Final Destination: "The Bus That Went Into the Fog" (2018) by Anne van Doorn

My obsessive, unhealthy love affair with the impossible crime story has been well documented on this blog and one of the high spots was unearthing a dozen, or so, locked room novels and short stories in my own language – something that still surprises me to this day. This country has produced detective fiction since the late 1800s, but the traditional, plot-oriented strain of the genre has been consistently dismissed as merely lectuur (popular fiction).

Consequently, an ever-growing list of our earliest detective novels are becoming lost to either history or collectors, because copies tend to be scarce and nobody is reprinting them.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I began to find locked room novels among the more easily available titles. Willy Corsari's De voetstappen op de trap (The Footsteps on the Stairs, 1937) has its imperfections, but reading an authentic, Dutch impossible crime novel from the Golden Age made me overlook those minor flaws – such as a vital clue that was withheld from both the reader and detective. Cor Docter's Koude vrouw in Kralingen (Cold Woman in Kralingen, 1970) is a politieroman (police novel) with an entirely original locked room-trick and has a superb, John Dickson Carr-like scene when the murder is discovered that gave me goosebumps! M.P.O. Books' Een afgesloten huis (A Sealed House, 2013) is a modern take on the age-old trope with a brutal murder in a fortified villa protected with steel shutters, cameras and overhead lights activated by motion-and pressure sensors.

Unfortunately, these Dutch locked room mysteries, especially the older ones, are few and far between. Fortunately, M.P.O. Books is still producing impossible crime fiction at a regular, steady pace.

Books debuted in the early 2000s with Bij verstek veroordeeld (Sentenced in Absentia, 2004), introducing the men and women of District Heuvelrug, who appear in an additional seven novels, published over a ten year period, such as the outstanding De laatste kans (The Last Chance, 2011) – one of the finest Dutch detective stories ever written. After the publication of Cruise Control (2014; no translation needed), Books abandoned District Heuvelrug and adopted, what's now, the open penname of "Anne van Doorn" and began working on a brand new series.

Robbie Corbijn and Lowina de Jong are particuliere onderzoekers (private investigators) specialized in dormant murder cases, finding missing persons and impossible crimes. There have been quite a few in this series so far.

The series began in 2017 with the publication of "De dichter die zichzelf opsloot" ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In," in which a reclusive poet is found murdered behind the locked door and window of a log cabin. Back in December, I reviewed "Het huis dat ongeluk bracht" ("The House That Brought Bad Luck") that has a house plagued by an elusive, seemingly invisible plaaggeest (a tormenting spirit) knocking on the front door before vanishing like a ghost. There are two further stories in the two short story collections: "De arts die de weg kwijt was" ("The Doctor Who Got Lost On the Way") has a locked car problem and the miraculous disappearance of an entire top-floor, while "De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen" ("The Mountains That Do Not Forget") has an impossible shooting committed in 1933 in a locked tower room – situated in an isolated valley in Northern Albania. On the last day of 2018, "De bus die de mist inging" ("The Bus That Went Into the Fog," 2018) was published and answers the question how a man could have been strangled on a bus without the driver or passengers noticing it.

But before we get to the good stuff, you have to know that, while every novel or short story concentrates on a single case, the investigations can stretch over many months or even years. Corbijn and De Jong have a dozen cases open at all time. De Jong narrates the series and she regularly refers to the files they working on when their current investigation has come to another dead-end. She opens here with an enticing description of a case that had been allured to in a previous short story.

The description roughly translates as follow: "another cold case concerns the remarkable history of a murder in a Belgian coalmine, hundreds of meters underground, while the victim had been alone. As if he had been killed by an invisible person." This story better be ready for publication later this year, because I don't intend to wait until 2020! But back to the story at hand.

"The Bus That Went Into the Fog" tells the story of a murder that has stumped the police for over two decades and began on "a cold, windless winter day" in January, 1996. A "persistent fog" was causing problems throughout the country, but the fog was less dense on the Veluwe and a normally deserted bus platform, in the middle of the woods, becomes the stage of a crafty murderer when a man is killed aboard a small regiobus (regional bus) – connecting the various villages in the region. Every way you looked at the murder, it appeared to be a completely impossible and hopeless case.

The victim is identified as an American from New York, Jason Hunter, but this turned out to be an assumed identity and the autopsy showed he had undergone plastic surgery to alter his face. According to the bus driver, Hunter had been carrying, what appeared to be, a doctor's bag and that bag was not found until the following day in a ditch. The bag was filled with cotton-wool! Even more baffling than the mysteries enshrouding the victim are the circumstances of his death. Hunter had been strangled with a necktie without resisting, but how could this have happened without, in a small bus, without anyone seeing the murder or hearing the murder happen?

Plan of the bus
Only solution that makes sense if they were all in on it, but consider this unlikely collection of conspirators.

Corporal Paul Overvest occupied the best seat to have committed the murder, but the case against him fell apart. Arnold van Eijs is a factory worker on his back home. Adriana Villerius is an elderly dame (lady) who spend the bus ride knitting and provided an alibi to the last passenger, Martin Goensse, a high-school student whose stamped strippenkaart (zone pass) was found underneath the victim's seat – see the diagram (right) for their exact positions on the bus. So how could the murder have been committed under these circumstances?

The murderer's trick here is "een duivels waagstuk" ("a devilish venture") and delightfully elaborate without becoming incomprehensible, but the impossibility and solution has a weakness I always associate with Jonathan Creek. Thankfully, this weakness isn't used as a last minute twist, sprung on an unsuspected reader, but is uncovered during the investigation. So the focus remains mostly on the how of the murder. A good decision, I think.

The murder of the American, who had been buried as Jason Hunter, remained unsolved for more than twenty years, but then the news reaches Corbijn that the bus driver, Hans Zwartkruis, has passed away. Zwartkruis had been marked as a person of interest by the police, because they were convinced he either knew or had seen something, but he vehemently denied any knowledge or involvement. So now Corbijn wants to talk to his widow in the hope that she wants to talk. Slowly, but surely, Corbijn and De Jong begin to uncover previously unknown information, leads and even a second murder that had been filed away as a solved case of manslaughter.

This part of the story has a color reproduction of two stamped strips from two zone passes, which is one of the main clues to the murder method. An elaborate, deadly stage illusion played out on a mist-enshrouded, regional bus in the middle of nowhere. I think the who was not as impressive as the how, but absolutely necessary to get to the victim and something I can easily forgive, because I really appreciate a well plotted and original impossible problem – which is what "The Bus That Went Into the Fog" gave me. A new take on a classic locked room technique reminiscent of Miles Burton's Death in the Tunnel (1936).

To sum everything up, "The Bus That Went Into the Fog" has a shrewdly plotted impossible murder, but the how of the crime leaned heavily on the who, which failed to give the reader a thoroughly satisfying answer. So the story is best read as a pure, old-fashioned howdunit in a more modern setting and comes very much recommended to fans of the series or locked room enthusiasts.

Finally, I have some good news for the people who have expressed their wish to see this series get translated. One of the (locked room) stories is going to be published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine either later this year or in 2020. I'll post an update when I know more.


The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing (2003) by Helen McCloy

Helen McCloy's The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing (2003) is a collection of short stories, originally assembled by Crippen & Landru, reprinted in 2013 as an ebook by The Murder Room and gathered all ten short stories about McCloy's series-detective, Dr. Basil Willing – a psychiatric consultant of the district attorney's office. This volume has all ten short stories, including eight previously uncollected stories, that were written about Dr. Basil Willing. A splendid collections demonstrating McCloy's versatility as both a writer and plotter.

There are stories littered with the conventions of the traditional detective, such as locked room puzzles, impossible crimes and unbreakable alibis, but the post-1940s stories show a willingness to adept to a new world. Resulting in some unusual plots or subject matters. Well, unusual when it comes from a writer so closely associated with the genre's Golden Age.

Most notably, there are not one, but two, stories in this collection dealing with a crime rarely touched upon by classic mystery writers: mass murder. Fascinatingly, there's an extraterrestrial element in both stories and they were penned exactly thirty years apart. So it was interesting to see McCloy revisit these ideas so late in her career and wrote a completely different story around them, but I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's take down these stories from the top.

"Through a Glass, Darkly" is the opener of this collection, originally published in the September, 1948, issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (hereafter, EQMM), but this novella has already been discussed in my 2011 review of All But Impossible! An Anthology of Locked Room and Impossible Crime Stories by Members of the Mystery Writers of America (1981). So moving on!

The second novella of the collection, "The Singing Diamonds," was first printed in the October, 1949, issue of EQMM and is a quasi-impossible crime story plotted around the UFO phenomena. There are entire shelves of detective stories with supposedly malevolent ghosts, family curses and rooms that kill, but not that many have handled the topic of alien visitations. McCloy here mixed a flurry of UFO sightings with mass murder, possible espionage and government conspiracies.

Mathilde Verworn was one of the eyewitnesses who saw the flat, elongated squares, "like the pips on a nine of diamonds," flying in V-formation at a great height, emanating "a strange resonance" like the humming or singing of "a high-tension wire in the wind," but in the last fortnight three witnesses have unexpected died – which is why she decided to consult a specialist, Dr. Basil Willing. The plot he exposes is a clever, well executed interpretation of a trick as classic as it's pure evil. But the story as a whole was marvelous. From the premise of the flying diamonds and dying witnesses to Dr. Willing getting "a lesson in the manufacture of public opinion" as a high-placed Naval Intelligence officer shows him how they manipulated and distorted the press reports on the flying diamonds. Easily one of the better and more memorable stories in this collection.

"The Case of the Duplicate Door" is a completely overlooked locked room mystery with an unusual publishing history, which when it was released, in 1949, as a separately printed story in the Mystery of the Month series of jigsaw puzzles. You had to put together a 200-piece jigsaw puzzle and the completed picture was a clue to the solution. This is probably why even Robert Adey missed it when he was compiling Locked Room Murders (1991). However, the story was reprinted in the February, 1965, issue of EQMM under alternative title, "Into Thin Air," with an added paragraph to replace the jigsaw clue.

This is the EQMM version of the story with its original title restored and a reduced, black-and-white reproduction of the assembled jigsaw puzzle. Purely as a locked room story, this is a curiosity that put a false solution to good use.

Matthew Rex, President of the Conservative Trust, has absconded with $80,000 in cash and $300,000 in bearer bonds, but he sends a panicky radio gram from Bermuda that he can "explain everything" and that he'll return the following day by private-plane – police is waiting for him when he lands. But when they storm the plane, they only find a fedora, a pair of gloves and a shot glass half filled with brandy. Nobody had left the plane after it landed and the pilot swears his boss had been aboard, but Matthew Rex had inexplicably disappeared along with a briefcase that had been chained to his wrist. This is the point where the story does something that's as clever as it's frustrating.

A perfectly logical, but incorrect, solution is proposed that turned the inexplicable disappearance into an unfortunate accident. An accident is not the most desirable explanation to a seemingly impossible situation, no matter how bizarre the circumstances, but this was a genuinely good, reasonable and acceptable answer – directly linked to the actual solution. A weak, uninspired solution that looked much better than it was, because it was backed up by the false solution. Dr. Willing figured out the trick when he spotted the flaw in this perfectly acceptable explanation.

So this is an uneven, but interesting, curiosity and the only reason why it never made any of the locked room anthologies is its obscurity. Hey, it would be an excuse to put McCloy's name on the cover and you can't keep reprinting "Through a Glass, Darkly."

The next story, "Thy Brother Death," was culled from a 1955 issue of This Week and begins when Dr. Willing is consulted by an acquaintance. Dick Blount found an anonymous letter, addressed to his wife, in the morning mail with ominous-sounding lines of poetry from Percy Bysshe Shelley. Suspicion has fallen on a village girl, who had worked for them as a maid, but was dismissed after a diamond brooch went missing. Dr. Willing wants a sample of her handwriting and accompanies Blount to his private office to get some canceled checks she had endorsed, but, when they arrive, the telephone is ringing. The caller was his desperate wife, Clara, who called to say "someone was prowling outside the house" followed by scream and a gunshot. And then silence.

A good, old-fashioned detective story with more emphasis on the how, rather than the who, which hinged on a clever, but ultimately simple, alibi-trick reminiscent of Christopher Bush. A note of warning: the solution is harder to anticipate for readers today, because the hinge of the alibi-trick is specific to that period in time.

"Murder Stops the Music" was first published in This Week in 1957 and Dr. Willing is tasked with solving the murder of a famous concert pianist, Gertrude Ehrenthal, who was stabbed to death during a village square dance for local charity when the place was suddenly plunged in darkness. I think murderer moved around a little too easily in a pitch-black room with people standing around, but the double-clue of the ill-mannered dog was smartly handled. A good, but minor, story.

"The Pleasant Assassin" was originally published in the December, 1970, issue of EQMM and Dr. Willing is consulted by Captain Aloysius Grogan, of the Boston Police Department, who needs his help with ensnaring a respected academic, Professor Jeremiah Pitcairn. Apparently, the professor is deeply involved in the drug trade and capturing involves a quasi-locked room problem of a warning message being transmitted from a closely observed space (c.f. Edmund Crispin's "A Country to Sell," 1955). However, the plot is paper-thin to the point that it barely exists, but stands out for its open, liberally-minded opinion on marijuana and Captain Grogan even endorsed its legalization ("as long as marijuana is illegal it brings young people it brings young people into contact with the criminal world"). Not what you would expect from a Golden Age mystery writer, but good to see McCloy tried to keep up with the times.

"Murder Ad Lib" was originally published in the November, 1964, issue of EQMM and is an unusual poorly plotted detective story. Dr. Willing is only present as a sharp-eyed, quick-witted spectator. Lt. Carson Dawes, of the Los Angeles Police, knows the murderer's identity and that his alibi has crumbled to pieces, but the murderer is blissfully unaware of these development. So all the police lieutenant has to do is sit back and "let him talk himself into the gas chamber," but he allowed a close friend of the suspect to be present and this person managed to give him a warning message. Dawes is the only one who misses the moment when this happened. The reader can only spot this painfully obvious moment, but decoding the message is impossible. So this is the practically inescapable dud you come across in nearly every short story collection.

"A Case of Innocent Eavesdropping" was originally published in the March, 1978, issue of EQMM and is more of a domestic crime than a puzzle detective story.

Mrs. Jessie Markel is an elderly lady who moves in with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson, but her daughter-in-law, Maggie, exploits her from all sides. Maggie has taken full control of her income and has her "scrubbing all the pots and pans that can't go into the dishwasher," running the vacuum cleaner, polishing the silver and babysitting her grandson – which gives her little time or energy for anything else. Maggie tells her friends Mrs. Markel needs this work "to recover her identity." There is, however, something sinister going on the Markel household and Mrs. Markel learns a terrifying secret that ends in murder.

However, the only thing Dr. Willing has to do here is exonerate an innocent man by destroying a lie from a cantankerous, dishonest eyewitness. I didn't dislike this story, but hardly one of McCloy's best works.

"Murphy's Law" is another minor, but enjoyable, story originally published in the May, 1979, issue of EQMM and the structure of the plot recalls Edward D. Hoch's short stories about his thief-for-hire, Nick Velvet. The story begins with Gerald Murphy and Professor Allerton plotting to steal "a small album" of ten ancient Greek coins from a notorious collector, Sammy Bork, which have an estimated value of half a million dollars. Naturally, everything goes wrong and Dr. Willing has to exonerate one of them from a potential murder charge. A good short story with multiple, intertwined plot-threads.

This collection ends strongly with the unnerving "The Bug That's Going Around," originally printed in the August, 1979, issue of EQMM and opens with a covert challenge to the reader. In most of Dr. Willing's murder cases, "the essential clue has been some scrap of rare information," but this time, he solved it with common "scraps of knowledge" accessible "to everybody who bothered to read newspapers." The extraordinary problem here is another quasi-impossible puzzle of a scientific nature and the story is in more than way related to "The Singing Diamonds."

The backdrop of the story is a convention of microbiologists at the Forum Hotel, but an inexplicable epidemic has left five people dead and even Dr. Willing's five-year-old grandson has fallen ill. A bizarre micro-organism has been found in the bodies of everyone who died or fell ill at the hotel, but the problem is that the micro-organism appears to be "a new species," violating all "the laws of evolution by appearing too suddenly," which makes the thing a monster – something literally out of this world! So are these micro-organisms "silent, invisible micro-astronauts," who don't need spaceships, because they can survive "all extremes of heat, cold and distance." An alien killer! And if this is the case, how did they get in the air-conditioning system of a Boston hotel?

Dr. Willing finds a logical and rational explanation for "an impossible micro-organism," which he deduced from a doodle on a telephone pad found at the scene of a murder. A genuinely good, slightly unnerving story of mass murder and a potential extraterrestrial threat. A great closer to a great collection!

So, on a whole, The Pleasant Assassin and Other Cases of Dr. Basil Willing is an outstanding collection of McCloy's short fiction that opened strongly with an all-time classic, a highly original novella, a virtually unknown locked room mystery and good alibi story. After these four excellent stories, the quality tapered off a little bit and had one dud, but McCloy returned to form in the last two stories. Highly recommended!


The Affair of the Scarlet Crab (1937) by Clifford Knight

Clifford Knight was an American author of more than twenty detective novels, published between 1937 and 1952, whose debut came when he emerged as "the winner of the $2000 Red Badge Mystery Prize." A contest in which over "three hundred new manuscripts were entered," but The Affair of the Scarlet Crab (1937) came out on top and with good reason, because the setting alone makes the book standout even during the height of the Golden Age – a scientific expedition "to that bizarre, isolated archipelago," the Galapagos Islands. More importantly, the story has a technically sound plot and even opens with a challenge to the reader!

The first page has a footnote, of sorts, telling the reader "the shadow of the murderer is cast across the page" at least twenty times. There's an index of all these clues, better known as a clue-finder, at the back of the book reminiscent of C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High (1935) and Elspeth Huxley's Murder on Safari (1938). I really wish the clue-finder had been a staple of the period, because they're fun and would enforced the fair play principle. So, without further ado, let's explore, what's perhaps, the only detective novel in existence (partially) set on the Galapagos Islands.

Carlos Lanfrey is a wealthy, versatile and talented man whose hobby is leading "small scientific expeditions into out-of-the-way places on a palatial yacht," named Cyrene II, but preparations for his latest voyage haven't gone so smoothly.

The curator of a San Marino museum, which is never named, has an incomplete Galapagos collection and the scientific expedition is tasked with collecting various specimens of flora and fauna. They'll also be examining the problems presented by "the odd assortment of wild life to be found on the various islands" and in "the seas round about." However, Lanfrey had to find a last minute replacement for his ornithologist, Dr. Charley Risner, who was hospitalized and reeled in "something of an amateur," Benny Bartlett – describing himself as "a hunter of birds." Bartlett also narrated the story and agreed to come aboard when he learned an old friend is part of the expedition, Professor Huntoon "Hunt" Rogers.

Huntoon Rogers is an overworked professor of English and needed a much deserved rest, which is why Lanfrey attracted him for the expedition and simply made him a supercargo on his luxury yacht. You can almost say Lanfrey is the Fizziwig of this story.

Rogers is not exactly one of those gifted amateur detectives, who roam the halls of academia and dabble in police business as a hobby, but is forced by circumstances to don the deerstalker, because, as one character remarks, "there's no Sherlock Holmes on board" – betraying that the book was originally intended as a one-shot and not a series. But winning the contest allowed him to bring back Rogers in an additional seventeen mystery novels. So the book became an origin story as Knight began to expand the series.

The other members of the expedition are Dr. Gorell, "an outstanding naturalist," who brought along his wife, Mrs. Gorell. Dr. French is another naturalist with a special interest in marine life and Dr. Ardleigh is an elderly, but respected, geologist. There are two people to document the expedition: Alice Wilmer is a scientific artist and a photographer from one of the film studios in Hollywood, Jack Quigley, who was also a late minute replacement. Finally, there's Lanfrey's right-hand man and a former prize-fighter, Starr, and the millionaire's troublesome nephew, Jay Cranston. And as they set sail to those islands, they gamble, get into fist fights and argue over a scientific problem dating back to the days of Charles Darwin.

Interestingly, their argument has a link to another obscure, little-known detective novel that was published in the same year as The Affair of the Scarlet Crab.

The problem concerns the question how those islands were supplied with life. Some believe there was a land bridge in ancient time over which "the flora and fauna of the islands came," while others, like Dr. Gorell, believe prehistoric men put animals on the islands as "a future food supply" – similar as to how modern navigators, like Captain Cook, left goats, pigs and goats on islands in the South Sea. Now here's the interesting part. Robin Forsythe's Murder on Paradise Island (1937) tells the story of a group of shipwrecked survivors, marooned on a deserted island, but the previous occupants left behind pigs and had cultivated sweet potatoes, yams and taro-root. This helped them survive their ordeal. Funny how both books were published in the same year, but lets get back to the story.

As the group is en route to the Galapagos Islands, Jack Quigley vanishes from the yacht without a trace and must have gone overboard, but was it an accident, suicide or was he shoved?

The last possibility is not seriously considered until a member of the expedition attempted to climb a lava ridge on Indefatigable Island, slipped and fell to his death. Or so it appeared. This time the possibility of murder is mentioned, but it becomes undeniable when the expedition is put on hold and they set sail to Panama, in order to get the body repatriated back to America, when a third and unmistakable murder is committed – a savage case of throat-cutting. Shockingly, the crushed carcass of Jimmy, the scarlet rock crab, was found on the floor next to the body.

I was becoming quite fond of that little, brave-minded rock crab who liked humans enough to greet them with "a snappy salute." An animal with a personality of its own is as difficult and tricky to write as a convincing child-character, but Jimmy was shaping up to be as good an animal-character as the foul-beaked parrot from Gret Lane's The Guest with the Scythe (1943) and the schizophrenic cat from Edmund Crispin's The Long Divorce (1951). So his untimely death felt as the most tragic of them all.

As mentioned at the beginning of my review, the plot is technically sound, but has the flaws you can expect to find a debut novel. First of all, there's the pacing of the story, or lack there of, because the story, while interesting, lacks excitement. This could have been made up by putting more emphasis on the background, but their time on the islands only cover a brief period of the book. Most of the story takes place on the yacht. Secondly, the clues are plentiful and present through out the story. However, they're a trifle weak and can be better described as hints or foreshadowing rather than clues, which require a bit of educated guess work to fit together – reason why the solution I had pieced together turned out to be completely wrong. You see, the structure of the plot resembled another well-known shipboard mystery, namely Carter Dickson's Nine-and Death Makes Ten (1940), which I modeled my solution on. They even have two identical murders (man overboard and a throat-slashing).

The link between the three victims appeared to confirm my suspicion and thought I had seen through the murderers cover, but was baffled how the murderer managed to accomplish his trick. And had I been right, The Affair of the Scarlet Crab would have featured an alibi-trick that could be measured against the best by Christopher Bush and Freeman Wills Crofts. Not to mention that the plot would have anticipated Nine-and Death Makes Ten by three years! Unfortunately, the actual explanation was not as inspired as my own and the murderer's alibi-trick was pretty mundane.

Nonetheless, The Affair of the Scarlet Crab is a competent and interesting debut novel with some good ideas, but Knight hadn't learned yet how to use them to their full potential. So I want to see how he further developed and there are intriguing-sounding detective novels in repertoire. The plot of The Affair of the Limping Sailor (1942) sounds like a winner and the book-cover of the bizarrely titled The Affair of the Skiing Clown (1941) is simply fascinating. And will probably give Ho-Ling Wong, who believes clowns are part of Satan's demon horde, nightmares for weeks! :)

So you can expect more of Clifford Knight and Huntoon Rogers later this year. 

Note: this review was originally scheduled for earlier this month, but had to move it up to make room for Soji Shimada's Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982). And this is why it followed so soon on my previous review. 


Murder in Texas (1935) by Ada E. Lingo

Ada E. Lingo was a journalist, writer and physician who penned her first of only two detective novels, Murder in Texas (1935), while she was the Society Editor of the Daily Herald and completed a second manuscript, entitled Murder by Minims, reflecting her medical training at the time – only the book was never published and "the fate of the manuscript is unknown." Fortunately, Lingo's first mystery novel has been reissued by Coachwhip and their reprint edition is introduced by resident genre-historian, Curt Evans.

First of all, I have to mention that my reading of Murder in Texas has been fragmented with many stops and goes. Even putting it down to read The Legendary Vampire Murders. However, this was mostly due to circumstances than with the quality of the story, but it has made it more difficult to properly review. So this probably going to be a short review. The reader has been warned!

The protagonist of Murder in Texas is a young journalist, Joan Shields, who's the Society Editor of the Fordman Daily News and the story begins with Shields doing a write-up of Mrs. Shaw's Laff-a-Lot Bridge Club party, while the paper was held up as it awaited confirmation on the story of a strike – when a bombshell hit the office. John Fordman had been shot and killed!

John Fordman was an oil millionaire, rancher and a newspaper owner and the small, West Texan town of Fordman was named in his honor. Fordman was bringing in a new gusher to the town, but, during the shooting of this oil well, he was shot and killed inside his luxury limousine. There's a good map depicting the crime-scene with the gusher, Fordman's limousine and the positions of various cars. I don't believe you need the map to solve the murder, but maps, floor plans and diagrams are practically a lost art of the detective story. As Ho-Ling Wong said on the subject in a 2018 blog-post, "The Quest of the Missing Map," there's something romantic and exciting about these old maps and diagrams. This map was no exception.

Daily News is one of the newspaper Fordman owned and Shields decided to play detective, which is more exciting than slaving away on society columns, but she has two men at her side who nearly earned this review the "juvenile mystery" label.

Shields had known a private-detective, Dick Field, when she briefly worked in New York as "a refined sob-sister and feature writer" and summoned him to Fordman to help her capture the murderer. Fields is a detective of the modern age and has "a small leather-covered box" with a microscope, a fingerprint kit, a Bunsen burner, test tubes and a dozen of carefully labeled phials – which he affectionately calls his "traveling lab." And he gets to play CSI, when the murderer strikes a second time. Another shooting clumsily disguised as a suicide and the gun was found in basin filled with hot soapy water, but Fields manages to pull prints from it. Interestingly, one of the characters refers to Fields as "the boy detective from St. Louise."

Secondly, there's Shields' high-school aged kid brother, Jimmie, who tags along with his sister and stole the show in the final chapters. This is, together with the newspaper background and regional, small town flavor of the story, why Murder in Texas reminded me of the more mature juvenile mysteries by Bruce Campbell (The Clue of the Phantom Car, 1953) and Norvin Pallas (The Locked Safe Mystery, 1954). Why I nearly labeled this review as a juvenile mystery.

As an aside, Murder in Texas has one of those bookshelf scenes, in which the detective browses through the bookcase of a suspect and notices a host of mystery novels. Usually, these are shout-outs to their own favorite mystery writers or show an allegiance to a certain type of crime fiction. Lingo had some very interesting and unusual choices: Shields saw the "latest thriller" of Kay Cleaver Strahan (probably The Hobgoblin Murder, 1934), Mignon G. Eberhart's The White Cockatoo (1933), Francis Iles' Before the Fact (1932) and Leslie Ford's "delightful" Murder in Maryland (1932). She felt cheated that she could not take with her Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Album (1933), because she had been unable "to keep up with it in the Saturday Evening Post." These bookshelf scenes, like maps and diagrams, is another one of those small treats you find, from time to time, in these classic mysteries.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story struck me as fairly bland with a by-the-numbers plot, in which Shields and Field talk with people and test alibis, but nothing really inspired.

However, the ending was very well and even daringly handled! The murderer eludes capture and hightails it out of town, but not before taking along two hostages and one of them is Jimmie! The entire manhunt is played out in a series of police and news bulletins send over the teleprint, which are read by Shields and Field. So the whole climax to the story took place off-page, but it worked for, what I assume, exactly the same reason as why everyone in America was watching the O.J. Simpson car chase in 1994 – once the news broke, you simple had to keep watching to see it unfold. And to use this aspect of the modern news cycle, in 1935, is almost visionary. This is all I have to say about the plot.

Murder in Texas has a good, regional setting and lively (main) characters, but Lingo was not as adept when it came to the plot. My impression is that it was a pretty standard, humdrum plot without much to make it standout, but this could be my fractured reading of the book speaking. Yes, the absolute state of this review. It's completely useless. Good news is that I have dug up something for my post that looks promising, but not nearly as obscure as most of the detective novels reviewed this month. So stay tuned!


The Kindaichi Case Files: The Legendary Vampire Murders

Last month, I reviewed a two-part episode of the enduring Detective Conan anime-series, The Dracula Villa Murder Case, in which a revered writer of vampire stories is impaled and crucified under apparently impossible circumstances in his locked study with the body lighted up by a running film projected – playing a movie-reel of a classic vampire flick. These episodes reminded me of another vampire-themed detective story, a manga, that has been languishing on the big pile for ages.

The Legendary Vampire Murders was originally serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in 2004 and the story has convinced me that Seimura Amagi is the present-day master of the unbreakable alibi. Amagi is so much better at plotting seemingly impregnable alibis than he's at devising locked room-tricks (e.g. the elaborate, grand scale alibi-trick from The Prison Prep School Murder Case).

Hajime Kindaichi is on a bicycle tour of Japan and decides to invite his childhood friend, Nanase Miyuki, to spend a few days with him at his next stop. An almost entirely abandoned village in the middle of nowhere!

The name of the place, Buran Village, originates from "Bran Village in Transylvania" and, according to the legends, Romanian immigrants had been chased out of the village on "the suspicion that they might be vampires," but there appears to be no historical basis for this story – as the countries didn't even appear to have a formal, diplomatic relationship until 1902. So this was purely done to transplant the legend of the Transylvanian vampire to Japan. A legend that appears to be very much alive in the deserted village.

Six years previously, the vampire legend had stirred back to life when villagers witnessed "a strange scene in the middle of the night." A cloaked man with a black hat was seen walking towards the abandoned hotel and appeared to have mental control over a woman in a white dress, who sleepwalked behind him, but when a group of young man, armed with wooden crosses, investigate the hotel they make a gruesome discovery in the basement – a body of the woman with two bite marks in her neck. The coroner didn't find "a single drop of blood" in the body. As if she had been sucked dry by a vampire!

This incident was the death knell for the already struggling, partially depleted village and the place would have been a ghost town had it not been for the presence of a peculiar boardinghouse.

Hirakawa Tooru bought the abandoned hotel and turned it into a boardinghouse, fittingly named "Ruins," which looks like a derelict mansion, but the guest rooms were refurbished, comfortable and clean. A childhood classmate of Kindaichi and Miyuki, Kifune Youhei, is working part-time at the boardinghouse and hopes to make the place a haunt for "ruin maniacs" (i.e. urban explorers). His presence is one of the reasons why Kindaichi stopped in Buran Village.

There are more people who found there way to this reclusive, empty place. Nagareyama Shintarou is a novelist who's writing a book with the boardinghouse as a setting and Nekoma Junko is a freelance writer collecting data on abandoned ruins. Futaganu Ikuo is a physician and Kaitani Asaka owns a boutique, both guests of the "Ruins," who were found poking around the abandoned hospital. And their behavior and obvious lies were suspicious to say the least. Hiiro Keisuke is a young man who was stranded at the hotel, but his appearance and complexion has a suggestion of the grave. Finally, there's Minato Aoko, a staff member of the boardinghouse, who fancies herself to be somewhat of an amateur detective and Inspector Kenmoichi – asked by Kindaichi to accompany Miyuki.

So the stage is set for murder, but there's a prelude when Miyuki is kidnapped by the murderer. The killer is dressed in a long, dark coat and has bandaged face with what appears to be fangs. This doesn't happen all the time, but the Kindaichi series has seen more than one costumed murderers (e.g. The Alchemy Murder Case). Sometimes this series really is a blend of Scooby Doo, Where Are You? and a 1980s slasher movie.

During her captivity, Miyuki had been tied up and had to look on, helplessly, as the vampire murdered one of the guests, Kaitani Asaka. Just one of the perks of being friends with Kindaichi!

Miyuki and Asaka are eventually found in one of the guest rooms on the first floor of the boardinghouse. They both have bite marks in their neck, but only Miyuki lived to tell about it. The problem this murder presents is that nearly everyone possesses a perfectly acceptable alibi, because the only way to reach is the first floor is by either climbing a spiral staircase or crawl into a small dumbwaiter with a weight-limit – which are eliminated as possible entries to the first floor. A brilliant and bone chilling alibi-trick that's eligible to be considered an impossible crime as it involves a physical impossibility. I commented on Dan's 2017 blog-post, "But is it a Locked Room Mystery? The case of the impossible alibi," when an alibi-trick qualifies as an impossible crime and I think this one makes the cut. The chilling explanation of the impossible alibi is another good example of how closely related Japanese mystery writers are to the horror genre. And they often put their horror material to good and practical use. Great stuff!

Miyuki had also been found with bite marks in her neck and, according to the legend, "anyone who's attacked by a vampire will become a vampire." There might be a grain of truth in it when a murder happens that only Miyuki could have committed!

A pool of blood with a body is found in Miyuki's locked guest room, bite marks in the neck, but Miyuki had been in constant possession of the room-key and there are no duplicates. So how did a murderer manage to leave a body inside a locked room? The explanation to this problem is a relatively simple one, but the idea felt fresh and original. I've seen a similar locked room setup in another detective story, but the ending in that was, on a whole, unimpressive as the solution turned on an age-trick. Amagi here cleverly reversed that solution and the result is possibly new variation on the locked room mystery. So, once more, this is great stuff!

The identity of the murderer was better hidden than usual, but you might want to write that down to me stubbornly giving the obvious red herring the fish-eye throughout the entirety of the story. I refused to let go of that one possibility and overlooked a hint or two. Amagi even gave the shopworn motive, carted out in nearly every volume, an additional layer of depth with the horrific back-story of the past murder. The back-story would make for a great horror or thriller story when told from the perspectives of the victim and her killer. As I said before, Japanese mystery writers tend stand closer to the horror genre than their Western counterparts. The Legendary Vampire Murders is a good example of that.

So, all in all, The Legendary Vampire Murders has one of the strongest plots in the series with an ingenious alibi-trick, as classic as it's sickening, and an excellent impossible crime. The rest of the plot, especially the motive, were well handled, but the murderer's alibi and locked room illusion are the main draws of the story. A pure puzzle-plot detective story that comes recommended to mystery readers who love busting alibis and explaining miracles.