The Straw Men (2013) by Paul Doherty

The Straw Men (2013) is the twelfth title in Paul Doherty's "the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan," a series of historical mysteries that originally appeared under the name of "Paul Harding," which emerged from a decade-long dormancy with Bloodstone (2011) and a red-thread runs through these novels – culminating in The Great Revolt (2016) of 1381. Normally, I tend to skip through these series without paying too much heed to chronology, but the Great Uprising brewing in the background made me decide to read these later novels in the correct order. You have to respect history.

The Straw Men takes place in January, 1381 and begins when Sir John Cranston, Lord Coroner of London, is waiting with a comitatus of mounted men-at-arms in "the bleak-white wilderness" of winter. Cranston has been tasked with escorting the Flemish allies of the self-styled Regent of England, John of Gaunt, to the Tower of London, but the Flemish have brought a prisoner with them. A hooded woman on horseback with a masked face. As to be expected, this retinue with escort is ambushed by the Upright Men, members of the Great Community of the Realm, who plot "to root up the past" and "build a New Jerusalem by the Thames" – only to fail in their objective. And this is not the only setback the Upright Men suffered.

Brother Athelstan is the parish priest of St. Erconwald's in Southwark, secretarius to Sir John Cranston and is the Father Brown of the 14th century.

Several days after the attack, Cranston fetches Athelstan and asks him to accompany him to a tavern near the Tower of London, called Roundhoop, where he has trapped some of the Upright Men, but they've taken hostages and threaten to fight to the death – unless they can speak with the Dominican friar. Probably to negotiate a safe passage out by river. However, the situation dissolves into a bloodbath and Athelstan can only listen to the dying words of their masked leader ("tell my beloved to continue gleaning"). These last words were not meant as a dying message, but it became one by the end of the story. I thought that was an interesting use of the dying message that I had not seen before.

So the opening of The Straw Men is packed with battles and bloodshed, but all of this was only the prologue. After these events, a murderer begins to stir within the bulwarks of the Tower. The result of this is a handful of seemingly impossible murders!

The first of these miraculous crimes occurs when John of Gaunt is entertaining his guests with his personal troupe of stage actors, known as the Straw Men, when two arrows, out of nowhere, cut down two of the guests as two heads inexplicably appear on stage. However, the unseen loosening of these arrows and planting the severed heads on stage turned out to be more of a quasi-impossibility. But the next impossible murder is a genuine locked room mystery.

One of the Straw Men, Eli, is murdered in a tower room by a crossbow bolt to the face, but the door was "locked and bolted" from the inside, while the eyelet in the door was immovably stuck in place by old-age and the window was tightly shuttered – both from within and without. The solution to this locked room conundrum is not bad at all. It's as simple as it's elegant and deftly combines technical trickery with human psychology to create the illusion of an impossible murder. Even more importantly, it was fairly original in its execution.

There are two more locked room slayings in the second half of the story and they were cleverly linked together: two men are found dead in their respective tower rooms, one room is situated directly above the other, in which one man appeared to have hanged himself and in the room below someone was stabbed to death. The two-pronged solution to these two locked room murders aren't terribly original or have the same level of synergy as The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room from Detective Conan, but liked them nonetheless. They were a nice little extra.

This is still only a fraction of the entire plot. Athelstan and Cranston have to contend with spies, conspirators, political secrets and a litany of gruesome murders. A hangman is brutally slaughtered and an entire family, except for a baby, is wiped out. So you can forgive an overworked Athelstan that only caught sight of the murder long after the reader has identified this person.

Everyone who pays a modicum of attention and has a passing acquaintance with Doherty's detective fiction can spot the murderer long before the end, which is my sole problem with this otherwise solid entry in the series. The Straw Men is a fast-moving, intricately plotted historical detective novel packed with impossible crime that fascinatingly inches closer to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 – only slightly marred by the obvious murderer. I find it fascinating how Doherty is slowly, but surely, shepherding this series towards the Great Revolt and plan on returning to Athelstan sooner rather than later.


The Other Bullet (1930) by Nancy Barr Mavity

Nancy Barr Mavity was an American biographer, reviewer and journalist, who wrote for such publications as The San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune and Sunset Magazine, but between 1929 and 1933 she produced six detective novels about her series-character, Peter Piper – an ace reporter for the Herald. A final, non-series, mystery appeared in 1937.

I was recently reminded that one of her detective novels, The Other Bullet (1930), was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) and the book happened to be on my shelves. I left it there to collect dust after my disappointing 2012 read of Mavity's The Case of the Silver Sandals (1930), but that was nearly six years ago and the time had come to give her work a second look. However, Adey had incorrectly labeled this book as an impossible crime story. So the string of non-impossible crime reviews continues for now.

The Other Bullet is set in the Californian village of Hangtown in the Sierra foothills where Peter and Barbara Piper are spending their holiday panning an exhausted stream for its last crumbs of gold, but a "tragedy that had crushed in upon them" put a halt to their holiday fun – beginning when an out-of-breath housekeeper, Mrs. Coak, announces that a man had been shot at the ranch-house office. Don Mortison had been hired by Max Everett, a construction engineer, to manage the ranch when he's away to work on an irrigation dam project. This meant he was away from home most of the time and left his urban wife, Aline, behind in Hangtown like an Englishman in the jungle.

So, naturally, Aline felt attracted to the well-read, equally out-of-place ranch-hand and they got involved with one another, but a witness claims he saw Aline shooting her loves. She does not even deny that she killed Mortison. However, Aline claims she only shot Mortison once. Not twice.

On a side-note, the aspect that earned The Other Bullet its spot in Adey's Locked Room Murders is the early onset of rigor mortis shortly after Mortison was shot. So I expected trickery where the time of death was concerned or perhaps even something along the lines of the rapidly-decaying body from Hake Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman (1942), but the problem of early rigor mortis turned out to have simple, natural explanation – which came to light during the postmortem examination. I've no idea why Adey included it in Locked Room Murders.

Anyway, there are a number of potential suspects and one of them was criminally underused. Hermann Schnitzler is a retired farmer from Pennsylvania and he's convinced that Mortison had hexed him, preventing his crops from growing, which is a superstition that was once rife in Pennsylvania and was used in Alexander William's The Hex Murder (1935).

Aline Everett is put on trial for Mortison's murder and the courtroom scenes constitute the best parts of the story. One scene in particular was very memorable. As an outsider, Aline was not very popular with the people of Hangtown and she came to court dressed like "an advertisement out of Vanity Fair" flourishing a "cigarette-holder at the jury the minute court adjourned" – an action that was akin to "a red rag to a bull." So her own lawyer felt compelled to wrench the cigarette-holder from her hand and "grind it under his heel on the courtroom floor." A great scene! Sadly, the story went rapidly down hill after Aline was acquitted of murdering Mortison.

The first half is undoubtedly the best part of the book, but there were also hints in this portion that the plotting was as shoddy as the police work.

Mortison had two bullet-holes in him: a fatal shot in his neck and a bullet in his lung, which was fired after he had already been shot and killed. This should have come to light during the postmortem examination and should have prevented Aline from going to trial. This was shoddy plotting, to say the least.

The Other Bullet is best described as a tale of two bullets with the victim as the only link between the two stories. So, once the trial is over, Piper tries to figure out who really shot Mortison and follows a trail of clues that includes a mutilated photograph, a signet ring and an 11-year-old murder case. The plot of the second story struck me as an imitation of some of the Sherlock Holmes novels (e.g. The Sign of Four, 1890), but an imitation that was as pale and poorly done as Joseph Bowen's The Man Without a Head (1933) – only difference between the two is that Mavity was better writer than Bowen. You should not expect too much from the eventual solution, which was hardly fair and the only surprise is that neither of shooters turned out to be legally murderers.

My impression is that Mavity constantly wanted two different things at the same time, but failed to deliver on any of them. The story of the first bullet had potential, but ended with a disappointing, anti-climatic acquittal and the second bullet-story simply harked back to the works of Conan Doyle. I think this part was not half as interesting as the first leg of the story. Another example is the forensic aspect of the plot. Mavity made a point of ballistics and the early onset of rigor mortis, but completely ignored that an autopsy would have revealed that Aline's bullet was not the fatal one.

If you look to whom Mavity dedicated the book (Edward Oscar Heinrich, scientific crime analysis), I suspect she willfully ignored the postmortem gunshot wound, because she wanted to write those courtroom scenes.

So, as said, my impression of The Other Bullet is that Mavity wanted to have her cake and eat it to. Unfortunately, this resulted in a mess of a detective story that began promising, but ended up frustrating and annoying me to no end. I can't really recommend this book to anyone. I'll probably abandon this series altogether unless someone can give me a recommendation with an iron-clad guarantee that the plot can pass the muster.

Well, I try to dig up something good for my next post to make up for this. Probably a good, old-fashioned locked room mystery. So stay tuned!


The Perfect Alibi: “The Letters That Spelled Doom” (2018) by Anne van Doorn

Previously, I reviewed De student die zou trouwen (The Student Who Was to Get Married, 2018) by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of Dutch crime writer M.P.O. Books, in which I reported that a third novel and a whole raft of brand new short stories were in the offing – scheduled for publication between July, 2018 and September, 2019. The publisher of this series, E-Pulp, recently put out a newsletter with one of these new short stories as a freebie. I decided to take a look at that story as a followup to my previous review.

"De brieven die onheil spelden" ("The Letters That Spelled Doom") takes place during the year-long investigation detailed in The Student Who Was to Get Married and begins when Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong are discussing another missing persons case that has been dragging on since the early 1980s. A case that will be at the heart of the third novel, De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019).

In this story, Corbijn remembers a murder he had handled, when he was still with the police, which showed certain commonalities with the woman who disappeared in 1983. So he tells his young assistant the story of the murdered fruit farmer and a murderer who appeared to have an indisputable alibi.

The backdrop of the story is a tiny, but idyllic, hamlet with "a mill, and old castle and a meandering river" surrounded by orchards, meadows and grain fields – where cherries, pears and apples were harvested. It was the kind of community where everyone knew each other and the people lived a peaceful, happy existence there. Only stain on the place was a deadly brawl in the village pub twenty-five years ago.

Frank van Steenderen is a fruit farmer who had revitalized the family farm and married the nurse of his late father, Fenna Wessendorp, who are expecting their first child. An idyllic existence brutally torn asunder when Frank is murdered in the farm shop and, on the surface, the murder looks like a robbery gone wrong, but the murderer appears to have known his way around the place and a picture of Fenna had been vandalized – cut to pieces with the blood-smeared murder weapon. Nevertheless, the police find a perfect set of fingerprints on the carving knife and they belong to Frank's half-brother, Peter van Steenderen. The black sheep of the family who had been responsible for the deadly brawl in the village pub all those years ago.

A month later, Fenna finds two threatening letters addressed that had been addressed to her late husband. The letters were written by Peter and accused them of having murdered his father, in order to get the family farm, but promised to return to the village "to settle that old account." So, an open-and shut case, but, in spite of the evidence, Peter could not have killed his half-brother. Peter had died the day before Frank was murdered! You can't wish for better person to alibi you than the Grim Reaper.

I'll throw it out here, because someone is bound to bring it up in the comments, but "The Letters That Spelled Doom" bears an interesting resemblance to the plot of Noël Vindry's Le double alibi (The Double Alibi, 1934). However, the stories are very different in solution and execution. And, no, this is not an impossible crime story. 

As Corbijn tells his story, De Jong tries to fit together all of the pieces and comes up with clever, but false, solution implicating the Chestertonian mailman that came with a rock solid motive and provided an answer to the potential question if the letters could have been intercepted – and possibly replaced with threatening ones. A well thought through false solution that are always a joy to find a detective story.

The story ends with Corbijn revealing the only person who could have been the murderer and how the Merrivalean blinkin' cussedness of things in general ruined a potentially perfect crime, which also uncovered a clever, double-layered plot. The story played reasonably fair with the reader, as far as the identity of the murderer is concerned, but you can only really guess at the motive.

On a whole, "The Letters That Spelled Doom" is a good detective story written in the classic mold with an unbreakable alibi, a perfectly acceptable false solution and an intricate, double-layered murder plot. So I have very little to complain about and look forward to the other stories in this series. Particularly the one about the impossible murder on the city bus.

To be continued...


The Student Who Was to Get Married (2018) by Anne van Doorn

During the past year, I reviewed two Dutch short story collections by "Anne van Doorn," a penname of crime novelist M.P.O. Books, in which he laid the groundwork for a series of detective stories about a pair of particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators), Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong – specialized in cases which have lain unsolved for years or even decades. They work primarily on missing person cases and unsolved murders, but occasionally also take on problems too bizarre for the police (e.g. "The Girl Who Stuck Around" from the second collection).

So far, there have been two collections of short stories and two full-length novels with more short stories and a third novel in the offing in the coming months.

De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (The Lover Who Disappeared in the Bog and Other Mysteries, 2017) collected the first short stories in this series and was followed by the novel-length De ouders keerden niet terug (The Parents Didn't Return, 2017). De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen en andere mysteries (The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, 2018) appeared earlier this year and was recently followed by De student die zou trouwen (The Student Who Was to Get Married, 2018). There are twelve stories scheduled to be published between July, 2018 and September, 2019 with a third novel to be released that same year – entitled De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Cleared His Conscience, 2019). The third batch of short stories looks very promising and apparently includes two stories of the impossible variety.

I decided to finally take a crack at the novels and, as to be expected from me, I ignored the chronology of the series and picked up the second book, but this time there's a good reason for it. The Student Who Was to Get Married is the conclusion of forty year old missing person case that Corbijn is obsessed with and has been referred to in the short stories numerous times. A second reason is that part of the story takes place in Utrecht. Just look at the beautiful Domtoren (Dom Tower) on the book cover!

The 23-year-old Jan Willem de Geer is the student of the book-title, who completed his study in biochemical engineering in 1976 with honors, which earned him a research grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was about to get married to Helma Lansink – after which they would emigrate to the United States. On July 8, 1976, nine days before his wedding and two weeks before they would move to America, De Geer simply vanished from the face of the Earth.

On the day of his disappearance, De Geer had called his fiance, borrowed the bicycle from a fellow student and went to a bookstore in the center of Utrecht. There he ordered a book and bought a newspaper, which will play a key-part in the investigation, but there the trail simply ended. De Geer was never heard or seen of again.

De Geer was in a good mood on the day of his disappearance, although he was worried about something in the preceding days, but nothing to indicate he was planning to cut and run. So the family and his fiance are shocked when, two months later, a young woman by the name of Vicky Kramer turns up out of the blue and claims she's pregnant with De Geer's child – result of a one-night stand back in February. Kramer has a bank check, signed by De Geer, as prove he was to acknowledge their unborn child and cancel the wedding. However, more than a decade later, a DNA-test proved Kramer had been lying and scammed the well-to-do family of De Geer out of a small fortune. The last tangible clue was the borrowed bicycle that was eventually dredged, properly locked, from a rural canal near a hamlet in South Holland. Someone had obviously dumped it there.

This happened forty years ago and the case has not only gone cold, but the statute of limitations, in case of murder, run out in 1994. Only thing the family can really hope for is finding the remains of De Geer and learning what really happened on the sweltering summer day in 1976. So they hire Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research & Discover.

Corbijn has been obsessing over this case since the series began and there are numerous references to their tireless investigation in the short stories. In the final story of The Mountains That Do Not Forget and Other Mysteries, "De dame die niet om hulp had gevraagd" ("The Lady Who Had Not Asked for Help"), Corbijn tells a story to De Jong about a previous case, while they wait for the identification of a recently unearthed skeleton, which was found when a fallen tree had lay bare a shallow grave – clues found in the grave suggest that the skeleton may belong to the long-missing Jan Willem de Geer. These clues are his watch and the keys of the bicycle. Well, the remains are identified as belonging to De Geer and he was brutally beaten to death before being buried.

Corbijn and De Jong begin their last, exhausting leg of this long-dragging investigation and the path to the truth bridges stretches across an entire year as they question the people who are still alive and (interestingly) let them read the old, 1976 newspaper De Geer had bought on the day he disappeared – hoping this may yield a clue. They also have to answer the puzzling question why the remains of De Geer was unearthed in a secluded area, on the Darthuizerberg near the village of Leersum, on the Utrechtse Heuvelrug and the bicycle in the Woerdense Verlaat. Those two places are at least 40 kilometers apart.

So this reads more like a police procedural than a detective novel. Only difference is that instead of two professional policemen we have a pair private investigators who plow through this case like an unflagging, doggedly-determined Inspector French.

There are traces here of the police procedural in the private lives of Corbijn and De Jong, which, by the way, do not intrude on the story like so many other modern crime series do. There are, however, problems in the personal lives of the two detectives. De Jong has trouble at home stemming from a debt she inherited from her father and Corbijn, who's very keen on his privacy, has several skeletons rattling in his closet throughout the book. This makes me suspect that Corbijn is the man who'll relieve his conscience in the third novel.

There were also several references to the coming stories and some were very interesting to say the least. One of the case they're working on in the background is a murder by strangulation of an American on a city bus, but nobody on the bus saw or heard a thing! A second case they're looking into is a fifty year old murder of a Belgian mine-worker committed hundreds of meters underground! I only wish the mine-murder story was set even further back into the past, because that would given him the opportunity to use the now long-vanished country of Neutral Moresnet. A miniature state that once existed from 1816 to 1920 on the three-country-border between the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The country existed around a zinc mine and, due to its special status, was used as a clearing point for liquor smuggling. Moresnet was a Libertarian's wet-dream come true. Somehow, this unique place, brimming with possibilities, was never used in a detective story. Not even in an adventure or spy yarn. Believe me, I looked. Anyway...

The Student Who Was to Get Married is not a detective story, but a police procedural in the private-eye mold and this makes for engaging story, as you follow them along, but you're never placed in a position that allows you to put all the pieces together yourself. There are hints and foreshadowing, but nothing in the way of proper clueing. However, you discover everything at the same time as Corbijn and De Jong. So the book plays fair in regards that the detectives don't keep anything from the reader.

However, despite this not being really a proper detective story, I burned through the pages like an unquenchable forest fire. You see, long before the impossible crime genre stole my heart, I was fascinated by detective stories in which the past rises from the grave to obscure the present by the unearthing of a pile of bones. I also mention this interest in my 2011 review of Bill Pronzini's Bones (1985) and probably explained myself a lot better there. I simply find intriguing how these stories not only piece together the scattered, time-worn pieces of a long-forgotten crime, but often also have reconstruct the past itself. Something that was very well done here as a hot-button political issue of the 1970s and the effects of the seventeen-day heatwave dovetails with the who, how and why of the murder.

The Student Who Was to Get Married was a well-written, compelling crime novel that kept me glued to the pages. I'm looking forward to the coming short stories and one of them will be reviewed before too long.


The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942) is the twenty-fifth novel in the Ludovic Travers series and concluded a wartime trilogy, anteceded by The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) and The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942), which places Travers on the staff of a new Home Guard school in Derbyshire – resulting in a war-themed scholastic mystery. So this may very well be the only detective novel to combine a school setting with a strong war-theme sewn through the plot.

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
An urgent postal telegram summons Major Travers to the War Office, Room 299, where he learns that the Home Guard is in need of skilled instructors. The Home Guard came into being after Dunkirk to meet "the imminent threat of invasion," but, now that they were fully armed and equipped, what they needed is "an enormous number of trained instructors" to turn the paper tiger of the Home Guard into a regular fighting force – who know how to use the weapons and are skilled in "the very latest methods of attack and defense." However, the task allotted to Travers at Peakridge is not as exciting as training the Home Guard in explosives and guerrilla tactics.

Travers is to lecture on administration, because a lot of men simply don't seem to get the hang of the administrative side. Something that's becoming very important.

No. 5 School for Instructors of Home Guard at rugged Peakridge in Derbyshire has a staff drawn from professional, full-time soldiers ("Regulars") and "Not-So-Regular" members of the army. The Home Guard was formed to defend the islands in case of invasion and, when they can no longer hold a defensive position, they become guerrillas to "harry the Hun," which is why the irregulars were attracted as instructors – who gained valuable experience in anti-tank warfare and guerrilla tactics in such scraps as the Spanish Civil War. After only a week, or so, the staff was split into two camps with Travers acting as "as a kind of liaison officer."

The Case of the Fighting Soldier is narrated by Travers and he tells the reader that he has disguised the names of the characters, because he "cannot even hint at the real names." All of the name describe the man or his duties at the school. For example, Colonel Topman is the top man of the lot and Flick is in charge of the school cinema.

So this is probably nothing more than to give the story a (fictional) whiff of authenticity, but you have to wonder whether the characters, or their personalities, were based on people Bush had met during his time in the army. It could be a sly way of telling the reader that, yes, these characters really do exist. According to our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans, Bush probably pulled a similar stunt in The Case of the Monday Murders (1936) with a character who could have been modeled on Anthony Berkeley.

One of the school instructors is Captain Mortar, a very brash, self-styled fighting soldier, who fought in The Great War, The Spanish Civil War, Mexico and Bolivia – reputedly "cursed like hell because he couldn't be in South America and Abyssinia at the same time." Mortar has brought along his own batman, Feeder, which is very irregular and not entitled to wear a uniform, but Feeder had been fighting with Mortar all over the world. Together with a man by the name of Ferris, who fought in Spain, they represent the faction of irregulars. Unpopular with their fellow staff members, but immensely popular with the Home Guard students.

However, Mortar has a genius for making enemies and there are several near "accidents." During a demonstration with the Blacker Bombard, a winged, twenty-pound bomb with nine pounds of high-explosives inside is fired, but it was aimed low and didn't explode. There are traces of chewing-gum found inside the barrel of the bomb launcher, but even more worrying is that they're unable to locate and destroy the unexploded bomb.

A second incident occurs on the bombing ground where the students are instructed how the throw grenades with dummy bombs. Ferris is conducting this class from the middle of the ground, into which the dummy bombs would be thrown, but, all of a sudden, there was a crashing roar of an explosion and Ferris had a narrow escape, which turns out to have been a live grenade – attached to a length of a twine and a peg. A good, old-fashioned booby-trap! The culmination of these incidents is a huge explosion blowing Captain Mortar to Kingdom Come in his bedroom and the booby-trap employed here is worthy of John Rhode.
A nifty diagram of a grenade from Fighting Soldier

Superintendent George "The General" Wharton was an Intelligence officer in the previous war and is summoned to the school to investigate the death of Mortar, but this task is done under the guise of a special lecturer on security. This means that he's back in uniform and turned his huge walrus mustache into a first-class buffalo, which made him nearly unrecognizable to Travers. And speaking of Travers. The Case of the Fighting Soldier is the third time in a row that he's upstaged by Wharton. So this wartime trilogy should really be considered the Superintendent Wharton mini-series with Travers as a supporting character.

Anyway, the first half of the story is arguably the best part of the book. The background of the Home Guard school is fascinating and the setup of the plot, alongside the initial stages of the investigation, were very well done, but interest began to flack a little bit in the second half as the story slowly morphed in a regular whodunit. A whodunit that was not all that difficult to solve. I immediately spotted the motive of the murder and the identity of the culprit can easily be worked out from there, which makes this book, plot-wise, the lesser entry in this trilogy – which is not to say that this is a bad mystery. Just not the best in the series.

There is, however, an interesting scene in the second half demonstrating to the reader how Travers' brain work. Travers has often alluded in previous novels that his mind is of "the crossword kind" and his contribution to the solution came when he solved a crossword puzzle in an illustrated magazine. There's even a diagram of the crossword puzzle he was working on when a remark from Mortar came flooding back to him, but it was his policeman friend who followed this evidence to its logical conclusion. Nevertheless, I still think Travers is the best example of how the create a fallible detective without crushing their conscience with guilt over a failure. I'm looking at you, Ellery Queen!

So, all in all, The Case of the Fighting Soldier is a good, but not the best, entry in both this series and trilogy of wartime detective novels. I'm glad this trio of war stories ceded the spotlight of detective to Superintendent Wharton. A normally secondary character who's more than deserving to upstage the series-character and you can easily see how Wharton could have helmed his own series. So this was a nice side-track in the series, but hope to see Travers get the best of his policeman friend again in my next read.


The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel (1942) is the twenty-fourth novel in the lengthy Ludovic Travers series and the second of three mysteries, book ended by The Case of the Murdered Major (1941) and The Case of the Fighting Soldier (1942), that together form a trilogy of war-themed detective stories – branded by Curt Evans as "the most notable series of wartime detective fiction." I think the first of these three wartime mysteries definitely lived up to praise, but what about its second one? Let's find out, shall we?

Reprinted by Dean Street Press
Previously, Captain Travers was assigned to an internment camp as its Adjutant Quartermaster and became, yet again, embroiled in a murder case. However, this time he was upstaged by his policeman friend, Superintendent George "The General" Wharton of Scotland Yard.

The Case of the Kidnapped Colonel is the first book in the series to be narrated by Travers, promoted to the rank of Major, who's transferred to Camp 55 near the city of Dalebrink in Derbyshire. Major Travers is placed in charge of the camp and the place is tasked with guarding two factories, tunnels, a bridge and "a certain hush-hush establishment."

Wharton happens to be in Derbyshire on "special hush-hush work" and Travers begins to suspect Wharton is the reason why he was transferred to Camp 55, which involves vitally important research work for the defense department and a leftist group of pacifists, New Era Group (N.E.G.) – locally known as "Neggers." A wily lot of "cranks and intellectuals" planning a New Order and there are people who want to see "the whole collection of Neggers" under lock and key.

Dalebrink Hall is the home of Colonel Brende, a gunnery expert, who uses the place as a facility to research a method to detect night-flying aircraft. Colonel Brende is assisted in his work by three experts: Heinrich Wissler, formerly Professor of Physics at the University of Prague, who resembles Albert Einstein as a young man. Francis Newton, Professor of Physics, and a research student, George Riddle. The well-born and alluring Hon. Penelope Craye, a distant cousin of Colonel and Mrs. Brende, fulfills the duties of private secretary, but before the war, there were whispers that "she was one of the set of Hitler's apologists." So there you have some of the important pieces of the plot, but, before they can be moved into action, we get to see some of the effects of the war on the local community.

The town is bombed during a nighttime air-raid and the bombing demolishes a number of houses, killed twelve people and left some forty injured.

Rev. Lancelot Benison, an Anglican minister, is the moving spirit behind the Neggers and published a fiery letter in the Clarion holding the authorities responsible for those twelve souls as "surely as if they had cut their throats" – coldly countered by Travers that you can't have an omelet without breaking an egg. He also has his duties as Commandant of Camp 55 and one of his jobs is having to deal with Howard Craye, "a lounge lizard in uniform," who's Mrs. Brende's nephew. And he can't even be bothered to salute properly. Than there's a mysterious background character, Major Passenden, who turned up in Lisbon and had hinted at "incredible adventures in France," but the fat hits the pan when Colonel Brende is inexplicably taken from his home.

Once again, Bush created here a quasi-impossible situation. There was a cordon of sentries around the house and "they were all keyed up to the highest pitch of alertness," because the Home Guard had setup an exercise with the aim of entering certain spots the camp was guarding as mock German para-troopers. This placed the guards on high-alert. So how did the kidnappers passed through this cordon? Not once, but twice! I think the solution strips this locked house mystery of its status as an impossible crime, you'll know why when you read it, but this is why I have become so fond of this series.

Up to this point, the story appeared to be dominated by the intrigues of the spy genre, but the traditional detective elements slowly overtake the plot when Penelope Craye's champagne is doctored with "a strong solution of veronal" – which will furnish the book with an ending befitting a mystery novel of this vintage. I needed some time to penetrate through the fog of far and piece together (most) of the puzzle, but eventually, with only a quarter left to go, I had a good, nearly complete picture of what had been happening.

There is, however, one thing I need to mention about the identity of the murderer (no spoilers). Bush was not the first one to use this specific solution and only came across it once before, but the plot was handled very poorly in that novel. Resulting in one of the most transparent mysteries ever written. I think it's a testament to Bush's talent as a plotter that he only could make this trick work, but even fool a reader who has seen it before! Honestly, the comparison didn't occur to me until I had figured parts of the solution out. Well played, Mr. Bush. Well played.

You know what else I really like about this series? You'll never know who's going to provide the solution. More often than not, the unraveling of the plot is collaborative effort between Travers and Wharton. As each of them find the various pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes, one manages to completely upstage the other. This is the second time in row Travers is reduced to the rank of supporting character by Wharton. This is an interesting and original way to humanize your series-detective without having to resort to the fallible detective trope. Travers and Wharton are simply ordinary human beings who pool to talent and knowledge to solve a problem.

By the way, if Wharton goes 3-0 in The Case of the Fighting Soldier, I'm going to refer to this wartime trilogy as the Superintendent George Wharton series. He deserves it.

So, yes, this was definitely one of the better Bush's, regardless of period, and comes highly recommended to fans of the series and mystery readers who love detective stories with WWII as a backdrop. Or if you simply enjoy a good detective yarn.