10/23/19

The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934) by Christopher Bush

Christopher Bush retired in 1931 from teaching in order to dedicate himself full-time to his writing career and his twelfth detective novel, The Case of the Dead Shepherd (1934), was drawn from his own experiences as a teacher, but, as Curt Evans observed, Bush was "rather glad" to leave the classroom behind him – if judged by the "comments made in his detective novels" (e.g. The Perfect Murder Case, 1929). The Case of the Dead Shepherd gives the reader a depressing and sullen picture of school-life, but with a top-of-the-class plot!

The Case of the Dead Shepherd was published in the U.S. as The Tea Tray Murders and begins when Superintendent George "The General" Wharton invited Ludovic Travers to accompany him to the dismal Woodgate Hill County School.

Woodgate Hill County School is a co-educational school, housed in "a jail-like building" with a nine-foot wall, where one of the masters has been found poisoned in the masters' common room. A young pupil was sent down to fetch some papers, but found the master, Charles Tennant, "crawling on his hands and knees." But when the boy returned with help, the master had died. Curiously, he had been tightly clutching "a perfectly enormous catalogue" of "chemical and physical apparatus" from 1910. A dying message?

Charles Tennant was "the only really cheerful person on the staff" and enlivened faculty meetings by infuriating the despised headmaster, Lionel Twirt, who's a lazy, ego-driven tyrant and shelf-appointed shepherd with "the habit of haranguing the school on every possible occasion" – making his removal a popular subject of discussion among the teachers. Travers and Wharton have good reasons to believe that the oxalic acid in the sugar bowl was intended to kill the unpopular headmaster. A hypothesis that seems to be confirmed when Twirt's body is found on the school grounds with his skull caved in!

A note for the curious: oxalic acid is not a poison you often come across in detective stories and know of only two, oddly-linked examples, C.H.B. Kitchin's Death of My Aunt (1929) and Richard Hull's The Murder of My Aunt (1934), of which the latter was published in the same year as The Case of the Dead Shepherd. However, Bush is the only one who found a truly clever way to employ this unusual poison (see the ink-mark clue). Anyway, back to the story!

Travers and Wharton take their time to track everyone's movements at the time of the murders, testing those pesky alibis and questioning anyone even remotely linked to the case. And the list of suspects they have to consider is a long one.

There's the always helpful Maitland Castle, a senior master, who's the odds-on favorite to succeed Twirt as headmaster, but he refuses to consider it. Mr. Godman is a junior language master who had suggested it would be easy "to drop some poison" in the headmaster's tea. Miss Holl is a geography teacher and is, what the novelists call, "sex-starved" without a solid alibi. Miss Gedge, or Ma Gedge, is "a bitch of authentic pedigree" who always cuts her classes to gossip with Twirt. Young Furrow had offered his assistance to frame those two for indecent behavior, but was away from the school to attend a wedding at the time of the murders. The daughter of the local police inspector, Miss Daisy Quick, is a secretary at the school and the murdered headmaster had shifted practically all of his daily work on Miss Quick, which gave him more time "to think of still more schemes" – or simply harassing his staff. Such as the groundsman, Vincent, who was regularly threatened with the sack and the caretaker, Flint, has gone missing around the time of the murders. And to complicate the case even further, they even have to consider a few outsiders. A school governor, Mr. Sandyman, was invited by the headmaster to see him on a most particular business and the mysterious Indian visitor, Mr. Mela Ram.

A cast filled to the brim with potential murderers, but there are many more plot-threads to be tidied up. Such as why Mela Ram disappeared or why a shed was burglarized just to empty a pail of water. Or why Tennant was lugging around a heavy, outdated catalogue around when he was dying. And the solutions to most of these questions show why I love Bush so much.

I mentioned in my review of The Case of the Platinum Blonde (1944) that nobody has nailed the relationship between the amateur and professional detective quite like Bush. The Case of the Dead Shephard is a good example of Travers and Wharton each solving a piece of the puzzle. Wharton masterfully explains the clever poisoning method used to kill Tarrent and Travers destroyed the rock-solid alibi in the headmaster's murder, but it was Travers' manservant, Palmer, who helped him figure out the meaning of the dying message (of sorts). I find this teamwork between different kind of detectives a pleasing approach to the detective story, but, like rival detectives, something you sadly only find with any regularity in anime-and manga mysteries.

So, all in all, The Case of the Dead Shepherd was a pleasant return to those tricky, clockwork-like plots of early Bush, but, as devilish complex as the story appears on the surface, the overall solution to the murders is marvelously simplistic with all of the plot-threads neatly tied up in the end. Recommended!

10/21/19

Owl & Raccoon: "The Single Staircase" (2012) by Matt Ingwalson

Matt Ingwalson is an award-winning, independent author whose "desert noir" novel, Sin Walks into the Desert (2015), was named Best Indie Book of 2015, but what brought him to my attention was a blog-post by "JJ," of The Invisible Event, who briefly discussed two of Ingwalson's "Owl and Raccoon" novellas – a police procedural series focused on impossible disappearances! So it was finally time to give these "tightly architected mysteries" a shot.

"The Single Staircase" (2012) is the first of only three recorded cases of "Owl" and "Raccoon," together with "WDYG" (2013) and "Not With a Bang" (2016), which were collected in Owl & Raccoon: Locked (2016).

Detectives Drazen and Boska earned their nicknames during their time with the local SWAT team: Drazen is a smart guy who "knew people upside down" and got nicknamed "Owl," while Boska is "sneaky and fast" like a raccoon. And these names stuck with them when they became Missing Persons detectives.

"The Single Staircase" has a deceptively simple premise. David and Daphne Grey put there three-month-old baby, Sophia, to bed in the nursery on the third-floor of their condo. All of the windows on the third-floor were locked from the inside and the single staircase "landed right in the family room," where the Greys were watching a movie, but after the movie ended, Daphne went to the nursery – only to find an empty crib. They searched the house for over an hour, but a three-month-old can't get very far on foot or "plot out a game of hide and seek." So they call in the police.

Owl and Raccoon have two impossibilities to explore. Firstly, the parents are speaking the truth and someone, somehow, found a way to take a baby from a locked and watched nursery on the third-floor. Secondly, the parents are lying and either had a hand in the death of their child or have hidden the body. A pretty messed up puzzle either way you look at it.

A number of possibilities arise from these two scenarios and they're thoroughly explored, which gave me the opportunity to come up with my own solution. Naturally, it turned out to be incorrect. However, the clues appeared to be there.

My incorrect solution was based on descriptions of the family room, on the second-floor, which was described as "too small" with a 15 feet couch and a flatscreen TV "mounted on the wall right up against the stairs" – while the first-floor only had a desk, laptop and some bookcases. A second clue (to me) was when David and Daphne were found sound asleep in the waiting room of the police station. One of the detectives even asks, "do people about to be accused of their missing child's murder fall asleep in police stations?" What if they were physically exhausted from moving two rooms around?

So, based on these poorly interpreted facts, I figured the body had been hidden behind the now invisible door of the cupboard under the stairs. The door was made invisible, physically and psychologically, by papering it over and moving the family room from the first to the second-floor, because a TV had to be mounted to the spot to psychologically mask that there used to be a cupboard door there. I was even convinced Chapter 17 was a big hint that confirmed my theory.

I still liked my false solution, but it would probably disqualify "The Single Staircase" as a proper locked room mystery. However, the actual solution makes the story hang on to that status by a very thin thread. I can see why and how it still qualifies as an impossible crime story, but it surely is highly unconventional. And that would be an apt description for the story as a whole.

Ingwalson took an unconventional and minimalist route with very short, snappy chapters and dialogue. Very little characterization in spite of the inner monologues and an epilogue preceding the final chapter. Structurally, I was bizarrely reminded of R.H.W Dillard's The Book of Changes (1974), but, plot-wise, is actually consistent with a laser-focus on the central puzzle and an unusual, but good, solution that has a motive rarely found in Golden Age mysteries – making it a notable title in the fascinating list of 21st century impossible crime fiction. Even if the who-and why turned out to be more interesting than the how.

So I'll definitely return to this series in the future, but, for my next read, I'll be tackling a more conventional detective novel from the 1930s.

10/19/19

The Missing Moneylender (1931) by W. Stanley Sykes

Dr. W. Stanley Sykes was an eminent anesthesiologist from Morley, Berkshire, England, who wrote extensively on medical subjects and dedicated the final years of his life working on his magnum opus, Essays on the First Hundred Years of Anaesthesia – a three-volume series completed posthumously in 1982. More than twenty years after Sykes passed away in 1961.

During the early 1930s, Sykes turned his logical mind to the detective story and produced two scientific mystery novels in the tradition of R. Austin Freeman, The Missing Moneylender (1931) and The Harness of Death (1932). A third novel, The Ray of Doom (1935), is a science-fiction mystery in which "the eponymous ray is presented with some scientific rigor." Sykes' demonstrated in his first detective novel his ability to turn hard science into fiction, but in The Missing Moneylender, he used it to create "an almost undetectable method of murder."

The Missing Moneylender was bluntly re-titled in the U.S. to The Man Who Was Dead and this obscure, long-forgotten book was brought to my attention when "D for Doom," of Vintage Pop Fiction, reviewed it in 2017 – calling it "a marvel of intricate and ingenious plotting" with "exasperatingly, inexplicable crimes." You can almost call them impossible crimes!

This peculiar crime story begins with an interesting conversation between Dr. James Osborne and a friend, George Woods, who discuss such topics as public executioners, professionally trading places and one of the doctor's pesky patients, Israel Levinsky. A moneylender who hasn't paid a penny yet of the forty pounds in unpaid doctor's bills. Dr. Osborne lets Woods read a strongly-worded letter he drafted, in which he tells Levinsky that he can't expect medical care at "the price of unskilled labour," but is called away to the sickbed of a convalescing colleague, Dr. Harold Laidlaw. Dr. Osborne diagnosis him with meningitis and the situation, while seriously, looked not entirely hopeless. He died less than two days later.

I think this opening showed Sykes was clearly influenced by Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke stories, but the second puzzle-piece of the plot fitted snugly in the early police procedural-style detective novels of Freeman Wills Crofts.

Isreal Levinsky is a creature of habit who has made "a fetish of punctuality" and has never been known "to be late or away from the office without due notice," which causes his clerk, Mr. Rosenbaum, to worry when Levinsky was absent without a notice – something unprecedented in his thirty-year tenure with the company. Rosembeam learns from Levinsky's maid that his bed has not been slept in and his breakfast was left untouched. So he called in the police.

Initially, the case is handled by Inspector Ridley, of the Southbourne Constabulary, but the Chief Constable applied to Scotland Yard for assistance. Conveniently, Scotland Yard dispatches a friend of Ridley, Inspector Dennis Drury, and together they methodically sift through the evidence and, unexpectedly, come across a link between the missing moneylender and the dead doctor. Even more surprisingly, Drury engineers an impossible situation in order to extract the contents of a sealed envelope without opening it! An admittedly minuscule, but interesting, aspect of the plot, because you rarely (if ever) see a detective employing one of these impossible crime-tricks to further their investigation.

The evidence they have to go over consists of such clues as fragments of a spectacle lens, pieces of a medical syringe, paraffin wax, a fingerprint, a missing address book and the astounding discovery of a police sergeant – which leads to an exhumation and the discovery of, what still is, "an undetectable murder." One that might be impossible to prove in court, because the pathologist, Sir James Martin, has to admit at the inquest that he has "no idea" what killed the victim. There are no marks of violence anywhere. No signs of disease or any traces of poisons.

I don't know if there are any quasi-impossible crimes or locked room puzzles in The Harness of Death, but Sykes was definitely experimenting with them in 1931. There's the sealed envelope-trick and inexplicable death in The Missing Moneylender, but Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991) also lists two short stories, "How Was the Knife Thrown?" and "The Locked Room," which were published in Hush in early 1931. So I'll have to look into those two stories sometime in the future.

Unfortunately, the second half of the story is very tricky to discuss without giving anything away, because the plot becomes a semi-inverted mystery with the police-detectives, assisted by Sir James, trying to figure out how the murder was committed – edging the story a little closer to the more intuitive detective tales. They're theorizing more and the ingenious solution was even complimented by a clever, nicely done false solution. One that made the murder look like "an absolutely insoluble problem" when it was scientifically disproven!

So the first and second halves of The Missing Moneylender differ noticeably in tone and approach to the problem. If the first half betrayed the influence of Crofts and Freeman, the second half can be entered as evidence that Sykes had read and greatly admired Dorothy L. Sayers' Unnatural Death (1927). Sykes was certainly guilty, to some degree, of imitating either his personal favorites or simply what had come before him. Something not uncommon in the early works of Golden Age mystery writers (e.g. Brian Flynn's The Billiard-Room Mystery, 1927), but Sykes brought such a clever and original idea to the table that you can easily overlooked that beginners mistake. I think I liked it even more than the solution from Unnatural Death!

D mentioned in his review that the method the murderer used appeared to be a little out-of-time, but apparently, this was all brand spanking new in 1931. Demonstrating, once again, that the advance of knowledge and technology only provides new possibilities, not obstacles, to a talented plotter with imagination.

So, purely as a good, old-fashioned how-was-it-done, The Missing Moneylender comes highly recommended with an ultimately simple plot that appeared to be an inescapable labyrinth. That being said, not every reader today is going to appreciate Sykes' characterization or his condescending "social smugness," which undoubtedly will rub most of you the wrong way. The reader has been warned!

10/17/19

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience (2019) by Anne van Doorn

"Anne van Doorn" is the now open penname of a criminally underrated Dutch crime writer, M.P.O. Books, who made his English debut in the September/October issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine with a short impossible crime story, "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," 2017) – translated by Josh Pachter. Here, in the Netherlands, we got the third novel-length detective story in the Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong series, De man die zijn geweten ontlastte (The Man Who Relieved His Conscience, 2019).

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience is unquestionably the strongest entry in the series with not only a technically-sound plot, two locked room murders and a dying message, but also with the revelation of a sub-plot that has run through the background of the series, like a red-thread, from the start. A revelation that honestly floored me!

Robbie Corbijn's past had been largely shrouded in secrecy from the beginning and his assistant, Lowina de Jong, found some inconsistencies in his background story. Such as his claim that he had been a policeman, but "no one by that name had ever been in the corps." However, these inconsistencies were revealed here as cleverly planted clues that Books' long-time readers, like yours truly, should have been able to put together and figure out Corbijn's identity – especially the name John in combination with a character who appeared in one of the short stories. You should be able to piece this part of the puzzle together before it's dropped into your lap.

Sadly, I'm an imbecile whose brain is encased in a thick skull, of reinforced concrete, where the light of reason can't reach it!  

So, when the identity of Corbijn was casually revealed, all I could do was dumbly gape at the page before seriously wanting to kick myself. When I learned who he really was, I couldn't help but look at Corbijn like Scrooge must have done when he clasped eyes on the ghost of Jacob Marley. Yes, to say I was pleasantly surprised is somewhat of an understatement, but this is only relatively minor part of the plot.

Recherchebureau Corbijn – Research and Discover is a particulier onderzoeksbureau (private detective agency) specialized in unsolved murders, missing persons and cases with a highly unusual character. Such as the problem of the haunted road from "Het meisje dat bleef rondhangen" ("The Girl Who Stuck Around," 2017) and the ghostly manifestations in "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck," 2018). There are many cold, but open, cases in their archive and one of these open files comprises of little more than "a thin dossier." A sad, long-forgotten case of a woman who disappeared thirty-five years ago.

Tessa Verwold had a rough time before she came to the Christian commune Caritashoeve, in Hooglanderveen, where "vulnerable and derailed youngsters were placed and guided" in order to help them find a way back into society. A place where Tessa felt appreciated and at home. She began to make friends and even got a respectable boyfriend, but there was an older man who was interested in her, named Wilco Krook, who was convinced God had brought Tessa on his path – only his infatuation may have been the root-cause of her going missing. Wilco barely survived a beating at the hands of the men of the commune and they claimed Tessa had incited them to do it, but she couldn't confirm or deny their accusation, because she packed her bags that night and left. Never to be seen again!

Corbijn once remarked to De Jong that, from all the missing people he's searching for, he felt "the strongest kinship" with Tessa, because nobody has ever really looked for her. The family called her a child with "a black, scorched soul" and were relieved when she simply disappeared, which makes them incredibly reticent to give the case renewed attention. Since the law only allows them to act "on behalf of someone with a stake in the matter," such as a close relative, the file remained open and unsolved.

One day, they receive a letter from a dying man, Zoltán Rákóczi, who's a retired psychologist that had been involved with the Caritashoeve.

Rákóczi confesses he murdered Tessa in 1983 and buried the body on the lawn of the Caritashoeve, behind a colossal stone bench, but an excavation at the spot proved him to be liar and Corbijn loses face in the eyes of the authorities – losing a lot of prestige they had garnered with the police over the years. So why did he made a false deathbed confession or was there a kernel of truth in his story? Corbijn and De Jong finally get their client that allows them to work on the case. However, the family is still mostly uncooperative, the church community has disbanded and the people involved in the beating of Krook, on the night Tessa disappeared, had scattered. This makes reconstructing that fateful night a daunting task indeed!

I don't want to divulge more about the plot than that, but there are three side-puzzles, namely the two locked room mysteries and dying message, that deserve some consideration.

Geert Eijkholt is one of the people who was involved with the tragedy on that night, in 1983, who now lives in an old, dirty caravan on the lot of a closed, badly neglected garden center. De Jong tried to get into contact with him throughout the first half of the story, but, halfway through, she finds his body hanging from a coat hook inside the caravan. An unfinished dying message has been written on the filthy surface of the floor. However, the door and the window were securely locked or fastened on the inside!

The explanation to this impossible crime is a variation on a trick that has been used before in this series, but worked much better with a locked caravan and the meaning behind the cryptic, incomplete dying message surely was interesting – because it was a clue to a different piece of the puzzle. And this obscure message only makes sense if it was meant to be read by someone actually looking for the truth, like Corbijn and De Jong. This was quite a gamble and it probably would have made more sense, if he tried to write the name of his murderer. Still, a properly done, Dutch-language dying message is a genuine rarity and I'm glad one was included in this detective novel.

As they dig deeper into the past, Corbijn and De Jong stumble across another seemingly impossible crime, but I can't give you any exact details about that one. That being said, this locked room puzzle was brilliantly handled with a false solution, a dramatic reconstruction and a satisfying solution with a touch of originality. The principle behind the locked room-trick is not entirely new, but I don't remember any examples of it being used like this! A very practical and effective way to create a locked room mystery. A second thing I appreciated is how the personality and psychological fingerprints were all over these two impossible crimes.

There is, however, one (minor) disappointment. A big plot-point is finding the body and this is not revealed until the final page of the book, which felt tacked on and a bit of a letdown. The description of the Caritashoeve made me hope for something along the lines of Arthur Porges' short story "These Daisies Told" (1962), but this is the only thing about the plot that slightly bothered me. Everything else was excellent. 

The Man Who Relieved His Conscience stands as the best and most memorable entry in the series with a strong ending that tipped its hat to Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, which promises an interesting new direction for Corbijn and De Jong. Add to that two splendidly executed impossible crimes, a dying message and a personal revelation of the protagonist that was as surprising as my first AgathaChristie, you have one of my favorite Dutch detective novels. I honestly can't wait to see where the series goes from here. Highly recommended!

10/15/19

The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) by Brian Flynn

They're finally here! Earlier this month, Dean Street Press reissued the first ten novels in the long out-of-print Anthony Bathurst series by an unjustly forgotten mystery writer, Brian Flynn, but I grew tired of waiting and dipped into three novels ahead of the reprints – namely The Billiard-Room Mystery (1927), The Murders Near Mapleton (1929) and The Spiked Lion (1933). I was favorably impressed by all three of them and made me look forward to the rest even more.

So, now that I finally got my hands on a couple of reprints, I wanted to read the novel that put Flynn on his journey back to the printed page.

Some years ago, Steve Barge, who's better known as "The Puzzle Doctor" of In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel, received a normally hard-to-get copy of Flynn's The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye (1928) as a Christmas present. It was love on first sight. Over the next two years, Steve posted many tantalizing reviews on his blog of Flynn's often obscure, long out-of-print detective novels and probably began blackmailing pestering Dean Street Press behind the scenes to get Flynn reprinted – until they finally relented. Steve also introduced these new editions instead of Curt Evans (turf war, turf war, turf war!). So, with the intro out of the way, let's dig in!

The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye is the third entry in the Anthony Bathurst series and shows the same quality of complex, but ultimately simple, plotting that was on display in The Murders Near Mapleton and an obvious admiration for Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.

The first three chapters set the stage with the introduction of three, apparently separate, events that become hopelessly intertwined when they begin to interact and disentangling all the plot-threads takes quite some work. The first act takes place at The Westhampton Hunt Ball, "the outstanding event of the season," which has been honored with "the presence of Royalty" and Sheila Delaney dances with a stranger. A stranger who prefers to stay incognito and was introduced to Sheila as Mr. X. In the next chapter, Flynn takes a page from Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia" (collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892) when Bathurst is called upon by Alexis, Crown Prince of Clorania, who's engaged to the Princess Imogena of Natalia – a union that will bind Clorania and Natalia in "an irrevocable alliance." Regrettably, His Royal Highness had been indiscreet with a woman and is now being hounded by a blackmailer.

Chief Detective-Inspector Richard Bannister is one of the "Big Six" of Scotland Yard and in the third chapter "Dandy Dick," as he's known to friends, is enjoying a well-deserved holiday, but is disturbed by Sergeant Godfrey from the Seabourne Police Station. A murder has been reported to them and they immediately turned to the famous Scotland Yard detective for help.

A young lady went to the dental surgery of Mr. Ronald Branston, a posh dentist, to get a tooth extracted, but when Branston briefly went into his workroom, he was locked inside. Branston's cries attracted the attention of his housekeeper, but, when he returned to his surgery, he found that the lady was sitting dead in the operating chair. All around her mouth "hung that unmistakable bitter almonds smell." This is merely the premise of a case that becomes hard to comprehend when these three, seemingly unconnected, events begin to interact and found myself grasping at shapes and shadows without getting hold of the full truth. But the beautiful and complex layering of the plot doesn't allow me to divulge much more about the story.

What I can tell you is that Bathurst and Bannister made a great team, wonderfully playing of each other, as they tried to grapple with the problems facing them. Such as why the identity of the victim was obscured, who was the mysterious Indian who called upon the victim a month before the murder and how all of this is tied to the Peacock's Eye – a "magnificent blue-shaded emerald" of "somewhat peculiar shape." There's also a delightful series of chapters in which the detectives track down several banknotes that were stolen from the victim. And these banknotes changed hands quite a few times between suspects and side-characters in the story. Flynn knew how to pen an engrossing detective story!

However, the biggest surprise, besides the solution, came in the final chapters when the action moved from England to "the spider-web city" of the "Land of Water," Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where the chief of the Dutch police, Cuypers, lends a hand in apprehending the killer. Normally, when English detectives cross the channel, they go to France. So this was a very pleasant surprise. It almost felt like going from an English Golden Age mystery to a translation of a Appie Baantjer novel.

So, all in all, Flynn's The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye succeeded marvelously in making an ultimately simple, grubby crime appear like an inescapable, maze-like problem, but with all the clues to the very interesting solution sprinkled throughout the story – making it one of the better detective novels of the 1920s. Obviously, Flynn admired Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, but I unreservedly recommend The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye to devotees of Agatha Christie. The story has the feeling of very early Christie, like The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), but with one of those shimmering plots that defines her 1930s mystery novels.

I'll definitely tackle the other Flynn's on my pile ASAP, but not until early November, because my blogging schedule is filled until then.

10/14/19

Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective: "The Man With Nine Lives" (1914) and "The Bullet from Nowhere" (1914) by Hugh C. Weir

Hugh C. Weir was an American author, magazine editor and screenwriter who started out as a newspaper reporter for the Springfield Sun, in Ohio, when only sixteen-years-old and moved on from there to become a prolific writer of short stories, magazine articles and nearly three-hundred screenplays – together with Catherine McNelis he founded the McNelis-Weir Advertising Agency and Tower Magazines. A very industrious individual, to say the least, but he has been forgotten today and you can only find slight traces of him online.

Weir has an IMDb page listing such nuggets of trivia as his friendship with President Teddy Roosevelt or how personally wrapped "the hundreds of Christmas gifts" he gave out each year. A 2009 post on a now dormant blog mentioned Weir was an avid Charles Dickens collector and apparently had "one of the best and most complete collections of first editions" in the country.

Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective
These scraps offer a glimpse of a pleasant and successful man, but Otto Penzler revealed in the introduction to one of Weir's short stories, collected in The Big Book of Female Detectives (2018), that initial success of Tower Magazines ended abruptly in 1935 when the company went bankrupt – which was preceded by advertisers who claimed they had been "defrauded with inflated circulation numbers." McNelis was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail. You didn't see that twist coming, now did you?

Weir died an early death in 1934, at the age of 49, while still being the editorial director of Tower Magazines and the world had soon forgotten about him. There is, however, one piece of his literary legacy that's slowly coming back to the attention of mystery readers.

During the early 1910s, Weir not only created one of the more originally realized "Rivals of Sherlock Holmes," but also one of the earlier female detectives, Miss Madelyne Mack ("what newspaper reader does not know the name?"). A former college girl who was "confronted suddenly with the necessity of earning a living" and decided to become a full-time detective when she nabbed a notorious shoplifter in a New York Department Store. A simple case that was to be first of many, often highly publicized exploits, such as placing "the chief of the firebug trust" in the docks and solving "the riddle of the double Peterson murder," which were chronicled by Miss Mack's loyal friend and narrator, Miss Nora Noraker – a newspaper reporter addicted to cola berries. So this series is a relatively late addition to the Sherlockian, casebook-style detective stories that were at the height of their popularity at the turn of the century.

However, Miss Mack and good, old Nora are not mere copies of Holmes and Dr. Watson in a dress with lipstick smeared across their faces. They're own characters with their own methods, opinions and philosophy on detective work.

Miss Mack explains that there are only two rules for a successful detective, "hard work and common sense," which, unlike the "uncommon sense" of Holmes (her words, not mine!), is simple, common business sense with a dash of imagination and likens it to solving a mathematical problem – instead of figures she works with "human motives." A simple approach of building, or subtracting, on the facts given until you arrive at the correct answer. Nora is a little closer to the archetypal, Watson-like narrator, but a very likable, affable Watson.

So how did this obscure, long-overlooked series of short detective stories appear on my radar? Two of the stories were listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991).

"The Man With Nine Lives" and "The Bullet from Nowhere" were reportedly first published in the July and October, 1914, issues of Macleans and collected in Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective (1914). However, I discovered "The Bullet from Nowhere" was previously published in the January, 1912, issue of The Cavalier and the Scrapbook, but was unable to find any earlier publication date for "The Man With Nine Lives." A story that was obviously the first in the series! So, not to make things needlessly confusing, I'll stick with 1914 as the accepted year of publication.

"The Man With Nine Lives" opens strongly with a good, lively introduction of the series-characters and setting the stage that begins when a letter arrives with a desperate plea for help.

Wendell Marsh is "one of the greatest newspaper copy-makers that ever dodged an interviewer" who writes to Miss Mack that no fewer than eight attempts have been made on his life during the past five months. Marsh has been dodging bullets, cars, thugs and has even found "a cunning little dose of cyanide of potassium" in his cherry pie, but believes his luck has run out and convinced a ninth attempt will be successful – imploring Miss Mack to come poste haste. But when they arrive, they're told that Marsh has been found dead in the library under inexplicable circumstances.

The library was "a wreck of a room" with shattered vases littering the ground, books were "savagely ripped apart" and the "curtains were hanging in ribbons," suggesting a violent struggle, but the only door was locked from the inside with the windows fastened as tight as a drum. So how did the murderer got out of the locked library? Even stranger, an examination showed there are no marks on the body or any trace of poison in it!

Unfortunately, the story belonged to a previous era of crime fiction and the painfully bad solution showed this in two ways. Firstly, the locked room is as dated as it's embarrassingly ridiculous and could have only been forgiven had it been written in the 1800s. But than again, I've come across exactly the same locked room setup, in a library, with nearly identical solutions in an episode of Jonathan Creek and a short story from Gigi Pandian's The Cambodian Curse and Other Stories (2018). So this idea is still being used today, but "The Man With Nine Lives" is where it may have originated. Secondly, not to be outdone by the terrible locked room-trick, the revelation of the murderer's identity was an even bigger embarrassment. I can't say anything more than that.

A story that opened promisingly, but got mired in a jumble of poorly handled, badly dated and cliched tropes in the end. My advise to read the introductory pages and move on to the next story. You're not missing anything.

Notes for the curious: (1) food and drinks feature prominently in the story (cherry piece, strawberry shortcakes, chocolate ice-cream sodas and berries) and now wonder what an ice-cream soda from 1914 would taste like (2) I discovered a Dutch hoorspel (radio-play) from 1993 of this story, "De man met de negen levens," on the Internet Archive. The play was directed by Hans Karsenbarg who played the police pathologist, Dr. Den Koninghe, in the Baantjer TV-series. What an obscure link to the series that introduced me to the detective story!

The second and final impossible crime story of the series, "The Bullet from Nowhere," hasn't aged gracefully either, but, on a whole, worked much better as a locked room story with a more conventional setup and execution of the trick – one that was fairly original at the time. The scene of the crime here is the music-room of Homer Hendricks, a talented musician, whose climax to "the wild spirit" of the storm scene from William Tell is cut short by "the sudden, muffled report of a revolver." When the door is broken down, Hendricks is found huddled on the floor next to the piano with a bullet in his head. But where's the gun? And how did the murderer vanish from the locked music-room?

Lieutenant Perry believes the household is either "covering up the fact of suicide" or "trying to shield the murderer." So they call in the services of Miss Mack and Nora.

"The Bullet from Nowhere" benefits from being shorter in length and ending with a solution that probably was a bit more novel in 1914 than in 2019. Some of you probably already have an idea how the locked room-trick works, but appreciated that it was not as godawful as the one from "The Man With Nine Lives." And the place of the bullet wound even threw me off for a couple of seconds. A piece of misdirection mystery writers would come to better utilize in the succeeding decades.

All in all, "The Man With Nine Lives" and "The Bullet from Nowhere" are, plot-wise, nothing more than curios with some historical interest as possible originators of two (locked room) solutions, but the main draw of the series are the leading characters, Miss Mack and Nora – who were more engaging and original than the cases they got to solve. So the series only really has something to offer to genre historians or readers with a special interest in female detective-characters.

I probably won't read the rest of the series anytime soon, but, if you're interested, Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective is available as a dirt cheap ebook from Black Heath or as a 4-in-1 paperback anthology from Coachwhip Publications (together with three other short story collections). Or you can just grab it from the Internet Archive.