is easily one of my favorite short story collections by Hoch. The quality of all fourteen stories is not only consistent throughout, but of a high caliber without a single dud among them. Sure, there are one or two minor stories, but they hardly qualify as bad or even mediocre. So I really hope we can look forward, in the hopefully not so distant future, to a second collection of Ben Snow stories, because it has been twenty years since this one was published. I believe there are more than enough stories left to fill out one or two additional volumes.

Well, this review has gone on long enough, like all my short story reviews, but I can tell you that the next one will probably be of a short novel, or novella, in the same Western framework as these stories. It might even have an impossible crime sub-plot, but we'll both see how that pans out in my next post. So stay tuned!


The Ghost of Athelstan

"School seems in a bit of a mess."
- Carolus Deene (Leo Bruce's Death at St. Asprey's School, 1967)
Last week, I posted a review of Gladys Mitchell's The Devil at Saxon Wall (1935) and was helped in the comment-section by the editor of Sleuth's Alchemy: Cases of Mrs. Bradley and Others (2005), Nick Fuller, with picking my next read in this series by going through the titles residing on my to-be-read pile – starting with a dozen possibilities and ended with two candidates. My choices had boiled down to either The Longer Bodies (1930) and Laurels Are Poison (1942).

I decided to go with the latter as it was a personal favorite of Mitchell, who drew on her own, "fondly evoked," memories of attending a teacher's trainer college for the story's setting. The result is a mystery novel "filled with high-spirited dialogue" and "camaraderie," written around an unusual plot, which was eerily bizarre and weirdly humorous. And the book introduced several characters who'll make regular appearances in subsequent novels (e.g. The Worsted Viper, 1943). One of them even becomes an occasional stand-in for Mrs. Bradley, but more about that later.

Laurels Are Poison is not an unimportant milepost in the series history and the plot, with some minor qualifications, delivers on the promise made by its reputation.

The story casts Mrs. Bradley, often referred here to as Mrs. Croc, in the role of Warden of Athelstan Hall, Cartaret College, where her presence had been requested by the Principal, Miss Du Mugne, who desired a discreet inquiry from the famous psycho-analyst and criminologist – concerning the disappearance of the previous Warden. Miss Munchan was taken ill at the College End of Term Dance, but not "the slightest trace" has "come to light" of her whereabouts in the ten weeks that have since passed. There's a reason to believe something serious might have happened to the previous Warden.

Miss Munchan had been a biology teacher at Cuddy Bay's County Secondary School for Girls and "a child was killed in the school gymnasium," briefly before she took her leave, but the death was officially ruled to be an accident and the school was exonerated from all blame – which the girl's grandfather refused to accept. And had to be temporarily hospitalized in a mental asylum. Only a month after the inquest the police received a letter, written in Miss Munchan's name, suggesting she wanted to come clean about the death of the girl. However, when the police questioned her she denied all knowledge of the letter and vacated her teaching position.

So Mrs. Bradley has a lead to work on when she arrives at the teacher's training college, but her attention is initially occupied by a rash of jokes, rags and some outright malicious pranks plaguing the college dorms.

During a math lesson, a cabinet in the classroom burst open and "a couple of assorted vipers" spilled out, which created quite a sensation, but the pranks got progressively worst. A bath was allowed to overflow and a thick piece of string had been dangerously stretched across the floor. The clothes of two poor sisters, whose family had sacrificed in order to get them to college, were torn to shreds and the hair of another girl was cut short as she slept. One night, the peace was disturbed by an chilling, unearthly noice, which was ascribed to "the ghost of Athelstan." All of this culminates in the violent death of the college cook, Mrs. Castle, whose lifeless body was dragged by the police from a nearby river.

Mrs. Bradley has a lot to deal with in this case and early on in the book took the new Sub-Warden of Athelstan Hall, Deborah Hall, took into her confidence. She looks favorably upon the young woman, like "a benevolent snake," and plays cupid by engineering a meeting between Deborah and her nephew, Jonathan, who are engaged by the end of the book – who return, as a married couple, in My Father Sleeps (1944), The Croaking Raven (1966) and Lovers, Make Moan (1981).

And then there are the three plucky students, Alice Boorman, Kitty Trevelyan and Laura Menzies, who refer to themselves as the Three Musketeers. They would appear together in the previously mentioned The Worsted Viper and Death and the Maiden (1947), but Laura became Mrs. Bradley secretary and reportedly took center-stage in some of the middle-period novels (when Mrs. Bradley became Dame Beatrice). Those three are primarily responsible for the high-spirited, energetic tone of the story and even do some (unintentional) detection (e.g. when they fished the victim's corset from the river). However, their presence also had two noticeable drawbacks.

One of them is that they were, partially, used as a vehicle for Mitchell to indulge in a stroll down memory lane. It's true that the rags and pranks were an important cog in the machine of the plot, but, until the cook was murdered halfway through, the story felt like Mitchell was taking the time to enjoy the setting of the teacher's college. Or to put it more accurately, the plot often felt like it was a pace or two behind the spirited story-telling. Secondly, I knew that Deborah, Laura, Alice and Kitty would become (semi) regular characters in the series and this practically dried up the entire pool of potential suspects. Those girls really usurped the character-department of the book.

So it's to Mitchell's credit that the revelation of the murderer's identity was both memorable and did not disappoint, but, out of necessity, this person had to be mentally unbalanced in order to explain some of the inexplicable actions that drove the plot – such as the whole rigmarole with the college skeleton or throwing the corset into the river. A slightly more sane murderer would probably have acted very differently.

Overall, Laurels Are Poison might not be the best entry in the Mrs. Bradley series, but the story is told with zest and gusto, which served perfectly as an introduction to a host of new characters and a new phase in the series. On top of that, the solution to the case, although not entirely perfect, is memorable and better put together than the explanations found in some of the subsequent novels (e.g. The Rising of the Moon, 1945). So the book did not leave me disappointed.