The Fort Terror Murders (1931) by Van Wyck Mason

Francis van Wyck Mason was an American historian, importer, writer and, while barely sixteen years old, traveled to Europe in 1917 to fight in the First World War and enlisted in the French army where he became "a decorated artillery officer." By the end of the war, Van Wyck Mason was only seventeen and had achieved the rank of Lieutenant in the United States Army. Van Wyck Mason re-enlisted in the U.S. army after the attack on Pearl Harbor, effectively putting his writing career on hold, where he worked as Chief Historian on General Eisenhower's staff and was tasked with documenting the war for future generations – during which he achieved the rank of Colonel. Someone should seriously consider writing a historical perspective on the war-time service of mystery writers during the First and Second World Wars.

In the interbellum, Van Wyck Mason attended university, started an importing business, traveled the globe in pursuit of antiques and began to write stories for the pulps.

Van Wyck Mason sold his first eighteen stories without rejection and soon published a novel, Seeds of Murder (1930), which introduced his series-character, Captain Hugh North, who's in the employ of the Army Intelligence Service and appeared in nearly thirty novels – bowing out more than three decades later in The Deadly Orbit Mission (1968). Yes, as you can probably gauge from that book-title, the Captain North series are mostly intrigue novels tinged with spy material and seemed outside of my field of interest. However, just like with my previous read, I was beckoned to this series by an alluringly titled novel.

The Fort Terror Murders (1931) is the third entry in the Captain Hugh North series and the plot-description suggested a story in the spirit of one of Carter Dickson's spy-tinged impossible crime novels (e.g. The Unicorn Murders, 1935), but turned out to be a Golden Age mystery harking back to the days of Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Interestingly, The Fort Terror Murders is one of those rare, novel-length detective stories that has a coded cipher as the centerpiece of the plot. Not the murders. Not the inexplicable disappearances. A coded cipher is the master key that unlocks and solves the mysteries of "that infernal old fort." Usually, you only see that in short stories or juvenile mysteries.

Captain Hugh North is on Luzon Island, in the Philippines, where he's a guest of the polo team of Fort Espanto and learns over dinner the back-story of "the famous ghosts of Fort Espanto."

Fort Espanto is an octagonal star fort and was erected in 1660 as a Jesuit monastery, which gathered wealth beyond belief, but in 1767, they were ordered out with very little ceremony and the monastery was converted into a military fort – ever since "old Fort Terror" could have served as "the subject of a horror story." The fleeing padres left behind a well-hidden treasure and the key to finding its hiding place was locked away in a coded cipher. A cipher consisting of two, ebony-beaded rosaries threaded on an extremely long, fine gold chains and "a wrinkled little piece of sheepskin-parchment" bearing only two words, "Pater Noster." And this story has attracted several unlucky treasure hunters to the fort.

Fort Espanto
In 1801, Captain Julio de Ribera, a Spanish officer, claimed to have deciphered the code and knew where to look for the Jesuit treasure, but vanished during the night from the fort. There were sentries on the walls and at the gate, its only entrance and exit, but Capt. De Ribera was nowhere to be found. During the war, in 1916, two men came all the way from Spain to study the enigma of Fort Espanto and they were stabbed to death in the great central gallery of the fort.

During dinner, it becomes apparent that Lieutenant Dale Bowen has an interest in the back-story of the fort and has been looking into its history with Ricardo Mendez. The cousin of Captain Barrett's fiance, Inez Sarolla. Mendez excitedly interrupts the dinner and excitedly announces to everyone that he has found the treasure, "millions in gold, in silver, and in gems," which annoys Lt. Bowen extremely – who makes a futile attempt to silence him. So the cat is out of the bag and the dinner party is determined to take a look at the treasure that evening.

Their exciting evening of hunting for a fabled, long-lost treasure in an abandoned, crumbling and ghost-infested fort comes to an abrupt end when Mendez is fatally knifed and Lt. Bowen vanishes as impossibly as Capt. De Ribera a century before. Capt. North takes immediate charge of the case and places a cordon of soldiers around the fort. Once more, the dark, grim fort is search top to bottom, but not a trace of Lt. Bowen is found. On the following day, soldiers who guarded the fort during the night reported hearing ghostly moans and groans. And to make this enigmatic conundrum complete, they find a piece of paper on Mendez with "beware the lesser brother as you would the grave" written on it.

Firstly, the impossible disappearances are, as you probably deduced by the plot-description, explained away with a slight variation on one of the oldest (locked room) tricks in the book. However, Van Wyck Mason deserves to be praised for the way in which he refurbished and presented this age-old plot-device. Something to be expected from an importer of antiques, I suppose. Anyway, it was acceptable enough within the confines of this story and Van Wyck Mason wisely made the impossible disappearances a secondary plot-thread, which was not made too much of a mystery about. The solution was hinted at early on in the story. So, yeah, I can live with this aspect of the plot.

The ghostly groaning and moaning recalled two other (impossible) vanishing (short) stories: MacKinlay Kantor's "The Light at Three O'Clock" (Tantalizing Locked Room Mysteries, 1982) and Keikichi Osaka's "The Guardian of the Lighthouse" (The Ginza Ghost, 2017).

But, as said before, the centerpiece of the plot is the coded cipher and Capt. North even briefly launched into a lecture on codes, ciphers and code-breaking. 

Unfortunately, this lasted for less than a full page. A missed opportunity. I think a well-written, chapter-length lecture on ciphers and code-breaking would have greatly enhanced the reputation of The Fort Terror Murders, because the plot already makes it tempting to draw a comparison to Carter Dickson's earlier Sir Henry Merrivale novels – throw in a code-cracking lecture and you have an often cited mystery novel. The code itself is pretty ingenious and only marred by the fact that the intricate puzzle can only really be deciphered within the story. This is only, somewhat, made up by a clever little twist that the unlucky treasure hunters had not calculated on. So this only leaves Capt. North with having to find the murderer, but was not overly impressed with that end of the plot. Nothing really special or memorable.

The Fort Terror Murders is a code-cracker with impossible disappearances in a decaying, star-shaped fort with a haunted history as a secondary plot-thread, but Van Wyck Mason wrote an engaging, colorful story around this premise and has two very memorable, thrill-filled set pieces – in which he was definitely showing off his pulp-roots. One of these scenes, has Capt. North fighting a gravely agitated, venomous cobra with a polo mallet and it was awesome. The second scene has Capt. North observing a hallway through a keyhole, trying to find out who's leaving their room after the lights go out, while an armed shadow creeps around the window behind him.

Van Wyck Mason knew how to pen a good, old-fashioned yarn and, in spite of some problems with the plot, enjoyed my time with The Fort Terror Murders. I would like to try another Capt. North novel, but the previously mentioned Seeds of Murder appears to be the only other traditionally-structured detective story in the series. So, any and all, recommendations are more than welcome.


In a Vanishing Room (1961) by Robert Colby

Robert Colby was a writer of tough, fast-paced paperback originals and his short stories were regularly printed in two popular publications, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Michael Shayne's Mystery Magazine, but only readers and collectors of hardboiled paperback originals appear to remember his work – some of whom believe Colby "never got the fame and recognition that he deserved." Honestly, I likely never would have given Colby a second glance had it not been for an alluringly titled novel, In a Vanishing Room (1961), which sounded full of promise.

So, I looked into the book and found a short, but helpful, review on MysteryFile. The review accurately described it as a minor story with "no frills in the telling" and "action packed content" that "zooms right along." But what caught my eye was the description of the titular gimmick: a basement room that vanishes alongside with the entire basement! I found an impossible crime novel Robert Adey missed in Locked Room Murders (1991). Well, you know me, the promise of an impossible crime is enough to rope me in.

In a Vanishing Room is a pacey, thrill-filled chase story and the trouble begins when the unlikely protagonist, Paul Norris, boards a plane in Miami, Florida to go to New York.

Norris has been on a downward spiral ever since his wife divorced him and savagely began to drink, escape in cheap thrills and throwing away a hundred seventy-five bucks every five work days in Miami – where he worked as an account executive for a major company. His self-destructive behavior puts him on notice with the company and without work, Norris would be broke in three-weeks time. So he asked to be transferred to the New York branch, but there he has to reapply for a position and, with nothing to lose, he boards a plane to New York. And there the trouble begins.

At the terminal of the International in Miami, Norris witnesses an "odd, tense little scene." Norris was waiting in line to collect his ticket when a man brushed his arm, who then broke out in a sprint towards the exit, dropping his bag along the way, shortly followed by two raw-boned, crew-cut blond men in dark suits in pursuit – who returned less than a minute later to retrieve the fallen bag. When he arrived in New York, Norris is approached by a red-headed woman, Eileen Taggert, asking if he was the last person who came off the plane. Taggert had been waiting on her lawyer, Harry Wheeler, who apparently was the man being chased in Miami by the two men in black.

This is the point where the plot becomes a bit tricky to describe, because this is a chase story, fraught with danger and double-crosses, which rapidly moves from one scene to another. However, I can tell you that the plot is propelled forward by a signed receipt from Morgan van Lines, Inc. for a packed crate. Or, as one of the characters referred to it, "the awful box." The crate supposedly holds "something worth millions" and everyone wants to get their hands on the crate or receipt, which was slipped in Norris' coat-pocket when Wheeler brushed up against him at the airport and drags him into a dangerous adventure that even brings him to San Diego – where an entire basement miraculously vanishes.

Norris is hired by the owner of the crate, Everett T. Kavanagh, to have it picked up in San Diego and sends his personal secretary, Marian Collison, along with him. Shortly after they arrived, Norris and Collison find themselves face-to-face with a hired gunman in a basement room. They come out alive, but, when they returned the next day with the police, an elderly woman lived at the address and the door to the basement now opened into a broom closet – nothing to indicate any trickery. It was a normal broom closet with a broom, dust pan and a mop. Unfortunately, the solution for the vanishing basement is very basic where disappearing houses, rooms and streets are concerned.

I fear experienced mystery readers will immediately catch on to how the trick works when they try to find their way back to the house. Regardless, I found it interesting that a miraculous, Carr-like impossible problem has been used in a story that also featured a brutal rape-murder. That's quite a contrast.

On a side note, I may have found an original, if unlikely, way to make a basement vanish as if by magic. You (uhm) simply fill the entire basement with concrete, until it reaches the top of the steps, after which its floored and carpeted over. The nook behind the former basement door can be converted into a broom closet. Even if the broom closet is taken apart, because the carpeting looked suspiciously recent, all they'll find is (what looks like) the concrete foundation of the house. And that's how you make a basement disappear. Don't try this at home, kids.

There's not much more that can be said about the book. In a Vanishing Room is a fast-paced, thrill-filled chase story crammed with deceitful characters, double-crosses, murder and a multi-million dollar stake, but the bloody gunfight that settled the plot was a reminder why I prefer the traditional, plot-driven and clue-filled detective story. Obviously, Colby was not writing a traditionally-structured detective story and can understand why people like these fast-moving, hardboiled crime stories, but my preferences in crime-fiction simply lie elsewhere. In a locked room.

Still, it was a quick, interesting read and made for a nice little excursion outside of my usual boundaries, but my next post will be a return to my beloved Golden Age. I found something that has potential. Something that is giving off Carrian vibes.


The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories (2018) by James Holding

James Holding had worked most of his life at one of the world's largest advertising agencies in New York City, but retired early from his position as Vice President and Copy Chief to pursue a life-long dream of becoming a published author. A dream whose fulfillment became inextricably entwined with the legacy of two mystery writers, Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who are better known under their collective penname of "Ellery Queen."

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine rejected Holding's first submission, but the second short story he mailed them, "The Treasure of Pachacamac," was accepted and published in the June, 1960 issue of EQMM. Holding published an additional six short stories that year and, during his storied career, he would sell nearly 200 short stories to EQMM, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Saint Mystery Magazine and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, but also published a school of children's (detective) novels – three of them appeared in the Ellery Queen, Jr. series.

I have an active "Juvenile Mysteries" toe-tag on this blog and will tackle the EQ Jr. series in the future, but also have an eye on Holding's non-series The Mystery of Dolphin Inlet (1968). So you can expect something from me on those titles at a later date.

The series that irrevocably linked Holding to Queen comprised of ten short stories about Martin Leroy and King Danforth, two collaborative mystery novelists, who wrote "more than 500 mystery books" about their series-character, Leroy King, of which "over 80,000,000 copies" had been sold in every language throughout the world – which were originally published between 1960 and 1972 in EQMM. Holding used the "The Location Object Mystery" title structure of the early EQ international series (e.g. The Greek Coffin Mystery, 1932).

All ten short stories are (kind of) interlinked as they take place during a world tour aboard a Norwegian cruise ship, Valhalla, on which the two mystery novelists and their wives, Carol and Helen, are constantly confronted by puzzling problems. Martin, King, Carol and Helen primarily act as armchair detectives and the varied nature of the problems they discuss places the series squarely between the Puzzle Club stories from Queen's Experiments in Detection (1968) and the Black Widower series by Isaac Asimov.

Back in March, Crippen and Landru published The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories (2018), edited and introduced by Jeffrey Marks, which gathered all ten stories and has a comprehensive bibliography of Holding's work at the end of the book. And this collection is the subject of today's blog-post. So, once again, let's take down the stories from the top.

This collection begins with "The Norwegian Apple Mystery," but have already discussed this story in my review of The Misadventures of Ellery Queen (2018).

The second story "The African Fish Mystery" and our detectives left their cruise ship at Cape Town and embarked on a short, inland tour of Southern Africa by car, intending to rejoin the ship at Durban, but, when they're sixty miles out of Pretoria, their driver makes an intriguing remark about a previous client, Mr. Duke Carrington – who had come into "a great fortune" when he returned from his tour. Apparently, a relative in England had died and left him a large estate. However, Leroy and Danforth quality the story as a hoary old chestnut and begin to wool-gather, which is slowly shaped into an alternative explanation for Carrington's sudden windfall. An alternative explanation confirmed when they discover a hole in a mosquito net. A good and fun take on the armchair detective story.

The next port of call in this collection, "The Italian Tile Mystery," is also its longest story and the plot concerns a coded message hidden in the illustrated tiles of a coffee table!

Leroy, Danforth and their wives have, once more, disembarked from the cruise ship and are currently staying at the Savoia Hotel in the cliff-side village of Positano, Italy, but "the onslaught of rain" forces them to spend an afternoon in the hotel launch. During this rainy afternoon, they noticed a "peculiar collection" of illustrations on the tiles of a tiny coffee table. The proprietress of the hotel, Mrs. Cardoni, tells them the table was made by an American, Lemuel V. Bishop, who was a lonely, absent-minded professor of Italian literature and only had a brother back in America – a well-known lawyer who disapproved of his impractical brother. So the professor began to work on a coffee table and had confided in Mrs. Cardoni that the table was "one will his stuffy brother might have trouble reading."

Unsurprisingly, Leroy and Danforth are intrigued by the coded message in the tiles and begin to brainstorm with Helen and Carol. I think this initial approach to the puzzle was absolutely sound, considering they had nothing else to go on, but they took some imaginative leaps of logic and luck to arrive at the correct conclusion. So, on a whole, this was not a bad story and the central puzzle was an interesting one. However, I was not entirely convinced by the method of the detectives here.

The fourth story is "The Hong Kong Jewel Mystery" and takes place on-and around the cruise ship, Valhalla, which is docked at Kowloon and our detectives disembarked to accompany Carol and Helen on a sightseeing tour and shopping spree in Hong Kong. When they return to the docks, the vast hull of the ship is festooned with Chinese coolies, hanging by ropes and slings, rapidly applying a coat of fresh paint, but when they return to their cabins they make an unsettling discovery – all of their jewelry has been stolen. Detective-Inspector Lo of the Tsien Sha Tsin Police Station was only able to recover the least expensive pieces of jewelry.

So it comes down to Leroy and Danforth to find out where the thief, or thieves, have stowed away the loot until it was save to retrieve it. A good and amusingly written story, but not really outstanding as a hidden object puzzle.

The next story is "The Tahitian Powder Box Mystery" and the problem here is why someone is emptying boxes of Chanel Number Five bath powder out of a porthole window, but the plot is minor one that left no impression on me. So moving on to the next story.

The sixth entry is the title-story of this collection, "The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery," in which Valhalla has dropped anchor in Zanzibar harbor and the passengers hastened ashore to take a tour of the island. The Leroys and Danforths hired a car to take a circular tour of the island, which brought them to the ghost village of Bububu, where only the ruins of two buildings stand – one of those ruins used to be the Red Rooster Hotel. When they inside, in what used to be the hotel bar, they find a man in a very loud sport shirts slumped over a table. Dead drunk. A picture with a Polaroid camera is snapped to immortalize the scene and the man, or rather his shirt, is later identified as one of their fellow passengers. Only problem is that he's a teetotaler and the shirt is a unique, one-of-a-kind item. So who was the drunk in the ruins of the hotel bar and why was he wearing Harry's shirt?

The answer is not too difficult to deduce, especially once you learn about the conditions of a certain will, but that takes nothing away from this highly enjoyable story with that bizarre, slightly surrealistic, scene in the hotel bar.

The next story, "The Japanese Card Mystery," is my personal favorite and has a splendid impossible crime plot closely related to the premise and explanation of a little-known locked room yarn by Richard Curtis – entitled "Odd Bodkins and the Locked Room Caper." Carol and Helen have become acquainted aboard the cruise ship with Mr. Sakaguchi, who has a niece in Tokyo gifted with "extra special card sense," and can even identify a randomly drawn card long-distance over the telephone!

Mr. Sakaguchi consents to a demonstration: the six of diamonds was randomly drawn from a deck of fifty-two cards and the radio operator called the niece, who was a thousand miles away, over the radio-telephone. She never spoke a word to Sakaguchi over the radio-telephone, but immediately named the correct card when she was asked which one they had drawn at random. A complete and utter impossibility! However, Leroy and Danforth are convinced this is "some kind of con game," but figuring out how this long-distance card trick works is easier said than done. There are even a couple of false solutions and one of them my explanation, which was thrown out as a false solution a page or two after it had occurred to me. Something I can really appreciate in a detective story.

So this was a well written, cleverly plotted and fairly original impossible crime story that kept pace with the reader who like to play armchair detective themselves.

The next story is "The New Zealand Bird Mystery" and is a darker than usual story for this series. A much-liked passenger of the Valhalla, Homer Rice, has killed when the cruise ship was docked in Hobart, Tasmania. Rice had been hit over the head and a large sum of money had been carrying on him was taken. A simple and sordid crime, but a triangular piece of paper with an incomplete message on it tells a different story to Leroy and Danforth. The murderer never makes an on-page appearance and you can hardly consider the story fair play, but the motive definitely had an interesting angle to it. In my country, we would call that kind of decoy a lokvogel. ;)

The penultimate story is "The Philippine Key Mystery" and only one of two impossible crime stories to be found in this collection, which has a premise recalling Jacques Futrelle's "The Problem of Cell 13" (The Thinking Machine, 1907) with an original solution perfectly fitting with the prison backdrop of the plot. The Leroys and Danforths have come to Zamboanga City, on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, where they witness an incident that prompts them to pay a visit to the Governor of San Ramon Penal Colony, Señor Bollo – who tells them of the only prisoner who managed to escape from his prison. An escape that can only be described as miraculous, because not only did the prisoner had to get pass through a locked door and over a heavily guarded wall, but he had to do so with a wounded foot.

By the end of the story, Leroy and Danforth pieced together a solution that explained how the prisoner worked his vanishing act from a locked and guarded prison complex. One aspect of the explanation may tax your credulity, but, as said above, it's very much in keeping with the prison backdrop of the story. The result is an attractive and original locked room story.

Finally, "The Borneo Snapshot Mystery" closes out this collection and begins when Danforth, unable to sleep, takes a late-night stroll and finds a dead man sprawled on deck at the foot of the steps – a massive head wound "left no doubt the man was dead." The peculiar gray dust on the bruised skin turns out to be tiny colored glass spheres, which immediately places them on the trail of the murderer, but this opens the door to a second mystery: why was the victim dead-set on getting his hands on a photograph that was taken of him aboard the ship? This was an OK story, but nothing more than that.

Note to the curious: according to a previous story, "The Japanese Card Mystery," the Leroy King mysteries had sold 80,000,000 copies world-wide, but this story claims they have sold more than 125,000,000 copies of their books. These stories take place during a three-month world tour. So this would mean they moved 45,000,000 books while on holiday. I'm mildly skeptical of those numbers.

All things considered, The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories is a fairly regular, nicely balanced collection of short stories: there were a handful of solid entries ("Norwegian Apple," "African Fish," "Zanzibar Shirt" and "Philippine Key"), an absolute standout ("Japanese Card") and the practically inescapable dud ("Tahitian Powder Box") - rounded out with some average, but passable, material ("Hong Kong Jewel" and "New Zealand Bird"). So, quality-wise, I was satisfied with these ten stories, but the real attraction of the book is that it offers an entire, unjustly forgotten series of armchair detective stories. A series I actually wanted to read ever since learning about it, in the 2000s, on the EQ website.

The Zanzibar Shirt Mystery and Other Stories definitely comes recommended and especially to mystery readers with an affinity for Ellery Queen.


Ripper (1994) by Michael Slade

Jay Clarke is a Canadian lawyer specialized in criminal insanity and a novelist who writes under the pseudonym of "Michael Slade," a penname he has shared with Rebecca Clarke, John Banks and Richard Covell, who collaborated on fourteen novels about the Special X division of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – published between 1984 and 2010. I understand that the series is written on three concentric levels: who-and howdunit form the core of each story that's wrapped in psychological horror tinged with supernatural elements. The outer layer, or outward appearance, is that of a modern-day police procedural. Stories are stuffed with gore. Lots of gore.

So you're probably wondering why a gentleman of taste and a connoisseur of the traditional detective story, like yours truly, is doing with a gory serial killer thriller from the 1990s.

The Special X series was lauded by John Dickson Carr's grandson, Wooda H. McNiven, who praised Ripper (1994) as "a fair play whodunit" in "the Grand Guignol tradition" with one seemingly impossible, ultra-gruesome killing taking place after another and the story is littered with references to the master of the locked room conundrum – who, according to McNiven, would probably have given the book "two thumbs up." Apparently, Carr was an enormous influence on the series and there are two additional titles crammed with impossible crimes.

Crucified (2008) has impossible murders committed on an airborne bomber and a submerged U-boat, while Red Snow (2010) has two locked room puzzles and a dying message. Ellery Queen is another writer who greatly influenced the series. I was tempted to begin with Crucified, but settled on Ripper as it seemed to be one of the more highly regarded titles in the series.

Firstly, I have to say that the writing, structuring and background of Ripper reminded me of Christopher Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit series, because the plot is steeped in the lore of Jack the Ripper, Aleister Crowley, Tarot cards and Satanism. I suppose the similarities are not entirely coincidental as Fowler started out as a horror writer who has since dabbled in the locked room sub-genre when he began writing the PCU books. Only drawback is that the background material, concerning the shenanigans of Jack the Ripper and Crowley, tend to read like textbook excerpts, which is not something every reader can appreciate, but it didn't bother me at all here – even helping to give to story itself a (sort of) personality. But let's take a closer look at the plot of the story.

The plot of Ripper consists of two, intertwining plot-threads beginning with the gruesome killing of a prominent American feminist, named Brigid Marsh, who was "strangled, stabbed, skinned and strung up like a piece of meat." She was dangling by a hooked chain, spiked into the base of her skull, from the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge. A homeless witness below saw the body come over the bridge and heard the footfalls of two people on the bridge. 
Corporal Nicholas Craven of the Mounted Police is the police-detective in charge of the investigation, but, since the victim is a citizen of the United States, he has to contact the Commander of the Special External Section of the Mounted Police (Special X), Robert DeClercq – whose unit handles criminal cases in Canada with a foreign link. This specialized police unit, "staffed by those who'd once spied for the now-defunct Security Service," is another aspect that reminded of me of Fowler's PCU series.

Craven and DeClercq work (more or less) together on the case and their attention is soon drawn to a recently, independently published horror novel, entitled Jolly Roger, which was written by "Skull & Crossbones." Only problem is that the murder preceded the publication of the book. So the book is a direct link to the murderers, but the small-time publisher, Fly-By-Night Press, have no idea who the author, or authors, really are. The only line of contact between the publisher and writer is through a Vancouver postbox. As an interesting side-note: a minor sub-plot of the story is the torture and murder of a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Chas Fowler, who had described Jolly Roger as "the nadir of horror fiction" and an "argument for censorship" – which ended with him getting his head squeezed by mechanical plates until his face split in two and the skull collapsed in on itself. I would really like to know if Slade had a particular reviewer in mind when he wrote that passage.

A second, interesting aspect, of this first plot-thread that should be mentioned is that entomology plays an important role in tracking down the killer. The first victim had been stabbed numerous time in the abdominal region and lice were found there that are normally only found on animals, which are eventually identified as having come from a very specific and endangered animals. This kind of foreshadowed the CSI craze of 2000s and shows how much Slade liked to blur the borders between different (sub) genres.

During this investigation, which takes up half of the book, we get the setup of the second plot-thread.

A woman by the name of Elvira Franklen lives with a gang of cats, all of them named after fictional detectives and mystery writers, and she has been writing "interactive mysteries" since the 1930, but none of them prompted a response like Shivers, Shudders and Shakes: Seance With a Killer – which had been purchased by an unknown buyer and this person had given her strict instructions. A select group of people were to be gathered and brought to Castle Crag on Deadman's Island. Only thing they needed for the charity event was "a real sleuth" and DeClercq had promised Franklen he would provide them one.

Inspector Zinc Chandler was a member of Special X, but he had been shot through the head during the events described in Cutthroat (1992) and, as a consequence, had been sidelined for several years. Unfortunately, the powers that be are reluctant to bring him back into the fold. So DeClercq asks him to go the charity event on Deadman's Island. However, shortly after his arrival there, he quickly stumbles to the conclusion that he has walked into a veritable death-trap as people die left and right in what can only be described as a wholesale slaughter. And several of these killings are of the impossible variety.

A deadly crossbow bolt is fired from a nook in the dining room, where the dust and cobwebs were undisturbed, which has a secondary impossibility of how the antique crossbow could have been fired. As it would have fired itself immediately had it been cocked, loaded and then replaced, because "the heavier weight of the crossbow squeezed the handle toward the stock." There's even an illustration of the crossbow explaining how to operate it. The explanation for this impossibility is deadly simple and finds a new use for a classic locked room technique.

A second impossibility occurs when Chandler witnesses someone entering the Turkish bath, but when he enters only a moment later this person is laying on the floor with his throat cut and a "Y" had been drawn in blood on the tiled-floor – a dying message. Unfortunately, the dying message was rather weak, because it was left unfinished, but the locked room-trick itself was acceptable enough. And these are only two of the murders that took place there over a short period of time. Nearly all of those murders are the result of ingenious and psychotic booby traps that have been rigged up all around the castle.

Japanese edition
A good example of these booby traps is when two of the guests, while having sex in a canopy bed, are trapped inside a net with together venomous baby snakes. Why baby snakes, you ask? The reason given in the book is that adult snakes conserve venom by giving dry bites, but young one (of every species) are barbarians. So, a baby snake, who is frightened by humans, "will empty their poison glands."

So, as you can probably guess, my favorite part of Ripper was the Grand Guignol-style massacre at Castle Crag and this portion of the story reminded me of the mechanical, death-trap house from John Russell Fearn's Account Settled (1949) – which also featured a number of seemingly impossible murders. Only difference is that the murders in Fearn's novel were very clean in comparison the slaughter perpetrated between the pages of Ripper.

Anyway, the Jolly Roger murders and the brutal killings on Deadman's Island turn out to be inextricably linked, which were tied together better than you'd expect from a slasher, with an ending that took its cue from The Burning Court (1937). One of the last lines ("the Hollow Man was hollow no more") really drove home that the author likes Carr.

This has left me in two minds. On the one hand, the graphic serial killer story is not my genre at all, but on the other, the plot was better than it has any right to be. Sure, this is not exactly a neo-Golden Age detective novel, but Slade effectively demonstrated here that even a guts-and-gore-type of thriller can have a degree of logic to it and this is something I really appreciated about Ripper. And the impossible crimes were the cherries that topped this pile of mutilated corpses.

On a whole, I was not entirely blown away by Ripper, but, as a genre classicist, I appreciated Slade's more traditional slant on the contemporary serial killer novel and his obvious love and respect for Carr's work. So you can expect reviews of his other locked room thrillers sometime in the future.


The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) by Christopher Bush

The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) is the eighteenth mystery novel by Christopher Bush and has the unfortunate, two-sided reputation of being an ingeniously plotted detective story marred by lackluster writing and paper-thin characterization. This appraisal of the book is not entirely without merit. However, I can be very forgiving of a detective story's imperfections, like a cast of cardboard characters, if the plot is well put together – probably the reason why I never had a problem with the so-called humdrum school of mystery writing. The Case of the Tudor Queen has quite a rack of a plot on her!

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
A tricky, complicated plot that slowly begins to unravel when Bush's lanky, bespectacled economist and freelance detective, Ludovic Travers, is driving his Rolls-Royce up from Southampton.

Superintendent George "The General" Wharton is in the passenger seat next to him and Palmer is sitting in the back, which makes for a diverse party that provides the book with brief, but interesting, character sketches of the men – only genuine piece of characterization in the entire novel. Travers is described as a man who had been born with "a gold spoon in his mouth" to whom "deduction and the chase were the most thrilling of hobbies" and as a detective was always looking for "the short cut." Wharton was a man who had risen from the ranks and his preferred method is "patient inquiry, slow accumulation" and "the gradual elimination of the unwanted." They were "the perfections of the opposite that make the unique fit."

Travers had missed a turn along the way and they got lost, which is how they ended up at the front-gate of a cottage standing on the outskirts of a tiny village.

A woman emerged from the gate of the cottage, as they passed it, who looked in a hurry and they offered her a ride to the nearby train station. The name of the woman is Edith Bunce, a maidservant and dresser, who's in the employ of a well-known theatrical actress, Mary Legreye – currently playing Mary Tudor in Stony Heart. Legreye had given Bunce a three-day holiday and expected her back at the cottage that day, but the cottage was still all locked up and Legreye had not come with the last train of the day.

Travers and Wharton decide to accompany Bunce back to the cottage, which turns out to have been burglarized. The telephone-line had been hacked through with a knife and later two miniatures, that had hung on the wall, are discovered to be missing.

There's evidence Legreye had arrived at the cottage, but inexplicably left again without her hat, fur and gloves. So this interests our detectives and they decide to take a gander at the main residence of the missing actress, a two-storey house in Westmead called Arden, which is dipped in darkness when they arrive there and awaiting them inside is the scene of a bizarre, double tragedy – which could be either murder, suicide or a combination of the two. Fred Ward was employed by Legreye as an indoor servant and part-time gardener, as "a kind of permanent charity" on her part, but the man was now laying on the kitchen floor. Ward had been dead for many hours.

Legreye is eventually found in an immense room that ran along the whole front of the house and the room had been cleared of all furniture, which had been placed behind a large screen. The only furnishing in that bare room was a single high-backed, winged chair with a side-table next to it. A throne on which the body of Mary Legreye was seated, like "a queen posed to give an audience," with an empty glass and an uncorked bottle standing on the table besides her. Legreye and Ward had both been poisoned. And there was a twenty-four hour gap between their deaths!

Admittedly, I think these opening chapters are the only really engagingly written parts of the story with the investigation at the dark, gloomy house, after the bodies had been discovered, resembling a mansion-story by Roger Scartett – in which the house almost becomes a character itself in the story. Travers is even relieved when finally two uniformed constables arrive, because the house no longer seemed "as clammy and deadly silent." The arrival of the local police had miraculously turned the place into "a mere building" that held "a grim, and even alluring, mystery."

However, I can understand why some readers have a problem with the remainder of the story, which is, regrettably, as flatly written as it's characterized and the plot is structured like one of the earlier novels from the series (c.f. Dead Man Twice, 1930). Something probably not every reader will appreciate.

The Case of the Tudor Queen is divided into two parts, respectively titled "Presentation" and "Solution," which gives the main-stage almost entirely to Superintendent Wharton. As he questions suspects and tests the soundness of their alibis, Travers recedes into the background, like a chameleon, to polish his “monstrous hornrims” and ponder the case. A similar role he had in the earlier novels, like The Perfect Murder Case (1929), but Travers is still the one who eventually gets hold of the solution. Although it took a while in this instance.

The last portion of the story takes place months after the initial investigation, which lead to nowhere, but, by pure chance, Travers is placed on the right track that allows him to completely demolish one of the suspects air-tight alibis – which also explained the clue of the "flake of green enamel paint." I wanted to kick myself for having missed that "the vital clue" that tied the murder or Legreye to the play and the life of the historical character she had portrayed on stage. In my defense, this link didn't occur to Travers either until the last couple of pages.

So, on a whole, The Case of the Tudor Queen is an imperfect detective novel, notably the lackluster story-telling and flat characterization, but the plot is an interesting take on the theatrical mystery. A theatrical mystery that primarily took place in the private life of the lead actress and how the murders came about, as well as why her body was posed on the throne, is vintage Bush. This made for a clever, intricately plotted detective novel that was perhaps not told as well as it could have, but this did not deter me from enjoying the book. I think fans of Bush, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode will agree with me. Unless you're JJ.