Murder for Christmas (1949) by Francis Duncan

One of the more obscure mystery writers to reemerge from the shrouded mist of the past during this current Renaissance Age is "Francis Duncan," a pseudonym of William Underhill, who authored twenty detective novels over as many years and were largely forgotten for decades – until Random House decided to reprint him back in 2015. Murder Has a Motive (1947) and So Pretty a Problem (1950) were undoubtedly worthy of being resurrected.

Back in October, Dean Street Press revived the work of an equally obscure, long-since forgotten writer, Francis Vivian, whose detective stories beg to be compared with Duncan.

Most notably, they both have likable, humanist series-detectives and, stylistically, appear to be very similar. John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, posted a comment on my review of The Sleeping Island (1951) saying how Vivian's Darkling Death (1956) reminded him of Duncan's Behold a Fair Woman (1954). There are, however, differences between the two. Duncan was a more polished, literary writer with a firmer grasp on characterization, but Vivian tended to have tighter, better clued and more original plots (e.g. The Singing Masons, 1950) – which makes them more satisfying as pure detective stories. And the biggest difference is that Vivian's Gordon Knollis is the consummate policeman, while Duncan's Mordecai Tremaine quintessential amateur sleuth.

Vivian made me want to return to Duncan's detective fiction for a second look and had saved one of those recent reprints for those cold, dark days before Christmas.

Murder for Christmas (1949) has all the trappings of a traditional, wintry Christmas detective story in the spirit of C.H.B. Kitchin's Crime at Christmas (1934), Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938), Georgette Heyer's Envious Casca (1941) and Ngaio Marsh's Tied Up in Tinsel (1972). But the writing lifts this one above your average, Yuletide mystery novel.

The stage of the story is an ancient hall, Sherbroome House, which had been the seat of the Barons of Sherbroome for centuries and sighs under the weight of history, but their descendants had not lived in the house for generations and the place became overgrown, derelict and dreary – until Benedict Grame bought it. Grame is a Mr. Pickwick of a man who loves "the atmosphere of the Dickensian Christmas" with "all of the festivities we associate with the season." So, once every year, he gathers a group of relatives, friends and associates at his house "to enjoy Christmas in a really old-fashioned way."

A new addition to the party this year is the retired tobacconist, hopeless romanticist and potent murder-magnet, Mordecai Tremaine, who has a deep-rooted passion for criminology and sentimental literature – reading the treacle-laden magazine Romantic Stories throughout the series. Tremaine always reminds me of Agatha Christie's Mr. Satterthwaite. An elderly, benevolent and sentimental soul who gets all dreamy-eyed when confronted with young people who are deeply in love. But this close ally of lovers everywhere also has a shadow-side to his personality.
Tremaine has an appetite for detection, "the excitement of the chase" and "the keenness of testing his brain against the cunning of a murderer," but he's aware the price of his hobby is "the destruction of a human creature." A mystery is something he simply could not resist. And the promise of a mystery is what lured him to Sherbroome House.

A postscript had been added to Tremaine's invitation by Grame's confidential secretary, Nicholas Blaise, telling him there's "something wrong" at Sherbroome House.

When he arrives at the house, Tremaine finds exactly what you'd expect from a Christmas party in an old-fashioned mystery novel: there are two young lovers, Roger Wynton and Denys Arden, but her guardian, Jeremy Rainer, is dead-set against the marriage. Grame's hermit-like sister, Charlotte, and a close friend, Gerald Beechley, who has a penchant for practical jokes. Rosalind Marsh is the cool-headed, cynical owner of a curio-and art shop and Lucia Tristam is a widow with her sights set on either Grame or Rainer. Professor Lorring is "drawn after Ebenezer Scrooge" and openly defies the spirit of Christmas. The party is rounded out by a married couple, the Napiers. Just about as unexpected, Tremaine finds that the jolly, good natured spirit of the season is only on the surface. And that the party has an inexplicable animosity towards the lavishly decorated Christmas tree.

So the snow-covered countryside provides "a seasonable background" to the apparent jolly Christmas party at Sherbroome House, but to Tremaine everything feels unreal. And has the feeling that, sooner or later, you were going to find yourself in the middle of a nightmare.

Well, the inevitable happens when the household is awakened very early on Christmas morning by screaming and they find a "fantastically clothed body sprawled under the Christmas tree" that had been despoiled of its gift. Someone had shot Father Christmas!

The policeman placed in charge of the investigation is Superintendent Cannock, a friend of Inspector Jonathan Boyce, who has been told about Tremaine and wants to use him as "a sort of unofficial observer," but his fellow guests are aware he's a detective and are as reluctant to talk to him as they are to the police – making it all the more difficult to sort out the pack of lies confronting them. However, Tremaine slowly, but surely, unravels a cruel, complicated and fascinating plot that resulted in the unfortunate murder of Father Christmas. A plot that, in some ways, reminded me of Nicholas Brady's The House of Strange Guests (1932). But the plot also has its weak points.

Duncan was a good writer, who knew how to tell a story and characterize, which is probably why all of the important clues hinge on the behavior of the characters, but these are more hints than clues. And they're not enough to help you pinpoint the murderer or the motive. There are barely any physical clues and important pieces of information are given too late into the game or not at all, which distracts from an otherwise well-written story and clever plot. A long-time mystery reader can probably half-guess, half-deduce the murderer's identity, but crossing the t's and dotting the i's is a lot harder to do. And finding out the somewhat original motive is next to impossible.

So, purely as a detective, Murder for Christmas is not going to make the shortlist of all-time best country house mysteries, but as a seasonal detective story, the book is definitely a cut above most Christmas mystery novels – a category of detective fiction that has yet to produce a genuine classic. What makes Murder for Christmas stand out is the great, often evocative writing and actually making the Christmas celebration part of the plot (e.g. the village carollers, the Christmas tree and the Santa Claus customs). Something you can't say of every Christmas-themed detective novel.

Unless you're an old humbug, Murder for Christmas comes recommended as a pleasant, leisure read for the holidays.


A Puzzle for Dessert: "The Recipe" (1990) by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov is a monument of the Science-Fiction genre and was a ferocious mystery reader who, together with Anthony Boucher, became one of the most important "Visitors from Science-Fiction" to the detective story – penning the stellar The Caves of Steel (1953). A novel that demolished the argument that modern forensics and emerging technologies have made clever, intricate plotting absolute decades before it was made. An undisputed top 100 mystery novel!

Asimov proved to have a versatile hand when handling the detective story format and wrote hybrids (Asimov's Mysteries, 1968), juvenile mysteries (The Key Word and Other Mysteries, 1977) and regular detective novels (Murder at the ABA, 1976), but my personal favorite will always remains his series of short armchair detective stories.

The Black Widowers is a men-only dinner club, who meet once a month, comprising of Geoffrey Avalon (patent lawyer), James Drake (chemist), Mario Gonzalo (artist), Roger Halsted (mathematics teacher), Emmanuel Rubin (novelist) and Thomas Trumbull (cryptography expert). Every month, they come together in a private-room at an Italian restaurant, Milano, and one of them has to bring a along an interesting guest.

Traditionally, the guest is grilled, all in good humor, which includes the question how the guest justifies his existence, but every time it turns out that the guest has an unsolved mystery for them answer – usually these problems falls into the category of "Everyday Life Mysteries." They occasionally get to discuss a murder (e.g. "Early Sunday Morning" from Tales of the Black Widowers, 1974), but, more often than not, they're those minor mysteries everyone can encounter in their day-to-day life. A good example of this is the missing umbrella from "Lost in a Space Warp" from The Return of the Black Widowers (2003).

However, the person who solves all of these mysteries is their waiter and honorary club member, Henry Jackson, who closely listens to the stories and false solutions proposed by the Black Widowers. And from this he reasons the one and only correct explanation for any given problem.

The Puzzles of the Black Widowers (1990) is the penultimate collection in this series and the last story, "The Recipe," was the final new Black Widowers story to be published during Asimov's lifetime.

Interestingly, "The Recipe" is homage to everyone's favorite mystery novelist and the master of the locked room puzzle, John Dickson Carr. In his afterword, Asimov wrote that he was inspired to write the story after reading The Third Bullet (1953) and was at "once overwhelmed with a desire" to craft a locked room puzzle, but was faced with the seemingly impossibility of thinking up "a new gimmick" – Carr had simply done it all. Nevertheless, an idea occurred to him and sat down to put the idea to paper in one sitting. Asimov was a notorious writing machine.

Note for the curious: Asimov said in the same afterword that he had never written "a Black Widowers story involving a locked-room," but this is not entirely true. "The Redhead" from Banquets of the Black Widowers (1984) is a genuine locked room story about a miraculous disappearance. If I remember correctly, "Ph As in Phony" and "The Obvious Factor" from Tales of the Black Widowers are borderline impossible crimes.

"The Recipe" begins with a discussion of Carr and locked room mysteries in general after Trumbull casually mentioned he had just read The Third Bullet. However, I think many of us, particular my fellow locked room readers, would take exception to the opinions spouted by the Black Widowers here!

Carr's writing is criticized as being overly melodramatic so that "the reader is always uncomfortably aware that he is reading fiction." Personally, I love Carr's Baghdad-on-the-Thames or Grand Guignol novels and his ability to create tense, terror-filled atmosphere is one of the most attractive aspects of his detective fiction. However, that's completely subjective. 

But they also criticize his plotting: Carr's locked room solution take an average of twenty pages to explain, which are "so intricate that the reader can't follow it without reading it several times," but this is not entirely true – because The Third Bullet is one of those elegantly simple impossible crime. Sure, Carr has dreamed up some ridiculous, overly complex locked room tricks (e.g. The Problem of the Wire Cage, 1939). But what about The Judas Window (1938), She Died a Lady (1943), He Who Whispers (1946) and Captain Cut-Throat (1955)? These are some of his best and most popular works with good, but easy to explain, locked room tricks.

Rubin is a mystery novelist and tells the group he never tried his hand at a locked room novel, because he claims Carr "killed the market for them." And he couldn't think of "a new variation." This reminded Gonzalo of the What's the Greatest Not By. So "what's the greatest locked-room mystery story not written by John Dickson Carr?" Nobody had an answer! Nobody! I'm an unapologetic JDC fanboy, but even I can throw out numerous examples that can rival the master: W. Shepard Pleasants' The Stingaree Murders (1932), Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (1948), Derek Smith's Whistle Up the Devil (1954), Helen McCloy's Mr. Splitfoot (1968), Herbert Resnicow's The Dead Room (1987) and Paul Halter's La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005). Just to name but a few.

After the banquet and discussion, the guest of the evening, Myron Dynest, tells the Black Widowers he has a real-life example of a locked house mystery.

Dynest used to be plumber and moved from the city to suburbs where his wife, an old-fashioned country woman, has come back to life as she spends her time organizing church socials, picnics and neighborhood activities – as well as putting her talents as a cook to good use. Ginny is an excellent cook and someone suggested she should bundle all of her recipes into a cookbook. However, Ginny is reluctant to part with the recipe of her famous blueberry muffins and only briefly wrote down the recipe. Before she destroyed it. This happened when Ginny was babysitting a bunch of five-year-old children and the house had been completely locked at the time. Nobody had entered or left the house in the brief period between the time the recipe was written down and destroyed, but the recipe was stolen and the next day the recipe was posted on the church bulletin board. A word for word copy as she had written it. So who stole the recipe and, more importantly, how was it done?

The solution to the problem of the locked house is fairly clued, but the answer to the trick is not exactly original. I've seen variations on this trick before, which usually turn out to be incredibly carny, however, Asimov deserves credit for delivering the most believable and acceptable version of this locked room idea – which alone makes this story potential material for a future locked room anthology. I do think that the solution, especially the identity of the culprit, shows Asimov's admiration for Agatha Christie.

All things considered, "The Recipe" was a minor, but amusing, locked room story and a reminder I have to return one of these days to the Black Widowers.


Die Again, Macready (1984) by Jack Livingston

A strange, but fascinating, passageway in the locked room-and impossible crime genre is a dark, grimy alley that opens onto those mean streets of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer. A narrow passage connecting the cerebral detective story with the world of the tough, gruff and grizzled private dicks with the locked room puzzle serving as a linchpin between the traditional and hardboiled styles – an unlikely combination that can be magical when done right. Bill Pronzini's Hoodwink (1981), Scattershot (1982) and Bones (1985) are perfect examples of blending hardboiled story-telling with a puzzling impossible crime plot.

Thrilling Detective Website has a whole page dedicated to these cross-genre composites, "And Throw Away the Key! Locked Room P.I. Mysteries," listing such titles as Jonathan Latimer's Headed for a Hearse (1935), Roman McDougald's The Blushing Monkey (1953) and Tucker Coe's Murder Among Children (1967).

There are, however, some (notable) omissions like Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key (1941), Manly Wade Wellman's Find My Killer (1947), Fredric Brown's Death Has Many Doors (1951), Stephen Mertz's Some Die Hard (1979) and Pronzini's Schemers (2009). Recently, I found another little-known title that enjoys an equal amount of obscurity as both a locked room and hardboiled P.I. novel, but deserved some kind of recognition. More so as a dark, gritty, but well-written, crime novel than as an impossible crime story.

James L. Nusser penned a handful of private-eye novels during the 1980s, published as by "Jack Livingston," starring a stone-deaf detective, Joe Binney, who lost his hearing during the Korean War when a placed a shaped charge on an enemy gunboat with a "delay fuse that didn't delay" – practically turning his skull inside out. Binney was patched up at a Navy hospital where he learned lip reading and bookkeeping. So he could work as a free-lance bookkeeper and wouldn't have to talk to anybody, but, when he "chased down a few skips and swindlers" for his clients, Binney began to work as a private detective.

Die Again, Macready (1984) is the second of only four titles in this series and was listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Mysteries (1991).

Adey summed Die Again, Macready as a "perfectly reasonable private-eye yarn" written by an author who, for some reason, "does not seem to command the attention of a lot of his peers" and appears to be largely forgotten today. And very little can be found about him online. Nonetheless, the introduction of a deaf, lipreading private-eye appeared to have made somewhat of a splash at the time. I think this one is as good as any I have read by the likes of Latimer and Pronzini.

Joe Binney is hired by a rising actor, William Macready, to track down his business manager, Arnold Pelfrey, who "absconded with about two-hundred and fifty thousand dollars" of employers money and the trail leads to a seedy, rundown Times Square hotel – where he finds Pelfrey hanging from an ancient gas pipe. The door of the room had been locked, as well as bolted, from the inside and the closed window "hadn't been dusted in centuries." So everything appears to point towards suicide, but the problem of the locked hotel room is only a minor part of the overall plot. Binney wastes no time in explaining how the murderer locked and bolted the door from the inside with an old, shopworn trick ("the impossible takes a little longer, but locked-room puzzles we solve immediately, sir, compliments of Joe Binney, Esq., Private Investigations at your service."). So this is only a very minor impossible crime novel. However, the story has more to offer than just a simplistic locked room puzzle.

The next couple of chapters are actually some of the best in the book as Binney, according to the tradition of the hardboiled crime novel, finds himself on the receiving end of a beating.

A beating that leaves him with partial amnesia and has to convalescence at the home of his client, Macready, who lives in a penthouse situated in a bad neighborhood and they have some interesting conversations – talking about how they had overcome their wartime injuries and "the TV racket." An important plot-thread in the story is why Macready turned down an important role in a new TV-series, which is neatly tied to the problem of the stolen and now missing money. And I wonder if the unnamed TV network here happened to be the same one from William DeAndrea's Matt Cobb series. I like to think so.

But these chapters also have a really strange, comic book vibe to them recalling Daredevil and Watchmen. A part of the story takes place in Hell's Kitchen, "a screwy part of the world," which Binney described as "becoming more like Hell itself." And observed how there seemed hardly “a pervert, degenerate, or miscreant” in New York who did not eventually found their way to Macready's doorstep in this bad part of the city. Funnily enough, Macready tells Binney a slight variation on the joke Rorschach told in Watchmen, but here the joke was about The Great Deburau instead of Pagliacci the Clown. However, the punchline was exactly the same.

I suppose these comic books and characters came to mind, because I always viewed these lonely, hardboiled private-eyes as these darker, incorruptible capeless crusaders who stand vastly even when the odds are stacked against them. And that is certainly the case here. Once he recovered, Binney is back on the street to find the money he had been hired to find and, along the way, he encounters some truly appalling and disgusting crimes involves children and teenage boys – as well as having a hard-to-hard with Pelfrey's murderer. Slowly, but surely, he uncovers a plot involving millions of dollars and the people responsible handed down a death sentence, which forced him to fight for his life. Or, in this case, relied on his wits and military background to outwit his would-be murderer.

This is what often makes the private-eye novel superior to their bleak, overly pretentious cousin, the literary crime novel, because they lack one thing that is nearly always present in even the gloomiest private-eye tale – namely a flicker of light and genuine humanity. A shining light in a pitch-black world. In this case, it's not just Binney who presents that light, but Macready also turned out to be surprisingly human character. And there's splendid side-character, known only as Anthony, who's a retired, acid-scarred police-detective supplementing his "well deserved police pension" as a bill collector. What a warm, human character he turned out to be. And what a shame he only appeared very late into the story. These characters are flickering lights in a pitch-black corner of the world that reminds everyone around them that not all hope is lost. And that there's always something worth fighting for.

On a whole, Die Again, Macready is not as good as a puzzle as some of the other hardboiled locked room stories, but, solely as a private-eye yard, it can stand shoulder to shoulder with its better known counterparts and how the deafness of Binney is handled even makes it standout a little bit – which is more than just a gimmick. The deafness is very well-handled and presented in a believable way, which is shown to have both its advantages and drawbacks.

So I might return to this series, because the synopsis of the third title in the series, The Nightmare File (1986) is intriguing to say the least ("deaths of men who seem to die from fear in the throes of violent nightmares").

On a final note, I noted earlier that there's scarcely any information available about Livingston on the web, but, when I finished writing this review, I found a piece of background information in a very obvious place – inside the back-flap of the dust-jacket. Livingston was "an ex-merchant seaman" who worked "as a medical editor and lives in upstate New York." A Piece of Silence (1982) was "nominated as the best hardcover private-eye novel" of '82 by the Private Eye Writers of America.


The Threefold Cord (1947) by Francis Vivian

Early last month, the invaluable Dean Street Press republished the entire Inspector Gordon Knollis series by Arthur Ernest Ashley, who wrote as "Francis Vivian," comprising of ten novels and these new editions are introduced by our resident genre-historian, Curt Evans – one of the leading lights of the traditional detective story's Renaissance period. I previously reviewed the terrific The Singing Masons (1950) and the solid The Elusive Bowman (1951). Only The Sleeping Island (1951) came up short in the end, but this was hardly enough to deter me exploring the series further.

John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books left a comment on my review of The Singing Masons with a delectable recommendation for The Threefold Cord (1947). A detective story with a complicated plot, a Christie-like motive and "a last minute trick" that duped Norris with the finish-line in sight.

I wanted to make The Laughing Dog (1949) my next stop in the series, but his description of The Threefold Cord was too good to ignore. And the story definitely lived up to the promise.

Inspector Knollis is sent down to the town of Trentingham and is instructed to report to the local Chief Constable, Colonel Mowbray, who has requested the assistance of Scotland Yard on an embarrassing problem that concerns an important figure from the nearby village of Bowland, Fred Manchester – an unscrupulous and unpopular furniture magnate. Colonel Mowbray reluctantly explains to Knollis he has been called down to investigate the deaths of Mrs. Mildred Manchester's pets.

Mrs. Manchester had found her pet budgerigar, Sweetums, in the boudoir with its neck broken and "a silken cord tied loosely round its neck." The family cat, Boofuls, was found in the cactus house in similar circumstances. I could practically hear the theme of The Sylvester and Tweety Mysteries playing in my head when the situation was explained, which is why Manchester wanted "a tec from the Yard," because he thinks the local police lacks impartiality on account of him being an outsider and names Sir Giles Tanroy as a potential suspect. Manchester had worked Sir Giles in a tight over a business and he had to sell his ancient family home to the magnate.

Colonel Mowbray thinks Manchester's accusations are nonsense, but Knollis sees a sinister prelude to murder in the manual killing of the pets followed by the looping a blue, silken cord around the broken necks – advises him to stay indoors and keep quiet until they can come around to the house. But an hour later, Knollis is called to the house earlier than he anticipated. Someone had taken an ax to Manchester and nearly "fetched his head from his shoulders."

On a brief aside, I compared Francis Vivian's writing, plotting and series-character with Francis Duncan's detective fiction in my previous reviews, but now they also appear to have been the only mystery writers who referred to "the murder bag."

Duncan's In at the Death (1952) described this murder bag as being filled with "the first-aid equipment of detection," but they forgot about the bag as soon as it was brought up. So I thought it was interesting to see this usually ignored item being mentioned by these two very similar, equally obscure mystery writers.

But even without the use of the murder bag, Knollis is in great form here as he cuts through a tangles skein of clues, lies, long-held secrets and a plethora of questions. Such as the symbolic meaning of the blue cords and why the third cord was found crushes in Manchester's outside breast-pocket or the problem of the wandering ax, which went from the woodshed to the scene of the crime and dumped in the gardener's dustbin – wrapped inside a newspaper that had been taken from the sitting-room of the house. And why had this gardener been drugged?

Knollis also has to confront a whole cast of potential suspects at the house. A house, as he observes, full of undercurrents and devoid of love except for "the chauffeur-maid affair," Smithy and Freeman, who are deeply in love with each other. Knollis suspects one of them is shielding the other about something.

Finally, the cast is rounded out by two peculiar guests staying at the house at the time of the murder. Miss Dana Vaughan is a well-known actress who's staying with her close friend, Mrs. Manchester, to mentally recover from an emotionally draining in The Hempen Rope. Desmond Brailsford is Manchester's best friend and had been helping the magnate with finding a ghostwriter to help him write a book on his beloved cacti. Hopefully, this would induce his late friend to sink a couple of thousand pounds in his small publishing firm. But, as always, nothing is as it appears.

So here you have all the ingredients for a fascinating detective story, but then Vivian elevated the whole plot to the next level by introducing a plot-thread about a public hangman who died under questionable circumstances before the war – a local police even believes he was deliberately pushed down a flight of stairs. The chapter detailing this back-story, entitled "Death of a Hangman," is one of the highlights of the book. More importantly, this chapter makes me suspect Vivian was aware of my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr. There's even a character in this back-story, named Sir James Fell, who was the former Chief Constable and covered up this possible murder!

Vivian expertly linked the tale of the dead hangman to all of the suspects and the explanation revealed an intricate web of fear, deceit and treachery, which inevitably lead to the gruesome murder of Fred Manchester. I think inevitable is the key word when it comes to the solution. Every piece of the puzzle fitted together so beautifully, you just want to kick yourself for not seeing the whole picture until it was too late!

The Threefold Cord is a truly excellent and imaginative piece of detective fiction, worthy of being compared to Agatha Christie, and arguably even better than the much touted The Singing Masons. Recommended without reservations!


The Case of the Missing Men (1946) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush's thirtieth detective novel, The Case of the Missing Men (1946), takes place in 1944 and Ludovic Travers, who was invalided out of the army the previous year, has become a consulting specialist for Scotland Yard, but here his prior work as a writer brings him to the home of a celebrated mystery novelist, Austin Chaice – a character who may have been modeled after Anthony Berkeley. Our in-house genre-historian, Curt Evans, noted in his introduction that this was not the first time Berkeley was "a satirical target" of Bush (c.f. The Case of the Monday Murders, 1936).

The Case of the Missing Men presents the reader with, as Anthony Boucher described it, "the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective story" and this helped the book secure a spot on my list of favorite Bush mysteries.

Travers is summoned to Lovelands, the Beechingford home of Chaice, by two separate invitations. One of these invitations came from his literary agent, Cuthbert Daine, who has found a publisher prepared to reprint two of his books as special editions and wants him to come down to work out a contract.

Daine had been bombed out of his office in London during the Blitz and Chaice had put a large, converted barn at Lovelands at his disposal. The second letter came from Chaice and he wants to use quotes from a book Travers wrote, Kensington Gore, to use in "a kind of manual for budding authors of detective novels" he's working on. But when he arrives at Lovelands, Travers discovers a household that is set up like a game of Clue.

Chaice is married to Constance, a cousin of Travers' wife, whom he remembers as a terribly spoiled, decidedly oversexed flapper and there are two children from his first marriage, Kitty and Richard. Kitty is "a spirited veteran" of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), while Richard is a neurotic Oxford student trying to hack it as a modern poet and his father hated it – referring to his poems as "mental abortions." Chaice also has an elder brother, Richard, who had been a rolling stone, but suffered from "fits of abstractions" ever since he lost his wife and was bombed in the Blitz. And now he spends a lot of time in his workshop at Lovelands. Orford Lang is Chaice's private secretary with a failed career behind him as a mystery novelist.

Chaice is a schemer, through and through, who loves to play games and toy with people as well as the public at large. A notorious example of this is when he purloined a typewriter from the headquarters of a small army unit stationed near Lovelands.

After a few days, Chaice wrote to local newspaper to reveal himself as the thief and slammed the authorities for their "scandalous laxity" in the care of government property, however, it turned it he had an ulterior motive for the theft – using the episode in a book he was writing. When the story opened, the town was in "the throes of a sensation" as some maniac used the combination of crowds pouring out of the local cinema and the blackout to squirt a filthy liquid over women's clothes. Some at Lovelands believe Chaice is up to his old tricks again. And there have been anonymous letters, signed "P," which outright accuses the mystery writer of being behind this outrage.

So the family ropes in Travers and Daine to put a tail on their host and the followed him to the house of his next door neighbor, G.H. Preston, but the whole campaign was a bust. But when they returned to Lovelands, they discover the body of Chaice in his study with a cord tightly pulled across his throat!

Initially, Travers works together with a local and much respected police inspector, named Goodman, but when a second murder is committed, disguised as a suicide, the Chief Constable, Colonel Marney-Hope, decides to call in Scotland Yard – reuniting Travers with his long-time partner in crime, Superintendent George "The General" Wharton. I have prattled enthusiastically in past reviews how perfect they are when they work together, playing off each others strength and weaknesses, and, as said in my review of The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944), nobody really nailed the relationship between the amateur and professional detective quite like Bush.

Wharton is the consummate professional with the patience of a fisherman and repertoire of a character-actor when it comes to interviewing suspects or witnesses, which made him one of the Big Five of the Yard. On the other hand, Travers has "a helterskelter, flibbertigibbet, crossword sort of brain" that "works quickly or not at all." So this makes him, as Wharton calls it, a prize theorist whose average is one theory right in every three. And this means that Wharton, every now and then, beats Travers to the solution (e.g. The Case of the Murdered Major, 1941).

However, they have genuinely respect for each others abilities and The Case of the Tudor Queen (1938) perfectly describes their relationship as two opposites that make a perfect fit. I couldn't agree more!

The Case of the Missing Men has them neck-to-neck in the race to the solution, as they try to make sense of such clues and red herrings as an out-of-bounds summerhouse, a stick of grease paint, a block of wood and letters that were recovered from Preston's house – one of the missing men of the book-title. Wharton makes a shrewd deduction, identifying one of the red herrings revealing part of the truth, but the one who spots the elusory, well-hidden murderer is Travers. And completely demolishes a set of risky, closely-times alibis in the process. The alibi-tricks in Bush's mystery novels is something that will never fail to delight readers mostly concerned with the plot of a detective story.

On a side note, the second murder, or ideas used to commit that murder, bear an uncanny resemblance to the murder from Cat's Paw (1931) by Roger Scarlett, but with a somewhat different outcome. One of these differences is the inclusion of the murderer's daring alibi.

So, in summation, The Case of the Missing Men is a carefully put together detective story with a tight plot full of clues, red herrings, alibis and excellent detective work on the part of Travers and Wharton. My only gripe with The Case of the Missing Men is its book-title. There are two missing men in the story, but feel that the book-title is a bit of a misnomer. The Case of the Elusive Men or The Case of the Running Man (read the book) would have fitted the plot much better. Otherwise, this is a pure detective novel from the old school and comes highly recommended to all puzzle fiends.