Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle (2002) by NisiOisiN

Earlier this month, I posted a review of a Japanese light novel, Seimaru Amagi's Dennō sansō satsujin jiken (Murder On-Line, 1996), which can be best described to Western readers unfamiliar with anime or manga as Young Adult novels illustrated with manga artwork. Light novels cover a wide variety of genres and the detective story, popular as ever in Japan, has not been overlooked.

Murder On-Line is part of The Kindaichi Case Files series and mentioned in my review a number of light detective novels, such as Kazuki Sakuraba's Gosick: Goshikku (Gosick: The Novel, 2003), but the oddest series to be translated is undoubtedly Zaregoto – of which two titles have been published by Del Rey and were recently reissued by Vertical. The series comprises of nine novels that were originally published between 2002 and 2005. Hopefully, Vertical decided to continue publishing the series.

Zaregoto series was conceived by the palindromic "NisiOisiN," a stylized, open penname of Nisio Isin, who debuted with Zaregoto series: kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto, Book 1: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002) and won him the 23rd Mephisto Prize at just twenty years of age. NisiOisiN has since worked on a dozen different series and notably penned Anazā nōto – Rosanzerusu BB renzoku satsujin jiken (Death Note: Another Note: The Los Angeles BB Murder Case, 2006). A prequel to the popular Death Note series expanding on the briefly mentioned murder case of the book-title.

The Kubikiri Cycle appears on the surface to be traditionally-structured, old-fashioned detective novel, but the zany plot, quirky characters and sometimes schizoid storytelling makes it standout – somewhat comparable to Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning. This is the reason why this series is so difficult to recommend to readers who have never been exposed to mystery anime or manga series.

However, if you're just a filthy casual, like yours truly, you'll find an entertaining detective story in The Kubikiri Cycle with a couple of cleverly thought out and original impossible crimes.

Akegami Iria is "the black sheep granddaughter of the Akagami Foundation" and has been exiled to Wet Crow's Feather Island, a tiny speck in the Sea of Japan, where she has lived for five years with her four maids. She has been forbidden to leave this "godforsaken island" in "the middle of nowhere" and, to combat the encroaching loneliness and boredom, she decided to invite the geniuses of the world to her island mansion – who represent every imaginable discipline in science, art and beyond. When the story opens, there are twelve people on Wet Crow's Feather Island.

There's a wheelchair bound painter, Ibuki Kanami, who's accompanied by her personal attendent, Sakaki Shinya. A chef extraordinaire, Sashirono Yayo, and famous fortune-teller, Himena Maki, who advises "bigwig politicians and corporate clients." Sonoyama Akane is a scholar of the highest order and member of the ER3 System, a group of geniuses among geniuses, who has risen to the ranks of one of the Seven Fools of ER3. Finally, there's a blue-haired girl, Sashirono Tomo, who's a genius engineer and ex-leader of shadowy group of hackers who appeared out of nowhere during the 1990s. Tomo is accompanied by the narrator and reluctant protagonist of the series, simply known as Ii-chan, but his real name is never revealed and, while prone to downplaying his own abilities, had been enrolled in the ER3 program for five years – before dropping out and returning to Japan. And he's the one who solves the baffling murders on Wet Crow's Feather Island. For the most part anyway.

The cast is further padded out by Akegami Iria's four maids. There are three sisters, Akari, Hikari and Teruko Chiga, who are overseen by the head maid of the mansion, Handa Rei.

Admittedly, story begins rather slowly with Ii-chan interacting with the people on the island, reflecting on his situation and peppered with the occasional philosophical exchange. Normally, this is merely to establish the characters and pave the way for the plot. However, the narrator here is a little bit different and over the course of the story a picture emerges of a cold, introverted 19-year-old student who prefers to keep people at a distance and observe them. Not get involved in anything. A social hermit with a distinctly dark undercurrent. This makes him somewhat of an unreliable narrator. And, from what I understand, the personality of the narrator is more deeply explored in later installments.

The inevitable murder finally happens after an unexpected earthquake rocks the tiny island and the genius artist, Ibuki Kanami, is discovered without her head in a locked atelier, but the earthquake has toppled a shelf with paint cans – creating "a river of paint." There was no way to cross this river without stepping in the still wet paint and, forgetting the closed and locked windows for a moment, this means the murder was committed before the earthquake. Only one person was unable to produce a convincing alibi for this period, Sonoyama Akane.

So our narrator conceives a simple, but effective, plan to prevent any further murders: isolate the prime-suspect behind the locked door of the first-floor storage room. If Akane is the culprit, she isn't able to commit any other murders, but if someone else happens to be the murderer, this person is "brought to a standstill." Or so he thought.

Akane is brutally murdered in the locked storage room, her head cleanly removed from her shoulders, but the only key to the room was in possession of Hikari Chiga. There's a window, very high up in the wall, which would mean "a two-story dive" if the murderer had entered, or left, through the window. So it was "virtually impossible" for someone to climb out and "even more implausible" that someone had climbed.

A third, quasi-impossible crime is committed when someone smashes Tomo's computers to pieces, which had crime-scene photos on it, but everyone present on the island was in possession of an alibi.

The Kubikiri Cycle actually begins to resemble one of those traditionally-structured mystery novels from the Japanese shin honkaku school of detective fiction with alibis, sealed rooms and a central trick, or gimmick, nearly as great as the one from Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981) – which is where the plot draws is its strength from. Granted, the murder in the room "sealed" by a river of paint bare of any footprints was incredibly simple, but the beheading in the storage room is good representation of the Japanese detective story in all its glory.

A corpse in a Western detective novel or short story is (usually) nothing more than a passive, inanimate object with the plot and characters moving around it, but in Japanese mysteries they often turn out to be linchpin of the plot. Keigo Higashino's Yogisha X no kenshin (The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005) is a good example of this. Even more impressive is when a body is used to create, what appears to be, "an uncommitable crime." And it's simply astonishing when a victim turns out to tie everything together: murderer's identity, a well-hidden motive and the locked room-trick, which is exactly what NisiOisiN accomplished here. No wonder they chugged an award at him for this.

However, Ii-chan only puts together the bare bones of the plot, but it takes a world-famous detective, Aikawa Jun, to answer the last, unresolved questions and exposes another plot-layer, or two, in the process. Absolutely brilliant!

All in all, The Kubikiri Cycle was an incredibly clever, ingeniously constructed locked room mystery told in the style of an anime-detective series with manga aesthetics. The result is a very unusual, but original, piece of crime fiction. Now that I have finally reread The Kubikiri Cycle, I can move on to Zaregoto series: kubishime romanchisuto (Zaregoto, Book 2: The Kubishime Romanticist, 2002), but don't worry. My next post will be a return to the Western detective story.

By the way, Vertigo has reprinted these two Zaregoto titles as Decapitation: Kubikiri Cycle and Strangulation: Kubishime Romanticist. They were reprinted 2017 and 2018. So maybe we can expect the first translation of the third book this year. Here's hoping!


The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981) by Soji Shimada

On January 31th, 2019, Pushkin Vertigo is finally going to release the long anticipated translation of Soji Shimada's Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1981), his second novel to appear in English, which Ho-Ling Wong characterized as a detective story in the vein of "the classics of the good old age" – complete with an entirely original locked room-trick. So I decided to commemorate this upcoming release by rereading his bloody tour-de-force.

Soji Shimada is considered to be "the doyen of the Japanese form of Golden Age detective fiction," known in Japan as shin honkaku, which can be traced back to the publication of his debut novel, Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981). A horrific, labyrinthine jigsaw-puzzle involving severed body parts and a seemingly impossible murder.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is the case of "the Umezawa serial murders" which took place in Japan in 1936. One of the most elusive mysteries in the annals of crime and the story opens more than forty years later, but is prefaced with the last will and testament of Heikichi Umezawa – a mentally unbalanced artist with a deranged plan. Umezawa is obsessed with creating "the perfect woman of supreme beauty," Azoth, who wants to bring into existence. A dark, demented fantasy requiring the body parts of "six virgins of different zodiacal signs" and fate has handed him the women he needs on a silver platter. Namely his daughters and nieces!

Umezawa begins to plot the genocide of his own relatives and strictly follows the rules of alchemy, in correspondence with the astrological signs of the victims, but he's inexplicably murdered before he could carry out his plan. Umezawa had installed iron bars over the windows and skylights. The door of the studio was "a Western-style, single-panel door" that opened outwards with a bar to secure it from the inside, which was in place when Umezawa was murdered. So how did his murderer enter or leave the studio?

However, this is only the beginning of what would become the "genocide of the Umezawa family" and "consist of three separate cases."

The second case is the murder of Umezawa's stepdaughter, Kazue Kanemoto, who was raped, beaten to death and her rooms were ransacked, which made it look like "a run-of-the-mill murder" to the police – probably by a burglar. You would think rape was the one crime you can't possibly use in an traditionally-structured, plot-driven detective novel, but Shimada actually shaped a disgusting rape-murder into an important piece of the puzzle. Finally, there are "the Azoth multiple murders." Someone had carried out the dead artist's instructions to the letter.

Over a one-year period, the six mutilated, often badly decomposed bodies of Umezawa's daughters and nieces are found buried all over Japan. The bodies were found in places corresponding with the metallic elements specified in Umezawa's notes. All of the victim's were missing various body parts. This added one last, tantalizing question to the case: was the murderer successful in "creating the monster," Azoth, and where's this patchwork body buried?

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders never stopped to capture the imagination of the public and it periodically became "a fad to try to solve the mystery," but the case remained unsolved for more than forty years. Until one day, Kiyoshi Mitarai, an astrologer, fortune-teller and self-styled detective, received a client with a letter from her dead father. The letter throws a new light on the baffling aspect of the disposal of the bodied, but the woman wants Mitarai to unearth the whole truth. And clear her father's reputation.

What follows is arguably one of the most composed, cerebral detective stories ever written. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders has a plot involving dismembered bodies reminiscent of Resurrection (1999) and can go toe-to-toe with Michael Slade's Ripper (1994) when it comes to gory murders, but the story takes place forty years after the killings. So the investigation is purely focused on solving the puzzles.

Mitarai spends most of the first half listening to the narrator, Kazumi Ishioka, who's "a huge fan of mysteries" and gives him all the details of the case. During these parts, Mitarai comes up with good, but wrong, explanation for the locked studio that the police took a month to work out – helped by letter-writing armchair detectives of the public. A false solution that was obviously modeled on a very well-known short story by an English mystery writer. Once he has been filled on all the details, Mitarai takes Ishioka to speak with as many people as possible who were linked to the murders. And are still alive. The only real hitch they have in their investigation is that circumstances imposes a deadline on them, but the focal point remains piecing together all of the pieces.

My copy of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is the original 2005 hardcover Stone Bridge edition and is littered with crime-scene diagrams, maps, charts and illustrations, which helped selling the historical aspect of the 1936 murders. There are enough maps, charts and illustrations to give you the idea of a murder-mystery presented as a case-file story. I appreciated the story had not one, but two, challenges to the readers that fitted the pure puzzle aspect of the plot.

There are, however, one or two blemishes. Firstly, the solution to the problem of the locked studio is fairly routine and surprisingly uninspired. I remember being slightly more impressed with it the first time around, but then again, there are nearly a thousand locked room stories between my first and second read. So I probably have become a bit harder to impress when it comes to the impossible crime genre. Secondly, the motive is weakly handled and tacked on at the end as an afterthought, which would explain the epilogue because it tried really hard to give the murderer the motivation need to carry out such a risky and insane plan – only it felt like it came way too late in the game. It actually came when the game was already over. The reader should have given hints to the motive a lot earlier in the story.

Nonetheless, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is an impressive debut and the central puzzle of the plot, tying all three cases together, is nothing short of ingenious. Stuff of classics! On top of that, the cleverly hidden murderer is as skillfully handled as John Dickson Carr's tight-rope act in The Plague Court Murders (1934; published as by "Carter Dickson"). Personally, I can't think of a bigger compliment to give to a writer of traditionally-styled detective novels than that.

I'm looking forward to the release of The Murder in the Crooked House and I'll probably be reading, or rereading, another Japanese locked room mystery for my next post. I just have to decide which one.


Detective Conan: The Villa Dracula Murder Case

Last year, I reviewed three multi-part episodes of an anime based on Gosho Aoyama's successful, long-running manga series, Detective Conan, which included the superb The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldy and The Case of the Séance Double Locked Room – two unsung classics of the impossible crime genre. The Black Wings of Icarus was a fairly minor detective story in comparison, but had a good, old-fashioned alibi-trick Freeman Wills Crofts would have appreciated.

These episodes were highlighted, here and here, by Ho-Ling Wong on his blog and recommended two more episodes in August that were written by the same screenwriter, Hirohito Ochi.

Ochi is a writer with a reputation for crafting "insanely tightly structured" plots and his best episodes are "excellent examples of synergy in mystery fiction" where everything is intricately, but logically, linked together. The Cursed Mask Laughs Coldly and The Case of the Séance Double Locked Room are great examples of Ochi's webwork plotting. And the reason why those two episodes ended up being my favorite locked room tales of 2018.

The Villa Dracula Murder Case is a two-part episode, originally aired on January 26 and February 2, 1998, which is not exactly in the same league as those previously mentioned episodes, but was still an excellent specimen of the locked room mystery – one that fully exploited its surroundings. This anticipated the maze-like, double locked room murder from The Case of the Séance Double Locked Room.

The episode begins with Richard Moore, Rachel and Conan driving to the clifftop home of a famous horror novelist, Daisuke Torakura, who's better known among horror fans and readers as "Mr. Dracula." Torakura earned his fame as a writer of vampire stories and even named his home, Villa Dracula, after that fanged icon of the horror genre. At the Villa Dracula, Moore, Rachel and Conan meet several people and acquaintances of the horror novelist. There's his wife, Etsuko Torakura, and a personal assistant/student, Toshiya Tadokoro. And two house-guests: the editor-in-chief of the Monthly Horror Times magazine, Fumio Doi, and a researcher from the North Kantou University's Folklore Research Center, Shuichi Hamura.

Initially, Richard Moore, the Great Sleeping Detective, is disappointed when he learns Torakura had summoned him to investigate his wife, but a one-million yen fee proved sufficient to paper over any potential hurt feelings. Anyway, a snow storm forces them to stay for the night.

Later that evening, Torakura withdraws to his private study to finish a manuscript. This private study is an octagon-shaped room semi-attached to the main house by a covered corridor. A balcony goes around the room and looks out over the sea (see map below).

However, Torakura never emerged from his study and the main door is securely locked from the outside, but, when they go onto the balcony, they found the french window standing open – inside they make a gruesome discovery. Torakura is crucified to a giant wooden cross, standing against the wall, with a stake driven to his heart and the body was lighted up by a film projector. A splendid and macabre scene.

 So how did the murderer enter the study? The door on the corridor side was locked on the inside and, while the french window was standing open, there were only footprints directly in front of it. The path to the french window was bare of any footprints. And there's another quasi-impossibility: how did the murderer snatched the stake from the locked or watched collection room that's full with horror movie memorabilia. Yes, the murder weapon was a movie prop.

Firstly, the impossible murder in the octagon-shaped study was more difficult to solve than expected, because the qualities of crime-scene brought two particular locked room stories to mind. The round shape of the room and balcony with its long corridor makes it look like a key-hole, which is nearly identical to the locked room crime-scene from Edmund Crispin's "The Name in the Window" (collected in Beware of the Trains, 1953) – which also looks "like a key-hole." The round balcony around the octagon room and the wooden stake also brought The Rosenkrauz Mansion Murders from the Kindaichi series to mind. And the explanation of that Kindaichi story would have nicely explained why there were only footprints by the french window.

Fortunately, the resemblance to those two locked room stories were only superficial and the original solution was as simple as it was satisfying. Logically explained the bizarre setup of the murder and the clueing was excellently done. Such as the smell of oil paint, a small piece of wood and weird marks in the snow on the roof above the collection room. Everything fitted neatly together and foreshadowed the plot synergy that propelled The Case of the Séance Double Locked Room to classical status. In my book anyway.

Something that was as well done as the intricately presented, but ultimately simple, locked room-trick was the neatly posed false solution. A potential answer to the impossible murder that was shattered to pieces in a dramatic scene when it was revealed that there were no footprints on the roof of the covered corridor, which made it appear as the murderer could have only reached the study had he flown there – "like a vampire." My only complaint is that the murderer's identity was painfully obvious, but the excellently-handled impossible crime made more than up for that.

So, all in all, The Villa Dracula Murder Case was a cleverly plotted, clued and well handled locked room story. Not of the same high caliber as some of Ochi's later episodes, but still highly recommendable to locked room fans. Even if you don't like anime or manga.

Ho-Ling also recommended Entrance to the Maze: The Anger of the Giant Statue of the Heavenly Maiden, but I'll be saving that one for another day.


The Unhinged Detective: "The Day Nobody Died" (1944) by D.L. Champion

The Australian-born D.L. Champion was educated in New York and soldiered in the British Army during the First World War, but achieved notoriety as an inventive, cerebral writer of dime detective stories and produced "several million words of pulp fiction" during the 1940s – published in such magazines as Black Mask, Ten Detective Aces and Flynn's Detective Fiction. Between 1938 and 1946, Champion penned a series of twenty-nine detective stories for Dime Detective Magazine that are pulp pastiches of Rex Stout's immense, grouchy Nero Wolfe.

Inspector Allhoff is a former New York City Police Inspector, who lost both his legs in "a hail of machine-gun bullets," but his commissioner refuse to lose his best man to civil service rules forbidding a legless inspector of police.

So "devious bookkeeping devices" arranged it that Allhoff was paid his old salary and continued to work under the department's sponsorship. Allhoff moved into a dirty, rundown apartment across from headquarters. A flop-house with grimy window panes, dirty floors and "a platoon of cockroaches" that had established "a beachhead upon the edge of the uncovered garbage can." Allhoff never leaves this filthy rat hole, but the commissioner appointed him two legmen, Battersly and Simmonds – which is where the series becomes interesting. Battersly was "a raw recruit" when Allhoff was a rising star with "two good legs and first-rate brain cells," but Battersly got "buck fever" when they attempted to arrest two murderers. The bungled arrest ended in the shootout that lost Allhoff his legs. And this left him slightly unhinged.

The relationship between Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe can be described as symbiotic, but Allhoff and Battersly have, what borders on, a sadomasochistic relationship.

Allhoff insisted Battersly was assigned to him and the commissioner, who had "a strong sense of poetic justice," complied with his demand. Allhoff despises Battersly and takes pleasure in verbally abusing or mentally torturing him. During one point in the story I read, Allhoff learned Battersly had complained about sore feet and exploded. He called the young cop a "whining, yellow dog" who has "the cast-iron gall to squawk" when it was him who had amputated his legs. Just imagine Christmas dinner with these two sitting at the table.

The short story I read is an often praised locked room mystery, "The Day Nobody Died," which was originally published in February, 1944, issue of Dime Detective Magazine.

Battersly and Simmonds go to Allhoff's apartment with "a murder case Homicide knows nothing about." A girl by the name of Harriet Mansfield tells them of a third-floor studio in Greenwich Village and inside is a dead midget with a bullet wound in his head, but the only window is locked on the inside and faces a blank wall – while a solid, two-inch thick wooden bar blocked the door. She can't tell them how she knows there's a dead body in this locked, third-floor studio apartment, because she swallowed a poisoned aspirin tablet while Allhoff was verbally browbeating Battersly. Mansfield was an aspirin addict and someone had dropped a poisoned tablet in her bottle.

A murder in Allhoff's apartment/office, right under his nose, has to be a nudge and wink at Stout and Wolfe. So many people have died in their famous brownstone (e.g. "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" from Homicide Trinity, 1962), I once joked that all the bloodletting there was a sacred ritual to keep them unaffected by the ravages of time.

However, one thing even Wolfe never dared to do was covering up a murder that was committed on his premises, but this is exactly what he does and uses it as bait to capture the murderer. A harebrained plan that almost worked, but Battersly fell asleep during the stakeout and allowed the murderer to slip through his "clumsy hands," which resulted in even more abuse – even holding him responsible for the failure of his backup plan. A plan that required the wrist-watches of all of the suspects.

The plot of "The Day Nobody Died" is a surprisingly rich and consists of multiple layers and plot-threads, which are all tied to the central problem of the impossible murder in the locked studio.

Firstly, Robert Adey mentioned in Locked Room Murders (1991) that the solution, as far as he knew, was original and this is probably true. However, Edward D. Hoch used a variation on this locked room-trick for one of his own impossible crime stories from the 1980s. A trick I remembered very clearly and this helped me piece together the trick that was used here. Fortunately, the story also had two additional problems, such as the murderer's bulletproof alibi, which was very well clued and nicely played with people's assumption. And then there's the plot-thread about a valuable letter written by George Washington in 1752. This plot-thread has a distinct touch of Ellery Queen, who wrote several presidential themed short detective stories themselves, and the twist here is exactly what you'd expect of an EQ short story or radio-play.

"The Day Nobody Died" is a truly original, well written and tough pulp mystery with an unforgettable pair of dysfunctional detectives and a story that can stand with the best private-eye locked room novels by Bill Pronzini – e.g. Hoodwink (1981), Scattershot (1982) and Bones (1985). A genuinely cerebral detective story were not exactly the norm in most pulp magazines, but Champion and Allhoff were definitely an exception to that rule. Champion manage to perform a shotgun wedding between the traditional armchair detective and the hardboiled crime stories, which is beautifully exemplified when Allhoff outwits the murderer with the assistance of a strong-arm cop. A cop who had "broken a number of tough cases" with "a baseball bat, a rubber hose and a soundproof room."

So I'll definitely be returning to explore this series further. Fortunately, Altus Press has published The Complete Cases of Inspector Allhoff, vol. 1 (2014) and The Complete Cases of Inspector Allhoff, vol. 2 (2018).


The Case of the Corporal's Leave (1945) by Christopher Bush

The Case of the Corporal's Leave (1945) is Christopher Bush's twenty-ninth mystery novel about his two detectives, Ludovic Travers and Superintendent George Wharton, which is one of his wartime stories and takes place after Travers was "invalided out of the Army in the autumn of 1943" – now worked on "Special Branch jobs" for an overworked Scotland Yard. My reason for picking this particular title is its tantalizing premise. The story opens with Travers confessing that he had committed "what was tantamount to murder" and it will not be till the story is almost over that "you learn how and why."

The Case of the Corporal's Leave begins when Travers reported to Scotland Yard and found Wharton in "in one of his heavy, preoccupied moods." What harried his mind was the sudden disappearance of a retired "Big Bug" of the India Office.

Sir William Pelle is a retired Indian Civil Servant, who has recently taken over the secretaryship of the gifts branch of the Indian Famine Relief Fund, which came with the custodianship over "various items of jewellery" that were gifted to the fund and he was going to have them appraised by a noted antique dealer, Francis Kenray – toting the expensive gifts around in a small attaché-case. Assuming nobody would think that ordinary-looking little case was crammed with at least thirty thousand pounds worth of jewellery.

However, Sir William failed to show up for his appointment with Kenray. He had disappeared without a trace along with his attaché-case and its valuable content.

Wharton is tied up at the office and ask Travers to go down to Kenray's shop, which is run by his stepsister, Grace Allbeck, under false pretenses and surreptitiously pried information in a pub from their employee, Tom Fulcher. And he has a talk with Sir William's secretary, Miss Doris Chaddon.

Travers learned from these conversations that the knowledge of Sir William lugging a small fortune in jewellery had been widely broadcast. This made him feel "vastly different about the curious disappearance," but then Wharton called to tell him that the case had become a murder investigation: Sir William's body had been discovered in the back of a railway truck with the back of his head caved in. Curiously, the body was partly covered in sugar.

As a brief aside, the pathologist discovered that Sir William had "an abnormally thin skull." So thin that they would like to have the skull as "a medical curio" in a bottle of spirit, but how can someone with with an abnormally thin, eggshell-like skull have made it to sixty-four without ever bumping his head? I remember reading about a real-life case from my country, known as Het Pantoffel-Eierschedelarrest (The Carpet Slipper-Eggshellskull Arrest), in which a man threw his carpet slipper at his wife – who was hit in the head and died several hours later. I thought this was the only aspect of the story that was a little too convenient, for the plot, to be the case.

Travers and Wharton have to find a murderer in an interesting cast of characters. There are the aforementioned suspects, who were already present when Sir William was still missing, but they also have to consider one of "the last of the eccentrics" from late Edwardian times, Betram Dale, who's collects rings and once offered the lower story of his house as a police post – providing him round-the-clock police protection for his collection without spending a dime on an expensive security system. But when Travers visited the antique shop to speak with Allbeck, he saw Dale "shaking his fist at someone in the shop." And as Wharton wisely remarks, collectors are "the biggest thieves and liars unhung."

Roger Mavin is a failed novelist and Sir William hired him as a live-in secretary to help him work on his autobiography, which contains an important clue to the solution. Travers even goes out of his way to point out this clue and assures the reader that the passages from the manuscript wasn't an "unnecessary digression or mere padding." Always nice when a mystery writer goes out of his away to assure his readers that the story is fairly clued. Lastly, there's Marion Blaketon, who runs a Prisoners' Reformation Society, but Wharton knows she uses the Society for more nefarious activities.

I should also mention a part of their (early) investigation consists of the reconstructing Sir William's last train journey, which was somewhat reminiscent of Freeman Wills Crofts.

The solution to the murder of Sir William plays on the old-sins-cast-long-shadows theme linked together by a series of (world) events, such as a long-forgotten episode in France and World War II, which would not resulted in the deaths of three people had one of those events not happened – or gone differently. A tricky juggling-act convincingly pulled off by a true plot-technician. Although this approach made it a little difficult to anticipate the full explanation. And I missed the merciless demolition of an intricate, rock-solid alibi or two.

Nonetheless, The Case of the Corporal's Leave, as a whole, nicely fitted together and, while not one of Bush's top-tier detective novels (e.g. The Case of the Missing Minutes, 1936), it's a fine specimen of the jigsaw-puzzle detective story from the genre's Golden Age with a tragic back-story. The answer to the “murder” Travers committed elevated it above the average Golden Age mystery novel, but not quite enough to break through the ceiling of the top-floor.

I'll probably be returning to Bush (again) before too long, because I only just noticed how Carrian the plot-description of The Case of the Hanging Rope (1936) is.


Death Knell (1945) by Baynard Kendrick

Baynard Kendrick was a detective novelist and one of the founding members of the Mystery Writers of America, even serving as their first president, but Kendrick's most enduring contribution to the American detective story was his sightless private-eye, Captain Duncan Maclain, who was used by the late Stan Lee as a moden for Daredevil – a blind lawyer and resident superhero of Hell's Kitchen. So you can argue Captain Maclain is the bridge between the (pulp) detective and comic book superheroes.

Captain Duncan Maclain lost his eyesight during the First World War, but "endless hours of rigorous training" sharpened his remaining senses and eventually turned his disability into a strength.

The office of his detective agency is fitted with high-tech recording equipment and has a subbasement, or "Bat Cave," where he practices blind target shooting with his friend and partner, Spud Savage. Over a period of two decades, Captain Maclain had tender fingertips trained in the sense of touch, muscles wracked with disciplined exercise and "keen ears" deafened by "ten thousand shots from an automatic" while he learned "to shoot at sound." And, as an extension of his acquired skills, he has two specially trained German Shepherds, Schnuke and Driest.

In the first novel of the series, The Last Express (1937), Captain Maclain proclaimed he had reversed "the old adage about the land of the blind where the one-eyed man was king," because he had become king in "a land of two-eyed detectives" – none of whom knew how to see as well as he did. However, his blindness is not merely a cheap gimmick. The books are generally very well written and cunningly plotted (e.g. The Whistling Hangman, 1937).

So, after having neglected this series for years, I decided to finally return to it and settled on Death Knell (1945).

Death Knell is the fifth entry in the series and represents an unusual personal murder case for Captain Maclain, because the people involved are friends of the woman he loved, Sybella Ford. A group of people who had unfortunately gotten themselves into "a nasty jam."

The backdrop of the story is a luxury suite, on the fourteenth floor of the Arday Apartments on Tenth Street, which is the home of a popular novelist and gun collector, Larmar Jordan. Jordan lives together with his wife, Lucia, a live-in secretary, domestic servants and a cocker spaniel, Winnie. A homely picture of a sophisticated, highbrow New York household, but during a cocktail party, Captain Maclain notices that not everything is as it appears.

Troy Singleton is "mistress number thirteen," or "is it twenty-four," who unexpectedly turns up at the cocktail party, claiming to have received an invitation, but nobody is aware of takes responsibility for this tactless move and she returns to the apartment the following day – which has fatal consequences. Jordan is all alone with Singleton in the apartment when the latter is shot on the balcony as "the carillon across the street began to chime." The murder weapon is "a single-shot, nine-millimeter German gun" from Jordan's extensive firearm collection and happened to be only person who could have pulled the trigger. So the police arrests him on suspicion of murder, because the involvement of an unknown hand appears to be a physical impossibility.

Captain Maclain is asked by Lucia to prove her husband innocent and this requires him to find a murderer who could not possibly have been there. And the only possible answer is "so crazy" he refuses to confide in the police. However, he says it could have had something to do with "the man in a tower" across the street, but the answer is more original than a simple sniper. After all, Singleton was shot at close range. Captain Maclain has to match the murder method to a number of suspects connected to either Jordan or Singleton and these suspects include a literary agent, Sarah Hanley. A newspaper reporter, Bob Morse, who writes profiles for the Globe-Tribune and Brownie Mitchell, a firearms expert, who's cataloging Joran's weapon's collection. Martin Gallagher is Singleton's husband and she never expected him to "ever get back from the war," but turned up right after the shooting.

So with an impossible murder on the balcony of a fourteenth floor apartment and a troupe of suspects makes this one of the more traditionally-styled, less pulpy, detective stories in the series, but one with more emphasis on the characters than the plot – which is relatively easy to solve. Once you know how it was done, you'll know who was behind it. Nonetheless, the story offers a brief, but interesting, glances in the psyche of Captain Maclain.

Captain Maclain protected himself from melancholy, "always dangerous to a blind man," with "an armor of mental steel," but underneath is a more vulnerable human being who mostly lived for the people around him. Like Spud, Sybella and the dogs. Life had hurt him badly. The book gives a particular touching description of the footsteps of his father and mother, which had become familiar and "something to look forward to." But then they had silenced and "life had gone on." Now this can come across as soap opera writing, but Captain Maclain is an interesting enough character to forgive the dramatic touchings.

There are, however, some more cheerful passages in his life: Captain Maclain can find "utter relaxation in music and talking books" or "the ability to read himself to sleep on long cold nights with a volume in Braille tucked under the covers beside him" and "the quilt pulled up to his chin." You can hardly get more cozy than that!

Anyway, the personal touches fit the story and plot, because it really is a very personal case for the blind detective. There are two attempted murders: leaving Sybella hospitalized and Schnuke injured. This person also left another body in his private elevator with a dagger in his belly. So naturally Captain Maclain feels a little hot under the collar and even threatens to flay the murderer alive. And you don't want to get on the bad side of the man who was the inspiration for Daredevil.

So, all in all, Death Knell was not a bad detective novel with perhaps a plot that was too easily solved, but with an interesting look at the lead character and the story has piqued my curiosity in Blind Man's Bluff (1943). Captain Maclain mentioned that he once met a murderer who discovered "a means of pushing people out of windows" when he wasn't there. So I might tackle that one some time in the next few weeks or months. Or, knowing who I am, sometime in the next two or three.