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.


  1. Seems like the impossible stories were some of the best, not always the case with a collection of this kind. What kind of time period do these stories span? As in, when they were written?

    1. The series was originally published between 1960 and 1972 in EQMM, but the stories take place during a three-month cruise around the world. A very eventful cruise to say the least.

      Now that I think about it, I think you could compare this collection with the stories from Ellery Queen's International Casebook.

  2. Sounds like an interesting collection. I'll probably pick this up when I order the new Hoch collection later in the year.

    1. I hope you'll enjoy it and looking forward to the review. Your blog has been awfully quiet as of late.

    2. That's because I have a bunch of new anthologies and collections to read through before I can get back to it.

      I've been considering doing something with all the bibliographies I've collated over the years, but I'm not sure exactly what can be made of that without making each post as dry as dust.