The Iron Tanuki: Case Closed, vol. 65 by Gosho Aoyama

The story opening the 65th volume of Gosho Aoyama's acclaimed, long-running detective series, Case Close, begins where the previous one ended and pitches an imitation of the infamous gentleman thief, Kaito KID, against the original as they clash over the contents of the Iron Tanuki – an impenetrable safe constructed by the 19th century puzzle master, Kichiemon Samizu. Caught in between them is the owner of the burglarproof safe, Jirokichi Sebastian, who acted in previous volumes (44 and 61) as a foil to KID. So far, he has been unable to ensnare the elusive thief in one of his traps.

The vault where the Iron Tanuki is kept is fitted with weight sensors, which transforms the room into an iron cage when as much as a hair touches the floor, but in the previous volume a note was left there without triggering the alarm. A note from the real KID announcing that he's coming for "the treasure in the tanuki's belly." However, the story progressed differently than I expected.

It's suspected early on that KID might already be in the house, disguised as an employee of his long-time nemesis, which is what you'd expect, but then the story begins to focus a little more on the unusual behavior of Jirokichi – such as why he has been taking two dinner plates and a walking stick with him when inspecting the safe. Or why a man, "obsessed with catching the KID," is blocking the investigation.

Conan was, as usually, present when all of this was going down and not only deduces as who KID has been posing, but also figured out why Jirokichi was behaving out of character. And this has everything to do with what they find behind the impenetrable door of the Iron Tanuki. A heartwarming explanation that turned this rogue's tale into a humanist detective story with KID as its unexpected hero ("even I bow before the original gentleman thief, Arséne Lupin"). Undoubtedly, the best story from this volume!

The second story appears to be picking up a plot-thread that was dropped after the all important, novel-length events from volume 58 and its direct aftermath in volume 59, which begins when a shocked Jodie Sterling notices the face of Shuichi Akai in a crowd of people – who supposedly died in a fiery car wreck. However, they both become hostages when a group of armed men storm Teito Bank, but the man who resembled Akai disappeared after the situation is resolved. So this was a rather minor story, but good to see that the story-line with Akai is being picked up again.

Unfortunately, the next story is not all that interesting and only functions as a bridge to the fourth and longest story in this volume.

Doc Agasa and Anita are stranded with a broken-down car and no money, but they're offered a ride from two people, a man and a woman, who happened to be on their way to see Richard Moore. However, Doc Agasa and Anita overhear them talking about Conan, saying how being "half dead ought to be enough for a kid" or how they could have prepped for "a full massacre," had they been given more time, but all of this turns out to be a misunderstanding – hinging on the knowledge of slang common in the Nagano prefecture. Their reason for coming to Tokyo is to consult Moore on the unexplained "mystery of the bloodred wall."

There's a house in the woods, initially known as the Manor of Hope, which was built by a millionaire and gifted to a group of gifted artists to help them pursue their dreams, but ever since one of them was found dead in the cellar room the place garnered a sinister reputation – now locally referred to as "the Manor of Death." Recently, the manor became the stage of a murder as bizarre as it was gruesome.

One of the artists, who was married to the dead woman, was locked inside a room by blocking the door on the outside with crates packed with books and the victim was slowly starved to death. But he left behind a curious and elaborate dying message: a wall had been spray-painted red and two wooden chairs had been nailed together, back to back, which were painted black and white. After this the victim threw all of his tools, paints and lacquers from a small window high in the wall.

So the problem of the plot is intriguing enough by itself, but the story also introduces police-detective Takaaki Morofushi, of Nagano, whose nickname is "Kong Ming." One of the many references in this story to the 14th century epic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Unfortunately, the concluding chapter of this case, which holds the solution, is part of the next volume and that one won't be published until a month from now. Oh, woe is me!

Anyway, this was a good, nicely balanced collection of stories with the two standout cases book-ending the middle ones that flirted with the ongoing story-line that runs like a red-thread through the series. So I really look forward to the next volume. Not only to find out how the last case will be concluded, but also to see what happens next with the Akai story-line. Until then, I'll probably use April to continue my probing of the Q.E.D. series and perhaps even return to the Detective Conan movies.


The Golden Dagger (1951) by E.R. Punshon

The Golden Dagger (1951) is E.R. Punshon's twenty-ninth title about his longtime series detective, Bobby Owen, who started out as a police constable (Information Received, 1933) and climbed to the rank of Commander, which is a position he held during the last period of the series – beginning with So Many Doors (1949) and ending with the wonderfully introspective Six Were Present (1956). This story is part of that last stretch in the series and sees Owen doing more, as a Commander of Police, than his rank would probably allow him to do outside of the printed page.

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
The story opens with Commander Bobby Owen sitting in his office, "almost as busy indeed as bored," as he sifts through the daily accumulation of paperwork and reports on his desk. A dull routine of bureaucratic procedure disrupted by the arrival of Detective Constable Ford.

An anonymous phone message was received from a call-box in Lower High Hill, reporting a murder at a place called Cobblers, which is the home of Lord Rone, who possesses one of "the finest art collections in the world" and lately has been filling the pages of the Daily Trumpeter – who insist on labeling him an "Export Dictator." A followup report brought to Owen's desk informs him that a constable has found fancy-handled, ornamental dagger in the call-box with bloodstains on the blade. The handle of the dagger was in the shape of "a nude woman in ivory and gold," a 16th century piece of metal work by Benvenuto Cellini, which has "a smile of evil, secret joy." Obviously, a fine piece of art like that could have only come from the collection of Lord Rone.

As noted above, The Golden Dagger was published during the twilight years of the series, when Punshon was 79 or 80, but the intricacies of the multi-layered, maze-like plot showcase the same vitality that can be found in his earlier novels. One of the puzzling, intricate problems of the plot is the apparent lack of a murder victim.

Nobody appears to have actually died in Lower High Hill, let alone murdered with an ornamental dagger, but there are two men with (tangential) ties to Cobblers who have gone missing.

The first of these two men is a writer of popular romantic "slush," calling himself "Tudor King," but he shuns the public and publicity like a leper, which only enlarged his popularity as a novelist and this vexed his secretary/housekeeper, Charlotte Cato – an "extremely realistic novelist of former days" who never achieved the commercial success of her current employer. Sour grapes, spiked with envy, can be a motive for murder. The second person missing from the scene is Baldwin Jones, who had been brought to Cobblers by the brash, outspoken daughter of Lord Rone, Miss Maureen Carton, but she send him packing with a black eye when he tried to kiss her.

However, one of Maureen's admirers, Jack Longton, insists it was him who gave Jones a shiner and this lead is further complicated by the fact that Jones turns out to be a petty, two-bit blackmailer. And there are more people who could be involved in this possible murder case. Most of them are staying at Cobblers as either guests or employees of Lord Rone.

Richard Moyse is hoping to the secure the vacant position of personal secretary and Lord Rone suggested he stayed a day, or two, with him so that he can consider him for the post and Moyse conveniently saved Lord Rone – when a man snatched his dispatch case and threw him in front of car. Moyse not only stopped the car, but was able to retrieve the stolen dispatch case. The second person is a young art critic, Norman Oxendale, who asked permission to stay at Cobblers to inspect the famous pictures and miniatures. Or is there an ulterior motive for his visit? After all, there had been previous attempt at theft and someone had succeeded in taking the Cellini dagger from the Long Gallery.

Finally, there's one of "the best-known historians and archaeologists in the country," Sir William Watson, who doubles as a doormat for his wife, Lady Watson, who likes male lap-dogs and lately she had her eyes Oxendale – after Jones had disappeared from the stage. Add to all of that "a very illusive kind of clue," namely a journeying black Homburg hat, burned letters and a body found in a haunted forest and you got yourself a late, but fairly typical, Punshon-style detective novel.

As you would expect from Punshon, even at this stage in his life, he works, pulls and manipulates the strings of all these plot-threads with the nimble fingers of a practiced puppeteer. However, it must be said that the plot-complexity here comes mainly from pulling all of the plot-threads together, because, taken by themselves, they tended to be rather simple. You can especially see this weakness in the murder that's at the heart of the plot, which turned out to be as simple as it was sordid, but the numerous plot-threads that were tied around it completely obfuscated the simplistic solution – which was also done by the meddling behavior of one particular character.

This helped obscure the fact that the murderer's identity was weakly clued, which Owen's admitted at the end when he said that the clues, while present, were very small. So small that the case, officially, ended with a verdict of murder against "person or persons unknown." We know who the murderer's identity and motive, but Owen lacked the conclusive evidence to file the case away as solved.

Nevertheless, while arguably not the best or strongest entry in the Bobby Owen series, The Golden Dagger is still a pleasantly busy, fairly clever detective novel that will please loyal, long-time readers of Punshon.

So the plot, while not perfect, was far from a crushing disappointment, but there was another aspect of the story that depressed me and relates to the depiction of the bleak, depressing state of post-World War II Britain – which strongly reminded me of Cyril Hare's When the Wind Blows (1949) and Leo Bruce's Cold Blood (1952).

There several references to taxes, like a super tax, which is supposed to leave nobody with more than six thousand pounds a year and this made it very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a large, fully staffed estate. It's even mentioned that, by then, the attire of an old-fashioned housemaid "considered rather worse than the wearing of handcuffs and leg-irons." Or how, years after the war ended, rationing is still going on and the reader is treated to a brief scene in which Owen eats his share of "the week's bacon ration." These references, littered throughout the story, gives the book a slight hint of gloom and doom, because you realize that an era had definitively ended. An era in which our beloved mystery writers and detective characters had thrived.

I suppose that's something that will always cast a gloomy, depressing pall over these British mysteries from the 1950s. Anyway, I'll try to picking uplifting for my next read. Probably Case Closed. A series that has never failed to lift my spirits. So stay tuned!


The Case of the 100% Alibis (1934) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush was "a supreme alibi artisan" and was "to the unbreakable alibi what John Dickson Carr was to the impossible crime." 

A claim he cemented with two classic detective novels, Cut Throat (1932) and The Case of the Missing Minutes (1936), crafted around ingenious, clockwork-like plots cunningly manipulating the perception of time – which is helping with turning Bush into a personal favorite. I assume The Case of the 100% Alibis (1934) is one of his lesser-known, alibi-oriented mysteries, but the story could not have made "his fascination with the alibi problem any clearer." As well as showing flashes of that Carrian ingenuity that was on full display in The Case of the Chinese Gong (1935). 

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
The Case of the 100% Alibis opens with a short prologue, titled "For the Ingenious Reader," which could have been written by Dr. Gideon Fell.

A prologue purporting to explain to the reader the apparent contradiction of a solved murder case that was littered with one-hundred percent, cast-iron alibis, because "such an alibi admits of no loopholes." After all, even "the law cannot move the unmovable" or "break an unbreakable alibi," but the murderer was apprehended and the prologue gives two reasons why this person was discovered: Mrs. Hubbard's prize-winning cake recipe and Captain Moile's first attempt to fly the Atlantic solo – neither appear to have any relevance whatsoever to the story. 

So the prologue was as elucidating as the cryptic remarks of detective characters, like Dr. Fell, when they begin to mumble about the significance of the untouched sandwich on the secretary's desk or the sawdust found underneath the bookcase. Anyway...

This time, the clockwork-like plot of this eleventh title is set in motion by three telephone calls made shortly before and after the murder. And these phone calls complicate the case almost as much as the parade of unbreakable alibis flaunting the detectives as they pass them by.

During the first phone call, Frederick Lewton had rang up an acquaintance, Mr. Beece, in "a normal voice mentioning some tolerably unimportant meeting," but five minutes later rings Dr. Rule, "scared stiff," urging her to ask her husband, Dr. Rule, to come and see him immediately – followed only three minutes later by a phone call to the local police station. A voice identifying himself as Lewton's manservant, Robert Trench, tells the policeman on duty that he found the body of his master when he got back home. Someone had stabbed him to death.

Superintendent George "The General" Wharton of Scotland Yard happened to be in the coastal town of Seaborough, which was also the setting of The Case of the Chinese Gong, who lends a hand to Chief Constable Tempest. On a side-note, Wharton is here accompanied by his wife, Jane Wharton, who shines in her supporting role.

Wharton and Tempest hunt down every possible lead and clue with the dogged determination of a bulldog, but problems and complications quickly pile up all around them.

Trench appeared on the scene after the police had discovered the body and swears he never reported a murder to them. The murder weapon was found stuffed up the chimney and a safe had been rifled. An innocent looking note has a cryptic line scribbled on the bottom right-hand corner, "little fish may be sweet, but what about this for a middle cut of salmon," followed by "R.C. 105" and "B.C. 33" in the bottom left corner – a clue connected to a thread of blackmail. But it gets more entangled. One of the suspects is an actor, who could have mimicked one or two the voices on the telephone, while another suspect is a lauded mystery novelist. Someone who knows his way around an alibi. And that's the unmovable wall Wharton bumps into. Every single suspect is in possession of "the most beautiful twenty-two carat, diamond-studded alibi."

Around the halfway mark, Ludovic Travers arrives on the scene to save the day. Or, as Wharton cynically observes, "to poke his nose in." Honestly, Wharton has a point.

During the first half, Wharton showed he can carry a story and it was a pleasure to see him at work as he used different tactics and approaches to get information. Such as in the way he approached witnesses and assumed a personality that would get the most results, but also takes the time to ponder and tabulate all of the evidence and information – which should have brought him the solution. Travers only really becomes a functioning presence in the story towards the end. So, in my humble opinion, The Case of the 100% Alibis should have been written as a solo outing for the superintendent. He could then have bragged to Travers that he once gutted one of those clockwork alibis of its wheels, cogs and springs without his help.

However, you can only think of that as a missed opportunity, not a flaw, but the one thing that can be said against the plot was cleverly acknowledged and lampshaded by Bush.

Travers asks the suspected detective novelist, Raymond Rennyet, what he considers to be "the first essential" of a plot. Rennyet answer is that if you give him "a perfectly good faked alibi" he'll write "a murder story—of sorts—around it." And that's probably what happened here. I think the story and characters was written around the alibi-trick and this is probably why, in spite of a pack of alibis, the plot felt rather slight when compared with earlier titles like Dancing Death (1931) and The Case of the April Fools (1933).

Regardless, The Case of the 100% Alibis presents a cleverly constructed, minutely-timed plot with pleasant, solid police work that should not fail to entertain the puzzle-oriented mystery reader, but stands a step or two below Cut Throat and The Case of the Missing Minutes – which are admittedly two hard-to-top classics of the unbreakable alibi. So this one comes still very much recommended as a good example of the traditional, plot-driven mystery novel from the genre's Golden Age.

On a final note, my next Bush is (finally) going to be much recommended Dead Man Twice (1930), but it's not going to be my next read. That's going to be a three-way toss-up between Case Closed, John Russell Fearn and E.R. Punshon.


The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries (2018) by Anne van Doorn

Last year, I reviewed De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017) by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of Dutch crime-writer M.P.O. Books, which is a collection comprising of a handful of short stories about two particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators), Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong – who specialize in unsolved cases that have long gone cold. Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover handles everything from long-standing missing person's cases to cold, unsolved homicides and regularly tackle problems too bizarre or unusual for the regular police.

Corbijn is the head investigator of this two-man agency and provides the brainpower that earns them a paycheck, while De Jong pulls triple duty as his pupil, assistant and narrator. They work from an apartment in a residential tower, called the Kolos van Cronesteyn, which stands in Leiden, South-Holland, but their work brings them to every nook and corner of the country. And even beyond.

The first collection of five stories brought Corbijn and De Jong from Den Haag and Groningen to one of the Wadden Sea Islands and the Belgian Ardennes. And they tackled a diverse range of cases and problems such as an inexplicable murder inside a sealed log cabin ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In"), a vanished hiker in the Ardennes ("The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog") and pulling apart a knot of human tragedies closely tied to the death of a child ("The Brat Who Went Too Far") - a modus operandi continued in the second collection of short stories. Nearly every story in this series is an example of how elements of the old-fashioned, traditional detective story can be merged with the modern-day crime genre.

This second volume of stories, titled De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen en andere mysteries (The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, 2018), consists, like its predecessor, of five short stories. All five of them had been previously published as separate ebooks. So let's take these stories down from the top.

"De boerin die niet wilde sterven" ("The Farmer's Wife Who Didn't Want to Die") is the opening story and presents Corbijn's young assistant with a case of her own.

Lowina de Jong graduated a course that made her an official, licensed private investigator and Corbijn offers her an internship with a friend and colleague in the east of the country – where she'll get an opportunity to gain practical knowledge. During her summer internship, De Jong is consulted by a nurse from Aruba, Liberty Pinho, who had been out of a job ever since the nursing home, where she worked, closed down. Recently, she was offered a position as a live-in nurse at a farmhouse, to take care of a terminally ill woman, but the conditions and circumstances proved to be reason of concern. One of these conditions practically turned her in a prisoner and there are vicious guard dogs prowling the grounds. And even more peculiar, some of the windows are covered with paint and obscure the view of a wooded area behind the farm!

This is not really a detective story, classic or modern, but a homage to the Victorian-era sensationalist fiction with a familial secret hidden away in "an old, dilapidated tower from the thirteenth century." However, the family secret here is a decidedly modern one. So not a bad story, but one that will probably be more appreciated by readers who love Joseph Sheridan Lafuna and Wilkie Collins.

The next story is "Het meisje dat bleef rondhangen" ("The Girl Who Stuck Around") and is easily the standout in this collection. A ghostly tale of murder and deception reminiscent of some of John Dickson Carr's eerily atmospheric detective stories.

Corbijn and De Jong are asked to look into a one-sided car accident on "a completely deserted country road," which is cursed with "a notorious bend," where people have often smashed into a row of trees and this latest accident was seen by two witnesses – who saw the car disappear around the corner. And this was followed by a loud crash. The driver was seriously wounded and, before losing consciousness, asked the paramedics how the little girl was doing. However, nobody else had been involved in this accident. Let alone a child. This was not the only unexplained accident that occurred on that stretch of deserted road.

Several years previously, an identical accident happened on exactly the same spot. Apparently, the driver had tried to avoid hitting someone who was standing in the middle of the road, but nobody was actually there. The driver had not survived the collision with one of the trees. Corbijn and De Jong learn that a child, Marion, had died on that road and her mother, who lives nearby, is convinced that the ghost of the child is haunting her home and the place where she died. The two detectives even get a glimpse of the ghostly girl, "a frightened face," looking at them between the thick, dark trees!

I already mentioned that the story reminded me of the work of my favorite mystery writer, Carr, but the plot really could have been used for one of his own short stories from The Department of Queer Complaints (1940), which is part of a lamentably short-lived series and a literary relative of this one – as both have a penchant for bizarre or even (borderline) impossible crimes. So an excellent story that stands with the best collected in the previous compendium and genuinely tragic on account of the psychological toll the ghostly apparitions had on the grieving parents of the dead girl.

The third story lends its title to this collection, "De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen" ("The Mountains That Do Not Forget"), which brings Corbijn to "the most isolated valley in northern Albania." He's asked by colleague to give a second opinion on an unsolved locked tower murder that happened there in May, 1933!

Corbijn tells the story to De Jong and gives a detailed account of the customs and traditions of the region, which lay at the heart of the plot. Apparently, a lot of the background was drawn from Edith Durham's High Albania (1909). Anyway, a long-lasting bloedvete (blood-vendetta) between two families that had begun the theft of sheep has culminated in dozens of deaths on both side of those cursed mountains. Only during the communist occupation did the weapons cease, because the regime was cracking down on the old customs. Everyone who participated were taken away and executed. And until the 1990s, the mountains were at peace. 

However, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union the old feuds have been resurrected and the murder of woman in 1933 is at the core of this long-standing vendetta, who was shot against the rules of the Code, when she was hiding in the locked attic of a kulla e ngujimit – a so-called "locked-in tower" where the men used to hit when a hit was called on one of them by their rivals. There was only a small, open window at the top of the tower, but it looked out on a sheer drop ending in a river, but could a shot have been fired through the window from the ground? There was no gun found inside the attic room, but there were scorch-marks on the body. Suggesting that she was shot at close range.

Unfortunately, the solution is not only very obvious, but borrowed from a well-known short detective story by an even more well-known mystery writer. And the explanation was used by another writer in an impossible crime story with a very similar setting (i.e. a locked tower room). However, the attraction of this story is its backdrop and the history of its people. And the (hilarious) consequences Corbijn's solution has for him and his colleague. Needless to say, they had to run. :)

The next story is "Het hoertje dat geen spoor achterliet" ("The Whore Who Left No Trace Behind") and, as modern as the title may sound, this was my return to Baker Street, but, in this case, it's De Warmoesstraat. A street where, once upon a time, stood a notorious police station where the man who formally introduced me to the detective story, the late A.C. Baantjer, worked for three decades as a policeman and homicide detective. Bureau Warmoesstraat also featured prominently in his many delightful police/mystery novels. I really miss Baantjer. Anyway...

In this story, "a dingy hotel on the Warmoesstraat" functions as the backdrop. A writer of erotic thrillers, Marlinde Vries a.k.a "Patricia Rooth," caught her husband, Gerhard von Krefeld, with a prostitute in a hotel room and stabbed him to death – or so the evidence suggests. However, her brother simply refuses to accept to the conclusion of the police and hires Corbijn and De Jong to exonerate his sister by finding out who really killed Von Krefeld. A search that begins with finding the prostitute who vanished without a trace after the murder and the police had been unable to find her. She's not only a witness, but a potential suspect as well.

Even without the clues, I anticipated the solution as soon as the murderer entered the picture. But the plot hang together nicely and, as said, there was some clues planted here and there. I really liked this brief return to the most famous street in Dutch detective and police history.

Finally, the last story in this collection, "De dame die niet om hulp had gevraagd" ("The Lady Who Had Not Asked for Help"), ends the collection on a high-note and functions as bridge to the second, full-length novel in this series. But more on that later.

Corbijn is impatiently waiting on a confirmation on whether or not the skeleton remains that were recently found belong to a student who has been missing since 1978. So, to kill the time, De Jong suggests he tells her story about the time he was a still a policeman and he tells him about the curious case of an elderly lady who had not asked them for help. Mrs. Olde Meierink is an old woman who lives in the middle of the woods and her lonely house can only be reached by "a long, dirt road, full of holes and bends, right through the forest," but the police and even the fire department regularly have to traverse that road after a frantic call to the emergency number – only to discover that nothing has happened. Mrs. Meierink claims she never called for help and she can even provide a cast-iron alibi for one of the time she supposedly called the police. So who was making the calls and what is the motive behind them?

Corbijn and De Jong have to root around the deep, dark past and family history of Mrs. Meierink, which reaches all the way back to Drenthe, South Africa and Rhodesia. The phone-calls turns out to be key elements of a delightful revenge plot with a great, motivational drive. I was reminded of Edward D. Hoch's "The Theft of the Onyx Pool," collected in The Thefts of Nick Velvet (1978), which had a character with a scheme that was similar in nature and with exactly the same motivation, but with a completely different approach. So a solid story to close out this collection.

On a whole, The Mountains That Do Not Forget is a nicely balanced collection of traditional-minded, plot-driven detective stories presented as short story forms of the contemporary misdaadroman (crime novel). They're a sad reminder what the crime genre could have looked like today had modern-day writers not abandoned logically constructed plots, clueing and such delightful tropes as impossible crimes and dying messages. We could have been like Japan!

I can't deny I feel a tinge of nationalistic pride that my country has produced a writer who, in this day and age, writes in the tradition of Doyle, Christie and Carr. It makes me feel all imperial inside. So, yes, I quite enjoyed these five stories.

On a final, related note, that second, full-length novel I mentioned is scheduled for release in May, titled De student die zou trouwen (The Student Who Was To Get Married, 2018), which takes place in my own backyard and naturally love the book-cover. However, I really should read the first novel, De ouders keerden niet terug (The Parents Did Not Return, 2017), before getting around to that second one. So I'll try to worm the first one in, sometime, next month or so. So you better stick around!


The Midsummer Ghost: "Chamber of Centuries" (1940) by John Russell Fearn

Previously, I looked at John Russell Fearn's Within That Room! (1946), a locked room novelette reminiscent of Jonathan Creek, published originally in the Toronto Star Weekly, but the bare-bones of the plot had an earlier incarnation as a short impossible crime story – which is under review today. Initially, I picked two other little-known locked room stories, in order to pad out this post, but I was unimpressed with both them. So I scrapped them.

Fearn's "Chamber of Centuries" was first printed in the September, 1940 issue of Thrilling Mysteries and the plot has all the same ingredients as its extended adaptation, but the story-telling here's a lot tighter. "Chamber of Centuries" is practically the same story as Within That Room!, but tells that story in less than a dozen pages. Only place where they really differ is in the finer details.

Thrilling Mysteries, Sep. 1940
One of these differences are the protagonists, Dick and Jane, who enter the picture here as a recently married couple traveling down to "the sprawling, ill-organized township of Calford."

Jane had no intention to return to the place of her ancestors, but Dick wanted to spend a holiday in the town to "lay the family ghost" who haunts one of the rooms in the dark, gloomy ancestral pile of his wife – a house that had been transported to the Americas stone by stone. Sir Jonathan Melrose was Jane's great-great-great grandfather and he was notorious in his days as a dangerous, irresponsible practical joker, which landed him in a spot of trouble in England. So he had to pack-up, including his home, and sailed across the ocean to the New World. However, he was followed by his enemies, who eventually killed him in his bedroom, but Sir Jonathan foretold that "his presence would forever haunt the room."

The ghost of Sir Jonathan returns to the room every June 22nd, at seven in the evening, until "the house should be demolished." There's also an evil, unsettling influence in the room that prevents everyone from staying there for longer than three minutes.

After the premise has been established, "Chamber of Centuries" largely follows the same sequence of events as Within That Room: Dick and Jane experience the evil influence when they entered the haunted room for the first time. The two servants, Mr. and Mrs. Baxter, are up to no good in the basement and a second inspection of the dusty, ghost-haunted room brings them face to face with the translucent figure of Sir Jonathan – a figure attired in old-fashioned clothes with one hand dramatically out-thrust.

Regrettably, this scene is not as good, or memorable, as the demonic manifestation in the novelette and suppose that has to do with the sort of being that appeared in that room. A trick that makes appear as if one of the devil's henchmen entered a sealed chamber is far more impressive than the ghostly manifestation of a long-dead practical joker.

Anyway, the last part of this short story, like its opening, differs in some regards from the novelette. There's no murder in this story and the culprits are not as harshly punished here as in the novelette. A second notable alteration can be found in the motive. Within That Room! takes place in England, while "Chamber of Centuries" is set in the United States, which required the motive to be slightly modified. A modification that turned the motive into something that some would describe as stereotypical American!

Finally, the mental attacks weren't as well handled, or explained, here and that has to with both a change in the methods and the shorter length of this story, but, besides those minor details, the stories are pretty much the same.

On a whole, "Chamber of Centuries" is a fun, pulp-style impossible crime yarn, but personally, I prefer the extended rendition of the plot, because it allowed the best aspects of the plot to shine – like the two main characters and the impossibilities in the haunted room. It's without doubt the better of the two versions. So if you plan to read one of these two stories, I highly recommend you go with Within That Room! Or read it before the short story.

On a final, unrelated note: I wanted to return to Christopher Bush for my next read, but another short story collection found its way into my hands. So that one is next on the list.


Within That Room! (1946) by John Russell Fearn

John Russell Fearn's Within That Room! (1946) is a novelette originally published in the Toronto Star Weekly and is an expansion of a short story, "Chamber of Centuries," which appeared in a 1940 issue of Thrilling Mystery and was reprinted in a modern anthology – titled More Whodunits: The Second Borgo Press Book of Crime and Mystery Stories (2011). I was not entirely sure what to expect from this story, as it concerns mental assaults, evil influences and demonic manifestations in a haunted room, but the plot turned out to be just fine. Somewhat reminiscent of the better, earlier episodes of Jonathan Creek with a nod to a well-known Sherlock Holmes story. 

Star Weekly, Jan. 19, 1946
One of the two protagonists of Within That Room! is a young woman, Vera Grantham, who had emerged from the A.T.S. (Auxiliary Territorial Service) full of hopes and plans. During the war, Vera had courageously "defied shells and bombs," but the post-war world had so far defeated her. She had dreams of becoming a commercial artist, but she's buried in debt and then, to make things worse, her landlady announces an unexpected visitor, Mr. Jonathan Thwaite – a solicitor from Manchester. Vera is afraid that Thwaite has come to see her on account of the pile of unpaid bills and bolts before he can serve her with a summons.

However, Thwaite eventually catches up with Vera and informs her that her eccentric uncle, Cyrus Merriforth, has passed away and left her an unusual inheritance.

Cyrus Merriforth was "a very famous entomologist and botanist," who had read of Vera's "gallantry in the A.T.S." during the war, which prompted him to add a codicil to his will leaving her a hundred pounds and his home, Sunny Acres, but the place is more than a mere residence. Sunny Acres was once a feudal castle and has a room in it haunted by "an emissary of the devil." The legend is well-known in the area and not a single person from the nearby village of Waylock Dean dares to go near the place. Vera experiences this first-hand when she decides to inspect her inheritance.

She's unable to find anyone in the village willing to drive her all the way to Sunny Acres and has to make the journey by foot, but, along the way, she's offered a ride from a young man, Dick Wilmott, a former R.A.F. guy – who currently runs a radio repair shop in Godalming. After spending the night at Sunny Acres, Vera calls Dick back to the place to help her figure out what's going on behind its walls.

The former servants, Mr. and Mrs. Falworth, are still present and Mrs. Falworth tries to convince her to never open "the horror-room," which has a door sealed shut with heavy screws. This is the room haunted by an evil entity, a member of the devil's retinue, who's "only visible once a year." But even when the room is empty, there's an overwhelming sense of evil that will blast your senses and reason. Something that has happened to her uncle. Cyrus had entered the room to lay the ghost and had emerged from the room on "the borderline of insanity," which may have landed him in an early grave.

A demon-haunted room that can rob you of your sanity recalls Paul Halter's La chambre du fou (The Madman's Room, 1990), but with a slight hint of John Dickson Carr's atmospheric radio-play, "The Devil's Saint," which can be read in The Dead Sleep Lightly (1983). Or listen to it here.

However, a haunted room is not the only unsettling part of Sunny Acres. During her first night, Vera is roused by strange sounds and she did what so many heroines do in these kind of detective stories: get out of bed and investigate, which brought her to a locked door at the bottom of the basement stairs – where she hears clanking and swishing sounds. Not to mention the awful smell that is coming from behind the locked door. When she lays down on the floor, to look through the crack under the door, she sees the feet of a man and a woman moving about. Presumably of the two shifty servants.

I have to point out here that the story is not a traditional, Golden Age whodunit, but has a plot that moves along the lines of a Conan Doyle story with a couple of impossible crimes thrown in for good measure. Anyway...

Vera decides to ask Dick to help her figure out what's going on and installs him in the house as her fiance. So there you have your romantic sub-plot and Fearn's take on the snooping, bantering mystery solving couples of Kelley Roos, Frances Crane, Delano Ames and the Lockridges.

Dick and Vera discover that a floor-plan of the castle and a map of the district had been torn from a book in the library, The History of Sunny Acres, which makes them suspect that Uncle Cyrus had been cleverly murdered, but they also have a face-to-face encounter with the entity haunting the place – beginning with them getting mentally assaulted when they enter the room for the first time. They enter the room a second time, on the day the ghost is reputedly visible, which is when they see the following: 

"A strange, incredible caricature of a being hung in the dusty air, a haze of blurry light surrounding it from the back. There was the pointed tail, the simian ears, the long, needle-chinned face, bent arms flexed as though to pounce forward. He seemed to be grinning horribly. Yet he was in mid-air, and through him the ancient stone wall could be distinctly seen."
As a devout devotee of the impossible crime story, I appreciate these scenes, depicting the apparent disintegration of the fabric of reality, as much as a clever and original locked room trick. And if I have any complaints, it's how easy it was to figure out the ghost-trick. Not only did I figure out how the ghost "materialized into a locked room with solid walls, floor, and ceiling," but I did so based solely on the plot-description of the story. I actually emailed Philip Harbottle to tell him I was going to review Within That Room! and asked him how close my solution was to Fearn's explanation for the apparition, which he answered "you really are a perceptive and ingenious fellow."

Well, it's hard to deny the perceptive and ingenious part, but I have to admit that it helped that I have become somewhat familiar with Fearn's plotting technique. And who he was as a person. This ghost-trick has his personality written all over it and wish I could point it all out, but that would thoroughly spoil the solution.

So, all in all, Within That Room! is perhaps not the best detective story ever written in this sub-category of the locked room genre, namely haunted rooms that kill or do harm, but it's an amusing read harking back to the days of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and tremendously enjoyed reading it – demonstrating once again why Fearn is my favorite second-string mystery writer. I'll be taking a look at the short story that served as the bare-bones for this novelette, "Chamber of Centuries," along with two other little-known locked room short stories. So stay tuned.